[ First, a quick thank you to everyone that emailed or called to offer condolences when my mom died.  Things have been a bit odd as we adjust.  At some point I may even write something about it.  But for now, a more fun experience… And I’m not talking about the earthquake. ]

This past weekend was quite busy.  My daughter had just finished basketball camp, and the participants and their folks were invited to a Washington Mystics game Saturday night.  While we enjoyed the experience, picky refs ruined the game, and the Mystics lost by one.  The trip into DC for the game followed another road trip to Baltimore for the comic book convention.

Y’all already know how much I have loved comics since I was a little kid.  But since part of my job involves selling them, the convention was a dual opportunity.  Let me just say that the convention hall was packed tighter than sardines.  Throw in a few costumed fans wearing outfits leaving nothing to the imagination and you have a very uncomfortable sardine can.

To say nothing of the young woman dressed as the Avengers’ Wasp who was apparently oblivious to the fact that her…stingers… kept popping out.

This year’s convention guest list included major names like Stan Lee, Neal Adams, and Walter & Louise Simonson.  Popular cover artists Adam Hughes and J. Scott Campbell were also in attendance.

However, while it might be nice to meet them someday, I was going for five people, specifically.

First was Matt Wieringo.  Matt is the brother of the late Mike Wieringo, whose art I love.  ‘Ringo, as he affectionately known, drew comics with a sense of joy and humor that allowed him to infuse his characters with a realism belying his style.  Often accused of being “cartooney” by people who forgot they were reading a comic book, ‘Ringo started his career with DC’s Flash and ended with Marvel’s Fantastic Four, two books with a sense of family with both casts, and with both written by Mark Waid, Wieringo brought that sense of family to the reader.  His brother Matt (whom, oddly enough I knew years ago as a regular when I worked for Suncoast) and his family have set up a scholarship in Mike’s name for budding art students.  Matt’s site, with more on the scholarship, can be found at http://mafus.blogspot.com/.  Drop by.  Say Hi.  And, if you can, donate a bit.

Sitting next to Matt was Todd Dezago, one of Mike’s best friends, and writer/creator of the Perhapanauts.  One of the ‘nauts is Choopie, a chupacabra.  Dezago had a great business card trick that he showed my daughter: using her finger to show Choopie’s butt.  He was great with my child, and I look forward to reading more of his work, which I would consider the perfect kind of all ages work: fun for little ones without being pandering.

I also had the opportunity to meet and chat with Brian Smith (creator of the Intrepid Escape Goat), Frank Cho (Liberty Meadows), Jason Pearson (Astonishing X-Men), and Stan Sakai.

I figured that Sakai would be swamped.  Sure, I took along the first appearance of his signature character, the samurai rabbit Usagi Yojimbo, but I didn’t think I’d have a chance at meeting the man.  You can possible then understand my shock when I turned around from Frank Cho’s table to find Sakai just sitting there, only one other person at his table.  I was both stunned and excited.

You see, Sakai is the one man responsible for my interest in East Asian culture.  Not anime, not some Japanese restaurant, no it is all at the furry feet of the samurai rabbit.  I discovered Usagi some 25 (yikes!) years ago, and have loved the character ever since.  I learned more life lessons from Usagi than I did from my folks.  While I (thankfully) did not turn into a blubbering, stammering idiot in his presence, I was a little hero-worshippy with him.  I was able to thank him for all his work had meant to me, and even mention a neat accompaniment to a recent story he had published called Taiko (it reads well to the music of KODO).  He signed my comic, personalizing it with a head sketch of the rabbit, and when I asked how much he charged for sketches, he simply took the backing board to the comic, and shortly handed it back to me with a fantastic sketch of said bunny.  He didn’t ask for any money, but I gave him some anyway, as even a legend like Sakai is still basically a freelance artist-for-hire, so I was more than happy to help in even a small way.

A sidenote: if you love comics, or even just like them a little as movie-story-fodder, please go visit the Hero Initiative, a charity helping older artists that never had health insurance.  Most of the people that create these works are freelancers, and do conventions to sell art and sketches to make ends meet, and when they can’t afford health insurance, groups like HI step in and try to help.

As much an honor and pleasure as it was to meet Sakai (and if you know me enough, when I say it was like meeting Charlie Waters, you know what that means), the four folks that drew me to Baltimore made the day worth all of the stress it placed on my busted back.

