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 way that Calvin had originally explained, every round of Drink & Draw is meant to last for fifteen minutes. But Billy swears that each one is getting progressively longer and drawn out and oh my New Gods of Jack Kirby this night is tedious and boring and utterly endless and pretty much exactly why Billy doesn’t like humans and wishes he could just be alone somewhere with his other cyborg brethren. Maybe Calvin could join him every now and then.
But certainly not this Calvin, this cocky, arrogant, pod-person facsimile of his once-best friend.
“I need another Red Bull,” he says. “All this human interaction is fucking exhausting.” He slides out of his hightop chair, pivots on his right foot, and walks with rage and purpose toward the bar.
Billy’s more than five yards away when Calvin perks his head up from the paper, the first time in what feels like fourteen hours. With the dumb, endearing, innocence of a child, he shout, “Can you get me a — “
Without stopping his stride, Billy spins around to face Calvin and keeps walking backwards at the same committed pace. He flashes an unenthusiastic double-thumbs-up and says, “Corona. Got it.”
By this point in the night the bar has started to fill-in with people but fill-out from costumes, making it feel like just another generic nightclub, the thick air pumping with distorted sound waves and the stench of sweated-out alcohol. Billy has to squeeze between two awkwardly affectionate couples groping at each others’ Gungam tees and blissfully unaware of their surroundings. For a moment it makes him feel like a hero on a perilous journey through some unmarked catacombs, slipping through the caved-in rocks to find the treasure at the end. But then he just feels violated, slick with someone else’s sweat, and remembers why he hates society so much. At least his comics never wipe their filthy juices on him (and he, in turn, is careful not to do the same to them).
Even when he reaches the bar, Billy’s still forced to wait ten minutes before the bartender shows her face. She saunters over to him cheerily in her all-black outfit, the gleaming bronze skin of her exposed breasts pushed up to grab his attention. This of course makes Billy feel even more comfortable because he hates when men treat females like objects, and because he hates when females use their bodies to get power and attention, and above all, he hates hates hates it that he doesn’t know what to do or where to look and he wishes someone would give the female a god damn shirt except he also kind of doesn’t and so he shouts his order out above the awful rock music: “Red Bull-Soda and a Corona?”
“Vodka Soda and Corona?”
“No, Red Bull-Soda!”
“Red-Bull-and-Soda. No Vodka. And a Corona.”
“Just Red Bull and Soda?”
“Yes, no vodka. Right.”
“Okay. Red-Bull-Soda and a Corona.”
“Ya know, make that three Red-Bull-Sodas.” Billy figures he may as well stock up, rather than being forced to endure this pathetic human ritual again, or the trap of her supple breasts (not that he’s ever heard the word “supple” used in association with anything but female bodies, and not that he actually knows what it means out of context).
After more awful, endless waiting — Billy swears the bartendress is just teasing and playing him, like females always do — the drink arrive and Billy carefully finds the best way to balance three pint glasses and a bottle between his hands. She doesn’t even offer to help; she just moves right along to the next customer despite the fact that he paid money for her services. And people wonder what makes Billy mad about the world.
Billy steps with cautious deliberation as he walks back toward the Drink & Draw lounge, doing his best to stay mindful of the sloshing liquid in his careful wedge of drinks with the beer bottle sticking up from out the center. He keeps his eyes on the rims of each glass containing his precious Red-Bull-Soda and wishes that his cybernetic enhancements had come in the form of additional ocular lenses rather than a boring-ass heart pump valve thing.
But there’s no guaranteeing that a mechanical third eye would have been able to predict the sudden movements of a balding bastard in a button-down shirt, who abruptly pushes off a large black pillar in the middle of the bar and spins his back right into Billy, spilling liquid on the nearest female form and sending glassware smashing to the ground.
“Shit. Shit! Fuck! I’m so sorry man,” the clumsy fucker mumbles like a dumb little child. Billy can feel his lip upturn in a snarl, an unfortunate impulse that he never could control whenever stupid humans reared their heads and tripped up all his plans. He glares at the idiot, wishing that his non-existent cyborg eye also came equipped with a high-density laser to eviscerate his foes and —
Chad Mailer. Fuck. Oh fuck. That wasn’t just a random drunken fool who spilled Billy’s drinks, it was Chad Mailer. It was Chad. Mailer. Chad fucking Mailer!
“Yeahhhh okay that’s not where I wanted my drink. I’m gonna — yeah…,” says the nearby female as she jumps up and scampers towards the — holy fuck it’s Kt Watts, Billy spilled on Kt Watts.
“Are you — are you okay?” Chad Mailer asks. He bends his head around to make eye contact with Billy, in an obvious show of mockery.
All that Billy can do is nod his head slowly in response. His trembling body refuses to move, and as he feels his heart rate succumb to the adrenal thrill, he is grateful once again for the cybernetic gifts that he’s already been blessed with. That mechanical enhancement is the only thing that keeps him from breaking into a full-on panic.
