Friday, July 17, 2009

Math Is Hard

Believe it or not, there were as many appearances without dedicated and secure areas for Spider-Man as there were with them. Many times I was let loose in a store with nary a hint of guidance, not even a table, chair and pen to facilitate the signing of comics for the fans.

(Yours truly signing in cordoned-off area. Notice the state-of-the-art red security ribbon tied on the trash receptacle.)

Also hard to fathom: it wasn’t always a Beatles-arrive-in-America moment at my gigs with rabid fans straining the timber of the barricades to get closer to their objet de désir. Some businesses did a bang-up job of promoting my appearance: featuring the event in the week’s flier, advertising on local radio stations—occasionally stations broadcast from the store on the day of the proceedings—making periodic announcements over the PA system the week leading up to the occasion. Other businesses did nothing but slap the poster, which showed the date and time, that Marvel provided in the window or entrance. Then the management wondered why no one showed up, eventually coming to the erroneous conclusion that Spider-Man wasn’t a draw. I cannot tell you how many appearances I did where employees lamented to Spider-Man, “I didn’t know you were going to be here today; I would have had my husband/wife/sister”—insert relative here—“bring the kids.” Even the employees didn’t know; how would the customers?!!

In such cases when I had the books and signing implement but not the dedicated area or even wobbly fold-out card table on which to scribble my John Hancock, I’d keep the comics handy at a nearby unoccupied cash register (Do they even call them that anymore?!). I’d lead my wee fans to the spot, hop on the check-out counter and squat over to sign. I’m sure the people to my rear were happy I wasn’t a plumber, but the kids loved it. At the Grand Opening of a Hills Department Store in Chillicothe, Ohio, I parked my webbed-butt at a patio furniture display (see photo at right).

I still had to be careful not to scare children when it was a “free-range” appearance, especially those who wandered from their parents. I guess something could be said for unexpectedly terrifying kids, who do not stay by their parents’ side when in public. They’ll think twice before doing it again. Of course, the psychological damage might mean years of therapy when they’re older. Still . . .

In all seriousness, there wasn’t much more upsetting than witnessing a face of a child that you’ve terrified. So whenever I could, I presented myself to children in such a way as to make them at ease. As mentioned, this could mean nothing more than letting the child be aware of Spider-Man’s presence from a distance. In this way, the child can approach or not at his or her own discretion. I’d wave from afar and utter a friendly, “How’re ya doin’!”; perhaps do something totally silly—to extinguish any thoughts in their minds that I might be a threat—like bend to one side until my face is practically upside down. If they react in a frightened manner, I’d immediately back away and say, “That’s okay, I’ll stay over here.”

I had to be especially wary when making appearances at toy stores, the interiors of which were wall-to-wall colors, sounds and movement, accentuating the two-dimensionality of the costume. If I didn’t keep moving, I’d instantly dissolve into the scenery, virtually disappear. Remember that scene in E.T. when the title character escapes the mother’s discovering him, when she unexpectedly comes home one afternoon, by simply standing, immobile amongst the stuffed toys in the young boy’s closet? The Spider-Man suit caused the same effect in a toy store. When I did move, even after the briefest of pauses, I’d undoubtedly scare the bejeebus out of someone.

Kids wander away from their parents more often in a toy store, too. Correction: run. Something catches their eye and poof! they’re gone. They also touch, grab, explore in general. To a child, a toy store is essentially a playground where you can actually bring the fun home when you leave. It was not uncommon for my attention to be drawn to one or more children, then feel a gentle, curious poke or caress from another child that had approached me from a different angle, but didn’t realize I was alive. I’d turn and come face-to-face with a youngster performing their best Macauley Culkin in Home Alone impersonation, complete with the bone-chilling scream and flight.

From the child’s point of view... I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Jason and the Argonauts, when the crew of the Argo loot the tomb of the god, Talus. As they leave, they hear the screech of twisting metal. When they look up to the giant bronze statue of Talus that sits atop the tomb, the head slowly turns toward them in anger. You can practically hear them shitting their pants, before they run screaming back to the boat. The unfortunate child’s experience had to seem similar, even though I did not turn in vengeful anger. All I did was react as any human would when tapped or touched from behind, not that it made me feel any better knowing I was innocent of any wrongdoing when a child screamed in terror while running away from me.

