Monday, September 12, 2016

My Friend Dahmer: the film



The movie. God, where to begin?

The story of My Friend Dahmer never ceases to astound me in new ways. It is, of course, my breakthrough work, the book that raised me up from a barely known alt-comix creator to a Eisner-winning, Angoulême Prize winning, international comics "star." There’s just something about this tale that’s magic. It resonates with people, deeply. That’s very rare. 

The latest unexpected twist with My Friend Dahmer is the film, which was shot in my hometown over three weeks in August. Not just my hometown, but the very places I and Jeff and my high school friends once trod. Much of the film was shot in Jeff’s boyhood home and in the surrounding woods where he practiced his grisly roadkill “hobby” that I depict in the book! The power that these places still emanates is palpable.



The Dahmer House.




Ross Lynch's Dahmer costume, in the woods near the Dahmer House.




I was welcomed with open arms by the cast and crew. I previously met and talked to director Marc Meyers many times. The other producers and crew members, and the cast itself, I hadn’t met. I procrastinated during the first week of shooting and stayed away. I had some work I needed to punch out, but honestly the idea of visiting a film set that’s recreating life and this very personal and troubling story was intimidating. 

The first week of shooting was on the high school set, which is the part of the story that’s least creepy. That was a re-creation of the silly everyday antics of the Dahmer Fan Club. Marc actually had the chutzpah to approach my alma mater, Revere High, and ask if he could film there. The superintendent brusquely turned him down flat. Revere is a little touchy when it comes to their most famous graduate. Another area high school happily rented out their facility. I wish I’d been able to attend the shoot. I should have made more of an effort, but I was really scuffling with a project that was due. Shooting at the high school wrapped up faster than I expected. The company was really on a breakneck pace.



The Dahmer Fan Club bonding on the set.




The high school theater. The scene with me playing Hitler in a comedy sketch!




Ross Lynch as Jeff, Alex Wolff as Derf.

I finally showed up on set in Week 2. The “base camp” was at a dreary motel in my home town, out near the turnpike entrance, something of a barren wasteland of closed eateries and weed-choked parking lots, as are so many similar stretches in America. The trailers for the cast and the equipment trucks were lined up in back, hidden from view from the road and from the handful of guests at the motel. The buzz quickly spread that I was on set at last and Alex Wolff, who plays “Derf,” bounded over to greet me, as did Harry Holzer (Mike) and Tommy Nelson (Neil), the members of the Dahmer Fan Club. I stayed the afternoon. Producer Adam Goldworm asked me to sign a stack of books for various giveaways, so I pulled out my pens and started drawing dedicaces on the title pages. “Oh my God,” Alex called out to the rest of the cast. “Derf is DRAWING!” Suddenly, I had an eager audience. I enjoyed seeing these young guys clowning around with each other and was struck how similar they were to my friends and I at the same age. Their running gag to pass time between shoots was to endlessly act out favorite scenes from Nic Cage movies. Swap Cage for Monty Python and that was my friends and I 40 years ago! Even stranger, they were all calling each other by their film names, so here was someone else answering to “Derf”!



On the set for the first time, with (l-r) Harry Holzer as Mike, Alex Wolff as Derf and Tommy Nelson as Neil.



It’s not an easy thing to make a period piece. The Seventies are all so clear in my mind, but try to find those clothes, furnishings and cars four decades later. The set and costume designers did a great job, and were having a blast doing so. They interrogated me over how things looked and whether their constructions were accurate. The cars were the most problematic. It’s almost impossible to find Seventies junkers that are still running! Most are either deteriorating in junkyards or restored as show cars. It always bugs me when films show kids driving around in gleaming cars, because we all drove battered family vehicles, in my case a 1975, avocado green Chevy Vega. I was really looking forward to driving one again, especially over the same country roads I had once piloted my own Vega. You never forget your first car, because it represents freedom and that first big step to adulthood. Alas,  a working model couldn’t be located, since Vegas were such crap, widely regarded as one of the worst cars ever made. So an AMC Gremlin was substituted as Derf’s car. Bummer. It was just not to be. Fittingly, the Gremlin kept breaking down during scenes. Yep, that’s pretty spot on. “How did you drive things like that?” Alex asked me. I guess to him it’s as primitive as a Model T was to me at the same age! 







The fleet of Seventies beaters used in the film.



