TRUE BELIEVERS: Chapter 7 — Messages in Bottles

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!

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“So. Larfleeze, huh? That’s pretty cool.” Chad stares up at the cloaked Middle Eastern sorcerer towering beside him. Or is he Indian? Maybe he’s like Native American Indian. He might even be Hispanic. Chad wishes he could tell the difference. He knows he should, but hates that he can’t. Just like he can’t tell if Box is cosplaying as a Generic Dungeons & Dragons Character, or if this is how he normally dresses when he goes out on a Thursday night.

“Indeed,” says Box, never quite looking down at or making eyes with Chad at any point throughout their very awkward conversation. “The Avatar of Avarice is a fascinating character study in Chaotic Neutrality. Truly, he means no harm to anyone. There is no malicious intent about his actions, but neither can they be measured or weighed against the notion of altruism, for such a concept has little to no meaning when it comes to Larfleeze.”

“Cool, bro,” Chad says with a nod.

“Now imagine what would happen if there was a second character in the Green Lantern universe that was powered by the Orange Lantern ring of Avarice, and if the stars aligned as such that Larfleeze was forced against his will to ally with this other Orange Lantern towards an altruistic end.”

Chad just smiles, then cranes his head above the crowd to see if he can spot Ted’s position at the bar. He’s not sure how much longer he can bear to be alone with this guy.

It’s then that Box casts aside his cloak with a dramatic wave of his right hand and removes a pocket watch from his dark blue sweatpants. Chad’s not sure which is more bizarre: that the pocket watch looks more like a toy than a functional timepiece, or that he hadn’t realized that Box was wearing sweatpants underneath his clock this entire time. “It appears I should disperse,” Box states aloud for no one in particular. “Else I risk my late arrival for this evening’s Wizards’ Council. Fare thee well, I am off.”

The man called Box wraps his cloak around himself like the Phantom of the fucking Opera and waltzes inelegantly out of the bar. God damn, Chad could use a drink right now, a piece of glass to sip something from and offset the awkward situation, so he’s not That Guy Standing In The Middle of the Room By Himself Who Was Just Talking To That Ethnically Ambiguous Weirdo In The Wizard Garb Who Just Waltzed Out Of The Room Like It Was Literally The Fucking Shire.

As he looks around the room in a desperate attempt to exude his Cool, Chad realizes that no one was paying them any attention — a fact which floods him with relief as well as loneliness.

Chad squeezes his way through the crowd, and though he is briefly trapped by a couple in Xenomorph cosplay lasciviously grinding to a Black Eyed Peas song, he eventually finds Ted near the bar. “So. That Box guy, huh?” he says as he takes the pint glass from Ted’s hand.

Chad grabs the beer out of Ted’s right hand. Not that it was actually the IPA that Chad had asked for. Not that Ted had actually listened to Chad’s request for a beer. Not that Ted had expected Chad to extract himself from Box so soon. Not that Ted was particularly in the mood to hang with Chad right then. But Chad puts his lips to the glass and drinks it back, leaving Ted himself cornered and drinkless.

“Box. Yeah. He’s a character,” Ted says, as he watches his precious Belgian beer disappear down Chad’s throat. He prays that Chloe texts him again soon. It could even be a picture of her cat — like actually her cat, Mr. Sniffles — and he’d welcome another reason to extract himself.

Chad swallows his beer, then smiles at Ted and says, “Thanks. Listen, I know we haven’t worked together in a while — “

“You know Kt Watts is on the forum tomorrow, too,” Ted says. She was Chad’s collaborator on Night Shift, and as far as Ted’s concerned — and as most of the reviewers agreed — was the real driving force behind the project. If they’re going to talk shop, Ted wants to do it on his own terms, and keep the conversation from coming back around the way it always does…

“That’s the thing, Ted. I’ve been a ‘rising talent’ for like five fucking years now. So what am I still doing on the New Horizons Forum?”

…like that.

Ted rubs his brow line and wipes the sweat away as he replies. “I was doing you a favor, man. I saw you didn’t have much going on this weekend, besides a few signings. I figured hey, you know, there’s that new anniversary edition of Night Shift coming out at Oni, so — “

“Yeah, because that book came out five fucking years ago. Five years, Ted! And what am I doing now?”

The last thing Ted wants to do right now is play Career Counselor for Chad. So he tries to brush it off, boost his ego, and move on. “Oh come on, I still gave you that miniseries tie-in with the summer event.”

Chad rolls his eyes. “Right. Danny the Street, the globetrotting adventures of a sentient transvestite road and his weirdo boarders in the midst of a multi-dimensional crisis. Whoopdee-fucking-doo.”

