The Puyallup Batcave

That’s what Julie called it. “Off to the Puyallup Batcave!” she had said as we were getting into the car.

But most folks know it as the Washington Summer Con at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. And damn was it FUN. One of the best ones we’ve been to.

It didn’t start that way, though.

Our original plan, the whole reason we were going, was because they were having Roy Thomas as a featured guest. Our friend Kurt– that’s TwoMorrows comics historian Kurt Mitchell to you– had told us that he and another friend, Rob Allen, were going to be there hanging out with Roy at his table. “All sorts of other people from our era are going to be there too,” Kurt had said.

I looked at the convention website and saw that it was true.

The two things that sealed the deal were that Jim Steranko was another featured guest, and also the 1966 Batmobile (or, as we say in our home, the real Batmobile) was going to be on display and you could get a picture with it. I talked it over with Julie and we decided that we would just go on Sunday, since it was cheaper and we didn’t really need to be there both days. So I went ahead and ordered through the con webpage and within half an hour of hearing about it from Kurt we had Paypal’d our way to a pair of Sunday passes.

Except I hadn’t read the fine print. Roy was only going to be there on Saturday. Likewise, as it turned out, Kurt and Rob were also Saturday-only. I frantically emailed the convention organizers hoping that we could remedy this and get our passes switched from Sunday to Saturday, but nothing doing. No upgrades, non-transferable, etc., etc. All sales final.

Well, nuts.

“Screw it,” I told Julie. “We’ll still have fun. There’s the Batmobile. And Steranko.”

But in my heart I was considerably less enthusiastic than I had been. Julie hid it well, but the actual show is never terribly important to her and I knew she was disappointed at not getting to see our friends.

The reason the show was happening in Puyallup is because it’s the home of the state fairgrounds, and we found that a country-style venue like that makes quite a difference. For one thing, all the usual fairground snack stands were open. “Kettle corn!” Jule said, delighted. “And elephant ears!”

And the National Guard.

Why? I dunno. Maybe they liked comics too. But they had a bunch of stuff on display and the booth was doing business. I’m not sure if they were recruiting or what, but they all seemed to be having a good time.

Most of the con was inside the main exhibition hall, and once we were in we started to cheer up just by default. This was a really comfortable mid-size show– “Like Emerald City in the old days,” Julie said — and then, as if proving her point, we saw a familiar display.

“I think that’s Art!” I said.

We have been seeing Art Mallonee at shows for about fifteen years now; book shows, comic cons, antique gatherings, whatever. I guess you could call him a bookseller but he also has all sorts of vintage magazines and toys and oddities. We never, ever get away from his booth without buying something. Over the years, he has sold us Oz books, Whitman juveniles, Peanuts and Lone Ranger comics, and lots of other stuff. This time what caught my eye was the line of Marvel Preview magazines he had on display.

This is one of the very few titles I still collect in the single issues. And he even had the first solo Punisher issue, the one with the Don Pendleton interview.

That’s been a grail quest of mine for a few years now, but the prices are always so stratospherically high that it’s out of the question. Art had it for a hundred and sixty. Which was certainly fair, but there was no way I was going to spend that amount on a single book. “Give you a deal on it,” Art said slyly, noting my interest. “I’d go ninety on it.”

We’d only brought a hundred in cash and I was sworn to stay on budget. I shook my head regretfully. “Not today.”

But then Julie burst out, “Look!” She emerged from the depths of the booth clutching a Little Golden Book. “Charlie Brown!”

“That’s right,” Art said, switching gears effortlessly. “You know that’s the only one they ever did with the Peanuts characters. Got a lot of Peanuts merchandise actually. Some of the old Dell Peanuts comics back there too. And–”

“A Thermos!” my wife said. “It’s the Thermos!” She grabbed it and looked hopefully at me.

“Go ahead,” I said, grinning. It pleased me to be able to indulge Julie, since it’s so often the other way around… and for the first time in a long time, we could afford impulse buys. “Today’s your play date too.”

