The man known as The Hammer turned me around and pointed to my daughters, who were gleefully snapping pictures with their phones.
“Now we’re not going to do this full on,” he said, “because you’ll sue me. You just be sure to look directly into the camera.”
I looked at my kids, with my best worried expression.
That’s when I felt the chair come crashing down on the back of my head.
This isn’t what I thought Comic Con would be like … at all.
On the list of places I never thought I’d find myself, Comic Con would have ranked fairly high—ahead of “strip club lunch buffet line” and just behind “Justin Bieber concert.”
As with so many things, however, I found myself in an unexpected situation thanks to my three daughters.
About a year ago, all three of them fell in love with Doctor Who, a show that I knew very little about. In fact, my knowledge of Doctor Who, at the time, consisted of the following facts:
- Was made in the 1970s with really bad production values
- Aired on PBS, late at night
- No one watched it
Also, I seemed to recall that there was a scarf involved.
It turns out my facts were hopelessly outdated. The show had been remade and aired on the BBC, to a huge cult following. And the scarf had been replaced by fezes and bowties, although I wasn’t really clear about any of the props and how they fit in.
Since I’m a good father, and always looking for some street cred with my daughters, I tried watching a few episodes with them. It was a Classic Dad Mistake.
The show doesn’t make a lick of sense. The Doctor travels through time and space in a phone booth and defies all laws of physics and story plotting.
The writers do a good job of giving the Doctor all manner of hurdles to clear and problems to solve, many of them life-threatening. And the Doctor basically ignores all the potential danger and tells jokes for about 55 minutes. Then, at the very end, everything gets resolved, quickly and unrealistically.
“Wait,” I asked my daughters. “So that lady isn’t dead anymore? How did that happen?”
“Wait,” I said another time. “So the aliens were about to destroy the planet and then they just … left?”
“Wait. So the moon hatched and the thing just … flew away? And laid another moon egg? And everything’s fine?”
Unperturbed, my daughters answered with the phrase the show has apparently indoctrinated its audience to recite as a patch to cover any plot holes: “He’s the DOCTOR!”
The show was stupid but harmless. So I let my daughters watch, as long as they didn’t force me to endure it. And this arrangement could have gone on indefinitely, until the girls found out about Raleigh SuperCon.
A few months ago, the girls came to me, bursting with excitement, and showed me a flier for the the area’s biggest Comic Con event.
“Karen Gillan is coming!”
“Who?” I asked.
“She’s AMY POND,” they said, too thrilled to even roll their eyes at my ignorance. “She’s like the BEST companion.”
The Doctor picks a female “companion” to travel with him in his phone booth. She’s helpfully ignorant of the facts of the plot of each episode, allowing the Doctor to explain what’s going on to her, and also the audience.
The actress was going to be signing autographs at the event, which I assumed was similar to the baseball card shows I went to as a kid. You pay a couple bucks to get in, maybe five for an 8×10 photo, and then another 10 to get a former player to sign it for you.
“Sure,” I said. “We can go.”
The girls screamed and announced that they had to start getting their costumes ready.
“Your what, now?” I asked.
That was the first hint that this wasn’t their father’s baseball card show.
Tickets were thirty dollars.
That was just to get IN the building.
I paid it, and then, a few weeks later, my daughters came to me, fighting back tears.
“Karen Gillan isn’t coming,” they said.
I reacted the way anyone who’d just spent more than a C-note on admission tickets would, shouting out a combination of phrases that were highlighted by the phrase “thirty dollars.”
A short time later, SuperCon came through with good news for my little Whovians.
Sure, Karen Gillan had to cancel, but they were replacing her at SuperCon … with Billie Piper!
“Billie Piper,” they shouted. “She was Rose Tyler.”
“Rose Tyler was an even BETTER companion than Amy Pond!” they added.
Life was good, for a few weeks, until Billie Piper also backed out of SuperCon.
