Book Title: Fandemonium
Author: Rick Schindler
Book Genre: Adult fiction, fantasy, satire
Publisher: Wattle Publishing
Ray Sirico used to have it all. Once, he was the brilliant and outrageous Clown Prince of Comics, who reinvented the venerable superhero Skylord, and ranted and rollicked everywhere from TV talk shows to Hollywood premieres. But that was in the ’70s and ’80s. Now it’s 1993, and Sirico is a drunken has-been. His wife has left him, his movie flopped, and his comics’ publisher is doing so poorly that its new corporate parent has come up with a radical marketing stunt: the Death of Skylord. Still, Sirico has one last chance to recapture the limelight: Fandemonium, the nation’s biggest fantasy convention. But others are coming to the con too: Harmony Storm, the sex-crazed actress who broke up Ray’s marriage; his former collaborator Tad Carlyle, who now has his own company, and a troubled relationship; Fred D’Auria, a fanboy fleeing adolescent traumas, and corporate conspirators who are plotting to sacrifice Sirico’s greatest creation for motives deeper than even his fevered imagination could conceive. Together, antihero Sirico and his superhero Skylord stand at the crossroads of comics and commerce, where quirky creators, fervent fans, conniving businessmen and preening celebrities converge. Deal-making, drug-dealing, lovemaking and truth-telling all collide at the riotous climax of a fateful weekend that leaves no one unchanged.
Fandemonium uses the colourful world of comics and fantasy as a microcosm and metaphor for media consolidation and the excesses of global mass culture. It is at once a hilarious satire of business and society, a portrait of an artist no longer young, and a sometimes poignant look at a universal challenge: to grow up, face the world, and put away childish things.
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Chapter 1: The Dimension of Doom
Once words had flown free as birds from his fingers. Now it had taken days for just two to come crawling out like tiny snails: The end.
Still, what wonderful words they were. How neat their symmetry on Sirico’s screen, how sweet their taste on his tongue as he spoke them silently like a prayer. This called for a toast. He raised his chin, emptied the tallboy down his gullet, and erupted a hearty belch.
Yes, a promising start. He clattered on before his momentum could flag:
The end of Skylord, who lies fallen at the feet of the maniacal Baron Brain atop the villain’s Tower of Fear as it stabs the heavens like an obscene gesture in the face of God!
He could already hear Lenny howling about that one. Mustn’t offend the cherished beliefs of any inbred, slack-jawed yokel who might chance to pick up a copy of Skylord along with his chewing tobacco at the corner Shop N’ Go in Mooseturd Hollow. Well, tough shit.
The end of life, as the Baron’s diabolical Chrono Cannon stains the skies with sinister energies like the chimney of hell itself! The end of hope, as the Soaring Sentinel faces his fateful final battle!
Fakeful final battle, more like; just the idea of comics’ greatest superhero being killed was preposterous, even if Skylord was going to return miraculously from the dead after a few perfunctory months of suspended publication. Hell, Sirico could come up with a dozen ways for Sky to beat the Baron in the time it took him to pee. In fact, he decided, he would, just for exercise.
He heaved himself out of his chair and lumbered through the kitchen to the bathroom. Through the cracked window over his toilet he could see the World Trade Center across the Hudson, silhouetted against the angry blush in the eastern sky. To distract himself from the pain as he tried to piss, he conflated its twin towers into the Tower of Fear in his mind’s eye and pictured Skylord lying atop it, helpless beneath the Baron’s shadow, the light fading from the gleaming Sunstone on his chest.
