True Believers is a full-length novel by Thom Dunn, based on his play of the same name. It’s a satirical tale of star-crossed lovers, aspiring comic book creators, crazed fanboys, cybernetically enhanced humans, women in refrigerators, real-life superheroes, and girls who dress like Slave Leia as their lives intertwine over a whirlwind weekend at a comic book convention in the early 2010s.
The book will be serialized on Medium throughout the month of April 2020. Here is the first chapter. Check back every day for more chapters!
The stupid bar is filled with stupid crap from stupid Doctor Who (but only the new stuff — none of the original series things, at least as Billy recognizes from the few episodes he’s seen). The stupid stereo plays some stupid pop song way too stupid loud and it’s dark and stupid inside and stupid Calvin has that stupid look on his face with his twisted tongue wagging up and out from the right side of his mouth as he draws his stupid pictures in his stupid notebook with his stupid pencil and they’ve already been there for two stupid hours and the whole stupid thing is stupid.
“I still don’t get it.” Billy pouts as he folds his arms across his chest. He’s only somewhat embarrassed by the Three Wolf Moon shirt he’s wearing. It’s his favorite shirt, sure, but he hates being seen with it in public. It’s easier to wear a costume, to become a symbol, to immortalize a fictional meme and perpetuate its existence, like the way that Box describes it. Mostly the cosplay makes Billy feel like he belongs somewhere. Like he’s part of something greater, an intergalactic, multi-dimensional continuity that supersedes the pitiful humanity that surrounds him the rest of the time. Like he could burn the Earth with meaning and be remembered in print as a complex character, whose brooding nature and complicated motivations inspire a similar darkness in his fellow man and helps drive them toward the light. Or something.
“What’s not to get? Can you hand me my beer?” Calvin doesn’t even look up from his pad and pencil. Billy can see the sticky spittle forming a bubble in the pocket of his tongue. He can’t wait until it comes crashing down and smudges whatever stupid thing Calvin’s drawing.
“Yeah but how do you win?” Billy pushes the sud-filled glass across the small, round hightop table in the bar’s front lounge. Not that he likes to draw connections to his father, but if the bastard did teach him anything, it’s that victory and profit are all that really matter. Calvin’s already wasted Billy’s cash on beer and nachos and a stupid $5 cover charge (well, $10 for both of them, which of course Billy fronts) with nothing tangible to take from it.
“All right, pencils down!” The voice of the all-too-cheerful host booms over the PA system from his little nest at the back of the room. “We have reached the end of Round 3! Drawers, got your drink on, and Drinkers — well, hopefully you’ve gotten over yourselves and you’re ready to join the drawing. Remember: no matter what you draw, it can’t be worse than Rob Liefeld’s feet when he’s three beers deep!”
There’s a brief intermission in the evening’s festivities and the music gets louder than ever, as if the volume fills the lack of active human space.
“I said, ‘How do you win?’” Billy realizes that he’s shouting louder than he has to, but he likes to think it works for emphasis.
Calvin puts his pencil down, finishes the remaining half of his beer and massages his own brow all before he says anything. He knows it pisses Billy off when he doesn’t give an answer right away, like some stupid JJ Abrams show. Billy can tell that Calvin’s doing it intentionally (asshole).
“It’s called ‘Drink and Draw,’” Calvin finally says. “Get this, ready? You drink. And you draw. You win when you are sufficiently drunk, and have drawn lots of funny pictures. It’s not some 19th edition, Level-89 D&D bullshit. You literally drink, and draw. Absolutely everything you need to know is right there in the name.”
“Yeah but what’s the incentive?” Billy asks, and takes another swig of his fourth Red Bull of the day. He hates it when Calvin gets all sassy like that. It’s such a faggy thing to do — not to mention, disrespectful. Calvin knows full well that this stupid “Drink and Draw” game has nothing to do with their mission. But that doesn’t stop him from wasting Billy’s time with stupid “fun” and “social” nonsense like this.
“It’s fun,” Calvin says. “I don’t know if you know this, but some people have fun that doesn’t involve heckling comic book writers on the internet. I’m referring here of course to people…”
And that’s it. That’s exactly why Billy hates it when Calvin does things like this. Things that involve other people. Because it gives Calvin these stupid ideas about his stupid little superhero drawings and all the other stupid people in the world who waste their time on the exact same crap.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Billy pouts. “Are you insinuating that I’m not a person? That because of my cyborg enhancements I’m somehow less than a person?”
Calvin finishes his drink and puts his glass down on the dusty black tabletop. He lets his shoulder drop, affecting a somber and serious tone as he looks Billy in the eye and says, “For the last time, you’re not actually a cyborg, Billy. You have a pacemaker. It’s funny, okay, I get it. But it doesn’t make you a cyborg.”