That was the bad news. The good news? To replace her, promoters were bringing in Alex Kingston.
“Seriously,” they said, voices reaching the highest ranges of human hearing. “She’s River Song!”
River Song, of course, is the BEST companion of them ALL.
Somehow, against all odds, Alex Kingston actually made it to Raleigh, preventing SuperCon from having to go to the fourth string on the Doctor Who companion depth chart. We headed off to the convention center to meet and greet her.
My youngest daughter had constructed a TARDIS1 costume out of a cardboard box. It looked adorable. Of course, by the time we’d walked from the parking garage to the convention center in 90 degree heat, she was rethinking her choice.
Then we reached our destination, and the attention she received made all the sweat and heat stroke worthwhile. By her count, she posed for photos with 17 different strangers, many of them wearing their own costumes.
Many conventions have themes, which help to organize all the varied activities taking place over the weekend. I’m guessing the theme of SuperCon was, “What are y’all in line for?”
For starters, we weren’t allowed to enter the building. Instead, we had to find the end of the line wrapping its way around to the side, and then the back, of the convention center. All these people paid $30 a head for the chance to stand out in the heat, in costume, waiting to get in and spend money.
After about 45 minutes, we got into the air conditioned lobby, received our wristbands and headed into the convention.
The convention floor was impressive, with booths and tables offering anything a comic, fantasy or sci fi fan could have dreamed of … all of which required standing in a long line to receive.
We found the wall of celebrity guests, and once again, I realized that this wasn’t like the card shows where I spent my youth. At a card show, people mill around, buying sports memorabilia, until about noon. Then the autograph guest shows up, waves to the crowd, and everyone lines up for their chance to pay to watch him sign their picture, usually in the ball room next door to the rest of the show.
Instead, SuperCon had about 40 celebrities, from a wide variety of genres. And they were all out in the open, for anyone to see. The first person we encountered was Ernie Hudson, from the original Ghostbusters. I took out my phone and tried to get a clear line of sight on Ernie, so I could snap a photo.
Unfortunately, someone in a red SuperCon shirt kept blocking my view. Annoyed, I lowered my phone to ask her to step to one side.
“You can’t take any photos,” she said. “Unless you wait in line for a selfie.2
The next thing I noticed was that the Con had a very inclusive definition of “Comic”. Jimmie Walker, who played JJ on Good Times was there, signing autographs, even though, to my knowledge3 he had never done anything even remotely comic book related.
One of the Village People was there, inexplicably, as well.
Venturing even farther from comics than 70s sitcoms and disco music, there were also several professional wrestlers, including Ric Flair, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine.
This was when the true genius of SuperCon finally hit me. They made the net wide enough to include something for everyone. While I had no interest in Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, Good Times or the Village People,4 80s wrestling was right in my butter zone.
I fondly remembered seeing Greg The Hammer Valentine in person, from ringside seats, at the War Memorial on several occasions, along with the Magnificent Muraco, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
Valentine’s signature finishing move—every wrestler had one—was the Figure Four Leglock. It was the perfect finishing move for a bad guy, which Valentine was. It was a submission move, giving Valentine the chance to leave the hold on a little too long—risking permanent damage to his opponent—after his foe had surrendered. It also took awhile to set up and force a tap out, allowing the main event good guy (who always won) the time to find a way to counter it, just when things seemed at their bleakest.
As a member of my high school’s wrestling team, I spent many long hours, while waiting for practice to start, slapping the Figure Four on unsuspecting teammates. I’m sure many of them still walk with a limp, courtesy of the ligament damage that resulted from my mastery of the move.
Unlike the lines for Ric Flair and Ernie Hudson, there was no SuperCon personnel policing Valentine’s table, perhaps because there was no crowd of people jostling for a chance to meet him. Every once in awhile, someone would wander to his table for an autograph, but otherwise, Valentine sat, talking on his cell phone.
