Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ant Army by Adam Dembicki

I’ve been terribly busy lately, which is a good thing when one freelances, but it has meant my neglecting you, my Faithful Bloglodytes. I hope to be able to share some of the projects I’ve been working on so diligently in the near future.

One event which took me away from “the closet” for a weekend was the 2010 SPX in Bethesda, Maryland. I attended “North America’s Premiere Independent Cartooning & Comics Arts Festival”—as it bills itself—in 2009, as an exhibitor for Fanfare/Ponent Mon, a UK-based indie publisher of translations of graphic literature from around the world. My reasons for going to this year’s indie comics love-in were the same.

Those “Closet” fans with a better memory than mine may remember my mentioning the event in a posting in which I recounted meeting Adam Dembicki, four-year-old son of comics creator Matt Dembicki, whose artwork—a sweet gift which I still cherish—I displayed with a challenge to readers to guess the piece’s subject matter. I am not a spoiler, so won’t reveal the answer here.

Ant Army creator Adam Dembicki

Imagine my surprise when I learned that not only would Matt and Adam be attending this year, but also Adam, himself, had written and drawn a complete book of his own and was going to be doing signings during the show.

I had no delusions that the now five-year-old Adam would recall me—Hell, I’m shocked when my wife remembers me every morning—but looked forward to seeing his cherubic face and heart-melting smile, nonetheless. And giddy with anticipation to get my greedy little paws on a copy of his book. I saw Adam as an artistic genius and couldn’t wait to see how much he’d grown as such.

I was not disappointed.

On its surface, Ant Army is about a war between an alien planet and an invading race of formicary forces from “frozen Earth.” That this anthropod army passes long-abandoned “ghost satellites” on their mission of conquest, suggests the tale is a futuristic one and the ants are a product of millennia of evolution born from the ashes of mankind.

The aliens initially welcome the visitors, unsuspecting of their duplicitous nature, then scramble to defend themselves when the ants’ attack. The battle grows to epic proportions. The aliens proving surprisingly resistant, but the ants are relentless. Counterattack begets counterattack, each wave escalating in its use of bigger and more destructive weaponry, with the outcome always in question.

The ending is worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone at its best, all at once shocking and haunting, and serves as a brilliant coda to the story’s themes war and genocide. It still gives me chills when I think about it.

According to editor/production manager/Dad Matt—artist/writer of the undersea adventure Xoc and editor/contributor of the recently released comics anthology of stories inspired by Native American myths, Trickster—Adam drew the pictures first, after which he explained the story to his father, who typed out the words and put the book together.

For his age, Adam presents a surprisingly sophisticated tale. I expected something along the lines of “Hulk, smash!” similar to the way children of his age play with their action figures. It’s the details that stand out and elevate Ant Army above such puerile fare: the aforementioned ghost satellites; the strategies the opposing armies use against one another; the breadth and savagery of the battle; the book’s ability to continually surprise; and its jaw-dropping finish.

My mind reels at what Adam has in store for us in the future. And I cannot wait to find out!

Ant Army gets four anthropo—er, spiders.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Saturday, September 4, 2010

To Thee I Web, Finale: Bygones

Previously, our prolific host—in attendance, portraying Spider-Man villain, Green Goblin—recounted the historic wannabe wedding of the iconic Web-Slinger and Mary-Jane Watson at the former home of the New York Mets, Shea Stadium. That event taking place in the bygone eighties,
June 5, 1987, to be precise.


Back in the reserve locker room where I and my fellow character actors had changed, we hustled out of our costumes. There wasn’t any time to bask in the glow of being a part of such a monumental comics event. The heroes and I—the token baddie—had town cars waiting to whisk us off to the reception. The newlyweds were already on their way, having left the field in the limos in which they’d arrived. And, as much as he probably would have preferred, Spidey creator Stan Lee, would not be accompanying us. He disappeared soon after departing the field, but would certainly be reemerging at the wedding reception.

Cool! I can party with Stan Lee, I thought. Yeah, and we’ll be doing Jell-O shots at the bar and break dancing together. The fumes inside the Goblin mask must have made me delusional. Five minutes ago, I couldn’t even talk to the man.