It’s fascinating to witness actors playing out episodes of my life, but, frankly, watching a film being shot is actually a bit boring. Take after take, lots of standing around and setting up shots for a few seconds of filming. I was more interested in seeing the sets. Of particular interest was “my house,” which I visited the following day. I got directions from the production designer. They had converted an empty house (appeared to be a foreclosure) in my hometown to use as my teenage home. Of particular interest was the set of my room. I sent the designers photos and they flipped out over the fab wall mural I drew on my walls when I was 15. They actually hired a local high school artist to recreate that mural! She did a great job. I burst out laughing when I first laid eyes on it! What makes it even funnier is that the original mural is still in my real boyhood home, just a mile or so away from this recreated home, so now there are two of them. When I first pulled up to the set my mouth dropped open. I recognized this house! It was, in fact, the teenage home of one of the lesser members of the Fan Club! In the book, the Fan Club is four friends. In reality, it was up to a dozen guys.



Me in my teenage room.

Next, I made the short trip over to the Dahmer House. The REAL Dahmer House, as mentioned earlier. Marc rented the actual home where Jeff grew up, and where he committed his first murder. I understand why Marc did it, and it will be especially stunning in the film and obviously be of great interest to the press, but it’s problematic for me. This is, after all, where an innocent young man lost his life, and was secretly interred (what was left of him) for 13 years. I been here several times, since a friend lives there, but it always creeps me out. And the first person I encountered when I walked in…. was “Jeff.”

I had met Ross Lynch, the young star of the film, previously, when I had lunch with him and Marc before the start of shooting, to answer any questions he had. He impressed me right away with an obvious professionalism (he’s been working since he was 8 years old!) and his enthusiasm for the role. And why not? This part will be transformational for him, vaulting him from teenage Disney heartthrob into an actor that people take seriously. The crew was raving about his performance, and from what I saw, he’s going to blow minds. When I encountered him this day, he was lounging on the porch in his Dahmer costume. He greeted me with a smile and I staggered back a little. He looked JUST like Jeff. After chatting with him for a few minutes I finally said, “Dude, you have to take off those glasses. You’re really freaking me out.”  And when he flipped the switch and became Jeff when the cameras rolled, my heart was pounding. Ross nailed it. They were filming the jogger scenes, one of my favorites in the book, and certainly one of the most cinematic. It was just as I had written and drawn it and watching Ross walking like Jeff, with that odd stiff-armed gait he had, it was almost too much, especially in the driveway of that house, where I had seen the real Jeff walking that same path. 

I feared my hometown would be plenty pissed at another Dahmer invasion, with bad memories of the media frenzy after Dahmer was arrested and his crimes revealed, but that proved to be anything but the case. The film crew was welcomed with open arms. The cops stopped traffic when needed, neighbors offered their driveways for parked equipment and  locals stopped by to welcome everyone and offer their own recollections of the Dahmers. One of my classmates offered the use of his vintage car. Not much happens in this sleepy hamlet, so movie stars having a nosh at the local diner is a big deal. It was all a stark contrast to the slammed door at my high school. In fact, my curiosity piqued, I stopped by the school on the way home, to see if my photo was still hanging in the “Hall of Fame” inside the main entrance. I fancied the superintendent might have ordered it removed for my “crimes,” but, no, it was still there. I was actually a little disappointed. That would have made a great story!


The mall set.

A few days later, I visited the shoot again, this time the mall set, used for Dahmer’s Command Performance. This was the biggest challenge for the filmmakers. How do you recreate a Seventies mall, especially on an indie film budget? With the help of the Cleveland Film Council (my town has become a favorite with studios, with several superdude movies having been shot here) they found an abandoned mall in the burbs to represent the Summit Mall of 1978. The Summit Mall, on the outskirts of Akron,  is still in operation, but it’s been remodeled a dozen times since 1978 and is thoroughly modern, so it’s unusable as a set. The Euclid Square Mall, on the other hand, went under 20 years ago, and had never undergone a remodel since being built, so it’s still period. It’s currently used as a home for a half dozen fire-and-brimstone black churches! More surrealism. Wonder what the bible-clutching old ladies thought of a film about a gay serial killer being shot there? It’s too bad the designers didn’t have a few more million in budget to throw around, because they could have gone to town in this space. Instead, the sets are small and the shots will be tight with a focus on the action and the actors. I’m interested to see how this one looks on film. A few days later, I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High. THAT’S how the mall should look! But that was period, shot back in the day, 1981 I believe, so the Fast Times filmmakers just used an actual mall, just a few years after the events in my book. Man, if you could just go back in time and grab those props! How did so much time pass so quickly? I feel like Methuselah

At lunch break, I sat with Ross and Alex and we playfully debated which was the best Elvis Costello album. That could have been lunch in 1978, too!