There is one particular instance of my scaring a child that still haunts me. Okay, maybe “haunts” is a bit melodramatic, but I still recall the incident with guilt and wonder if I did any long-term psychological damage. No surprise that it happened at a toy store. It was time for a break and there was a lull in the action. I knew that if I didn’t make my exit immediately that could change. I also wanted to move quickly to prevent any wee quidnunc’s following me to my dressing area in hopes of seeing the man behind the mask. So off I went.

(It wasn't uncommon for toy stores to offer something for the little girls, such as Barbie, with Spidey, who was perceived as only of interest to the boys. But rarely is Babs joined by friends Chrissie and second fiddle, the unfortunately named Midge—she was named after a type of bug, after all—here with the author, during a break.)

Now, even on my worst day in the suit—say, when I had a cold or was unusually tired—my reactions were uncanny. It came with acting a role, portraying a character. Whether playing Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman or James Bond in the character’s latest movie incarnation; whether on Broadway or off, big screen or small, community theater or public access television station; being in character heightens an actor’s level of awareness, certainly any actor fully committed to their role. Being “on,” as it is sometimes referred to, places the actor in state of vulnerability, highly receptive to his or her surroundings, no less so for Spider-Man, a character continually on his toes, ready for the slightest hint of danger.

Good thing, too. At that same moment I bounded around a corner of the aisle that would provide me with a beeline to the employee area—and my dressing/break room—a little girl who couldn’t have been more than three got the urge to stray from her mother and ran around the opposite side of the same corner around which I was speeding . . .

If Train A leaves the station at 9 A.M. going 50 miles per hour... and Train B leaves the station at 10 A.M. going 60 miles per hour... when will the trains meet?

It could’ve been ugly . . . uglier than it was. Because at the very last moment, I stopped short. All my focus was on getting to the back room, and there was no way I would’ve noticed a child that small—given the limited peripheral vision of the costume—with both of us moving that quickly, around a blind corner . . . but I stopped. I vaguely remember hearing the mother’s call to her daughter from the far end of the aisle as I fast approached. Or maybe it was superhumanly reactive on my part. Or maybe it was a greater force, that inclined me to do so. But I did. The instant the girl rounded the corner, I halted.

She didn’t, but with her size, the force—even while running—was not so great that she did more than mildly bounce off my leg. I knew I hadn’t hurt her by the way she plotzed backward on her bottom. Still, I instinctively bent down and reached out to her, saying “Are you all right?” I realized my mistake too late. I had forgotten completely that I was still Spider-Man. My concern for the child had overridden that fact. The look of sheer terror that flashed onto her face when she looked into the inhuman mien of her “attacker,” and the wail that came from her tiny lungs, immediately brought me back to reality. Oh my God. What have I done? was my initial thought, as the child’s mother rushed over. Then, I have to get away from her as quickly as possible. There was no other solution. Staying in the girl’s presence would’ve only exacerbated her fright. I paused just long enough to apologize to mom, who, thankfully, understood the situation. “That’s all right,” she responded before picking up and comforting her child.

The girl, now young woman, probably still sleeps with a giant-sized bug atomizer by her bed.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Survival of the Fittest, Part II

We left our errant hero at a comic-book convention in Edmonton, perched precariously atop a wobbly wastebasket in an unlit, fog-filled vestibule, awaiting his cue to enter from his Spidey sponsor, the delightfully demented Darwin…

With the noise of the fog machine drowning out my cue, I had no idea whether Darwin had heralded my entrance or not. Oddly, I thought of the moment at the end of The Sound of Music when the von Trapps are announced as winners of the music festival, but fail to return to stage: “The family von Trapp . . .”—no response—“The von Trapp family singers…”—murmers arise in the audience.

