TRUE BELIEVERS: Chapter 32 — Adventures In The Awe-Inspiring Alley of the Artists!
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!
Artist’s Alley is abuzz with activity. Even though it’s still the morning — and even though the convention center had to relocate the hard-working independent vendors to an adjacent part of the building, separated from the main convention — the aisles are still packed shoulder-to-shoulder with cosplayers, families, artists, and fans perusing the prints for sale beneath branded graphic displays, queueing up for custom-commissioned artwork and enduring the over-rehearsed elevator pitches of eager self-publishers.
This is Kt Watts’ favorite part of every convention weekend. Regardless of whatever corporate advertising has consumed the main room, Artist’s Alley remains the lifeblood of the Comic-Con community. It’s the only place where everyone can be on-the-level with each other — from bright-eyed kids with their photocopied black-and-white comic ‘zines to the marquee cover artists like Chris Bachalo and Arthur Syudam to, well, to Rob Liefeld (fucking Liefeld). You pay for your small table spot and suddenly you’re just the same as all the other vendors, a desperate small business owner peddling your wares to anyone who passes by. It feels more like a farmer’s market than a corporate trade show, and there’s something so real (not to mention fun) about playing your own salesperson. By keeping it personal, you increase the value of the art — and the overall experience.
But between her busy panel schedule and the impromptu babysitting job she volunteered for, Kt hasn’t really spent much time at her table, let alone had the chance to peruse the aisles herself and catch up with the rest of the industry friends she hasn’t seen since Rose City, or SDCC, or hell, her last New York con five years ago.
A few dim-witted dudes hold court at a table just a few feet from her own, like otherworld demons who manifested from a Dave Matthews music video. Of all the wonderful weirdos that normally populate, Kt doesn’t usually see lacrosse bro pimping their wares, so she willingly subjects herself to Bro #1’s melodramatic marketing campaign for “Slutty Suzy and the Serpents of Saturn,” an original graphic novel illustrated by Bro #2 who sits in solemn silence during his friend’s big speech.
If Kt had to guess (which she doesn’t have to, but she does, because she wants to, and it’s fun), Bro #2 is the shy and awkward type who’s finally been embraced by the cool kids and has only recently begun to realize that all their promises of beer pong and pussy are complete and utter shit. Bro #1, on the other hand, is their GI Bro, their Broseidon, King of the Brocean, and almost certainly a marketing major with a well-connected or just plain wealthy family. It’s not clear if Bro #1 wrote the comic, or if he’s just there to help his friend by using his car-salesman charms coupled with the few vocab words that he remembers from Cultural Anthropology 101. He says things like, “‘Slutty Suzy’ is kind of a self-referential, self-conscious story of female empowerment. Obviously the serpents are intended as phallic symbols, and they come into contact with Suzy and allow to reclaim her feminitiness. Though it does come at it from a male perspective — you know, us being males and all. But in a way you could say that it’s a literal deconstruction of the male gaze, that the entire male race is the Serpents of Saturn and that the story is actually told from our perspective as these primitive alien beasts, longing to understand the female specimen.”
Kt lets their rambling go on longer than she should. She knows this is unfair, of course, as she has absolutely no desire to spend $20 on a 40-page black-and-white graphic novel called “Slutty Suzy and the Serpents of Saturn” and she’s making poor Bro #1 waste all his time and energy for nothing. But she figures he could use the practice for whatever corporate sales job his father has lined up for him. Besides, it’s pretty fucking funny.
This brief tryst is cut tragically short when Kt notices a pair of customers hanging around her own unattended table, flipping through the prints and original artwork that she brought along to sell. She politely excuses herself from the kindly proprietors of Sausage Party Publishing or whatever the hell they call themselves and makes her way over to the table, taking a brief moment to switch herself into sales mode.
“Prints are twenty bucks each, or three for $50,” she says as she approaches, and one of the customers-to-be turns his attention towards her. “There’s actually — oh. Chad. Hey. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Chad smiles like a dumb baby that just shit itself (or, more accurately, like Chad). He’s wearing a pink tie with his striped black button up shirt, a surprising contrast to his usual schlubby self and the pale radiance of his alcohol-exhausted complexion.
