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Playing Ricky Morton
posted December 31, 2002

San Diego Con, 2002. I close my eyes and hope the stewardess fails to note the belt doesn't make it across my lap. Everything I own is in a box or a gym bag. It's the last act of my William Styron year. Days not lost to twenty-plus hours of sleep are spent watching re-runs on Bravo and eating processed food in white plastic bags held shut by the price tag. I see Taurean Blacque that Spring more than all my friends combined. By summer I begin to select checkout lines according to what individual grocery store employees had seen me buying the last time I was in. It's time to go, to leave, to flee, to worry about losing a storage key and to find a town with cheap rents and a Super Wal-Mart that doesn't make me want to die.

I don't have a favorite San Diego. In 1995 I moderated the "Get Larry Marder" panel, watching up close as the new comic book industry culture punched the old one in the kidneys and stepped over its prone form. In 1999 I saw a comic strip I worked on printed in a newspaper for the very first time, spread out on the hood of rental car I had parked in front of a 7-11. In 1996 Glenn Danzig rode around on my shoulder as we circled the main floor, dropping into my shirt pocket and out of view when we passed the Boneyard table. In 1958 at the U.S. Grant, I watched Bob Kanigher scream at a hapless volunteer. In 1972 I smoked a joint with Bil Keane in the back porch of a Mexican restaurant. In 2001 Pete Sickman-Garner told me about a woman who hired him to vet her comic strip proposal at the exact moment I realized I felt blissfully and unexpectedly good about my life. In 1984 I stood nearby and gawked as Robert Crumb and Charles Schulz exchanged niceties in the hot California sun. In 1967, I announced the winner of my fanzine's "Name Stan Lee's Toupee" contest - Proty III - and after the Crosbies received a hissed lecture from Roy Thomas on a public street corner. Wally Wood walked by with cigarette in hand and flashed me a half-grin, a generous offering to a stranger and fellow traveler in adolescent misbehavior because, really, Wally didn't know me at all.

The woman next to me on the plane has furry arms and a dirty sweater spread across shiny white legs. She's reading a book: Harry Potter and the Need for Constant Reassurance. A word: In most of the fantasies I'd read as a pre-teen, staining the pages with orange juice and cookie dough, protagonists moved from a state of grace into a place of constant danger. Experiencing both setbacks and discouragement, at the moment of truth the hero would draw on memories of where he came from and in doing so find the strength to succeed. In the Harry Potter books, the lead character comes from crappy circumstances and experiences a seemingly unending string of impressive victories as cool adults, close friends and casual peers frequently let him know how great he is. His occasional failures stand in bold don't-hate-me relief on an otherwise perfect face, kid-lit's version of Marlon Brando's broken nose. I'm jealous I didn't think of dealing emotional crack this potent, and slightly worried that so many kids and adults respond to the bath of affirmation like a Christmas kitten sitting on an air vent.

The part of my current, slippery state of mind I look forward to the most on a daily basis is lost memory. Negotiating what I remember and what I don't had always been like trudging ankle deep over moss-covered rocks. I have always been a lousy storyteller, goofing facts like an Encyclopedia Brown suspect. One anecdote about the eighth grade dance frequently ended with me driving home in a car I wouldn't be able to drive for three years, and for a decade the inept play calling of my high school football coach lost my college squad its '88 homecoming. I had become accustomed to the lapses, and grew to see my memory as a fun place where I took French 101 from my piano teacher and took in movies with people who died in years previous. As long as I got to give myself all the good lines, who cared? As I slipped into my most recent depression, my memory had stopped being my talkative uncle and started being my friend who borrowed money and then wouldn't take my calls. I forgot what year it was even when I took a moment to puzzle it out, and lost any sense of how long ago certain things happened and the names of important people in my life. Some days I shifted my way around Capitol Hill waiting for the lights to go out completely. Regretfully lucid, I would pause on the street corner opposite The Merry Bee and wonder how much I could bend normal behavior without anyone noticing. What was the real difference between choosing to enter my apartment building and curling up to sleep right here next to the curb? How far away could I go and still come back?

The plane lands in L.A. with a bounce and mechanical wheeze. I drive the rest of the distance to San Diego in a rental car without the insurance. The topography as glimpsed from the highway is peepshow depressing, flashing promises of perfect ocean but delivering money shots of access roads and sandy, scruffy hills. I slip into town from the north side. Half of San Diego's streets are ripped up in the city's ongoing quest to make itself as confused and ugly looking as possible. I park the car on the street near the paint shop, consider walking across the street for menudo but instead hop across the embedded tracks past the rent-a-cops to take the train to the convention center. Most of the guys in my particular streetcar look like they want to fight somebody. So many unhappy people at the San Diego Con... I start to giggle. I make it past the corny jokes of the badge people with a painful smile or two, and stumble into the stale air of the main floor, looking into the eyes of the Fantagraphics employees to see how many are hating themselves yet and Oh My God, I want to go home.

