The refitting at Shafton, Inc. went smoothly. The support grips that I suggested be installed in the metacarpal region of The Thing’s hands greatly improved the wearer’s facility in moving the costume’s arms. And Janzow’s adjustment to Ben Grimm’s tootsies—enlarging their interior so at to make stepping into the feet whilst shod comfortable, yet still snug—was perfect. The Iron Man outfit had received my approval the day prior, so the Golden Avenger had been securely packed for the trip to the San Diego ComiCon.
Fortunately, I would not be responsible for transporting the new costumes. Shafton, Inc. would have them shipped directly to the Convention Center where the show was taking place several days hence. My job here was done, so I headed back to San Diego, specifically its airport, where I was to meet gal pal Audrey. She was flying in from New York to join me before my sentence portraying The Thing at ComicCon began whilst she frolicked on the sandy beaches under the sun without me (insert frowning emoticon here).
I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, it was a fun-filled three days together, visiting La Jolla, Old Town, The Zoo, and Coronado Beach. We partook of many a yummy meal, drank copious amounts of wine and umbrella-topped foofy drinks, and enjoyed endless hours of intelligent conversation (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more…). All too soon, it was over. ComicCon opened the next morning, and I was due to start my reign as the show’s premiere “rock” star. Oh, Audrey and I would still get together in the evenings for dinner and more intelligent conversation (ahem). But during the day, she’d be off sunning or shopping—you can never have enough pairs of shoes… or so I’ve been told—while I roamed the con’s aisles meeting-and-greeting my fans as the Ever Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing.
At least that was the plan.
Audrey and I met Phil Valentine—our Iron Man—for breakfast before the first day’s festivities. She had met Phil previously in New York before his move to Arizona and he, too, arrived the night prior.
A bit of an entertainment renaissance man, Phil not only gigged as Spidey and friends for Marvel, but also he moonlit as Captain Planet for DiC Entertainment; wrote and mounted dinner theater productions; and oversaw promotional events for R.J. Reynolds, specifically the Marlboro Adventure Team, despite the fact that Phil did not smoke himself. As such, he often hired spokesmodels, which he managed at concerts and other events, where they handed out coupon and tchotchkes emblazoned with the Marlboro logo.
He’s since added writing, directing and producing movies to his resume, co-penning the 200 made-for-TV movie, Ice Angel, and directing and producing the multi-award–winning Iraq war documentary Who Will Stand, to name but two. And to think I knew him when he was merely a billionaire industrialist.
My Marvel-ous boss Alison was nice enough to get Audrey a badge to the show, and she accompanied me and Phil into the convention hall before her anticipated assault on the merchants of San Diego.
Backed up against the loading dock behind the convention center, yet accessible through the rear doors of the hall, was our dressing room: a large, four-wheeled panel truck. Well, this was a first, I thought as we approached. Two mammoth black cargo boxes lay therein; The Thing and Iron Man, I presumed. Phil and I immediately opened the containers and went about taking inventory. A mere handful of pieces made up each outfit—The Thing was a paltry five components—but it wouldn’t be the first time a costume arrived at an appearance missing a body part. And even the absence of a foot would put a character out of commission. If anything were missing in this instance, I could call David Janzow of Shafton, Inc. and have the errant piece messengered down from their North Hollywood headquarters, so the appearance could go on as planned, albeit a few hours late.
While we took stock, the actors from the L.A. agency that supplied Marvel with its West Coast character performers arrived. The Thing and Iron Man would be sharing their truck with Spider-Man, Wolverine, Cyclops and… the other three members of the Fantastic Four?!!! I was not apprised of suits being created for Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch and Invisible Woman, not that they needed overseeing the way The Thing outfit did. Their costumes were similarly constructed from spandex like Spider-Man’s, but in two pieces—torso and pants—with gloves and boots to complete the look. Obviously, the non-stone–chiseled members would not be expected to display their powers. Reed Richards would not be stretching. Johnny Storm would not be bursting into flames. Sue Storm would not be—actually Sue Storm could very well appear using her powers of invisibility. It’s just that no one would know. It was a cozy fit perhaps, but spacious relative to many of the other dressing areas I’ve had to use in the past.
