This Time It’s Personal
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #120. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Three fingers of analysis when two will do.
I’ve been going to New York Comic Con for six years and I’m constantly measuring and adjusting my con-going technique. I’ve left in the early-morning sideways sunlight to arrive as early as possible, racing down to the queue hall to reserve a seat for the main stage panels I’ve studiously marked in the official app beforehand. I’ve hung back and waltzed on to the show floor an hour or two after the initial rush. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on everything from cosplay pieces to original artwork; I’ve spent tens on a small but punchy collection of hard enamel lapel pins for my motorcycle jacket. I’ve gone hard and taken it easy; burnt out and given myself FOMO; left bitter from the obvious cash grabs and heartened from the goodwill shared between people reaching out and finding community. This year I rediscovered myself.
I know, how maudlin. Has there ever been a cornier dork? I’m in an MFA program now and regularly having my writing critiqued, so I know it’s very Uninteresting™ and Cliché® to talk about the things that make me feel good, that it’s easy and boring and no one wants to hear it. But there are exactly two things I really want to do at NYCC this year, and I have major personal connections to both.
One of my two priorities is the screening of Never Surrender, the Fandom documentary on the making and enduring appeal of Galaxy Quest. It’s the last thing happening on Saturday night. I kill time in artist alley the hour before it’s set to start, and right about the time I think it’s good to get in line I follow two Thermian cosplayers doing their distinct marionette walk towards the panel hall. I’m sure they know where they’re going. Once I get my press wristband and find my seat, I realize I’m a row in front of my cosplaying guides. Soon enough it’s apparent they’re the “Thermians from Utah” featured in the documentary itself. Small world.
In 2003 I was a sound intern for the New York Stage and Film summer stock program at Vassar College, and either Sam Rockwell or Justin Long or both were in one of our readings. This meant they came in and rehearsed for a one-off performance of a partially staged play, then pretty much got the heck out of town. They were around for maybe a weekend, and after they were done with their reading they went to the hottest club in Poughkeepsie that summer, the on-campus bar. All the theatre folk were there – it was really the only game in town – including all of us technical interns. At some point I went outside for some air and found Sam and Justin doing the same.
“Hey,” I said, tipsy enough for boldness, “I’ve gotta tell both of you something important.” They looked me over, wary, relative unknowns each but already keenly aware that oddball fans can make or break a whole vibe. “Galaxy Quest is awesome, OK?” Their faces instantly lit up. They laughed and sincerely agreed, giving me high fives and asking my name.
Later, I helped the sound supervisors transport two giant JBL speakers to the after party by riding alongside them in the open trunk of the assistant sound designer’s car, a stupid move that nonetheless made me look pretty cool (she drove slowly and not very far). Sam and Justin spotted me as they made their way on foot to the grad-student housing where the interns and tech supervisors lived for the summer, the site of all the after parties.
“Sara!” they called out, and Justin Long flashed either the “hang loose” or “rock on” sign. I casually saluted them from between the speakers, coolly nonchalant and a legend in my own mind. Later still, at the actual party, Justin and I locked eyes and sung/screamed 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” in each other’s faces as it blared from those same speakers. I was twenty and thought I had an entire lifetime in the theatre ahead of me, and I was sure this was some version of every summer I had left. I was wrong, of course, but what the hell does any twenty-year-old know about the future? That summer and especially that night, I was flying high.
Never Surrender makes two major assertions: that Galaxy Quest is the second best Star Trek movie and that the film is a love letter to fans and fandom. The Thermians are at heart an alien race of hardcore fans who shape their entire culture around the television show, believing of course that the episodes are “historical documents.” At the film’s climax, when the ship and crew are in real danger, it’s up to superfan Brandon – Justin Long’s character – to draw upon his extensive knowledge of the show’s lore to save the day. Being a fan of the movie got me cred with two of the actors, and twenty years after its premiere, a room in the Javits Center is packed with fans wanting to celebrate its legacy.
The second can’t-miss event and the real centerpiece of NYCC 2019 for me is Paul Reubens’ panel and autograph signing. In 2012, at the first pop-culture site I ever wrote for, I wrote a short listicle about five life lessons Pee-wee Herman taught me, trying for a mix of funny and genuine. I had a weekly column at the time, so the post went up without much fanfare from the site’s readers. In April of 2018, I got a notification from Instagram that someone I didn’t know was trying to send me a message. In the past, unsolicited DM’s were nothing but bad news, but I clicked through anyway. The message was from the @peeweeherman account, blue checkmark and everything: “Hi, I just read a piece you wrote about me from six years ago that was so very nice, I had to tell you! Thank you!!” I immediately re-read my old piece and found it lacking and the host site had since become an ad farm, which was beyond embarrassing, but the six-year-old inside me was thrilled.
Fast forward to NYCC 2019 and I’m standing in line with two magazines from 1987 – Rolling Stone and Andy Warhol’s Interview – both featuring Pee-wee on the cover. I wait to pay for the autographs and worry about my hands being sweaty enough to leave marks on the covers. They aren’t and they don’t, but what else is someone a bit neurotic and anxious supposed to do to pass the time if not worry over nothing?
When I finally get in front of Paul, internally screaming real loud, I hand him the magazines and try to play it cool. I decide not to mention our previous Instagram correspondence. I’ve convinced myself in line that he won’t remember the article and probably doesn’t even follow me anymore (did I mention he followed me? What a time to be alive). He’s pretty chuffed to see the Interview issue and holds up his own autograph line to take a leisurely perusal. He finds a picture of an old friend, snaps a pic to send her later, and does a few quick edits. I’m watching and grinning like an idiot.
Pee-wee taught me what it means to be good. He could be a brat and even a little mean, and he’d roll his eyes at things he thought were dumb, but at the end of the day he was a good friend who made sure everyone was in a happy place before he launched himself on a cool scooter into the desert. I worried when I was little that misbehaving meant I was, in reality, a bad kid through and through, but Pee-wee showed me that it’s not about always being perfect but always trying your best. As long as you were trying you were winning. He also made it OK – cool, even – to be a little weird. Good news for a quirky kid who could never quite get away from her differentness.
While he signs my magazines, Paul asks me what I do. When I tell him I’m a writer he pauses to look up at me and asks if I think writing is a lonely profession. He says he finds it to be. I know what he means. But sometimes you can write about someone you love and admire and they’ll actually see it and reach out to say thank you. In moments like that, writing doesn’t feel lonely at all. After I say goodbye I take a picture of the signed mags and post it to the ‘gram. The likes roll in and I fall asleep that night, content. The next morning, I see the @peeweeherman account’s left a comment: “I didn’t realize that was you!!!” I can’t believe it. I say that I didn’t think he’d remember me and he tells me that of course he does. Thanks for once again making things a little less lonely, Paul. To paraphrase you and Pee-wee, I love this story.
Sara Clemens thinks too much about things, generally. She runs a site called Videodame and retweets stuff on Twitter @thesaraclemens.