Dilettante 006: Convention Season

Toucan reading a comic
Steve Liber smiling
Steve Lieber

I’ve been attending conventions as a professional for over 20 years, and my first as a fan was over 35 years ago. That was Pittcon, or the Pittsburgh ComiCon, or something like that. The convention was held at a shopping mall in Monroeville, the same mall where Dawn of the Dead was filmed. One of the guests at the show was Marie Severin.

I was dropped off at the con with a dollar to spend, and even in 1977, that wasn’t going to go very far. I bought a hot dog or something, and spent the rest of the time staring with desperate jealousy at all the comics I’d never, ever get to read. I probably looked miserable, which might’ve been why Marie called me over and offered to do a sketch for me. She asked me who she should draw, and 10-year-old me surprised her by asking for Doc Savage. She whipped out a marker and drew a terrific sketch—full body with a dynamic pose—without any pencil preparation. I was floored by it. I took her drawing home and filled an entire sketchpad with copies of it. By the time I reached the end of the pad, I ‘d gotten pretty good.

Twenty years later at Comic-Con in 1997, I was seated near Marie in Artists’ Alley. She was mostly flooded with fans, but during a brief lull I went over to introduce myself. I told her the story and how her moment of generosity was instrumental in my becoming a comic book artist. She covered her mouth and said, “Oh God, I’m sorry.”

Comics culture can be intense even in small doses. Conventions concentrate the experience and maximize the possibilities for introductions, interactions, juxtapositions. I’ve made new friends and cemented relationships with old ones. I’ve watched artists I’ve admired since I was a child working on drawings, and pawed through stacks of their original art. I’ve met clients and collaborators who’ve changed my career.

I’ve reviewed portfolios for dozens, maybe hundreds of artists—from an unaccountably terrified youngster who could draw like a Renaissance master, to egomaniacal jerks who’ll never finish a panel, much less a story. I’ve seen colleagues cement important business deals, and peers commit career suicide by speaking just a bit too loudly in a restaurant. I’ve shared a microphone with Will Eisner and a cookie with Evan Dorkin. I’ve sketched on the same sheet of paper as Joe Kubert, and I’ve traded original art for a bottle of water and a tragic slice of microwave pizza. At one show I heard one particular story (with a consistent punchline) told by three different people about three different artists. I’ve had a man who was at least 25 years older than me tell me he’s loved my work since he was a kid. I’ve struggled to find superlatives to express my boundless admiration for certain cartoonists, and I’ve struggled to find anything polite at all to say to others.

I was a guest at a Canadian con where someone exited through a fire door and the alarm went off. It was deafening, echoing through the high-ceiling cinderblock concrete space, and no one knew how to turn it off. The alarm rang for over an hour, and the only way for anyone to be heard was to shout over the din, so every artist, fan, and dealer was conducting business at the top of their lungs. I stuck a marker cap in each ear and critiqued an aspiring artist’s portfolio with sketches and scribbled notes instead of words. At another con, I was seated near the door in an unheated church basement in February. Every time the door opened, snow would blow in and land on my stack of original art. The cold, drafty air got to me and I quickly lost my voice, so I spent the rest of the con pitching my work to potential readers with what amounted to a series of flash cards.

If you’re the sort of person who worries about your status in this world of ours (which is to say, if you’re wired like any other primate), there can be petty ego blows and boosts at any convention. There will be cons where nothing goes right, and every encounter seems to push you lower on the totem pole. One con actually printed a “ratings guide” in their program book—a name-by-name listing of all the guests with a letter, A, B, C or D indicating how desirable their autograph was. I was a C, and based on how I did at that show, that was probably generous. Should’ve been an awful weekend, but that’s where I met Jeff Parker. He was seated in Artists’ Alley with a stack of pages that were so well composed I could tell he was a good artist from 10 feet away. We struck up a conversation, and 20 years later, we’re studiomates and collaborators and friends.

And sometimes you can even solve a mystery. A few years ago, Russ Heath was a guest at a con here in Portland. I own a ton of Heath’s work, and I wanted to get one (and only one) comic book autographed. After much struggle, I went with Our Army At War #247. I love this comic. It was a real stylistic departure for Heath. The story took place almost entirely at night, and Heath used much broader areas of solid black than he usually did, along with loose, spiky, frenetic penwork that might’ve been influenced by the illustrator Bob Peak and seemed to anticipate Bill Sienkewicz’s work by 20 years. I had to ask him why he abandoned his usual precise, controlled inkline for that one story. And seeing how gorgeous the results were, I’d always wondered why he never tried it again. Russ flipped through the comic, pausing to nod or shake his head at a few panels. Did they meet his approval or just trigger a memory? Then he turned back to the first page and asked my name. As he signed it to me, he told me that he’d injured his arm that month. He had to draw the entire issue while wearing a cast.  

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month on Toucan!

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