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called to draw a larger circle (part 2)*

June 8, 2011

Over and over again, the movies of my youth depict that quintessential scenario of teenage alienation:  the shaky-trayed entrance into an unfamiliar high school cafeteria.

I think most of us can identify with that gut-flip plunge into unfamiliar territory, along with the commensurate realization that we have no idea where we’re going (or if we’ll belong once we get there).

I don’t know about you, but before last week there were way too many years between me and that new-kid-in-the-lunchroom sensation.  I don’t mean to suggest that I miss — or that I enjoy — feeling left out, but I do propose that I need it.  Specifically, I need its smack on my forehead, its reminder of the comfort of hospitality.  For me, feeling too at ease in my (figurative) lunchroom often means neglecting to invite others to my table.

For a $15 ticket, gas money, and a Saturday away from my family, I bought the gut-flip.  I also bought a Comic Book Cultural Immersion program in the form of a convention considered a “must” on the summer convention schedule.  I would “mingle directly with professionals and exhibitors,” according to the Heroes Convention website, and increase my understanding of comic books and their fans (incidentally, the website was down when I arrived home from Ultimate Comics due to massive traffic — I pulled these quotes only after the fact).

God love him, my husband fully supported my trip to the Heroes Con.  He texted our friend Scott (already there) to ensure that the event wasn’t sold out (it wasn’t), and I readied myself to leave first thing Saturday morning for Charlotte.

My groggy waking thought on Saturday betrayed my superficiality: “What on earth do I wear???”  The same part of me that wanted to skip Ultimate Comics and buy my book at a mainstream retailer urged me to attempt to blend in with the masses (what did that mean?  Chuck Taylors?  jeans?  a Captain America t-shirt?).  However, the louder voice in my head insisted, “Come as you are.”  For this project to be authentic, I needed to show up as myself.  That meant my summer uniform of skirt, wedge sandals, and tank top.

You might think I spent my two hour car ride preparing for my Heroes Con adventure.  You might imagine I used the voice recorder on my phone to dictate notes, or design a strategy, or develop interview questions.

What I actually did was listen to the Omnivore’s Dilemma on CD (in my defense, it was due back to the library on Sunday).

Pollan's descriptions of hunting nearly did me in.

Thus, when I arrived at the Charlotte Convention Center, paid my $15 and received my yellow wristband, I was unprepared and suddenly crackling with nerves.  I was about to walk into the lunchroom, and my tray was shaking.  On the threshold of the main venue, I quickly reminded myself of my purpose: ask questions, meet people, and learn as much as you can about comic books.  “People recognize an open mind,” I assured myself, “there’s nothing to be nervous about.”

Upon entering, this is what I saw:

Photo credit: comicrelated.com

I was so overwhelmed by the number of tables, comics, and humans that I immediately turned to my right to catch my breath and look at my event program.  Fortuitously, adjacent to the entrance was “Podcasters Alley,” populated by four or five people, lots of microphones, and an array of computer equipment.  I took a deep breath and charged up to the Comic Related table.

“So,” I said, feigning confidence, “tell me about what you guys do.”

We were off and running.

It turns out, the folks from both Comic Related and it’s neighboring table, Comic Geek Speak (both exhaustive resource sites which include blogs, podcasts, discussion boards, reviews, and more about all things comic), were my best first stop at the convention.  Not only were these guys incredibly knowledgeable about both the Heroes Con and about comic books in general, they were kind and solicitous.  They answered my 47 questions about where I should stop first, which artists were “must sees,” and how they became interested in comic books in the first place.  They even gave me a free Comic Related bag in which to collect all my swag.  How’s that for hospitality?

Flush with both success and referrals from my first stop, I ventured out on my own into the vast sea of artists, writers, fans, and others.  Below are a few highlights from the floor:

  • Carla Speed McNeil — I irritated a whole line of fans of the award-winning creator of science fiction comic Finder (sorry, folks) by having a fascinating discussion with her about narrative art and women in comics (the bottom line? she said something like, “Since people have stopped asking me what it’s like to be a woman in the field, I’m pretty sure it’s no longer an issue.”)
  • Jeremy Bastian — Recommended as a must-see by my new buddy at Comic Geek Speak, I found this artist’s delicate work arresting.  Though he was a little too busy sketching an intricate portrait to chit chat with me, I forgave him by leaning annoyingly close to his table to watch him work.

  • Eric Adams — This writer/artist’s series Lackluster World was a recommendation from John at Comic Related.  Eric suffered through my questions about how he got involved in the genre (he was interested in pursuing film, he said, but was nervous about it), what he sees in the future for comic books (web comics), and what it feels like to have to talk to strangers at comic book conventions (uh, strange).  The truth is that Eric won me over when he described his comic as “Office Space meets Fight Club in Pleasantville.”  Sold.  I’m on the third in the series, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Emboldened by a quick lunch break, I decided to leave the vast hall and attend a session in one of the upstairs ballrooms in the afternoon.  Scanning the options, I settled on something called The Inkwell Awards, which was described as an awards ceremony honoring great inkers in the field.

“What’s an inker?” you ask.  Well, thanks to my immersion course at Heroes Con, I can offer a semi-intelligent response.  I learned that an inker is one of  two artists who create a traditional comic book.  Once a penciled drawing is completed, it is given to the inker who refines and embellishes the art using black ink.  Ink is typically applied either with a brush or a pen.  Some comic artists ink their own penciled drawings, but many separate the tasks.  The art of inking was immortalized in Kevin Smith’s 1997 film Chasing Amy, in which hot-headed inker Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) is frequently accused of “tracing” the images created by penciler Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck).

