Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Geek Memories: Conventions, Comics and Otherwise, Part 1!

As I've no doubt mentioned before, the very first convention of any kind I attended was a Star Trek convention in Seattle, put on by the Puget Sound Star Trekkers. This was the first time that I'd ever gone anywhere that I felt part of a community, where everyone around me was interested in the same thing I was.

It may be hard for some of you to understand (and much easier for others), but I was always kind of an outsider as a kid. I didn't really have much of an interest in sports, much less an aptitude for it (the only extra-curricular sport I tried was soccer, and I don't even remember if it was my idea, or something my parents got me to try). I was much taller than other kids my age (I didn't have the sudden growth spurt at puberty most kids had, I was always tall for my age, and grew at a regular rate), and was always the most advanced reader in my class (I was reading at a college level around fourth grade). I didn't have the sense of humor that I do now, and little in the way of social skills, to be honest.

Oh, I had friends... other kids that shared some interests with me. But none of them really seemed to get into these interests as in-depth as I did.

So it was a revelation to me when I went to this first convention, and was able to feel like every single person there had just as much of an interest in Star Trek as I did.

I don't recall for sure where I heard about this convention. It may have been advertised on TV, although I seem to recall seeing a flyer for it at the junior high school I was attending (another factor in my social awkwardness was moving to a different school halfway through seventh grade).  My mom took me to this convention, along with the daughter of a co-worker of hers whose last name was coincidentally Knutson, too. The day of the convention, I had a pretty bad cold (or perhaps it was seasonal allergies... back then, having a stuffy nose pretty much meant you were treated as though you had a cold, allergies were only treated if they were life-threatening), so I had a constant supply of Kleenexes available for me.

I remember many things in detail about the convention... there were some very creative people in PSST, some of whom had made life-sized mockups of props and other items from the show. I remember seeing a reproduction of Captain Kirk's bridge chair (I didn't get to sit in it, however), and someone else had built a transporter in a box that used an old magician's trick to simulate being beamed in and out (this involved a two-way mirror and a dimmer switch that alternated lighting from one side of the mirror to the other... interestingly, when Playmates Toys manufactured a transporter toy for their Star Trek: The Next Generation line, they used the same trick). There were a lot of models of other Star Fleet vessels on display as well, some of them inspired by drawings that had been published of the evolution of the Enterprise.

There were cast members in attendance as well... George Takei was one of them, and Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Janice Rand) was another. I met Takei, but not Whitney. Sadly, the autographed photo I got of George was lost before I left the convention (as I said, I was constantly blowing my nose, and apparently when we were attending a presentation that was supposed to feature Robbie the Robot -- who didn't get shipped to Seattle in time -- I must've accidentally pulled the picture out of the bag I was carrying and dropped it on the floor). There were other guests, I'm sure, but I can't recall who they were.

There was, naturally, a dealer's room, and I recall seeing a number of items there that I really wanted (some very nice prop reproductions, much more faithful to the scale of the originals than AMT's "Exploration Set" models or any of the AHI toys being sold in Kmarts at the time), fanzines galore for sale, paintings, books, and so forth. I saw more than a few people selling homemade Tribbles (I'd later make my own, since I was pretty handy with a needle and thread -- remind me to write about why sometime). One item I purchased was a poster in the form of a flow chart that would let you "generate" your own more or less random Star Trek episodes (most of them ending with a gag of some kind... while I haven't had the poster for nigh on 40 years, I recall one ending read, "And everyone remembered the episode where Spock had the Deadly Ears"). I also bought a few publicity stills, including one of Robin Williams and Pam Dawber from Mork and Mindy.

As well as I recall some things, other aspects of the convention were a blur. It was impossible for me to really take it all in! Of course, I'll never forget meeting Sherrill Hendricks for the first time at this convention. The Puget Sound Star Trekkers had clubs located throughout the Puget Sound area, and Sherrill was the "captain" of the Tacoma group, and meeting her got me into that club, or "outpost," as they called them.

The next convention that I attended must've been as part of Outpost 10 (as we were called), and it was a mini-convention held in Seattle as well. This mini-con took place at a high school, and it wasn't nearly as big as the PSST one was. In the intervening time, Star Wars had come out, and I'd come up with a reasonable Han Solo costume to wear (although looking back on it now, I know my costume was way off on a number of points). I didn't have the proper gun to use with the costume (I don't know if his gun was available as a Kenner toy by then or not), but I did find a Ricochet Racer toy (if you don't remember those, it was basically a spring-loaded gun that would launch a toy car onto a floor) that I modified to sort of resemble a blaster, and I made a holster for it as well, explaining to anyone who cared to ask that my Han had kept one of the Stormtrooper blasters from his Death Star adventure.

