by Brad Walker
An elderly man in Wrangler pants sat facing a table of excited journalists. His restless feet tapped rhythmically inside Velcro covered sneakers. VIPs and staff filled the room. The reporters leaned in respectfully to hear the octogenarian speak. Everyone appeared transfixed as Stan Lee held the green room in a grip of unequivocal drama.
Just beyond a draped entrance to the right, the 2012 Stan Lee’s Comikaze comic book convention was in full swing. Vendors hustled, cosplayers strutted, patrons surged, and a giant Power Ranger statue surveyed the entire scene. As an advertised fan-centric comic book convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Stan Lee’s Comikaze purportedly represented the type of loose convocation where a geek felt appreciated.
In 2011, I had been introduced to regional convention hospitality when the Long Beach Comic Book and Horror Convention invited me to display my life-size sculpture of Iron Man covered in 1,000 soda can tabs, titled Iron Man Can. With the help of my mom, her truck, and my youngest sister, Emily, Iron Man Can journeyed from my home in Riverside County to Long Beach, eventually greeting guests in a wide open space on the convention floor. The nature of the accessible display area drew Con-goers from great distances via line of sight. Hundreds of folk stopped by to chat and take pictures throughout the day. This type of public access and the cooperative nature of the staff allowed my amateur effort to shine and created an indelible memory.
Unfortunately, not all comic book conventions achieve this degree of positive interaction or integrity.
About a week before the 2012 Stan Lee’s Comikaze convention, I emailed the Chief Executive Officer of the event, Regina Carpinelli, regarding the prospect of exhibiting my Iron Man and Captain America statues. The email included a now defunct link to images of the pieces. By way of historical context, Stan Lee had recently co-purchased the Comikaze convention via his company, POW (Purveyors of Wonder). Stan Lee’s Museum, a self-contained collection of comic book memorabilia, was scheduled to appear at the event as a main feature. Ms. Carpinelli emailed back with two statements: “Stan likes the Iron Man. We will put it in front of his museum and he will sign it.” A warm glow enveloped me.
The invitation took some time to digest. I checked the email over and over again for authenticity until I was satisfied. Visions of a grand day swirled into view. I imagined how magnificent the signature would look on the front chest lamp/pineapple tin cover of my Iron Man sculpture. Once speech returned, I told my wife and son, my mom and dad, and my sisters. Then I called my good friend Peter. Over the next few days, phone calls and emails exchanged with Ms. Carpinelli confirmed my acceptance of her invitation. The clarion call had been sounded and the Con was on.
As a temporarily disabled and unemployed individual, I possessed physical and financial obstacles. A spinal injury sustained during an athletic competition produced constant pain in my back and impeded normal functioning, including my ability to continue working as a special education teacher. A back operation in 2011 only aggravated the symptoms. However, Ms. Carpinelli, the CEO of Stan Lee’s Comikaze, was offering me a specific high profile location to exhibit my sculpture and a signature from the biggest luminary in comic books. I would be able to share the unique hand-made quality of my creation with hundreds, maybe thousands of fans in a respectful and celebratory atmosphere. Such an honor could not be ignored. I would bring ice packs, pain medication, and a crew to assist me.
My mom kindly lent me money to rent a truck and pay for gas. Peter generously agreed to accommodate my son and me over the weekend. (For the sake of protecting the identity of my son, who is a minor, I will refer to him as Bryan.) Next, I recruited the muscle. Carrying the sculpture from the backyard to the driveway and then hoisting it into the truck represented a logistical minefield, fraught with errant branches, uneven concrete, and awkward weight. Fortunately, my wife and son performed the lifting. Peter offered to assist Bryan with the remainder of the physical labor once we arrived at the convention.
The day before the show, Bryan and I drove two hours from our residence in Riverside County to Peter’s home in Los Angeles. Bryan skipped the first football game of his high school career in order to join me. On Saturday morning, Peter guided us out of his treacherously steep and narrow driveway. Ten minutes later we emerged triumphant onto the streets of Los Angeles and headed west.
