KC: Con Stories 1

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KC at his first San Diego Convention meeting Wonder Woman, mid ‘80s (Pre-Convention Center!) Note: no glasses & hair still had color.

(WoW MAY 08)

By KC Carlson

We're well into Convention Season (I've already done two: MegaCon in Orlando, FL and NYC) and I thought that it might be a great time to tell some Con stories. I've been going to comic conventions and trade shows for over 30 years now, as a fan, as a businessperson, as a comics professional and, for the last several years, as a bemused observer and occasionally as an employee. So, I've seen my share of stuff and have my share of "road sores." Unfortunately, there's not enough space to tell all the stories I want to tell (which is why the column is subtly titled "Con Stories 1"), but here are couple of the longer ones. One is the story of a Con that I didn't want to be at until I came up with a goofy plan, and the other is about the worst Convention experience I ever had. (Or was it?) Keep reading...

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One time, DC asked me if I would be interested in going to the Dallas Fantasy Fair (which no longer exists). Since I had never been to Texas, I quickly agreed, which ended up being a mistake, as I was not aware that the Dallas show was the weekend before San Diego, which I was also attending. Further, I was told that, since DC wanted me at the San Diego trade show on Tuesday and Wednesday, I would not be coming home between shows, so I would effectively be living out of a suitcase for about 10 days, as I would be flying directly from Dallas to SD.

Unfortunately, there was one further surprise when I got to the convention center - DC wasn't actually setting up a booth at the show. Apparently we were there on some sort of "fact-finding" mission, to determine if the show was either large or important enough for DC to consider regularly attending. (Sadly, the con folded shortly after our visit). So that meant that we would spend our two days there walking around and checking out the show. By that time, I had been to so many shows that the prospect of "just walking around" didn't have much appeal to me anymore. When I was at a show, I now needed something specific to do, like man a booth or host a panel. In other words, I needed a project to keep me busy (and to have an "in" to talk to people about).

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Mob enforcer Beau Smith visiting blessed-out hippy KC Carlson in his DC office circa 1996. Note Archie calendar and autographed photo of Doink the Clown on bulletin board.

Luckily, my old pal Beau Smith, the Last Real Man in Comics, was there and we got to talkin' and a'feudin' like we usually did. At that point in time, Beau was working marketing for Image Comics. On my travels around the dealer's area, I had noticed that there were a LOT of Image comics in the bargain boxes at the show, and I began to rib Beau about it. By then, Image had been around for a couple of years and the bloom was off the rose. The excitement that Image had created with their launch had died down, and retailers were getting stuck with non-returnable comics, as they were either over-ordering or sales were dropping faster than they could track.

I bet Beau that I could get a complete (to date) basic (no special editions) Image collection at the show, at an average of 50: or less per book. Beau chuckled and said "go fer' it!" It was a little dicey on my part, as I knew that the early issues of Spawn and WildCATS were already (supposedly) going for $5 to $10, depending on who you talked to. But I thought that I could get the bulk of the line very cheap and that might improve my overall average. I immediately dove into the quarter boxes.

At my first booth stop, I came up with a stack of about 50 books (or about $12.50 worth of books at a quarter per). The dealer, noticing that they were all Image books, flipped through them, not even bothering to count them, and said "Five bucks." "Sold!" I said, and moved on to the next bargain box. I came up with another 50 comics. This guy said "Image... Really?" I told him that I hadn't read any of them yet and asked if they were any good. He replied, "You know, I can't give these away..." stopped, thought better of it, and said, "You know, I can give these away! Just take them. One less pile of (stuff) that I have to drag back home."

I should state at this point that none of these dealers knew that I was a DC employee. I was editing Legion and a couple of other books and flying pretty low under the radar of anyone knowing who I was. Further, I was not telling any of these guys what I was doing. But I was just beginning to realize just how closely these guys were watching the room and what I was doing (which probably wasn't all that difficult, as I was now carrying around about a hundred Image comics).

At my next stop, the dealer was waiting for me. "All my Image stuff is in those boxes," he said pointing at three unlabeled long boxes of comics on the floor. I came up with about 30 books, including runs of the earliest Image books (but no #1s), many of which were stickered at $2 or $3. I was holding a stack of comics that I thought were going to cost me $30 to $40, but I thought that would be okay, having only spent $5 on over 100 comics so far. So I was quite surprised when he said "$7.50." All I could say was "Uh..." and a long pause, when he said "Okay, seven dollars." "No, no," I said, "I was thinking that it was going to be around thirty bucks. Some of these are stickered..." "Nah," he said. "Those are all quarter boxes." "Oh, that's great," I replied. "That will really keep my average down."