“And you did a great job!” Ted says as he slaps Chad on the shoulder like a good ol’ friend. He knows full well that it’s a Z-List property with no foreseeable future for franchising or movie rights or anything else that makes the business go around. Still, no one can say he didn’t try to be supportive. “We were hoping it would sell around 20K per issue and it fell a little short after the first one. But we still got a lot of press for the book. People were applauding the risk we took, and that matters in a business like this.”

Chad clenches his free hand into his fist and stomps his foot on the sticky bar floor. It’s not the first time Ted’s seen him throw a tantrum like this. “But no one cares about Danny the Street!” Chad says. “You’ve known me like ten years now, man. Pretty much the whole time I’ve been working in comics. You’ve seen what I can do! Remember, it was you brought me in to write those two issues of Detective Comics. That’s fucking Batman, the original Batman series. That’s huge, right? I even had that Wolverine comic book that sold out three different printings!”

It’s when Chad says things like this that he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the economics of the comic book industry. As an editor at one of the two largest comic book publishers in the world, Ted considers it his job to navigate the nuances between industry and artistry, between business and fandom. He hired Chad for those issues of Detective Comics simply because the company had to publish books that month, and they needed a writer and an artist who could make that happen on short notice — one of the few times Chad was timely — while the book traded hands between two marquee creators. As for Chad’s unexpected success with that Wolverine one-shot at The Other Big Publisher?

“Well Chad, you turned Wolverine gay. Of course people were going to freak out about it.”

“For the last time, Ted,” Chad says through gritted teeth. He’s tired of having the same damn conversation. “I did not ‘turn him gay,’ as you — and apparently everyone — like to put it. I insinuated that Sabretooth made Wolverine his bitch when they were in Weapon X together.”

How many times? How many times will Chad be forced to defend his decision? One of the riskiest — and, Chad insists, most insightful and provocative — stories he’s written for either of the Big Two, and for all the time and care he took in making sure it turned out right, most people still break it down to the same damn oversimplified and hyperbolic headline: “Marvel Comics Reveals Wolverine As Gay.”

“You had a full splash page of Wolverine taking it up the ass,” Ted says.

Chad’s impulse is to point out the distinction: that was a decision made by the artist, not by Chad himself. And even then, he’d argue that it was tastefully conveyed — at least, as tastefully as one can depict prison rape.

“Shower rape is a very serious problem in today’s penal system,” Chad says firmly, hoping that this one time, this one fucking time, someone will listen to his reasoning and fully understand his intention behind the scene. “It’s about power, not sex, and has literally no impact on Wolverine’s sexual identity. Also it made perfect sense dramatically.” Chad chooses not to cherry-pick about the verbiage of Ted’s unfounded accusation — the idea that one could “turn” someone to a different sexuality.

It doesn’t matter anyway though, because by the time Chad’s said his piece, he realizes Ted’s already back at his phone, tapping away with a shit-eating smile like a boy in the throes of a schoolyard crush.

“Yeah I should be getting back to the Convention Center,” he says absently. “We had this huge problem with the flatscreen displays at the booth.”

“Please, Ted. Hear me out for five minutes, okay? It’s just that ever since Night Shift came out — “

“And what’d you do on Night Shift, Chad?” Ted shuts his phone abruptly and shoves it back into his pocket. “That’s right: you never finished it. Your big creator-owned series, everyone’s raving about it — and you didn’t even write the last issue. You’re lucky Katie was there to pick up the slack.”

Chad can’t help but shrink at the sound of her name, and the fact that, in some ways, Ted is right. And he knows it.

“That was five years ago, man,” he says. Because maybe if Ted can forget and move on, Chad can finally do the same. “The one time I’m late on a script — “

Ted’s condescending laughter cuts him off. Which is actually something of a relief considering that Chad hadn’t really thought through his full line of defense. It still kinda stings though.

‘Late,’ Chad? Really? Does that mean you actually wrote something? ’Cause that’s news to me. I just figured you choked. You always swore you had an ending in mind, but even your pitch left it pretty open-ended. But if you got something, hey — if you actually wrote the ending to your award-winning comic book — then by all means! I’d love to see it. If it’s not too late — right? not too late? — maybe we can print your script in the back of the anniversary edition. What do you say? You got something for me?”

Chad stays silent as he tries to think of a way out of the corner he’s painted himself into. He knows he’s got nothing — no script, no new ideas, no big clever story pitch to hide behind. No new work to show for it. Ted has him dead to rights. All that’s left is the one thing Chad does best: he slumps his shoulders, finishes his beer, and slovenly shoves the empty glass across the cluttered bartop.

It’s the perfect pity party that gets Ted back on his side.