I was scrambling to wrap up some work before I left on another tour of Europe, but I returned to the shoot one more time, because my old friend Mike, the real Mike, drove to town to visit the set. I’m glad I did. The shoot was at the Dahmer House again. It was the first time Mike had been here since high school, since, in fact, he dropped off Jeff in June 1978, the incredibly powerful final scene of the book! This day’s scenes were great ones, the first time Jeff meets Stan Burlman, his Mom’s interior decorator, whose cerebral palsy became the centerpiece of Jeff’s freaky schtick (and ours), and the opening scene of the book, one of the most chilling, in Jeff’s clubhouse in the woods. Again, both these scenes came straight from the book, unchanged.



They had just wrapped up that clubhouse scene when I arrived. The clubhouse had been rebuilt, on the exact spot of the original, the remains of which I had discovered when showing Marc the house and grounds on his first scouting visit to my hometown a couple years previous. I clambered up the hill to check it out. When I opened the door I went weak-knead. There it was, exactly as I had drawn it.The wooden shelves, lined with pickle jars containing rotting dead animals, the workbench where Jeff conducted his “experiments” on collected roadkill. The place smelled like death. I had to quickly leave. 

That’s the moment when it really hit me what a powerful film this can be. I knew the potential was there, but filmmakers, frankly,  often mess up comic book movies. The track record is not great. The Marvel and DC ones are dreadful, of course, but even a faithful adaptation, like say, Watchmen, was a disappointment. Then there’s,  God forbid, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a marvelous book that was outright butchered. There’s but a handful that have been done well. Ghost World is easily the best one. That’s why I was reticent about agreeing to a film option. I’ve turned down several offers, because I simply didn’t trust the filmmakers. Marc was the first who I thought would do the book justice. But even so, naturally, I had qualms. It’s such a personal story, after all, and here I am passing it off to someone else to make his own. And this is all uncharted territory for me. But standing there, peering into the gloomy interior of Dahmer’s clubhouse, I thought, holy crap, it’s all coming together here.



Me and director Marc Meyers, earlier this year.

Like I wrote earlier, this story is magic. It was a game changer for me. It’ll be a game changer for Ross Lynch, for Alex and the others, and for Marc. Here’s a guy with a couple films under his belt, thoughtful indie movies that have been well received on the film fest circuit, but nothing as powerfully moving as My Friend Dahmer. What I like about Marc, and what led me to give him the go-ahead, was that he coaxes wonderful performances from his actors. That’s harder than it sounds, but Marc does it consistently. Couple that talent with a story that slaps you across the face like a 2x4 and you could have a truly memorable film.  It could also be a game changer for comic book movies, and open the door to any number of great books.



Me & Mike in 1978.


It was fun spending the rest of the day there with Mike. We’re still close friends, all these years later, and I think the cast and crew got a kick out of our real-life banter. We basically interact with each other as we did back in high school, which must have been a trip for them. Mike, for you trivia buffs, is also the Mike in Trashed! He was my partner on the garbage truck, after we both dropped out of college! The Mike in Trashed is a more accurate portrayal of him, even though that book is fiction, merely inspired by experience. I stripped my friends of most of their personalities in MFD, and those three guys are some of the quirkiest, most unique people I’ve ever met, because I promised to protect their identities. Mike doesn’t really care, which is why I used his real name, but it wasn’t really important that I give his character a lot of personality in the book, as I did in Trashed. Makes it tough on actor Harry Holzer, though, who to conjure up a character out of basically nothing. Harry was thrilled to meet the real deal. 

To Mike, of course, I’m still the same guy he’s known since we were 12 years old. So when movie star Ann Heche walked up to me and blurted out “Oh my God, I’m SO glad to meet you” and gave me a hug, he could only stare in disbelief and laugh. After she wandered off, Mike told me “you’re still an idiot, y’know.” Nothing like old friends to keep you humble!

Ann, by the way, is intense as Joyce Dahmer, Jeff’s sad, damaged mom.



I feel bad about my depiction of her, because the timeline of the book dictates that it’s Joyce at her worst, either battling mental problems or battling her husband Lionel, as their marriage imploded. Despite her issues, she was a nice lady and forged a happy life for herself, after the end of the book.  She re-married and became an AIDS counsellor, back in the “gay plague” era when that career took some guts. I regard her as a true tragic figure. She spent 20 years struggling with mental illness, then with a domineering, inflexible husband. After she freed herself from Lionel, her two sons shut her out. Jeff, in fact, didn’t speak to her for 13 years! Then after a mere decade of happiness, her life came crashing down on top of her when her son’s ghastly crimes were discovered. In addition to this unimaginable horror, she’s blamed as the genetic cause of Jeff’s madness, especially by the ex-husband she still loathes, who publicly recounts, in searing detail, her many mental problems when they were together. Then her son is brutally murdered in prison. After that, she contracts terminal cancer. Her’s was an unimaginably hard life. I wish I could have done better by her.