That mini-con was a blast, and I came away from it with a set of Star Wars posters that had been a fast-food giveaway at the time, as well as having had a few viewings of the Super 8mm home version of Star Wars that was shown a few times -- including being projected backwards once!

I think there had to have been one more PSST convention before that group imploded, but I don't have any specific memories of that. It's entirely possible that my next convention experiences were all through the Northwest Science Fiction Society and their Norwescons.

Norwescon, I believe, still runs to this day. Unlike the PSST cons, the focus at Norwescon is very much on the literary side of Science Fiction. Oh, there were aspects of Norwescon that were common to just about any kind of convention... such as people dressed in costume and the like, as well as dealer's rooms... but like I said, the focus was on SF books and stories.

I think the only author that ever went to one of these that I was interested in meeting was Phillip Jose Farmer, and my interest in him was liked to his book Doc Savage: His Apocolyptic Life, a biography of the pulp hero written as of Doc was a real person whose adventures were fictionalized in the pulps. I had gotten heavily into Doc at that time, and I bought that book just to have him sign it (sadly, I sold it with my other Doc books years and years later, and for a price that wasn't close to what I should've asked for them).

The first few Norwescons I attended were fun for me, especially those where I'd share a hotel room with other members of the sci-fi club (which had morphed by then from just Trek to all SF, and had been renamed Other Worlds Unlimited, I believe, or perhaps by then it was Galactic Neighbors United), and I was able to really get into the whole convention scene more.

They were fun... but something was missing. Sure, I'd been reading other science fiction by that point, particularly Robert A. Heinlein's stuff and books by a few other authors... but I got to feeling that I'd been missing something. These weren't quite "my people" there.

I realized later that as much of a SF fan as I was, I wasn't that big an SF fan, not really. I came closer to being with "my people" again at the one Sci-Fi Expo I attended, which took place at the Seattle Center. Guests included Jimmy "Scotty" Doohan, Steve Leialoha, and the actress who co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian, Sandahl Bergman. I didn't meet Steve there, although I did attend a panel he spoke at, where I learned about his work on Coyote (soon to be published by Marvel under their Epic Comics imprint, if I recall correctly). I met Doohan and had him sign an autographed photo for me (another one I've lost over the years), as well as asked him if he knew why, when there were open calls for extras for the Star Trek films, none of the extras could be more than six feet tall (I was already 6'6" by this time). Doohan explained that William Shatner was barely six feet tall himself.

Sandahl Bergman made a bigger impression on me. She was tall, blonde, and gorgeous, and my favorite character in Conan. When I was next in line for her autograph, the person ahead of me asked her to sign an extra picture for a friend of his who couldn't attend, but was madly in love with her. I remarked (uncharacteristicaly, at the time) that there was a lot of that going around lately, to which she replied, "So why aren't I married yet?" I had nothing to respond to that.

There were some other cool things at this Expo, including some of the puppets from the forthcoming Dark Crystal, which were cool as heck. I also picked up a few of the Warren issues of The Spirit, the first Spirit stories I'd read since the one tale in The Great Comic-Book Heroes.

In 1983, I went into the Navy, and when I got assigned to my second ship homeported out of San Diego, I finally went to a convention where I did really feel like I met up with "my people" for certain.

I attended two conventions during the three years I was based out of San Diego. The first one was a Creation Convention. These smaller conventions were held in the Southern California area for some time (I don't know if they still are), and the one I attended had Chris Claremont as one of the guests. I was heavily into X-Men (well, pretty much all superhero books) by that time, and I mentioned to him that Rogue had become my favorite character, and I hoped nothing bad was planned for her. Claremont mentioned that I might not like some things that were in store for her, although I don't recall anything in particular happening in the books around that time.

Walter Koenig was also there, and I briefly met him -- my third Trek cast-member! Speaking of Star Trek, I volunteered to be part of a production there called "The Not Ready for Star Trek Players," in which randomly-chosen members of the audience got to perform -- with only one run-through -- the final scenes of the episode "A Piece of the Action." I think I was one of the Iotian gangsters, although not one of the main ones. We were rehearsing our parts when we noticed that Majel Barrrett Roddenberry was set-up nearby signing autographs, and of course, we converged on her to sign our scripts (making her my fourth original Trek cast-member meeting, although it would prove to be my last one).

One of the panels there was a trivia contest, and I not only was able to answer one of the questions offered up there (winning a prize), I was also able to stump the panel by asking them who Dr. Fate's wife was (Inza Nelson, in case you've forgotten).

This show was a revelation, the first convention I attended where the focus was largely on comic books.

But I had no idea what a real big comic book convention could be like... until I attended my first (and only) San Diego Comic Con... which I'll write about next month!

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