It was around this time that I realized that Alison probably hadn’t accounted for hiring an escort for The Thing and Iron Man. The problem wasn’t one of helping with the donning of the garments per se. Phil or any of the other actors would certainly help in that department. But the new costumes, which were of the oppressive, stifling sort of the Hulk suit, necessitated its users to take frequent breaks so as not to risk dehydration and collapse. The other actors would be following longer schedules, and it wouldn’t be fair to them to have to accompany The Thing or Iron Man back to the truck every 15–20 minutes to dry and cool off, never mind someone having to return after another quarter of an hour to redress and escort them back onto the floor. And without meaning to present the L.A. performers as snobs, they weren’t getting paid to baby-sit. I wouldn’t expect the New York heroes to do it, either.
Plus, there was the matter of differing jurisdictions. Phil and I were later additions to the festivities, last minute selections to provide promotional impact for the announcement of the Marvel Action Hour, handpicked and sent by Marvel’s New York headquarters. The California character actors were under the aegis of the agent hired by Marvel. Heroes we may all have been, but we were working under different management. I had no authority to order around the west coast thespians. They may as well been working for DC Comics.
Of equal, if not greater import, was the safety of the people surrounding these larger-than-larger-than-life outfits. Limited visibility plus immense size equates to knocked over displays, injured fans, or worse, crushed li’l uns. A wrangler on hand is essential to guide the actor and prevent possible disaster.
By process of elimination—there wasn’t any other option—the job of overseer to The Thing and Iron Man fell to Audrey. She became our Jasper Sitwell, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters of the International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division) assigned by the United States during Shellhead’s early adventures to watch over Stark Enterprises— as well as its CEO and ferrous bodyguard—which was under government contract to invent and manufacture arms.
The idea of getting dressed and undressed by “that certain someone” may sound incredibly exciting, but not when said clothing is fifty pounds of stuffing. The task grew even less romantic as the day progressed and I became sweatier and riper. And each new morning started with The Thing being that much more aromatic. By day four, the costume’s interior had taken on the heady, feculent bouquet of an old unwashed mop used in the cleaning of the lavatories at Penn Station. Ah yes, these are the moments that test a couple’s fortitude.
Still, Audrey never once complained, though I could tell she wasn’t exactly giddy about her vacation being commandeered in this manner. The San Diego ComicCon is only so interesting to someone who cares little for comic books. Today, the show would offer more to the non-graphic–novel fan, what with its being usurped by the movie, television and cable industries, but in the early ’90s it was still very much funny-book–centric, certainly not the milieu of a designer of women’s active- and dancewear.
It was clear within moments of donning the rock-hewn hero’s identity that my theory of needing an escort was sound. I most likely would have fallen victim to the six-inch gap separating loading dock from truck were Audrey not there to advise me to “mind the gap.” A lifetime of her riding the rails in New York were finally paying off!
Other normally routine maneuvers, like strolling through a doorway or going from a cement surface onto a rug, were equally as challenging. The Ever Lovin’ one had to sidle through standard openings. My first attempt found me mimicking a Laurel and Hardy routine, the two getting momentarily wedged when they each try to be the first through an entrance. Only I was both Stan and Ollie rolled into one. And it wasn’t just the increased circumference of my body in the costume that made the simplest actions hazardous. Moving was akin to walking in water, and the wearer had to exaggerate the lifting of their feet in order to guarantee The Thing’s tootsies didn’t trip on the slightest shift in the terrain.