From Flushing, Queens—the borough in which Shea was located—we traveled to the lower west side of Manhattan, where the reception was to take place. Named for the converted train tunnel that the venue occupied, The Tunnel was a sprawling complex, located along the city’s Westside Highway. It was “the” club at the time and, as such, never enjoyed my presence. I’m about as “in” as an outhouse. Visit any trendy bar, restaurant or club and I won’t be there. It’s not that I have an aversion to such places… Well, actually it’s exactly because I do. And I definitely don’t care to hang out with the vacuous, want-to-be-seen types that flock to these spots.

I hadn’t even heard of The Tunnel, but was agog nonetheless. I was still pinching myself (Oh, the bruises I was going to have in the morning) over the fact that I was a member of the Spider-Man wedding party, and now I was clubbing with the Marvel Elite, with the chance to hang out—or hover nearby in awestruck immobility—with Stan Lee. Of course, us characters would have to jump through a few more hoops for the PR people first.

A large private room beneath the main area of the club, was set aside for the Web-Swinging wingding. In a far corner to the left of the bar, a small area containing a couple of comfy couches was draped off in black for the actors to dress and take breaks. The festivities were already underway when we entered. The club proper, though, was deserted. It wasn’t even 8 PM, yet, and any self-respecting clubber wouldn’t think of leaving the house before ten. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get to stand in line, praying to be one of the few selected as worthy of spending twenty bucks to enter.

I was always one of the last ones chosen before any game growing up. It was especially “gratifying” when there was an odd number of kids and I was the one left over, standing on the sidelines, hoping someone else would show, so I could join the kids who didn’t want to play with me in the first place. Why the hell would I want to go through that again?

We made our way through the partying throngs of Marvel Nabobs with our duffel bags in tow. I’m sure the suits wondered who this motley crew of crashers were or why we weren’t ushered through the employee entrance with the rest of the help. Ironically, in a few short minutes, these same haughty honchos would be fawning over us to get their pictures taken like tweens over Justin Bieber.

Unfortunately, with the reception in full swing—so to speak—the only chance I’d have of reconnoitering the area would be during our initial jaunt to the characters’ private section. Because of the limited sight of the costumes, I always liked to scope out the appearance venue in advance to make mental notes of any potentially hazardous zones, i.e. low outcroppings, tables, chairs, columns, essentially anything that someone in a costume might trip over or walk into.

Even when playing Spider-Man—the costume of which offers greater visibility than any of the characters after Cap—I preferred to see where I was going beforehand, especially since the clarity of the vision in the Spidey costume was dependent on the lighting of the target area. In this case, the lighting was horrific: dim ambient illumination under a constant barrage of flashing strobes and sweeping spotlights of various colors, and a swirling fog, the opacity of which went from dense to denser, depending on how many seconds of rest there was between the firing up of the smoke machine. Add that to the cigarette smoke—this was many years before the ban on smoking in clubs—and the air was going to be both visually impenetrable and difficult to breathe, while in costume.



This video of The Tunnel several years after the Spider-Man wedding reception gives you some idea of the atmosphere

As for “potentially hazardous zones,” the entire room was a minefield. A makeshift stage, about two feet high and approximately the size of a Twister playing surface, sat before the bar, which stretched on either side. This was fronted by the only open space on the floor, a small “dance” area the size of the average dental waiting room, around which stood dozens of dainty, cabaret-style, pedestal tables, each sporting a pair of chairs. What little exposed floor there was already shone with spilled drinks.

There was a clear path from the actors’ hidey hole to the nearest end of the bar, but it was bathed in shadow, which wasn’t so much a problem when returning from a break—just follow the light—but terribly treacherous when trying to go on break. If we did manage to get to the curtain concealing the space without tripping or hitting the wall, we then had to find the slit in the drapes which served as its only access point. Anyone who's had to find the opening in a curtain with the lights on may understand the challenge we faced doing so in complete darkness and while masked.

Had any of us in the wedding party stopped to think about this, we would have probably sent our regrets and a check. But as invited guests, the heroes and Green Goblin were expected to act as such, which meant partying with the corporate big-wigs. So as soon as we had our costumes on, we hit the dance floor. Okay, we gingerly followed Captain America, making our inability to see where we were going look like heroic—or nefarious, in my case—posturing. Spider-Man and MJ were there to meet us, having recently arrived to a cadre of press photographers, entering like stars at a movie premiere.

