REVIEW: Gutter Magic

One of the best things about going to New York Comic Con was getting to meet up with fellow creators, and one such person I met was Rich Douek.  We got to talk about comics, writing and other stuff, and he shared with me a copy of his debut comic, Gutter Magic.  The comic book I received was in fact a preview of the upcoming series proper, giving us a trio of brief shorts to introduce us to this magic-dominated alternate world that Douek has created.

Of course, the problem with little teaser comics like this is that, the better they are, the more frustrating a reading experience they become.  While a poor one can be easily discarded, one that shows as much promise like this leaves us, as a reader, keen to read more and agrivated about only being given a brief taste.  I can’t help but feel like the story recounted in prose on the inside front cover of the book – about how the history of this world deviates from our own, and the role magic played in winning World War 2 and shifting the course of society in the decades that followed – may have made for a compelling introductory comic in its own right, and it’s almost a waste glossing over it in three paragraphs.

As for what we do get, the first story of the three, called “Gutter Magic”, feels like the most compelling, and the most relevant.  It lays out some of Douek’s mythology, and makes it tangible by approaching it through the perspective of Cinder Byrnes, a man without natural magical talent who has been fighting tooth and nail  to nevertheless become the world’s greatest sorceror.  The “gutter magic” of the title refers to the sleight of hand and card tricks that lesser magicians rely on to get by, while the magical elite can use more grandiose wizard spells.  It’s a really intriguing premise for a character and a story, with udnertones of class division that could give the book added edge in our current economic climate.  Again, I could have read a whole issue just introducing us to Cinder and his daily struggles.

But instead, the remaining two thirds of the book are taken up by another pair of shorts – “Nice Work” and “Havoc’s Hand” –  which instead shed light on characters who I imagine will make up the supporting cast of the series itself.  These are certainly interesting enough, but they feel more peripheral than the opening Cinder story, and when you’re working to grab a reader’s attention with your comic, you’re making it harder for yourself asking them to start from scratch twice over the course of the comic.  I’d have preferred to see the first story expanded into one longer tale, or even had three shorts each revolving around Cinder.

On the plus side, Douek is clearly a talented writer.  His dialogue flows quickly and naturally, with the necessary world-building exposition delivered to us unobtrusively.  And though we only get glimpses of it, it’s clear that Douek has crafted a deep, immersive mythology here, primed for further exploration.  I for one would certainly be keen to see where he’s going with these story threads.

Each of the three shorts is handled by a different artist.  The first story is drawn by the talented Jason Baroody.  I’m a real fan of Baroody’s talent for “camera” placement in a panel, knowing just the angle to get the most dramatic image.  His faces occasionally come across as a bit staid, but his bodies are well proportioned, and his pages look slick and dramatic.  The understated colors of Paul Little are a nice match for Baroody’s work.

J.C. Grande, whose work I’ve commented on a few times in my reviews, handles the art on the second story, which is possibly the best-looking of the three.  The loose, almost cartoony style gives the pages a real sense of energy and excitement, and Little’s precise coloring ensures there are no issues with clarity that have occasionally popped up in Grande’s other work.

I’d say the work of Craig S. Yeung on the third short is the least successful of the three.  I can understand where he was going, with a rough, muddy aesthetic to compliment the more horror-tinged vibe of this particular tale.  But the result is that some of the storytelling is hard to follow.  Furthermore, some of the facial expressions and body shapes feel awkward and unnatural, which took me out of the reading experience.  The coloring of Scott Lemien is pretty good, however, with a pastel-like appearance that’s a match for the moody artwork.

There are a couple of nitpicks here and there, but overall this is a very solid debut for Rich Douek.  If the goal of this collection of tales was to generate interest in an upcoming Gutter Magic series, then I would say this comic was most definitely a success.  Hopefully, if I meet Rich in New York next year, he’ll have some more chapters to share.

Gutter Magic is available to buy from DriveThruComics.

My Week in New York: The End

Another 7am start, and I got out of bed and showered with a heavy heart, knowing that this day would mark the end of my holiday in New York City.  After a hearty fry-up breakfast to set me up for the day, I went up to my room and packed my bags.  As it turned out, this was quite an ordeal.  Fortunately, my mum had suggested packing a hold-all bag inside my suitcase that I could use as an extra bag if I couldn’t fit all my stuff in my case for the return journey.  And even with the hold-all as a second bag, it was a tight squeeze.  After much struggling, I had to give up on trying to get the Swamp Thing toy packaging (this great pulp mould of Swampy’s head) into my suitcase, having to leave it behind in the hotel room to get trashed.  But eventually, I had everything packed, and my hotel room emptied.  I was sad to exit the room for the last time, leaving my keycard on the table as I went out.

I went down to the front desk, and checked in my bags for the day: my flight wasn’t due until 11:05pm, and there was little point hauling my suitcase around the city for several hours.  The folks at the Comfort Inn were good enough to put all my bags in storage, freeing me up for a final day of shopping in NYC.  I picked up three T-shirts from Old Navy, two more pairs of skinny jeans from Levi’s, and a new jacket from Macy’s.  So, one good thing about my trip to New York was that it got me a whole new wardrobe, head-to-toe.  All I neglected to pick up were underpants and socks.  Oh, and a hat.  My friend Jamie keeps on telling me I need to start wearing a hat.

When I was done shopping for clothes like a normal human, I then resorted to the much more geeky/fun pursuit of comics hunting: as if I hadn’t already had my fill of comics!  I started the day by kicking myself, because I had intended to go back to Midtown Comics’ booth at NYCC on Sunday and pick up an Ex Machina Deluxe: Volume 1 hardcover, but it had slipped my mind completely.  So I decided to start my search for it at Jim Hanley’s Comic Universe.  For doing the signing, I had been given a 20% discount card for the store, valid for a year.  Since I was about to travel back home to Scotland, I figured it’d be now or never for making use of it.  Unfortunately – perhaps because it was Comic-Con season – Jim Hanley’s stock of graphic novels was sorely depleted, so much so I couldn’t find any book I was looking for, and I had a whole shortlist I ran through in my mind.  I eventually settled for Shade the Changing Man.

An aside on this theme of stock trouble: why does America hate John Constantine?  Is it because he’s English?  At Midtown Comics, Forbidden Planet, Jim Hanley’s, even New York Comic Con, the stock of Hellblazer comics was abysmal.  I say, without exaggeration, that Forbidden Planet Glasgow has the widest range of Hellblazer trades I’ve seen anywhere in the world, in my admittedly limited experience.

But back to my Ex Machina search.  Midtown Comics had a much wider range of books available, but still no Ex Machina Volume 1.  I had to make the long walk to Forbidden Planet (the New York one, the Glasgow one would have been a long walk indeed!) to finally get the elusive hardcover.  While in Forbidden Planet, I also picked up Elk’s Run, an early story by Joshua Hale Fialkov that I’ve heard great things about.  So, worth the trek out!

In amidst this search, I had lunch at Goodburger (where I took two bites of a Badcookie before promptly chucking it in the bin), and stopped in various shops selling jeans.  I figured I’d check out the range offered by folks other than Levi’s.  But I was promptly reminded why I’m not normally fussed about shopping for clothes.  The prices were crazy!  Diesel was charging several hundred bucks for a pair of their jeans, and their jackets required an investment of over $1000!  For $1000 I could fund an issue of a comic, or wear a jacket with a trendy label.  Crazy, I tells ya!

With time moving briskly on, I made a final stop at a souvenir shop to pick up some sparkly tat for family back home, then headed back to the hotel.  I got my bags, and was sure to tell the staff I had greatly enjoyed my stay, and would happily return next year.  And it’s true.  I really don’t have any complaints about the Comfort Inn Convention Center, it would definitely get my recommendation for anyone thinking of visiting NYC to attend the Comic-Con next year.

My last view of NYC before entering Penn Station... goodbye, Big Apple!

I had scoped out the journey from the hotel to Penn Station, figuring out the quickest, most efficient route to take by foot.  I thought I had it all sorted.  But it turns out that journey feels a lot longer when hauling a heavy suitcase and an even heavier hold-all bag.  I did eventually struggle my way into the station, and got my ticket to Newark Airport.  Agonisingly, I had to walk a couple of circles around the station trying to find the exit onto my platform, due to confusing signs, but I did finally manage to get on my train, and it was time for the journey home to begin in earnest.

