Saturday, September 24, 2011

Maiden Voyage

Beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia... not a cloud in the sky... yet!

Throughout my decade as Spider-Man et al, the preponderance of appearances were humble affairs. Short one-day signings at Mom and Pop’s, comic shops, and local chains of grocery, drug and convenience stores were the norm with occasional notable exceptions. Still, though these smaller affairs may not have had the gravitas of a parade, celebrity sighting or television coverage, they were no less special; the children were just as endearing and full of surprises, the locals were as warm and friendly as ever, and I was always excited and often amazed at discovering parts of the United States and Canada that I would never have been exposed to if not for my Web-Swinging adventures.

But every once in a while an appearance would become something to write home about after the actual wearing of the red-and-blue; the deed is done; the kids are happily sleeping with their autographed comics clutched in their wee mitts after a grueling day of braving an encounter with their hero; the parents are slumped on the couch near comatose after shepherding said young ’uns to meet their super-powered idols; and I’m usually either on the first plane out of Dodge or back at my hotel facing another lonely night eating at the bar, then watching network television or basic cable—depending on the amenities of the hotel/motel at which I’m staying—until my flight the next morning… usually.

The anecdote I’m about to relate in my customary inimitable fashion begins as so many of my escapades, or should I say ICE-capades, often do in the wilds of our Canadian brethren. But although the weather is a contributing factor to this masterful missive, the playful vagaries of Mother Nature merely provide the backdrop to our tale.

It all started in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of the three provinces that make up the Maritimes. Other than a stopover—during which I didn’t even change planes—on my way to St. John’s, located in another of the provincial trio, Newfoundland, I’d yet to pay a proper visit to the island whence my maternal grandfather hailed. This fact alone had my anticipation precipitously high, even though I didn’t have relatives there—at least none of which I knew; neither Papa nor my mom spoke of any. Still, Canada was in my bones, and despite the weather’s mood swings during some past gigs, I’d always had a good time, regardless of what part of the country I was in.

If nothing else, Canada was beautiful; a treat to take in, even if just traveling from airport to hotel to convenience store and back; which was the case during this trip, a set of appearances at area convenience stores, at which Marvel comics were sold.

The gig was put together through the company’s mass market circulation department. As opposed to the specialty division through which comics are delivered on a non-returnable basis at a greater discount—most often to funny book purveyors—this segment of the business delivered titles through major magazine distributors to everyone else from Walmart to 7-11, anywhere you’d find a periodicals section or spinner rack among other fare.

Boy: Wow! Wonder Woman!
Man: Hmm... Wonder Woman...

These co-op appearances—partially funded by Marvel—were a way for the distributors to increase comic sales and attention, and foment good will with their clients. They’d shoe-horn as many shops as possible into Spider-Man’s visit to maximize the bang for their buck and cover as large an area as they could. Most of the visits were no more than an hour long and unfortunately scarcely attended; the individual outlets may have been alerted by their distribution reps about Spidey’s impending swing-by—possibly given a poster to put in the window—but not much else was ever done on the part of the business owners to promote the event.

As a result, these stops were invariably filled with patrons lamenting a missed opportunity to bring their children or grandchildren—whatever the case may be—to meet Marvel’s most-famous hero, and receive a free comic and autograph. I’d always offer a signed book anyway, and occasionally they were gratefully taken. But more often, they were politely declined, probably because the abstainer didn’t want to face the disappointment of their little ’uns upon hearing that they’d missed meeting the Web-Spinning idol o’ millions.

Comic-Geek Porn

Even with such tepid results, both reps and merchants alike were always thrilled with Spider-Man having visited their shops, which at the end of the day is the most important thing.

The comics were provided by Marvel through the distributors who were hosting the gigs. The freebies were recent returns—the funny book equivalent of second-run movies—that would have been stripped of their covers and destroyed anyway. Ideally, Spider-Man titles would be on offer, and with a plethora of different Webhead titles from which to choose—Spider-Man; Amazing Spider-Man; Spectacular Spider-Man; Web of Spider-Man; Spider-Man Unlimited; Marvel Tales (featuring Spider-Man)—this should not have been a difficult request to service.

