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!
When he finally sees the fans approaching, Chad slides himself upright in the hard metal folding chair and corrects his posture. He’s been sitting at the signing station of the IDW Publishing booth for a half-hour already, without a single scrawling of ink to show for it, all the while hoping that some eager admirers would arrive and brighten up his day. He cracks his neck to the right and adjusts the tented paper nameplate in front of him that reads “Chad Mailer: Author of Night Shift,” then straightens the piles of books on the table: an anthology of Ghostbuster comic books with one 8-page story written by him, and a trade paperback collection of My Little Pony comic books that Chad co-wrote, which is really just a nice way of saying that he filled in the dialogue for a detailed story outline that he received from corporate. Ironically, they wouldn’t let him sell any copies of Night Shift (despite it being mentioned on his nameplate), since it was put out with a different publisher.
Chad is enough of a realist to know that neither of the books in front of him represent the pinnacle of his creative achievements. But then, IDW was one of only two publishers that had invited him to do a signing during this year’s convention. And considering all of the non-existent people lining up to meet him, he knows he should be grateful for the opportunity. At least he won’t have to keep re-explaining that he only writes the stories, and that someone else does the artwork based on what he’s written. Even the most canned answers get tiring.
The two fans walking up to the table look to be in their late-teens or early twenties. The paler one is dressed up like a poor man’s Doctor Doom with a little silver domino mask. He has a black duffle bag on his shoulder and a pile of at least thirty comic books in thick protective packaging of plastic bags and boards in his hands. The other one is dressed in a royal blue leotard that looks like it could just about any Generic Superhero Outfit.
“Hey guys, how’s it going? Thanks for coming by. I’m Chad,” he says as he gets up from his chair, extends his right arm to shake. He holds it there in the air for a moment, but neither of the fans reach out to meet his grasp. The one in the blue outfit awkwardly diverts his eyes, while Faux Doctor Doom just looks down and sneers, as if his offer of a handshake was some gross cultural offense.
Chad whips out his middle-school smooth and combs his un-reciprocated hand through his straw-colored hair. He tries to play the moment off as cool, but there’s still that little voice in head reminding him that he got dissed by two college kids in spandex. “Those are some pretty sweet costumes you got there. Is that the Blue Beetle, or…?”
“Avenger,” says the one in the blue leotard, with an obvious bluntness to his statement that makes Chad feel like an even bigger idiot.
“The Avenger, huh? I’m not familiar with him.”
Faux-Doctor-Doom holds out a comic book face-down towards Chad, then drops it so it floats the two feet down to the tabletop before Chad can take it from him. “Can you sign this?” he says, although it sounds more like a statement than a question.
Chad forces a smile as he sits back down. “Yeah, man, of course. That’s what we’re here for, right?” He uncaps a silver Sharpie and removes the comic book from its protective plastic casing. It turns out Faux Doctor Doom actually double-bags his comics — a surefire sign of an obsessive fan. So after taking the packaged comic out of its packaging, Chad removes the comic from yet-another plastic bag until he finally holds the printed pulp in his (probably greasy) hands. Chad had always tried to keep his comics in good condition, like any good comic fan. But this? This was a little overboard.
Blue Leotard leans in awkwardly and says, “It’s actually just ‘Avenger.’ There’s no ‘The.’ He’s, um, he’s an original creation.”
Chad makes eye contact with Avenger — at least, as much as he can through the kid’s black domino mask. He smiles and says, “Oh, you made up your own superhero? That’s great, man. Good for you. I’m all about the creativity.”
It’s then that Chad notices the cover of the comic book that he’s been asked to sign: Spawn #173, written by David Hine and definitely not Chad Mailer.
Blue Leotard lets out a frustrated sigh. “I didn’t ‘make him up,’” he says, in that indignant tone that’s normally reserved for fast-food workers with thick foreign accents. “He’s an original creation.”
But Chad’s too confused by the comic book in front of him to respond to this absurdly particular semantic distinction. He hands the comic book back to Faux Doctor Doom and says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t actually write this one.”