While I can’t say this with certainty, the meager attendance at the Inkwell Awards suggests that inking remains a largely misunderstood art form — even among comic book fans.  The inkers’ underdog status only endeared the group to me, however.  I hung on their every word and I stayed until the absolute, bitter end of the event.  Several artists were honored  (including Scott Hanna, who admitted, “I am in love with the line” and reluctant winner Kevin Nowlan), and the group presented a scholarship to a promising young artist, in memory of one of their own.  The Inkwell Awards offered me a window into the camaraderie and commitment present in the comic book artists’ community, and it was powerful to witness.  Though I felt like an imposter, I was welcomed yet again.

In Part 1 of this post, I admitted to some assumptions I held about comic books and their fans.  I think it’s high time I revisited those.

1.  Comic books are all violent and/or misogynistic

Obviously wrong.  Before visiting the Heroes Con, I was unaware of the diversity of comic book genres.  As it turns out, there is something for everyone: manga, science fiction, fantasy, action/adventure, alternative, superhero, horror, humor, romance, children’s… do you want me to go on?  Because I think I could.  Anyway, the ones I was drawn to seemed to fall into the “alternative” category, although I bought my kids an adorable Presidential-themed graphic novel called Washington’s Waltz (by the very sweet Cassie Kelly).

2.  The “artists” who create comic books are untrained — any high school student could reproduce their images and content

Sure, I thought comic book art would be all sinews and spandex, with some warlocks and semi-nude women thrown in for good measure, but clearly I was mistaken.  Did I mention my inappropriate hovering over Jeremy Bastian?  Because he was just one of many artists sketching in real time, sketching as they sat at their tables, and sketching on demand.  One little girl approached Carla Speed McNeil (after I finally moved out of the way) and asked her to draw Wolverine, a request with which the artist happily complied.  As someone who got a D+ on my seventh grade art project (true story), I am bowed by that level of skill under pressure.

3.  Comic book fans are either: a). skinny white guys who live in their parents’ basements, or b). people dressed up in ridiculous costumes

I think the assumptions I made about comic book fans shame me more than the others.  As it turned out, the demographic makeup of Heroes Con attendees was incredibly diverse, reflecting every age group, race, and ethnicity that I could have imagined.  There were lots of children in attendance (Heroes Con bills itself as a family-friendly conference, and strictly enforces a “no objectionable displays” policy), lots of soccer moms, and — yes — some skinny white guys  (who may or may not have lived in their parents’ basements) thrown in for good measure.  There were absolutely people dressed up in “ridiculous” costumes, but perhaps I noticed them less after having myself been clothed in a toga merely 12 hours prior.

Mostly, there were a lot of people really in love with something.  I’ve never seen anything like it, but the closest approximation I can make is to a marathon expo — the registration event, also typically held in a convention center, before a big race — but even expos are edged with a thin layer of competition, regardless of how competitive (or, in my case, how slow) a runner might be.  Either because I was naively undereducated or because it was reality, the Heroes Con wore none of that edge.  It felt like a bunch of  happy people sharing something they really loved.

The morning after my Heroes Con adventure, I sat in church and listened to a beautiful sermon about callings.  For it, a poem by Jennifer Bosveld had been modified into a responsive reading, and one of its lines resonated as I read it aloud:

“We are called to draw a larger circle, to develop a unique relationship with the world.”

Today, that statement is one true thing I know.  It succinctly describes the grip this project, Chasing Maybes, has on me — to crack open my eyes, my mind, my heart, and to keep them open.  Not only am I called to draw a larger circle, but I am convinced that a shrinking circle equals self-immolation by obliviousness, or laziness, or neglect.  A small circle keeps my lunch table empty and my tray shaky, and, in the words of Run DMC, I’m not going out like that.  What I brought home from the Heroes Convention, along with pages of notes, some great comics, and a free bag, was the charge to treat others with the same generosity with which I — an outsider — had been treated.

Even in my darkness — when I am small and mean and tightly wound — I can draw a larger circle and let in more light.

Today, I wish you hospitality, a steady lunch tray, and a big, beautiful circle.  Thank you, always, for showing up.

* This post’s title is from a poem by Jennifer Bosveld.  I’d love to track down its full text so, Deb, if you are reading this, can you tell me where to find it?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Deborah permalink
    June 8, 2011 11:34 am

    Ann, I’ve looked for the poem on line and in the books of her poetry on my shelf and can’t find it. It’s actually on the wall in my office–in a framed print that I bought from Jennifer (at GA) a dozen years ago. I talked with her a year or two later and told her I’d created a reading based on her poem, gave attribution, thought it was “fair use,” under copyright, was that ok with her, etc. She said it was fine, she was flattered, others had done similar things, etc. I suspect if one of us emails her she’d point us to the book it’s in. (I was planning to do that later this summer; if you find that info first would you let me know?) So glad to hear how the message on Sunday found a home in your heart! Blessings, Deb

  2. Dawn permalink
    June 8, 2011 4:46 pm

    Anne,

    Unfortunately, the poem is not published in any books. I just received an email from Jennifer and it’s only available as a print.

    Dawn

  3. June 9, 2011 5:12 am

    Deb and Dawn, thank you so much for looking into this. I think the poem bears such a meaningful message, and it was perfect as a responsive reading. Its words really spoke to me! Thanks to both of you for taking the time to respond to this.

  4. Deb Cayer permalink
    June 9, 2011 9:06 am

    Ann, If you’d like to read the whole thing you’re welcome to come by and take a look! Blessings, Deb

  5. Linda permalink
    June 10, 2011 7:41 am

    Anne: This line “feeling too at ease in my (figurative) lunchroom often means neglecting to invite others to my table.” smacked me on the face. I hope I can remember, notice, and act on it every day.

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