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!
Even though he’s just across the hotel room, Calvin feels like he’s a universe away from Billy. As he pulls on his Avenger outfit — making sure to hide any exposed flesh from Billy’s sensitive eyes — he starts to wonder when exactly the chasm started forming between them. Was it when he first told Billy about the boy he’d kissed? Did that make him uncomfortable? Is that what this is all about? It’s not like Calvin went into any detail beyond that. And surely Billy had already known that Calvin wasn’t into girls.
It’s not like they ever talked about girls anyway. Hell, as far as Calvin could ever tell, Billy was practically comicbooksexual, if that’s possible. They’d been friends since kindergarten, bonding over the superhero cartoons they watched every Saturday morning, and that unabashed love of nerdy things was the tentpole that held up their relationship. And while Calvin’s life at home was going through upheaval when he was younger — parents always fighting, money always tight — Billy always had the cash on hand for the next cool nerdy thing. Whenever Calvin was down, Billy always cheered him up with a brand new comic book or video game or action figure or they’d go see a movie and all his childhood troubles would simply drift away.
But as Avenger’s blue spandex shirt imprints on his skin, imbuing him with the made-up superconfidence of his heroic counterpart, Calvin realizes how that single common interest was all their friendship had ever been based on. They never talked about their hopes or dreams for life, the things they wanted or cared about, or the people they were attracted to. It was all about escape. And Billy always bankrolled it, like their friendship was just another commodity to be bought and then discarded.
Even now, as Billy sits across the room, pontificating like a maniac into his webcam and rambling on about his diabolical plans to destroy whatever comic thing he’s on about today, Calvin realizes that he has no idea what Billy’s wild scheme has ever actually been. He makes his demands of Calvin like some sort of throwaway sidekick chump, the same way MODOK treats the average beehive-headed AIM grunts, but never lets him in on the details of the plan — assuming that there even is a method to the madness.
And maybe that’s been the problem all along. Calvin came here this weekend with a mission. He’s been working on his artwork, and he’s going to have it seen by a top editor at DC Comics today. That brings him one step closer to actually becoming a professional comic book artist — to creating the heroes that he cares so much about.
But Billy doesn’t have that same ambition, and frankly, he doesn’t need to; with the kind of cash his father has, Billy could easily subsidize his obsessive lifestyle until he dies of old age, and it would hardly make a dent in the bank account (okay well maybe Calvin doesn’t know the exact details of whatever money the Horowitz family has, but he knows that it’s a lot).
So maybe the rift was Calvin coming out. Or maybe it was just the overall idea of Calvin having any kind of internal life, of having any kind of goal or desire beyond obsessive fandom.
And that reminds Calvin that he should double-check his portfolio to make sure everything is set and in the right order for his art review at 11:30. He drops to his knees and reaches past the umpteen layers of blankets and sheets that stretch down to the floor and gropes blindly underneath the bed for his hardshell leather art portfolio and —
It’s not there.
Calvin throws the sheets back up on mattress and takes a look for himself, but there’s still nothing there.
Could he have left it in his luggage still? He turns and looks, but his luggage is laid out and open on the floor. So where else could it possibly be? He definitely didn’t take it out of the hotel room, and he’s certain that he had it when they came in on the train.
“Hey, Billy? Have you seen my portfolio?”
“I’m recording,” Billy says, in a dismissive sing-song-y voice.
Calvin stands up and takes another deep breath to calm himself before he answers. “No, seriously, where is — “
That’s when he sees the familiar curling white corners sticking out from under Billy’s laptop, and another pile of paper beside his friend. The very top sheet has some kind of building layout printed on it — but the color ink from Calvin’s Blue Beetle drawing is clearly bleeding through from the other side.
Calvin dives across the bed, pushing Billy to the edge of the mattress. “What the hell? That’s part of my portfolio! You printed that out on my portfolio pages!”
Billy leaps to his feet and throws his hands up like an innocent, as if Calvin is the one whose behavior’s out of line. “I needed…I was out of paper,” he says.
Calvin flips through the sheets in a panic and sees that all of his drawings — every single thing he brought with him to show to the editors at the DC Comics Booth today — they’ve all been ruined by black ink schematics printed on the backsides. “So you just took some scraps from my portfolio?! From the artwork I made?!
