I attended Emerald City Comic-Con this year with my friend Aaron D'Errico, a young writer-artist I work with once a week. We workshop scripts and talk comics and movies and Joseph Campbell.
These days I'm ambivalent at cons, which often remind me of my professional deficits (like hustle). But I do like to renew acquaintances, and meet smart, creative people. The energy is always palpable and uplifting -- it is a great cultural moment for comics, a rich chapter of the field's history.
And Aaron is even more starry-eyed and upbeat than I was at his age. His contagious enthusiasm pushed the needle far into positive territory.
This despite the fact that he's had Cerebral Palsy since birth, which makes his limbs uncooperative. He can't straighten his legs completely. So navigating the flesh glacier of a convention is exhausting Try walking 15 minutes without unbending your legs and you'll get an idea. This mattered during the cross-con journeys in this story.
We arrived. The lot was full. We found a more remote lot. We reached the convention center, a complicated space of several stories that straddles Pike Street with a skybridge that serves as a lobby to the exhibition hall. Panel rooms and event waiting queues and registration areas were on the other side of it. The ballroom where the celebrities spoke was two floors up!
The celebrity Aaron was primed for was Stan Lee. He'd done an on-line writing workshop with Stan. Stan had answered his texted questions and Aaron had taken them to heart like decrees from Mount Olympus. He was dying to see him speak, shake his hand, get his autograph, and be photographed with him.
Stan charges for autographs and photos these days. I guess I would too. Why not make a few bucks from middle-aged guys sitting on their software fortunes? The man is 87. His time is precious.
Aaron's hardware store job hasn't made him a fortune, but he'd saved enough to pay the fees for the photo and autograph, and was intent on getting them. So after our wanderings (suggestion to Emerald City Comic-Con: signage) undertaken to get me a badge (not prepaid) and Aaron a badge (prepaid, and inexplicably in a different room ten minutes away), we set out to find the line for Stan's 2:00 talk.
We got directions. Fighting the crowds, we found the place indicated, in the exhibition hall: Stan's autographing table. Nobody there. More wanderings and questions brought us to the line waiting for Stan's talk, back in the vast room where we'd gotten our first badge. We took our place. We waited. And eventually they escorted us at a trot out of the room, down the hall, through a food court, up two floors of escalators to the ballroom.
It was an on-stage interview. Stan was in fine form, though a bit deaf. He's a good public speaker, hitting final consonants hard and generously laying on the lame humor. He mentioned a couple of surprising things I'll detail in later posts. Part one of our quest was successful.
Stan left the ballroom so we knew the photo ops weren't to be there. It didn't say where in the program, so we figured they'd be at his signing table. We headed back down. It took most of a half hour to get there.
No Stan. But the schedule posted there said he'd be signing there in ten minutes, so we waited. We figured we'd missed the photo op, but I planned to try to sneak a shot while Aaron was getting his book signed. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Oddly, only a few other people were lined up.
Over the PA system came a voice: "A reminder, the Stan Lee signing has changed location." It was back to where we lined up for the talk! Off we went, threading through the bodies, backpacks, and Indiana Jones impersonators (three of them, together).
We reached the line. We were asked to show our signing voucher. We asked where to get them. We were told they were sold out. No voucher, no autograph.
Poor Aaron had walked more that day than he ordinarily does in a week, probably. I worried about him. I bet he had no idea how large these conventions can be. And he surely was deeply disappointed. But he put on a brave face. "Well, at least we got to see him speak." We headed back to the exhibition hall. I had friends in Artist's Alley I wanted to visit.
Then, in the corridor, surrounded by his minders, came Stan Lee. He must have been heading for the signing venue, wherever that was. Aaron almost involuntarily cried out his name, with such feeling that Stan must've immediately sized things up -- here was somebody to whom meeting Stan the Man meant the world.
Stan shook Aaron's hand as Aaron poured out his gratitude for Stan's work, and the writing workshop, and said he was a writer learning his craft with me, and nearly broke down. He later told me that having someone who understood how significant this was to him there -- namely me -- somehow magnified the emotion.
I get that. I've had that experience with my wife, when a movie has had particular resonance with our lives and struggles. To have somebody who just knows makes all the difference.
Stan suggested a photo. I fumbled with my camera like it was the nuclear device Bud must disarm at the bottom of the eponymous Abyss in the James Cameron film. Something about electronics causes them to be balky and mysterious at such moments. But somehow I cut the yellow wire (not the white wire!) and clicked off three shots.
One of Stan's minders asked if Aaron would like that copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 (a reprint) signed. It was successfully debagged without tearing it, and Stan signed it.
All for free.
But best of all, Stan looked Aaron in the eye and told him he'd be watching for his work -- and that he expected great things from him.
Their shaking hands practically sparked.
Stan left, but Aaron, bless his heart, was hyperventilating and so emotional that the gathered crowd looked a little alarmed. In fact -- and this is the cherry on top! -- a woman in a Catwoman outfit (and the figure to pull it off) took him in her arms and asked if he was okay, held him as he calmed down, even kissed his forehead. There's a sweetness about this guy that has that effect on people.
I told Aaron that at this rate, we were buying a lottery ticket (but we didn't).
A week later, Aaron's still glowing, though ordinary life must seem a bit gray after such a peak emotional experience. The preceding sense of exhaustion and defeat made the meeting, and the explicit blessing, seem like a death-and-rebirth right out of The Hero's Journey, as Campbell described it.
The fact that the photo has been posted at a number of sites associated with Stan has given Aaron some pleasant aftershocks.
What a hoot. I'm sure glad I was there to see it.