But I digress. 

Mike and I watched in wonder as the Stan Burlman scene was filmed. I never met the real Burlman, only heard his voice on the tapes of the prank calls we made to his office. But here he was, the source of so much of our stupid teenage schtick, right in front of our eyes. It was great having Mike with me, since he’s one of a handful of people who could experience this in the same way. Our teenage mockery of this poor man was certainly not our finest hour, don’t get me wrong, and my portrayal of it in my book is brutally honest. I’ve been beaten up about that a bit, by people who don’t recall what uncaring creeps they themselves were as adolescents. Unfortunately, Marc’s screenplay makes me even more of an asshole than in the book, and elevates me to the evil mastermind of the Burlman pranks. In reality, it was Neil behind virtually all of it. Neil, in the screenplay, is described as the “most empathetic” of the group and a reluctant participant in the gags. Both Mike and I shook our heads and laughed at that. It was Neil who, at Jeff’s urging, came to the Dahmer house when Burlman was due for a visit, and hid in the coat closet to hear Stan in action. As I write in the footnotes, adult Neil carries around a great deal of regret and shame over his teenage antics. The fourth primary member of the fan club, Kent, has been written out of the script altogether, a great relief to me since the real Kent, who I also still count as a close friend, is aghast at any link at all to the Dahmer story. Kent was also a primary force in the Burlman pranks. I really didn’t participate much in those, although I certainly parroted the cerebral palsy schtick. Like I said, not our finest hour. I’m sure this is going to be quite uncomfortable for me to watch on the screen.



A difficult set up on the back porch of the Dahmer House.

Between takes, I wandered about and chatted with the crew. There were an extraordinary number of producers, a number that was needed to bring this project to fruition. All of them shared an absolute enthusiasm for the story. I took care in pointing out to various members of the crew where in the house Dahmer killed his first victim, the young hitchhiker Stephen Hicks, who Jeff lured back to his house on that summer day in June 1978 with offers of weed and beer. It was more than just a ploy to make them uncomfortable. I wanted then to feel the eerie power of the house and know exactly what happened here.  There’s some bad ju-ju in this place. Some in the crew felt it more than others. A few told me they were having trouble spending time there. 

The following day, Neil visited the set with Mike. I had split for Europe by this point, so I missed out on this, alas. He, too, was amazed. All three of us have come to terms with our lives being sucked up into the Dahmer story. You can’t imagine what this is like for us, even after so many years, now a quarter century after Jeff’s crimes exploded in the news. We’ve all, curiously, adopted the same coping mechanism. We have TWO sets of memories. One are the ones we had before Dahmer was arrested, of our goofy high school days and hanging out, and of our silly antics with our strange friend to relieve the boredom of life in a small  town. The other set are those same memories, but re-defined in a chilling way, as this emerging fiend moves through our lives, and of the realization of what he was thinking as we doing this very antics. All three if us can move back and forth between these memory sets. But it’s a whole new, very strange experience seeing those memories re-enacted in front of you. I thought, intellectually, I had prepared myself for that experience. I was wrong.

Mike described his reaction in a Facebook post. After his first day on the set, he dreamt of Jeff that night. Mike was back on the set and he looked up and there was Jeff standing on the roof of the house, pointing down at Mike and laughing.

I'm glad I don't have dreams.




Alex Wolff and Harry Holzer.



Producer Adam Goldworm's dog, Bob, as "The Dog."




The chilling final scene in the book.











Friday, August 26, 2016

About the film



OK. Apparently this needs to be said again. I’ll post this here so I don’t have to repeatedly state this. Any media can feel free to pick up any of these quotes. I've no real interest in being interviewed about all this again. I'm currently promoting my latest book, Trashed, and working on my 4th and 5th books. I'm looking forward, not in the rearview mirror.
With the film in production and getting press, some of the tired charges of “exploitation” are flying around again, mostly from the usual parties: tv news and other mainstream media and from tongue-cluckers who haven’t read the book and have no intention of ever reading it.
My Friend Dahmer was released in 2012. Twenty-one years after Dahmer was arrested, 19 years after he was killed. There have been four feature films made about him, one starring Jeremy Renner, the action film hero. There have been hundreds of books written about Dahmer. Dozens of tv biopics. Thousands of magazine and newspaper articles. There’s a line of Jeffrey Dahmer trading cards. Katy Perry has sung about him. There are three death metal tribute albums. There are two Jeffrey Dahmer action figures. He’s been a character in South Park, and on Saturday Night Live. And a thoughtful memoir is somehow “exploitive”? Yeah. OK. Sure.

