Friday, 1 April 2016

Durham, NC

'Don't you just love fandom?' the fanzine editor asked me. We'd met for a drink and there had been a peculiar lull in the conversation, at which point he just came right out with it. It was as much a statement as a question, and to my ears it had the cadence of isn't life so much better with the love of our Lord Jesus? The problem was that I didn't love fandom and I didn't know how to answer. I felt bad for the fanzine editor, and then bad for myself because he was the nice guy whilst I was the cynical gremlin of judgement, not even true to myself, choking back my own poison lest it reveal me as such and ruin the mood. I had once enjoyed the thing enough to have bought a ton of tie-in novels and to be able to hold a conversation with the fanzine editor, but my interest had dwindled when the television company resumed making the series; and my interest had further curdled to a faintly carcinogenic slurry as the show began to engender a new, more toxic species of fan, and as their numbers began to multiply.

My problem stems principally from the fan aspect, at least as I understand its contemporary meaning. There are plenty of things which I like but for which I'm reluctant to call myself a fan. There are probably entire episodes of The Sopranos which I can recite line by line from memory, but that's because I like The Sopranos. I have no need to belong to a greater whole of anything, or to define myself as such for the benefit of my peers. I see fandom as being about branding - dedication to a commercial franchise signified by a set group of ideas and images. Whatever may be done or said by those ideas and images is usually of importance secondary to their repetition; and when I say branding I specifically mean brand loyalty of the kind which either excludes everything external to the franchise, or which at the very least favours mainly that which echoes some aspect of the franchise, not least the fact of it being a franchise as distinct from any more organic expression of culture.

I hadn't been to a comic book convention since the early nineties. I no longer really draw comics as I once did, and as for reading the things, I've had an on-off relationship with the medium for the last two decades. There are comics I still enjoy, but nothing I enjoy so much that I need to pay fifty quid or equivalent for the privilege of dressing up as one of the characters whilst hanging out with others similarly costumed as what may as well be corporate mascots. I've never wanted to belong to any club which would have me as a member because if they want my membership then it's unlikely that they really know anything about me, or that they care to know anything about me.

Besides, in my day - seeing as I'm now of an age which allows for use of such a preamble - it was the fancy dress parade. I refuse to acknowledge the term cosplay - a clumsy conflation of costume and play by which participants distance themselves from an activity traditionally associated with very small children. It isn't the activity which particularly bothers me so much as the implicit anticipation of not only my approval, but my hearty endorsement of persons who feel best able to express their inner selves by dressing as Batman, or River Song, or Pinkie Pie. It isn't that I disapprove so much as that if you reduce yourself to a dull, juvenile symbol by your own free will, if you identify so heavily with what is essentially just merchandise, then I simply don't think that you and I will ever have much to say to each other because I suspect that behind the glitter and the cape, you probably won't have much to say about anything; and this makes me feel sorry for you, and disappointed. I don't want you banned, stamped out, or subjected to scorn, but neither do I want to have to think about you for any length of time, and you don't get a cookie just for being you. You shouldn't need my approval.

I hadn't been to a comic book convention since the early nineties, but Charlie said he'd been invited to one in Durham, North Carolina - right here in America. I told him, 'great - maybe me and Bess can fly up there and meet you or something.' This had been suggested in England back in June - one of those commitments you make as a sort of place-holder whilst knowing it will cost and therefore probably won't happen. I mentioned it to my wife as soon as I was home in Texas, and she provided the motive force which would ordinarily have faltered as I faced up to the reality of travel plans and plane tickets and places to stay. I'm glad she did, because Charlie is one of those people I should have seen with a little more frequency over the past couple of decades. We were at art college together, we attended comic book conventions together, and so much as any of us ever had a little gang, we were in the same one. Then our lives flew off in different directions and everything became complicated; but once a couple of decades have passed, life becomes too short to let the complications get in the way.

Charlie draws a hugely successful comic book called The Walking Dead, itself the inspiration for a hugely successful television show, and he is as such probably the closest I come to knowing a celebrity. My comic habit is severely reduced compared to what it was, and I haven't really enjoyed what few episodes of The Walking Dead I've seen. I can see that it's a quality product but it probably just isn't for me, which isn't unusual given there being very little television I like at all these days. Charlie, being both a fully grown man and a nice guy, doesn't seem to mind.

