Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Last week, I talked about the various snags and snafus and general craziness involved in getting the Cartooning Class to this year’s Emerald City Comics Convention. That tale is here; this week, I follow it up by telling you how it went when we finally got there.
I’d been concerned about adding Friday to the convention for a number of reasons — the extra burden of getting kids out of school for it, the resulting transportation challenges, and so on and so on.
The one thing I hadn’t been concerned about was crowds.
My fellow staffers at school mock me for obsessively over-preparing for this event (that is, until they see it — then it’s “My God, this is so huge…. I had no idea….!”) but the truth is, even after nine years, there’s still invariably something I haven’t foreseen that almost blows the whole thing up.
In this case, it was something so insidious that I honestly assumed it couldn’t possibly be an issue. Since we started setting up at nine AM, it literally never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be ready when my student crew arrived at one that afternoon. The booth itself is easy to put together — we have our books on the table, a banner hanging behind us, a display rack, and a few posters the students have made, mounted on foamcore board. About fifteen minutes, tops.
However, we only have one car, our PT Cruiser. In this car we must transport and unload all of the above-listed booth stuff, the rack and seven cases of our ‘zines and the posters mounted on foamcore and etc., along with:
–extra chairs. We only get two with the booth, which is clearly inadequate. So we bring extras. This year it was four.
–a cooler with snacks, sandwiches and bottled water, because kids inevitably forget to pack a lunch and often spend their pocket money on COOL STUFF before they remember they have to eat. We don’t announce it or let kids plan for it, but we’ve learned it’s easier to just feed them then put up with the whining. And hey, we like to have lunch too, and no one wants to pay convention prices for a bottle of pop and a slice of dry pizza.
–whoever’s riding with us. This is where it gets tricky, because the more stuff we cram into the car, the fewer people can ride in it, and yet somehow every year we have more people to shuttle. This year it was me, Julie, Rin and her wheelchair, Katrina, Rachel, and occasionally Amanda and Brianna.
It gets out of control very quickly unless you think it through. It’s a bit like the old riddle about getting all the farm animals across the river in the rowboat with the fewest trips. I’ve never managed a con setup in less than two trips and it usually is closer to four.
Katrina and I had taken the seven cases of books and the display rack in on Thursday afternoon, which was a help. But I still ended up spending the entire morning Friday in the car. Twice down and twice back, picking up and unloading.
But that wasn’t the problem. (Remember, I said I obsessed about this.) Transportation of kids, of supplies, of us– thinking about this and working it out is what had pretty much consumed my every waking moment, the entire week before the show. I’d talked it through with Julie and Katrina, we had a plan, the plan worked. Everything got to where it was supposed to be in plenty of time for the doors opening at two PM.
–except me. Because in all my obsessive planning, I’d overlooked one new variable that adding Friday had introduced to the equation.
I still had to park the car.
I’d assumed I’d be able to just use the convention center’s garage, I’d pay the $17 and we’d just eat it. It was worth seventeen bucks to me to not have to worry about it.
It hadn’t occurred to me that the garage would be full. Or the next one. Or the one after that. Because at noon on Friday, not only were there thousands of people wanting to get into the convention, but there were thousands more regular office commuters that work downtown and park in those garages. Never occurred to me that garage parking would be a problem, because we’d never done this on a weekday before.
Always something. No matter how obsessively and relentlessly I map it out beforehand, the plan always blows up on show day.
The reason this was an issue is because I had students coming from school, Lexi and Eli, who were getting dropped off at the convention center in the school mini-van and we had to meet them. Because of other schedule things– it was the only time we could get the van– they were arriving early, at one PM, and the rules say that they must be handed over to the staff person on-site, if there’s no parents there. Despite the number of volunteers and aides we had, Julie and Rin and everyone, the only official staff person was me. Given the week of craziness beforehand, with the various escalating unpleasantnesses about us even getting the van that day, I didn’t dare fudge on a rule like that, I had to be there to get the kids– and there I was, trapped in parking-garage hell.
I’d pulled into the first one at eleven-forty, thinking I had plenty of time, and even feeling a little smug. That feeling didn’t last long and was soon replaced with a kind of desperate frustration. It took over an hour of circling garages, sharklike, jousting with all the other convention-goers also trawling for a parking place. But I made it, barely. I think I had five minutes’ grace left by the time I made it into the Convention Center.
I mention all this pre-show craziness for a couple of reasons. First of all, this all took place in the same week that a lot of media blowhards seem to have gotten it into their heads that teaching is a cushy job, not like real work at all, and this has even been spilling over into my real life. At one point, a particularly stupid person suggested that I, especially, have a cushy teaching job because it involves kids and comics and “going to shows with William Shatner ‘n’ stuff.” Like, I don’t know, Shatner and I are hanging around in the greenroom all weekend drinking appletinis or something.