So why did I make the book? I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. And this story dropped from the sky and fell in my lap. 

Mine was also a story that hadn’t been told. Most concentrate on his infamous crimes. My book isn’t about those crimes. It’s the story before that story. It ends when he kills his first victim. There’s no violence, no depictions of deviant sex, heck there aren’t even any swear words! My story is that of a sad, dysfunctional boy who falls between the cracks, and his inexorable march to the edge of the edge of the abyss as an uncaring adult world stands by and watches with disinterest. It’s a story with value. It’s a story worth telling. It’s also MY story. I was a part of it and I have EVERY right to tell it.

My Friend Dahmer is in its 15th US printing. It’s been translated into six languages. It’s been universally lauded by critics here and abroad. Lev Grossman, the book critic of Time magazine, named it one of the five best non-fiction books (ALL books) of 2012. It won a prestigious Alex Award from the American Library Association, and was placed on the 100 Greatest Graphic Novels of All Time list by the same organization.  It was awarded an Angoulême Prize in France, the Cannes Film Festival of comics, along with three other European book prizes. It’s taught in many, many high school and college lit classes, both here and in Europe. Think it’s tacky or exploitive? That question has long been answered, and you’re on the wrong side of it. 

I have nothing to apologize for. My story isn’t about Dahmer’s crimes, and it’s not about his victims. The only murder that is touched upon (and it doesn’t occur “on camera”) is that of his first, 19-year-old Stephen Hicks, a local kid who was just trying to get home. I’m haunted by Stephen, because his grisly fate was so random, because my friends and I were so close to the murder, mere yards away at some points, and because he was so like dozens of kids that I knew at Revere High School. The other 16 victims aren’t in this story at all. In fact, the book ends nine years before he kills his first victim in Milwaukee. Mine is a melancholy tale, full of regret and, yes, a little anger. 

So why a comic book? Why didn’t I write a “real” book? I, of course, reject that question out of hand. Comics are my storytelling medium and I think I'm pretty good at it. How else was I going to tell it? If I was a poet, I would have written a poem. That question also implies comics are a junk artform, unworthy of such a story, which is a small-minded American thing, from ignorant people who don’t understand what a wonderful storytelling form this is. This isn’t Jughead here. Comics have won Pulitzers and been nominated for National Book Awards. 

Why allow it to adapted into a film? 

I made the book I wanted to make. A film only enhances the book, and perhaps leads more people to pick it up who wouldn’t otherwise. That helps me from a commercial standpoint, sure. I’m not going to apologize for making a living. I’m a professional, and have been for 33 years. I also want people to read this story, because I think it has value. With every mass shooter or guy who kills his family, I see the same things I saw with Jeff. The same missed signs, the same lack of intervention. There are lessons in My Friend Dahmer, ones we as a society seem to have no interest in learning, true, but I hold out hope. 

My Friend Dahmer, at its heart, is a story about failure. EVERYbody fails. His parents, his teachers, the school administrators, his friends, and Jeff himself, who fails about as spectacularly as someone CAN fail. The result of that across-the-board failure is a pile of bodies and thousands who mourn his 17 victims. I’m sure those thousands don’t like this book. I get that. Not only because it deals with a man who caused them so much pain, but, frankly, because it humanizes him, and that’s not something they want to see. 

But that, too, has value, in my opinion. It’s easy to write off someone like Dahmer as a just a monster. And he certainly was. But not always. At one point in his life, he was just a sad, lonely boy struggling against a welling madness. To label him nothing but a monster absolves everyone else in this story of any responsibility, because he was ALWAYS a monster, and what he did was inevitable. Nothing could have been done. Well, I don’t believe that. Mistakes were made. MANY mistakes.

Filmmaker Marc Meyers wasn’t the first to approach me. I had turned down several offers previously, from filmmakers who I didn’t think would stay true to the story. I watched Marc’s first film, Harvest” which won the top prize at the Cleveland Film Festival, and I saw a talented director who made made quiet, smart films for adults. I decided to give him a chance. There’s risk involved in any endeavor like this. I’m passing off a very personal, very finely crafted story to another artist to interpret in his own way. I’m sure there will be things I like, and things I don’t and things I disagree with completely. Heck, we’ve ALREADY had those disagreements. But if he makes a good film, and I’m confident he will, it will only enhance the book. If he boots it, well, people will say “damn, this is nowhere near as good as the book.” I essentially have nothing to lose, and much to gain. The pressure, which I frequently remind him, is on him.

People who think I’m doing this just to cash in, well, they are clueless about the economics of independent film. I’m not partnering with Joss Whedon here! I made a little money, and I won’t apologize for that, but my motivation is to spread the story to new audiences and to sell more books. Period.




