Rob Bass’ Friday at Morrisoncon was here. But this is last Saturday.
I’m up at nine, showered and out the door fifteen minutes later. The coffeeshop line for smoothies is insane but there’s no one at the bar, a Bloody Mary breakfast it is. Fourteen dollars, with tip. I make my way into the hall and am delighted to find Kristin and Sage waving from the center of the second row, having saved a seat for the first new friend who walked in. Sime, Baldock and Richards come out and warm the crowd up. General euphoria abounds, no one can believe we’re all here, it’s actually happening. Morrison finally roars onstage at ten, voice already ragged from the previous evening’s exertions, and works the crowd, pacing from one end of the stage to the other, setting a strident tone. My dials are red-lined, hours-long adrenaline rush surging that starts warping my perception of space and time. Maybe it’s here that he mentions he had to cut a few chapters from SUPERGODS that will eventually get posted online. And that the last issue of FINAL CRISIS had so much going on that they had to cut ten pages of multi-dimensional conflict to make deadline, pages that will be included in-sequence in the Absolute edition, which he considers to be the definitive version. After a few minutes, he calls Chris Burnham and Frank Quitely to join him on the two couches somebody tossed up onstage.
Burnham’s young, impossibly young to have already produced so many pages with that level of detail and depth. It looks like he came straight from the barber, baby-smooth face and not a hair out of place. There’s a timeless quality to the way Quitely carries himself, like he hasn’t aged a day since finishing FLEX MENTALLO, which, maybe there’s something to that. They start off putting a few of Burnham’s pages from upcoming issues of BATMAN, INCORPORATED up on the big screen. There’s a four-panel zoom-out from #5 starring the Damian Wayne Batman first glimpsed in BATMAN #666 that’s a straight homage to Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS camerawork.
But then, the PAX AMERICANA pages.
SUPERCONTEXT: like a lot of readers around my age, WATCHMEN was absolutely my favorite comic book growing up, the fullest expression of how far one might push the medium structurally, stylistically, narratively, etc, etc. It wasn’t until I finally finally got my hands on the FLEX MENTALLO singles in November 2007 and then when Morrison/Quitely/Grant finally finished up ALL-STAR SUPERMAN the next year that I believed I had found work that had also managed to achieve such a high standard, total unity of form and content presented in a package that simultaneously elevates and celebrates the medium. All of this to say, I’m like demographic target-zero for these creators doing a thematic sequel to WATCHMEN and seeing those first few pages, that bold, finely detailed Quitely linework up there on the big screen just about melts my hard drive right there at 10:23 in the morning. Half of the peace sign crackling on the first page. An airborne assassination. The return of Captain Nathaniel Adam from SUPERMAN BEYOND 3-D. There’s this one page you might have seen with this sequence of The Question jumping out onto some kind of metro-rail type situation with his old partner The Blue Beetle flying up on him, there. But the page is unlettered, so you’ve got to have Morrison fill in the dialogue for you, right before that jump, bringing us in from the previous page, is a line of dialogue ending in the words “leap of faith,” which is of course quintessential 80s-era Moore transition work, juxtaposing text and visuals to produce a stronger resonance than either would be capable of achieving individually. And oh hey, talking resonance, no post-Ditko nine-panel grid for this one, our boys are mixing it up with a base-8 system to reflect the groundwork that Morrison laid in FINAL CRISIS with the various parallel universes operating and interacting with one another on musical vibrational frequencies. So an eight-panel grid can stand in for the eight notes, octave to octave, on the diatonic scale. Do re mi and so forth. It’s not even eleven o’clock yet and the difference between the pressure on the inside and outside of my head is skyrocketing in a way that’s not wholly unpleasant, but also kind of worrisome.
Okay, and so but then Darick Robertson comes out and they show some pages from HAPPY. He’s a really affable fellow with much more of a breezy humor to him than one might reasonably expect from sixty issues of TRANSMETROPOLITAN or all of his work on THE BOYS. The way he wears that hat, you get the feeling that he lives in it, but you never know. Over the course of the next two hours, he jumps up like he’s about to walk off-stage or maybe a couple of times just because he can’t help himself. The comedy accrues over time.
My favorite quote from the panel, for FLEX MENTALLO Morrison instructed Quitely to draw “primordial chaos manifesting itself upon unseen neutron cores*.” Quitely couldn’t wrap his head around that, so when he turned in the page, he pointed to the panel and said, “I drew some circles for you.”
