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TRUE BELIEVERS: Chapter 35 — Outside the Box

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 stinging still reverberates through Chad’s swollen hand as he sits behind the Boom! signing table, spinning a silver Sharpie pen between his fingers. He fields a few sideways glances from curious passersby — mostly high schoolers and awkward older couples, all of whom seem to shop at the same Hot Topic store and share one collective closet full of ironic t-shirts and half-assed Adventure Time memorabilia cosplay in the form of hats and backpacks.

Chad’s had enough time to soak in the details, because none of them come up to him to ask for his autograph. A few curious kids stopped by some fifteen minutes into the session to ask some questions, but even Chad could tell that they were doing so out of obligation and not interest, that adolescent ennui that says “Well hey there’s a thing there and it looks like a person with some kind of feelings so maybe I should check it out and search for signs of life.” Clearly they didn’t find any evidence of higher existence in Chad’s half-assed explanations of his brief run on the licensed Thundercats comic.

Time was that Chad Mailer was the king of the convention small talk; or at least, he thought he was. Ted Thompson had trained him in the art of the salesman smile. His glimmering canines would capture the attention of every inquisitive convention-goer that walked past. Chad would chat them up from twenty yards away, complimenting their clothing and enticing them to come closer and tossing out whatever creative property comparisons would get them in front of him. “You like Watchmen? This is great for Watchmen fans,” or, “It’s kind of like a gritty supernatural take on Speed Racer” or “It’s like Spawn meets Scooby-Doo.”

Chad had a knack for knowing what they’d want to hear so he could sell ’em something. But that was back when he actually cared, when he thought he was going somewhere. When he thought that he actually had something to say.

He flips through a for-sale copy of his Thundercats trade paperback collection. Even when he took the job, he knew it was just to stroke some nostalgic feelings in eager comic readers — licensed books of childhood properties almost always come with a built-in audience, and the creative team is just brought in so the publisher can pretend they put some effort into easy cash. In a perfect world, a book like that would be a great opportunity for a writer to stretch his chops and try something new, seek some deeper depth in whatever derivative 80s action figure line he was pimping out today.

And maybe that was what a younger Chad thought he was doing when he wrote the five issues contained in the collection. As he thumbs the pages now, all he sees is phoned-in plots and dialogue conveyed in four-color cartoons with thickly inked edges. Sure, he could write a witty quip here and there, and direct an artist to block a cool fight scene with a clever eleventh-hour reversal.

But looking back now, he knows that regardless of how he’d deluded himself, he never really had nothing to say. That could have been fine for Thundercats, but it’s a truth that applied to the bulk of his creative work — almost everything but Night Shift, really, and Chad squandered that message when he couldn’t figure out how to communicate it to Kt. In the end, she figured out how to tell that story better than he ever could anyway.

“Um. Excuse me?”

Chad looks up and sees a vaguely-ethnic looking guy a few years younger than him, with hunched shoulders and a “Can’t Sleep Clowns Will Eat Me” t-shirt, one hand held suspiciously behind his back. Something about the guy looks familiar, and it takes Chad a moment to look past his oversized glasses and recognize the brownish-yellow bruise that puffs around his left eye.

Box.

“Jesus fucking Christ, what do you want?” Chad shuts his eyes and counts to ten, in the hope that Box’s magic powers might make him disappear.

It doesn’t work.

“I was actually just wondering if could sign something for me,” Box says, that performative pretension notably lacking in his voice.

Chad rubs the bridge of his nose, trying his best to keep his calm. “Right, of course. Where’s your fucking cape, Mysterio?”

Box cranes his neck out from his hunched shoulders and awkwardly appears to examine himself, as if he’s searching for the answer to Chad’s surprising question. “I, um, this is my civilian disguise,” he says. “Kind of my secret identity. ‘Christopher,’ remember?”

“Right. Well maybe no one’ll recognize the big star writer if he’s got two black eyes.” Chad displays his fists like a boxer, one at a time as if to punctuate each final word: “Fuck. Off.”

Box shrinks into himself, his towering stature now strangely meek and small. Chad can tell that it takes some effort for him to assert himself again, and when he does he says, “Okay. But, um, first, can you sign this?”

Box brings his hidden hand forward and reveals a carefully packaged comic book in a firm plastic case — not the floppy sleeves and cardstock backing boards you usually see. He places the comic on the signing table in front of Chad, the weight of the thick protective shell clicking softly on the table cloth. There’s a small trapdoor on the front with a latch and a hinge, presumably to swing open and let someone autograph the cover without having to remove the comic from its acid-free fallout shelter.

It’s Wolverine & Sabertooth: Weapon X Annual #0: What Happens in Department H…

It’s that Wolverine comic.

“You’re fucking kidding me, right?”

Box tilts his head, the confusion in his squinting eyes magnified by his oversized glasses.

“No. No, not at all. I told you, I’ve been a fan of yours for years, pretty much ever since Night Shift. I own everything you’ve worked on. I think.”

Chad looks down at the comic book before him. It was one of the other few times he’d ever tried to do something deep or important with a licensed property, and all it’s ever done is bite him in the ass.

“And of all the books I’ve written, you want me to sign … this one.”

“If you don’t mind, yeah.” Box leans down and unlatches the signing trap, exposing a neat 3-by-4-inch rectangle of signing space in the center of the cover.

“You have to be joking,” Chad says, his head shaking in disgust. “Between the bathroom and this, you are fucking with me. Someone is putting you up to this. Is Ted — “

“I’m serious. Like I said, I own all your stuff, but this — ”

Box indicates the comic on the table, as if Chad wouldn’t know what he was talking about. It’s when he looks back up that Chad can recognize the earnestness flushing through his face, and the moisture swelling in his eyes as his lips twist and contort in search of the right words.

“Wolverine was always my favorite character growing up,” Box explains. “I mean, after Howard the Duck, obviously, but I never really got into Steve Gerber until later. But anyway um, I had, um, when I was younger, I had a really hard time socially, um — “

Chad can’t help but roll his eyes. “Yeah, I wonder why…” he says, perhaps louder than he should have.

For a moment he might regret it, until he realizes that he doesn’t have to. Because Box is too busy collecting himself, regulating his wavering breaths and swallowing over and over again to force some terrifying truth back inside of himself.

Box places a shaking hand on the table to steady himself. “Sorry. It’s just…it’s hard to talk about.” He chews his bottom lip and shuts his eyelids for a moment before continuing, as if he’s speaking to the darkness in the back of his own mind. “But seeing that…that Wolverine went through a similar thing as I did, with Sabretooth, it just — obviously it wasn’t the exactly the same but — and then so it — it was really inspirational, I guess.

“That, um, that he could, you know. He could still be this awesome hero. This…total badass.”

Box breathes. “That he could still be Wolverine, even though he had … that … in his past. So yeah, I just wanted to say, you know. Thank you, for that. It really…thank you.”

Chad pulls the packaged comic closer to him. “For Christopher,” he writes in the designated space. “Don’t be afraid to think outside the Box. — CM.” He blows air on the page to help the silver ink dry, although a part of him worries that the moisture in his breath might somehow damage the print. He closes the trapdoor on the hard plastic case and hands the comic back to Box, offering his hand to shake. Box hesitates before finally accepting this offering of peace.

Chad grips Box’s trembling hand firmly in his own, and their clasped clammy hands hold still for a moment at the center of an ever-spinning world.

<< Go Back to Chapter 34 | Read on for Chapter 36 >>

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