This is the final chapter of True Believers, 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 has been serialized on Medium throughout the month of April 2020. Here is the first chapter. Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey!
Chad’s instincts keep alternating between wanting to hug Calvin, and wanting to slap him. The kid is sweet, of course, but his naivety is a super power in its own right. But Chad knows what happens when he lets his impulses get the best of him, and now that there’s nothing left for him to lose, well, he knows that he should try to make the best of it, instead of opening his big mouth again.
He tries one more time to clearly and succinctly explain his pitch to the incognito superhero-artist before him. “Well, it’s about a superhero. Called Avenger. Come on, Calvin, work with me here,” he says, before clarifying: “Not ‘the’ Avenger, of course, just regular Avenger. No prepositions. Now go stand over there, in the light.”
Chad pulls a small moleskin notebook out of his back pocket, its unfamiliar touch and worn blank pages reminding him of the hole that it’s been burning in his pants for far too long. It’s been ages since he’s been compelled to take notes, or to scribble down a sudden stroke of genius before it escapes his mind. But the click of pen from his right pants pocket inspires a Pavlovian response (he also remembers that Pavlov reference, which is something he hadn’t thought about in a while either).
With Calvin positioned tentatively beneath the lone overhead light in that far corner of the bar, Chad decides it’s time to get to work. “Take off your shirt off,” he says. It doesn’t come out quite the way that he intended, judging by Calvin’s raised eyebrow. “Not like — you know what I mean.”
Calvin gives an enthusiastic nod and a big, showy thumbs-up before unbuttoning his shirt and revealing the bright spandex inspiration underneath. He strikes a pose as he throws the shirt aside, puffing out his chest and standing with fists on his hips, nose upturned to the mortal world beneath him and —
Then he shrinks back down to wiry nothingness. He slumps his shoulders with an accompanying frown and looks nervously around the room, ashamed as he is of the spandex costume clinging to his frame.
Chad stands up from his stool and shouts encouragement from his observation station behind the table. “C’mon! Don’t be nervous! Avenger doesn’t get nervous — that’s all Calvin! And I don’t really want to deal with Calvin right now. No offense.”
“Right. Okay,” Calvin says, legs pumping in place like a boxer about to get back in the ring. Each lift of his knobby knees seems to fill him with more energy, until he leaps in the air and lands fully posed like an awkward looking Atlas carved from leftover scraps of marble.
It’s fucking glorious.
“Yes! There it is!” Chad says.
The creative juices start flowing right away, dopamine pumping through his system with a vigor that he hasn’t felt in years. His pen starts scrawling across the pages of his tiny notebook before he has a chance to speak again — and when he does, the words come tumbling out like an avalanche.
“Now tell me about yourself. Tell me everything. What about your superpowers? No, wait — the origin story? There’s gotta an origin story. Let’s go in order here, start with the facts: childhood, family, all that stuff.”
An enormous grin spreads across Calvin’s face as his eyes are drawn up toward the light, and the voice that bellows forth from this transformative trance seems to belong to someone else — some noble, mythological icon that inhabits the body of the boy called Avenger.
“Well,” he begins, “my father was a cop who lost the use of his legs in a shoot out.”
“Oh, classic. Fucking classic!” Chad says, his hand inking automatic symbols on the paper without any conscious effort. With just the smallest spark, the story seems to write itself. “His courage helps inspire you to become a superhero. How about your mom?”
“They’re actually divorced,” Calvin says. “My mother works in records at the town hall, and my step-dad is a lawyer.”
“Ah-ha! So both father figures approach justice from different angles. Fascinating.” Chad wonders why Calvin ever struggled to find a story, when everything he needs is right there in his own life. “And I assume your step-dad is some big corrupt corporate sellout?”
Calvin abruptly comes down from his cloud to offer a sober response. “No, he’s a DA. We actually get along pretty well.”
“I’m talking about, in the story,” Chad says, pointing at his notebook. “Not that — I’m glad to hear you two are friends, but — “
“Oh, right,” Calvin says, returning at once to his majestic stance. “Then yeah. That guy’s a dick.”
The restless fervor of inspiration takes a brief but much-needed breath. It’s just long enough for the two new friends to share a hearty, human laugh, before the flames of creation flicker back to life and fuel the lasting frenzy of the night.
Despite the phosphenes flashing at the edges of his vision, and the cool radiance of confidence that dances through his veins, Calvin has never felt more natural or normal in his life. It’s something in his stance, and the light that bathes him from above, and the calming questions that come from his attentive new collaborator. Even the room itself has seemed to fade away, leaving the white gutters of the comic book page to separate their single, central panel from the rest of the world.
It’s fuckin’ awesome, and Calvin never wants that feeling to end.
“What are we missing here…” Chad says, tongue hanging dumbly from his mouth as he scrawls. “What about your love interest? That’s always important. Who’s she?”
“Um, she’s…” Calvin swallows, the cowardice jitters of self-doubt starting to regain their holds. But he refuses to give in to his timidness, to lose this sensation that he’s longed for his entire life. All it takes is a small assertion of will and that sliver of inconfidence is swiftly crushed by the heroic energy inside of him.
“She’s probably a he,” Calvin says.
It’s only the second time that Calvin’s said it out loud, but it couldn’t feel more natural, more right.
He turns his attention away from the light to gauge Chad’s reaction. Calvin can’t presume to know what Chad is thinking, but his slow, affirming nod and the upturned corners of his mouth seem to indicate approval.
“That’s even better,” Chad says. “Plus hey, maybe we can win a GLAAD award or something. That’d be pretty great, huh?”
“Yeah,” Calvin says, somewhat taken aback by the whole non-issue of it, that Chad could jump ahead to the most positive possible outcome without any concern for the weight of this confession. But Calvin ultimately decides that he’s okay with it. “That would be all right.”
And just like that, Chad’s attention is right back to his notebook — to his project, their project — as if nothing had happened. As if the story is all that matters.
“Now what about…oh, superpowers! Right! That’s important,” he says with his head still down. “Where’d those come from?”
“Well, Avenger doesn’t have any extra-normal abilities. But he does have — “
“‘He?’” Chad lifts his head and looks sideways at Calvin, flipping his pen between his fingers and mocking the caricature of a psychologist.
Calvin cracks a smile. “Right.” He realizes that his big non-moment of revelation must have ripped him from his reverie. But at least now he knows how to return to that moment, how to let his superhero-self take control and power through.
It’s Calvin who closes his eyes in that moment, turning himself inward once again. But its Avenger who opens them, seeing the full splash page of the world filtered through a four-colored lens of hope.
“I don’t have any extrahuman abilities,” Avenger says, his voice reverberating with such vision and zeal that it seems to make Chad swell with awe, sending his impassioned writings into overdrive. “But I am able to mimic flight, telekinesis, and time-control abilities through the use of this mysterious device that my father found — my real father, not my step-dad — on the night that he lost the use of his legs. See there was this big drug bust at the loading docks and my dad found this briefcase and…and that’s when he got shot. But he took whatever was in the briefcase and hid it, and that’s where I got my powers from.
“And so these drug dealers, they got the actual briefcase they were after, because they knew what was inside it — or what was supposed to be inside it, anyway — and so they’re still trying to find it, obviously, this device. But so that’s part of the ongoing mystery: what this thing is, and where it came from. Oh, but then my Stepdad, he actually works for these goons, too, and my real dad, he knows it, ’cause he saw him there that night at the docks, except no one believes him, because they think that he’s just mad about my mom and he’s trying to make him look bad, and…”
The words keep pouring out as the party roars around them; and Chad and Calvin begin to create an origin together, knowing that their stories are yet to be continued after all.