Tucked away in a corner by the entrance to the food court (or food closet since there was only one restaurant in it), was a table occupied by two of my favorite Marvel creators, Paul Tobin and his lovely wife, Colleen Coover.  Tobin, for the past few years, has almost single-handedly guided the all ages Marvel Adventures line featuring Spider-Man and the Avengers.  Tobin has also written some wonderful mini-series revisiting great milestones in Marvel history in such a way as to truly enhance those story memories and in some cases, best them.  Tobin, mostly thru his Twitter feed, has a wry and bawdy wit that I enjoy, and online he comes across as a genuine, contemplative, and downright goofy individual.  His sense of humor is so offbeat sometimes, that on more than one occasion I have asked him if he suffers from migraines, because more than once my wife has said he sounds like me.

Paul was very nice, and was a sweetheart with my daughter, even signing a Spider-Man issue to her.  (I should note that meeting Tobin and Dezago has reignited my child’s love of the Super Hero Squad like you wouldn’t believe.)  He also signed a comic for me, and we chatted briefly about how much I appreciated his work.  We take pride in having a well-stocked kids section, and I am constantly recommending his work.  Paul writes stories that my six-year old can enjoy, and that this 38-year-old can love just as much.  They are reminiscent of the original stories written by Stan Lee where you could be guaranteed a solid, fun story that – as Paul offered – were above all else accessible.  There is no reason why someone my age can’t enjoy a comic written with my daughter in mind and have both of us feel like we were not being pandered to simply to make a story safe for kids.

As much as I love Tobin’s studio mate Jeff Parker, or other Marvel scribes like Fred Van Lente and David Liss, Tobin will remain my favorite, both for his talents, and now for the knowledge that he is as nice a guy as you can imagine.

With Paul was his studio and life-mate Colleen Coover.  Now, I readily admit that I had commissioned art via email in advance, so I was planning on stopping by, but these two creators were so fun and sweet that I could have easily parked myself there for hours…  Or at least until the restraining orders were finalized.  Coover’s style is atypical of what you might find in your everyday comic book, but that is part of what I like about her work.

Remember what I said about Mike Wieringo, how each line brings out a love and joy of life?  Colleen Coover has that pouring from her work as well.  Again, like ‘Ringo, Coover is considered cartoony by some, and that in part is part of the charm of her work.  A simple head sketch by Coover employs, for example, eyes that are like those found in a Little Orphan Annie face, but much, much brighter.  I would doubt that Coover would be offended by being called cartoony, and while her art certainly has a feel of being cartoon-ready, this lady is an artist.  I will readily admit that it bugs me when comic buyers talk up the current artist/flavor of the month without really understanding that it isn’t just your draftsmanship, it’s how well you frame and tell your story.  Gabriel Hardman is a master at this, coming from a background in cinema.  Coover also is a fantastic storyteller, and it is most evident in her latest work, Gingerbread Girl, written by Tobin.

Gingerbread resonated with me so much that I picked up a separate copy for Coover to sign so I could keep a copy just for re-readings.  The main character suffered through a bad ninth year as her parents divorced badly leaving her emotionally scarred and confused about life.  My parents split, finally, when I was nine, and the story and how the main character’s life unfolded touched me, and while the particulars are unique to the story, the scope and emotions that play out were very familiar to me.  There were a couple of moments that were actually hard to get through, but I continued on and I am very glad I did.  A fantastic story, and one that should be read by anyone who grew up in split homes or who ever had a moment of true confusion as to who they truly were.

Coover’s art, particularly in GG, is sweet, fun, and compelling.  Much like Tobin and Coover themselves, and I very much enjoyed the chance to meet them and chat for a bit, and I hope to be able to meet them again in the future.

And to get more art, because her Nick and Nora is awesome!

(Sidenote: I wholeheartedly apologize to Chris Samnee’s wife, whom I may have inadvertently thrown under the bus.  She cautioned me that sending Girl Scout cookies to Coover’s studio might be too much of a thank you gesture, so I refrained…  And when Coover heard this, she was adamant that she and her studio mates “love cookies!  Who doesn’t love cookies?!”  So I very much apologize if Mrs. Samnee gets any grief from Coover.  It was all me.)

The absolute highlight of Baltimore, though, was the first “meet” of the day.

See, last year I had to work and could not attend the convention.  So, I had a friend take a little kit to get a comic signed by someone I had been following on Twitter for some time.