“Oh, it’s ‘pleasure’ now?” he says, seemingly proud of this sad attempt at wordplay.
“You’re right, I misspoke. What do you want.”
Chad slinks away and returns his attention to the pile of giclée prints on her table, like he’s tryin’ to act all cool and casual.
“I’m just looking through some artwork. Making my way through Artist’s Alley.” He motions this thumb, apparently not realizing that he’s pointing toward the outer corner of the room of the corner where no one’s set up. “Some guy back there is selling original Gene Colan pages from Silver Surfer. They cost a pretty penny, but…”
“You’re a terrible liar, Chad. I should know, I’ve slept with you.” It occurs to her briefly that there is another customer at the table, and that perhaps she shouldn’t be so flip and blunt about her sex life. Maybe.
But Chad seems just as shaken by her public directness. “What does that — “
“No, what does it mean?”
“Nothing! It was a joke!”
“Well explain the joke to me then.”
“It’s not really a joke you explain,” she says. Sometimes honesty is the best way to explain one’s delightful lack of filter. “I just said it. I don’t know what the fuck it means. I thought it sounded funny.” Which, in her defense, she knows it did.
Kt’s relieved when Chad has no retort for this. Instead he goes back to the pile of prints for sale, flipping through with quiet curiosity. It’s almost as if he’s being sincere about his interest in her art, which makes Kt even more uncomfortable; she figured he’d be more interested in Slutty Suzy and the Serpents of Saturn.
Chad stops when he finds a print that catches his eye and pulls it from the pile. “What’s this from?”
“That was from an issue of Daredevil,” Kt says as she examines her own handiwork. It’s been a few years since then, and though she’s not usually an artistic narcissist, Kt recalls being particularly proud of that page, and the way the panel pattern flows like the white handprint on Maya Lopez’s face. “It was one of those big anniversary issues where they bring in like twenty different artists. I was trying to do some decoupage to give the image some texture, like braile, to mimic his radar sense.”
Chad nods thoughtfully, like he’s actually listening — no, hearing, and seeing her artwork with fresh and impressed eyes.
None of this seems likely, of course, so Kt decides that his simple brain must be confused, and she tries to elaborate further.
“Decoupage is like — “
“I know what decoupage is,” Chad says. He glances up at Kt with a glimmer in his eyes that looks like admiration, or maybe even pride.
“Okay so what’s the look for then?” He has to be hungover, and too dimwitted and slow to be his normal douchey self. Right?
But Chad just chuckles, and with a slight smile says, “What look? I’m not giving you a look.”
“That right there, that’s a look!”
Kt wants to think he’s trying to fool someone — presumably her, though she has absolutely no idea what kind of ruse he might be pulling, or what ulterior motive he might have, what there is he wants to gain. His look is one of wonder and excitement, and for a brief moment it reminds her of the man she thought she’d met more than half a decade earlier.
“I’m looking at you,” he says, sweetly but directly. “Because I’m talking to you, because I’m impressed with your artwork. But I’m not ‘giving you a look.’”
Kt doesn’t play this game anymore, so she just puts it right out there. “What’s the catch? You’re actually being kind of sweet right now and it’s really creeping me out.”
“There’s not a catch! I’m just admiring your artwork. I’m trying to be nice!”
Kt squints as she looks him up and down in search of caution signs. There has to be something else going on, because this man standing before her is eerily similar to the Chad she once thought he was, and not who he turned out to be.
“You’re weird,” she says, then walks around the table and takes her seat behind it, greeting the other customer as she goes. If she has to deal with Chad, she may as well get a sale out of it. At least that way someone’s paying her.
In Chloe’s limited experience, these big comic conventions continuously double in size and scope as the weekend goes on, like a giant blob monster adding fandoms to its mass. She worries about how insane and amorphous the crowd will be tomorrow.
As amazing as it is to see so many excited people just like her all gathered together to revel in their weird obsessions, there’s a part of her that’s overwhelmed just by the journey from the front entrance all the way to Artist’s Alley, carving her path through the grabby, greedy masses like the most amazing video game she never wants to play again. The sight of Kt’s table in the back of the room fills her with an amazing sense of relief.