“Yes it does.” Billy feels the seething swell from deep within his core. He finds comfort in knowing that his cybernetic heart helps regulate his blood, or else he knows that he would’ve already reached his own boiling point.
“Does your father know you’re a cyborg? ’Cause trust me, that’s the hardest part.”
It’s not Calvin’s flaming and in-your-face sassitude that pushes Billy’s pacemaker into overdrive. It’s Calvin’s whole new idea that he’s somehow special — that he knows more than Billy does how it feels to be alone. To be an alien, to be isolated in the world and ostracized simply because of what you love. This is exactly what Billy’s been worried about: that Calvin would get so caught up in curating his own identity that he wouldn’t see the rest of the world for how it is. That his condescending attitude would come back and kick him in the ass, and that Calvin would manufacture his own demise in some lame attempt to fulfill a catty archetype.
“My father is a cyborg,” Billy says. It’s the only polite response that crosses his mind. The only thing that he can safely say without growing the gap between them even more.
Calvin throws his hands up like a melodramatic cartoon. “Yup. You went there.”
“I mean my true father. Not that bastard suit who raised me. I mean the Cyborg Head of Stan Lee.”
Billy and Calvin have been having these same damn conversations — about parents, about identity, about the future, about comics, about everything — for as long as they’ve been friends. Which, as far as Billy is concerned, is as long as they’ve been alive. So why is this all coming up now? Why is Calvin being such a prick, when he knows full well where Billy stands? When they’ve formed their thoughts on this together?
“And how exactly does a Cyborg Head of Stan Lee reproduce?” Calvin says, with one of those stupid sassy head waves.
Billy can’t control his response. The words come flooding out. “Why, ’cause you wanna see his robot dick? Is that what you’re into now?”
“Shut up.” Calvin puts his head down and turns his attention back towards his art, even though the next round of Drink and Draw is still ten minutes away. Billy hopes that his best friend isn’t trying to cheat and get ahead. But then, Billy’s not sure if he knows Calvin well enough to know that about him anymore.
Calvin tries to flesh out the last few details on his Drink and Draw sketch from Round 3. It’s not illegal, per se, although it is generally frowned upon for people who want their art collected in the annual Drink and Draw benefit book. Even if Calvin’s art was good enough to be considered for the final printed edition — which, let’s be real, he knows it’s not — it would still pale in comparison to the other big name artists that fill the pages. His work would be on display with people like Jeff Stokely and Steve McNiven and Humberto Ramos and Khoi Pham. By comparison, it’s only fair that Calvin use these few minutes to fill-in the blanks, as it were. He knows he won’t make it into the top picks of drunken drawings anyway, but he’d at least like to have a fighting chance. Who knows; maybe someone will see his silly, sloppy Drink and Draw sketches and hit him up to do a 2-page backup story in an issue of Uncanny X-Men.
Yeah. Sure. A guy can dream, can’t he?
And yet, even as Calvin skirts around the rules in his slightly-inebriated pursuit of comicdom recognition, he can’t ignore the glowering negativity that shoots across the table from Billy’s sullen scowl.
Billy’s been his best friend for as long as he remembers. But as they move further and further into their twenties, it doesn’t always feel that way. Billy always beats him down. He insults Calvin’s art, and never takes his feelings seriously. Even when…even when Calvin’s tried to have serious conversations with Billy, he finds that his friend is more concerned with his fantastical pissing-match against the comic book industry that he somehow also swears by, than he is with addressing the real issues that are facing their lives.
Or at least, the issues facing Calvin’s life. The one, glaring issue of Calvin’s, um, not-so-into-women-ness. The issue that he’s brought up exactly one time in the years that he’s been sure of it, and which Billy swiftly brushed off and ignored and hasn’t mentioned since, except to get a dig in.
But what else is Calvin supposed to do? Billy’s been his only friend through his entire life. And he does things like pay for a Times Square hotel room during Comic-Con. Calvin owes Billy, if anything. And it’s unfair for Calvin to expect even more from him.
“Why don’t you just get a drink, man?” Calvin tries casually appealing to Billy. Now that they can legally booze, maybe that a little bit of hooch will lighten up the anger that’s otherwise consumed his only friend.
“I can’t drink. It interferes with my bionic parts.”
“Whatever. I give up.” Calvin sighs and turns his attention back to the drawing of Cable from X-Force that sits on the table before him. As he fills in the details on Cable’s million-thousand pouches, he becomes acutely aware of the woodgrain of the table underneath his page. There’s just enough texture that Calvin can’t stop his pencil tip from veering off course, leaving an ugly, awkward, vertical line intersecting the fine angles that make up the flap on the cyborg superhero’s shoulder pad. Calvin glances around the room to make sure no one’s looking as he spins his pencil around to yield its eraser.
That’s when a still-dejected Billy folds his arms his chest and pouts: “This bar sucks.”