Instead, I wander the floor. Star Trek extras are down; Star Wars leads are up. Crippling obesity that forces you into a Rascal is slightly off, replaced by a surge of slightly heavy women showing off their poochy areas like grand prize in some demented hillbilly raffle. I stop by CrossGen to check on Chris Oarr's hairline. CrossGen is a company that sprouted into existence after the brief, horrible time in my life my job forced me to pay attention to comic book companies. Their comics look like the Image line if Rob and Todd and Jim and Frank and Monte and Vance had been forced to run their ideas through DC editorial, Weisinger-era. All I knew about CrossGen beyond their funnybooks is that they headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Tampa is one of those large American cities that avoid scrutiny by being really boring. I had a dear pal in Tampa whose girlfriend once beat him up so badly that he had her arrested. She refused to take her purse, and, curious, my friend opened it to find that his girlfriend was a crack addict who turned tricks to maintain her habit. In my circle of friends, that story was known as "Kenny's Bad Day." Two years later, we named a cartoon rabbit after him. A year after that, we had to change the "K" to an "L" because he tried to murder his best friend and a three-year-old. That story doesn't have a name, and we don't tell it nearly as often.

I skip dinner and sit in my hotel room watching Baseball Tonight until I can be certain the Eisners are over. Without TV's blissful stupidity to time it out, one is likely to wait for what feels like hours and still arrive halfway through the Inkpots. I join up with my friend Jordan and his pal Gus from Hustler and we walk towards the ceremony, now as inconveniently located as possible. The sidewalk in front of the convention center is like Sunday promenade in Hicksville. We pass various comics people and call out their names like that game in the car where you get points for each license plate state of origin. We point ahead towards a made-up appointment and keep walking when a few people stop to talk to us. As soon as we reach the after-party, the liquor is shut off, and we trudge for blocks to a sad rumor of a bar called the Picadilly for a sunburned gabfest fueled by cheap beer. The few civilians present glare at the comics folk, upset with them for being this dull. I realize I won't see most of these people for a while, if ever, following the show. I start to say silent goodbyes with drink orders and squeezed deltoids. I pay off one seven-year friendship with a two-dollar mixed drink. I'm coming out way ahead.

The next day I sit on a panel I was invited to join when I had a career in comics, three years during which I joined the grand tradition of Herriman, Segar and Schulz by putting forward an unsatisfying effort that led many of my friends to speak around it like a miscarried child. It was the best job I never really felt I had. Overcompensating for my recent loss of professional credentials, I babble incoherently, ending every answer with "I don't think that answers your question" and making my pained face. Despite my less than masterful performance, I brought freebies, so I get to sign autographs. Pathetically, this improves my mood. Seventeen minutes later I'm stood up for lunch.

I watch and record panels for Mike Dean and The Comics Journal, letting the tape recorder do the work as I wonder how transparent it is to everyone else I'm still hanging on to the vestiges of the one job at which I didn't completely suck. I watch Ana Merino chastise Charles Hatfield while Will Eisner aches to speak, using the same body language smart children use to gain the teacher's attention. I see some other panels, none of which I can remember in full. Peter David talking to Todd McFarlane hosting a slide show by Jerry Scott introducing a movie trailer starring one of the guys from American Pie. I begin to feel my age in months, not years. By now the security guards at the front of the lecture halls are openly commenting on convention-goers to one another, and more people sit along the walls outside the main hall, exhausted and sad-looking, like junior high school kids outside a dance waiting for a ride home.

Stood up for early dinner, I make my way around the floor one more time. It's miserable girlfriend day at the con. Most of the booths I don't understand at all, comics I've never heard of, games I've never played. Marvel's tiny set-up, half fuck-you, half bankruptcy mandate, makes me laugh. It looks like the old Chaos arrangement from pre-Wizard Chicago, without Brian Pulido standing on the table and minus the wonderful incongruity of Steven Hughes. I stare at a page from Mad Magazine I don't recognize, a Busby Musical parody with Jackie Gleason. It's luminous. An art book dealer grouses to me about his location. Three artists in a row draw dinosaurs. I catch a television monitor playing the scene from The Andy Griffith Show where Andy and Barney discuss their high school yearbook, one of the finest moments in television history and my personal favorite, seemingly cued up for my walk-by. I say something innocuous to the guy standing next to me, something about the whole world of humor in Griffith's ability to politely decline to speak for a half-second. The man blanches and walks away as if I offered to show him something small and wet, making me think twice about what had come out of my mouth before I recall it was harmless and I laugh.