“ Good morning, sleepyhead,” Kt says as she approaches, like it’s no big deal that she put up with Chloe’s crap all night. Nothing ever seems to bother Kt Watts. Chloe wishes she could have that kind of confidence, and thinks that maybe if she hangs around enough, Kt’s coolness might wear off on her.
“Wait…Kansas, right?” Chloe turns and notices Chad Mailer standing nearby, squinting his eyes and pointing his fingers in the shape of gun like he’s having a moment of recognition. It’s kind of the opposite of Kt — his cool feels like it’s all an act. But also he’s been really sweet so far, and plus he’s kind of a big deal in the comics world anyway, so it’s kind of cute to see him try to act so casual.
“That’s me,” she says, and can’t suppress a smile at his corny little game.
“How’d it go with your internet boyfriend?” he asks. “Did you figure out how to get him out of that video game?”
That’s when Kt leans in between them and says, “You know, if he’s bothering you, feel free to punch him.” She looks to Chad, as if for permission, then continues: “Really, it’s totally fine, he doesn’t even feel pain. You can hit him all you want. Go on, try it.”
Chad looks panicked for a moment, but Kt stares him down until he rolls up his sleeve and offers up his arm to Chloe. She closes her eyes for a moment and concentrates on all the frustration she’s felt so far this weekend. She holds down the X and Y buttons of her internal video game controller and charges up her attack before she swings a stone-sized fist into his fleshy upper arm.
Chad flinches and lets out a small yelp. He rubs his bicep and rolls the sleeve back down. It’s not clear if he’s being playful and pandering again, or if she actually hurt him. As if she needs another thing to feel awful about.
Fortunately, Kt reclaims her attention, beckoning her around to the other side of the table. “So what’s up. Any word from your gentleman caller? Or, gentleman gamer, as it were.”
“He left me a message this morning,” she says, recalling how stupid she felt about freaking out like she did. “I guess he went to the airport after all, and he’d been calling me all day, so —
“See? What’d I tell you. Slight communication problem, that’s all. Now what are you doing talking to me about it? You should be falling in his arms like some smitten lover.”
But Chad sticks his head in before she has to a chance to explain her cold feet. “What’s going on?”
“Do you mind? We’re having a clam jam over here and you don’t fit the criteria,” Kt snaps back.
“No, it’s fine” Chloe says. He seems like he understands her, so she doesn’t mind letting him into what’s going on. Besides, how often do you get to take advice from two comic book celebrities who you just met?
Still, she doesn’t want to sound too too desperate, so she downplays the truth of it. “My boyfriend and I just had some confusion last night, that’s all. We were supposed to meet up and it never exactly happened.”
A furrowed look of chivalrous concern comes across Chad’s face. “So he stood you up?”
“Chad!” Kt hisses.
Chloe suddenly feels like a child caught between two warring adults. She waves her hand to let Kt know that she’s a grownup, she can handle it. “No, it’s not like that — “
But Chad insists. He leans up agains the flimsy folding table with his cool-dude bravado on display; it slides underneath his weight but he doesn’t seem to notice. “If he stood you up, then I say fuck that guy. He’s not worth your time. You don’t need him.”
Kt leaps up from her seat and shoves the table back into place, shaking Chad off of it. “You’re not helping!”
Chad throws his arms up innocently. “What! She seems sweet! I don’t want her to walk into a trap with some asshole.”
“I think she already has.” Kt sits down on the edge of the table with her back to Chad, as if her finishing move somehow made him disappear. She pats the space beside her, inviting Chloe to sit, and says, “So what’s next, you gonna go find him? Where is he?
“He’s working right now, but he told me to come by — “
“So what are you talking to me for? Girl, go get it!” Kt says, with enough enthusiasm that Chloe can finally feel that superhuman confidence starting to rub off on her.
“You’re right,” Chloe says. “I just thought that I should give him more time, in case he’s still mad from last night.”
Chad interjects with a whistle. “Sounds like this guy’s got anger issues.”