I counted three Mississippi’s before carefully swinging the door open with my fingertips and taking off, hoping my timing wasn’t too far off the mark. Despite numbness in my ankles from having squatted for so long atop the trash can, my “leap of faith from the lion’s mouth” was a success. The sudden impact of hitting the floor was jarring, but not so much that anyone could notice in the cloud of mist that swirled around me.

There was applause, a hum of oohs and ahs, and a few screams from terrified children, before the floodgates opened and I was inundated with entreaties for autographs and photos. Amid the requests were the usual queries, my rote responses to which I’ve related in previous posts (Hi, Spider-Man, what are you doing in Edmonton? How did you get here? Where are your Web-Shooters?) But it wasn’t long before I received my first taste of the more refined, persnickety interrogation that can only derive from a comic-book geek.

“Hey, ‘Spider-Man,’ The Official Handbook of the Marvel Handbook says you’re supposed to be 5' 9" (At 6' 2", I am noticeably taller),” at which point my smug antagonist would hold up a copy of the referenced magazine open to the Spider-Man entry.

Originally published in 1983, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Handbook was an encyclopedia of everyone and everything within the Marvel Universe, not only all the heroes, villains, sidekicks, supporting cast members, and teams, but also such esoteric items as Wolverine’s claws, Captain America’s shield and of course, Spider-Man’s Web-Shooters. Formatted like a standard comic book, most entries covered a single page—more important characters, such as Spidey and The Fantastic Four received more pages—listing the character’s real name, height, hair and eye color, occupation, affiliates, first appearance, base of operations, etc.; and featuring a brief history and description of the entry’s powers and weapons. A full frontal drawing of the character accompanied each entry as well. It could easily become the bane of my Spider-Man existence if I didn’t nip it in the bud at the outset.

“Oh that! Do you actually think I would subject myself to being measured? Those are merely guess-timates based off the photos you see in the Daily Bugle taken by that Peter Parker guy. Why do you think I’m always crouching? So no one will get an accurate fix on my size, of course. I have a secret identity to uphold. I’m not about to enjoin the Marvel editors in a coffee clutch at the offices to get measured or tell my life history.”

This comeback usually did the trick. It refuted the actual question while at the same time insinuating any other part of the entry as nothing more than a fabrication by a bunch of funny book creators out to make a buck off of my reputation. Some of the more insidious fans, the kind that want nothing more than to suck the fun, wonder and enjoyment out of anything that brings pleasure to others, would try to trick me . . .

“Hey, Spidey . . . How’s Mary-Jane?” they would nonchalantly ask, feigning benevolence by asking about the new bride of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (The two married the year prior).

“Mary-Jane?” I would counter in a questioning tone, but knowing full well what was coming.

“Aha! You’re not Spider-Man. You don’t even know who Mary-Jane is!” They’d aver exultantly, like a hard-boiled detective finally pointing out the killer in a room of suspects after tense-filled minutes of deduction in the final moments of a movie.

“Oh, you mean Mary-Jane Watson-Parker, Peter’s wife,” I’d interrupt, my “I-could-have-had-a-V8” response striking worry in my antagonist. “As far as I know, she’s fine. I really haven’t see the two much since their marriage, what with her acting career, his freelance photo assignments and my crime-fighting.” As the words tumble out of my mouth, the deflation from elation on the mien of my inquisitor as he sees victory trickle through his fingers is a joy to behold. As a final nail in the coffin, I add, “I think Parker was supposed to be here covering the event, but I haven’t seen him.”

Had I answered, “She’s fine,” or similarly, my attacker would have gloated “Aha! So you are Peter Parker!” which is inane (Is he exposing me as being a fictional character?!!). If Spider-Man was truly real, his identity would be secret. Any theories on his identity would be speculation, and he would answer as I did. If you think about the whole conundrum of my being the genuine article, but not the real article because there is no such person, it becomes as heady as trying to make sense of time travel in movies (I have come from the future to change the past, thus negating my existence, which would prevent me from coming to the past to save the future . . . Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!). By incorporating bits of then current Spider-Man minutiae in my rebuttal, not only did I respond as the comics’ Spider-Man would have, but I also displayed my deep knowledge of the character, serving as a warning that any further attempts at humiliation would be foolish. Occasionally, I’d relieve my interrogator the humiliation by pausing only an instant— not allowing them the opportunity to crow—before delivering my stock reply. But most times I let ’em have it.