I arrived at Newark International Airport a few hours early, and I must say it’s a lot less intense departing from the place than it is arriving there.  Less people with guns eyeballing you, at least.  I did, however, experience some confusion trying to find the check-in point.  I’d go upstairs, and someone would tell me to go downstairs, then when I got downstairs someone would tell me to go back upstairs.  Have I mentioned those heavy bags I was hauling around?  But eventually, I found the British Airways check-in tucked away in an obscure corner of the airport.  There was a nervous moment where I had to check if my giant, bulging hold-all bag could count as hand luggage.  I slid it into the little “your bag can be no bigger than this” frame.  It sat on top of it for a few ominous moments, before slowly sliding down into place.  I just made it, it would seem.  That could go in the overhead carrier, and the backpack on my bag could count as the “briefcase or small bag” I could put under my seat.  Technically, I was within my right, but when I was taking up three little trays with my stuff while going through security, or huffing and puffing carrying this heavy hold-all around the airport, I kept on worrying someone would stop me and tell me to check my bag in.

I grabbed a quick dinner nearby my gate, figuring I’d set myself up and avoid depending on dodgy airplane food.  When I arrived at my gate, my heart sank to discover my plane was delayed by nearly one hour.  Not disastrous in myself, but I had to catch a connecting flight at Heathrow, and suddenly that changeover was looking very tight indeed.  I passed the time by reading some more of the Starman Omnibus, and watching this old lady just walk in circles endlessly.

Eventually, the time came to board the plane, and I watched in quiet amazement at the number of people unable to follow simple instructions and wait for the number of their row to be called out.  This always fascinates me.  I’ve been on planes enough times to know how it works.  They’ll shout for people with small children, then they’ll shout for people in business class, then they’ll shout for people in rows 30-25, then rows 30-20, then rows 30-15, then say everyone can join the queue.  So why then, every time, is there always someone from row 2 front of the line, moaning and grumbling when they’re told they have to wait before getting on the plane?  I just don’t get it.  Whether you get on the plane first or last, YOU WILL BE SITTING ON THE SAME SEAT, AND YOU WILL BE LEAVING AT THE SAME TIME AS EVERYONE ELSE!  You’ll be on the plane for long enough as it is, why rush to get on sooner and be on it even longer?  Calm down, take a seat, and wait until you’re called!

When I got on the plane, I found I was sitting next to a 2 year old flying for the first time.  Cue lots of squirming, whimpering, and trying to undo his seatbelt, get out of his seat and run away.  He kept on grabbing my arm, looking up at me as if expecting me to aid in his escape.  Sorry, kid, I just wanted to sleep.  I’ll admit, though, once we took off the kid quietened down, and wasn’t any trouble at all.  In fact, he promptly fell asleep, and his mother carried him over to an empty row of seats behind us and laid him out.  It didn’t take me much longer than that to doze off, and I ended up sleeping through the majority of the flight.

When he landed at Heathrow Airport in London, I was informed that my flight to Glasgow would be boarding in five minutes.  I don’t see what the point of them telling me this was, as I still had to go through the agonising procedure of crawling through their security.  Heathrow is surely the worst airport I’ve ever been to.  When I stopped there back in 2004 I had to deal with massive queues bigger than any I’ve had to experience in any other airport, and this year I went through no less than 4 security checkpoints.  While Newark managed to all this stuff in two stages, Heathrow dragged the whole process out over two floors, and all the while I’m hearing the last boarding call messages for my Glasgow flight blaring over the speaker system.  Better yet, when I get through security the tanoy system starts shouting, “JOHN LEES, HEAD TO THE DEPARTURE GATE IMMEDIATELY!”  How embarrassing.  And here’s the kicker: after all that paranoid security, I walk up to the gate, and they say, “Are you John Lees?”  I reply with, “Yes,” and they just give me a boarding pass and usher me onto the plane without even looking at my passport!

I get on the plane, the last one to sit down, and I become that person I hate, the one I silently tut at, assuming they’ve held up my take-off while they shopped at duty-free or whatever.  Only, it seems it wasn’t just me that held the flight up.  After all that hurrying and stress, the plane then doesn’t take off for 40 MINUTES!  It turns out there was a bit of a hold-up with the take-offs, and they had to wait for an opening.

When we belatedly took off for Glasgow, it was a nice, short flight.  I just had time to read a couple of chapter of Ex Machina before our descent began.  And I was home, back in sunny, rainy Glasgow!

At the airport, I went to baggage claim, and to my dismay, there was no sign of my bags.  Going to the customer services office, I was told that due to the tight connection, there had been no time to load my bag into the plane.  Erm… how about that 40 minutes when we were just sitting there?  However, they told me by bag would be sent over on the next flight, and took my details.  Fair enough, my bag arrived at my home a few hours later.

I’d had an overnight flight, and it was now Tuesday afternoon in Glasgow.  I called a cab, and in no time at all, I was home.  New York already felt very much in the past tense, and it’s funny how quickly a vacation like that feels long gone.  But I was happy to see my family again, and enjoyed catching up with everyone and sharing stories of my time away.  This was an absolutely amazing week – I’m already planning on a return visit in 2012!

My Week in New York: Sunday

I got to sleep a little later this day, staying in bed until the luxurious time of 7am before getting up and ready.  I headed off to the Javits Center with a tinge of sadness, as I knew this would be the last day of what had been an immensely fun New York Comic Con.  I didn’t have any panels lined up, so I knew I’d be able to make the most of my last day with lots of selling at the ComixTribe booth.

My only extended foray away from the table came when I attended the Jeff Lemire signing in the afternoon.  I had arrived at Javits with a much lighter satchel bag on Sunday, having been able to leave the Joshua Hale Fialkov hardcover graphic novels and the massive pile of Scott Snyder comics at the hotel, and now all that was left was a few Jeff Lemire comics – Sweet Tooth #1, Animal Man #1 and #2, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1 and #2.  I’ve been a fan of Lemire’s since Sweet Tooth, and reading modern masterpiece Essex County took my appreciation of his talent to a whole new level.  Combine that with the fact that, with Animal Man, he’s also writing one of the very best titles of DC’s New 52, and Lemire was the one guy left on my checklist of creators I really wanted to meet at NYCC.

With the massive queues I endured at the Snyder signings on the previous day, I dilligently showed up at the Top Shelf booth early, and asked where the queue for Jeff Lemire started.  The bemused guy at the booth told me, “It can start with you.”  Once Jeff arrived, I started gabbling at him about how I would have brought Essex County to get signed but couldn’t fit it in my suitcase, and how I’d convinced someone sitting behind me at the DC Dark panel to go and buy Animal Man #1 by showing them the copy I had in my bag.  I don’t think he understood a word of my incomprehensible Glaswegian brogue, but he did smile and nod politely.  I gave Jeff copies of The Standard #1 and #2, thus completing the trifecta of my favorite creators that I wanted to give my comic to.  Having also given copies to Grant Morrison and Paul Cornell at earlier signings, this means that my top five favorite comic writers all theoretically have a copy of a comic I wrote in their possession, which in itself is a very rewarding feeling.

I’ll also take a brief aside to mention that the people at 215 Ink all rock.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to them at length at any point over the course of NYCC, and I think they had an even harder time making out my accent than most, but they’re a talented bunch of creators, and I eagerly scooped up a couple of their titles on my travels.

Batman and Wonder Woman read The Standard!

Back at the booth, and I’m pleased to report that I was able to carry my momentum from the previous day over to Sunday.  They say Sunday is often a very quiet day, slow for sales, but together we managed to make Sunday top even our performance on Saturday, and against the odds make it our most successful day for sales.  There was one small thing that made a surprisingly huge difference.  Each day, we had been inching our table a little further out, trying to lessen the effect of being overwhelmed by the massive China booths pressed against us.  Well, on Sunday, at the time of the con floor opening to the public, the China exhibitors hadn’t even shown up, and all the tarps were still up on their booths, suggesting they wouldn’t be showing up on this last day.  Tyler and I took advantage of this by bringing round an extra table from behind the booth, and sitting it out in front of our current table, creating a “corner” where we could display Tyler’s prints of Batman and Spider-Man at Yankee stadium.  This had an amazing effect: loads of people that might have otherwise walked right on by were stopped in their tracks by this eye-catching print, now displayed prominently in full view of the show floor rather than hidden behind us.  We sold loads of that print, and that in turn got people more interested in the rest of our output.

It was also fun to get a bunch of cosplayers interested in checking out our comics, and even have a few buying them.  It’s a bit surreal when you’re standing next to Spider-Man, telling him about your comic, or you have Batman taking off his gloves so he can take money out of his utility belt to buy a ComixTribe package deal.  But I think cosplayers are awesome.  Screw that jerk from Men’s Fitness who made fun of them.  It just creates a great party atmosphere when, for a few short days, you have people dressing up as fictional characters and walking around the streets of New York (or San Diego, or wherever), and having fun.  I especially loved the couples who cosplayed together, particularly as complimentary characters: e.g. The Doctor and Amy, Green Arrow and Black Canary, The Joker and Harley Quinn.  That right there is true love.  I think that should be my litmus test for whether any future girlfriend is a keeper.  But of course, the great downside of attempting to establish myself as a professional at cons is that there will be less of an opening to dress up in a silly spandex outfit at such events.  Perhaps I should commission a Frying Scotsman costume for next year.  Cosplayers, we salute you!