“Shut. Up,” Kt says, and Chloe knows it’s meant for Chad even though she doesn’t look at him. “Look, Chloe, I promise, he’s not mad. If anything, he’s scared. He’s been worried about you. Now come on. You already travelled 2,000 miles to meet the guy. What’s another 200 feet? You’re practically in the same room even!”
“That’s the thing … it’s a really big room.” Chloe immediately recalls the perilous trek she had just endured to make it here this morning, in her same smelly cosplay and hoodie from yesterday.
Kt stands up and places her hands on Chloe’s shoulder. She leans down, looks directly into hrt eyes, and says, “Listen, if you have to walk a few laps around wherever he is to build up some courage, that’s fine. But this is what you came here for, right?”
Chloe diverts her eyes, knees shaking with anxiety. Kt places a hand underneath Chloe’s chin and turns her head until she can’t avoid eye contact.
“Right?” This time there’s enough urgency in Kt’s voice that Chloe would feel awful if she didn’t go through with it. It’ll still take her a while to muster all the energy she needs, of course. So she just nods slightly and awaits Kt’s rhetorical command.
“Of course I’m right,” Kt says, then steps back and makes a grand gesture with her hand, a ceremony to mark Chloe’s exit. “Now go get some lovin’. Go! Go! Move!”
Chloe can’t help but laugh as Kt smacks her back like a giddy-up horse, and she merrily skips her way out of Artist’s Alley, only turning back to wave goodbye to Chad. Of course he’s giving his two joke-y thumbs-up like any guy would, but she’ll take it as a booster item to add to her confidence score.
Chad feels reinvigorated by Chloe’s little pep-talk interruption, like he soaked in that boost for himself and is finally ready to do what he came to do.
He also feels an eyeopening kick of energy when he sees Chloe’s round, bouncy ass skipping away beneath her flowing red Slave Leia skirt, but he tries to push that thought from his mind and focus on what he came for.
Chad reclaims his cool-guy-lean against the table. “She’s nice,” he says. “I like her. And it’s really sweet what you’re doing for her.”
“No. No way, Chad.” Kt glances down at the crotch of Chad’s pants and wags a disciplinary finger. “Down boy. Down.”
“What? No, that’s not — I swear, I wasn’t trying — “
“Chad. C’mon. Really?” Kt places her arms akimbo on her hips and raises an eyebrow as she shakes her head in disappointment.
God dammit, he hates it when she’s right.
Chad returns his attention to the portfolio of original artwork displayed on the table, while Kt herself makes smalltalk with the chubby Hispanic guy at the other end of the table. Chad turns the pages absently, barely registering the scratchy pencils lines, embedded eraser shavings, and other beautiful imperfections on the pages. He focuses instead on mentally preparing himself, and also clearing Chloe — or at least, the accusation of Chloe — out of his mind.
The truth is, it’s that kind of keen eye for detail that he admires about Kt so much (also he would like to clarify to her that he was not actively trying to make anything happen with Chloe, but rather that he happened to notice her feminine features, presented as they were in her cosplay attire, but he was not actually looking).
Kt has always had an uncanny knack for understanding people and the way they express themselves. That’s probably why she’s so successful, and why they’re such a good team together. Or at least, Chad thinks they’re a good team together. And if Ted’s not interested in facilitating that connection anymore, he can make it happen himself. He knows there’s no way she can turn him down, right? They work too well together in the past; they get each other on such an intimate level, it just makes sense and —
He considers for a moment that this might not be the best approach.
Chad flips the page on Kt’s original art portfolio again, but this time he lands on an image that he recognizes. It’s the second page from Night Shift, a surreal illustration of a hardcover book spine that’s also an apartment building, illuminated by some mystical lights against an urban backdrop made of mismatched words collaged from old books and comics and anything else that Kt could get her magical hands on. The establishing shot of the story, after the reader was mislead by the false prelude of the first page. This was their mission statement, where Kt and Chad clicked all those years ago and in one dynamic image said, “This is what we’re doing now, this is the story that we’re telling and it’s a story about stories and what they mean to us and to themselves and it’s going to be weird and it’s going to be beautiful and it’s going to be us.”
