We're talking about Dez and the first San Diego fiasco.
On the Sunday night, a load of us went back to The Hyatt after the convention closed. It was the biggest and most plush hotel in San Diego (in 1994), the professionals from the industry took over the penthouse bar most nights and the drink normally flowed until the early hours, although usually the only people left standing were the Brits, the ex-pats and the journalists (although the US journos were all on soda by that time). Most of the Americans had cried off after a couple of Miller Lites. Most evenings something happened that was the talk of the press the next day. The last night, one of Norwich’s finest exports Steve Thomas (the former editor of a trade paper in the States) and I were sitting on the top floor enjoying a drink with Dez and a couple of Americans including Neil Hansen, a journalist, when Dez turned to me and announced that the tall leggy blond at the bar was looking at him. I looked over and hoped she was looking at Dez because this was a very tall woman in what looked like a genuine king-size, possibly inflatable, fright wig.
Dez, who lacks inhibitions even when he’s sober, sidles over to the woman and within a few minutes the two of them were walking out of the bar, Dez, very surreptitiously giving us the nod – he was in! Steve Thomas looked at me and I think I returned the same expression. “Did that woman look like a man in drag?” he asked and I was inclined to agree. She looked well worn with a hardened skin and was at least 6 feet tall. She was quite striking, but was obviously on the mutton side of lamb. We sat there in awe and disbelief, one of the Dark Horse management, one of the real genuine guys, despite being American, in the business, wandered over – he actually had a quite striking resemblance to the woman Dez had just walked out with, except his nose was a bit smaller. He had a beaming smile on his face and called me to one side. “The person Dez just walked out with tried it on Walter last night. [Walter = Walter Koenig, the actor who famously played Chekov in the original Star Trek TV series and was in San Diego promoting his new comics series] She’s a guy! We don’t know if he’s a transsexual or a transvestite but your boss has just walked out of here with a man on his arm!” This particular Dark Horse employee had known both of us for 5 years and he had a particularly set opinion of Dez. At best it was called toleration, but once at Bristol, a few years later, he just told me he thought my boss was ‘an arrogant drunken asshole’. Oddly enough, I’m still friends with this guy, but we mainly talk about dogs and my lack of understanding of American football rather than comics.
We didn’t see Dez again that evening and the following day he was cracking jokes about smoking California joints in the girl’s convertible, but when I pushed the subject to whether or not ‘she’ had stayed the night, he said that she had gone home shortly after they left the Hyatt. So why hadn’t he come back for more of a session? He was tired; he thought that perhaps the travelling had finally caught up with him. That was the brightest he was all day. His mood grew increasingly darker as the day wore on, but that might have had a lot to do with some of the looks he was getting from other hotel guests who were leaving as we were.
Whatever had happened the night before with the lady-man, who looked like a reject from Def Leppard, it obviously had been something of a pain in the arse for Dez. He proceeded to be a prick for the rest of our stay there.
Now for a light-hearted aside: One of the highlights of the week in California was meeting and becoming friends with Billy Tucci, a great guy who I count him as one of my best friends in comics, even though we’ve barely spoken for the last 10 years. Billy Tucci makes George W. Bush seem like a really reasonable almost pacifistic guy. Billy is a redneck New Yorker who believes that we all have a right to carry a weapon and we should all fight for our countries. Billy’s ambition was that he’d wanted to join the Marines, mainly so that he could kill someone in armed combat protecting his country or the free world – I’m not sure whether it was just the act of killing someone or he wanted to do it with an excuse, but it was quite frightening all the same, that a rational, free-thinking East Coast man should have such wish. A former fashion designer turned comics artist, Billy was/is one of the most genuine people in comics and I remember giving him some advice at dinner once that he said changed his life.
We were talking about fans – the slimy, greasy, overweight, under-nourished geeks and the ones who follow creators round like sheep at conventions, asking the most banal of questions and generally conveying a feeling of unpleasantness. Billy hated them. They were an anathema to someone with his background. Then in the middle of it all he stopped and looked at me, “But I gets this letter from a kid a couple of weeks ago and he’s like, this is so cool, you’ve made me interested in the Martial Arts, you’ve inspired me to do this, that and the other. And I’m looking at this letter and I don’t really know what to do or say.”