Without skipping a beat, Faux Doctor Doom hands another book to Chad, again with the cover facing downward; although he doesn’t just drop it this time, which Chad considers to be a sign of progress for their relationship. “Can you sign this then?”
Chad smiles, then goes to work disassembling the package, careful as can be.
“Where’s that girl who did the art on Night Shift? I heard she was going to be here this weekend,” Blue Leotard says while Chad carefully peels away the Scotch tape that holds shut the flaps of the plastic comic bag.
Even though the kid never says her name, the mere thought of his Night Shift collaborator is enough to knock Chad off his concentration, causing him to tear the tape — though fortunately not the bag, or comic, itself.
“I don’t know, I’m not really…we’re not that close,” Chad says, and hopes that’s the end of the conversation.
It’s true that he hasn’t seen her in the five years since Night Shift was released. And every time the book comes up in conversation — at conventions and interviews and signings and everything else — all anyone ever wants to know about is Katie Tulle. Where is she? What’s she doing? Wow, she was great, they always say.
And the worst part about it? Chad agrees with them. Even his best book was nothing without the art.
“Oh man, she’s so good,” Blue Leotard says, right on cue. “I’m actually kind of a comic artist myself — or like, I’m trying to be. I’m not a pro or anything, you know. But her style, man. She just really made the book. I mean, the whole thing was good, but — “
Chad tries to block out Blue Leotard’s ramblings as he struggles to free Faux Doctor Doom’s comic book without doing any damage to it. When he finally gets it out of its protective case, then turns it over and realizes that it’s yet-another comic book that isn’t his.
“Yeah — I didn’t write Amazing Spider-Man #546 either. Never written Spider-Man at all, actually, though I’d love to.”
“Can you sign this?” Faux Doctor Doom says as he tosses another book onto the table. This time the cover is facing outward — Suicide Squad #87 — and Chad doesn’t need to fuss with the obsessively protective storage system to see that it’s not one he’s written.
“I could, but I didn’t write it,” he says. Then he pushes himself up out of the awful metal chair so he can see the other books in Faux Doctor Doom’s hands: Archie #283…Daredevil vol. 3 #19…The Maxx #20…Action Comics #700…Howard the Duck MAX #1…”I didn’t write any of this!”
Faux Doctor Doom throws his remaining stack of comics down on the table with a loud thud. “Right, ’cause you just have soooo many fans here waiting for your autograph, Dick. Come on, Avenger. Let’s get out of here.”
Faux Doctor Doom saunters away with his chest held high. He doesn’t even bother to wait for his friend. “It was nice to meet you,” Avenger says sweetly before he hustles off to catch up.
“Yeah. You too. Thanks for reading,” Chad responds. But the blue-clad superhero’s already gone, leaving Chad alone to answer to the dead space in front of him.
He looks around at the scattered mess of immaculately packaged comic books, and notices one that he had actually written: a one-off Wolverine comic for Marvel called “What Happens in Department H…”
Chad leans back in his shitty chair and sighs. Then he checks his phone for a miraculous last minute message, some desperate Hail Mary plea from an editor eager to fill in a spot on a panel, where he might have a chance to shine and show his stuff in front of a room full of fans.
Of course there’s nothing. So he refreshes Twitter and watches his battery indicator shrink as another hundred tweets come in, with anecdotes and photographs of the epic exciting convention that’s supposedly happening all around him but somehow feels like it’s twelve parsecs away. By the time you see the tweet, the moment’s already gone, like the light of dead stars we see from galaxies away.
Chad takes a mental note to use that metaphor in something. Then he sends a message to his buddy Ted Thompson: “Hey man. Just got to the Con. You around?” It’s a dumb question, and he knows it. But Chad wants to remind himself that someone did care for his work, once upon a time. And maybe that means there’s still hope for him yet.
Before he puts his phone away, Chad looks at the time. There’s still four minutes left in his scheduled signing session. That’s more than enough time for a real fan to stop by…right?