TRUE BELIEVERS: Chapter 9 — Up There Down There

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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There’s something freeing about the breeze that blows through her denim skirt as Kt Watts skates over the Williamsburg Bridge, peering down at the beautifully murky water below as she weaves between the early morning workers on their leisurely strolls. Even on the craziest days like the Starlight Parade, Portland can’t compare to the crowded streets of New York City and the metropolitan swath of anonymity that equalizes all the ants who live there, regardless of their color, shape, or size. She usually skates around Portland, too, but there she doesn’t have to put her Derby skills to use just to get to where she’s going. Who ever thought that all those years of jamming for the Break Neck Betties would come in handy for commuting?

God damn she misses everything about this overcrowded clusterfuck of a city. Everything, except the cost.

Kt hasn’t been back to New York in nearly five years, but as she glides down Delancey Street, up the Bowery and then around on Bleecker, she soaks in the sights and smells — the oncoming traffic (whoops! wrong way!), the crowds, those sweet roasted peanuts that don’t taste nearly as good as they smell — and it feels like a homecoming. This is where she did her most growing-up, through college and those PBR-and-Ramen-filled years right after. The swing in her step feels natural as the sprawling city map floods back into her mind, as if she’d never left.

Not that it’s particularly difficult for anyone to navigate the grid of Manhattan once you’re north of 14th Street, particularly with the hordes of beautiful costumed freaks marching en masse towards Hell’s Kitchen like a scene from a comic book crossover thrust into reality. She’s been to plenty of Cons up and down the Left Coast in the past few years — Alternative Press, Emerald City Comic Con, Wizard World Portland, and of course, the dreaded SDCC, overcrowded Hollywood behemoth that it’s become — but as far as she’s concerned, they’re nothing compared to NYCC. Not only is it home turf for the Big Two publishers, it’s also the home of countless comic book characters themselves. These streets run in their penciled veins (even if it is a fictionalized version of the city, with some corny name like “Gotham”), because these are the same streets that raised artists from the stories, from Steve Ditko to Daniel Clowes to…some other Boringass White Dude who’s probably named Bob or something and is probably really important to the comic book canon. Although Karen Berger is pretty like, old school New York street tough, and she founded Vertigo Comics, which is pretty baller. And she’s pretty sure that Alison Bechdel lived in NYC at some point in time. It would make sense, anyway.

Oh man, if only Kt would get a low-bar test for female representation named after her. Then she’d really know she made it.

Kt weaves around a double-parked garbage truck on Bleecker Street, legs twisting in a continuous figure-eight pattern as she dances along the uneven asphalt. Some suit-wearing asshole in a fancy Lexus nearly knocks her over as he pulls out of a parking garage, screaming on his cellphone and clearly unaware of his surroundings; she slides her ass across the hood of his car and flips him off, then turns down the nearest alleyway before the Big Man has a chance to hit his horn. She wonders briefly if car horns really do help testosterone-adled businessmen get their toxic angers out, or if the awful sound just serves to further fuel their ‘roid rage, like it’s something they get off on. Probably the latter.

She’s almost out of the alley when she sees it: an oblong brown cardboard mini-fridge box, sitting out in the trash behind a cafe.

Oh, fuck yeah.

Ted stands on the middle step leading up to the stage for the New Horizons forum and checks the time on his phone. The room is nearly two-thirds full, and there’s still five minutes until the panel is scheduled to start. What’s troubling Ted is the fact that Box is the only panelist who’s arrived so far; he’s sitting on the stage behind his tented cardboard name tag doing some kind of bizarre calisthenic meditation. Where is everyone else? Ted could pretty much take it or leave it with Chad showing up — he was generous enough to offer him a seat in the first place, and if Chad doesn’t show up, the only loss is his own.

But Kt Watts is a big shot now, an independent writer-artist with a major movie adaptation in the works and a very rabid following. Though he’d never admit it out loud, Ted mainly asked her on the panel to help make him look good. Despite the success of DC Comics and their Marvelous Competitor, Ted knows there’s a stigma of them being the Big Scary Corporate Monsters — and as Senior Editor, he’s is forced to be the face of that beast. But his relationship with Kt goes back to his days at Oni Press, and so for fans to see the two of them together like old friends, it makes Ted look more real and down-to-earth — which also impacts how they see the company.