So does Spider-Man!

This last day flew by, and before we knew it, the announcements were blaring that Comic-Con was now closed for 2011.  But that wasn’t going to stop me!  I think I was still selling comics for a good 20 minutes after the show closed, catching people passing on their way out, or general stragglers.  I had to live up to my “Sellin’ Scotsman” alias!  The Standard really picked up steam on this last day, flying off our table at such a rate that, by the end of the day, I only had one copy of The Standard #1 first print edition left, and only small amounts of The Standard #2 and my NYCC exclusives.  It was really exciting seeing my comic start to break out and get people interested enough to buy it, particularly on Sunday.  Overall, I’d say The Standard was a big success at New York Comic Con, as was ComixTribe as a whole.

Just before we got ready to leave, Rich Johnston walked past our table.  I made sure to call him over and thank him for publicising some of our titles and sending increased traffic our way over the course of the con.  I’d given him The Standard on Wednesday, but we made sure to give him copies of all our other ComixTribe titles before he headed off.

With the con finished, we embarked on the tedious process of tidying up.  Everything was packed away, and painstakingly hauled out from the show floor and back out to the car park, for Joe to load into his car.  Once we were done with that, and I had said my goodbye to the Javits Center and New York Comic Con (until next year, hopefully!), Joe, Tyler and I made our way to the Pig & Whistle, where I had the best dinner I’d eaten in several days!  It really felt like a victory meal, with the great con we’d all had.  As a parting gift, I gave Tyler and Joe a copy each of The Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One, upon learning to my horror that neither had ever read any of Moore’s Swamp Thing.  In return, I was fortunate enough to grab copies of ComixTribe’s entire line – Scam, Runners, Epic, The Red Ten and Tears of the Dragon.  After a great dinner, I said goodbye to Tyler and Joe – already creators I had a lot of respect for, but who over the course of the week I had become good friends with too – and headed back to my hotel.

And Lady Deadpool too!

New York Comic Con was a total blast, and I’d had one of the best weeks of my life.  I was a bit sad knowing that tomorrow would be my last day in New York City, but I was also determined to make the most of it and end my trip on a high note.

NEXT: All good things must come to an end…

REVIEW: American Dark Age #1

At the Creator Connections panel at New York Comic Con, I got to talking to a talented artist who said she was helping out at the Megabrain Comics booth over the course of the con.  The name struck a bell, but I couldn’t quite place where I’d heard it before.  But once I got home and returned to my backlog of creator-owned review comics, I read this great debut issue of American Dark Age, and I realised that this is where I’d heard the name Megabrain Comics before.  And now I’m kicking myself, as if I’d read this comic beforehand, I’d surely have remembered to go to the booth and congratulate the creators in person for the quality comic.  But if I’m unable to do that, this review will have to do.

This first issue is mostly prologue.  In the opening pages we get a brief glimpse of protagonist Katherine Brody as a swordswoman slicing and dicing foes in a barren future landscape devoid of all technology, but for the most part this first issue is about flashing back to before the catastrophic event ominously referred to as “the blackout”, and giving us some insight into the possible cause of this disaster, as well as letting us get to know Brody and her supporting cast in a little more detail.  Brody proves to be an interesting character, as this glimpse into her former life shows an identity as a punk rocker, and a dependence on her electric guitar to feel like she has a purpose, and even to feel loved.  Given the fate we know awaits all electrically-powered items, her journey to find a new sense of self in a harsh and different world should make for some intriguing reading.

On the whole, writer Jean Michel does a great job in bringing this world to life.  I like his style, particularly his narration.  He is not a writer whose style is entirely plot-driven and functional.  He’s not afraid to play around a little, and get a bit poetic within his captions.  Without wanting to sound premature or make an unfair comparison, his voice reminded me quite a bit of early Alan Moore in this approach to wordcraft, which is good company to keep.  The dialogue was good too.  There were a couple of awkward moments of unconvincing teen-speak, particularly in the clunky nicknames Brody gives to people, but there was also some believable conversations peppered through the script that balanced things out.

The art of Jacqueline Taylor is also very slick.  Her slightly cartoony style doesn’t quite hit the right tone in the more sinister or horrific beats in the story, but she gives Brody that touch of expresiveness that really helps bring her to life.  It’s also worth noting that Jacqueline is able to skillfully maintain the level of detail in each panel, even when there are 8 or 9 panels in a page.  This means that, in terms of content, you feel like you’re getting a dense read that gives you plenty of content for a first issue, but not at the expense of the stylish aesthetic.  This isn’t an indy book that looks like an indy book.  American Dark Age has a cool, professional vibe that gives the book the production values you might associate with an Image title.  Good work.

American Dark Age has a clever concept, but more importantly, it’s executed with precision, by writer and artist alike.  Jean Michel and Jacqueline Taylor both mark themselves out here as talents to watch, and after a debut issue that skillfully balances compelling plot development and world-building with deft characterisation while barely setting a foot wrong, I’m definitely left on the hook eager to see what happens in issue #2.

American Dark Age #1 is now available to buy from Megabrain Comics’ official website.

My Week in New York: Friday

My day didn’t start off well.  Three days in a row of New York pizza had wrecked havok on my stomach – which already had never exited amber alert from my departure from Glasgow – and the less said about the terrifying monstrosities that escaped from my bowels that morning, the better.  I opted for a lighter breakfast in hopes of stilling my queasy belly, and minimising the risk of any violent sprays coming out from the other end, and thankfully once I was out of the hotel and heading for the con my tummy seemed to settle.  I was worried that tides of projectile vomit might hurt our comics sales.

Thursday was a nice way to ease into New York Comic Con, a chance for us to get set up and dip our toes in the selling waters.  But with Friday festivities began in earnest, as we launched into the first full day of NYCC.  The doors opened to the public at 10am, but I got there before 9, wanting to be early to make sure everything was in order.  Already, a line had formed at the venue.  It was a great feeling, being able to just walk past the queue, waving my magic exhibitor badge, and head into the show floor.  And it’s also really cool just being able to walk through a serene, quiet, empty show floor at a con, knowing it’ll soon be bustling with people.

I arrived at the booth, and started getting everything set up for the day.  Tyler arrived not too long afterwards, and I got a chance to do some early shopping before the con started proper: another bonus for exhibitors!  I looked all over in vain for Scalped #1, but it was nowhere to be found.  I think I checked literally every booth selling comic back issues on the entire con floor, and only a few of them had any issues of Scalped, never mind the first one.  However, I did pick up a first print copy of The Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, the infamous “Love and Death” issue that murdered the Comics Code.  Having picked up the “Anatomy Lesson” issue in a back issue bargain bin at the Glasgow Comic Con, I now had my OTHER favorite issue of Moore’s seminal run – and my vote for the scariest single comic ever made – to add to my collection.

Speaking of Swamp Thing, I also got the chance to make what was surely my most frivolous purchase of my time in New York.  One of my big regrets of being unable to attend the San Diego Comic Con this year was that I missed out on getting the SDCC exclusive DC Universe Classics Swamp Thing action figure.  So imagine my joy when I spotted it in New York!  I was on my way back from not buying the ridiculously overpriced water from the snack stall (they had marked it up a price a dollar from the day before, and the next day they would add on yet another dollar to the price – incredible) when I spotted the big box sitting at one of the stalls.  It was even more ridiculously overpriced than the water, but I had to have it.  This guy is absolutely massive, with some really cool detail on the sculpt.  I now have him proudly displayed in my bedroom.

Swamp Thing!

And then it was 10am, and time to get to work.  Joe was held up waiting for a shipment of stock, so at first it was just Tyler and I holding the fort.  Again, business was slow but steady, with us still having a hard time hooking as many people as we’d like.  One thing that did sell well was our ComixTribe package deal: all 6 of our comic books – The Standard #1, The Standard #2, Epic #1, The Red Ten #1, Runners #1 and Scam #1 – plus an 11X17 print and one of Tyler’s art sketchards, all for $25.  That really enticed a lot of people, as it was a good deal that was giving people a lot of stuff for their money.  The package deals were what really made us the bulk of our money over the first couple of days.

I briefly slipped away from the booth to head over to Artist’s Alley and meet Rahsan Ekedal, whose artwork on Echoes greatly impressed me as I read it while waiting at the departure gate at Glasgow Airport.  He was a friendly guy, and signed my copy of the book.  I then headed over to Archaia’s booth, where I hoped to meet editor-in-chief Stephen Christy.  I got to say hello to him and introduce myself, and talk to him a bit about Archaia’s submission policy.  They have recently made the move away completely from single issues, now focusing solely on the original graphic novel market.  I love Archaia, the presentation of their graphic novels is always of the highest quality, and they’re a company I’d love to work with in the future.  So I gave Stephen copies of The Standard and told them I’d be stopping by at their panel later in the day.

