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September 2, 2010

Op-Ed: An English Teacher Goes to Baltimore Comic-Con

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By John C. Weaver, Ph.D., English teacher at Williamsport Area High School in Pennsylvania

I stood in the middle of a dizzying steady-cam spin, a swirl of bodies and primary colors assaulting my senses. Two Deadpools raced through my sightline, followed by a tall, skinny Superman. I had to leave, to get out of the heaving mass of humanity before it consumed me. Flailing and lurching toward the exit, I pushed past a member of the Borg Collective and burst into the lobby, only to find Catwoman posing for photographers.

Thus was my introduction to Baltimore Comic-Con this year—my very first comic book convention.
 
A few days before, a friend of mine was going to the convention on business and asked if I’d like to tag along. Never having gone to one of these events, I jumped at the chance. The Baltimore Comic-Con site advertised a number of my favorite writers and artists—Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, the Luna Brothers…. But the guy I was really excited about was Mark Waid.
 
Seven or eight years ago during an English department meeting, we welcomed new staff members by saying our names and our favorite authors. Around the circle we heard Jodi Picoult, Ernest Hemingway, Jon Krakauer, and so on. When my turn came, I thought about a book I had just read, and I immediately blurted, “Mark Waid.” No one else had heard of him, so they asked what he wrote. “Haven’t any of you read Kingdom Come?” I asked a bit too pompously. Needless to say, I really wanted to meet one of America’s finest writers. The only problem was to figure out what to say to him without sounding like a complete flaming idiot.
 
Stepping into the convention hall was disorienting, so I walked around to get my bearings. The comic book vendors selling back issues from the 1960s to the 2000s occupied one section of the cavernous space; the artists and writers were in the middle, around the Boom!, Top Cow, Image, and Top Shelf stands, except for a long line of tables at one end called Artist Alley. Between the major independent companies and Artist Alley were a number of smaller stands selling all manner of merchandise from hippie jewelry to T-shirts that announced “Jesus Hates Zombies.”
 
Okay. Now I that I knew how the convention was laid out, it was time to look for Palmiotti, Conner, and Waid. The latter was signing at Boom! The line wasn’t particularly long, but each person in line brought crates of comic books, strapped to those wheelie carts middle-aged ladies pull through airports. These fans dumped piles of comics for Mark Waid to sign—all 52 copies of DC’s 52, for instance. I stood in line to say hi to him and bought a copy of Irredeemable Vol. 3 for him to sign. Suddenly, it was my turn, and despite being a middle-aged Ph.D. in English who is reasonably articulate, my brain vapor locked as I handed one of my heroes the book. I could have said that Kingdom Come was one of my favorite novels. I could have told him that I enjoy reading his Irredeemable in tandem with his Incorruptible. I could have even said, “Hey, how you doin’?” Instead, he signed my book, handed it back to me, and I murmured, “Hauamamgn,” which was intended to be “Thank you, Mr. Waid.”
 
I slumped away, realizing that I was the BIGGEST loser on earth, and that included the portly Batman with the massive armpit stains who just walked by me.
 
Given that I couldn’t embarrass myself any more than I already had, I went to act the fool in front of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti. Amanda was the busiest artist in the room, the Rolling Stones of the convention. Since I blew nearly all my money at Top Shelf, I didn’t have any more to buy another trade paperback for her signature: The only thing she could have signed was the sweat-stained pocket notebook I was using to jot ideas for this article, and that was too lame even for me. Besides, the line was half an hour long. The amazing thing was that all day while she was signing, she kept a huge smile on her face.
 
However, Jimmy Palmiotti was available, so I walked up to him and said, “Hi, I’m John Weaver, and I’m a high-school English teacher.” What?! Where did the English teacher line come from, and why on earth would he be interested in that? I really am pathetic. But if Palmiotti thought my opener was odd, he didn’t show it: “Hi, John,” he said as he shook my hand. I glanced down at a copy of The Pro, which Amanda penciled and Jimmy inked, and said, “The Pro is the greatest graphic novel that I’d never be able to teach to my students. It would be a perfect way to introduce satire.” Jimmy laughed and we joked about teaching a comic about a foul-mouthed, superpowered prostitute.
 