So Art’s perfect sales record with the Hatchers remains unbroken. “I have the lunch box but not the Thermos,” she explained to Art.

“It’s good to see you,” I added. “We haven’t run into you for a couple of years and we heard you’d had some health stuff going on.”

“It’s true. I just had surgery seven weeks ago,” Art said. “Hell, my body’s been trying to kill me for twenty years now.” He then listed a series of ailments that by all rights should have left him bedridden and I said so.

Art beamed. “I got a few miles left on me yet. You guys have a great show. Come on back and see me again.”

We assured him we would. This cheered us both considerably — first of all, we are very fond of Art and we were relieved to see him up and around and doing his thing. And second, my worry had been that Julie was just going along today out of duty and wouldn’t have any fun, but she was all aglow with acquisitive glee. So it looked like it was going to be a fun day after all.

There was a Steranko panel at one that I wanted to see, so that was the direction we headed. We passed the endcap of the next aisle and then suddenly there it was… the real Batmobile.

This particular one was not a replica, but one of the original George Barris Batmobiles used on the show, painstakingly restored by a gentleman named Clint Young (who was on hand as well, in an equally-accurate 1966 Batsuit.) The deal was, if you used your own camera, you could have an unlimited number of shots for fifteen dollars… but for TWENTY you could have unlimited pics with you AND Batman, sitting IN the Batmobile.

Well of course we spent the extra five dollars. Duh. There was some discussion of whether or not Julie would be in the car with me but she waved it off. “I’d rather watch you.”

Inside the car you could tell it was over fifty years old; it was beautifully taken care of, but still had that old-car feeling to it…. a bit like sitting in your grandma’s never-used 1963 Lincoln or something. I also saw, finally, where the actual door handles were– they are built into the top of the doors, a silver button you push down that releases the latch. Mr. Young had a youthful assistant that was conscientious about getting every angle and suggesting poses, so we ended up with some very cool shots.

Hello new author photo.

When Clint-as-Batman joined me, though, I moved to Robin’s side, the shotgun seat. He was surprised. “Most people want to be in the driver’s seat.”

Swear to God I actually replied, with no thought of what I was saying, “No, you’re Batman, you should drive.”

He’s probably heard weirder stuff. Anyway, here we are.

Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!

Roger, ready to move out…

(Apparently Clint has restored it to the point where it really does shoot flames out of the rear exhaust. Sadly, of course, we couldn’t see him do it. There may have been some outdoor demo or something but we didn’t see it on the schedule.)

As I exited the Batmobile and we were preparing to move on, Julie was grinning wider than I’d ever seen her. I think she was more excited about it than I was. “That was awesome,” she said.

“Yes it was,” I admitted. “Been wanting to do that for fifty years.”

We thanked Clint and his assistant again and turned to go when he saw Julie’s Peanuts thermos. “Hey, I had one of those.” He looked as pleased to see it as my wife had been ten minutes previously.

We instantly decided that needed a picture too. Drink your milk, kids!

With that, we moved on to the panel room where Jim Steranko was going to be appearing in a few minutes. Amazingly, there was no real crowd or line– in fact, we hardly stood in line all day. (There were two exceptions, which I’ll get to, but that came later.) When we got there Sean Murphy, the creator behind Batman: White Knight, was still doing his panel, taking questions from the audience.

I knew nothing about his book but listening to Murphy and his self-effacing, humorous replies to the fans in the audience got me interested in what it was all about. Even Julie was intrigued. Of course the to-read pile at home was staggeringly huge already, but even so….

At one o’clock Murphy thanked everyone, invited folks to come get a book signed at his table later, and then it was time for Mr. Steranko. He was running late, so the interviewer, Mike Zapcic from Comic Book Men, vamped for a couple of minutes, goofing with the audience and sharing a couple of fun facts about Steranko– he’d played with Bill Haley and the Comets, he’d been a stage magician and escape artist, the usual stuff. I was starting to think he’d be undercutting anything the man himself had to say when Steranko arrived, to enthusiastic applause. (Though the room wasn’t that big, and only half full, we by God made it sound crowded.)