But every now and then, I’d arrive to an appearance to find a box containing a m√©lange of Marvel comics, everything from Fantastic Four to The ’Nam—a title featuring war stories inspired by the Vietnam conflict—not exactly the sort of fare Spider-Man should be autographing never mind giving to young Johnny or wee Lucy. So I’d cull as many Spidey books from the crate as I could find and put them on top, hoping I wouldn’t run out by the end of the day.

There were few moments more awkward than Spider-Man offering his signature on an issue of Incredible Hulk or Iron Man or (yikes!) The Punisher. The children were ever beaming; the autographed souvenir could have been a used tissue—they didn’t care; they met Spider-Man!—but the adults… Gone was any hint of appreciation that had arisen when the freebie was offered seconds before, replaced by looks that ranged from confusion to disappointment to anger and disgust.

“Don’t you have one with Spider-Man on it?” Mom or Dad would ask with more than a trace of bile in their throat when the espied the book over their progeny’s shoulder.
“Sorry… we ran out…,” I’d meekly reply, my heart dropping from my ribcage.

Sometimes, I’d tried to lighten the mood.

“Would you believe, they flew out of my hands like hot cakes?” I’d quip. “I gotta say, I’m as surprised as you, and more than a bit humbled. Who’da thunk, after all the disparaging press The Daily Bugle gives me, I’d be so popular?”

“You should have Spider-Man funny books,” they’d spit back.

I may as well have been talking to a phone jack for all the good my attempt at levity was doing.

In several instances, the ephemeral superhero hodgepodge included DC titles! It was one thing to give out a Marvel comic of a hero other than the one I was portraying; a-far-nother thing offering one of the Distinguished Competition’s. That I would not do. In one instance a mix-up at the circulation warehouse resulted in nothing but DC books being delivered to a gig, leaving me without any comics for the fans.

Comic great Alan Davis provided the cover art—though uncredited—for the nifty, exclusive Personal Appearance trading cards. The back art, however, appears to have been done by another fan favorite, Mark Bagley

Fortunately, the Personal Appearance Department had created exclusive trading cards that actors were expected to always have handy in case of just such an emergency. There were two designs, both delineated by artist Alan Davis. One featured Spidey; the other a group shot of Hulk, Captain America and Wolverine, which sufficed gigs other than those of the wondrous Web-Swinger. The backs of the cards sported a recap of Spider-Man’s origin in the former case and some generic Marvel superhero hoopla in the latter, and each provided a blank box in which the hero du jour could ink their respective John Hancocks.

Now the comics delivered to Halifax put me in a bit of a pickle. First, there was only a single book in the shipment; a couple hundred copies of the same comic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; everybody—parents and children alike—get the same freebie, so there wouldn’t be any consternation over say, one kid getting an issue of Spider-Man Unlimited, which is double-size, while their sibling gets a copy of Amazing Spider-Man, which is regular-size; or little sister getting Spectacular Spider-Man, guest starring Wolverine, and big brother receiving Web of Spider-Man, the “all Aunt May” issue. Believe me, it wasn’t unusual for a parent to ask if I have the same comic to give every child in a party so “they won’t fight,” an attitude I was more than familiar with given the animosity and tension growing up with my two older sisters.

And technically, the multiple in question was a Spidey comic. But it was Spider-Man 2099!

In 1992, Marvel launched the 2099 Universe, a series of titles that re-imagined their stalwart stars a hundred years in the future—okay, a hundred seven years in the future, but 2099 has a catchier ring to it than 2092. Spider-Man 2099 was the first of the line released, and I think it was the best of the bunch. Writer Peter David concocted a Spidey of tomorrow that zigged, wherever the present-day Web-Slinger zagged; totally re-inventing the character while staying true to him. As a special marketing gimmick, each premier issue sported a metallic-ink border. In Webhead’s case, artist Rick Leonardi’s gorgeous art was framed in a Hot Wheels-eque red. The result was utterly cool.

