Episode 1: One Way Ticket to Midnight – Discovering Taarna
“He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front.”J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
In 1978, when I started junior high at Southmore Intermediate School in Pasadena, Texas, I never dreamed that over thirty years later my lifelong appreciation for comic books, science fiction, fantasy, and my fellow fans would become a guide to my own adventures. In 6th grade most teachers seated the students alphabetically, so I quickly noticed a funny kid chatting behind me in every class. I was a skinny, pale kid with glasses, but David Gregg was a taller, impossibly skinny kid with glasses. I’m not sure how we first talked Marvel comics, Star Trek, or Tolkien, but we both had voracious appetites for anything nerdy. David also owned a copy of the Star Trek Concordance by legendary Trekkie, Bio Trimble, with its beautiful die-cut cover, and he had a memory unlike anyone else; an ideal trait for any nerd. He could see a still image from any Trek episode and name the source; with credentials like that, it wasn’t a surprise that we became great friends.
Over the years I came to regard him as a brother. We would regularly talk on the phone after school, discussing the nuances of things like the new issue of the Fantastic Four, or trying our best at creating our own stories, but always laughing at how silly they seemed in comparison to the books we loved. Like many people involved in fandom, those early teen years were the most formative for my developing interests. It was only a matter of time before I attended my first comic book convention, which was at a convention center near the Astrodome. I don’t remember how David or I heard about the convention, but my mom dropped us off for the day, and later his mom picked us up. This was such a memorable event that I can still recall the dim fluorescent lighting, the musty basement smell, and the chilling air conditioning—a Houston staple. In one room they were showing Star Trek episodes and blooper reels, oddball cartoons, and old science fiction films. The dealer’s room felt like a large basement at a friend’s house, filled with rows of artifacts from alien worlds just waiting to be explored. That hunger for exploration and discovery filled my youth and still drives me. I’m a “digger,” such as in crates for music and books, piles for clothes, and libraries for information.
I had saved my lawn-mowing money for this convention to buy a copy of X-Men #94, the issue that introduced the characters most people are familiar with, such as Wolverine, Colossus, and Storm. I’m still proud that I wrangled it for $25 in mint condition. I met Richard and Wendy Pini, the creators of the independent fantasy comic Elfquest, and bought the first few issues. I also remember seeing the first issue of Love and Rockets, with its iconic cover featuring a bizarro police lineup, and although I was attracted and confused by it, I was afraid my parents would bust me for its nudity. Not surprisingly, a few years later I became obsessed with it, and still avidly follow everything by the creators, the Hernandez brothers.
This was also around the time that the animated film Heavy Metal was released. I was fascinated by images I had seen, although I hadn’t been able to sneak into a screening since it was rated R. I was familiar with the magazine it was based on, but only from copies I was able to see at the corner store near the Baptist church my family and I attended several times each week. I just knew that aside from the well-drawn, pneumatic women’s bodies, the stories in Heavy Metal seemed more awkward and open-ended than the regulated superhero comics I was used to. The movie appeared to encompass that same feeling.
This was a time when “adult animation” still existed. Ralph Bakshi was still producing a new film every few years, his most recent having been the ambitious American Pop. I was familiar with the imagery from the Heavy Metal film after seeing the ads on TV, but also from Curtis and his brother, Guy, neighborhood kids who owned the soundtrack on vinyl. I wasn’t at their house often since they were more socially adept and were somewhat bullyish, but I remember awkwardly standing around their bedroom and poring over the drawings on the gatefold sleeve while the sounds of Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, and Devo bounced around.
At the convention, dealers had loads of merchandise related to the film; animation art, books, posters, but the thing I remember most vividly was seeing a woman dressed in costume as Taarna from the film. In Heavy Metal, this woman is presented as a tough, feminine ideal… physically ideal. But at the convention, there was a disjuncture between what I had seen of the film and the awkwardness of this everyday woman walking around in a skimpy outfit she had obviously crafted. This was heightened by the fact that she was one of only a few people there actually dressed in costume, which increased the sense of dislocation. This “Taarna” presented a quandary; I was a 14 year-old shy, nerdy “late bloomer.” I had never kissed a girl, held hands, nothing. I was also raised Southern Baptist, and at that point was still actively involved. Of course, nudity was chastised. And here was a woman, 90% nude, and not at a swimming pool. Her costume looked like it might either fall off or fall apart at any moment, which was thrilling. But she looked nothing like the feminine fantasy presented in the cartoon. I was torn between staring at her in the hope that a piece of flimsy costume would fall loose, and my embarrassment for her for wearing something so “unflatteringly” revealing. Add to this the church-induced guilt I had for responding to these urges. The day was filled with my backwards, hesitant glances and my mixed feelings.
In the world of fandom, people are often unconcerned with the physical ideals presented by popular culture and society. Instead, they’re interested on simply being true to themselves. This was an important lesson, especially having grown up in a family preoccupied with presenting itself as the ideal of Southern, Christian, middle-class values. What I was seeing at the convention seemed to have no relation to those values; not in a sense of rebelling against them, but simply in revealing that they were irrelevant. It created a rift, the first step off the well-trodden road that was laid out for me. This path wasn’t based on fear of what might lay outside of it. Of course it could be dangerous, as David would eventually discover, but that story is for another chapter.
This past weekend I found myself at Wondercon, a large convention in Anaheim put on by the same people who organize the gigantic annual Comicon. For the past few years, whenever I’ve been inspired, I’ve made costumes for myself. My sewing skills are rudimentary, but I enjoy the problem-solving required to design and build something wearable, even if it only holds up for a few hours. These days, having nerdy interests just includes you in part of another massive subculture. The top shows on TV and hit movies are often genre based, or involve nerdy characters. “Nerd,” is no longer an insult, but rather something that people aspire to. One of the best-known billionaires in the world is the dork who started Facebook, and he even had a critically acclaimed movie made about him. The world has finally caught up with the nerds, and dressing in costumes is just one small part of it.
For the past few weeks I’d been discussing costumes with my girlfriend, Julianne. She is an actress in B-grade horror and exploitation films, which is something she loves, so she has her own nerdy passions that go far beyond her love of Star Trek and old science fiction films. I’m not sure how it came up, but due to our mutual appreciation for Heavy Metal it was decided that she would dress as Taarna at Wondercon. We immediately headed downtown to buy the fabric, and I set to work putting it all together, staying late after work to use the woodshop to “forge” the sword. Typically for me, it all came together as I finished the costume in a last-minute five-hour frenzy, before we quickly drove down to Anaheim, checked into our hotel, changed clothes, and walked into the convention for the final few hours on Saturday.
As I roamed the convention with Julianne/Taarna, I saw several 13- or 14-year-old boys (and girls) stealing glances at her. The braver ones moved up and asked for a photo, while I just worked to maintain her costume; keeping the kneepads pulled up and making certain her top didn’t fall down (body tape works magic.) It was then that I remembered the Taarna I’d seen at that first convention, and how I had been that same young teen sneaking glances. I’d come full circle, since now I was with Taarna—not a stranger in glasses but the woman I love and admire, and I had made her costume. With Julianne’s assistance, for a few hours I recaptured and perfected that teenage moment. The awkwardness was gone, both because Julianne makes a convincing mystical, warrior goddess (and frankly the costume kicked ass), but also because I’m no longer that shy, young boy looking for an escape. Few people under the age of 35 probably had any clue who she was, but I’m certain that like my teenage experience of Taarna, she instilled a memory that won’t be easily forgotten. One day, some of those kids will discover Heavy Metal, and when they make it to the Taarna sequence they will realize who that strangely dressed woman with the sword actually was.