Cap strode to the nearest table and dragged up the woman seated there to join him. Firestar just had to appear. In no time there was a bevy of tongue-wagging execs encircling her like prepubescents vying for the latest issue of National Geographic (You young ’uns may want to ask an older gent to explain that last allusion). The remaining trio—Hulk, Iceman and me, Gobby—the ones who could barely see each other, didn’t worry about partners. Hell, we wouldn’t have seen them anyway. We shook our booties to beat the band. A more surreal tableau had not been witnessed by mankind since Batman introduced the Batusi on his TV series in the 60s. Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Firestar, Iceman and The Green Goblin boogying to George Michael’s I Want Your Sex and The Bangles’s Walk Like an Egyptian.

I found it most freeing. No canvassing the floor for someone with which to dance; no fear of rejection; no self-consciousness over how good I was. Quite the contrary; I whooped it up like a drunk divorcĂ©e. Had there been a lampshade, I’d have been wearing it. And because I was an evil-doer, I could flirt without fear of recriminations. Of course, I couldn’t exactly see who I was speaking with—although I could discern enough to distinguish the guys from the gals—but many a lap got sat on and many a hug was given.

Soon, I realized that I needed a break. I was overheating and sweating profusely. What little I could see before was now clouded by the sweat cascading down my face, mingling with the water already dripping from my eyes from the fumes of the mask’s glue. There was no light-headedness, but experience told me that I was running on adrenaline and needed to stop. But where was everyone? I scanned the room for some hint of primary or garish color. This was a New York City nightclub where black is de rigueur, so a splash of anything other would be a sure sign of a hero. It’s not like I could just stop, either. The show doesn’t end when there’s a flubbed line or missed cue. I had to continue cackling and interacting as Gobby, while I worked my way back to the dance floor. From there, I could tackle the walk to the rest area.

Suddenly, a familiar voice… “There you are Green Goblin!” It was Barbara, come to check on me. I nearly kissed her, as she escorted me to safety.

This recently released Mary-Jane commemorative Barbie celebrates the historic wedding of the titular model to the iconic super-arachnid

When I finally removed the mask in the rest area, I was dizzy and my face was dripping. I needed hydration… badly. Unfortunately, no one thought to provide water to us. I guess the costumed characters were the only ones who got that memo. Well, if there was one thing you learned doing costumed appearances, it was to take matters into your own hands, whether that meant traveling with your own supply of Sharpies—the autographing implement of choice—mastering the bodily contortions it took to get into costume without aid, or purchasing thermal underwear to withstand the unforgiving 20-below winters of Winnipeg. So Captain America—who had by this time dried out—redonned his mask and, in true heroic fashion, whipped the black curtain aside and strode forth to save his brethren. And boy, did he ever. In a matter of moments, he returned carrying a case of mineral water. I chuckle whenever I envision the scene that took place at the bar. I mean, who’s going to refuse Captain America?

It was around this time that one of us asked, “Uh… where’s The Hulk?”

Shit, we’d left him on the dance floor by his lonesome! It had been well over the recommended twenty minutes, and that’s when the character’s movement is limited to shaking hands, not dancing! It had more than an hour, since he went onto the floor. Just as Captain America was donning his mask to make another daring rescue, the drapes parted and the Hulk was led in by a Marvel employee, who worked on the same floor where the personal appearance department was located. We barely had enough time to remove his head and unhook his torso when the Hulk collapsed onto a couch. Gary, the actor within, was wan and soaked. Even in the dim lighting, steam was visibly rising from the chest cavity. He guzzled a half dozen 12-oz. bottles of mineral water in the blink of an eye and appeared as though he was ready to throw back six more when the head of the publicity department bustled in.

“What are you doing back here? They’re about to cut the cake!” she admonished.

We glad-handed Miss Publicity—who was sure to be there when we had to return to the floor, but was conveniently absent when we needed a rest—then told Gary to stay put, after she had departed. We’d handle the situation. I don’t think he could’ve moved again so soon anyway.