I feel pretty guilty, as I spent the bulk of this particular day away from the booth, attending various panels.  The first one I went to was the screening of the Locke & Key TV pilot, which we now know was not picked up by Fox – one more reason to hate Fox.  I was pleased that there was a big queue for this event, and I only barely got in.  The episode was great, really true to the spirit of the comic, which makes it all the more devastating that we probably won’t see any more of it.  I will say, however, that the pilot alone covered the entirety of Welcome to Lovecraft, the first volume of the series.  So I don’t know if there would be enough content within the Locke & Key mythology to sustain 22-24 episodes across multiple seasons.  Perhaps a miniseries would be a better bet?

I stopped back briefly at the booth in between panels, to find that Joe had arrived, and he’d kindly brought lunch!  I was also happy to meet Raphael Moran, writer of Dream Reavers, who stopped by at our booth to introduce himself.  When I next set off, it was for a double-header of panels.  First up was Archaia’s panel on how to make a great indy graphic novel.  This had all kind of useful pointers about developing ideas and the submission process.  Plus, I got to ask a question about Archaia’s approach to design in publication.  I had to leave a bit early in order to make the next panel, but what I saw of Archaia’s panel made it worthwhile attending.

Next up was the Vertigo Visions panel.  Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder and Jason Aaron all on a panel together, how could I not be interested in this one?  And they were accompanied by such a wealth of talent that the bulk of the panel was taken up simply by Karen introducing each panelist and letting them talk a little about what they were working on.  Poor Karen arrived late, getting the starting time for the panel wrong, and was all flustered in her attempts to moderate the panel.  The highlight of the hour for me was the announcement that Paul Cornell – another favorite of mine who sadly couldn’t attend New York Comic Con this year – would be writing a new Vertigo title called Saucer Country.  I was pleased when the mention of his name was greeted with well-deserved applause.  What this means is that, in the brief window of time between Saucer Country beginning and Scalped ending, four of my top five current comic writers will all be writing titles at Vertigo (the fifth one is Grant Morrison, as I’m sure you can guess), meaning it’s a very exciting time for the DC imprint, at least in my book.

After the Vertigo panel, I got to say hello to Mark Doyle.  Here’s a guy involved in editing American Vampire, Sweet Tooth AND Scalped, meaning he surely has one of the most awesome jobs in comics.  I regularly tweet him about my progress in trying to assemble every Scalped single issue, so I got to tell him in person that I was now only missing the first issue.

I returned to the booth to find that sales had been chugging along nicely in my absence, and I hung around for a while, until I once more left my compatriots in the lurch for the Creator Connections panel.  This is presented as a kind of speed dating for creators, where writers are paired up with artists.  I enjoyed this a great deal, as I got to talk to a lot of talented artists, and got a whole bunch of business cards and potential contacts I may get in touch with for future collaborations.

By the time that panel was done, New York Comic Con was done for the day.  As I said, I felt pretty bad about not being at the ComixTribe booth much on Friday, and told Tyler and Joe that I planned to be there for much of Saturday and most of Sunday.  It’s just the way things worked out that Friday had a high concentration of panels.  And I still had one more to attend!

I made a brief stop at a jam-packed McDonalds near the Javits Center for dinner (I kid you not, I was sat between a girl dressed as a Green Lantern and a guy dressed as a White Lantern) , before heading back to the con for a night-time panel on horror in comics.  I had a hard time finding the room at first, but once I did I was able to just slip in without needing to queue, which was nice.  The panel was actually really interesting.  Horror is a genre I’ve long loved, and have recently begun to appreciate more in the comics medium.  I’d love to attempt a story in the genre, and attending this panel gave me a lot of inspiration and ideas.

This panel took me to near 10pm.  By this point, the ComixTribe gang were over on the other side of the city, so rather than trying to play catch-up, I just walked around New York at night a little, then headed back for an early night.  I’d enjoyed the panels, but I felt this day was a lot of sitting and listening to people talk.  I wanted to make the most of the last couple of days.  Though I did get to see a dog dressed as Superman on Friday.

That's right... A DOG... DRESSED AS SUPERMAN!

NEXT: I meet Scott Snyder… thrice!

My Week in New York: Thursday

It had been fun seeing New York City, but with the arrival of Thursday it was time to get down to business: New York Comic Con was upon us.  After another 6:30am rise and a hearty breakfast to set me up for the day, I headed down on the brief walk to the Javits Convention Center.  I had scoped the place out on my first day in NYC, and it had seemed pretty barren, an empty vessel waiting for a sense of purpose.  But what a difference a few days make.  Now, the Javits Center was getting ready for New York Comic Con!

The Javits Center

Once I arrived, I discovered that Tyler James and Joe Mulvey – my booth partners, who would be bringing the tables, chairs and our supply of comics – had been held up in that notorious New York traffic.  And since we needed Tyler, who’d booked the booth, to get our exhibitor passes, I had to just sit around in the foyer for a while.  But eventually, the rest of the gang arrived, and while Joe seeked out a parking place outside, I got to meet the mighty Tyler James, glorious leader of ComixTribe, for the first time.  I always get a kick meeting people I’ve talked to online in person, and so far I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not had an experience of someone I thought was alright over MSN or Skype turning out to be a weirdo in person (probably because I’M the one who’s the weirdo in person), and Tyler was no exception, turning out to be as smart and cool in the real world as the virtual one.

There was a brief scare where it seemed like our passes had been lost, or accidentally given to someone else, but thankfully it was resolved before too long, and we were kitted out with the Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket that is a Comic-Con exhibitor pass.  Meeting up with Joe and his friend outside, we went through the arduous task of dragging our heavy bundles of stock and equipment from the car park to our booth on the show floor.  An interesting aside: over the course of the week, I only noticed that the escalator from the foyer up to the show floor had stopped working on two occasions.  The first was on this day, meaning we had to haul all our stuff up it like it was a regular flight of stairs.  The second was on Sunday, when we had to haul all our stuff back down it again.  Typical.

Another problem emerged once we located our corner booth just near Artist’s Alley.  Namely, that it wasn’t a corner booth.  We were located quite inconveniently next to what I can only call a massive China exhibit.  If that sounds vague, it’s because that’s the impression they gave.  It was this collection of 8 connected booths that ran in a big line next to where our booth was, all with the words CHINA written on top of them, but each with its own hazey subtitle, like “Skyworks Technologies” or “Guangzhou Daley Media Co” or something similarly uninformative.  And these booths were typically partitioned off, and often empty.  And I don’t just mean no con-goers stopped by – though people rarely did – I mean that even the exhibitors themselves were barely there.  It must have been an expensive bit of real estate, but obviously these guys must have had a lot of money to throw around to book all that space then not really use it.  And the problem with these massive booths was that they jutted right out onto the floor, far beyond the reach of our table, meaning anyone walking past them was automatically cast at a distance away from our table, breaking that essential passing trade connection.  On the plus side, I pointed out, we were at a good place to catch people headed to the nearby bathroom.

The ComixTribe gang set up the booth while I... take pictures.

I have to say, it was really exciting setting up the ComixTribe booth.  Sure, I got a little thrill laying out my comics at my table for the Glasgow Comic Fair, but this was on a whole other level.  Organising not just The Standard, but the rest of ComixTribe’s diverse lineup, reminded me of the stellar company I keep being a part of ComixTribe.  The absolute best thing about The Standard being published through ComixTribe is that I get to be a part of such a fantastic roster of talent, and an incredible lineup of titles.  I had already read and loved Runners, Tears of the Dragon and Epic, but once the booth was set up, I was able to sit down and read Joe Mulvey’s Scam, and The Red Ten by Tyler James and Cesar Feliciano.  Both are just great comics, which I highly recommend checking out if you possibly can.  Here’s the thing that helped me a lot while pitching all the ComixTribe titles over the weekend: I didn’t have to be dishonest in my shilling.  My enthusiasm and passion for each of these comics and their quality was absolutely genuine.

With the booth ready, we all headed out to a local deli for lunch.  And, like the sophisticated artistic souls we are, we spent the entire meal sharing puke, shit and fart stories.  Classy, my kinda people.  Afterwards, we headed back to the convention center, and I took the time to have a look around the show floor.  The layout was actually quite a lot like San Diego, only with less TV and movie booths, and more of a central focus on comics.  I also noted that Marvel had situated itself far away from the rest of the comics booth, instead settling down right in the middle of the video game section.  This struck me as a bit isolationist, and because it was so far off my beaten track, I actually never visited the Marvel booth save for passing by it on my way into the show floor in the mornings.  I’d say the trifecta of the DC Comics booth, the Image booth and the Midtown Comics booth felt more like the central hub of the show floor, with the well-furnished Archaia booth situated well in amongst them.