At 7:30 a.m., Stan Lee’s Comikaze at the Los Angeles Convention Center sprawled before us. Stan Lee’s Museum, a semi-enclosed area with many comic book related treasures, beckoned from within. We hit trouble almost immediately. A security guard refused to permit us entry based on the presence of a minor, and even encouraged me to leave my son outside and unattended. After several tense minutes, the guard allowed all of us inside when another guard brought over a small motorized cart to help. Peter and Bryan lifted Iron Man Can aboard. Like a vessel on glassy water, the little truck sailed across the smooth convention floor with its meticulously crafted cargo, ultimately coming to rest at Stan Lee’s Museum.
A slight and unassuming man in a suit named Sam, who identified himself as a personal assistant to Stan Lee, and a nearby vendor helped us scout the most appropriate placement for Iron Man Can in front of Stan Lee’s Museum. Ultimately, Peter and Bryan positioned the artwork to face patrons as they exited. Sam and a security guard posted at Stan Lee’s Museum endorsed the location. When I shared reservations about leaving my statue to go eat breakfast, Sam and the security guard assured me that the sculpture would be safe and remain where it was placed. With my artwork in trusted hands, Bryan, Peter, and I walked across the street to find some muffins.
In order to re-enter Stan Lee’s Comikaze when the doors opened to the public, we waited in line for at least 45 minutes before reaching the front. A gaggle of Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives checked clipboards and clicked walkie-talkies behind a desk. One of them declined my request for the complimentary tickets promised by Ms. Carpinelli. I explained the situation and several anxiety inducing minutes later we received our badges. My inner voice told me to calm down: The incident represented an anomaly, not an omen of bad tidings.
My relatively quick movement to the escalator betrayed a sense of unease. But I focused on the moment I would glimpse Iron Man Can sparkling majestically in front of Stan Lee’s Museum. We reached the second floor. My sculpture was gone. I immediately looked around for the security guard and Sam. A new security guard stood watch. He conveyed a complete lack of information regarding the whereabouts of my artwork. Panic set in. Instead of meeting attendees and introducing six months of creative labor, I walked the convention floor in a daze. This was not the way to start a fun-filled fan-focused comic book convention with family and friends.
I called Ms. Carpinelli and left her a message requesting the current location of Iron Man Can. Bryan, Peter, and I nervously searched the convention floor. After fifteen minutes we found a few Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives. One of them told us that the statue had been moved into the green room. A short time later, Bryan, Peter, and I discovered an enclosed space formed from flimsy dividers and black curtains next to the main stage and negotiated our way inside. Reporters, photographers, and spectators focused on a single individual sitting at a table. I saw Iron Man Can standing a few feet away from the center of attention. A photographer hovered dangerously close to my sculpture as he seemed to plan his next shot of Stan Lee.
We located Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives in the room, including a man with carefully groomed facial hair and a baseball cap named Doron. He presented himself as someone in charge. I discovered later that Doron Ofir was a well-known casting director. The Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives, including Doron, tried to move beyond the topic of exhibiting Iron Man Can in front of Stan Lee’s Museum. I asked why my artwork had been relocated to the green room. They failed to agree on a reason. I quoted the email invitation from the CEO of Stan Lee’s Comikaze, Ms. Carpinelli: “Stan likes the Iron Man. We will put it in front of his museum and he will sign it.” Doron struggled to compose a response. His face twitched. Bryan and Peter flanked me, listening.
Doron related that “(they were) looking for the best way to display (my) statue.” In the meantime, he continued, the green room constituted a far superior venue compared to the convention floor because of all the celebrity visitations. The other Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives concurred. Doron and Sam, who was also in the room, assured me that my statue would receive a signature from Stan Lee momentarily.
Bryan, Peter, and I politely moved through the reverential gathering and sat on a couch next to the statue and directly behind Stan Lee. We waited patiently while interviewers addressed the man of the hour. They murmured their queries, eyes glistening with appreciation. Stan Lee expounded in a controlled voice, his volume intended for the questioners only. I was tense but optimistic. Even though my statue was missing the good fortune of being viewed by thousands of comic book fans like me and being completely ignored in here – even though I was missing out on all those connections – I was poised to meet Stan Lee and have him autograph my artwork. Perhaps Bryan would get his photo taken with Stan Lee and gain a new appreciation for comics and his dad. How could this go wrong? Stan Lee sat less than four feet from my sculpture. As I was about to discover, those feet might as well have been miles.