Friday, August 5, 2016

Buying Punk Rock & Trailer Parks




I've been getting a lot of inquiries about where to purchase copies of Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, my first book (from 2010), especially as its follow-up, The Baron of Prospect Ave. webcomic picks up steam this summer. You can read that HERE

Unfortunately, SLG Publishing, the publisher of PR&TP, really isn't in the comics game anymore. It was the victim of the corporate conspiracy between Diamond and the big comics companies to force smaller companies' books right off the racks and out of mainstream comic book shops. It sucks, but that's the way it is.

SLG now only re-supplies Amazon. They don't sell copies in their online SLG Store anymore, and bookstores can't get it wholesale either. So it;'s Amazon or nothing. The 1st edition is gone. It started selling briskly after My Friend Dahmer and then, alas, a roof leak at the SLG warehouse destroyed the remaining copies. But a nice 2nd edition has been printed, with much better paper, and the horrendously bad trim has been fixed. Trust me, you're better of with the 2nd edition. Buy it HERE


Comixology also offers a sweet digital version. Buy it HERE

Now, French readers will have no problems getting a copy. Punk Rock et Mobile Homes is, I'm told, still selling briskly and remains in print from the fine folks at 
Editions çà et là, with additional printings scheduled. Pick up a copy at your favorite BD Librarie.

Monday, August 1, 2016

My Eisner Award speech!

Finally got a copy of this. here's the acceptance speech I wrote about in the lengthy Comic-con blog post below. I can not-so-humbly report that it brought the house down at the ceremony. The rest of the weekend, I was congratulated more for this speech than for the Eisner!

Excuse the shaky hand of my editor, who was filming this with his phone. It gets steadier as it goes along, so no barf bag will be required.



Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hot Damn, That Looks Good!


Comic-con Notes






Processing my first San Diego 
Comic-con.

I’ve avoided this con for years, despite the entreaties of pals like Shannon Wheeler and Keith Knight and a few others, all of whom have attended every year for the bulk of their respective careers. My experiences with mainstream cons have not been good ones. Creators like me are ignored by the superdude crowd and usually shunted off by con organizers to some indy comix gulag in a corner of the venue, next to the aged Playboy Playmates signing copies of their pinups for sweaty middle-aged fanboys. Mainstream cons are crowded, noisy and corporate. The rep of San Diego is that it’s all of those things in abundance, and what was once a celebration of comics has now been hijacked by Hollywood as a showcase for tv and movie franchises. By the time I had the resources and rep to come to San Diego, this transformation had already taken place. I missed the window, I thought. But I got the invite to be a special guest, all expenses paid, and I was up for an Eisner Award, so I figured, hell, why not?

I’m glad I did. What a week!





With Sergio Aragonės



My favorite cosplayer. Genius!

With Chester Brown.


The Hollywood area in the center of the convention hall boasts massive displays of various tv and movie franchises, as well as the Big Three.


With Gilbert Hernandez.


First off, I was wrong about Comic-con. It is still very much about comics. Yes, there are giant displays for Star Wars and the Walking Dead in the “Hollywood section” of the vast convention hall, but there are comics everywhere. Artist Alley is the usual array of mainstream comics wannabees and old pros, but there is a large Small Press section full of SPX types and a large presence by publishers of fine comics, like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and my very own Abrams Comicarts. The panel schedule is packed with sessions on comics. The big reveals in the massive Hall H get all the press– all the mainstream press, I might add– but it almost feels like this is a separate convention altogether, since it’s sealed off from the main venue. Everywhere I went, I encountered fellow creators like Chester Brown, Hope Larsen, Gilbert Hernandez and Nate Powell. We were very much welcome and had plenty of fans lined up to buy our books. It’s not the uplifting experience of an SPX or TCAF, but I was resigned to an soul-sucking experience like New York Comic-con with its crazy I-can’t-breathe crowds and explosions and blaring music and superdudes über alles. I was pleasantly surprised.