These lame attempts to “defrock” me would arise at every comic book convention at which I appeared. It was pathetic, but I kept my eye-rolling concealed under the mask and concentrated my time on the fans who were there to enjoy the experience, not try to sully it. This inaugural show appearance did present probably my most bizarre query from a fan. Fortunately for the questioner it came during a lull, so the only witnesses were the few retailers manning their booths in the area of the show where I was confronted.

“Spider-Man . . . Remember the old cartoon of yours in the 60s? . . . You know how they’d show you swinging high above the building-tops? . . . I mean the skyscrapers are underneath you . . . So what were you swinging from? . . .”

The actual question came after a litany of aspects of the cartoon, from which I decided to save you, as if the young questioner—he seemed to be in his upper teens to low 20s—wanted to make sure I knew precisely what he was talking about, so I could answer accordingly. His tone didn’t suggest he was setting me up. Rather surprisingly, he sounded as if he really wanted to know.

Perhaps I’d reached my saturation point with the geek abuse. Or maybe the inanity of the query irked me. But I put my arm around the fan’s shoulder, drawing him in close before softly saying, “I hate to break this to you . . . but that was a cartoon . . .” Evidently my reply was not so soft that the retailers couldn’t hear as a roar of laughter erupted around us. My inquisitor’s expression was a combination of confusion and disappointment. He actually started to repeat the question as if I hadn’t understood it the first time. I saved him the trouble and explained to him that I never understood the cartoon either (Obviously I need to swing from something; I can’t rightly snag passing clouds). My reply seemed to assuage him. In fact, he seemed relieved and happy, as if a dark cloud of confusion that had been hanging over him all the years since he first watched the cartoon as a child had been lifted.

At the first opportunity I bounded over to where Lee and McFarlane were signing. A large crowd enveloped McFarlane’s table when I approached, but all I needed was a slight aperture to angle myself through and once people realized who it was, they dutifully parted as if I’d just uttered “Open sesame.” McFarlane hadn’t noticed; his head was down as he autographed a lucky attendee’s comic. Before he could raise his head I vaulted onto the table, landing inches from him. He sprung back in surprise, but his shocked look was quickly replaced with a big smile. I told him how pleased I was that he was going to be drawing my adventures. He graciously thank me, then commented on how cool it must be to play Spider-Man.

“Being the idol of millions may seem cool to you,” I answered. “But it’s a tremendous responsibility protecting the world from the likes of Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin.”

He chuckled. “That’s a great costume . . . where’d you get it,” he continued.

“Well, when I first attained my powers and decided to use them to fight crime, I made it. I couldn’t very well commission its construction, not if I wanted to keep my identity a secret.”

At first, I’m not certain whether he knew I was an official Spider-Man or just a local in an extremely well-made costume. Or maybe he simply thought I would answer him out of character, since he wasn’t just another fan asking the questions. But he finally realized that he wasn’t going to get a straight answer while he queried me in front of others, so desisted. One generous volunteer—it may have been an attendee—took a picture of us with their Kodak Instamatic camera and gave the shot to me. The photo was later used in my first published written work for Marvel, a short one-page article for the company’s fan magazine, Marvel Age (issue #96), fittingly entitled “My Life As Spider-Man.”

Lee was the consummate gentleman, one of the nicest, warmest and friendliest persons I have ever met. Infinitely talented, but equally as down-to-Earth. He gave art lessons while at his table, using a large white tablet of paper on an easel, amidst endless requests for autographs and sketches. A weaker man would have snapped, but Lee remained as affable and patient during the first interruption as he was during the hundredth. I found myself catching brief respites, perched beside him as I watched him draw. I was mesmerized—what a talent! The approach of a fan wanting my signature would snap me out of my reverie. I’d thank Lee for the generous use of his space, excuse myself, then leap over the table to meet-and-greet the newly arrived Spidey-o-philes.