The con provided an interpreter as well, which I thought was classy.

Now, I knew Steranko was a legendary raconteur, with a story for every occasion. But even so, I wasn’t prepared for what followed. Zapcic prompted him with possibly the most banal and basic question one could begin an interview like this with: “So tell us how you got started drawing.”

“From the beginning?” Steranko asked. “The very beginning?”

“Sure.” I’m pretty sure Zapcic meant the days at Marvel, or maybe the ad agency stuff. But I could be wrong. He might have known what was coming. But none of the rest of us did.

Because instead of tales of ye olde Marvel, Jim Steranko told us about his childhood, the events that first shaped him. “Invisible epiphanies,” he called them: How growing up dirt poor in the Philadelphia slums, he’d used the inside of the envelopes the family’s bills came in for drawing paper. His first encounter with Dali’s work that would be a lifelong influence. The contempt he faced from his art teacher when she tore up an assignment of his in front of the entire class.

But the story that held us all mesmerized, the part that took up almost the entire allotted hour, was the tale of his high school years and how he was constantly tormented by the local gang kids, the Bear Lake Razors. I can’t begin to reproduce all of it here. Suffice it to say that it was why he learned boxing, and even that wasn’t enough (“You got accuracy but no power, kid,” he was told) and eventually built himself a working zip gun. “I was ready to murder the guy if it would just end it, even if I went to jail or got killed myself.”

The reason this was such an amazing narrative is because Steranko kept reminding us that it wasn’t about being a tough guy, that he was terrified. He genuinely feared for his life and no one took it seriously. It wasn’t a macho story. It was a story about teenage desperation and fear and the toxic masculinity boys were raised with in the 1950s. It was eerily reminiscent of what I’d gone through in grade school a decade later. (In fact, Julie leaned over and whispered to me, “My God, that’s your story.”)

I wish to hell someone had recorded it. Every so often Steranko would look out at us and smile, almost shyly. “You sure you want to hear all this stuff?” and we’d roar in the affirmative. By the time the hour was up he had just finished the story of the final armed confrontation with the leader of the gang, and then he looked out at all of us as though he was just coming awake. “Hell, I never even got to the part about how I got started in the business. I guess we’ll all haveta come back next year.”

*

I had brought books from home to get signed and we were worried about there being a line for Steranko, so we hustled out to the main floor to find his booth. There was already a crowd gathering, with a young bearded guy behind the table wrangling the line, taking money and cautioning people about various prohibitions. (“No photos,” he said instantly as I pulled out my camera, which is why I don’t have any.)

Julie had been enchanted by the story Steranko had told of his early years and was blown away by the various prints he had for sale. Naturally, the Marvel stuff dominated; Fury and Captain America, especially, but there were other pieces too. “You should get a print,” she said, and pointed to a Batman piece.

I shook my head. For me there was only one character I’d want a Steranko print of, but I didn’t see any. Julie was pointing to one of the Fury posters, and then I saw it.

I asked the wrangler if there were any others. “Last one,” he told me, and that settled it. Money changed hands.

“It has to be the Shadow,” I told Julie. “That was how I taught myself to use marker to light things and do spot blacks, doing copies of these Shadow covers. Posters for a speech in high school. That was my first win at a tournament and I know the posters sold it.” I looked over at the wrangler. “Can we get it signed?”

“There’s a charge,” the wrangler said.

“Per item?” I asked, knowing the answer already. Of course it was per item. My heart sank, because I’d brought three items from home– Weird Heroes volume one, my copy of Lone Star Fictioneer with the Steranko illustrations, and the Domino Lady hardcover from Vanguard Press. (I’d also brought a copy of the Domino Lady book my story was in, as a gift; I’d thought it might be fun to give him mine and I’d get him to sign his for me while Julie took a picture, but of course that was out because NO PHOTOS.)

Our cash was evaporating quickly. Still, damn it, I wanted to get something signed. “The print?” Julie asked me.