There was also a large back-issue dealer area. This, of course, was once the only reason for cons. It’s the only reason I went to them, from my very first con in an empty storefront on the near westside of Cleveland when I was 13. Speaking of that particular con, that’s where I picked up a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 for $20! Ditko Spider-mans were my passion and that book is the Holy Grail. I could have grabbed a higher grade copy of Spider-man #1, but it was $35. I only had $40, and it took me months to save up that much, on the paltry wages my Old Man paid for mowing the lawn. So that would have blown my wad. I had a couple other books on my want list, so I opted for the cheaper AF #15 and still had the cash for a copy of Human Torch #13 (I wanted a Golden Age war comic and that was a great one with the Torch roasting Nazis alive) and New Gods #1, my favorite title, which was impossible to find as the dealers had cleaned out the loading docks at the distributors and copies never made it to the spinner racks. Never did score a Spidey #1, as the price shot up the next year to unaffordable highs, and kept going. That AF #15 was stolen from my room a few years later, along with nice copies of Golden Age Capt. America Comics #13 and X-men #94. A thief, likely one of my brother’s stoner friends, who sure knew what he was doing. So imagine my groan of dismay when I saw the price tag on THIS copy of AF #15 (above) in San Diego. It’s about in the same condition as mine was. Throw in the other two books, and that stoner motherfucker pinched about $30,000 from me. He probably traded them all for a couple bags of weed, too. 




Me and my boyhood comix dealer, Terry Stroud


I dug through some bins, but didn’t find much. It’s all horrifically overpriced. Who pays price guide for books anymore? And dealers remain… well… dealers. Being in that business just has to suck all the joy out of comics, which is sad, since most entered the field because they were fans. There were a couple friendly ones, most who were all business and a few who had axel grease dripping from every pore. The exception… and one of the nicer surprises of the week… was Terry Stroud. I started buying off Terry and his American Comic Book Co. when I was a teenager in the Seventies! He was one of the guys who took out small ads in the back of Marvel and DC comics. Send him $1 and he’d send you a large catalog. I ordered tons of books off him then, and again in the Nineties as I rebuilt a collection of favorite titles, when I discovered he was still at it and advertising in the The Buyer’s Guide. He was old school. No website, no email. Just a PO box. Send in a money order and a list of alternate picks in case the first selections were already sold. But his books offerings were great, always undergraded and reasonably priced. Then one day in the late Nineties, I sent in a large order and the letter came back as undeliverable. I tried again and the same thing happened. He had obviously closed up shop. I stuck exclusively to eBay after that. He was my last connection to the comics of my youth.  So to stumble across him here, with piles of boxes haphazardly stacked in a cramped booth, just like his catalogs, I almost burst into tears! He’s retired and just cleaning out his warehouse now, exclusively at California shows. I bought a few treasures off him, but I didn’t see a lot of traffic at his booth, sandwiched as it was between large dealers with large wall displays of slabbed investment copies. However, the only other customer at the time was none other than underground great Denis Kitchen, who snapped this photo of me and Terry! So obviously the customers were discerning ones. 




The view from my hotel room! Yeah, that's the stuff.



The con itself treated me like royalty. All expenses paid, as I mentioned, a posh $700-a-night hotel room and they even assigned me my own private Man Friday, who followed me around and made sure I made it to all my panels and signing sessions. 
I didn’t table, so I was free to wander around and check out the whole thing. I was stunned how many fans recognized me. The badges are large, but are covered mostly with a Walking Dead ad. My name is unreadable from farther than a foot, so people knew me from my mug, which has certainly become distinctive in my advancing decrepitude, a cross between Joey Ramone and Herman Munster.
  People came up to me throughout the week just to tell me how much they like my stuff. I even had a few who followed me from The City days, when my strip ran in the San Diego and LA weeklies. That’s always nice, since you never really had a sense anyone was reading back in the days before social media. And to run into comics legends like Matt Groening or Chester Brown and have them say “Oh wow, nice to finally meet you.” when I was expecting blank stares, that was the best surprise of all.



Finally!

The highlight of the con was, of course, the Eisner Awards.  The host was John Barrowman, of Dr. Who and Torchwood fame. His schtick was that of a gay Borcht Belt comic, with one lame dick joke after another. And he babbled on mostly about Superdude Comics, even though, for the second straight year, Superdude Comics were hardly represented in the nominations. Talk about not knowing your audience! Marvel didn’t even buy a table for the ceremony.  Took their ball and stomped home.

Barrowman’s opening monologue was mercifully short and my category was the first one up. I was nominated, for Best Lettering, but didn’t expect to win. That’s always the best attitude to have, I’ve found, at awards ceremonies. Lessens the disappointment and enhances the elation. Best Lettering isn’t exactly a showcase category, but it’s a pretty cool one, and unique to comics. No other art form, after all, draws sound effects. Besides, I’ve been nominated in bigger categories and never won. I thought I have a chance with this one, especially since, dammit, the lettering in Trashed DOES rule. But when my name was called, I could only shake my head and laugh as my editor patted me furiously on the back and a roar went up from colleague pals.