Francesco Francavilla, who had then recently brought Zorro back to life and was publicizing his latest creator-owned venture Garrison, is a fairly consistent tweeter, and he also appreciates a good (or bad) joke.  While Garrison was going on, FF and I had a lengthy back-and-forth over the nature of the term PREGO, and whether or not there was any authenticity to the U.S. based sauce of the same name.

So, last year, my friend was to give FF my copy of Garrison #1 with a note that if he were kind enough to sign the book for me, there was a jar of Prego in it for him, at which point he was to be given a small jar of the sauce.  Well, said plan didn’t come to fruition, but I did get the signed comic back.

So, I went to BCC this year with a jar of Prego in my bag, and a couple of comics at the ready.

When we found Francesco, he and his wife were engaged with a couple of fans getting a couple of comics signed.  As the fans left, I simply placed the jar of sauce in front of him, and said nothing.

He looked up at me, and simply said, “Robert.”

As we shook hands, my wife cracked up, partially impressed I think that my reputation preceded me, partially at the completion of the joke one year later.

Francesco introduced me to his wife, whom I “knew” via Twitter, I did the same, and we chatted for quite a while more about stuff married couples chat about on a dinner date than comics.  Over a couple of visits we had a very long chat between FF’s signings and his many attempts to get started on his commission list.

I have to admit that while I didn’t get a chance to have my own commission done (I’m patient – his art is worth the wait), I was very pleased to see so many names on his list, and see so many people come up to chat with Francesco and get his autograph.

I very much enjoyed his work on Zorro, and his Batman and Black Panther are fantastic, but it was the works posted on his website that made me fall in love with his work. (Quick aside, Francesco has several sites, all linked from the blog.  Spend time and browse them all…)

I’m not sure my words can do his pictures justice.  Much like Samnee and Hardman, Francavilla is not an artist like Cho or Jim Lee, popular for their buxom heroines and relatively clean work.  Francavilla is a storyteller.  He uses negative space as well as he does the positive line.  His work is expressive and sincere, and he uses black space and shadow so well that he can tell more story in a few brushstrokes of black ink than most can do with an entire 64-shade color palate.  He is so good at telling a story visually that were I making a movie, I would absolutely want him to be my cinematographer.  Some of his best work involves characters in the rain – so much so that I think of him as the Ridley Scott of comics…

As both a retailer and a fan, I feel good when more folks pick up books by artists like Francavilla, Samnee and Hardman, because it means there is hope for the art form.

(By the way – notice that despite their radically differing styles, I love both Coover and Francavilla’s work, because of that important thread of storytelling.  It is becoming a lost art in the digital age, and I am heartened that folks like them keep up the philosophy of telling a story as a whole, and not a series of pinups.)

Francavilla is a native of Italy, and that accent of his lends to a very funny Paula Deen impersonation, and yes, I made him do the impersonation for me.

Francavilla’s wife was also there, and she is a wonderful young woman from the South, and she represents well.  She has that typical Southern drawl that masks a sharp intellect and wit that is common amongst nearly every woman born and raised south of Virginia.  (My wife manages to also have these qualities, despite being born in the shadow of the Washington Monument, so they clicked quickly too.)

I am not exaggerating when I say that we chatted for about an hour in total, about everything from art to chicken, and it felt like they had been friends for ages.

I cannot express how much I am looking forward to the next convention, just to have the chance to visit with the Francavillas again.  And to honor my new baguette debt.

Yes, I gush, but in ways I hope that will become clear in the coming weeks, I admire the hell out of these folks.  I love their art and writing, and I have immersed myself in their wonderfully crafted worlds more times than I can count, especially in the last year as my mom faded and finally passed.

I also am pleasantly relieved to have met them and find them all to be just as I imagined: lovely folks that are as charming and funny and pleasant as their internet presence suggests.

Many of the people whose artistic work I love are folks who were in their prime in the 1930s and 40s, so I never had opportunities to meet or interact with them.  To be able to do so with contemporary folks I admire and have them be even remotely as cool as I had hoped made this Saturday a dream day for me.

And it doesn’t hurt at all that they were all sweet and engaging with both my wife, and more importantly, my daughter (their current and future audience).

So, to Stan Sakai, Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover and the Francavillas, thank you for making my day.  I am more than happy to repay such kindness in Girl Scout Cookies.  Tagalongs noted.