After a while, the doors opened to the public (at least, those with 4-day VIP passes), and the first day of selling began.  In all honesty, business was a little slow on this first day.  We did have a steady flow of eyes on our table, but we had our quiet periods.  My problem was that I couldn’t get my salesmanship down.  My pitch for The Standard was overlong and clunky, and I could practically see eyes glazing over as I launched into it.  I just didn’t seem to have a good knack for it, and was grateful that the affable Joe and the super-efficient selling machine that was Tyler were there to take my slack.

Shifting from my exhibitor hat to my fan hat, I took a wander around Artist’s Alley.  The first familiar face I got to meet was Mikel Janin, the talented rising star artist of Justice League Dark.  He very kindly agreed to sign my copy of Justice League Dark #1, and we parted on what I thought was a good note.  But then I realised, to my horror, that I had given Mikel my sharpie pen, and forgotten to take it back.  Now, those who know me from work will know that I am paranoid about ensuring nobody takes it from me, and I will stand and watch people use the pens they borrow fro me to make sure they give them back when they’re done.  So I launched into this awkward moment where I had to go back to this gifted artist I admire, and politely ask him to give me my pen back.  Thankfully, my subsequent friendly Twitter chat with Mikel would suggest this faux pas was not too disastrous.

The next folks on my list were Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, the esteemed writer/artist team on cracking Western series The Sixth Gun.  Long-time followers of this blog will know I’ve devoted a lot of time to promoting this comic, reviewing the first graphic novel collection and several other subsequent issues and bestowing superlative but well-deserved praise.  I tried my best to convey this praise to the team in person, telling them that The Sixth Gun had so much content packed into each issue that every individual comic was a rewarding read in itself, and that this most definitely wasn’t a comic for trade-waiters.  I then gave them a trade to sign.

But perhaps most exciting of all for me on this day was the chance to meet Jason Aaron.  Regular readers may know that I have gushed about The Sixth Gun, but they’ll also know that I’ve lavished numerous dissertation-length odes of devotion to the seminal Verigo crime series Scalped, a title I’ve not been in shy in saying I’d rank as definitely the best comic on shelves today, and well on its way into entering the canon of the all-time greats.  Considering all this, getting to meet Scalped writer Jason Aaron was one of the things I was most excited about going into the New York Comic Con.  And I’m pleased to say he didn’t disappoint.  This is something that has struck me about all the folks in comics I’ve been fortunate enough to meet over the past couple of years: they’re all nice guys.  It must be really deflating to meet one of your heroes, and they’re a jerk.  But the comics creators I’ve had the chance to talk to have all been friendly, and keen to chat with their fans, and Jason Aaron was no exception.

At first, Jason bamboozled me a bit: when I produced Scalped #25 and told him that, after much painful deliberation, I had decided this was my favorite single issue of the series, he asked me the dreaded question, “Why is this one your favorite?”  I garbled at him in incomprehensible Glaswegian for a while as I struggled to come up with a good answer (I failed), and then I introduced myself as the writer of the Studying Scalped columns he had kindly linked to on his blog.  It was great that Jason knew who I was enough to thank me for the columns I’d written.  I also told him I was the guy who’d asked him to bring along Scalped #3, #15 and #16 to the con, and he responded by producing them from his backpack.  Getting these elusive comics given to me by the writer himself!  I was ready to pay double the cover price or more, but Jason amazingly said I could just take them for free!  What a classy guy.  With these issues in my collection, I was now the proud owner of every Scalped single issue save for issue #1.  I tried to fire a couple of quickfire Scalped questions at Jason before leaving.  Will there be any Scalped deluxe hardcovers in future?  Probably not.  Will there be any Scalped retrospective panels at San Diego 2012 or next year’s NYCC?  Again, probably not, but Jason did mention I could take part in some kind of series of closing interviews at the end of the series, which would be amazing.  I gave Jason copies of The Standard #1 and #2, then gushed some more about how Scalped was one of the greatest comics of all time, before finally making my exit.

In terms of stuff I bought, I was able to grab almost all the issues of Zot! my friend Jamie Fairlie was missing from his collection, and I picked up two T-shirts from DC’s Graphitti Designs booth: a Swamp Thing T-shirt, and something I’ve wanted for a long time: a grey Batman with a black Batman logo.  That’s right, none of that “black T-shirt with the black bat logo inside a yellow circle” movie bullshit for me, I’m a comics purist, baby!  And a nerd.

Back at the ComixTribe booth, Steve – the friendly fan from Jim Hanley’s – stopped by to say hello.  He had read and enjoyed The Standard #1 after buying it at the signing, so was here to get his hands on The Standard #2.  I have to say, this happened a few times over the course of the con, and it was the biggest compliment.  When someone buys and reads the first issue one day, and takes the time to come back the next day, tell you they loved it, and buy issue #2?  That’s quite possibly the most rewarding thing about writing these comics.  It’s a great feeling.  Steve also ended up buying the rest of ComixTribe’s lineup too, which was great.  Perhaps our first convert of NYCC.  Thanks, Steve!

Tyler and I at the ComixTribe booth.

Once the NYCC preview night wrapped up, I stopped back at my hotel to make a quick change and drop off my heavy satchel bag (this bag, filled with books I wanted signed, was the bane of much of my travels during the con), before heading down to Tempest Bar for ComixTribe’s Drink & Draw event.  Food was provided in the form of giant pizzas brought in from a nearby pizzeria.  Yes, that’s right, pizza again.  And these ones were MASSIVE, dwarving even the oversized slices from Pronto Pizza.  Quite possibly the biggest pizza I’ve seen in my life.

Drink & Draw started off quiet, but once it got going we ended up with a good crowd of comic creators at the event.  Now, I say “quiet”, but what I actually mean is that deafeningly loud music was banging away at all times, and it seemed like the louder I tried to speak, the louder the music got.  See, I just don’t get this.  I see a bar as a place meant for socialising, so while ambient music is fine, what’s the point of cranking up the volume so loud you can barely communicate?  And remember, I was trying to make myself understood to a bunch of New Yorkers with a thick Scottish accent as it was, so I was already fighting an uphill battle.

I did get to have a few good conversations, though.  In particular, I got to have some lengthy chats with Rich Douek, regular ComixTribe commenter, and writer of an intriguing title called Gutter Magic that I was able to get my hands on at NYCC.  And I also got one of Tyler’s friends to draw up an image for one of the artist edition covers of The Standard, which was greatly appreciated.

After hanging out for a few hours, I took my leave, feeling a little sick from the watered-down Coke and oversized pizza.  But it was a good kind of sick.  The New York Comic Con was off to a great start.  And it was only going to get better.

NEXT: I go to far too many panels.

My Week in New York: Wednesday

I was feeling a bit more confident in the hardiness of my tummy come Wednesday, so I decided to start my day with a fry-up breakfast: sausages, omelettes, and toast with jam.  Getting through that without my stomach lurching gave me a bit more confidence for the day ahead.  Now, I neglected to mention this on my previous blogs, but up until this point, the weather in New York had been absolutely stunning.  On both Monday and Tuesday, it was hotter in New York City, in October, than it had been in Glasgow in July.  I got to spend the previous day walking around in jeans and T-shirt, no jacket required.  But on Wednesday the weather finally broke, with some mild showers and generally overcast skies.  Still a pleasant enough temperature, though.  Still, I got some use for the hooded leather jacket I had dragged with me across the Atlantic, at least.  And I needed to be ready for the outdoors, because today my destination was Central Park.

A view of the city from inside Central Park.

Central Park was a big part of NYC that I barely scratched the surface of in my first visit back in 2004.  We literally just took a few paces into the park from off the street, then took a photo next to the first tree we found to say we’d “been in Central Park.”  This time round, I was determined to do it more justice.  I set out early morning – making only a brief detour to pick up the week’s new comics from Midtown Comics – and spent over three hours in Central Park this time.  But even so, I barely covered half the ground held within the massive park’s boundaries.

It’s so unusual: right in the middle of this urban metropolis, a massive slab of greenery the size of many a small town.  But after the hectic sprawl of Times Square the day before, it was quite serene and peaceful walking through the park, even though there was never a point when the skyscrapers just beyond the park’s threshold didn’t seem to hang ominously over everything.