Curious, he asked me what I meant, so I told him about the bet. "And you're betting a guy from Image?" he asked and I nodded. "That's great!!" he smiled. Then he turned and grabbed a set of Image #1s (Spawn, WildCATS, Youngblood, etc.) off his display wall. "You got these?" he asked. "No. How much?" I replied.

"Consider them my donation to the cause," he said and added "Just tell everybody what you're doing, 'cause this is the best thing I've heard all month." Plus, he gave me my $7 back. I asked him if he was sure and he laughed, "I got 20 more of these sets under the table, and more back at the shop."

After I thanked him, the dealer yelled across the aisle to another retailer "Hey, George! This guy bet Image that he could put together a whole set of their books out of quarter boxes!" "Well, send him over here!" was the reply. That guy let me sit at his table to sort out what I already had and let me use his Overstreet to figure out what I was missing. If he didn't have it, he would shout out to the other dealers "Hey, we need a Savage Dragon #4!" and then someone would bring it to me. He also gave me a big, sturdy Ronald's box to carry it all in. And, man, was it heavy.

Soon I was all done - a complete Image collection. Elapsed time: about 90 minutes.

I carted the box over to where Beau was and plopped it down in front of him. "One complete Image collection," I said smugly. "How much did it cost 'yuh?" he asked. "Five bucks," I replied. "That much?" he said with one bushy eyebrow cocked, and we both had a good laugh about how surreal it all was.

As I was picking up the box and preparing to get back to the show, Beau said "So, I guess you gotta drag that mangy box around the whole rest o' this show, huh? Oh, and then carry it around through airports three times and then all around San Diego." My face started to burn. "Happy readin'!" he chuckled as he walked away. Beau was always one step ahead of me.

I don't think we ever decided exactly what the bet was going to be, but one day a fairly large box arrived in my maibox. It was all of the just-printed Gen 13 #1 variants and a note which read, "Hope you got room for all these! You earned 'em! -Beau"

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The worst show I ever attended was DragonCon in Atlanta in 1995. It wasn't completely their fault. DC had waited until the absolute last minute to decide to attend, and by then all the good hotels had filled up, leaving us to stay in a less-than-desirable hotel in a less-than-desirable part of downtown. We checked into the hotel about 11 PM the night before the show. When I discovered that the TV didn't work, I called down to the desk to ask to be moved to a different room, but the clerk said that they a had a technician on call and that he would be right up to fix the TV. 45 minutes later there was the most subliminal tapping on the door that I had ever heard. I looked through the peephole, but there was nobody there. Had I imagined the knocking?

As I turned away, I heard it again, like a whisper. I slowly opened the door, fully expecting that no one would be there, but there was a little old man who had to have been 139 years old and stood less than 4 feet tall (which is why I didn't see him in the peephole). I let him in and led him over to the TV which was on a dresser that was almost 6 feet high. I quickly did the math, tipped him, and thanked him for his time, and got back on the phone with my patented "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?" speech (which was really effective with freelancers who were past deadline), and five minutes later there appeared a (taller) man with a key to another room.

That room, I quickly realized, had what appeared to be bullet holes in the walls and what seemed to be blood stains on the carpet. "We're sorry, sir. We were holding this room until Monday when it will be repaired. Is this room all right?" said the man with the key. "Is the shooter still here?" I asked as a joke. "No, sir. They're both dead." At least the TV worked, and I was too tired to care about the bullets and blood, so I quickly collapsed into bed...

...Where I was inexplicably awoken around 4 AM by lots of loud noises and shouting. I was plenty groggy, and while I was laying in bed trying to get my bearings, I slowly came to the realization that the entire room was filled with swirling, flickering red lights. My brain immediately went into "FIRE!" mode, and suddenly I was running around the room, crazed. Eventually I realized that there was no heat and no smoke and no fire and that the red lights were coming from the window, the blinds making them flicker. After going to the window, I realized what was going on - the police had raided the strip club across the street and there were about 20 cop cars, all with their lights flashing. I staggered back to bed but never got back to sleep.

The next morning I met up with one of my DC traveling companions (name withheld) for breakfast. Since his room was on the other side of the hotel, he never saw anything. Plus, he had gotten the best night's sleep he had had in weeks. Grrr.... We went into the hotel restaurant to grab a quick breakfast where we were seated and given menus. We mentioned that we were in a hurry, as we needed to get to the convention early to set up our booth, and we were told that a waitress would be with us in a minute. Ten minutes later, there was still no waitress, and as we looked around the room, we realized that NO ONE was being waited on, and there wasn't any actual food. Finally, a guy from another table got up and stuck his head into the kitchen to see what's up. "There's no one here," he said, puzzled. Questioning the front desk, we got a curt, "We'll have to look into that, sir." We never did find out what happened. All I knew was I was late, I had missed breakfast - the most important meal of the day - and we hadn't even set foot into the convention yet, and it was already an adventure. And not a good one.