Walking farther up the aisle, I see the daughters of Charlie Biro pulling issues of Crime Does Not Pay onto the impromptu, colorless countertop known only to comic fans, a reading surface made from the tops of plastic bags. I bump into a cartoonist I only see at this thing. My eyes keep slipping off his face, distracted, tired. I smile my apology and squint my eyes to show my renewed concentration. "This is why they dim the lights in bars," he assures me.

Dinner at Fio's, working through reconstruction with a limited kitchen, like a restaurant deciding to stay open during a blizzard. We haggle a meal; the waiter laughs and counter-offers. Tonight is the beach post-party asked to shoulder a full evening's entertainment, the absence of self-abuse and recklessness in the younger crowd making itself known by the general lack of social functions. I drive the young, female Fantagraphics employees to the beach. They ask after single available men. As a single, available man discounted from consideration by weight and age, the harmless banter sets me off on an evening of self-hating gay uncle jokes. I drink clothed and swim naked, in that order, the dim light of the moon fuzzing out the naughty parts on everyone involved and the lack of substantial fire up the shore keeping the few lonely men from having to make an excuse to walk near the water. I swear I remember actually swimming one year, but now even wading seems dangerous, the great unknown ready to pull all of us away. I look at the tiny fire and note that Joe Chips would have no problem stepping across it.

I watch Nick Bertozzi channel my teenage years in the direction of two cops. They give him a ticket and flood the area with their headlights. We stand around as if something actually horrible has happened, worrying over whether to stay or go like the fussiest division in an occupying army. I drive two friends home, one refusing to put her pants back on even while grocery shopping for an Ace bandage, the end of the kind of night other people will remember for her. I expect to return to the beach area for stragglers but the police who pull me over suggest I park and go to bed. I sit in the car for about three minutes embracing a whistle-clear sensation of not knowing where I am or what year it is, noting the loveliness of the trees hanging over into the street. Walking from car to lobby, I recall covering this same stretch of city street in 1995, following ten paces behind an alternative cartoonist soon to be out of comics as he pulls up plants, furious and miserable in the way a big, stressful weekend makes anyone who is slightly self-aware. I padded along next to my intern Simon, who didn't know DC from Marvel and displayed no inclination to learn. He turned to me on the subject of our mutual friend a half block up and announced in the English accent that made everything he said funny and wise, "Cartoonist, colorist, destroyer of rhododendrons."

I like comic book conventions. I like the people who look confused. I like the break in my schedule. I like seeing strange comic books, the surge of Silver Age nobodies replacing the quarter bin heroes from years when table space didn't cost quite this much. I like seeing people dressed in costumes, holding hands, and wish something like that could make me that happy. I like looking at original art and imagining where it's been from when it was drawn to now, like a quick-cut feature on Electric Company. I like seeing Kenneth Smith and asking after business. I like listening to the con regulars comparing shows and fashion tips like they're working one of the small town vaudeville circuits. I like the people that can't afford to be here. I like listening to people talk in front of an audience, how it makes some people bigger and others smaller. I like hotel rooms, people who eat convention hall food, and pretending this is the best use of my time.

The next day I have a grocery store breakfast and stumble to the big hall so that I can say goodbye to no one in particular. Even the ebullient convention official we call Captain Stubing looks tired and irritated despite his snappy white shirt and shorts. The cartoonists I know have a look on their faces like it's graduation day but they won't know for two weeks if they have to make up a credit in summer school. My desire to say goodbye far outstrips the number of people who will actually notice I'm gone. I pick up a few desperate freebies, and stare at Dean Haspiel's superhero art. I find myself chatting to Jordan Crane in animated fashion to distract him from the fact I'm buying a complete run of The Badger. I give my badge to a local teen as I make my way to the car. Stopping for burgers near the Lego amusement park, I stand in the parking lot and stretch my back, noting for the first time the perfect weather, warmth like Miami in February, pressing against my face and keeping me from sorting anything out. It hits me I'm officially homeless, very much in debt with few close friendships and no family to call my own. There's sand in the back seat when I unload the car at LAX. The next week is going to be spent sitting in an apartment in Pasadena and trying to write enough words about Stan Lee to fill a book. My life has become a symphony of the insubstantial, and if I stop moving forward for a single second I'll fall down.

This essay has never been published.