Friday, April 07, 2006

Friday post-convention fatigue

Once upon a time, long ago, someone asked me if I had ever considered going to a comics convention, seeing what a big fan I was.

I sneered with the kind of arrogance that you only can summon when you are thirteen or fourteen. "Go hang out with a bunch of dorks dressed in their homemade Starfleet uniforms? Those people are scary. The only way you'd ever get me to one of those things is if I was an actual professional working at one."

Well, now it's thirty years later, and I have been to several conventions as a professional -- not a FAMOUS one, I hasten to add -- but you know, I have done it enough that it has become a case of being careful what you wish for. Because it's been almost a week since Emerald City and I'm still tired. Working a show is damn hard.

Emerald City Convention in Seattle is always a blast, though. This may have been the best one yet, both for me and my middle-school cartooning students. We gave away over three hundred of our little ashcan "Convention Collection" books, most of which the kids autographed for interested readers, we had more participation from parents than ever before, and we had a hell of a lot of fun. In addition to Brandon Hanvey coming up from San Francisco, we also had our dear friend and sometime cartoonist Lorinda Adams come in from South Bend to work the show with us as well, which was a great treat.

Emerald City was not without its dramas, but I'll get to those. Rather than try to sum up the whole weekend, I'll just tell you about some of my favorite moments here and there. And what photos we were able to get, I'll share with you.

Here's a typical moment. My student Jessica is signing a book for someone, while in the background, you can see me giving her father the short history of the cartooning class, the after-school arts program, and why it's a Good Thing for the kids to be there. It's not really a hard sell once parents SEE what their kids are doing -- the hurdle is always getting them to come. But once Patrick saw his daughter signing her first autograph, he was instantly on board. That's always how it works. You can see our booth-mate Brandon Hanvey there on the right with his books, as well. Brandon very kindly let us have the money spot, facing front towards the door.

People often ask me why we don't sell our books instead of giving them away. Really, this is why: because the point of the whole thing is to get the books out and circulating and let the kids have the experience of signing. Sure, there's also the fact that if actual money changes hands then there is a whole new level of school-district paperwork headaches that I am not prepared to deal with -- but mostly it's because if the class convention book's free, people are more willing to pick one up, and once it's in their hands the students can offer to sign it, and it's just a lot more fun for everybody. Sitting there with a pile of unsold books as people wander up, avoid making eye contact, and then wander away again is a small-press comics experience that I'd just as soon my class not have to deal with until they're a little older. If they stick with it they have YEARS to experience that particular brand of creator heartbreak.

Thankfully, Brandon didn't have to worry about that. He seemed to be doing all right, sales-wise. Of course we were all interested in the new book, "Entanglement," and as I have mentioned in previous columns, my kids were ALL OVER "The Stereos." I think Brandon was alternately amused and embarrassed by the sheer worship some of the kids had for him, particularly Madeline, who was literally tongue-tied for a moment or two. Upon being introduced, she blurted out, "I really like your books, very much," all in a rush as though she had mentally rehearsed it for an hour, along with a formal little bob of her head. It was very endearing. Brandon ignored her starstruck panic and showed her the notebook where he had been thumbnailing out his next project, and Madeline handled it as though it was made of glass. When Brandon's wife Nicole came by on Saturday afternoon, I greeted her with, "Aren't you married to the famous artist Brandon Hanvey? The hero of middle-school students all over west Seattle?" which made her collapse with giggles. At any rate, I think it sold him a few books, which made me happy and somewhat assuaged my guilt for my kids completely overpowering the booth space otherwise.

This is one of the funnier shots of the booth, I think. As you can see, the kids just plain don't give a damn about stormtroopers, but they are pretty interested in who gets the next shot at the goldfish crackers. That's Katrina in the yellow hat, which has by the way become her most valued possession. Anime Kingdom moved a LOT of those hats out of their booth to my kids... the girls all wanted one. More about Katrina later.

Seeing the stormtroopers reminds me of one of the most hilarious moments of the show. My student Rachel and her father Lew were going to go check out Artist's Alley before Rachel settled in at our booth, and I was giving her the usual pep talk. "TALK to the artists. Ask questions. Tell them who you are and what you're doing here, and take some of our books with you, because they're sure to ask what your work looks like. Don't be shy, because I promise you, they'd much rather talk to someone your age about drawing than to some geek my age about a plot point in Justice League... especially if the geek's standing there in his Jedi outfit."