My first goal was to visit the famous Central Park Zoo.  Having been already to the OTHER world-famous American zoo in San Diego, I thought it would be interesting to see how this one compared.  Finding it seemed like it would be straightforward enough: just walk in a straight line for a while.  But somehow, I managed to get hopelessly lost, walking around in circles, or thinking I was retracing my steps only to find myself somewhere entirely different.  It was baffling, how this apparent big open space could also act as a kind of labyrinth.  And yeah, I know it’s supposed to be all about getting in touch with nature and all that, but would it kill them to put more of those little roadside maps with the “YOU ARE HERE” signs on them around the grounds?  I found exactly two: one at the entrance to the park, and one near the Old Dairy information center.  And more than once, I got lost trying to track down the Old Dairy map.

But eventually, I found the zoo.  How did it compare to San Diego?  Obviously, in terms of size and the diversity of animals available to see, it wasn’t going to compare.  But it was A LOT cheaper, which worked in its favor, because how much can you really justify spending to go stare at animals?  And while San Diego was all about careful health and safety and keeping folks at a sensible distance from the animals, here it was only my common sense stopping me from reaching out and touching a sea lion, and when you go into the rainforest exhibit the tropical birds are just hopping around uncaged, flying over your head or dropping down in  front of your path, with the workers telling the kids walking around to not touch the birds because they don’t like it.  Observing the various droppings splattered on the floor around me, I was mostly worried about a bird shitting on my head.

A bit too close for comfort?

Other highlights included seeing a polar bear up relatively close.  They are such big, powerful creatures, but looking at this guy – his fur all dirty, his teeth yellow, just bouncing his little ball around and trying to swim backstroke but quickly running out of space – it felt a little bit sad.  I also got a really close look at a snow leopard, which jumped right up to the glass wall and gave me the evil eye for a bit.

Nice kitty...

After exiting the zoo, I wandered around Central Park some more, taking a stroll down the Mall, passing through Literary Walk.  This was one of my favorite areas of the park, with statues of the likes of William Shakespeare and Robert Burns adorning the long pathway.  And as the autumn leaves fell from the overhanging trees all around me like rain, it was one of those moments where you just have to stop and appreciate this little moment in the world around you.

The Mall

But the downside to all this exploration was that, before I knew it, we were well into the afternoon, and I was pretty damn hungry.  The only eatery I could spot within the park itself sold ridiculously overpriced seafood, so I knew I’d have to venture outside the park for a good lunch.  And then I got lost again, this time just trying to get out of the damn place!  I eventually found the exit, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet.  I had arrived at the entrance to Central Park – all the way up on West 60th Street – via subway, having bought a round trip ticket.  However, upon attempting to make my return journey, I swiped my ticket, only to find the door had jammed and wouldn’t open.  But when I tried to then go through another door, it turned out I had still been charged for my previous swipe, and that had counted as my return journey.  Now, out of principle, I refused to pay for another ticket after this outrage (there’s the Scotsman in me!), so I decided to walk all the way back to West 36th Street.

First things first, though: lunch.  I was so starving by this point that all thought of finding a classy eatery had gone out of the window, and I settled for a Wendy’s.  As far as greasy fast-food joints go, though, Wendy’s was actually pretty damn good.  I got a double bacon cheeseburger called the Baconater, and it was actually pretty ace.  Or maybe it was just because I was insanely hungry.  Anyway, after eating, I took the scenic walk back to my hotel, making stops at Rockafeller Plaza, NBC Studios and Radio City Music Hall, among other places.

By the time I returned to my hotel, I was utterly exhausted, and my feet were throbbing.  I don’t think I’ve walked so much in a single day in my life!  In Central Park, there were joggers and cyclists everywhere you looked, but surely all you really need to do for exercise is get lost and walk around a bit.  The weight just dropped off me with all that walking, though unfortunately all the trash I ate piled it all back on again.

After taking it easy for a bit, and reading some of my new comics, I headed out to meet up with Joe Mulvey, writer/artist of Scam and a fellow ComixTribe creator who would be joining Tyler and I at the NYCC booth.  I was happy to be meeting up with anyone at this stage, and was especially glad once I met Joe and discovered he was such a fun, likeable guy.  He’s one of those people I’m quite jealous of, that can seemingly adapt effortlessly to any social situation, and who can talk to strangers with such warmth and conviction that you’d be within reason to assume he was talking to an old friend: a skill that served him well when it came to selling at the booth in the days that followed.  In a funny moment, we walked through the city, chatting away while looking for an Irish pub Joe knew, only to eventually discover we had walked in a perfect circle and ended up at the point where we first met, and that the pub we were looking for was right across the road from us.

After some drinks and comics chat, we headed over to the pre-NYCC signing event at Jim Hanley’s Comic Universe.  Jim Hanley’s is a neat little store, not quite packing the deep back catalogue of a Midtown Comics or a Forbidden Planet, but offering a diverse range of more offbeat fare, and boasting a scenic location, situated pretty much directly across the road from the Empire State Building.  Tyler James had told Joe to inform me that he knew the manager of the shop, and that he might be able to swing me joining the roster of creators to take part in the signing, giving me an additional chance to promote The Standard before New York Comic Con.  So, I talked to the manager, said I knew Tyler and I’d brought some copies of my comic with me, and in quite a surreal moment, he happily set up a little table for me, and all of a sudden I was doing my first ever signing at a comic book store!

My signing table at Jim Hanley's Comic Universe.

As they had done with all the other creators that had arrived, the folks at the counter shouted over the tanoy, “Now sitting at his table… John Lees!”  And I got an applause and a cheer from the crowd in the shop.  I like to think they were whispering to each other, “Who the fuck is John Lees?”  It was me and a bunch of Image creators: I really felt like I had sneaked in the back door.  Indeed, there was one occasion where a guy talked to me for about 10 minutes before realising I wasn’t part of the Image roster.  I only sold a handful of books this night, but it was still great fun, and a good experience.

Once I had wrapped up my signing, I tried to mingle a little bit.  Joe had got to chat to a bunch of people for much of the night while I remained stuck at my table, able only to talk to the people who approached me.  So I didn’t get to chat to many professionals, though I did get chatting to a couple of very nice fans, including a guy called Steve who picked up a copy of The Standard #1, and who I’d bump into several times over the course of the week.  But just before leaving, I spotted a familiar face talking to somebody near the back of the store: Rich Johnston, of Bleeding Cool fame.

I decided to say hello, introducing myself as the person at the centre of an awkward social networking faux pas, where I had been dissing Bleeding Cool’s anti-DC bias to my friend over Twitter, only for  Rich Johnston – obviously doing a Twitter search on Bleeding Cool – to tersely reply defending the objectivity of his website.  Joe had a more positive connection, as Scam had just been featured on the site as a comic to watch at New York Comic Con.  We chatted briefly, and I gave Rich copies of The Standard #1 and #2.  I know I’ve heard of many indy books for the first time via Bleeding Cool, so I figured it would definitely be worth a shot trying to get the books into his hands to see if he liked them.

You would be forgiven for thinking, based on his online reputation, that Rich Johnston would be a Machiavellian evil genius, but when you meet him he’s actually a warm, personable guy (OR MAYBE THAT’S HOW HE GETS YOU!!!!?!?!!), and it was nice to meet him.  He even invited Joe and I to a party later in the night where a lot of British comics creators would be hanging out.  I didn’t catch the name of the bar or the street, but Joe seemed to be nodding confidently in response, so I figured he’d picked it up and nodded confidently likewise.  Once we’d left Jim Hanley’s, Joe turns and says, “So, did you pick up the name of that bar?  I didn’t, but you looked like you’d got it, so I just played along with you.”  Oh well.  So, instead of mingling with comics pros on Wednesday night, Joe and I went to Pronto Pizza for dinner (yes, the same place as yesterday), then said our goodbyes, knowing we had a big day ahead of us.

Wednesday was another great day in New York City, and with the night-time events, I began to feel a shift from being in tourist mode to entering convention mode.  Thursday promised to complete that transformation…

NEXT: New York Comic Con begins!

My Week in New York: Tuesday

I set my alarm for 6:30am to start the day.  I wanted to make the absolute most of my time in New York City, and I knew that with how ridiculously long I take to get ready in the morning, I probably needed as much of a headstart as I could get.  Once I’d showered, shaved and dressed, I headed downstairs for breakfast.  And this is another great thing about the Comfort Inn Convention Center that I really appreciated: the complimentary breakfast.  I knew from my time in San Diego that it can be a real pain having to go out and find someplace to eat for breakfast in the morning, when you’re tired and hungry, not to mention having to pay for it.  So being able to just wander downstairs and choose from a range of foods was great.  Not wanting to push my luck with my trippy tummy just yet, I settled for a bagel with cream cheese.