Chad notices the silhouette of the Marty Stu character carrying a mop past the thirteenth story window. It’s a detail he’s never noticed before, but it makes perfect sense. It’s precisely the kind of brilliant touch that Kt puts on everything she does, the creative stamp that imbues her work with life that radiates off the page.
And it gives him just the boost he needs to say what he came for. He closes the book of artwork and says, “Listen, Kt, I was thinking — “
“Oh, here it comes,” she replies, deflector shields up.
Chad reminds himself that that’s just how she is. He’s gotten past those barriers before, and knows he must push on to make it through again.
“It’s been five years since Night Shift now,” he says. “I think it might be cool if, you know, if we worked together again.”
“Chad…” Kt lets her bottom lip fall forward. It’s a pitying look, but it seems sincere — which, as far as Chad is concerned, is better than the alternative.
“No, seriously, think about it. We’ll develop the whole thing together from the ground up, equal partnership.” He can feel the energy flowing through him, and can’t stop from gesticulating as he speaks, drawing pictures in the air. “We co-write, you can do the art. You know, ‘Renowned co-creators of Night Shift re-unite for long-awaited follow-up.’”
“And who’s been waiting for that, exactly? Besides you, I mean.”
“I’m sure there’s some people who would love — “
Kt glances back at her other, paying customer and smiles sullenly. She takes Chad’s arm and pulls him around to the other side of the table, turning their bodies to transform their public setting into a private conference between old friends.
Then she looks at him and frowns.
“I’m sorry, Chad. I just don’t think this is a good idea.”
“C’mon, think about it.” She instigated this little huddle, so there has to be hope. Right?
“Suppose I did,” Kt says. “Even if I agreed, when would I have the time? Between this movie shit, and everything else I’ve got on my plate. How do I know that you’d hold up your end of the bargain? That you wouldn’t fuck me over and give up writing halfway through the story?”
Kt pauses for a moment, her eyes following the shape of his face like she’s looking for an honest answer. But Chad doesn’t have one to give, because he knows she’s right.
“Seriously, Chad. I am practically begging you,” she says. “Give me a reason why I should go along with this — why I should trust you again.”
“Because I’m sorry! I don’t know how many other ways I can say it.”
It just comes out of him, louder than he means to. It’s enough to make the hovering shopper shift awkwardly as he peruses through the graphic novels Kt has for sale.
Chad rubs his forehead and waits until he regains control of his own volume before he speaks again. “Listen: are you going to that party at the Omni later?”
The last thing he expects is for her to roll her eyes and turn away. “Jesus, Chad, it’s not even noon yet and you’re thinking about partying again?”
Chad reaches out and takes her hand in both of his. He gently pulls her back to him and says, “Let me take you out to dinner beforehand. Wherever you’d like. My treat. I’m serious.”
But Kt wriggles free before he can plead his case. “Chad, look — you don’t owe me anything, if that’s what this is about.”
“No, I know I don’t, I’m just trying to…You know what, forget it. Just forget I said anything.”
Chad lets his empty hands drop, loose limbs slapping into his thighs, then once again returns to the original artwork that Kt has for sale. He keeps his head down in his shoulders, as if that’s enough to make him disappear.
As long as Kt’s known him, Chad has always had this endearing, pitiful way about him, even at his most infuriating. In a way, it’s comforting for her to know he hasn’t changed that much. She almost can’t help but feel for the idiot, opportunistic and self-centered as he is. She knows he means well — and she knows he has some smart ideas, some real good stories to tell, if he’d just get out of his own way and stop trying so hard.
But she also knows that he can be an oblivious, immature meathead, and sometimes it’s hard to rationalize the two.
“Excuse me?” Kt turns her attention to the nervous kid who’s been hovering around the table throughout most of her conversation with Chad — who for the moment seems content with his wallowing as he looks through the book of her original artwork.
“Sorry about that,” she says to him, flashing her best fake smile. “Business stuff and old friends, you know how it is.” She realizes how much it almost sounds like Chad.