Because I don't just love fandom, I suppose I have a few reservations about the event, but the point is getting to hang out with my old pal, and getting on a plane and having an adventure, and the sort of adventure which Junior might hopefully appreciate despite it occurring in the real world rather than on a screen. It's the sort of thing which we, as a family, probably need to do more often.

We fly on Friday the 13th, changing at Atlanta then arriving at the airport in Durham after dark. We haven't spent long in the air when you add it up, although with all of the waiting around, it feels as though we have. Happily I have not been driven to silently grinding my teeth whilst assembling a series of barbed comments, as occasionally transpires when we spend time as a family. It's not that I don't get on with Junior but that his behaviour can sometimes be quite demanding. On bad days he may come across as rude, needy, and entitled, although in all fairness this could be partially because I have become actively attuned to notice such behaviour - feeding the irritation like you scratch at an itch. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and rests significantly on the fact of his being a twelve-year old boy, and things tend to go better when I'm able to keep this in mind. The prospect of the three of us up in the sky squashed into economy seats for a couple of hours was one I had been trying not to think about, but once it happens it's fine.

We land at Durham and take a taxi to the Marriott Hotel, the one in which the comic book convention is to be held. The trip seems to take some time and I guess that the airport is some way out of town. I find it frustrating that it's already dark because even just the bushes and trees at the side of the highway - what I can see of them in the glare of sodium lamps - are a testament to our being somewhere other than Texas. I've been to North Carolina before but just passing through, changing flights or a night at some anonymous hotel when a flight has been cancelled. I want to get a look at the state to see how well it compares with my mental image, cohered during many hours of listening to David Sedaris describe his formative years growing up in Raleigh. I want to be able to see if the place is anything like I imagined, but it's dark and all I can do is boggle at trees with tall, thin trunks and the unsettling absence of cacti. We come to Durham and I try to recall the name of the flooring company run by Paul Sedaris, younger brother of David, but I know it's unlikely that he would have an office or an outlet in Durham, or that we might just happen to drive right past it, or that it will mean anything if we do.

The hotel is huge and ornate, tall ceilings with gold fittings and many reflective services. We sign in, and the receptionist chuckles as she notes that we are from Texas. 'Like I couldn't tell.'

I'm wearing my Stetson and one of my favourite shirts, one that makes it look as though I'm wearing the state flag, most likely originated with either a garage or some fried chicken concession.

'He's not even American,' my wife chuckles, and we all laugh. The joke should be old by now but it still contains some magic.

We find the room and realise there's been a misunderstanding. We have two single beds. This means the boy will have a bed of his own as requested, but Bess and I will have to sleep whilst balanced side by side on a mattress with the dimensions of a long thin sofa cushion, and neither of us are what you'd call petite. Otherwise, the room seems fine. We return to reception and explain that one bed fails to meet out requirements as Texans. Unsurprisingly there's nothing they can do. Everything is fully booked due to the convention.

There seems to be a dining area, a raised enclosure at the heart of the lobby in which persons dressed as characters from The Legend of Zelda pick at plates of hotel food. We're all hungry, not having eaten fried chicken for a number of hours, and so we pick a table and direct meaningful glances at staff whom we hope are passing waiters but who may simply be porters. We watch entire teams of Avengers and other characters I don't recognise pass by and at least know that we are in the right place.

I've sent Charlie a text message to explain that we are here but I haven't heard back.

'He's probably busy,' Bess suggests.

Having myself been let down by mobile phones failing to work in foreign countries, contrary to the claims of the network provider, I'm not so sure; and I'm almost at the point of scarfing leftover fries from the abandoned plates at the table recently vacated by girls dressed as Japanese cartoon characters. I go for a walk to find a waiter or someone, just so far as the end of the lobby, although it should probably be noted that you could almost certainly park a Boeing 747 in this particularly lobby. I follow Spiderman, Deadpool, and a couple of Klingons past the bar to the glass double doors beyond which are the convention halls. I can see security guards and swarms of people dressed as cartoon characters on the other side of the glass. Stranger still is the promotional poster pasted to a board: NC Comicon and just one name in huge letters, Charlie Adlard.