And then I noticed a small pile of Time Bomb issue one, which Jimmy inked for Radical Comics. Radical is known for fascinating stories and phenomenal artwork, and when I said that I enjoyed their stuff, particularly their art, he told me that he likes to support the start-ups like Radical. After seeing the preview for Time Bomb during Free Comic Book Day, I was looking forward to it, and I asked Jimmy when it was coming out. As he said that it already sold out, and those copies were his own personal ones, I groaned about Radical’s small print run. Then Palmiotti did a very generous thing: He said, “If you want to read it, take one, and then bring it back tomorrow.” That a writer and artist the stature of Jimmy Palmiotti would offer to lend his own personal copy of a sold-out comic to a guy he doesn’t know—and then trust that he would bring it back—is very cool. What a mensch.
 
By this point, the panels started and I was in danger of stimulus overload, so I ducked into Mark Waid’s discussion of his new project with Stan Lee and Boom! Studios. I came a half-hour late, so I missed the overall idea of the collaboration, but at least I was able to listen to my favorite writer, even if I couldn’t talk to him. What I heard was interesting—Stan Lee was collaborating on three different, but interrelated, titles for Boom! It appeared to be the beginning of a new universe. The talk ended, and just as I was going to leave, I thought, “This is silly. Just go tell him you like his books and take a quick picture.” So I gulped, and walked over to him.
 
“Mark, I’m John Weaver. I’m a high-school English teacher.” There it was again, my job, like a nervous tic. I briefly thanked him for his brilliant Kingdom Come, one of those books I come back to over and over, and then, to the man I consider one of America’s finest authors, I attacked, “You know, Boom! is missing the boat. They are concerned with producing high-quality literature, but they have done nothing to market their books to English teachers. They think in print runs of a couple hundred thousand, when they could sell books in the millions if they can demonstrate their value in terms of quality and importance of theme to high schools.” Whoa! Where did that come from? I’m taking a hero of mine to task for a problem he isn’t responsible for. Mark replied, “You know, John, you’re right. We don’t market to schools well.” He took my unplanned outburst with aplomb, and then he continued, “I have to leave right now because the next panel is coming in, but I’ll be signing again at four o’clock. Come down to the Boom! stand because I’d like to continue this conversation.”

Oh, crap. Mark Waid wanted to continue a conversation with me. Suddenly I realized that I knew how to talk to these people whose work I have enjoyed for years—just embrace the fact that I’m a high-school English teacher. I resolved to see him later. To fill out the next couple hours before he began signing again, I alternated between the convention floor, meeting some of the artists and writers in Artist’s Alley, taking pictures of the costumed adventurers, and attending some panels. The DC discussion unfortunately was little more than a chance for the fans to worship at the feet of the publisher’s marketing machine. The moderator asked the audience to call out characters and titles they liked and then wanted people to cheer when they heard their favorite. Now, I like Batman as much as the next guy, but I’m not going hoot and holler when I hear his name. Whenever an audience member asked a substantive question about the direction DC was taking, the moderator gave a “no comment.”
 
The most satisfying panel I attended was with Michael Allred, who writes Madman and TheAtomics. His recent collaborator on iZombie, Chris Roberson, interviewed Mike and his wife and colorist, Laura. A very calm, low-key fellow, Mike talked about starting as a television broadcaster in Europe with the Air Force and then becoming a comic book artist and writer: his evolution from Graphique Musique to Madman and iZombie. Listening to a man simply tell the story of his involvement in comics was a gratifying experience. By the end, I had to leave because 4:00 was fast approaching, and I wanted to see Mark Waid again.
 
By the time I got there, a whole bunch of fans were lined up with their suitcases of comics to get signed, so I decided to wander around the convention until the line dissipated. Around 4:30, there were only a couple fans there, so I walked up and reintroduced myself to Mark. We chatted for a few moments, and I told him that the shame about Boom!’s marketing is that the company did phenomenal work. Irredeemable and Incorruptible contain themes appropriate to high school: The idea of the superhero Plutonian turning evil and the supervillain Max Damage becoming good would be both interesting and relevant to that age group. Boom!’s adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is, of course, a natural fit for high school. We shared a few more comments with each other, and then he said, “I hate to say this, but right now I have an interview”—and yes, the MTV cameras were approaching on my right—“but let me give you my email address. We can keep going with this, and I’ll put you in touch with the people from Boom!” I was floored. All I wanted to do was say something to a writer whose work I admired, and ended up with his email and the determination to get Boom! to market its work to high schools.
 
Though I stayed around for another hour or so, my interest in the convention was over, having realized that though writers and artists may be the best in their field, they still can be down-to-earth folks. That, and the discovery that Catwoman and Supergirl are best of friends: I have the picture to prove it. I’ll need to write that email to Mark Waid soon, but this has been the first week of school, and I’m a high-school English teacher—did I tell you that?