I said, “Pin it to your drawing board. Every so often, when you’re feeling low or down, look at it and remind yourself that this is the reason you’re doing it. If it matters to someone then you’ve made a difference to that person’s life in whatever small way. That kid pays your wages, you should remember him and all of his friends, and the ones we’ve all been taking the piss out of. Without them, none of us would be eating this food in this good restaurant at your expense!”
Four years later at a big signing in Birmingham, Billy had the longest queue of autograph and sketch hunters. Everyone else was doing what they were there for and getting on to the next person. Billy was talking, laughing and joking with his fans, as he always does, and refused to stop at the end because not all of them had been seen. He doesn’t do many comics any more, I believe - the industry’s loss, I’m afraid. The highlight for me was when he saw me. He excused himself from his drawing duties, jumped over the table, shouted out, “Oy, you old wanker!” at the top of his voice, to which I replied by calling him a Yankee tosser (I’d taught him how to swear in English) and we gave each other a massive hug. We’re still friends.
The rest of the San Diego trip involved a few hours at a beach in Malibu that confirmed my fears that the Pacific ocean is as cold as the Atlantic and a day in LA, which involved losing my sunglasses, going to a party and having an unwelcome encounter with the motel and residents from hell.
Jumping ahead of chronology; at a later San Diego, Dez’s evil attentions were turned to Mike Conroy, a one-time colleague of mine at CI. He found out in 1998, when Dez took him on the same journey. Apparently Dez’s rant at him was so bad Mike almost had a breakdown when he returned. But like me, Mike viewed going to San Diego as something of a Mecca and the opportunity to actually get there was greater than all the acceptable risks. Dez tried his bully tactics on Mike when the entire CI trip looked destined to become as newsworthy as the entire convention weekend. Dez had taken the entire team minus one – me – to San Diego. He was using the last of the build up of cash from the boom years, but by then he also had to use a number of credit cards to ensure they could ‘afford’ the trip.
This was the year of the big meltdown. I’d already been the victim of Dez’s increasing megalomania, the rest of the team were about to see it for what it really was...
Comics Lesson 14:
Comics Conventions are the Mecca for the true fan. For Americans it was either the long-standing San Diego or the newer, jazzier, Chicago Wizard World Con. In the UK we had this quaint thing called The UK Comics Festival that resembled a car boot sale in a 3-star hotel and had all the ambience of a tragic funeral. France has Angouleme a massive event over a week with 250,000+ people attending. Germany has Frankfurt, Poland has Lodz, and Brazil has Rio De Janeiro – the UK now has a number of events masquerading as something important.
The point is they take place, big or small, wherever comics are read by a good number of people. Most conventions have to boast a list of comics personalities to guarantee attendance. People like Jim Lee, Brian Bendis, Mark Millar and whoever else is the current artist du jour are the stars who are revered in the same ways people will fawn over the Brad Pitts and Tom Cruises of the film world! Arguably it is one of the pinnacles of a creator’s working life if he is one of the major invited guests at a convention; it’s sort of like official recognition or an unofficial award for services given. But conventions are also the places where most professionals get together, talk work – casually make deals, and let their hair down and enjoy themselves. In the UK it is similar except more time is spent - and more work done - in the bars. Conventions also have the biggest concentration of people working in comics or related to the comics industry, so these are the places that fans like to go for maximum autograph book attention and the wannabes use as their way to impress the people that need to be impressed.
Conventions also offer (supposedly) the largest selection of comicbooks on sale anywhere at that specific time (not true, ever) and a third of the auditoriums they are held at are normally covered with people having paid enormous amounts of money for a table or a booth, hoping to be able to make anywhere near the same amount of profit they would make from standard comics marts or markets.
Conventions are real geekfests as well, which of course doesn’t help matters when a film crew is there trying to make a film about how comics aren’t just for kids and geeks.
Next time: Being in charge of the magazine while civil war raged in San Diego.
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