Then Chad Mailer address him. Again. “Here, do you want me to buy you a round, or — “ And once again, he tries to rib on Billy, mocking his ineptitude, as if it wasn’t Chad’s own fault for pushing off the pillar at that exact moment.
They only option Billy has is to nod his head again in silent affirmation, and pray to the New Gods of Jack Kirby that Mailer doesn’t recognize him.
“…Okay. Are you sure you’re all right?” Billy’s always known that Chad Mailer was persistent. He just never realized to what level until tonight.
But Billy won’t let that stubborn bastard get the advantage on him. He refuses to acknowledge his own weaknesses in the face of such an arrogant, talentless hack. So he takes off running, as fast as his legs can carry him across the sticky bar room floor.
Calvin hadn’t really considered how many lines went into a single drawing of Spider-Man. It turns out that the webbing pattern on his costume is an incredibly tedious process. In retrospect, he probably could have left the sketch without them. At this point he’s already had five — six? five. definitely five. right? — five drinks in five rounds of Drink & Draw, and it’s pretty likely that no one would even notice if he just implied the webbing pattern in some way, instead of drawing every individual angle.
But now that he’s started, it’s too late to stop. Unless —
“Oh Gods. Oh Gods. Chad Mailer. He saw me. Chad Mailer saw me!”
Unless Billy comes running back into the room and rips Calvin from his concentration with his wild and erratic breathing and generally frenetic energy. Fuck.
“What now? Did you forget my beer?” Calvin says. He puts his pencil down on the tabletop and rolls it around until he finds a woodgrain groove to rest it in.
Billy makes frantic clicking motions with his hands as he says, “Chad Mailer. He saw me. Without my mask. He saw my face without my mask!”
It takes Calvin a moment to realize that Billy is gesturing for his asthma inhaler — which of course, Calvin has to carry around for him. He searches the Liefeld-esque pouches on his Avenger utility belt until he finds the medicine and hands it to his friend.
Billy takes a single puff and snaps right back into his anxious rant, hands flying wildly around to alternately hold his chest and hide his face: “What if…what if he recognized me? Oh Gods. Now he knows who I am, he knows that I’m here, he knows — shit. Shit! I’m so screwed. Shit!”
Even though he’s frustrated by the melodramatic interruption, Calvin knows that — for all of Billy’s irrational behaviors — it’s his duty to be a good friend. He owes him that much.
Calvin places a hand on Billy’s shoulder and speaks to him in a calm and steady cadence. “Billy. It’s okay. He probably didn’t even recognize you. He’s only ever seen you in costume, right?”
It takes another few seconds of heavy breathing, but Billy answers in the affirmative.
“So how is he going to recognize you,” Calvin continues, “if he’s never seen your actual face? You know, because you’re always in costume.”
Calvin recognizes the look that Billy gives him in response. It’s the same look that his friend normally reserves for beggars and buskers who don’t speak English.
“I don’t get it,” is all that Billy says.
“Think of it this way: Bruce Wayne could be standing right next to the Riddler, but the Riddler doesn’t know that he’s also Batman,” Calvin says. “So, in effect, Bruce Wayne and the Riddler are actually safe from one another, at least for the time being. It’s a stalemate.” Of all the stressful miscommunications that have passed between them lately, Calvin never thought he’d have to explain the minutiae of in-universe comic book continuities to the King of Nerdy Assholes.
And just like that, Billy recovers from his panicking gasps, as if he could breathe in pedantry like oxygen. “Are we talking like pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths, or post- New52? Because this example completely depends on which continuity we’re referring to.”
Calvin sighs, a mixture of frustration and relief. As nice as it is to hear Billy back to his normal condescending self after a brief panic attack, it also means, well, putting up with Billy’s normal condescending self. “Okay, it was just an example,” he says. “It’d be the same with Two-Face.”
“But why would Bruce Wayne be standing next to Two-Face in the first place?” Billy says with a sneer that makes Calvin feel like the world’s biggest idiot. “He’s a sociopath! Bruce wouldn’t be safe at all!”
“It was just an example, okay?”
“All right! Jeez! Relax!” Billy says. He walks around to claim his seat on the other side of the table. Rather than justify his absurdness with a response, Calvin just hides his face with his left hand. He leans forward on his elbows to recover the pencil that’s rolled across the table, then returns his focus to the Spider-Man sketch in front of him. It only takes a moment for him to fall back into that artistic trance, letting the hazy din of the bar fade into the background as he turns his attention toward Peter Parker’s fine webbed flourishes.
Of course it doesn’t last, as the familiar sound of that stupid robot’s tinny voice pulls him crashing back to reality. “You always tell me exactly what I need to hear,” Billy says to the Cyborg Head of Stan Lee coddled in his lap.
“Stay tuned, True Believers!” it answers, its pre-recorded robot voice cold and unaffectionate.