Ted surveys the eager crowd gathered before him in room 1A14, at least half of whom he assumes are waiting there specifically for Kt Watts. There’s the front row full of laptop-ready journalists, their multiple devices sprawled across the cushion-covered folding chairs, ready to broadcast the newsworthy bits to the loyal fans back home on the Internet (He doesn’t have too many exciting announcements planned this time around, but they don’t know that, of course, and he wouldn’t want to rob them of their excitement). Aspiring artists crowd in around them, trying desperately to convey that subtle balance between overeagerness and professional cool in their dress and demeanor. They sit poised and ready with notebooks and sketchpads, hoping that today’s forum might bring them that moment they’ve been waiting for, when some onstage professional accidentally spills the Holy Grail and reveals the ancient secret to breaking into the comic book industry (hint: it’s hard work and talent, though a little ingenuity certainly helps). There’s usually some overlap between them and the journalists — there are plenty of journos hoping to use their positions to make whatever connections they need to become full-fledged creators. It’s a strange nepotism that’s unique to the comics industry. Not that Ted’s ever done a formal, scientific survey, but he feels confident that there are a lot more comic beat reporters hoping to make it as artists and writers than there are, say, music or film journalists looking for their “in” to stardom. Ted’s spent enough time in interviews to know how it works. They ask about the relaunched Nightwing or the upcoming plans for the Legion of Super Heroes, but he knows what they’re really after. So he plays along and encourages their fantasies. After all, it’s the only way to guarantee a good review, and that’s the bottom line. Reviews move units.

The rote legions of fandom with their elaborate costumes and/or ironic slogan tee-shirts fill in the rest of the seats, overflowing into the center aisle where the microphone stands prepped for audience questions. Ted’s eye is drawn to one adorable older couple in particular, in which the man has incorporated his motorized wheelchair into his Jabba the Hutt cosplay, and the woman beside him wears Slave Leia’s armored gold bikini top over her hooded sweatshirt. They’re both awkward, overweight, and yet, utterly in love. Sure there’s nothing sexual — or even remotely attractive, as far as Ted’s concerned — about the couple, or their costumes. And yet the sight of them still does something to him, fills his stomach with pangs that give way to an unsatiated hunger despite the fresh New York bagel sitting undigested in his stomach like the victims of the almighty Sarlacc. That two such nerdy lepers could find happiness together, and the confidence to come out to the convention in costumes and all, unashamed of their strangeness or shortcomings.

Also that the Slave Leia costume didn’t do it for him. It’s the first time that’s happened so far, but he marks it as a milestone, an important point of progress in his recovery from the emotional evisceration left behind by Kathy Jessica Thompson nee Whitaker. It’s proof that Ted is getting better, and he knows that it’s important for him to keep up with that optimistic outlook. It makes him smile when he’s dealing with fanboys and artists all weekend, and it’ll help him be his best self for Chloe once she arrives as well.

Ted takes out his phone again and realizes there’s only two minutes left until the panel starts. That moment of elation is gone, replaced by a pounding stress pumping through his blood. Everything inside of him constricts. He has to be his best today. He has to work and also play but that’s still work for him ’cause dammit he’s important, yes his job is serious and his respect is real fuck you Kathy.

Ted re-reads the last message he was sent from Chloe this morning, just letting him know that her re-scheduled flight was taking off on time and that she loves him very very very much and can’t wait to see his face in the flesh so she can kiss him everywhere XOXOX ;-) and his heart slows down immediately. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath of air and feels his veins open up, a smooth and steady stream of calm flowing through his skin. He takes another breath and lets his worries wash away…

That is, until Chad claps an arm around his shoulder in another awkward half-bro-hug.

God dammit.

<< Go Back to Chapter 8 | Read on for Chapter 10 >>

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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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