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!
Calvin’s not quite sure what’s going on. Why is Chad Mailer showing such a sudden interest in him? He’d noticed Calvin’s costume a few times before, but he didn’t think that Chad would actually care enough to have a conversation with him.
Calvin’s impressed with Chad’s confidence, even just in walking through a crowded room. He knows how to carve a path between the huddled shoulders that pack the place. If Calvin were left to his own devices, he’d stop awkwardly at the first cluster of people who came upon and mumble “Excuse me” beneath his breathe until he gave up and went home.
It’s not like Calvin knows anyone else at the Omni Hotel bar anyway. He just thought it was The Thing To Do. And it is kind of cool to have a professional comic book writer take a sudden interest in you — even if he is the arch-nemesis of your ex-best friend who’s still moping back at your hotel. As if it was even possible at this point to do any more damage to that doomed relationship.
“So what’s going on here, Calvin?” Chad says, staking out a place to stand.
“Why the secret identity?” Chad continues. “Are you hiding something?”
That are so many ways that Calvin could answer that question. He decides to keep it simple — or at least, as simple as he can.
“My friend, who I came here with. He’s been kinda grating on me for…well, for a while now. I mean, we’ve been friends since forever — he’s my only friend ever, really — but he’s just so negative. Everything sucks to him. And I’m sick of it. It’s like, we care about all the same things…except he hates them.”
Chad laughs. “I know people like that. Where is he now?”
“Back at the hotel. He thinks that if he reads the entirety of Jack Kirby’s Eternals and New Gods in a single sitting he’ll achieve enlightenment or suicide, and at this point I’m not sure which he’d prefer. He’s been pounding Vodka-Red Bulls all night, except he won’t drink vodka anymore because it interferes with his bionic parts,” Calvin says with a mocking wave of his hands.
It’s not until he notices Chad’s raised eyebrows that he wonders if he’s already said too much.
“I see…” Chad nods slowly, as if he’s trying to figure out if Calvin is serious or not. It takes all of Calvin’s strength not to turn and walk away right then. “And is this guy Calvin’s friend? Or Avenger’s friend?”
This question’s enough to stop Calvin’s concerns. He never thought about it that way. “Calvin’s, I guess. I just wanted to have fun this weekend, you know? And he always found a way to ruin it. So I got dressed up and decided to have a night out on the town, except…”
Calvin motions out to the room, now that they’ve made their way out of the densely-packed throng. “I don’t really have any other friends.”
“Sure you do!” Chad laughs. “You’re Avenger! Who doesn’t want to be friends with a real life superhero?”
“I’m not really a superhero.” Calvin’s never said those words out loud before — he’s never had to make it explicit. But somehow the obvious truth still hurts coming out.
“I’m just boring old Calvin,” he says, and kicks the floor.
“Ah, don’t give me that!” Chad says. There was something so endearing, so undeniably hopeful about Calvin’s sincerity, his awkward insistence that he was an actual superhero, an “original creation,” and not just some excitable fan. As bad as Chad feels for the kid’s crumbling conviction, there’s something inside of him that hurts for it as well — a small shred that longs for that same eager and unabashed ardor. If the Calvins of the world can’t revel in their earnestness, what hope is there for the rest of the world — particularly for Chad?
So Chad does his best to be encouraging and boost the kid’s confidence — for Avenger’s sake, and his own. “Where’s your costume then? Back at the hotel, or…?”
Calvin’s timid fingers climb the buttons of his shirt, stopping in the center of his chest. He undoes a single button and separates the sides of the shirt like a wannabe Clark Kent ashamed of his secret. And there beneath the sides of the shirt, Chad recognizes that familiar golden carat emblazoned on the royal blue spandex.
Chad holds his own giggles back until he sees the same thing spilling forth from Calvin’s reddened face.
“I don’t know! It’s comfortable!” Calvin says through his own humiliated laughter.
“Oh, totally,” Chad says. “And in case there’s crime to fight, or some damsel in distress?”
