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!
Ted drifts mindlessly through the morning’s portfolio reviews. He sits back in his padded chair behind the branded DC Comics foldout table that serves as the gateway between him and the eager line of aspiring artists hoping to show their wares, laptop open on the table beside him with the game running in the background. The game still buffers on the convention center’s WiFi network, even though he’s turned down the graphics detail. There’s a part of him that feels bad for eating up the already-limited bandwidth at the Javits — but if that’s the only way that he can (maybe, possibly, hopefully) keep in touch with Chloe, then it’s what he has to do.
Ted knows he should be engaged with the work, offering active and open feedback to everyone who stops by — it’s good for his image, sure, but it’s also important to engender good feelings and encourage the next generation of up-and-coming artists.
But right now Ted wouldn’t know if it he’d happened upon an undiscovered genius and cast him away. He’s too distracted by the game, by thoughts of Chloe and his inability to actually do anything to help her or bring them together. All that he can do is flip through the portfolio pages with a blank stare on his face, offering generic platitudes of positivity whenever someone seems too strained and stressed by his overall apathy.
This goes on for more than an hour before Ted is finally broken from his trance by one particular illustrator, a wide-eyed twenty-something in a blue spandex superhero costume. Ted can’t keep the kid’s name in his mind, of course, but something about him sticks out.
Ted generally frowns upon comic artists showing up in cosplay, as it tends to quash any possibility of appearing professional and put together (which is something most comic pros struggle with anyway). But this kid has a different energy about him, especially in the way that he insists his cosplay outfit is an “original creation.” It shows spunk, as well as creativity, even if the costume itself is kind of derivative.
This, of course, is juxtaposed with the fact that all of the kid’s drawings appear to have been done on the backsides of photocopied blueprints of the Javits Center itself. Again, this would normally be a major strike against someone. But there’s something endearing about the kid’s blatant disregard for professional demeanor. And either way, it’s enough to make Ted take notice of the work, which is more than he can say for the other eighty portfolios he’d looked through that day.
“You’ve got a really good handle on your facial expressions here,” Ted tells the kid as he flips past a sketch of The Spectre, making sure to accentuate his smile. The ghostly hero’s ethereal appearance dissipates like dust across the page, bleeding into the margins. It makes for a pretty cool overall effect. But there’s something else about the image that leaves him with an “off” feeling.
Ted lays the portfolio onto the table and points to the page as he tries to articulate. “Your panel composition is a little uneven. There’s no balance on the page. You have to let the negative space be your friend. See it’s as much about what you don’t draw as what you do. If you can convey the same feelings, the same ideas, in half as much space whether its words or pictures, you’re saving yourself from doing all that work, and you ultimately end up with a stronger product.”
He looks up at the kid, who appears to be absorbing the information. Or at least, he’s nodding as if he understands, which is more of a reaction than Ted gets out of half the so-called professionals he works with on a daily basis. The ability to take constructive criticism gets the kid a plus-sign in Ted’s mind.
He feels less positive about the spandex-clad artist’s friend in the weird metal militaristic crucifix outfit. “See?” the obnoxious steampunk sidekick says. “I told you.” Ted can see the confidence as it drains from the poor kid’s face, and he can’t help but feel for the guy.
“Well let’s see what else we’ve got here,” Ted says as he turns the page, hoping to at least keep up the encouragement. “See, your Hulk looks great here, because he’s supposed to be big and out of control, bursting out of the panel. But you’re not always working in full-page spreads. You have to find that balance.”
Ted flips through a few pages in the portfolio before one striking image catches his eye.
He looks down at the illustrated hero with muscles rippling beneath his blue spandex uniform, a stylized golden carat — maybe an A? — emblazoned on his chest. He turns and looks at the anxious kid beside him and recognizes that the artist is wearing the exact same thing as his illustration. “Who’s this?” Ted asks.
Ted can see the sweat forming on the poor kid’s brow. After a few false starts, the kid says “That’s, um, Avenger. Not THE Avenger. There’s no, um, there’s no definitive article.”
“Are you guys related?” Ted jokes. Perhaps if he acknowledges the weirdness of the situation the kid — “Avenger” — might feel a little more comfortable.
But his obnoxious friend butts in and ruins the moment. “It’s his drag queen name.”