I shook my head. “No, if it’s only one, it should be Weird Heroes. That’s what led to everything else.”

Steranko was back and signing by now and the line was moving, but not quickly. We didn’t mind though, because every autograph came with an anecdote. It was holding court as much or more than an autograph session and Steranko clearly was having a great time. The fellow that brought the Star Trek poster got a hilarious story about the time Steranko made fun of William Shatner at a convention a decade ago.

“He didn’t speak to me for about four years,” Steranko said, laughing.

The fellow just ahead of us had brought the X-Men with the Polaris cover.

“You know what? People bring me this to sign more than anything else.” He leaned over it, considering, then grinned. “I’m going to sign this right on the logo, I can do that. You know why? Because it’s my logo!” He guffawed and scrawled a signature on the logo that damn near obliterated it.

Everyone in line had to tell Steranko how much they’d loved his story in the panel. Julie was no exception. “That was a terrific story,” she told him. “I’d thought it was going to be, you know, all comics stuff, but I don’t really know comics so that was wonderful. My husband is the comics person. I’m just comics-adjacent.”

This amused Steranko. “Me too, honey.” He grinned at me. “And what can I do for you?”

“Well, I wanted to give you this.” I handed him the Domino Lady book. “I have a story in there. What you said about Dali and invisible epiphanies…. your work on Weird Heroes was that for me, way back when.” I tapped the book I’d brought for him to sign. “You can draw a direct line from that book to me doing these stories now.”

It delighted him. “You did a Domino Lady? Did you do the origin?”

“No need for that, sir.” I smiled. “You already did that.”

He nodded. “I did!” He paused. “Would you sign this for me? Please?” He handed me a pen.

Urk. Simultaneously thrilled and panicked, my brain went into vapor lock for a second. I bent over the flyleaf of my book and wrote, Huge gratitude, for the man who started the rock rolling down the hill way back when, and scrawled my name.

He asked me what my story was about and I told him, and he seemed genuinely interested. We talked a little bit about Ellen’s character and discovered we were agreed on one thing– she was relentless. “My feeling is that the Domino Lady would do anything– anything!– to come out on top,” he said. Then he signed my Weird Heroes, shook my hand and Julie’s, and swore it had been a genuine pleasure meeting us. “You keep going!” he told me. “Do more!”

“I have to, I have deadlines,” I replied, which made him guffaw again.

It was only as we were walking away that I had a chance to see what he’d written.

They say you shouldn’t ever meet your heroes…. but I’m sorry, that was fucking awesome.

*

After that, everything was anticlimactic, but we still had fun. We wandered around Artist’s Alley for a while, occasionally saying hello to people we knew. We saw Jason Metcalf, who we’ve been running into at small-press shows for years, and congratulated him on landing the program cover.

After all, when you’ve got guys like Steranko and Jim Lee at your show, that’s a pretty big deal. We told him we were totally bragging on knowing him, which made him blush, but I think it pleased him.

And we saw Sean Murphy again and decided to buy his book.

We admitted that we’d only been sold on it because of the panel, and he looked sort of shyly pleased. “Well, I hope you enjoy it.”

The young lady who was helping him gasped. “You haven’t read it at all? Oh my God you are in for such a treat!”

(I read it that evening and did indeed like it a lot.)

We visited Peter Tomasi’s table and I got to tell him how much I had enjoyed his Superman run while he signed a Super Sons for me. (I really do think he’s one of the most underrated guys in comics. Most of the DC books I’ve bought over the last decade or so have been his.)

“I was really sorry to see it end,” I said. “I mean, I get it with Bendis, it’s business, but still, they could have left you ONE book. I really liked having a modern Superman comic you could still give to a kid.”

Tomasi nodded. “Exactly, that’s what we were trying for, we said it should be for anyone eight to eighty.” He smiled wryly. “Like you said, though, it’s business.”

At least he’ll be getting a Bat book, which I’m looking forward to.

Timothy Zahn was just across from Sean Murphy and I’d brought a couple of books from home for him to sign as well. Heir to the Empire, of course.