“But it’s…I needed…for the blog — “
“Screw your blog, Billy! You just killed my chance at drawing comics! I’m going to show up at my portfolio review and some major comic editor is going to say, ‘Well, I think you draw great facial expressions on your characters, but what’s this on the back of the page?’ Then I’m ruined!”
Calvin flips through the sheets again, unable to shake his dismay and disbelief but hoping beyond hope that if he keeps looking hard enough it will eventually go away. That his pages will be fine and unsullied and back in his portfolio case and that he and Billy are still friends and everything is fine and he’s feeling confident about his work and potential and his future career. But no matter how hard he looks, the ink never disappears.
“What did you have to print anyway?” Calvin says as he accepts the reality of the situation. Maybe Billy has a perfectly good reason for this, he thinks.
“Layouts. Schematics. Floor plans for the convention center and the presentation. I’m going to expose Chad Mailer for the sham that he is.” Billy’s eyes light up. “Ooh! I should say that to the camera.”
He grabs the laptop off the bedstand and holds it up, framing the still-recording camera on his face. Billy clears his throat, and in his best speechifying super villain voice, says: “Layouts. Schematics. Floor plans. I’m going to expose Chad Mailer for the — “
“Are you even listening to me?” Calvin is in utter shock at the absurdness of the situation, and with every new development he can feel his heart rate rising, threatening to burst through his chest. Everything feels so cartoonishly unreal that Calvin’s half surprised that his jaw hasn’t dropped all the way to the floor yet.
“I’m sorry I’m recording right now,” Billy says, his nose upturned in defiance. “Now go finish putting your costume on, you’re embarrassing me.”
And that is the last straw.
Calvin reaches out and grabs the laptop out of Billy’s frantic hands. He slams the computer shut and throws it across the room. Instead of shattering on the ground, it just bounces and settles on Calvin’s bed, which would be a relief if he weren’t already too outraged to care.
“What the fuck? I was just getting to the good part!” Billy doesn’t seem to care about the potential damage to his expensive hardware. Of course he doesn’t; he could just buy a new one. All he cares about his stupid video blog and stupid crusade against some stupid comic book writer so he can rant about it on Reddit and pat himself on the back when he gets five up-votes.
“Seriously Billy, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“What do you mean? It’s Comic-Con! I’m trying to — “
“Trying to what? What is your vendetta against this guy?”
If Calvin could at least come to some level of understanding of Billy’s motivation, he could…well nothing would actually change what just transpired, but Calvin would feel a lot better about it anyway.
“He’s an asshole!” Billy says.
“Why! What did he ever do to you?”
Billy slams his palm against the stylized gold carat ‘A’ on Calvin’s chest, and through gritted teeth he says, “He raped my fucking childhood, that’s what! He owes me!”
This isn’t the first Calvin’s heard Billy use ridiculous hyperbole like that. Normally he lets it slide; but not this time. He pushes Billy’s hand aside and says, “Exactly how did he ‘rape’ your childhood? Seriously, tell me: how did he forcibly penetrate the embodiment of your tender youth? Because that is what you are actually saying right now, Billy.”
“Oh, fuck you. My whole life I’ve been…” Billy lets out a primal scream as he sits down suddenly on the mattress, arms crossed against his chest like a stubborn tantrum. “Comics are the only thing that’s ever been there for me, you know? And people like Chad, and my father, they don’t give a shit. It’s just a stupid paycheck for them. Comics are the only thing in this whole stupid world I’ve ever loved and that’s…that’s ever loved me back.” He turns and looks at Calvin with such glaring disappointment. “I thought you of all people would understand that.”
“Oh, no, I understand,” Calvin says. He collects the paper and starts to sort it back into his empty portfolio case, leaning up against the side of Billy’s bedstand. “See, I love this world so much that I want to be a part of it. Whether that’s drawing superheroes, or actually becoming one, I don’t care, Billy.
“But you? When you love something, you just try to destroy it. And that’s not love, Billy. That’s chaos. And that’s — ”
Calvin swallows. Is this he wants to say? He’s not sure, but the words come out anyway: “That’s not what Avenger stands for.”
Calvin zips up the portfolio case. There’s still a few hours until his scheduled review, so he can sort it out later. He pulls Avenger’s hood up over his head, brings down his domino mask and says, “Now come on. We’re going to be late for the X-Men Forum at 10.”