Pecularly, no one at the Marvel booth was informed of The Thing or Iron Man appearances, or at least took little stock in their presence at the booth. Queries to the various Marvel personnel as to how they might like us to schedule our visits were greeted with, “I dunno. Whatever you want to do.” The prudent reaction would have been to set up overlapping times for all the performers—so the booth was never left without at least one character—and post them, so fans would know when to stop by to get that one-of-a-kind photo of them posing with their favorite hero. It would also alleviate the Marvel staff from being inundated with questions as to when such-and-such a hero would be coming back.
Invariably what happens in these instances is the moment an actor takes a break, that is the time someone wants to know when that performer’s character is returning. There are few things more annoying than being hunted down and bombarded with “When are you coming back onto the floor? There’s a mom with her little boy looking for you. What should I tell them?” What these mishandling miscreants want to hear is “A little boy? Desperate to see The Thing? Screw my break! Tell ’em I’ll be out in five minutes,” then watch me run off like Superman looking for a phone booth, only to return as promised to make little Joey happy and get little Joey’s persistent mom off the aforementioned Marvel lackey’s back. It was unfair to both the performers and the fans. Unfortunately, it was always the staff member who acted as if they were the one put out by the situation.
As it was, Phil and I decided to time our appearances together—which made sense since we were there to promote the Marvel Action Hour, which featured our characters’ cartoons—and opposed to those of Spidey, Wolverine and Cyclops, thus keeping the booth covered throughout the convention. As four the remaining Fantastic “Three-fourths,” their costumes were the easiest to endure. They could stay out far longer than any of the characters, let alone The Thing, so their skeds didn’t necessarily gibe with that of their rock-riddled colleague.
The Thing was quite a success with the fans. My inability to hold a pen never mind sign an autograph produced a few disappointed looks. My response, though, seemed to assuage any hard feelings: “No can do, amigo… These manly mitts o’ mine are too big to hold a writing utensil. I’d probably crush it with my cosmically-enhanced strength, anyway!”
Iron Man, however, was looked upon with confused stares and ridicule. The kiddies didn’t seem to care, but the fans were ruthless. “Hey, Shellhead… What happened to your pants?” they’d shout, referring to the disproportion of the new outfit’s torso to its bottom half—which made the Golden Avenger look like a pee wee football player—even though the design was a fairly accurate interpretation of the one on the new animated series on which the costume was based. Unfortunately, the cartoon had yet to air. Still, I don’t think that would have mattered. Comic-book geeks, as with all nerds, are unforgiving with how the objects of their devotion are presented.
At one point, one of the Marvel staffer’s mentioned to me, while The Thing, “You should be up at the cartoon panel with the voice actors.” He was right, but because the Fantastic Four and Iron Man were unexpected guests, no one thought to include us in the presentation spotlighting the new Saturday morning animated series, which was the whole raison d’être for our even being at the show. D’Oh!
Well, if I was going to be the ornery powerhouse of the Fantastic Four, I was going to act it… “No one conducts a Fantastic Four panel without Aunt Petunia’s favorite nephew,” I proclaimed in Grimm’s signature “Noo Yawk” accent. “It’s clobberin’ time!” I then strode toward where the rear escalators were located. I wasn’t even sure if I could use them, but they were closer, given Marvel booth’s placement in the hall, and would offer me a less congested route to the presentation hall where the panel was taking place.
I soon found out the advantages to being a boisterous animated tank. People parted before me like they were in Pamplona and I was the bulls. As I strode forward roaring, “Clear out… Idol o’ millions coming through…,” I had gathered quite a following—“Thingies,” as I like to call them. Children with parents in tow and inquisitive fans trailed me like rats to the Pied Piper.
There was no way of concealing my cautious hesitation as I approached the escalator entrance. “What a revoltin’ development this is,” I announced in characteristic Ben Grimm style. “Ya’d think they’d make these things big enough for plus-size heroes!” It was a leap of faith. I couldn’t see precisely where I was placing my oversized stony hooves and my immobile hands afforded me no chance of gabbing onto the railing should I miscue. Audrey could do only so much. It would have taken someone with the size and strength of the actual Thing, to man-handle me onto the moving stairway at the precise moment. As it was, I told her to stand back when she offered to spot me. At five-foot–two and a scant hundred pounds, she would have ended up a shmear on my rocky backside had I fallen. Fortunately I hit the mark, landing my foot onto the center of the next ascending step, enough of my titanic tootsies fitting onto the stair so I wouldn’t fall backward.