Amid the handshakes, autographs, picture posing and kibitzing, one subject of local interest frequently arose: The Mall.

“Have you been to the mall, yet?”

“Well, no . . . I’m not much of a mall person,” I’d politely respond, while thinking, How dull is it in Edmonton?

“You know about our mall, don’t you?”

“The subject has been broached.” Yeah, only about a gazillion times. People, it’s a mall!

It turns out the Edmonton Mall is the largest in the world, even bigger than Minnesota’s highly lauded Mall of America, which I also hadn’t been to. To me, malls are human ant farms. My fondest thoughts about these sacred Institutions of Capitalism are the car-chase scene in The Blues Brothers movie in which Duke and Elwood destroy one of these shopping meccas with the help of Chicago’s finest and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, in which one of the remaining bands of humanity make their final stand in a mall full of zombies, the tableau looking eerily similar to reality.

All malls were essentially the same in my opinion: a sprawl of smaller shops, like Spencer Gifts, Pier 1 Imports, Foot Locker and Claire’s, anchored at each end with flagship department stores, such as Macy’s, Sears and JC Pennys. Carts, selling everything from hair scrunchies to monogrammed baseball caps filled the corridors. And of course a food court with either a McDonald’s or Burger King, a pizza purveyor, a seller of Chinese food—usually named something cute with “Wok” in the title like “Wok This Way”—a hot dog kiosk, and a Cinnabon. The bigger the mall the more shops, greater number of sales carts and more expansive a food court.

The Edmonton Mall had all this and more: a miniature golf (or Put-Put) course; a professional ice rink where the Oilers held their practices; a water park, complete with simulated beach and wave machine; a lake in which an authentic replica of an eighteenth-century Spanish galleon resided; a lagoon which featured a submarine ride; two hotels; and an area with carnival rides, including a rollercoaster—all within the confines of the mall. It was as if Michael Bay had designed the place.

I have to admit I was impressed. But what really excited me was the rollercoaster; I just had to try it. Strangely, whenever I mentioned my desire, my eager mall boosters turned off-put, as if they regretted telling me about their beloved mall. “It’s your funeral,” they’d mumble as they turned away. Even when not quite so dramatic, people agreed I was mentally deficient to want to risk a ride on the Mindbender, as the coaster was called. Finally, I found someone willing to explain to me the reasons for everyone’s odd behavior. A little more than a year prior, the Mindbender leapt its tracks and three people were killed. Since that time the attraction had been shut down for repairs and had only just been reopened. Rather than being dissuaded, I was more excited than ever. The chances of a deadly rollercoaster accident happening are astronomical. The odds of two such tragedies happening consecutively would addle a brainiac. One would have a better shot at twice winning the lottery (Ride the “Death” coaster?!! Are you kidding? I want to be on the first trip after its rechristening!).

Thus, I found myself in line to ride the dreaded Mindbender whilst Darwin and Lola watched in awe. The coaster was relatively small; it was inside after all. But what it lacked in vastness and height it made up for in compact loops, tight turns and speed. Coupled with its interior placement among a bevy of innocuous chain stores—Oh, was that blur an Orange Julius?—It was a unique, exhilarating experience.

The highlight of the weekend was befriending Lee. We would later meet up in Manhattan and shoot some pool during one of his visits. But soon his popularity and schedule grew to the extent that it was hard to keep in touch, never mind actually get together. After he married, he moved to Italy, further complicating the matter. Still, on those rare occasions when we do see each other, regardless of how busy he is, he takes a moment to ask how I am and what I’ve been up to. As luck would have it, our flights from Edmonton coincided, so we waited at the airport together. Lee had a large black portfolio with him and offered me a piece of artwork before he went to his gate. I nearly fainted. Inside the portfolio were dozens of Alpha Flight and Punisher War Journal pages. The savvy choice would have been a selection from the latter. As Punisher was more popular, an original Jim Lee interior page of the character was far more lucrative than one from Lee’s Alpha Flight run. But I hate The Punisher. In my eyes he’s nothing but a gun-toting fanatical murderer, albeit of criminals . . . snore. I like my heroes super and, call me crazy, heroic. Punisher’s ethics are on par with those of murderers of abortion clinic doctors. They perceive the actions of their victims as punishable in their eyes, so killing them seems justifiable and thus not criminal, when of course they are.