With an eyeroll and a quick glare at his companion, Avenger fumbles to cover for himself. “He’s supposed to be the Clark to my Superman. Or, no, sorry, I mean, the other way around, the Superman to my — “
“Relax,” Ted says, feeling strangely endeared to the awkward artist-slash-superhero. “I know what you mean. What’s his story then, this ‘Avenger?’ Every super hero has to have an origin. What are his powers?”
“He can, um…I don’t know.”
“Well does he have a secret identity?” Really Ted just wants to shake him and say C’mon, kid. Work with me here.
But all Avenger says is, “Yeah, I mean, he’s me,” and shrinks into himself.
That’s when Chad Mailer shoves his way past the angry artists’ queue and interrupts the moment, once again stealing the spotlight for himself. Fuck.
“I got it! Woke up this morning, bam, it was right there!” Chad says, out of breath. Then to Ted’s surprise, he turns to address Avenger, like the two of them are old chums. “Oh, hey, Avenger. How’s it going, buddy?”
Friends or not, dealing with Chad is the absolute last thing Ted wants to be doing right now. “Can this wait? Can’t you see I’m in the middle of — “
“You don’t mind, do you Avenger?” Chad says, playfully punching Avenger’s arm.
“No, it’s fine…” Avenger says, and somehow becoming even smaller and more meek than he was before.
“See? The Avenger has spoken!” Chad mimics a superhero pose with one arm akimbo and the other outstretched towards the ceiling in a way that falls awkwardly between flying hands and a Hitler Heil. He maintains the position as he corrects himself. “Sorry, A-venger. No ‘The.’ My bad.”
Ted’s heart starts pounding, faster and faster, as if it wants to burst out of his chest and punch Chad in the face. “What is it, Chad? Make it quick.”
Chad affects the same presentational stance that Ted’s seen him do a thousand before, and at least twice this weekend. Legs spread, arms gesticulating through the air to paint the image of a PowerPoint presentation that’s invisible to everyone but him.
“Me and Kt, we’ll do like a five year follow-up,” he says, before elaborating in his best imitation of a voiceover movie announcer. “‘The long awaited sequel to Night Shift, the critically acclaimed series by Chad Mailer and Kt Watts.’ Huh? Think about it. She and I, we’ll co-write it, and she’ll do the art, and we can — “
Then Avenger’s annoying friend finally proves his worth when he interrupts Chad’s tirade with a loud, forced coughing fit. “Night Shift sucks,” he mutters under his breath.
Ted knows he shouldn’t encourage the poor behavior of some obnoxious fanboy, but he can hardly keep his laughter in. He tries to hide his cracking face as he says, “Have you spoken to her about this yet?” He knows the answer, of course, before Chad The Opportunist even says it.
“No, not yet. It literally just popped in my head this morning, so I wanted to talk about it before — “
“Did you even read the end of Night Shift, Chad? I know you didn’t write it. But it didn’t leave much room for a sequel.” Ted worries for a moment that this may have come off harsher than he’d intended. It doesn’t take long for him to decide that no, that was precisely what he wanted to say. What he’s wanted to say for quite some time.
And maybe it finally clicked in Chad’s head, too, Ted thinks, as evidenced by his poor attempt at recovering. “Well it doesn’t have to be like a sequel sequel, it can just be a thematic follow-up, you know, by two critically- acclaimed up-and-coming writers that — “
It’s clear that Chad doesn’t actually have anything substantial to offer, so Ted decides to cut the conversation down before the once-hot writer embarrasses himself anymore. As far as he’s concerned, it’s merciful.
“Look, I’m sorry Chad, but I’m really busy right now.” He motions to Avenger, who’s been waiting politely and calmly for the Chad Mailer Interruption Storm to pass and to continue on with his portfolio review. “If you ever actually talk to Kt, and by some miracle she does agree to it, then the two of you can get together and write up something formal for me. Preferably at a time that’s not in the middle of an impossibly busy comic book convention. If that happens then sure, maybe we could talk. But as it stands — “
“Well that’s why I wanted to run it by you first, I thought — “
Ted’s fist slams against the plastic top of the folding table as he leaps to his feet, sending the poor kid’s portfolio pages flying into the air. He should feel bad, but he’s too outraged to stop himself.
“I said no!” Ted bellows, his angered voice echoing through the vaulted ceilings of the exhibition room and momentarily silencing the excited Saturday morning din of the crowd, drawing stares from the people perusing the promotional and collectible displays inside the DC Comics booth.