Something about this comment brings a stop to Calvin’s chuckles. He stands upright in embarrassment, like a child caught in the act, and says, “Yeah I guess.”
“And instead you find me,” Chad says. “That’s what I like about you, Avenger. You are ever vigilant.” It occurs to him that he might not be doing the best job of boosting Calvin’s confidence, which only serves to make him feel shittier about his own shitty lot in life.
Chad takes a few steps over to a vacant high-top table nearby and scoots himself into the seat. He likes to have a little distance when he’s making a confession.
“I’m sorry for ruining your portfolio review this morning. I just got really excited about this idea and I…I guess wasn’t thinking.”
Calvin’s face goes from a frown to a smile to confused contortion in the span of a heartbeat. He shuffles over to the table where Chad is sitting and pulls out the other stool, steel legs squealing against the marble floor before he slumps himself down on the cushioned seat.
“It’s fine,” he says. “You didn’t ruin anything. My stuff wasn’t really that good anyway.”
“No, see, that’s Calvin talking again. Not Avenger. Whatever I saw out on the table there looked pretty good. And I could tell by Ted’s reaction: you were on to something.”
“You think?” Calvin’s face finally lights up with that superheroic hope that Chad was searching for.
“Absolutely. Do you have any of your own comics you’ve made? Anything you’ve self-published, or on the web or whatever?”
“I never really made my own full comic, like from beginning to end. I just…draw.” And just like that, the kid is back to self-defeat. “I find the scripts on the internet and I just do those. I’m not really good at making my own stories.”
“What do you mean?”
Chad is amazed both by Calvin’s fragile ego and the fact that the real-life-superhero-cum-comic-book-artist before him doesn’t see the irony of his own fictive phobia.
“Look at you, you’re Avenger! That’s a story right there. By day, aspiring comic artist Calvin Elder, who’s best friend is….some douchebag cyborg. But by night, he stalks the streets in search of justice as…Avenger! (- venger)…(-venger)…(-venger)…” Chad says, feigning the echo of an old-timey radio announcer.
It wasn’t a conscious effort on his part; pitches have never come to Chad that easily either. But it’s not until the idea bursts forth fully-formed from his mouth and comes to life in the deadspace of Omni Hotel Bar that he realizes it’s exactly the idea he’s been looking for.
So he asks: “What do you think?”
It never occurred to Calvin to put it like that. But now that Chad’s said it, he can’t help but smile at the concept of an actual Avenger comic (singular, no “The”). In that moment, it doesn’t even matter that his own life is painfully uninteresting. The idea itself just sounds cool, at least in the abstract.
“That sounds great, yeah,” he says, before instinctively shutting down his own positivity. “But like I said, I’m not really good with stories.”
Chad crooks his head, eyes narrowed in search of focus, until he’s literally looking sideways at Calvin. Then a secret, scheming smile spreads across his face. “So then I’ll write it,” he says.
“You mean it?”
“Sure, why not?”
Calvin waits for the floor to fall out underneath him. Is this really happening? How is it happening, and why? “But you’re like, a real comic book writer — “
Before Calvin has a chance to finish his premature self-deprecation, Chad cuts him off. “That’s not necessarily — it doesn’t matter anyway,” he says. “If you write, you’re a writer. You make art, you’re an artist. Fuck everyone else. What do you say?”
He wants to scream with joy, of course. But there’s still that small part of him that can’t shake the thought that this is all a prank. “I don’t know. Who’s going to publish it?” Then, getting ahead of himself, he adds, “Do you think DC Comics would — “
“Yeah let’s not worry about that right now,” Chad replies, suddenly nervous and glancing at the ground. Calvin can’t tell if it’s because Chad is pulling his leg, or because he’s hiding something, or if there’s some other reason for his reticence. Then he clarifies: “We gotta focus on the story first. Without a story, nothing else matters.”
“Okay,” Calvin says with a smile. “So what’s the story?”