This is probably the best place to make a couple of breakfast-based observations.  First, while the British are the masters of orderly queueing, with Americans it’s a free-for-all, everyone scrambling to get their toast or their cereal like it was going out of style.  And if you left your table, even for a minute to go and get a cup of tea, you’d return to find your tray cast aside and someone in your seat.  “But in the UK, the old tray placeholder trick is sacred!” I silently sobbed to myself.  Also, there was a TV in the breakfast lounge broadcasting Good Morning America, which is fucking terrifying.  Whether it’s the weather or a disturbing report of a mass killing, it is reported with the same relaxed, cheery morning chirp by the newscasters, smiling through the screens at us like airbrushed, soulless automatons.  And the only thing more terrifying than American news is American commercials!  In the UK, we’re almost apologetic about selling you stuff – we’ll make these artful little packages, with the actual product being shilled kinda tacked on at the end in an unobstrusive a manner as possible.  With America, it’s “OUR PRODUCT IS THE BEST, THIS OTHER PRODUCT IS SHIT!  LOOK HOW SHIT IT IS!!!!  BUY, BUY, BUY!  BUY OR YOUR FAMILY WILL DIE!!!!”  And I had to laugh nihilistically at the commercials for various medications available to buy, where they actually had extensive silent montages showing how happy the featured individual was since taking their magic pills, juxtaposed against this exhaustive voiceover listing the multitude of  potential side effects, which inevitably ended with, “May cause death.”

The coverage of the Republican Presidential Debates also got me intrigued.  Particularly with the story of Herman Cain’s meteoric rise as a dark horse candidate.  See, I’ve figured it out.  The GOP should pay me a fee, I’ve figured out how to get this guy elected: give him a theme tune.  The thing writes itself: “HERE I AM… DUH-DUH, DUH-DUH-DUH… ROCK YOU LIKE A HERMAN CAIN!”  Who gives a fuck about his policies?  I heard that, I’d be like, “Where do I vote?  How do I become an American citizen so I can vote for the guy with that theme tune?”

But enough with the tangents, let’s get on with my actual day.  After briefly passing through it on Monday, I decided that I really wanted to get myself immersed in Times Square.

Times Square

 

I remember, after my first visit to NYC in 2004, I picked out Times Square as my single favorite place in the world.  I have a large painting of Times Square hanging in my study.  I’m not sure if I’d still go quite that far, but it’s still an amazing assault on the senses that everyone should experience first hand at least once.  I’ve said to a few people recently that New York is the “citiest” city I’ve ever been to, if that makes sense.  And Times Square is the central hub of that, with massive billboards and flashing signs making screaming bids for your attention and threatening to overwhelm you and eat you up at any moment.

Because I’m a man-child, the first place I visited was Toys R Us.  I wish I had been able to go to this place when I was 8, my little head would have exploded.  Every kind of toy a kid could want.  And best of all, they have a giant animatronic T-Rex.  This thing blinks, moves, periodically roars, it’s the closest thing to a New York toy store actually having its own pet dinosaur!

T-REX!!!

After embracing my inner child, I turned my eye towards more practical concerns, such as getting some new pairs of jeans.  I am a victim of this strange phenomenom where, for reasons unbeknownst to me, mysterious holes keep on appearing in the crotch of my jeans, meaning I run through pairs annoyingly fast.  But the short lifespan of my denims could be a case of “You buy cheap, you get cheap,” so I decided to shoot for some quality and visit the famous Levis Superstore in Times Square.  I tried on a pair from each of their numerous cuts of jeans, and much to my surprise, the ones I liked the best were the skinny jeans.  Now, I was of the opinion that I could never pull off skinny jeans, as I’d look like a pudgy guy in specs trying to be Russell Brand and/or Jedward (and indeed, I tried the SUPER skinny jeans, and this is what I looked like), but the skinny jeans looked pretty good, and for the first time since, well, ever, I actually felt pretty stylish in my choice of legwear.  So I picked a pair up.

I also stopped at Champs shoestore in Times Square, and picked up some new black Timberland boots (the last pair of boots I picked up in New York, I threw out just last month because they’d finally began letting in water – considering I was last in New York in 2004, I’d say a 7 year lifespan is nothing to sniff at) and my first pair of Converse sneakers.  Always wanted to try these shoes, and they are super-comfy.  But enough about me talking about the stuff I bought.  I feel like a character from Sex & the City or something, and I doubt it makes for interesting reading.

After lunch at a place on Broadway and West 36th Street called Pronto Pizza (who do a great deal on a giant slice of pizza and a drink for just $6!), I dropped off my shopping at my hotel, and then made the long walk out to Forbidden Planet NYC.  Of course, the Forbidden Planet here in Glasgow is quite possibly my favorite shop in the world, so I wanted to visit its US sister store once again while I was in the city.  It is a really cool shop, with a friendly, knowledgable staff, but I actually like the Glasgow one better.  This is something I noticed about US comic stores: is it really hard to just have a clear-cut A-to-Z system with all your graphic novels?  Why do you have to have this setup where it’s mostly A-to-Z, but we have all our Vertigo comics seperated over in this section, and all the books by this certain writer displayed over on that section, and then we’ve put certain graphic novels out next to the single issues over in the single issues section.  It’s just confusing.

If I wanted to be in a photo, I had to take the pic myself. Hence the weird shots like this one.

The day had flown by, and before I knew it, I’d spent the best part of seven hours in and around Times Square.  I figured it was time to call it a day.  I had a minor triumph at dinner, where I was able to hunt down the elusive Island Burgers & Shakes, a place famous for its great burgers and milkshakes that I’d tried and failed to find in 2004.  I love trying strawberry milkshakes in various places in my quest to find one I can call THE BEST (right now, the frontrunner is in a restaurant in Puerto Pollensa, Majorca), and of course I love a good burger, so I really wanted to check this place out.  So, this time round, I staked out in the early morning, walking down 9th Avenue until I found it, so I’d know where it was for later.  And I enjoyed my dinner.  The milkshake was good, but a bit too chunky to break the upper echelon of great strawberry milkshakes.  The burger, however, was divine: at least the best of the numerous burgers I stuffed down my face while in NYC.

Now, those who know me know I’m not exactly heavy into nightlife.  But I wasn’t going to come to New York then retreat to my hotel as soon as the sun went down.  So, for this night, I planned a visit to Smalls Jazz Club in the East Village.  I know very little about jazz, but watching Treme made me really keen to visit an authentic jazz club.  The club was on West 10th Street, a good 26 blocks away from my hotel, so I decided to take the subway.  Even for someone who has been on the London underground, this was a rather terrifying experience.  Trains flying back and forth in all directions, and a labyrinthine, inpenetrable route map with various additions and alterations sprinkled around it.  However, I eventually figured out where I was going, and got a train as far as West 14th Street.  But then things got weird.  Remember that trusty grid system I talked about?  Well, I’m happily walking down West 14th Street, West 13th Street, Jane Street…. what, Jane Street!?  And I look up, and it’s on a junction with West 4th Street.  4th!?  What happened to 5-12!?  Nervously I kept on walking ahead, through some unfamiliar street names, until eventually I passed West 12th Street.  Then a couple more unusual names, and West 11th Street, then a few more…. until I was at West 10th.  Panic over.

The East Village is a nice, quiet, artsy area of the city, and it struck me as being not too different from Glasgow’s West End.  I wouldn’t mind living in one of the apartment blocks I passed walking down West 10th Street.  Correction: I wouldn’t mind being insanely wealthy so I could afford to live in one of the apartment blocks I passed walking down West 10th Street.  The jazz club was a really cool experience.  I entered to the silky tones of a jazz pianist, who was great in his own right, but was actually just the house warm-up act before the proper night’s entertainment arrived.  Shamefully, I’ve forgotten the names of the featured guests, but they were a great troupe.  In particular, the drummer and the guy on the saxophone were both top class.  The writer/lead musician was also good, but he spoiled things a bit by playing on a dinky electric keyboard.  You could see with the complexity of his compositions he was a really gifted musician, but he wasn’t doing justice to his music playing on the keyboard, where I kept on getting distracted by the clunk of his fingers hitting the plastic keys as the whiny electro-rattle hissed up in response.  Get him on a classic piano like the warm-up guy was using, and he’d have been really rocking.  The whole place had a great vibe.  To complete the aesthetic, there was even a stray cat wandering around in the club, occasionally nestling under chairs or even jumping up on top of the piano during the set.

After a great night of music, I got the subway back to my hotel.  I’d had a fantastic first full day in New York City, but to end on a bit of a grim note, I was kinda sad to have experienced it alone.  This may sound a bit emo, but even crowded amidst such a huge mass of people in a big city, I’ve perhaps never felt so lonely, or depressed about being single.  I think New York would be an amazing city to experience with someone.  But as it stands, I still had a great day, and was looking forward to what lay ahead.