'Fuck,' I say to myself, quite loudly.

I've understood my friend's fame at least since the days when he briefly considered changing his name to Charlie X-Files Adlard because that was how it was written by everyone else. He's now Charlie Walking Dead Adlard and it has only just sunk in. I have an urge to grab complete strangers by the sleeve and tug and point and yelp, 'that's my mate!'

I return to the wife and kid, and miraculously we attract the attention of a waiter who delivers conflicting statements: the kitchen is now closed but yes, he will be happy to take our order. We've been waiting forty minutes and are grateful just for the attention, even if we can't quite tell whether we've just ordered food or not. It eventually turns out that we have, and that with which we are served probably isn't great but nevertheless tastes amazing to us; and in any case Junior is past caring, being at the point of kid-overload having spotted the millionth person dressed as a ninja from some game or other. I wonder to myself whether he knows these are simply regular people dressed up, or whether he thinks those three stood over by the elevator are actual Mario brothers. It probably doesn't matter.

By the time we've eaten, it's late so we go to bed. Bess and I do our best, balanced on our thin strip of mattress. Junior snuggles under the sheet of his bed to yelp and hoot to himself for another couple of hours whilst playing games on his iPad, at least until I let fly with some of the barbed comments I'd set aside for just such an eventuality
as this. Part of the problem is that he requires no more than about ten minutes of sleep a week, and short of gagging and locking him in a trunk, he can on occasion be slow to respond to suggestions such as shut up and go to sleep. I'm not even convinced he quite understands it as an instruction. If he considers his room-mates at all, I expect it's only in terms of what he will tell us about the game over which he's been yelping and hooting next morning, because we'll be dying to know.

Parenting is more difficult than it looks, although not necessarily more difficult than I thought it would be.

We don't sleep well, but we do sleep and are awake at eight. I have a bath and we return to the lobby for breakfast, which is when I notice that I've had a message from Charlie. Still jetlagged, he hadn't received my text until after we were all asleep. So we have breakfast and I give him a call. We arrange to meet at one of the dealers' tables within the convention, a retailer of signed Charlie Adlard originals.

We enter the convention and wander around for a little while. I don't see anything I understand well enough to want to buy, but probably about half of the attendees have come in some sort of costume and it's entertaining by itself just watching them. I stand by everything I said in the first couple of paragraphs, but find there is nevertheless something oddly life-affirming about this peculiar situation. Everyone seems to have made a significantly greater effort than they ever did in my day, and regardless of which corporate mascot is represented, I cannot help but appreciate how much fun they all seem to be having, and the fact that no-one really seems to give a shit what anyone thinks.

Why are they doing this?

For FUN, man! Pure fuckin' FUN!, I think, recalling the line from one of my favourite Baby Sue comic strips. I dislike fandom and cosplay and the obsessing over details which only matter because it's either that or recognise that one's entire life has been a waste of time, and I dislike these things particularly when they are pursued to the exclusion of every other potential cultural experience; but when you glance across a crowded room to see some guy dressed as Groot, the tree person from Guardians of the Galaxy - presumably on stilts inside a papier mache construction resembling a tree trunk, those objections are reduced as unto a fart in a thunderstorm whipped up by Thor himself.

My wife and I are speechless - awestruck, and Junior is close to exploding with kid-excitement.

Somehow even more impressive is a distinctly well fed Ghost Rider - a kind of supernatural biker with a flaming skull for a head, in case you've made better use of your life than I have. Our boy simulates flames with a day-glo orange wig over a rubber skull mask, and if any of his friends have pointed out that he's a little on the chunky side compared to the comic book character, then I guess he must have told them to piss off. I'm so impressed that I take his photograph.