As a title spun-off from Uncanny X-Men, Alpha Flight was always off-beat, its members unique. The title’s unusual stories always kept the reader off-kilter, on the edge of their seats. Despite shocking, yet never gratuitous and heartbreaking deaths, the characters persevered as superheroes. By the time Lee took over as regular penciler, few of the original team members remained. Yet, under the guidance of the under-rated, legendary writer Bill Mantlo, the series retained its signature style. I loved the series. When Lee’s run began, I noticed his exciting, detailed storytelling at once and savored every page. Now, I had a chance to own a page?!!

It was a difficult decision and my time was limited; we both had planes to catch. I chose one that was highly emotional and dramatic. Gee, what a surprise from an actor! It features the death of the villainous Purple Man, witnessed by his daughter and Alpha Flight team member, named appropriately enough Purple Girl, and colleague, the creepy Goblyn. They huddle in fear as an enflamed Purple Man staggers toward them. He collapses at their feet, his remains shattering as they hit the floor. A sobbing Purple Girl reaches toward him, safely kept at bay by Goblyn. The final panel pans back to show the two heroes embracing by the smoldering remnants of Purple Girl’s father. The child offers the only words on the page, “He’s gone.”

The page is one of my prized possessions and hangs proudly in my library. As far as Lee pages go, the page offers little; it’s from a lesser title and doesn’t feature any major characters—neither the Purple Girl nor Goblyn have been used much since the first Alpha Flight series ended in the early 90s—but it’s worth in the eyes of comic-book fandom is inconsequential. To me it’s priceless.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Survival of the Fittest, Part I

A comic convention?

In Edmonton?

When do I leave?

I’d certainly heard of Edmonton, Canada, when the head of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department, Barbara, asked me if I wanted to accept a gig there. Being an old school hockey fan whose parents held season tickets to the Bruins games at the Boston Garden—I watched Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, et al, though my fondest memory is my mom introducing me to Butterfingers candy bars at one of the games I attended—I knew Edmonton as a later addition to the league that produced one of the greatest hockey teams in history, winning five Stanley Cups and introducing the world to Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. But I had no idea where Edmonton was, other than it was over that way (waves arm to the left).

Edmonton, Canada, lies approximately 300 miles north of the Canadian/U.S. border, about 400 miles northeast of Spokane, Washington, well out of New York Spidey actor jurisdiction. Although Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department was located at the company’s Manhattan headquarters, Barbara employed talent agencies in three key locations across the continental U.S.—Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas—to facilitate appearances in areas of the country far away from the Big Apple. Doing so reduced the travel costs to the client and enabled Barbara to book more events on any given weekend in different parts of the country. Even so, Marvel had a strict policy of limiting the number of Spider-Man appearances to a single instance within a particular state, thus preventing ole Webhead from being seen in two different places at once and supporting the illusion amongst the kiddies that there was only one Spider-Man. This held true for the other heroes, for which there were multiple costumes, i.e. Captain America and later Wolverine. There was only one costume for each of the remaining heroes and villains due to either construction costs, as with The Hulk, or lack of demand.

Justifiably (ahem), there was a certain conceit among the New York character actors toward the lesser (ahem) ones temping (ahem . . . must be a tickle in my throat) out of the three agencies across the country. After all, we were hired and under the constant scrutiny of the home office, whereby the other character actors were hired through a third party and monitored by such. I mean really, would you rather have your child weaned and nurtured by a day-care center or a parent (Like I said, conceit)? To bolster the argument that the Big Apple Web-Slingers were the pheasant to the outside offices’ tofurkey, most high-profile events, regardless of their geographic location, were stocked with actors from the New York headquarters. The only exceptions were when demand exceeded availability, which was rare, or when a client insisted on a particular actor and was willing to pay the additional travel expenses. Such was the case in Edmonton.