Just once, Ted would like to tell it how it is and not feel guilty afterward. He prides himself on his ability to cut through the bullshit (crap, bullcrap; Kathy never liked it when he swore), to find that line between business and fun and draw it cleanly in the sand as needed. He wants to say to Chad — poor, poor pitiful Chad — that it’s really nothing personal. Honest. It’s business, and that’s just how it goes.

“Look, Chad, I’m not trying to be a jerk here,” he says with a forlorn grin. He claps his hand on Chad’s right shoulder; it’s best to let him down gently after all. “I think you’re a talented writer, I really do. You got a lot of potential. And it’s not like I haven’t done anything for you since then, but — “

“Exactly!” Chad throws his own hands up in exasperation, shaking himself loose from Ted’s fatherly touch. “I’m not a rising talent anymore! I feel like a fucking balloon, I keep rising and rising and I’m just going…nowhere! In a few years I’ll be 40 and still living in my dad’s basement, some loser son with lofty aspirations to write ‘Funny Books.’”

Chad might say a few things after that, but Ted stops listening as soon as he feels the phone vibrate in his pocket again. He knows it’s Chloe, even before he unlocks the screen. Something about the way she texts, the way it feels against his leg. Of course it’s her.

Ted laughs. There Chad is, pouring out his heart, coming clean with all his insecurities to one of his last friends left in the industry, and Ted Thompson has he nerve, the fucking nerve, to laugh in Chad’s face and start texting right in the middle of a god damn conversation.

“Seriously with this? Right now?”

“Sorry,” Ted says. He wipes his hand through his peppered red beard, like he’s wiping away that stupid smile that’s stuck on his face. “It’s just, uh, it’s my new girl. She’s coming into town for the Con tomorrow.

As much as Chad’s annoyed with the interruption, he can’t help but smile along. There’s something real about Ted’s happiness, and it’s infectious. He remembers how rough it was for Ted during last year’s convention, right after he and Kathy had divorced. They had fun — drank way too much — but Ted was in a bad way.

“Well, that’s good, you’re getting back in the game,” Chad says. He means it, too.

But before he can shift the conversation back to more important issues, Ted’s already off and rambling. “You know, part of the reason Kathy left me was because she said I had to grow up,” he says. “That all I cared about was comics and Star Wars. But I mean, c’mon! I’m an editor for one of the biggest comic publishers in the world. Of course I care about comic books. It’s my job! And this girl, when I told her I work at DC Comics, you know what she said?”

“What’d she say?” Chad plays along.

‘That’s cool.’

“‘That’s cool?’ That’s it?”

“That’s it. That’s what she said. ‘That’s cool.’ That was it. It was amazing. That was when I knew.”

Chad nods his head slowly, suddenly questioning his old friend’s newfound happiness. This schoolgirl crush is making him uncomfortable — not to mention, it’s detracting from Chad’s work.

“Wow. That’s — I’m really happy for you,” he says, hoping it’s the last word on the subject. “Anyway, like I was saying, with Night Shift — “

And just like that, Ted snaps right back into business mode. “Right, right. Your ‘big idea.’ Let’s hear it. I’m all ears. Pitch me. Come on. That’s what this is about, right?”

This is the part of Chad’s strategy that was less well-prepared. He never expected Ted to put him on the spot, to give him this exact moment to prove his worth as a comic creator. He tries to speak — to take advantage of the opportunity, to get his foot back in the door and his career back off the ground — but when he opens his mouth, nothing comes out. No ideas, no thoughts, no original creations.

Nothing.

For all the hours that Chad has spent prepping his “elevator pitches” in the bathroom mirror — that hypothetical moment when you’re stuck in an elevator with a Hollywood producer, and you have just the ride to convince her to greenlight your project — Chad never thought the opportunity would actually present itself. He knows he wants to make comics, to trade in the epic iconography of modern day mythological heroes in four-color spandex. Give him any established property, and he can make magic out of it — or at least, tell a decent yarn to keep the fanbase happy until the next groundbreaking change comes along. But in this moment he needs something more than that. Something original, something with purpose. Something specific to carry his passion. Something he believes in. Some kind of story to tell, about a character in crisis with personal stakes and a moral dilemma and a profound exploration of the human condition through the metacontextual deconstruction of familiar genre elements and —

And he’s got nothing.

That’s when the familiar foreboding staccato rhythms of Vader’s Theme — the Imperial March — brings him crashing back down to reality.

<< Go Back to Chapter 6 | Read on for Chapter 8 >>

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Writer of fiction, article, songs, and more. Enjoys quantum physics, Oxford Commas, & romantic clichés, esp. when they involve whiskey. HATES Journey.

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