Fifteen minutes passed and the interviews concluded. A red-haired woman walked over to Stan Lee and told him it was time for photo-ops. A small line of select individuals formed inside the green room. A team of comic book artists who had interpreted the latest script by Stan Lee waited with delight. They were going to meet him for the first time. People sidled up to Stan Lee for pictures directly in front of my statue and me (If you were one of the few who posed, take a look at your photo). In fact, Stan Lee backed up so close to where I was seated during this session that I had to push into the couch to avoid his rear-end. Stan Lee’s Comikaze seemed intimate for all the wrong reasons.
I suppose that I am a patient person – and a trusting person – because I actually believed Sam and the Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives, including Doron and Stan Lee’s Comikaze CEO Ms. Carpinelli, when they communicated to me that Stan Lee would sign my sculpture. I did not want to make any fuss by bothering the woman with the red hair or Mr. Lee himself. I could tell that events were following a certain protocol.
The line emptied, Stan Lee sat back down, and my stress level rocketed. Was anyone going to tell Stan Lee that the guy sitting on the couch behind him and next to the glorified photo backdrop was waiting for a signature? A large man with long black hair, wearing a headset, and brimming with intensity, entered the room from the stage-side door. He gruffly told Stan Lee that it was time to go to a different area to film an interview. The headset man spoke to Stan Lee the way an irritated nursing home attendant would treat a resident who did not want to follow directions.
Stan Lee seemed to protest and indicated my statue. I could not hear his exact words. The man then responded, “Stan, we can’t do the interview in front of the Iron Man statue because (the interview is) not a Marvel thing – it’s a Comikaze thing!” Stan Lee appeared to resist again. I could only guess that Stan Lee wanted to film his interview in front of my Iron Man Can sculpture while headset man wanted to conduct the discussion in front of the Comikaze octopus logo. Quite irritated, his eyes bulging, headset man repeated himself two more times, successively increasing his volume. Stan Lee eventually got up and followed the man out of the room.
I sat in disbelief for a few moments. Stan Lee’s Comikaze convention represented a massive failure thus far. Bryan, Peter, and I exited the green room. Thousands of attendees now swarmed the convention floor while Iron Man Can remained hidden from the public eye, an odd counterpoint to a water cooler in a celebrity ready-room. Depression fell upon me. I obtained a free signature from a Deadpool artist for my son. He was very nice.
Stan Lee took the stage to discuss his new comic book. We left the area and wandered aimlessly. I finally reached Ms. Carpinelli by phone and explained the situation. At this point I just wanted to get my statue out of the green room so people could see it. Ms. Carpeinelli gave me a quick overview of her present obligations. She was busy. I recommended placing Iron Man Can in one of the large open areas on the convention floor with some stanchions and a chain around it. I had my own people to help me keep watch. Ms. Carpinelli communicated the impossibility of my suggestion. Someone would call me, she said.
A while later, we witnessed Ms. Carpinelli on the Stan Lee’s Comikaze stage yelling through a microphone at a modestly sized crowd. Her voice required no amplification as she portrayed the grandeur and accomplishments of Stan Lee. This old-time revival technique began to whip the assembled flock into a half-hearted frenzy as some attendees reciprocated with tepid affirmations and a few more joined the periphery.
My sister, Emily, called. She had made plans to meet us at the convention, along with her friend, and take turns watching the statue. They were in line downstairs waiting to purchase tickets.
Bryan, Peter, and I eventually made our way back to Stan Lee’s Museum where Stan Lee was signing autographs for a pre-paid $55 each. Stan Lee, a man who reportedly possessed hundreds of millions of dollars, executive produced tent pole blockbuster films, and partially owned Stan Lee’s Comikaze – humble, affable, and mega-millionaire Stan Lee – was charging people $20 to $25 for entry to his convention and another $55 for his signature. Only an extremely shrewd businessperson and ultra charismatic personality could sell self-exploitation as generosity and nostalgia at this magnitude.