Upon arrival, we discovered yet another thing had gone wrong. The convention staff had moved all the publishers off the main floor of the show into some alcove area between the first and second floors of the hotel, and there were no signs to indicate where we were. Which meant that no one would find us unless they accidentally stumbled across our area. After we glumly set up the DC booth, my two compatriots from marketing disappeared to another booth with demos of a new videogame. Since no fans could find them to play the game, the videogame folks were happy to have the marketing guys around to talk to and demo the game all weekend. Which left me alone at the DC booth for most of the show.

To add insult to injury, the jerks at the Wizard booth had their "Big Wheel" (or whatever they called it) where they had fans spin the wheel to get assigned some task in order to win prizes. Apparently one of the tasks that weekend was to "Torture DC Editor KC Carlson" or some such, as every hour or so somebody would show up at the DC booth to ask some inane question or grab some of the DC preview books and run off with them. I had no idea how the Wizard fans had managed to find the Wizard booth when no one else could. I was not having a good time.

Because I was unable to get away from the booth for most of the day, I was unable to make any dinner plans with DC freelancers or old friends, like the guys from Gaijin Studios (which was based in Atlanta). So I was stuck with the DC marketing guys, who said that they knew of a perfect place. One hour-long cab ride later we ended up at some upscale club-type place (I never found out the name) with a long line of folks waiting to get in. One of the DC guys said that he knew "somebody who knew somebody" who could get us in. He disappeared while I insisted that we get in line, because I just had a feeling that this was just going to go wrong. Plus, I was pretty sure that weren't getting in, as we were still wearing our DC Comics polos and everybody else was dressed in "club" clothes. But miracle of miracles, the DC guy came back, albeit almost two hours after he left, pulled us off-line and actually got us into the place.

What I saw inside was definitely not my scene. I was not into clubs, loud music, people drinking to excess, people openly doing drugs, and people openly being sick. I quickly realized that there was no food, and that since I hadn't eaten anything all day, I shouldn't be drinking any alcohol. I managed to get to one of the numerous bars and asked for a Diet Coke, to which the bartender asked, "What do you want in it?" "Um... Ice? That would be good!" I shouted. He looked annoyed and took somebody else's drink order. While I was waiting to see what was going to happen next, two very attractive women climbed up on top of the bar and began to dance very provocatively. While this was going on, the bartender nonchalantly grabbed some fire extinguisher-type thing, and began to spray the girl who was closest to him with the contents of the device. She immediately began to dance with more intensity, writhing around like she was in pain. Then I began to notice something unusual - her clothing was shrinking! The somewhat modest mini-dress that she was wearing suddenly became quite tight, and the hemline began slowly creeping upwards while she danced. The sleeves, which appeared to be made of some sort of sheer cotton candy-type material basically disintegrated, leaving her dressed in a quite abbreviated version of a 1-piece bathing suit. That seemed like it was still shrinking. At this point I remember having three simultaneous thoughts: 1) Isn't it amazing how much modern science has advanced? 2) If I wanted to go to a strip club, couldn't I have just jumped out of my hotel window and landed on top of the one across the street? And 3) Had I somehow wandered into the Atlanta-based version of the film After Hours when I wasn't looking?

At that point, I walked out of the club, hailed a cab - which cost me about $50 to get back downtown (all the cash I had on me, and I sure wasn't going to put this on my DC expenses) - and got back to the hotel. First stop was the ATM to replenish my money. It was empty. I went to the hotel restaurant, but I was informed that it was closed. ("Was it ever open?" I asked and was greeted with puzzled looks.) I asked at the desk if room service was still open. It wasn't. Was there anywhere I could get something to eat, I asked? "Yes, sir. They have pizza at the strip club across the street."

I went to bed. I was no longer hungry. It was the end of a perfect day. Plus, there was still tomorrow to look forward to. Yay. (The previous is dripping with sarcasm, if you didn't notice. Denny O'Neil taught me that sarcasm doesn't work in print. And I always listen to Denny, so when I use sarcasm, I always make a point to indicate it clearly. Thanks, Denny!)

When I woke up, I blew off the other DC guys and walked to another hotel where I ate the equivalent of two breakfasts. Alone. And expensed it. It was the best breakfast that Adam Hughes never had. When I finally got to the show, the guys were already there, wondering what had happened to me the previous night. When I told them my tale of the girl in the shrinking clothing, they began to back away from me slowly. Eventually, they went back to their video game and avoided me for the rest of the show.

Mostly, I spent the day sulking at the booth, happily swatting the Wizard zombies with a large cardboard tube I fished out of the garbage while I was walking to the show. Not many other people came to the booth that day.