Most of the 2099 titles were merely futuristic takes on the same old, same old, all except Spider-Man’s re-imagining... and Ghost Rider’s, which was like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets The Exorcist

And the Curtis Distribution rep was not shy about showing his excitement over having the book to give away. A number one issue of the world’s most-popular superhero with a snazzy ultra-awesome cover? He was beside himself and couldn’t stop talking about how lucky he was to have received such an honor. You’d think it was an original Shakespeare’s First Folio he was passing out.

Sure, the design was incredibly attractive and the cachet of getting a premier issue gratis was mind-boggling. But here I was dispersing comics of some futuristic doppleganger who shared Spidey’s name only, but looked nothing like the titular Webhead. It was like winning the lottery, but then finding out that the prize was a-dollar-a-year-for-a-million-years!

Since 80% or more of all appearances were Spider-Man gigs, the department consolidated the most popular of the remaining characters that made appearances on the other of the two designs. Ye Olde Webhead is featured on it as well, because even those events where there are other heroes, Spidey often is too!

Thank goodness, for the trading cards. Each fan received both a comic and a card, circumnavigating any potential chagrin from persnickity caretakers over not getting a Spider-Man book with the Web-Slinger of their youth in the pages therein.

I should not have fretted so. Sure, there were the occasional queries regarding the strange-looking Web-Spinner gracing the cover of the handouts, but they were of the curious type, not the what-the-Hell-is-this-you’re-giving-me kind.

Featured in Marvel Age magazine at the time of the debut of the Marvel 2099 Universe, this delightful spoof was delineated by the late great Rusty Haller, former header artist for Heroes in My Closet

The circulation rep and I visited four stores throughout the day, two before lunch and two thereafter. The weather was gloriously autumnal: sunny and crisp; not a cloud in the sky. Gee, where have I read this before? I can hear my Faithful Bloglodytes’ cynical thoughts already, and they would be justified.

The perfect atmospheric conditions persisted into the early evening hours. I was returned to the hotel by a rep, giddily happy over a successful promotion, and proceeded to undertake the day-is-done-but-not-leaving-until-morning appearance routine: shower; dinner at the hotel restaurant; TV; reading; sleep. As I headed through the lobby for the eatery, I noticed a drastic change in the weather outside the glass-door entrance. The sky had turned an inhospitable gray and snow was falling; big, Idaho potato-sized lumps that had already covered the landscape.

Perhaps, it was the magic of the first snowfall of the season or maybe it was the Canuck in me, but after a satisfying repast, I decided to venture across the two lane road that fronted the lodging—already sporting a foot of frozen, fluffy goodness—and pay a visit to the pub situated parallel on the opposite side. I am neither a rabble rouser, nor a barfly, but I do enjoy people watching and soaking in the local atmosphere wherever I am. I figured a couple of beers and an hour later, I’d return to my room.

Yeah, right!

As I sat at the bar, nursing my heavenly Canadian ale—Damn they serve delicious beer in the Great White North!—I was soon surrounded by a group of four gentlemen. Or blokes may be a better term, as they all sported British accents. Clad in black T-shirts, jeans and leather boots that looked as if they’d shopped in the Sons of Anarchy section of the FX studio store, their down-to-earth demeanor and friendliness reminded me of stage techies, those unsung behind-the-scenes members of a show responsible for everything from lighting to props.

Turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark with my assessment. I was immediately ingratiated into their cabal, and they soon revealed themselves as the road crew for the world-famous heavy metal band, Iron Maiden. Amazingly, of the quartet—and there may have been more, but given my high level of inebriation, it’s a wonder I can recall the entire trip!—I actually remember Mark Berryman and Chris Lang, and Googling each confirms their association with Iron Maiden. At the time, there was a woman, named Bonnie Berryman, in Marvel’s licensing division, which could explain why I can still dredge up Mark’s name. As for Chris, his surname is the same as the superhero Ant Man—Scott Lang—who took up the mantle after Henry Pym, but has subsequently died in action.