A modest, three-tiered cake—unworthy of Duff Goldman’s dog—was wheeled out on a cart before the stage. A Spider-Man action figure and custom-sculpted MJ-as-bride figure topped the confection. I’m not even certain there even was a cake-cutting. After all, the bride would have a hard time getting it into her web-swinging hubby’s mouth, and no one wanted to risk staining the costume or MJ’s Willi Smith–designed gown. The ritual was purely ceremonial and was followed by more dancing and mingling.

It wasn’t long before additional speechifying. The event was finally winding down and it was time for the “Thank-yous.” The characters—this time with The Hulk who had sufficiently rested by then—gathered behind then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter and Stan Lee onstage. Shooter spoke more about the importance of this “momentous event and brown-nos—er, thanked the appropriate parties.” But apparently not enough. He was canned before the end of the year, replaced by Tom DeFalco.

Marvel’s 20th anniversary was the cover story of the premiere issue of Comics Scene in 1982 which featured Lee and Shooter

Lee followed. I hadn’t seen my idol all night. Of course, at times he may have been standing right next to me, hobnobbing along with the other heroes. I just couldn’t see him. The consummate showman, he enthused with his signature alliterative and superlative remarks before bringing the evening to a close with a rousing “Excelsior!” After a bevy of photographs were taken, he and Shooter left the stage whilst heroes and villain alike remained to shake hands with the departing guests.

As we disbanded, a strange thing occurred. From the stage I spotted an acting classmate of mine from Boston University, one who had been “axed” after her sophomore year, having not made the yearly cut. What was she doing here? Was she affiliated with Marvel or one of its sister companies? I hadn’t realized at the time that Marvel’s exclusivity to the lower room had expired and had since been opened to the public. The Tunnel being the hot club at the time, and it being Friday night, she was simply out partying.

That's Lisa in the middle wearing the "Williams" sweatshirt

“Hello, Lisa!” I screeched in my best Green Goblin cackle.

“Steve Vrattos . . . Is that you in there?” she answered, unfazed in her southern drawl.

How the f*** did she know it was me? I nodded mutely in response as she disappeared into the crowd. I would loved to have caught up with her. She was one of the funniest woman I’d ever met, sharp-witted and cute to boot, with a quirky Meg Ryan-esque smile and lovely bedroom eyes. We were friendly toward one another in college, but shared few classes together, so never had the chance to get close. It would be nice to actually know someone in the Big Apple. I figured on checking out the club for her as soon as I was done with my gig.

Another half hour of mingling and we got the “OK” to change back into our civilian identities. I looked for Lisa afterward to no avail. No surprise. The place was packed. So I collected my bag from the back room downstairs and headed toward the exit.

Ah, but my tale did not end there. Midway up the stairs, I was interrupted by a shout from below.

“Hey, Green Goblin!”

It was an admirer of mine from the Marvel offices; a girl who would have been adorable if not for an unfortunate off-putting hirsute chin. She wasn’t sporting a Van Dyke, by any means, just several scraggly intertwining whiskers like the hairs that sprout from the ears of old men (I’m sorry… I’m shallow… I just couldn’t get passed it!). She’d been threatening to get a picture of me out of costume all week. I was less than willing to oblige, visions of her stroking her chin hairs while gazing upon my photo like Ming the Merciless contemplating Flash Gordon’s demise filled my mind. She had her camera at the ready and me in her sights. I was doomed.

Flash!

A Cheshire grin spread across her face as she lowered her camera triumphantly. But it was no bigger than the one on my face, when I noticed that her camera flashed behind her; she had taken the picture backwards, essentially into her face. She must have been schnockered not to have noticed the flash in her eyes.

I made another cursory scan of the club for Lisa before I left. But who was I kidding. She wasn’t the slightest bit interested in catching up with me. It’s not as if she was revisiting the character area to see me again. Just another “small-world” moment in a city of ten million.

I also never chanced to see Stan again that evening. He was long gone by the time I was done Green Goblin-ing. No matter. I’d met my childhood idol, who proved to be as wonderful as I’d imagined. What’s more, I was in the wedding party at Spider-Man’s nuptuals. The only villain invited, I might add.

Good thing, the Web-Swinger doesn’t hold a grudge. I did kill his previous girlfriend, after all.