NEXT: My first ever signing in a comic book store!

My Week in New York: Monday

For ages, it seems like it’s been looming as something exciting and a little bit scary in the distance.  From Monday October 10th to Monday October 17th, 2011, I would be visiting New York City.  Tyler James, publisher of ComixTribe, had invited me out to the New York Comic Con to represent The Standard, and I jumped at the chance.  Having missed out on getting tickets for San Diego Comic Con earlier in the year, I had the funds to pull the trip off, and so I decided to build a vacation to the Big Apple around my first experience as a pro at a major con.  And somehow, it managed to sneak up on me, and all of a sudden it was only a few days before I would be heading off.  It was an early flight, due to depart at 6:45am on Monday morning, so after finishing packing on Sunday night, I went to bed, setting my alarm for 3am.

Needless to say, I had a tumultuous start to my holiday, going on something of an emotional rollercoaster that veered from nightmarish to brilliant and back again in quick succession.  We got off to a bad start when I woke up at around 5:25am, having slept in over 2 hours.  Now, I’m usually neurotically early when I’m setting off to the airport, having everything packed well in advance, but still managing to spend a good couple of hours double and triple checking everything and getting myself organised on the morning when I’m due to set out.  That didn’t happen here.  Operating on pure panic, I was ready in a whirlwind and in a cab headed for the airport within 15 minutes of waking up.  And I was panicking, as my ticket told me I had to be checked in for 5:45.

I needn’t have worried  The motorway extension built near our home meant that I had the quickest journey to Glasgow Airport ever, cutting a journey that used to clock in at over half an hour to a mere 10-15 minutes.  Things started to go really well once I (belatedly) checked in.  The lady at the desk informed me that my flight was overbooked, so they were asking customers if they would mind switching to a later flight at 9am.  This flight would be via Continental, rather than the British Airways journey I’d booked, and would be direct to New York rather than having to make a stop at Heathrow.  This was great for me, as it cut down my journey time and ensured I would arrive in New York two hours earlier, even with the later departure time.  In fact, a direct flight was what I had originally wanted, but couldn’t afford.  Then, on top of that, I get compensation of £220 for the “inconvenience” of now having to wait such a long time for my flight!

But really, it worked out great.  Instead of what would have been a crazed rush, I now got to take my time, browse the shops, and grab the breakfast I had been forced to skip at home.  And by the time I’d breezed over to the gate at a leisurely pace, I didn’t really need to wait all that long.  If I’d gotten up and left at my intended time, I’d have had to hang around for ages to get this later flight.  So really, everything actually worked out perfectly.  I believe the term you’re looking for is “jammy bastard.”

However, karma got its payback once I got on the plane, and things took a turn for the sucky again.  Just as we were taking off, I got this lurching feeling in my stomach.  I tried to ignore it, as the seatbelt signs were still on, but it soon became clear that the combination of the pumping adrenaline from my early morning shock and dodgy airport food had taken its toll.  Ignoring the pleas to stay in my seat, I had to run down the aisle and spent the first half of my oh-so-desirable direct plane journey curled over a bathroom, dry heaving.  No, I wasn’t actually sick, but I felt so wretched I found myself wishing I would just heave and get it over with.  On a plus note, I discovered that Ted Beneke, the loathsome character from Breaking Bad, is actually named after the Beneke brand of airline toilets.  “That’s interesting, I’ll have to make a blog observation about that,” I thought to myself in-between retches.

When my stomach finally settled a bit, I got to enjoy the luxury of Continental airlines and their magic multi-channel telly systems on the back of every seat.  No longer are we in the Dark Ages where we are stuck with a single lame in-flight movie while on a  plane journey.  No, I had a vast choice of movies, and I selected Fargo.  Watching it again, I was reminded why I consider it one of the greatest movies of all time.  I think it just about cured my rampant nausea.

But eventually, the plane journey from hell was over, and I arrived at Newark Airport.  I tell you, Americans are INTENSE.  I hadn’t even done anything, but walking through customs, looking at the officers with one hand on their guns at all times, I was terrified of getting shot, perhaps through some accidental faux pas or case of mistaken identity, or simply through one of the officers sneezing or something and accidentally firing a round off into my gut.  And smiling nervously and making awkward, pleading niceties only seems to make the folks sitting behind the desk more suspicious!  Thankfully, the customs officer who asked me about my reasons for visiting the US seemed to be a comic fan, and I got to break the ice a bit by showing him copies of The Standard.

I hopped on the airtrain, and got off at the Penn Station stop.  Thus began the first of many moments where I made an arse of myself.  I took the escalator downstairs, I walked around, I went back upstairs, walked around some more.  I just couldn’t find the exit!  I went and asked the assistant at the booth where the main entrance out onto the street was.  She told me there was no street exit here.  I told her that I thought there was an exit onto West 34th Street.  She blinked in confusion, then told me I was still in Newark Airport.  This was merely the point where I could get a connecting train to Penn Station.  Oh.

By the time I eventually DID get a train to Penn Station, and walk with my suitcases on what I would discover was a ridiculously long, roundabout path to my hotel, I ended up arriving at my hotel around the time I was originally scheduled to land in New York.  I was utterly exhausted, and my stomach still didn’t feel too great, but I was in New York City!

New York, New York!

I forced myself to unpack my bags, then I took a walk around a bit.  I didn’t really do much of note: I just wandered around a bit, trying to get accustomed to the city.  NYC, especially around the Midtown Manhattan area, seems to operate on a pretty rigid grid system: you have numbered streets (West 34th Street, West 35th Street, West 36th Street) running perpendicular to numbered avenues (7th Avenue, 8th Avenue, 9th Avenue), so that as long as you can keep track of what way is right and what way is left, it’s very hard to get lost.  Unfortunately I can’t, so I did.

Amidst numerous exercises in walking several blocks, then having to do an about turn, it occurred to me that traffic in New York is fucking mental.  I mean, here in the UK we have a very nice system where everyone gets their turn to have free reign over the road.  Cars going one way, cars going another way, pedestrians.  New York operates on a grid system, where first everyone (cars and people alike) who wants to go in the direction of the avenues gets a turn, then everyone who wants to go along the streets has a go.  Which creates this crazy dynamic where, every time the WALK sign indicates you can cross the road, you have to watch out for cars turning into your path and trying to drive past/over you.  I almost got hit on numerous occasions on the first night alone, and after a few days I was kinda numbed to the impact of the near-death experiences.

I didn’t do much shopping on this first night.  I just picked up basics, such as water, a phone from Radio Shack for using while in the city, and a few of the toiletries I had forgot to pack in my mad rush.  On the subject of water: I went through a ton of it over the course of the week!  The pollution in New York must be terrible, that or there is some massive conspiracy with the bottled water companies to propel dehydrating properties into the atmosphere to make people buy overpriced bottles of H20 in an environment where it would take a braver man than I to chug from the tap.  Because each day, I was going through on average 2 bottles of water, with the countless Duane Reade pharmacies peppered throughout the city being one of my most common destinations throughout the trip.

I was tired and ill, so once it got dark, I decided it’d be best to head back to the hotel for an early night.  I did, however, make sure to stop at Midtown Comics on West 40th Street, just shy of Times Square.  I had fond memories of this place from visiting it as a teenager back in 2004, and it lived up to my expectations on the return visit.  It’s two floors of geeky comic goodness in the heart of the Big Apple, well stocked with a range of titles old and new.  I was pleased to note that, on each occasion I visited the store, it was always busy, and the sign on the door indicated that there were two more Midtown Comics branches peppered throughout the city.  It’s nice that the home of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four is such a thriving comics hub in the real world.

My humble abode while in New York.

I popped into a deli to grab a light takeaway dinner for attempting to eat back at the hotel, and headed to my room.  The room was small, the furnishing was dated, and aside from a few HBO channels (which all stopped working midway through the week) the TV sucked.  But the Comfort Inn Convention Center was a hotel I ended up becoming very fond of.  The staff was friendly, helpful when required, but happy to otherwise be hands-off and let you do your own thing.  It was clean, the shower was nice and warm, and the bed was incredibly comfortable.  The hotel was in a brilliant location, a mere five minute walk from the Javits Convention Center (and the walk was only as long as five minutes because roadworks meant the most direct route to the building was closed and I had to take a detour), and best of all, it was cheap.

I looked at my carefully plotted out schedule for the week (the kind I often like to make when going on trips, but rarely am able to keep), and saw I had a big day ahead of me.  With the New York Comic Con starting on Thursday, and with me meeting up with my ComixTribe compatriot Joe Mulvey on Wednesday, I knew Tuesday would be my one day to go into total tourist mode.  So I called it a night.

NEXT TIME: Times Square!  Jazz clubs!  Giant dinosaurs!