Some people say that Stan Lee takes too much credit for his past collaborations and stands on the bones of other creative people, but the man never stops smiling. His beneficent manner and self-effacing humor has charmed legions of comic book readers and convention attendees for generations. I realized my current role in supporting this intersection of adulation and commerce. I was part of the problem. Traipsing around like an idiot and dragging my friend and son along for a signature now seemed silly. It was not my finest day. But it was too late to give up. We had been invited here for two purposes and I was committed to fulfilling at least one of them.
Bryan, Peter, and I decided to check the green room for Ms. Carpinelli. Inside, she commanded a group of assistants to stock more cookies and cups at the snack table. I approached her and explained that I was missing the opportunity to connect with other fans and showcase my artwork.
At first Ms. Carpinelli apologized and blamed her lack of responsiveness on other priorities. Then she dodged my concerns with disingenuousness: “Someone else is handling that. If there is anything else you need, please let me know.” In other words: I cannot help you in any way shape or form with the assurances I personally made to you but I am presenting myself in a manner in which I seem helpful in front of other people. At this point Ms. Carpinelli decreed the green room as an area for “actors only” and indicated I needed to leave the room immediately with my group. I tried to process her insulting behavior as she walked away.
Ms. Carpinelli called her assistants together and barked the same mandate several times: “The green room is for actors only! Do not let anyone else inside the green room!” She proceeded to complain loudly regarding their performance thus far and issued detailed reprimands. As I was about to leave the green room, my sculpture, an embodiment of pure fandom, taunted me. Was I really going to allow Ms. Carpinelli to deny me the right to be in the same room with the very artwork she had invited me to display? Not only had Ms. Carpinelli failed to honor any of the promises from her email, she was also attempting to hijack my sculpture for her celebrity room. I requested Bryan and Peter to remove Iron Man Can from the present environment.
Moments later, the convention-going public at Stan Lee’s Comikaze 2012 finally saw a fleeting glimpse of Iron Man Can, a strange confluence of comic books and carbonation. Curious attendees began to gravitate toward the piece and ask questions. Within minutes, three Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives surrounded my sculpture, thereby blocking public view, and communicated a requirement from Ms. Carpinelli to move the artwork outside to the loading dock until they established a proper display area. I knew Ms. Carpinelli was taking the penultimate step to eject my artwork and me from the convention completely.
The Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives radioed for a cart so that Bryan and Peter could load the statue for transport. During this waiting period, I explained my situation. A young Stan Lee’s Comikaze representative with dark hair and glasses leaned his arm on the sculpture like it was a piece of furniture and assumed an abrasive, matter-of-fact attitude: “Stan saw the statue (at Stan Lee’s Museum) and didn’t like it,” he said, motioning with disgust at my handiwork, “so they moved it.” I asked the young man to remove his arm from Iron Man Can and he did. I showed them the email from Ms. Carpinelli. The trio of Stan Lee’s Comikaze representatives seemed to draw a collective breath. The young man with dark hair countered, “Well, Stan is 90 years old. He has the right to change his mind.” (Stan Lee was actually 89 at the time).
Once outside, Iron Man Can glinted from atop the bed of a cart on a concrete loading dock, his pride barely intact. Bryan went to find Emily and her friend. I told Peter not to wait with me. It was ridiculous to have both of us wasting our time. Peter left to explore the convention. Smokers congregated around me. A tall muscular security guard paced nearby. These moments gave me an opportunity to take stock of my pain level.
I had been operating on adrenaline and medication for hours but the burning sensation in my back, down my legs, and through my feet demanded ice and rest. The unforeseen stress of the day had taken its toll, adding to my substantial physical problems. A man sat down in the only seat on the dock and lit a cigarette. Smoke wafted around my artwork. The convention first aid station probably had a bed but searching for it risked the possibility of returning to discover my statue in pieces, in a dumpster, or both.
After waiting for what felt like an agonizing length of time, a young woman approached me. I recognized her as one of the assistants who had received a verbal lashing from Ms. Carpinelli. She immediately began to interrogate me. “Who are you?” she asked with incredulousness and contempt. “Are you an attendee, a vendor, or a professional?” “What’s your name?” “I don’t see your name on the list.” “Who are you again?” “How did you get in here?” “Who gave you passes?” “Who invited you?” The final boot seemed inevitable now. I answered the humiliating questions by yet again showing the invitation I had received from Ms. Carpinelli and describing the circumstances. The fire in my back had reached the point of causing nausea.