But wait: What if the marvelous Mister Micro, too small to see, were to waft in on the wind like down from a dandelion to rescue his old teammate? Or if Riplash, Skylord’s former protégé, came slashing through from the floor below with his devastating Ion Whip? What about Skylord’s lost love, the Cheshire Cat? Invisible, intangible, she might even now be insinuating herself into the Chrono Cannon, sabotaging its infernal clockwork! Or maybe it was exactly now, in Skylord’s darkest hour, that the combined energy of mankind’s hope in him would rekindle the faintest glow in the Sunstone; a glow as golden as the urine that finally sputtered, then splashed triumphantly into Sirico’s mottled toilet bowl in a powerful torrent, like the psychic current streaming steadily to the top of the Tower of Fear from millions of souls around the world, fanning the tiny ember of light in the heart of the jewel into a nurturing halo that would brighten, blossom, and spread to surround the whole tower, transfiguring it into a blazing torch of glory that would pierce the Cannon’s baleful miasma and light the entire planet. And once again, Sky’s great golden wings would unfurl, and he would rise like a phoenix to victory!
Inspired, Sirico zipped up hastily, heedless of the stain down the front of his jeans. He managed to make it all the way back to his desk before remembering yet again: Thanks to Colossal Comics’ new corporate parent, Skylord had to lose this time.
He scowled at his screen and pummeled the grimy keys:
The end of America’s most beloved hero, prostituted and debased for a sleazy sales stunt! The end of comics’ most revered writer, his creativity crushed by Nebula Communications’ all-consuming corporate cupidity! The end of every miserable fucking thing he ever—
The phone was ringing. Sirico brought his fist down on the keyboard and, with a piteous bleat, his screen went dark. He seized the receiver of his Limited Collector’s Edition Skylord Telephone, one of thousands left unsold after the movie came out. “Hello?” he demanded.
“Hey, Ray.” It was Lenny, interrupting as usual just when he was getting somewhere. “How’s the script coming along?”
Sirico jabbed the big purple button at the top of his keyboard and, with a dulcet chime, SKYSLAST.DOC magically reappeared. “Nearly finished.” With page one, anyway.
“Great.” Lenny sounded so relieved Sirico almost felt sorry for him. “So you’ll bring it tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow? Bring it where?” Without the receiver to hoist over its head, the Skylord figurine that formed the base of his phone looked as if it was throwing its hands up in bewilderment. Beats hell out of me, Sky seemed to say. Isn’t tomorrow Saturday?
“To Fandemonium, Ray.” Lenny was whining like a whipped dog. “We talked about this, remember? Didn’t you get the stuff in the mail?”
“Of course I remember,” Sirico scoffed, swiveling his chair to glance guiltily at the three-tiered wooden rack on his kitchen wall. His filing system—Bad Mail, Very Bad Mail, and To Be Filed—seemed to have broken down: To Be Filed was overflowing into a scrapyard of saucepans brimming with scummy water. The convention was this weekend? Yikes. “But I don’t want to drag this thing around a con. Besides, it still needs a few finishing touches.” A middle and an end, for instance.
Lenny took the measured tone of a hostage negotiator. “Ray, you know how important this is. The death of Skylord is new management’s top priority.”
“Death my pimply pink ass. He’s just going into suspended animation. Or falling through a wormhole into a parallel universe. Or staying at his timeshare in the Hamptons. I forget. Which cliché were you planning to dislodge from your rectum this time, Lenny?”
Lenny sighed. “We’re working on it.”
“You apprehend, do you not, that this is precisely the sort of hackneyed bilge I purged from Skylord’s magazines some two decades ago, thereby rescuing them from cancellation, generating millions in revenue for Colossal Comics, and not incidentally keeping you gainfully employed for lo these many years?”
Through the line came a soft but gratifying moan that let Sirico know he hadn’t lost his touch. “What do you want me to say, Ray? You’re right. But these guys own our asses now, and there’s nothing we can do about it except try and give them what they want.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Sirico spun back to face the window over his desk. Across the street, something in a brown paper bag was circulating among the Puerto Ricans loitering in front of Norberto’s Stationary. It was time for another beer.
He headed for the kitchen with the phone to his ear while Lenny reminded him again how lucky they were to have lured the wonderful Tad Carlyle away from his fabulously successful new Fireburst Comics to return to Skylord long enough to draw this bogus death stunt. Sirico ran out of patience and phone cord simultaneously. “Lenny, Tad Carlyle was still picking the hayseeds out of his ears when I met him. He should be crawling on his knees over broken glass to work with me again.”