Next is the writer’s panel. Ron Richards moderates a group comprised of Jonathan Hickman, J.H. Williams III (rocking red shirt, red tie, and tailored suit, and stealing the title of Most Dapper Man in the Room from Sime), Jason Aaron, Robert Kirkman, and Morrison. The panelists embody a balance of corporate versus creator-owned comics, with Hickman and Aaron two of Marvel’s big guns while also having tremendous success with their original properties, Morrison and Williams two of DC’s very best, and Kirkman, forever, advocate and poster-boy success-story for independent work. They spend a fair amount of time talking about the annual (or sometimes twice-a-year) Marvel creative retreats, which seem like one of the most brutal writers’ rooms in the world offset by the occasional potential for uplifting syngery between extremely creative minds generously sharing their best work with one another in pursuit of the most compelling story possible, all under the watchful eye of Editorial and Marketing. The next day, Burnham says that it sounds like Hell.
When the writers are done, all the artists come out. Burnham, Quitely, Robertson, and Williams return to the stage, joined by Mr. Jim Lee, pretty much no contest the hottest, most bankable superstar artist in the industry for going on twenty years now. He elicits due deference from his fellow panelists, along with assorted good-natured jibes. An early highlight is Lee’s explanation of why the O’Neil/Adams SUPERMAN VS MUHAMMAD ALI crossover is a brilliant idea because of the pocket-dimension training montage in which Superman learns how to box, which leads into Lee getting visibly choked up while trying to express the beauty that he saw in those old Neal Adams spreads of KA-ZAR when they first came out. While all of this is going on, the artists take turns sketching in different fans’ MorrisonCon sketchbooks. Burnham is up first. Someone in the crowd drinking from a tankard yells for him to draw Robertson worshipping Jim Lee.
Robertson shoots right back at Lee with, “Fuck off! And by that I mean, I worship the altar you stand on.” “Was that a height crack?” is Lee’s reply. “My legs are too short and this couch is too long. If there’s ever a LeeCon, the furniture will be smaller.”
Burnham decides to go with a no-brainer shot of Officer Downe. Quitely follows that up with a sketch of Fat Superman that’s impossibly clean. It’s wild to watch it go down, I always assumed he did a massive amount of erasing to achieve such tight fine linework but he’s got his craft refined to such a level that just about every line that comes out is a keeper. And then Williams takes it to a whole different level, whereas Quitely at least dove right in with all kinds of initial rapid pencil-motion, Williams just sits there with the Sharpie marker making occasional little dabs of black just one level up from pointillism and then all of a sudden, Batwoman’s head appears from out of all that negative space. Robertson’s next with a quick Batman, during which time Jim Lee drops some calculus humor on Burnham about derivatives, I immediately forget the exact wording, but then Lee gets up and slams out a sketch of The Joker in maybe five minutes that’s ready for Alex Sinclair to do up so they can sell 250,000 copies of the next issue. It is staggering to sit through. My favorite thing to hear at this panel, and almost all day long, is something that Kaare Andrews once told Darick Robertson. We all start out as artists. Every child draws. It’s the most basic form of communication, predating language, even. Someone once asked Andrews when he started being an artist. His answer was, When did you stop?
A quick lunch of Ham & Brie sandwich followed by a shot of Jack up in my room for dessert and then I grab all my Morrison/Quitely comics because I’ve got an appointment to sit down with both of them in the neighborhood of four o’clock. I catch a glimpse of what’s left of the six-pack of Lone Star talls I’ve brought from Austin and realize that I must share them. First comes THE SOUND OF THE ATOM SPLITTING, the panel on music in comics featuring Akira the Don, Gerard Way, Robertson, Morrison, Williams, and Jimmy Urine. I’m not familiar with Urine’s work but he gets right in there and hashes it out with the rest of them, is one of the most outspoken at the panel and seems to know his shit with the double exception of challenging anyone to name a good concept album that’s come out recently and asking the crowd for a show of hands as to how many people don’t exclusively download singles but actually still buy and listen to entire albums. The answer to both questions is THE TRUE LIVES OF THE FABULOUS KILLJOYS. Morrison makes a solid insight about Warren Ellis’s scripts, they’re so percussive, just the rat-a-tat-tat of them, but the guy’s father is a drummer, which I already knew but never made the connection. Way reveals that while he was working on the last issue of UMBRELLA ACADEMY: DALLAS and Morrison was wading through the end of FINAL CRISIS, The Smashing Pumpkins had just gotten back together and released “Tarantula” and both writers were listening to it on infinite repeat, searing it into their heads. Morrison took acid and realized that the entire history of pop music could be distilled into that opening, Jimmy Chamberlain’s drums descending all the way through space and time into the explosive tempo that kicks off the song. Morrison was having so much fun with the tune that he decided to try to deafen himself with it, so turned everything up as far as it would go and just pummeled his aural cavities into harmonic submission. “Don’t listen to music on acid! Don’t write comics on acid!” Around this time, for some reason David Bowie comes up and Way says that there needs to be a Ziggy Stardust comic adaptation. Darick Robertson says he would draw it and they shake on it. A couple of recommendations make an impression: MGMT’s “Flash Delirium” and Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept.” Robertson does a dead-on impression of Christopher Walken’s reading of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be . . .” soliloquy and then Morrison croons some Morrissey and somehow Alan Moore’s name comes up amidst speculation about his reaction should he descend from his upper-dimensional Northampton plane to confront the spectacle before him. There is, of course, all kinds of face-palming and wincing amongst the various panelists before Morrison lowers his voice for a baritone delivery of, “All of this is copied from me.” Which of course brings down the house.
