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...]

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