Seems the group had flown into Halifax earlier in the day to set up for a scheduled performance by the group the following evening. But the fast-moving blizzard that had now totally immersed the town had forced the concert’s cancellation and the roadies were taking full advantage of their unexpected night off.

They lost me at “blizzard.” Sure, the flakes were descending in larger clumps and at a faster rate than your normal dusting—the nostalgic chords of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Skating” from A Charlie Brown Christmas certainly would’ve understated the delightful downfall that now descended upon Nova Scotia. But blizzard?!! It was pumpkin-picking picturesque merely a couple of hours ago!

As if to spit in the eye of my skepticism, I noticed for the first time the customers entering the pub; humanoid Frosted Mini-Wheats topped with Cool Whip emerging from a wall of white. My initial thoughts of Here we go again were immediately trumped by There’s no way, I’ll be flying out of this in the morning. So I embraced the serendipity of my Maiden mates and started settling in for the evening, dashing my previously conceived self-imposed two-drink limit.

Good thing, too. The moment I told them the reason this Yankee was in Her Majesty’s North American Commonwealth, they nearly spilled their pints! Here these ebullient chaps work with one of the most exalted bands of the genre—internationally renown pioneers of British heavy metal, having sold more than 85 million albums (and counting) around the world, with more than two dozen different awards and distinguished accolades to their credit—and they devolve to hysterical fanboys when they meet Spider-Man. I felt guilty that I wasn’t as equally crazed about Iron Maiden. Can you imagine the scene in the bar then? The lot of us would be jumping and screaming like the female fans in those old concert videos of the Beatles from the early 60s.

Iron Maiden as they appeared in their heyday

And what better way to show their love and admiration for ye olde Web-Slinger than keeping his pint glass ever full of amber goodness. It was like the pitcher that Jesus used to slake the thirst of the masses. The glass had barely hit the counter from my enjoying the final swig of a round when miraculously it was full again, suds foaming down to immerse the Labatt’s coaster which was fast deteriorating under the stress.

Thank goodness, the English don’t cotton to the American frat-boy mentality of doing shots. They stay straight and true on the hops highway—copious, staggering amounts to be sure—but blessedly without pit stops of tequila, J√§germeister, Jack Daniel’s or some other evil liquid that will ensure an evening spent bowing to the porcelain god and one Brobdingnagian hangover.

As it was, I was more than toasted; I was one butter knife short of finagling out the charring slice! The number of Iron Maiden roadies went from four to eight to twelve; a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Arthurs; bloody dear lads all who loved the idea of partying with Spider-Man. I knew I had to get out of there while I still could. I profusely thanked my brewery benefactors, and they in turn insisted on a final round before I left. How could I refuse? I was Dumbledore forcing down the undrinkable potion from the bowl that contained Salazar Slytherin’s Locket in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Unfortunately, Harry was not their to help me out of the pub and back to the hotel. The snow was five feet high—I bullshit you not—and other than a path to the pub entrance and one lane of the road that ran betwixt it and my goal, not a flake was shoveled. I waded through like I was in a giant children’s ball pit, only the balls were heavier and covered in Velcro. I stumbled out onto the plowed street, hoping that the entrance to the hotel parking lot had been cleaned as well. No such luck. So I attacked the second stage of this Winter Wonderland from Hell.

My only solace was the certainty that my insanely early flight would be canceled and I could reschedule for a later one; departing when I was less hung over… sometime in spring perhaps!

I finally made it to the hotel looking like I’d been dipped in ice water and rolled in coconut. I teetered over to the front desk, drunk and half-frozen. I must have looked a sight, but the receptionist didn’t seem to notice.

“What are the chances of my early-morning flight taking off on time?” I slurred, my overreaching sense of responsibility forcing me to ask, despite the logical part of my brain screaming You just spent a half hour struggling through fifty-yards of snow that would normally have taken a minute to walk, you dodo! There ain’t nothing taking off in this weather. Even the polar bears have called in sick!