Ted knows that he shouldn’t go on, that it’s wrong for him to make a scene. But he can’t stop the vitriol spilling from his lips; the best he can do is bring his voice down. “Look, Chad. I’m sorry, but I don’t how else to say it. I just don’t have time right now to deal with a has-been writer and his half-cocked ego.”
Ted shuts his eyes, takes a deep breath and counts to ten. He sits back down, takes another moment to collect himself, then turns his face to address Avenger. “Now. Where were we?”
Calvin shakes his head to snap himself out of the daze, and shuffles swiftly through his pile of photocopied portfolio pieces as he collects and re-arranges them from their haphazard splay across the table. He never imagined that he would actually make it to a real-life art review with a real-life comic editor like Ted Thompson — and of all the fantasy versions of this moment that had previously played in his head, there was not a single one that involved Ted Thompson actively engaging with his work, or Calvin being caught in the middle of a fight between him and a big-name writer like Chad Mailer.
“I thought we were friends, man.”
“Well Chad, maybe its time you learned that sometimes, business comes before friendship.”
As Calvin straightens out the wild spread of papers, seeking out the perfect piece to top of his review, he feels someone clap a hand on his shoulder. He turns his head to find Chad Mailer looking straight at him with sad, drooping eyes, almost as if he’s pleading for help in this last, desperate moment.
But all he says is, “You just keep on saving the world there, Avenger,” and walks away.
So of course Billy shouts after him, even though Chad’s barely taken five steps through the aspiring queue: “Han shot first!” he cries, with a brief pause before adding on for emphasis: “…Motherfucker!”
It occurs to Calvin then that Billy might have a superpower after all. He has the uncanny ability to be obnoxious and outrageous enough to embarrass Calvin, just like he’s been doing.
Sometimes Calvin wishes his friend could be more like the Hulk, and search for other ways to channel his gamma-irradiated anger into something positive. But at this point he’s pretty much lost all hope of that ever happening.
Calvin lets his irritation subside when he finally finds the capstone piece for his portfolio review: an epic, sprawling, 11x17 spread of Superboy-Prime facing off against the Anti-Monitor, the latter’s ugly dome head and god-like stature drawn as if it’s actually ripping through the paper as the artist’s hand — as Calvin himself, or at least a first-person portrayal of himself — drags his pen across the page in a desperate attempt to contain the explosive, reality-smashing battle. It’s as if their metafictional conflict is literally breaking the fourth wall and manifesting in a third dimension.
Or at least, that’s what Calvin was going for. He’s obscured a lot of it with Kirby-crackle-esque energy effects, and he’s not particularly confident in the way he shadowed the curling shreds of paper on the page. But at least he feels good about Superboy-Prime, whose costume he tried to redesign in honor of the late Kon-El, the unlikely hybrid clone of Lex Luthor and Superman who was killed by Superboy-Prime in the Infinite Crisis crossover. Calvin’s Superboy-Prime still wears the character’s trademark power suit (which of course was based on the Anti-Monitor’s own power suit) with a black-and-red color scheme and Connor Kent’s cool-guy leather jacket, gloves, and jeans.
Some of these details got lost in the photocopying that shrunk the artwork down to an 8.5x11 sheet. But Calvin never gets a chance to explain that, or his intention behind the piece, because Ted Thompson’s phone rings and brings the portfolio review to an abrupt and definitive end.
“Argh, I’m really sorry, I have to take this,” Ted says as he slides his finger across the phone, cutting off the tinny, compressed ringtone version of the Imperial March and snapping right into a very stern and serious conversation.
Calvin tries to keep his posture straight, and not let the sad, puppy-dog desperation cross his face. In his head, he knows that he needs to be a grownup, to accept rejection, move on and continue to improve his art. But that’s easier said than done.
“That’s, uh, that’s okay,” Calvin says, meaning it for Ted even though he’s staring at the ground. “I didn’t really have anything else anyway. Just some photocopies. Thanks for your time.”
“Yeah yeah right, okay. One sec,” Ted says into the phone.
Then, just as Calvin starts to walk away, he hears, “Hey, wait — Avenger!”
He looks back to see Ted Thompson, juggling his cellphone on his shoulder and extending a business card to Calvin. “Here’s my card,” he says. “Stay in touch, alright? You’re almost there.”
He doesn’t even wait for Calvin to respond before he gets back on the phone, screaming something about an original 1980 Boba Fett action figure with a launching missile pack. But for Calvin’s fragile ego, a small gesture like that is more than enough.