I wanted to kick the guy’s balls up out his throat, but instead I simply corrected his mis-apprehensions, politely but firmly, and I thought I’d set it all down here as well, in case anyone else had the same silly idea that what we do at Emerald City isn’t work.
In fact, not only is it work, it’s volunteer work. I get paid to teach class during the week, but the hours of show prep and those at the con itself are unpaid. Not me, not Julie, not Rin or Katrina or any of the other girls that busted their teenage butts for three days to sign and sketch and sell the book that they, oh yeah, completely donated all their time and work for, got paid a dime for any of that.
We got comped into the show, that was it. And Julie and I bought several of our aides’ meals because we felt like we ought to– but that was us, not the school or the Y.
I don’t actually mind the work or the low pay or the stress or any of the rest of it. It’s worth it, as I hope to make clear later on. But lack of respect for what we do, especially from people who have no idea what it is? I mind that the hell of a lot.
End of testy digression. Moving on….
All that being said– once I’d gotten the car parked, collected Lexi and Eli, herded them upstairs to get their badges and gotten us all in line for the doors opening at 2:00, I was able to relax a little bit. (Julie and the girls had checked in with me by cell phone and assured me the booth was ready; I had to wait in line with Lexi and Eli because they didn’t have exhibitor passes, just standard badges.) Once I’d been assured the booth was set up and good to go, I even started to enjoy myself.
Laura’s been a friend of the class for years, and we always enjoy seeing her. What’s more, her troll pictures are often the only shots we get of the kids at the booth, especially if I’m too frazzled to remember things like our camera… or fresh batteries for the camera.
This year Laura had brought her entire archive of Torvald pictures on her Kindle, and Lexi and Eli were both very interested to see young Katrina, way back in seventh grade when she had been trolled at the con. (The students are fascinated by the history of the class, and are endlessly interested in anecdotes from our previous classes and their adventures at cons.)
All this is by way of saying that Laura got the only good photo of us on Friday.
After an initial getting-adjusted period, we did pretty well. Aja and Amanda arrived soon after the doors opened, and they took turns trading off booth duty with Rachel and Katrina. We got a pretty good rhythm going with Lexi and Eli smiling and saying hello to people, and if they were interested enough to stop, then they’d sign one of the student ‘zines for them and direct them over to the graduates who were signing and sketching the benefit book. This usually resulted in a donation for the box at least, and it often sold us a book. The girls also did a brisk business in sketches.
There was an initial stampede of collectors when the doors opened but it thinned out fairly quickly, and it was soon obvious that this was going to be a pleasant, easygoing sort of day. We all decided that we liked the idea of opening Friday afternoon, it gives you a softer start and lets you figure out how your booth is working before you have to cope with the crush of Saturday.
While we were waiting in line, Eli had asked me if I’d ever heard of Keith Curtis. “My folks know him, he’s in comics!” I admitted that no, I had not.
Turned out, Mr. Curtis was our other neighbor, directly behind us. And Eli was right — he really is in comics, literally. Keith ‘plays’ Jason Crater in the incredibly ambitious photo-comic retro-space-opera, Crater on the Moon. He and his friends act out the story and photograph it and then he takes those poses and Photoshops them and combines them with space and lunar backgrounds to create this amazing space adventure. I think drawing comics pages is hard, but this seems about ten times harder. Nevertheless, the book keeps chugging right along and Keith and his crew have been a fixture at Emerald City for a number of years now.
They were directly behind us, facing out the other way, so that the rear curtain was the only thing separating our two booths. I was terrified that our horde of children would accidentally back through the curtain and tip something over at some point — and in fact there was one scary moment when it looked like one of the kids might pull the frame down — but Keith and his team were terrific, very supportive, and loved the idea of a school doing the show as a field trip. They even very kindly let me borrow space on their power strip outlet to recharge our cell phone when it started to crap out on us on Saturday.
Also? They don’t just do comics…. they’re accomplished jazz musicians. Both Saturday and Sunday afternoon the Crater crew held an impromptu jam session.
The closest I got to a moment of genuine calm over the course of the whole weekend was Sunday afternoon, as the con was winding down, leaning back in my chair and watching the girls sketch, while I could hear Keith and the guys doing a swinging version of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” coming through the curtain behind us. (In fact, I’m listening to their album streaming online as I write this. Good stuff.)
It was quiet enough on Friday that I shooed Julie off to panels with the Star Trek celebs in attendance, and Rin got to do her tour of Artist’s Alley. I figured, they better have some show now because not only was tomorrow Saturday, traditionally Hell Day at the con, but it was also the day of the ShatnerQuake. William Shatner was appearing Saturday only at Emerald City and we were dreading the crush of the crowds it would bring.
As usual, I was chained to the booth, but I didn’t mind that so much because I enjoyed watching the grads work and catching up with them. Katrina is my classroom TA, so I get to see her twice a week, but for the others, it’s all e-mail and online stuff, this is really the only time of year we spend any time together in person. Julie and I don’t have kids of our own, so we tend to think of “the girls” as family.