The poor fellow in his bright orange “Ever-lovin’ Blue-eyed Thing” t-shirt darts his eyes at the ground, as if he, too, is too nervous to talk to her. “Hi. Um. Can I get, uh, one of these, and one of those over there?” he says, indicating the new Robots Still Love You promotional print that he holds in his hand (“Soon to be a major motion picture!” sprawled across the top, with hand-numbering in the corner) and pointing at the hanging Poison Ivy print of a Batman cover that she did a few years back (and that she actually pressed with dry leaves and grass that she then painted over and inked).
“Totally. And if you get three it’s only ten bucks more.” Kt winks at the customer as she turns to retrieve the Poison Ivy print from the display banner behind her.
“Oh. Okay. I guess I’ll take one of the Daredevil ones, too,” he says. He means the same print that Chad had asked about a few minutes earlier, so Kt knows exactly where to turn to in the portfolio book. She slips a single high-gloss giclée out of the plastic-sheathed page.
Kt can tell that the nervous kid has one more thing to ask, judging by his frantic and misdirected eyes. She tries to pre-empt him, to ease the moment. “You want me to sign these?” she asks with a smile.
His eyes light up. “Yeah, that’d be great!” It’s the simple things.
Kt pulls a sharpie from her pocket and scrawls a big “Kt!” in the bottom corner of all three prints — seven quick dashes, with the “t” crossed before the vertical stem, and tossed off with the casualness of a pre-schooler with a crayon. It’s the kind of signature that anyone can imitate, but at least it’s legible, and at least it’s her.
“Here you go,” Kt says as she hands the prints over to the fan, holding out her other hand for cash (not to be too pushy, of course; but hey, commerce is commerce). “Thanks for reading.”
The kid drops a Grant in the palm of her hand. His face lights up as he hugs the prints tightly to his chest; Kt is tempted to warn him about warping the paper like that, but he takes off running before she has a chance.
“How much did you say these were?”
“Twenty bucks each, or three for fifty,” Kt answers automatically. It takes her another moment to remember that Chad’s still there, and he’s the one asking.
“Yeah, that’s for the prints. I’ve heard you say it.” Chad says. He sounds frustrated, exhausted — not in the usual arrogant Chad kind of way, but like he’s been repeating himself for hours and no one’s listening, and he just keeps getting shuffled through layer after layer of customer service bullshit. “What about the original art boards?”
This time Kt can’t figure out what he’s after. She’s cautious, but she goes along with it. “Those are all priced separately.”
Chad flips back through the portfolio book to a page that he had bookmarked with his finger. “How about this one?” he says — and pulls a page from Night Shift out of its plastic sleeve.
“Seriously?” she asks. She’s not sure if he’s coming from a place of sincerity, or selfishness — of course, with Chad, it’s often both.
Kt curls the corner of the cardstock art board to see the price she scribbled on the back; sometimes it’s hard to remember what she values each page at, especially considering that she’s already been paid for them once before. “I was asking $200, but…”
She stands there in disbelief as Chad pulls out his wallet and counts through his cash.
“Shit!” he says, as he stuffs the money back inside and shoves the wallet back into his pocket. “I only have $182 on me, I forgot about breakfast this morning. God dammit.”
But Kt isn’t sure how to react, so she just comes out with it: “Are you seriously trying to buy your own pages off of me?”
A look of pained confusion comes across Chad’s face. Kt wants to say that he looks like he hurt himself by overexerting his neanderthal brain, but she holds her tongue when she realizes there might be something more going on.
“They’re not my pages.,” he says. “My words aren’t on them yet. This is all you.”
With a heavy sigh, Chad turns his face and starts to walk away.
Maybe Kt’s assessment was right — that after years of crying wolf, Chad is finally screaming out with something to say, and nobody is listening. Granted she’s still not clear on what he’s trying to say, but she at least feels bad for the “not listening” part.
Against her better judgement, she calls out after him. When he turns around, she motions with her fingers for him to hand over the cash. Tentative, he reaches for his wallet and empties it out, handing the money to Kt. She pulls out her sharpie, scrawls her name on the corner of the cardstock, and gives the page to Chad.
“Thanks for doing business,” she says, then walks back around the table to reclaim her seat.