Darwin and Lola Luxford were the owners/operators of several established and successful comic-book shops in Edmonton. Neither had any convention experience, but that didn’t stop Darwin from deciding to organize one.

Darwin was a lovable nutjob, a cross between Oliver Reed’s brutish Athos in John Lester’s quintessential 1973 film The Three Musketeers and the Tasmanian Devil. Contrarily, Lola could best be described as Anne Hathaway’s Mia Thermopolis from The Princess Diaries before her transformation. She was unassuming and quiet—especially sidled next to Darwin—yet friendly, gracious and a consummate host. Their odd coupling proved a successful business mix and that extended to their inaugural comics convention outing.

The guest list was small, yet remarkable. Today, Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane are megastars of comic fandom whose success has far surpassed their simple origins as pencilers just trying to get steady comics work. Both left Marvel in 1992 and, with such other comic luminaries as Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon), Mark Silvestri (Witchblade) and Rob Liefeld (Youngblood), formed Image Comics where McFarlane created Spawn and Lee Wildcats. Over the ensuing years, McFarlane has been a co-owner of the Edmonton Oilers—he has since sold his stake—and a successful toy maker. Lee sold his Wildstorm division of Image to DC Comics in 1998 and remains as its head.

But in 1988, their notoriety and success was in its infancy. McFarlane had just begun a stint as penciler on Amazing Spider-Man after a successful run on The Incredible Hulk with writer Peter David that turned the failing title around. Having recently finished a popular if underperforming run on Alpha Flight, Lee was tapped to launch Punisher War Journal, a spin-off of the hit Punisher series, the first issue of which hitting the stands a month after the con. In the years that followed McFarlane’s and Lee’s cachet would skyrocket, leading both to their own series. In 1990, McFarlane was given complete control—both as writer and delineator—over a new Spider-Man spin-off, simply entitled Spider-Man (ignobly known as the “adjectiveless” one), the inaugural issue of which will set comic book sales records, selling 2.5 million copies. In 1992, Lee would get an opportunity to make his mark on another famous adjectiveless spin-off as the penciler on X-Men, surpassing McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 in sales, selling 8 million copies, a record that still stands today. This duel appearance in Edmonton at the germination point of their stratospheric rise to comic-book stardom was a fortuitous coup for Darwin and Lola. Rounding out the guest list was Victor Gorelick, the Editor-in-Chief of Archie Comics (see photo at right), who’s so far accrued 50 years with America’s oldest humor comics company. His addition would ensure something to attract female fans to the show.

Oh yeah . . . and me, or more correctly, Spider-Man, a component for the young ’uns, thus providing something for everyone.

Normally, Edmonton’s location would dictate Darwin’s Spider-Man actor coming from the Chicago satellite agency, but Darwin (bless him) would have none of that. He wanted an authentic Spider-Man from Marvel headquarters in New York City. From the way Barbara described the conversation, I imagined Darwin’s response to her suggesting a cheaper Web-Slinger went down as well as Ipecac. She went on to say Darwin was an “interesting guy”—her polite way of saying that he was a whack-job—and she was curious to hear what I had to say about him upon my return. I got the sense that she wanted me to back out of the gig, fearing for one of her homebred Spidey’s safety—better to send one from Chicago—and desired nothing more than an excuse to tell Darwin that there weren’t any New York Spider-Mans available. All I heard was “comic book convention” and I was raring to go.

For all I know, Barbara may have already asked Jeremy, Marc, David, et al before even getting to me—I was the low man on the seniority totem pole, after all—or the others may have been booked. I prefer to think that due to my being the only comic book aficionado (read: geek) among her bullpen of performers, Barbara reckoned I’d be better equipped to defend myself from the relentless probing questions, dealing with the finest minutiae of the Spidey-verse and its inhabitants, from similar lovers of the art form. And she’d prove right.