I have to say, walking up on that stage to finally have one of those little statues handed to me, after 35 years as a comics pro, a grizzled warhorse of 56 years, is on my short list of career highlights. My acceptance speech, told with hand-lettered cue cards, frankly, brought the house down. I prepared this a couple weeks ago after a flash of inspiration. The ceremony is a long and tedious affair and there’s lots of butthurt and grumbling. I decided to embrace the love of comics–  which is what it’s all about, right?–  to counter all that. It was the correct move, judging from the reaction. The rest of the evening, both colleagues and fans alike were congratulating me more for that speech than for the Eisner! “Dude, you set the bar for all  future “Best Lettering” acceptance speeches!” Matt Groening told me.




Me, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. I wore my lucky Ramones shirt!


Speaking of Matt, he and Lynda Barry, the pair that virtually created the alt-weekly comics genre where I first found some success, were both inducted into the Hall of Fame together, which is fitting, since they are lifelong friends and emerged as comics forces hand in hand. After the ceremony all the winners clustered together for a group photo and I was able to tell thank both, at the same time, for showing me the way. They looked somewhat embarrassed, especially Lynda, but I was happy to have that opportunity. 

This years Eisner recipients are another triumph for good comics. The big winners were Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Image. The Big Corporate Two were almost completely shut out, except for Marvel’s Silver Surfer, which  is deserving, especially for the quirky artwork of Mike Allred, a veteran of indy comics whose work I have always admired. Other than that, they won only for bullshit categories like Best Variant Cover, where they have no competition, because no one else bothers with that bullshit. Women creators, too, picked up an impressive hardware haul. Drawn & Quarterly, the publishing house big winner, is run by a woman. The comics world is changing. This isn’t the crest of the wave. This IS the fucking wave! Disney and Warner Bros. Inc. would be wise to take note…. and especially Diamond and the mainstream comics retailers that service their wares at the virtual exclusion of everything else. If you stick with the same old, same old Superdude schlock, if you dismiss the new comics that are winning Eisners by the boatload and hearts & minds of the new generation of readers, enjoy that swan dive into the tarpit.  Disney and Warner Bros. won’t care much, of course, because it’s all about tv and movies and toy lines for them. For comics lovers, however, it’s a thrilling Golden Age of groundbreaking comics of all genres, outside of the petrified world of corporate superdudes.
After the high of the Eisners, I still had the busy weekend days of the con. I had a few more panels and signings, and spent the rest of time walking the floor, doing a little shopping and talking to colleagues. I’ve read a lot of laments on social media from other of my ilk about how out-of-place they felt, but that wasn’t my experience at all. I avoided the Hollywood area and hung out with old friends Shannon Wheeler and Keith Knight at their booths, shooting the shit and talking comics. I chatted with Gilbert Hernandez, Chester Brown and Sergio Aragonés, just to name a few. Everywhere I walked, people were calling out my name and congratulating me on my Eisner. I had an absolute blast! I understand fixating on the Hollywood and corporate aspect of 
Comic-con, and certainly the media does,  but you can diminish those things with just a little effort.


Hanging out at Shannon Wheeler's booth.


The view from the microphone at one of my five panels.


The panels went well, for the most part. They were well attended and fun. I was especially “on” at the Historical Comics panel with Kate Beaton and Chester Brown. That’s a formidable pair, but thank God I brought my A game, judging from Twitter. Whew. Glad my pithy remarks went over well, because I’m easily the stupidest of the three. None of the panels had visuals, which was a puzzler. It’s a visual medium, so who wants to see four people sitting at a table TALKING about it. Why not show it? I had a slideshow for my Spotlight panel and the tech was surprised I wanted to hook up. 



The Inkpot is a handsome little devil.



Speaking of the Spotlight, I did it “in conversation” with Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter and (more recently) the grand poobah of the new Cartoon Crossroads Columbus fest, which is going to be huge. We did a similar event at the debut CXC and I enjoyed it so much I asked him to reprise it and was thrilled he agreed. He’s whipsmart, knowledgeable and always prepared and I just plain enjoy talking comics with him. I wondered, however, why we were wrapping it up 10 minutes early. Then the Comic-con folks swept in and awarded me an Inkpot Award! Spurgeon was clued in, of course, but I was caught completely unawares. I didn’t think the week could get any better, and then it did! It’s a handsome statue, too, just like the ones previously given to Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and Dan Clowes, just to name a few.

Then came 5 pm Sunday and it was over. Few things are sadder than breakdown at a great con. A bulk of the attendees hopped in their cars, or headed to the airport and raced home with their hauls, leaving the area around the convention center in a state of rather eerie calm. I took my 21-year-old son, who I brought along as my plus-one, and who had the time of his life, to dinner in the hotel restaurant. We looked out over the bay and talked about our experiences of the week and comics in general. That, too, was a highlight. 

I have the greatest job in the world!