I also had the Star-Lord collection with me, and had been pleasantly surprised to see he was in that one too. So we got that one signed as well.

Everyone was charging for signatures, but I didn’t mind. These guys were working, and like I’d said to Peter Tomasi, it’s business. This was brought into sharp relief when we got to Chris Claremont’s table.

This was the only other time we had to wait in line for any length of time, and the reason was hugely annoying– to everyone, including Mr. Claremont, as you can see from his expression. There were only a couple of people ahead of us, but then a plump woman bustled ahead of everyone and plopped down a stack of at least thirty books on the table. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “but it’s for CGC.”

The sign listing the different prices of a signature that Claremont had on his table had “CGC” at twenty dollars each– more than double the regular rate. At least he was twisting the knife. “I’m sorry too,” Claremont told us, “but I told her earlier to come back at the end of the day. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

Julie was baffled. “What’s CGC?”

“A huge pain in the ass,” Claremont growled. He shook his head and bent to the pile, still scowling.

I explained to Julie what CGC and slabbing was, which only baffled her more. The folks behind us in line chimed in with comments about how much they hated the whole idea. “Books are meant to be read!” was uttered more than once.

Finally Mr. Claremont was done and turned to us. I had brought two items and happily paid for both to be signed. Most people had brought X-Men things, but those aren’t actually my favorite Claremont books.

The first was the aforementioned Star-Lord; Claremont was the reason I’d brought it. I know it’s all about Chris Pratt these days and that’s the only reason there’s even a paperback collection at all, and certainly I love those movies; but the old Marvel Preview version is mine in a way the movie version never can be.

I honestly like this the best of all the Claremont/Byrne collaborations. I asked him to please personalize it, mostly because I wanted him to know it was for us and not for eBay.

The other one I’d brought was the Star Trek book he’d done with Adam Hughes, Debt of Honor.

Apparently he hadn’t looked at it in quite a while, because he flipped though the whole thing, chuckling at this or that scene.

Later Julie said to me, “Do you think he really had forgotten what it was about? Have you forgotten things you’ve written?”

“Chris Claremont’s got a lot more published pieces under his belt than me.” I shrugged. “I probably have forgotten a lot of the magazine things. Columns. Not fiction, though, that’s something you really have to dig in on. I do, anyway. I dunno, everybody’s different.”

We decided we were done and started for the exit. We did stop to get a picture of Julie with this Mugato.

“That’s commitment, in this heat,” I told the Starfleet officer that was with him. He laughed and agreed, and the Mugato waved.

Out in the parking lot, Julie pointed. “There he is!” And indeed the Mugato was doffing his outfit with the help of the two young Starfleet guys with him. “Wow, he looks like their dad,” she added.

I couldn’t resist sneaking a picture.

And that was our afternoon in Puyallup. We’re definitely going next year. (Hopefully we’ll make it on the right day.)

Back next week with something cool.

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10 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Man, what a friggin’ great post!
    I realized as I was reading the part with the Batmobile and the pics of you and Julie that I had this big sappy grin on my face, and when you described meeting Steranko and the mutual book signings, I think my eyes got a little misty.

    Also, it’s so cool that you got Claremont to pause and flip through that Star Trek GN (and that you were able to snap a photo).
    The pic of Julie and the Mugato is like the cherry on top.

  2. Louis Bright-Raven

    Nice. You got to go to a ‘real’ convention. I am so grossly disappointed in shows these days as a creator. Everybody just parades around in their costumes and takes selfies and lines up to meet ‘celebrities’ and ignore the creators at the shows I’ve been attending of late. I often am asking myself why I bother doing them these days (and have canceled three appearances this year because last year I lost my ass going to to them), because it seems like people have no appreciation for any of us. I’m just tired of going to shows just to sit around for 8-12 hours and then have to drive home after that and have nothing to show for it. Especially when one preps for 1-2 weeks getting art made.