He couldn’t make out Lenny’s reply because he was reaching for the refrigerator with his right hand while holding the receiver at arm’s length with his left. His fingertips were grazing the handle when there was a crash behind him; somehow his laptop had gotten tangled up with the base of the phone and been dragged off his desk onto the floor. “Oh, fine,” Sirico said, dropping the receiver.
The computer, a loaner from Colossal that Sirico had not the faintest intention of ever returning, was splayed face-down, its screen dark. He returned it to his desk, plugged it back into the wall and pushed the magic purple button. The chime rang again, but off-key this time, like somebody striking a piano chord with their foot. Finally, SKYSLAST.DOC returned to the screen, only now with an interesting new strobe effect. Meanwhile, Lenny was still chattering like a chipmunk through the phone on the floor. Sirico was definitely going to need that beer.
In the refrigerator stood one last tallboy, its plastic yoke drooping dejectedly now that its five siblings were gone and it had only a bottle of hot sauce and two shriveled lemons for company. Sirico popped it open and plopped back into his swivel chair with the phone.
“…why this thing tomorrow is so important,” Lenny was summarizing. “You can have the rest of today to touch up the script, but you’ve got to bring it tomorrow so Henry—”
“Henry’s going to be there?”
“Henry will introduce you, then you and Carlyle will take questions—”
“Wait a minute. I’m speaking at this thing?”
“Dammit, Ray, I told you this. It’s all in the stuff they sent you. Now, I’m sending a car for you at eleven so you’ll have plenty of time to get settled before the panel. Try and be ready, okay?”
By ready Lenny meant sober. “Okay,” Sirico replied nonetheless.
“I’ve got to get to a meeting. For God’s sake, finish that script.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Curious now, Sirico put the receiver back in Skylord’s hands and began rummaging through the mound of mail. He didn’t believe it; now past seventy, Henry Cole hadn’t set foot in a comic book convention in years. And yet, stuffed in a manila envelope among all the FINAL NOTICES and PAST DUE—PLEASE REMITs he found a flyer proclaiming Fandemonium ’93: A Celebration of Comics, Fantasy, and Collectibles June 19–20, as well as the current issue of Comics Chronicle, which had a familiar vulpine face on the cover. Colossal Comics Founder Henry “King” Cole is Guest of Honor as Fandemonium Returns to New York read the caption under the photo, next to which was a picture of a sulking blonde—
—oh God— —Harmony Storm, Galaxia-Five on TV’s “Star Station Sigma,” Also to Appear. His eyes filled with tears, through which the blonde’s pouting face dissolved into Lynn’s, flushed and frantic as she shook his shoulders. Oh, God, Ray. How could you? From behind her, a shrill giggle: Don’t worry, honey. He couldn’t.
He had to guzzle down half the tallboy before his vision cleared. Sirico tore the front off Comics Chronicle, crumpled it, then paused. From the inner page, another once-familiar face was looking up at him.
The picture was from seventeen years and eighty pounds ago, back when he’d conquered comics and was moving on to movies. His smile was cherubic, his eyes alight with mischief under luxuriant black curls, his jaw thrust forward confidently. Now balding, bloated, he barely recognized himself. He’d almost forgotten he’d once been attractive enough to rate a pretty blonde wife, appear regularly on TV, bed Hollywood starlets.
Completing a triptych around his former self were golden boy Carlyle and hangdog Lenny. Endless Night Panel, the caption read: Fandemonium to Feature Artist, Writer and Editor of the Comic Book Event of the Decade.
Sirico had to go back to his chair and sit down. They were talking about this decade. This was his chance to get everything back, to become that beatific cherub again.
He groped through the envelope’s other contents: directions to the Olympia Hotel, a registration form he was supposed to have sent in, a letter: Dear Mr. Sirico, We are pleased to confirm your appearance blah blah blah enclosed, please find convention schedule along with your—
—and inside the letter, a check to Mr. Raymond J. Sirico for the sum of three hundred dollars. As Skylord himself would say: Suffering suns!