When we encounter Charlie he is with a young woman whom he introduces as his personal assistant. Her name is Nicole, and by absurd coincidence it turns out that she once lived in San Antonio, and she lived in a place just off Eisenhauer, a road I cross on an almost daily basis. I briefly wrestle with the coincidence, and also the realisation that Charlie has a handler these days. He submits a fake growl and paws the air with imagined claws like an enraged bear, and I fail to notice that as we discuss hotels and schedules, Nicola is batting away autograph hunters so we can talk in relative peace. Bess fetches out a stack of issues of The Walking Dead because there are a load of folks back home in San Antonio all lined up for autographed copies. They can scarcely believe I'm friends with a genuine star, and Charlie doesn't seem to mind because he's a nice guy and I guess he's used to it. He whips out a magic marker and scrolls an elegant signature across the covers of copies for the kid, his dad, and Duncan, our boy's best friend at school whose entire family identify as Walking Dead obsessives. Charlie has a mammoth signing session this afternoon but will be free to talk under less hectic circumstances for a while after that, so we arrange to meet again around six.

We look around the dealers' room.

'Nice costume,' some guy tells me, because I still have my Stetson on. I was going to tell anyone who asked that I'd come as Hank from King of the Hill, but I suppose I could just as easily be that Walking Dead guy; you know - the one with the hat.

Image Comics have just published a hardback called The Art of Charlie Adlard, and I leaf through a copy at one of the stalls. It's strange to see some of the older material in this historical context, and I can remember him spreading pages of The Tar Baby across the dining table at my dad's house in Coventry. His figures had an initially exaggerated, cartoony quality, but have since tightened up, and his use of shadow has always been astonishing. It feels amazing to see someone I know personally having done this good, having gone so far in his chosen field without either compromise or turning into a dick. It's the kind of success story which sod's law generally prevents, but just this one time it has all worked out just right. I've known this for a while obviously, but now that I've seen the evidence I feel so proud of my old friend that it's embarrassing.

The guy running the stall comes over and tells me he can probably get hold of a signed copy if I'm interested. I buy Mark Millar's 1985 instead.

We have a look at the Lego exhibition, and then Junior stops at a stall selling wooden props, an actual size recreation of Thor's hammer or a replica of the gun with which Bloodstab shot Facepuncher in that issue of Foe Destroyer. He examines a selection of fake swords, then picks an angular wooden shield with a black squiggle on the front, which is handy because it's the only item airport security are likely to allow on the plane. It's from The Legend of Zelda, Junior explains to us in greater detail than we really need.

'Shield bash!' he keeps exclaiming, pulling a melodramatic expression and thrusting the wooden plaque at an imaginary enemy. 'Shield bash!,' he tells us over and over.

The thing looks kind of underwhelming, pretty much an irregular offcut of wood to which someone has added a fabric handle and varnish; but Junior thinks it's great and that's what matters. Even as I write, six months after the fact, I notice that he still sleeps with the thing in his bed from time to time.

Eventually we get tired and return to our room to rest, passing an impressive Asian incarnation of Patrick Troughton's Doctor Who as we do; and then we share an elevator with an individual who I'm fairly certain is the real Captain America.

I only rest for a little while, and then go out for a walk around Durham just to get the lay of the land. Strangely it feels like England to me, or at least more like England than Texas ever has. The trees are all different but they're more or less the same shape, and whilst curbstones and buildings are definitively American, the air tastes similar, or maybe it's some chemical on the breeze, or just the fact of it being so cold as to warrant layered clothing. I experience no nostalgia because I am reminded of those freezing days when the sun barely rose above the level of the rooftops on the other side of the street, which is something I know I will never miss. I walk so far as something called the Old Five Points. It seems to be a run down neighbourhood suffering the first incursion of gentrification so far as I am able to tell. There's a parking lot full of people with some kind of makeshift stage being set up, and some guy asks if I would like to be included in their prayers.

'I'm good,' I tell him as though I've just been offered a cigarette, smiling like we both know how hard it is to give them up.

After an hour I make my way back to the hotel. My wife is awake and is watching the news which is now full of explosions in Paris but with not very much in the way of actual information. Everyone interviewed says that they think what has happened is terrible, which doesn't really need stating. I guess we must be gearing up for another war.