As has been the case every panel, they take questions at the end. I make it up in line and wind up being the last question, which to me seems self-evident, no panel about music and comics would be complete without a discussion of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s much-beloved-though-criminally-underread PHONOGRAM, a celebration of the glory of pop music and the life-altering effect it can have upon those who give their lives to it. My man Akira the Don’s response is to the question is that Gillen has just recently tweeted him proclaiming that he and McKelvie were about to go to the pub and drink and listen to Kenickie and get serious about the long-awaited third volume. This is good news but hardly scathing critical analysis. Way says he doesn’t know what we’re talking about. A shake of the head from Robertson. Morrison says something like he lives out in the country and hasn’t gotten any e-mails or maybe any new non-DC comics since 2005? I’m not sure, there’s a low roaring rush pulsing in my ears. I feel like I should maybe bring up LOCAS to at least like high-five on the way out but then The Don puts the nail in the coffin with “All right, so that question sucked.” Which is unfortunate. One day, the world will bow before the manic magic majesty of PHONOGRAM. The panel concludes with an impromptu performance of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” with Robertson on guitar singing along with Morrison and Akira the Don repeating the last word of every other line.
I head across the hall and check out the art gallery, which has got many many original pages by the artists in attendance for display and sale. One of my favorite ones from FLEX MENTALLO is framed, the first thing I see when I walk in, some version of young Wallace Sage reading a comic book starting Nanoman and Mini-Miss. The Williams pages are staggering in person. I should take more pictures, but being confronted by so many images honestly knocks out my last shred of rational thought.
The film panel is next, James Gunn, whose last film SUPER was pitch-perfect and improbably realistic in all the ways that KICK-ASS was over-the-top and histrionic, and Max Landis, who hit a similar blow tonally with the more recent CHRONICLE. Landis kind of runs away with the panel, is clearly just gacking out to be a part of all this, even earns his own serious heckler but then really turns it around in the end by straight-up walking us through this eight-page story that he wrote for ACTION COMICS #900 that features the Prankster leading Superman through a series of Gotcha!s with incrementally increasing stakes that really, man, it’s just one hell of a story. So that’s all right but running long and now it’s 4:00 and even though Morrison’s still onstage, I head off to report for my signing.
Bad news, there are dozens and dozens of folks already in line and the signing room is all full up, so it definitely doesn’t look like anything’s happening anytime soon. I’m already on board to miss Kirkman’s WALKING DEAD panel but am already fearing for Hickman and Aaron’s next one about mythmaking, which is one of the most interesting-sounding of the weekend. I stand behind a guy named Jeff, not quite old enough to be my dad but maybe my youngest uncle. He used to run a shop that did real good business on the First Comics end of the spectrum but closed it up in the late eighties before Image boys and hologram covers started blowing up the speculator’s bubble. A half hour goes by. One of the girls who works at Isotope, I think, is running back and forth getting people drinks, which I find just nice as hell but am still rocking my three Lone Star talls in the ice-bucket and not really in the market for $8.50 Heinekens because it’s never just $8.50. A pair of guys a little ways back catch my attention. One of them has on a Barbelith T-shirt and is about to collapse under the weight of a massive stack of books, including THE INVISIBLES OMNIBUS. I offer to lighten his load a bit and have it in my hands for the first time at last, if only for a minute.