    And I’m so glad that you and Julie can find things to make you geek out at shows. That’s so rare for me anymore. I’ve seen plenty of facsimile Batmobiles, Ecto-1 Ghostbusters cars, Mystery Machine vans, the Munstermobile, etc. Unfortunately, that’s never really appealed to me. Not sure why. I wasn’t even excited about that stuff as a kid. (Probably because living in Savannah, Georgia in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a General Lee Dodge Charger that would drive by our school weekly to promote the DUKES OF HAZZARD show – it was one of their various stunt cars while they were filming upstate, so we never actually saw Schneider or Wopat driving. So maybe that disillusioned me?)

    I don’t even remember the lunchboxes I had as a kid so I would never geek out over a Thermos, but it’s sweet and endearing to read about.

    To Julie – I think Chris Claremont thumbs through that DEBT OF HONOR graphic novel every time people bring it for him to sign. LOL At least I remember he did the same thing when he signed mine back in I want to say 1995 or 96 (it was during his SOVEREIGN SEVEN comics shop tour). I truly believe that’s one of his all-time favorite efforts.

  3. Le Messor

    I’ve heard of almost everybody on that schedule you posted. (Possibly not Ken Lashley, but I wouldn’t be shocked it I have something by him.)

    Peter Tomasi? Normally my reaction is, ‘Oh, modern creator.’ Eyeroll.
    This time, it was Super Sons! I Love Super Sons!!
    Such a shame it was cancelled. And for Bendis, who is a horrible writer. (I read one issue of his Young Justice, and it was incoherent.)

    Such a great show.

    This episode brought to you by the letters N. V.

  4. Sounds like a cool time.
    I can easily believe Claremont has forgotten stuff. I asked Gerry Conway on Twitter about what looked like a retcon in some of his early Firestorm stories and he told me he had no memory of why he’d made the change.
    Heck, while I remember my own stories well, I often forget the process that led me to write them.

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    For my money, there is only one Batmobile and that is it. So completely timeless and cool!

    That is the coolest pic though; Batman and Snoopy. The Dark Knight Detective and the World War One Flying Ace!

    You know, I’ve seen a few recent era photos of Steranko and he is always dressed in grey; is this a Tom Wolfe thing or something? I’d kill for a head of hair like that. I watched that PBS comics history documentary that he was involved with and just shook my head that they didn’t just do a whole thing with him. Between his own histories of comics, his experiences in comics, Hollywood, and commercial art, his life, his stories, the escapology stuff; if you can’t get a compelling documentary out of that you should hang up your camera.

    Really cool that you got to have that moment. Those are lightning strikes in life.

    I had a moment like the Claremont one, with Gil Kane. I had only been recently finding some of the Tower Comics THUNDER Agents and had found another early one at a Heroes Con and he was a guest there. It just so happened that the one I picked up had his cover. I asked him to sign it and he said he hadn’t seen one in years and started flipping through it. That was cool. If I had checked the guest list before coming (it was a three hour drive from Charleston, SC, where I was stationed, and I just came to look for comics) I would have brought my dog-eared copy of Excalibur he write, with John Jakes (damn good take on the Arthurian lore).

    I’m with you on the Marvel Previews. I just started reviewing them over at the Classic Comics Forum, in a thread about anthology comics (Land of the Misfit Stories, as I call it). I just finished the debut of Starlord, with all of the space opera trappings. My favorite element of it was the fact that in 1989, NASA administrators would be wearing capes and the astronauts would be wearing Flash Gordon outfits. It’s so much cooler that white short-sleeve shirts and ties, with pocket protectors. This s why NASA struggles for funding; just make it look like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and the money will roll in!

  6. Great column, Greg! And yes, Steranko is a trip. I met him at a con in Atlantic City last year and he talked me through a Chandler piece he’d done, explaining what he’d done where and why. He’d occasionally ask me questions about what I saw or what I thought he was going for, and whenever I got an answer wrong, he’d look me straight in the eye and say, “Do better.”

    The Steranko panel you attended sounded much like the one he did in Baltimore last year. He got something like one question and then talked about his childhood for the rest of the hour. Fascinating guy.

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