I requested the whereabouts of the first aid station and related my medical status. This seemed to catch her off guard. She did not know. The young woman said that she needed to check on something and went back into the convention. A few minutes later the young woman returned and stated that Ms. Carpinelli wanted me to leave the premises with my artwork immediately. I asked for a reason while hoping to see Peter, Bryan, or Emily round the corner momentarily. She simply repeated the same direction. I asked about the first aid station again. The young woman sighed and radioed for the location. It was on the lower level. I informed her that there was no way I could make it downstairs in my current condition or leave my sculpture in the care of her organization.
Ms. Carpinelli walked outside with an entourage and heckled me from a distance as she passed by, “You should have been happy just to get the comped tickets!” I was insignificant to the CEO of Stan Lee’s Comikaze. Two more assistants joined the young woman in front of me and appeared concerned. I requested a wheelchair so I could travel down to the first aid station when my party returned. The Stan Lee’s Comikaze assistants screwed up their faces in frustration. The mood had become quite tense. The young woman radioed for help and Doron, the man with the facial hair, reappeared. I repeated my request to go downstairs and receive medical aid. Doron conferred with the young woman and seemed to be considering the next step. Their grim demeanor cast a pall over the last vestiges of my hope.
At that point Bryan, Peter, Emily and her friend arrived almost simultaneously. Emily asked what was happening. I explained the difficulties we had encountered thus far and my repeated requests for medical attention. Shifting gears, Doron turned conciliatory. He was not going to kick a disabled man to the curb in front of his family. “Don’t worry,” he enthused, “We’re going to take care of you! Just hang on and let me make a few calls. We will get you a place to display your statue and the signature from Stan Lee.” The smile on his face showed traces of exasperation. He told the assistants to back off and they receded. Next, he attempted to engage us in small talk and joked incessantly.
Eventually, Doron placed us in a partially deserted corner of the convention hall behind a line of people. He said that Stan Lee would visit us after his lunch. Bryan, Peter, Emily, her friend, and I took turns asking people to part the line so that the statue could be seen by passersby. Stan Lee, of course, never arrived.
By removing my artwork and then dodging, ignoring, humoring, and rebuffing requests to honor the promises in the email she sent me, Ms. Carpinelli and her associates demonstrated not only a lapse of ethical judgment, but a rejection of the very fandom Stan Lee’s Comikaze advertisements embraced. Publicity from handbills and their website enticed the reader to join a family of benevolent geeks on hallowed ground. As a comic book enthusiast who enjoyed making hand-crafted tributes to comic book characters, was I not an ideal demographic? Though introverted yet passionate fans like me may lack the bluster and branding of a performer like Ms. Carpinelli, we comprise the masses of authentic do-it-yourself patrons she banks on. From mini-comics to t-shirts to statues and cosplay, we care to share.
One of the reasons fans attend conventions is to connect with other fans and professionals through individually produced art. It’s part of fandom. My family members, my friend, and I would not have made such a Herculean effort to visit Stan Lee’s Comikaze convention if not for the guarantee of sharing and connecting with my art on an elevated level and receiving a signature from Stan Lee on the statue. And I certainly had not traveled all the way to Los Angeles just to stroll the isles of the convention floor.
Comic book conventions need to make money. Ms. Carpinelli is a businessperson. I get it. But even from a business perspective, the actions of Ms. Carpinelli and her associates seem misplaced. They sabotaged the opportunity to capitalize on the singular quality of Iron Man Can by tucking it away, trying to toss it out, and then burying it in a corner. If you make promises, keep them. Fans will remember you for it and spread the word leading to greater attendance. An enjoyable convention benefits all parties.
It boils down to being organized, principled, and understanding the point of these gatherings: Comic book conventions symbolize communion for those who appreciate the language and context of the art form. It’s one of the rare occasions to meet aficionados from all over the world who find stories about people in tights compelling. Otherwise, you’re just shilling the hell out of Stan Lee.
Brad Walker has worked in the field of education for many years. He enjoys creating art when possible and has been a comic book fan for over 35 years. Brad recently underwent a second spinal surgery. He lives in California with his family.