We were especially looking forward to Brianna’s arrival, as we hadn’t actually seen her since her high school graduation. She was a college graduate now, and teaching at the YMCA up in Bellingham — which would make her my colleague, I realized. The realization was one of those moments that made me feel really proud and really old at the same time. Bri hadn’t been able to get away until after work, so she was driving down that night and we’d see her on Saturday morning.
Katrina and Rachel had come in costume, and so they were both posing for pictures and taking pictures with a bunch of other cosplay people, as well as squeeing and fangirling all over the place. Aja and Amanda didn’t seem to mind covering them at the booth while they did it, so it was largely the two of them and me and the students minding the booth for most of Friday afternoon.
I’d written up a signing schedule for the grads because last year there had been grousing about unfairness about who got stuck at the booth for too long– Rachel, in particular, has a habit of bouncing up and away whenever she sees a cool costume or something she wants a picture of– and it had created some discord among the troops last year, so I thought if it was in writing there’d be more accountability and less grumbling this year.
Of course, that assumes everyone sticks to the schedule, and it rapidly became clear that this wasn’t happening. I was reluctant to crack down on the girls, though, because no one seemed really upset about it and, as I kept reminding myself, They’re not in your charge any more and they are certainly old enough to work these things out between themselves. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves so don’t be an old grump about it.
During all this, we continued to do business. ‘Zines were signed, benefit books were signed and sold, and money came in at a pretty good clip. One of the reasons I was able to relax a little was because obviously Amanda and Aja had it so completely handled. They worked that booth like they’d been doing it their whole lives… and then I realized that, well, they sort of have been. Both of them have been doing comics and signing at shows since they were twelve.
Amanda, especially, leaned into it like a total pro. We were getting a lot of people who’d come to the table and look, nod, smile at Lexi and Eli, and then when the girls launched into the spiel about the benefit book, they suddenly found a reason to be elsewhere. It was annoying me and Aja a little, but Amanda wasn’t fazed at all.
I finally told her how awed I was by her cheerful professionalism and she smiled. “I’m used to it. I did my time with Girl Scout cookies.”
Lexi and Eli had both certainly earned a break. Plus it was the very first con for both of them and I wanted to be sure they had a good one. Eli just wanted to shop, but Lexi was interested in the artists, and I wanted to say some hellos to friends as well. So around four-thirty or so I took Lexi for a stroll through Artist’s Alley.
She was nervous about not having very much money, and I just grinned. “You may not have money, but you have currency. Take a bunch of our ‘zines. The small-press artists will trade for them, I bet. The important thing is that you make sure you offer a trade, don’t act like you should just get a sketch or something for free. Remember, they’re here working, same as we are.” The truth is, most of the artists working in small-press comics are so delighted with the idea of the class that they tend to shower the kids with loot, but I don’t like students to get the wrong idea. Part of what I try to teach them is that this is a job and it is worthy of respect.
One of the first familiar faces we saw was Edward Pun, an old friend of the class since way back when we first started to come to the convention. He’s a local game designer who does small-press comics on the side, amazingly talented and always wonderful with my students. I introduced Lexi and he instantly gave her a copy of Atomic Lead, to her awe and delight.
“Make sure he gets one of ours,” I told her, and Ed insisted she sign it. After that, Lexi was floating a foot off the ground.
Edward was also very interested in the grads’ benefit book and I told him he was down for one of our comps, if he came by the booth later I’d have the girls sign one for him. (I’d held back an extra four copies or so to give to artists I knew would be at the show who had been supporters of the cartooning program practically since it had started.)
Lexi is a huge fan of their book Out for Souls & Cookies, and she was as thrilled to meet the creator of that title as I would have been to meet Steve Gerber back in 1975. Elizabeth and her colleague (whose name I didn’t get, because I suck) remembered the class from our visit to last year’s Olympia Comics Festival, and I assured them that Souls & Cookies had made them rock stars to my students. This pleased them and they took the time to show Lexi the work-in-progress layouts for issue #3, and I think they gave her some of their booth swag, too; buttons or cards, I forget. I bought issue #2 partly as a thank-you, but also because I knew the kids would be all over it.
There were a lot more moments like that. Yes, it’s a lot of work to get us to the show, but there’s a lot of reasons it’s worth it. Most of all, it’s stuff like this– when the kids connect with other small-press artists on a peer level, the artists treat them as colleagues.
Getting to see that, all the aggravation of vans and parking and administrative crap just falls away and I remember why we do it in the first place. We come to the convention because it’s just friggin’ AWESOME.
There’s lots more to tell but once again I seem to have run way long. So come back next week for more tales of the small press, what happened with DeMario, and how we survived the ShatnerQuake. See you then.
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