At 4.30PM we return to the lobby as arranged and meet Charlie for a beer. He's been signing autographs for most of the afternoon, both him and Gerard Way, the former singer of My Chemical Romance. It turns out Gerard Way is here because he's written a comic book called The Umbrella Academy which has proven popular, winning awards and everything. I try to remember what I know of My Chemical Romance, which isn't much but I have an impression of them sounding like the Bay City Rollers with black eyeliner. Charlie doesn't seem to have any strong opinion of the music, but he regards Gerard Way himself as a decent guy. Typically we spend most of the time talking about bands, one of the threads of our shared narrative being the band for which I once played guitar supporting the one for which he once played drums. Charlie has recently been in the studio with the Cosmic Rays for whom he presently plays drums. We talk about the album they've had pressed, and the new guitarist, and the old guitarist, and absent friends, and America. Junior has his picture taken with Charlie, but is otherwise suffering from stage fright. Bess later observes that for her the best part of the entire weekend was seeing the smile on my face as Charlie and I caught up.

He has to return to signing duties around six so the rest of the evening is mostly just bumming around and filling time for Bess and myself. Junior plays games on his iPad. At one point I step outside for a walk and buy an issue of NC Slammer from a gas station.

NC Slammer is a local newspaper comprising the mugshots of everyone arrested in the Wake County area presumably since the previous issue, giving names and reason for arrest - overdue library book to kiddie fiddling to mass murder and all points in between. The paper is divided into sections, grouping certain kinds of perp together. The Love Birds - Jail Birds section, for example, lists married couples who have been arrested together. This pair of doozies, reads one typical and dubiously grammatical entry, was arrested in Auburndale, FL for stalking and harassing their neighbors. And their neighbors' elderly parents. Tearing down their fence, putting up surveillance cameras, hollering out obscene insults, shining high intensity lights through their windows all night long. Threatening to kill their dog! and mug shots of the unhappy couple are inset into a pink love heart. A disclaimer runs along the foot of the page reading all suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty, just in case you had forgotten. I suppose if nothing else it brings comfort to angry shut-ins, at least confirming that the rest of us really are out to get them.

Who's paranoid now?

I take my copy of NC Slammer back to the hotel and show it to Bess.

'This is what your friends and relatives think America is like,' she sighs.

We begin the next morning with another walk. I've spoken to Charlie and it doesn't seem like we're going to get another chance to see him, as we suspected would probably be the case. He's committed to another day of dishing out autographs. He's now at the stage where certain fans even have his autograph tattooed onto their flesh. We step outside the hotel and see a sandwich board pertaining to this morning's signing session. Charlie and the bloke out of My Chemical Romance will be signing your shit at ten in such and such a building, it says. The building in question is across the other side of the square. Fans clutching copies of Walking Dead and Umbrella Academy are already lined up in their Frankenstein boots and black eyeliner. The queue is about three wide and maybe two-hundred feet long, and it is eight in the morning - two hours to go before the doors open.

'I guess Charlie's going to be busy today,' my wife observes.

We have a stroll in the crisp morning air - something we don't really get in Texas - and then we gather up the kid and get a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver is from Somalia and he spends the journey telling us about his country, which I find fascinating because he's giving us a positive spin in telling us about his family and so on, reminding me that the qualities of a person or a place are rarely the same as what we Americans have heard about them on the news - using we Americans here for the sake of argument.

We fly back to San Antonio.

I have seen my old friend, and I have seen how well he's done for himself. I have seen a different state of the country in which I now live. Junior has his shield and is still proclaiming 'shield bash!' every thirty minutes, throwing dramatic shapes for the benefit of an imaginary audience; and he has his signed copies of comics for himself, his dad, and his friend Duncan. In my diary I have noted:

These conventions seem significantly less macho than the ones I used to go to, and there are more little kids so the atmosphere seems less oppressively spotty and teenaged.

I still don't love fandom, and I still think adults who dedicate their entire existence to what is in essence escapist children's entertainment to the exclusion of everything else are fucking idiotic, and I still have nothing to say to the person whom comedian Louis CK described as a non-contributing product-sponge cunt; but the weekend has nevertheless opened my eyes. I shared an elevator with Captain America, and it's an encounter I will never forget.

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