Dan is twenty-five from Brisbane. He wants to be a comic book writer and is planning to move to America to make it so. He became a Franciscan monk when he was eighteen, had a crisis of faith and dropped out of the order at twenty-one, fell in love at twenty-two. For maybe his twenty-third birthday, his girlfriend suggested a threesome with another woman, which Dan was totally up for, but when his true love made the same suggestion a couple months later, it turned out that she was not in fact fully committed to the sexual orientation necessitated by the existing terms of their relationship. And apparently in Australia, everyone keeps their wallet on the table in front of them, but when Dan made the attempt to bridge that cultural gap Thursday at a restaurant and then went to the bathroom, his wallet was eight hundred dollars lighter when he finally recovered it a few hours later. I tell Dan he’s already got some serious material for a Pekaresque memoir-type graphic novel in the can and should probably go ahead and get to work on that. He counters that he already writes an advice column for geek romance. Though over here, the accent apparently does half of the work, so the rest of us are just out of luck. Another incredible thing about Dan is that he’s got a picture on his phone of the owner at Alternate Reality Comics flashing a Polaroid of young Alan Moore in the 80s when he blew through town on his second and final American tour. A medium shot. Staring at the camera. Directly. Naturally. For some reason, Moore is shirtless. The effect upon the viewer is mystifying and profoundly unsettling.
Schedel is from San Antonio, just a hundred miles down the road from me, and has this wispy kind of soft-spoken thing going on with eyes that look like they’ve seen too much or maybe just enough. For years now, he’s been writing and drawing a series called Hero Blob about a hero who can transform into any kind of liquid, at any volume. He’s thinking of ending it soon with the hero’s final transformation into a villain who attempts to engulf the world in a Biblical flood, which sounds about right.
And there’s Greg again from last night. And a real nice guy named Brian. Or Bryan? We’re all sitting at this table, looking over each other’s comics. I’ve brought way too much for them to sign. A couple of hours go by. Apparently, the Trivia Contest is cancelled because the panels were all running late and Morrison, Quitely, and Way aren’t leaving until they sign for everybody. A strange delirium sets in. Or has always been. They call my name for Quitely. Or Vin, I want to call him but don’t call him anything, just sit down and start right back in like we’re old mates. Jane is sitting beside him. They’re both just really sweet people. I tell him I brought Jesse Custer’s favorite, some good cheap beer from Texas and he says, “I know it’s cheap but let me be the judge whether or not it’s any good.” We pop the tops and knock some back. After the hours of spirited discussion while waiting, the sensation of cold beer rushing down my throat is amazing. He signs my ABSOLUTE ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and FLEX MENTALLO singles and the first five NEW X-MEN singles and WE3 singles and I give him some comics that I’ve written and my friends have drawn and we shake hands and all is well and soon I am back at the table, waiting for Morrison. I decide to head on up to my room to put on my suit and grab the whiskey and probably ice up the rest of the Stars while I’m at it.
So all of that takes place and I receive a hero’s welcome from my new gang when I roll back down all crisp and clean and we take pulls off the old bottle of Jack, Dan first, and but then it turns out that it’s almost 8:00 and they say we can only get Morrison to sign two books, which wouldn’t be a problem except of course I want to get all the ones Quitely signed also signed by Morrison and never even mind SUPERGODS or all the already-Stewart-signed SEAGUYs or my very own ARKHAM ASYLUM I got for Christmas ’89 and really quite a few other things. But what happens is I finally get up there and introduce myself and say that we met at Con in ’07 and he says, “Sure, I remember,” with such total convincing sincerity that it about knocks me out because such a thing simply cannot be, and then he asks, “So, what did you bring for me?” and I tell him about the beer from Texas and he shakes his head and gestures to the table next to him, which is loaded up with quite a few empty plastic glasses and one that’s still got maybe half a screwdriver in it and he says, “People have been taking care of me,” and Ron Richards sticks his head in to confirm, “He’s doing all right,” and so I tell Morrison that I brought him some comics I wrote too, and he says that I’ve got to sign them for him, so we get a rapid-fire autograph swap system going real quick, an obscene exchange of his very best for my still really very first work, and I want to think him for the novel he gave me with a vigorous handshake but remember I’ve got to say what I already told Quitely too, about my dear friend in Seattle who I read ALL-STAR SUPERMAN to when he was dying but I was only trying to share my favorite comic book with him, didn’t grasp the hyperdensity of giving a terminal patient the story of Superman’s acceptance of his mortality and the final heroism that such an act inspires in him, how crushing of a load that of course was to drop on someone who knows he’s going to die, only he seemed to accept it, embrace it, even, and the way I watched the themes of that masterpiece’s hope and optimism waveform right up off the page and take root to effect positive change in the face of my brave friend, I will never forget that, resonating with me down through the years, and I want Morrison to know what work his story has wrought that he never knew, and he says, “Ah, you’re bringing tears to my eyes, Brother,” and it feels just like Orion has been going to town on my mid-section for a few minutes now, and we finish up and embrace and he grabs the closed Lone Star for the picture and says, “We’ve got to clink them, Brother!” and we do.