Calvin can’t tell if it’s intentional when Billy crosses his leg and bumps the table ever-so-slightly to make it rock beneath the fraying rubber end of his pencil, pulling the paper away just enough that Calvin accidentally bisects Cable right shoulder through the middle of his padded barrel chest.
His drawing is ruined. Along with my career, Calvin thinks melodramatically before reminding himself that his career is in fact non-existent, which is precisely the kind of cold comfort self-deprecation that he’s always relied on. He stares blankly at the nothingness running through the center of the page. It’s not just the absence of pencil marks that draws his attention, but the thin outline of pink eraser finings built up on the edges of that now-empty space.
Calvin’s self-defeating trance is then interrupted by a familiar tinny tone. “Stay tuned, True Believers! Excelsior!”
He looks up to see Billy across the table, fidgeting with the Cyborg Head of Stan Lee resting his lap. Calvin looks around the room to see if anyone else noticed or heard, and feels a slight relief when he finds the coast is clear.
“Would you stop playing with your fake robot dad? Billy, we’re in public!”
“It’s not fake,” Billy says without even looking up from his busy re-wiring work.
“Whatever! Just put it away!”
When Billy speaks, his retort sounds absent — automatic — unaffected — cold. “It’s not a robot, either. It’s a cyborg. I thought someone like you would be more sensitive to things of this nature. That’s like calling an ‘African-American’ an ‘African.’” There’s a brief pause, then, “Or an ‘American.’ Or…”
Billy hesitates again, and Calvin knows exactly where the conversation is going just as soon as he sees that familiar curve of his friend’s wicked smile spreading from the corner of his mouth. He interjects before Billy has a chance to blurt out more than that first consonant. “Okay I know what you’re going to say and it’s totally uncalled for.”
Calvin reminds himself that Billy’s not being malicious. He just says things to get a rise sometimes; he doesn’t actually mean anything by it.
Billy finishes twisting a wired bolt back into the Cyborg Head of Stan Lee and tops it off with a magician’s flourish. His shoulders dance as he looks up with a smarmy smile and says, “Just proving my point. Besides, the Cyborg Head is my secret, sacred weapon. This is what’s going to help me take down that asshole comic writer, once and for all.”
“You’re playing with the Cyborg Head of Stan Lee in the middle of a fucking bar because you want to destroy Chad Mailer? Really, Billy?”
Billy claps his hands like earmuffs on the side of the Cyborg Head of Stan Lee’s, well, head, as if protecting the artifact’s delicate sensibilities. “How dare you speak his name!”
“Whatever.” Calvin pushes himself up from the barstool, hoping he still has time to get another beer before the next round of Drink & Draw begins.
Then Billy slams an angry hand against the table, and Calvin knows that’s not an option anymore.
“No! Not whatever! I thought we were on the same page about this?” Billy hisses through his teeth. At least Calvin doesn’t have to remind him to keep his voice down this time.
Calvin sighs as he sits back down on the padded high-top chair. “Look, the guy’s an idiot, sure, but what’s your grudge?”
It seems like a simple question, but somehow it’s enough to render Billy speechless, if only for a second. His eyes go wide as he stammers for the words. “My ‘grudge’ is him!” he says when he finally speaks. “His superdickerish ego, and his smarmy nods to continuity. For Stan Lee’s sake, he made Wolverine gay!”
And that’s where Calvin draws the line. Is that what this is all about — what it’s always been about? He leans across the table and points a finger right in Billy’s face. “Okay first of all: every knows that Wolverine’s first appearance wasn’t until Incredible Hulk #181, which was written by Len Wein, and not Stan Lee. Second of all, why is that such a problem for you? Honestly, what would it matter if Wolverine was gay? Which, if you read the actual comic, you’d know that he wasn’t, but anyway.”
Their eyes lock on one another in a stalemate. Calvin thinks of all the ways his friend could answer. He’s tempted to pray to the Cyborg Head of Stan Lee itself just to hear Billy say something rational again. But as he looks into his friend’s blue eyes, he’s not sure that he recognizes them anymore.
Billy is the first to break the silence. “Fine. Whatever. You can just go back to drinking and drawing. That’s all you care about anyway.”
Calvin waits a moment longer, hoping that Billy says something, anything else, as long as it’s not so stubbornly antagonistic.
Once he’s sufficiently disappointed, Calvin turns his attention back to his ruined Cable sketch, just as the host’s voice booms from out the speaker system. “All right, Drinkers and Drawers! You’ve got five more minutes and it’s on to Round 4! Let’s hope your livers can handle another piece of paper, huh?”
That’s when Billy grabs the paper from in front of Calvin. He rips it into eighths and tosses the scraps onto the floor, then leans back in his chair and folds his arms in satisfaction.
Calvin can’t decide if it’s better or worse to tell him that it was a junk drawing anyway.