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be no delays. But let me check,” she answered perkily. I didn’t want perky; I wanted complicity. A veil of gloom began to descend over me. She’s joking, right? This is her way of getting back at having drawn the late-schedule short straw on a Saturday night.

“Everything’s on time!” she chirped.

If looks could kill, she would have gone up in a ball of flame at that moment. I returned with the type of smile I imagine Ted Bundy gave his victims right before the deed. “In that case,” I replied, my voice smooth as velvet, “I’d like a wake-up call for, say”—I looked at the clock hanging behind the reject from Disney World’s “It’s a Small World” ride—“fifteen minutes from now.”

Okay, it wasn’t quite a quarter of an hour. It was ninety minutes, leaving just enough time to dress, pack and shower before the cab arrived to take me to the airport. Showering was essential, not leastwise so I wouldn’t smell like a hobo during the flight. It would also aid in getting a few brain cells rubbing together to spark the firing of a synapse or two, so I could manage enough rudimentary functions to get me onto the plane.

Two hours later, I was still drunk when I tumbled into my aisle seat. The snowfall had stopped and there wasn’t a hint of a breeze, so I was hopeful the take-off would be smooth. My stomach was a piece of Dresden China and the slightest lurch was all it would take for that “one last drink before you go and several before it” to project from my mouth. I checked the storage pouch of the seat in front of me for the requisite barf bag, placing it at the fore in case I needed it quickly.

No need. The plane sped off the tarmac without so much as a hiccup, not even the usual stomach-lurching drop that occurs during the ascent—God, I hate that!

As mentioned, I was situated on the aisle of a three-seat row. A businessman was at the window and the middle was thankfully unoccupied. Regardless of how thorough the shower and teeth-brushing, when one is as sufficiently pickled as I was, no amount of cleansing can fully mask alcohol inevitably seeping through the pores and out one’s parched maw. Plus, there was still the possibility that turbulence might force my using the vomit sack, and it would be embarrassing enough with the man at the window, never mind someone rubbing up against me at the time of “upheaval” (although, it would pretty much guarantee me the armrest…).

I was never more happy to hear the captain speak than when he announced that the route into the Big Apple was clear and no problems were expected. I shut my eyes and grabbed what little sleep I could during the hour-long flight, only to be awoken by the pilot updating us on the situation heading into La Guardia airport; that being unexpected rough winds! My stomach was far from settled, one “wafer-thin mint” away from exploding. I white-knuckled the armrests and braced myself.

True to the pilot’s words, the plane began an aerial ballet as we made our northern approach over the East River, bobbing and swaying like a Tilt-A-Whirl. Before you could say “Houston, we have a problem,” I nonchalantly picked up the puke pouch, blew it open like Carnac and lost it! About two pints of beer filled the bag—not a speck of food. I quietly issued an “Excuse me,” but the businessman acted as if nothing had transpired.

I instantly felt better, casually folding closed the containment vessel and placing it on the seat beside me. The instruction on the bag instructs the vomiter to hand it off to the flight attendant upon deplaning, but that wasn’t going happen. Like I wanted to become the stuff of some Air Canada employee’s memoirs!

Despite the Iron Maiden road crew’s generous offer for me to come looking for them at wherever the band may be performing the next time they did New York City, and they’d get me a backstage pass, it never came to fruition. The one time I noticed the Heavy Metal group was in town, as luck would have it, I was out doing a Spider-Man gig. Hell, had I seen a movie like Rock Star during that time, I would have followed the band cross-country!

Still, Mark Berryman, Chris Lang et al, were great blokes leaving me with one of my fondest Spider-Man memories, which Chris summed up quite nicely that fateful evening in Halifax. ’Twas the wee small hours of the morning, when a very inebriated Mr. Lang draped himself over my shoulders—as bar mates often do when the hour is late and the consumption is high. “What are the chances…” he began, channeling Dudley Moore. “What are the chances of Spider-Man and the road crew from Iron Maiden meeting up in a bar in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the middle of a blizzard?”

Actually… quite good!