The Edmonton Convention Center was located within a steep hill that forms part of the North Saskatchewan River valley, a five minute walk from the Chateau Lacombe Edmonton, a lovely hotel in the city’s downtown area, where I and the rest of the show guests would be staying. The entrance was a small unassuming set of doors standing in the shadow of an assuming marquis that heralded the imminent comic book extravaganza. Located at the hill’s crest, it opened to a lengthy escalator ride down the hillside at the bottom of which was the center’s main hall. As it was autumn the valley was afire with vibrant oranges and yellows and I immediately wondered why Edmonton was spoken of more favorably; it was beautiful.

Darwin couldn’t have been prouder of the fact that he had the genuine Web-Slinger from Marvel Comics headquarters. Yes, he knew I was one of several genuine Spider-Mans, but no one else needed to know that. And the chances of someone else being crazy enough to pay the exorbitant costs of flying a New York Spidey to the remote Canadian environs of Edmonton for their show, store or event were slim to none. So what’s a little promotional exaggeration?

As was my wont when arriving at a gig, I reconnoitered the area, making mental notes of spots where I could perch—trash cans, tables, etc.—learning where the guests would be situated—I just had to meet McFarlane and Lee, and why wait in line as Stephen Vrattos when I could leap to the front as Spider-Man?—and coordinating my dressing room and entrance with the promoters. Making my rounds, I couldn’t help but overhear Darwin answering a barrage of questions from the exhibitors and attendees concerning his so-called official Spider-Man. Yes, he was the real deal and his arrival was nigh. His tone, especially with the rival comic-book retailers who were exhibiting, was that of a schoolyard boy gloating over how much better his dad was than theirs. I got the sense that he had been ridiculed about organizing a comics convention by these same business competitors throughout the entire process. Did you hear Darwin latest crazy idea? He’s putting on a show! Who’s he going to get to come to Edmonton? Certainly no one famous. Put a fork in him boys; he’s done for sure this time! From what I’d gleaned from speaking with the show volunteers, Darwin and Lola ran the biggest most successful chain of comic stores in Edmonton. And for his show—the crazy idea that would be Darwin’s folly—he got two of the hottest up-and-coming artists in the industry and an Archie Comics legend, not to mention an official Spider-Man. Yeah, they laughed at the Wright Brothers, too. Can you say “jealousy?”

With all the exultation, I was a bit taken aback when Lola led me to a small, dank room just off the convention floor to change. Hadn’t she heard? I’m Marvel Royalty! I shared the room with a fog machine, which would be revved up moments before my grand entrance. Spider-Man would emerge from the ethereal mists like a mythic hero of legend. I guess after the build up Darwin had given me, he had to come up with something more than my simply bounding through the main doors, and the budget was blown on getting my webbed ass to Edmonton. I suggested Lola have a trash receptacle placed just inside the door of the room so I could leap out of the fog from a greater height, thus accentuating the special effect, limited as it was. Of course, when I think of these eggheaded ideas—granted it wasn’t on par with inventing the wheel . . . or the ShamWow for that matter—I never stop to consider the ramifications to myself. Have I mentioned the reduced visibility while in the Spider-Man costume? Add to that an unlighted room and a blanket of heavy smoke, and Anne Sullivan would be hard-pressed to guide me through my grand jeté from atop a wobbly garbage bin. Oh yeah, and let’s do it in front of a large audience. I can’t wait to hear Darwin defend himself when his much vaunted “official Marvel Spider-Man” is writhing on the floor with two broken ankles crying for his mommy. Still, nary a peep of protestation escaped my lips. As I squatted atop the garbage bin in the darkness and growing mist of the anteroom, I noticed for the first time, the roar of the fog machine. How was I going to hear my cue?!!

[Will our erstwhile hero’s leap be his last? Will Barbara’s trepidation about Darwin prove warranted? Will Spidey survive his encounter with the deadly Mindbender?!! Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion... same spider time... same spider channel...]