“Nice costume,” remarked the unmistakable voice of artist Jimmy Palmiotti to a companion riding behind me. Jimmy made his name originally as one of the industry’s best inkers, working with his longtime buddy artist Joe Quesada—former Marvel Editor-in-Chief, recently promoted to Chief Creative Officer—but in recent years has proven himself as an excellent writer, penning successful relaunches of Heroes for Hire (Marvel) and Jonah Hex (DC) among many others. Anyone who has met the amicable native New Yorker can attest to his distinctive patois. I had met Jimmy years before and tipped many a glass of beer with him.
“You lookin’ at my butt, Palmiotti,” I good-naturedly grunted.
“Just impressed with the outfit, Thing,” he explained.
“These? The only things I can wear,” I replied. “Made o’ unstable molecules, so Stretcho claims. Looks like I’m wearin’ a Speedo, ya ask me!”
Yours truly, riding the escalator. That's Jimmy Palmiotti by my left butt cheek. And below, you can see typical “Thingies” scurrying after their favorite Fantastic Four member.
Unsurprisingly, the security personnel simply stepped aside when I approached the presentation hall. The panel was in full swing when I burst through the doorway. “Sorry I’m late!” I bellowed. The audience whooped and applauded as I strode down the center aisle toward the raised dais on which Chuck McCann (The Thing) and the rest of the Marvel Action Hour voice artists sat.
I was thrilled for the chance to meet Chuck McCann who starred opposite Bob “Gilligan” Denver in the short-lived but much beloved (by me) Saturday morning program, Far Out Space Nuts. It was merely a blip on a career that had already spanned decades, beginning with apprenticeships in children’s programming, such as Captain Kangaroo; moving into voice characterization’s, including Sonny the “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” bird; and many guests stints in movies and on television.
“Thing!” the moderator announced in a surprised shout. “We were just talking with Chuck McCann, who voices you in the new Fantastic Four cartoon. Perhaps, you’d like to come up here and meet him.”
“If ya don’t mind, I’ll stay on the floor,” I answered. “The convention center doesn’t really provide stairs designed for supersized tootsies. The escalator nearly proved my undoing.”
The audience didn’t seem to mind the interruption, if the laughter was any indication, as I sidled up to the side of the platform closest to McCann. “Hey, McCann… Love your work.”
“Hey, Thing,” McCann offered.
“I gotta admit, I think of myself more the Paul Newman type, what with the rugged exterior and baby blues, but you do an admirable job o’ capturin’ that jer ner sais qwah that makes me so lovable.”
“Thank you, Thing… It certainly was a challenge.”
As much as I would have enjoyed continuing the witty repartee with McCann, I respectfully ceded the floor to the moderator and the panel resumed without further interruption, rightfully spent speaking with the guests.
The remainder of the weekend proceeded without hiccup. Audrey stood by her man throughout. I tried to make it up to her with doting evenings of romantic dinners, walks under the stars and more intelligent conversations… Oh, the conversations we had! Still, I felt badly and responsible for her losing her vacation time.
Upon my return, at the follow-up meeting with Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department Director Alison, I explained the situation. There was no blame to be given. The fact that neither Alison nor I had thought of the need for an escort was an oversight on both our parts. And I didn’t bring it to Alison’s attention with any expectation. Marvel had ponied up for the hotel accommodations and car for the entire week—what more could they do? To my surprise, she submitted Audrey’s time as an independent contractor to Accounts Payable and a few days later mi amore received a check. Sweeter still, a fortuitous by-product of Audrey’s short stint as a Marvel freelancer, she was able to join me at the company’s holiday party at the end of the year. Love certainly is a many-splendored THING!