And as if on cue, at that very moment, a bespectacled, balding fellow --at least fifty years old -- strode past the booth, resplendent in his Jedi robes, holding his plastic lightsaber regally before him as though he was going to bestow a knighthood.

Rachel started to giggle, and I thought Lew might have a hemorrhage from trying to hold in his laughter until our bald, pudgy Jedi was out of earshot.

Me? I just raised an eyebrow and said mildly, "The prosecution rests."

That did it. Rachel and her dad exploded with laughter. With comedy, it's all timing.

Here is a great shot of my students on Saturday morning. That's Caitlyn, Kelsey, and Katherine from Denny Middle School, while above them Katrina from the Madison class is holding Torvald the troll. I am so grateful to Laura for shooting this and posting it, you have no idea... our own camera crapped out within minutes of arriving, so every shot you are seeing here was stolen from someone else. When I saw this particular photo it was instantly my favorite.

Here's why. I was going to tell you about Katrina. Katrina was the source of most of the weekend's drama, which is a story worth telling. It sums up a lot of what we go through trying to make all this work, and why I think it's important to do it.

Some background first. Most of my students are very bright, well-read, daydreamer types... a little eccentric, a little odd, but capital-S smart. Typically nerdy geek types. And of all my little nerdlings, Katrina is probably the smartest. My boss told me a couple of weeks ago that Katrina, who is twelve, had blown through the SAT's like Willie Mays going back for a routine fly ball.

She had told me this in the hushed tones that I imagine they used to say things like The vicar thinks it might be WITCHCRAFT! back in the 1600's, but I just nodded. Of course Katrina was brilliant and eccentric and misunderstood. Those are the people that naturally gravitate to fandom, especially the creative side of it where they make their own stuff. My classes are full of them and always have been. My TA, Brianna, a Madison grad herself, has been enrolled in college since she was fifteen. Devin was trying to write a novel when he was eleven. David went straight into some kind of accelerated gifted program after leaving middle-school that only takes six or eight new students a year. And so on. Bright kids, with the Dork Side strong in them. Those are my students. They are occasionally raucous but never really delinquent.

So I was a little shocked when, in trying to arrange Katrina's ride, I phoned her mother and was told that not only would Katrina not be going to the show, but she was being pulled from the entire afterschool arts program. "Katrina needs to learn that there are consequences for bad choices," her mother huffed at me.

What had Katrina done? Set fire to the school? Boosted a car? You'd think so, from the way her mother was carrying on, but no, Katrina had mouthed off to one of her teachers. Specifically, she had told her math teacher that she thought math was dumb.

When Mrs. V--------- told me this, I had to stifle a snort. I freely admit Katrina can be an arrogant little diva, and certainly she should know better than to lip off to a teacher like that... but this was a ridiculous over-reaction.

As luck would have it, I happened to know the math teacher in question, and I felt reasonably sure this wasn't coming from her. We use her room for class, as a matter of fact, and I vaguely remembered Liz bracing a sulky Katrina about this incident a few days previously. In fact, I had felt a little responsible, because what had happened was that Katrina had blown through her assignment in record time as usual and, once finished, had started to work on her comics pages, at which point Liz had suggested she find a math project to do and Katrina had told Liz... well, you know. Later I'd had a word with Liz and we had worked it all out, and I had cautioned the kids not to be taking during-the-day regular class time to do comics without express permission from their teachers.

Now, though, Katrina's mother had decided to take matters into her own hands. "I'm sorry, but this is one of the few things she really cares about, and it's a consequence that will have a real impact."

It certainly would. What I WANTED to say and what I COULD say were miles apart. What I wanted to say was, You idiot woman, the problem was already handled. You are swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. The way to handle bright kids is to ENGAGE them, not insure they'll be MORE bored. Liz Andreasen is a smart teacher with a lot on the ball, so just call her and tell her you want Katrina to do some kind of extra-credit math work that involves art, or something like that. But when you punish a kid for being smart, you send completely the wrong message. The way to handle this is to find something tough enough for Katrina that she's not just coasting and bored, and if you don't challenge her in school NOW one of these days she'll be in a class where she NEEDS to bring her "A" game and she won't HAVE one. You know what I took up for fun at her age when I was bored in school? Crime! Is that what you'd prefer Katrina be doing instead of comics? Because you are damn well headed that way.