Until that afternoon, when I actually had two people talking to me at once. I don't remember what the first one was saying, but as I was talking to him, a very attractive young woman came to the booth and patiently waited until our conversation was finished. I excused myself from the first guy for a moment and turned to the woman. "May I help you?" I asked. In a very sweet voice, she said, "Yes. I just wanted to tell you that I'm no longer reading your comic because you just killed one of my favorite characters."

Stupidly, I replied, "I see," or something equally inane, but quickly followed up with "Hang on a minute, if you can. This will take a little while to explain." She nodded "okay" and I went back to the first guy and finished up with him. Although I was pretty much not really listening to him anymore because I was ticking off things in my brain. "Another annoying Wizard person?" No, she seemed too nice. Besides, she was sticking around. "Crazed Legion fan?" Nah, too rational. I was very familiar with that type. "Confused me for someone else?" Possibly, but I did just kill off a character in Legionnaires (it was Apparition), so unlikely.

After confirming that it was Apparition that we were talking about, I apologized for how she died. The artwork and the coloring had combined to make her look a little more "crispy-fried" and intense than what was intended. I told the young woman that if she could keep a secret, I would tell her one. Apparition wasn't really dead - it was just a story point to build some drama, give us a chance to give her a "surprise" return, and demonstrate a few facets of how her power worked. We had a great time talking, and since I didn't have anything better to do (no one was coming to the booth by now) we probably ended up in conversation for more than an hour, until she had someplace to go.

I didn't think much about it until I was on the plane home and had one of those "Idiot. You didn't even get her name!" moments. I realized how much I had enjoyed talking to her and that nothing bad had happened to me for the rest of the show.

Flash forward several weeks later to the next San Diego Con, and I was on my way to having yet another miserable convention. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say by the end of the show, I was so sick of comics and almost everyone I knew in it that I actually blew off the otherwise always enjoyable "dead dog" party that was thrown for the professionals at the close of every San Diego show. Instead, I fled to another hotel to escape. I had done way too many shows that year and it was catching up with me. I was trying to find a nice quiet place to go where I wouldn't run into any DC folks, or freelancers looking for a free meal, and just chill out for an evening.

So I was in this strange hotel, not exactly sure what I was doing or where I was going, but I went to the elevators and pushed the button to go somewhere. When the doors opened, there was the girl from the Atlanta show. We were both surprised to see each other. She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was trying to find someplace where I didn't know anybody. I probably appeared lost, and she took pity on me and said "come with me." We took the elevator to the top floor of the hotel where there was a nice quiet bar and a small group of her friends who were at the show. There were introductions all around, although I didn't know anybody in the group except an artist by the name of Rich Faber who had done a couple of small fill-in jobs for me and was then working on Steel. It was the perfect place for me to chill out. Also, I learned that the woman from Atlanta was named Johanna (with an "h") and that she was actually from Philadelphia.

I had a great time just sitting and listening to all these "new" people talking and telling con stories, but eventually Johanna noticed that I wasn't saying anything. She asked me, since everyone had been talking about comics all week at the convention, what else I was interested in, and I replied "music". When she asked what bands I liked, I realized that I had dozens of favorites, so I picked the most polarizing one I could think of, the one band that either people love or hate: The Monkees! "You're kidding, right?" she asked excitedly, and I replied that I honestly liked them. "I did my high school thesis paper on the Monkees!" she replied. It turns out she had a Masters Degree in Pop Culture studying comic fans!

And thus was born a new friendship. We traded contact info and started up an email correspondence and eventually frequent phone calls. As they say, one thing led to another, and the friendship blossomed into something more. Several years later, we were married at City Hall in NYC. One of our wedding gifts was a big party at a (quiet) bar across the street from DC and a copy of the Superman Wedding Special signed by dozens of DC staffers and freelancers. If it weren't for that horrible convention in Atlanta and our shared love of the Legion and the Monkees, I wouldn't be looking at our tenth wedding anniversary coming up next year. So maybe that was my favorite convention after all.

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IN CON STORIES 2: Almost killed in a blizzard in Ohio! Learning French with Freakazoid! Impersonating Keith Giffen! The San Diego Con I don't remember! The Day of five lunches! The Legion fans take over Chicago! Gruenwald vs. Shooter! KC vs. Dr Who! Why Charlotte and Baltimore are the best Cons in America! Plus, crossdressers and Rob Liefield!

COMING SOON TO A COMPUTER NEAR YOU!

KC CARLSON occasionally accosts Westfield subscribers in convention hotel elevators. ("Pardon me, is that a Westfield box?") Don't be alarmed. He's mostly harmless.

TALK TO KC AT: Heroes Con in Charlotte, June 20-22; Wizard World Chicago, June 26-29; Baltimore Comic-Con, Sept. 27-28; and maybe more...

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