Something was wrong with Henry. Lenny couldn’t put his finger on it. Then he realized: everything was wrong with Henry.
His hair was too poufy. His skin was too tan. His potbelly was missing. He smiled too much. His clothes were the wrong colors, bright pastels. He wasn’t smoking a cigar. This was not the Henry Cole Lenny had worked a dozen nerve-shredding years for.
The clincher had come when Lenny put his hand out to be shaken and Henry tried to get his arms around him in a clumsy embrace instead. There could no longer be any doubt: since retiring as active head of Colossal Comics a decade ago, Henry Cole, né Heinrich Kohlberg of Brooklyn, had become Los Anglicized. Now, as he beamed at Lenny across the conference table, a second, inverted Henry glowed eerily in its cherrywood sheen. The reflection reminded Lenny of the Netherverse, the dark mirror dimension where evil counterparts of the Colossal heroes dwelled. But which was the real Henry, and which was his evil twin?
Still smiling, Henry leaned back in his contoured chair. Lenny watched his gaze roam from the superhero statuettes posturing in illuminated display cases across the front of the room to the Skylord pinball machine blinking in its far corner. Then his eyes shifted to the wide windows onto the box canyon of midtown Manhattan, the proscenium across which his cast of costumed characters had strutted and fretted these past thirty years.
Finally, Henry looked at Lenny. “So, how have things been?”
Lenny tugged the unfamiliar collar button at his throat. This was the man who had hired him, fostered his feeble talent, raised him from proofreader to writer and, finally, to editor-in-chief before he’d moved to Hollywood to manage Colossal’s film and television projects. He’d entrusted Lenny with the glorious fantasy kingdom he’d built out of paper and ink and lent his very name, and in return Lenny had let it be conquered and annexed. “Well—”
“Good morning, Let’s get started then, shall we?”
Just as Lenny was about to pour out his soul, Alec Tilton and his Nebula minions were invading the room. As always, Lenny tried not to hate Alec on sight. He tried not to hate him for his sleek Saville Row suit, which made Lenny look like a hobo. He tried not to hate him for his wasp waist, which made Lenny feel like a hippopotamus. He tried not to hate him for insisting on his ritual Friday morning meeting when he knew everybody had a million things to do before the con this weekend. And, as always, he failed.
Alec took the head of the table while his pinstriped underlings bustled around him, distributing stapled sheaves of color Xeroxes and setting up the computer and projection screen. Ever since the merger, every meeting had to have a computer in order to run PowerPoint, a software program that spewed jargon like action items and company milestones in blazing colors.
As this was going on, Lenny’s editors were straggling in. Clearly they were trying to comply with Alec’s recent memo on office attire, but in their fraying sport coats and antique neckties they made a sorry contrast to the natty Brits. While they shambled to seats on Lenny’s side of the table, Alec’s personal assistant, Miss Crompton, poured him a cup of tea. Maybe all of 23, she was a tender young piece of crumpet, Lenny couldn’t help thinking, even with her body lost somewhere inside that severe suit, even with her pale hair pulled back so tight he almost expected it to snap like piano wire. Nobody knew her first name. No one had had the nerve to ask.
Alec pressed his red eyeglasses into place with his middle finger and consulted the watch tethered to his vest. “Right, are we all here then?”
They weren’t. As he snapped the watch shut, Jack Gladwell sauntered in wearing a pyrotechnic Hawaiian shirt and sneakers that might once have been white. Lenny couldn’t understand why Jack was still production manager under the Nebula regime, other than that he was very good at it.
Henry grinned at Gladwell. “Well, look who just came from the luau Aloha!”
“Aloha, boss. And a good morning to you, Miss Crompton.” Jack had arrived at her chair just in time to pull it out for her gallantly. The girl took it in confusion, her flush violent.
“Mr. Gladwell, how good of you to join us.”
© Rick Schindler
Wattle Publishing is an independent publisher. We publish fiction, non-fiction and poetry. www.wattlepublishing.com