Given the situation, though, I was hamstrung by my job. The rules are such that all I could say, was, "Well, you're the parent. I do think it's a terrible shame, though. Katrina's a star, one of our best. She would have been the toast of the show."

Katrina's mother at least had the grace to sound a little embarrassed. "Well, she has to learn."

I bit back a dozen snide replies to that-- learn WHAT?-- said a pleasant if curt goodbye, and fumed about it to Lorinda in the car all the way to the show. Rin was completely on the same page with me, having her own similar horror stories of dealing with people who just didn't GET IT when she was younger.

Then Rin's cell phone rang. It was Katrina, wanting to know if she got a ride down to the con could we get her safely home?

"Well sure, of course we can. Your mother is okay with this?"

"If I can get a ride home."

I'd have paid for a cab out of my own pocket. "Of course we can. Come on down."

And so she did, and we had a GREAT day. Katrina worked that booth like she'd been doing it for years, she stayed all day, and when I say worked I mean WORKED. After the first half hour or so she was giving the spiel about the OST arts program and how this was a field trip for us better than I was doing it. If we were publishing for money I'd have made her our marketing director. My only regret was that her mother couldn't see her daughter so completely in her element.

But at least we got to see it. Take another look at that photo up there, now that you know the story, and how happy Katrina is in it. That's why it's my favorite shot from the show, and why I'm so grateful to Laura for getting it. Sometimes the good guys win one.

How'd Katrina manage it? I'm not sure. I am pretty certain it was legit, though. I didn't want to embarrass her about it in front of people, so I really didn't get a chance to quiz Katrina about it in detail until we were on our way home. She muttered that she had to 'write out a list of bad choices and stuff,' and she 'really didn't want to talk about it.' I still don't exactly know what all she had to promise her mother to get her to relent, but it's been a week and there have been no angry phone calls to me or my bosses at school, so I feel safe in assuming Katrina had actual permission and didn't just climb out a window.


There are lots of other stories about my kids and the con, but that's my favorite. I will mention that all the professionals in attendance were absolutely wonderful to the kids, and I particularly want to mention Erik Larsen, Gail Simone, Batton Lash, Roberta Gregory, Luke Martin, Ben and his wife Anne from Mad Sea Dog Press, and of course Brandon and his wife Nicole. And I also want to thank, loudly and publicly, show promoters Jim and George Demonakos for being so willing to work with us to make it all happen, especially after Madison screwed up the check. Thanks again to all of you: you really did a Good Thing last weekend, as Katrina's story illustrates, I hope. I have a whole class full of them, and for one weekend, you all helped them feel like stars instead of misfits. Bless you for that. You guys rock.

Here's an end-of-day exhaustion shot. I included it because it's actually the best view of the booth.

And on that note, I'm off to bed. See you next week.

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Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Great stuff, Greg!


And, everyone, Entanglement's a fun book! Order it from Brandon!

4/07/2006 10:52:00 PM  
Blogger Tegan said...

I'm glad that I was able to help out a little. I wanted to go back and get more pictures... but I just never got to it. Maybe I'll get more pictures next year.

4/08/2006 02:15:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I said this last week, but I'm gonna say it again: Greg, you ROCK. I would have killed for a teacher like you, and a program like this, when I was those kids' age. Next time I see you, you don't pay for drinks.

4/08/2006 10:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Brandon said...

If I had Greg as a teacher when I was in Junior High, my comics would be ten times better than they are now.

Thanks for the fun con, Greg.

4/08/2006 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

I was fighting jet lag and a cold, so I couldn't go to the convention this year. I remember I went to a (your?) booth last year and picked up a comic by middle-schoolers. They were so excited to be there, and I wish I'd seen them this time around.

What a cool teacher!

4/08/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Lorinda Adams said...

Uttered by 95% of the creators, and at least 20% of the people who even opened their mouths upon walking by the booth... "Maaan, I wish I had this in middle school!" ^_^

It was a blast, thanks for letting me tag along!

4/08/2006 11:58:00 PM  
Blogger Dafna said...

This was a fantastic read! Like most of the people that have commented/will comment have said: I wish I had THIS in middle school!

I'm glad there are teachers like you who care so much for their students. Thanks for a great Sunday read!

4/09/2006 09:12:00 PM  
Blogger Bret Taylor said...

Glad Katrina made it. That kid's gonna be a star.

4/10/2006 05:14:00 PM  
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