Filled with nostalgia, I decided I had to meet him. I had no desire for an autograph, or a run-of-the-mill selfie. But, maybe, if I could think of something interesting and unique…
I went to a nearby booth, where someone from Rex Health Care was giving away tote bags. I gestured to the empty folding chair next to him.
“Can I borrow that?”
“Sure,” he replied.
I then took the chair to Valentine. After waiting for him to finish his cell call.
Then things got a little awkward.
Pro wrestling is a hard life. Stars are on the road up to 300 nights a year. Especially in the 80s, the pressure to use steroids was high, and the bumps and slams take a toll on the body, leading many former wrestlers to painkillers, both legal and otherwise, to cope.
Valentine hung up and looked at me with half-lidded eyes.
“How much to hit me with this chair?” I asked.
The chair hit is one of pro wrestling’s signature moves. At some point on every wrestling card, one of the fighters leaves the ring, shoves a matside official out of his seat, and brings the vacated folding steel chair into the ring, to use as a weapon.
Valentine looked at me, processing the information.
“Do you want me to sign the chair?” he asked, mumbling his words into a bit of a slur.
“No,” I said. “It’s not my chair.”
Valentine looked at me.
“I want you to hit me with it,” I said. “For a photo.”
“So, a selfie, then,” he said.
Selfies were 20 dollars, which seemed a bit steep, but it was likely the only money I’d be spending on myself that day, and it seemed worth it. I took out my credit card and asked him where I bought the selfie ticket.
Valentine took out a little blue bag filled with money. He was apparently handling his own transactions. “Cash only,” he said.
After a long hunt around the convention center, I found an ATM that wasn’t out of cash. It was easily identifiable by the long line of people in front of it.
Finally, cash in hand, I returned to Valentine’s table, with the chair.
“Ready to hit me with this?” I asked, brandishing the chair.
Valentine gave me a blank look.
“We just talked about this,” I said. “You were going to hit me with a chair, for a picture.”
After a pause, Valentine said, “I remember you.”
I put a $20 bill on the table and stepped up next to him.
“It’s more than that,” he said. “This is a special request.”
I sighed, but I’d come too far to bother negotiating. I slapped another 10 on the table, and it was on.
Valentine may have been a bit shaky in conversation, but give him a role to play and he came to life. After positioning me to take the hit, he wound up with the chair, pausing and making sneering eye contact with each cell phone camera before bringing it down on my skull. Then he paused, again managing to snarl at the camera in every picture.
Then it was on to find River Song. We took a few covert photos of her while waiting in line at her table, and, after about 30 minutes, we reached the front of the line, where we found out we were in the wrong place.
“You bought tickets for a photo op,” the convention red shirt explained. “This is the SELFIE line.”
We gave her our best Greg “The Hammer” Valentine blank look.
“The photo ops are over there,” she said, pointing to another wall of the room, far away.
“Yeah,” I replied, “but Alex Kingston is HERE.”
“She’s going over there for her photo ops in about 15 minutes.”
We headed over, grumbling, to the photo op area, where, of course, everyone else who purchased a photo op had already lined up.
After close to an hour in line, we reached the front, and the girls gasped as they saw River Song Herself, waving them toward her. She hugged each of them and gave them a warm greeting, raving about my youngest daughter’s TARDIS costume. She then hammed it up with them for a picture that, I have to admit, was well worth the wait—and the price.
Then SuperCon red shirts swept the girls away and brought on the next family.
I followed the girls through the black curtain that separated the photo ops from the convention center floor. By the time I made it through, they had gathered in a small group, where they were sobbing, uncontrollably.
As a sportswriter, used to interviewing star athletes on a regular basis, I tend to get jaded. But this was the first time the girls had met one of their heroes. And, after all the cancellations and incorrect lines, they weren’t sure it was really going to happen. Then, suddenly, it did, was better than anything they expected, and was over, all in the span of about 30 seconds.
I hugged them. I waited for them to get ahold of themselves. Then we went in search of the next line to step into.