No space is more eerie or more liminal than a convention. It’s an hastily constructed space filled with people who share a common lexicon, a specialised knowledge, all converging to discuss, trade, and celebrate the vast and ever-changing world of nerddom. They’re part festival, part lecture, part marketplace, part cult.
Conventions make the perfect setting for almost any sort of story you can think of, and authors have finally realised its potential with varying degrees of success. The Con Artist (and I give Fred Van Lente full points for the amazing pun title) makes full use of the chaos that is San Diego Comic Con. As someone who has never visited the Mecca that is San Diego Comic Con I have only the stories, and my experience with local cons, and my knowledge of captalism within nerd culture to go on, but the Comic Con that Van Lente constructs seems to match with my expectations. A vast hall filled with vendors and decorated with promos, cosplayers drifting through like peacocks, and everyone clamouring over things to buy and as they wait in line to meet their idols.
Mike is a veteran of the convention world. In fact, cons are the life he has eschewed all others for. As the author of a successful comic series that went big and got turned into a movie he is well off and has a large following of dedicated fans. He goes from con to con, living out of hotel rooms, with no fixed address and a storage locker in every major con town.
He minds his own business and accepts that he both loves and hates cons. His art makes him a living but he hasn’t felt inspired to create anything new in a long time. Still, he arrives at San Diego Comic Con to give a lifetime achievement award to his mentor Ben K, the famous writer of the classic Mister Mystery (a batman-esque hero) when his mentor passes away. Vowing to make the most of it, as maybe reconnect with his ex-wife, Mike is just going about his business when a murder happens. Not of anyone Mike actually liked, the editor was a self-serving dick, a sexual harasser and also cheated with Mike’s wife. The problem is that Mike was the last person seen with Danny Lieber and he had tried to punch the guy in the face. Naturally, the police are looking at Mike as a suspect.
But larger things than murder are happening at San Diego Comic Con. There are seedy dealings that have to do with stolen art, corporate greed, neo-Nazis, and corruption going down and Mike has found himself in the middle of it. He has to unravel the mystery before he goes down for the murder and more. Luckily, Mike’s artistic energy makes him more observant than even he knows, and the included drawings leave little hints that help him out.
The book is filled with colourful characters and worldbuilding elements that seems to bizarre and larger than life, but also exactly as bizarre and larger than life things in the nerd world can be. One of my favourite moments in the look is when Van Lente is describing Sebastian Mod, a media darling who drank his own cool-aid but knows how to market himself. Some of his quotes about this guy are the most perfect things you will ever read.
There is a persistant urban legend within the comics community that as a result of meeting for several hours with Mod while preparing for the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Jesse Eisenberg’s manic turn as Lex Luther was basically a thinly veiled Sebastian Mod impersonation.
If that doesn’t tell you exactly who this guy is, nothing will. Of course, that rumour was started by Sebastion himself. But just to really hammer it home how great Van Lente’s description of this character is here is another quote.
He once asked his thousands of fans to masturbate simultaneously on the same date at the same time and use their combined “mana” to keep one of his titles from being canceled. After what I called “The Wankening” the series lasted only four more issues before finally getting the ax, so trillions of spermatozoa gave their lives for a skinny $9.99 trade paperback; rarely have so many given so much for so little.
Of sympathetic characters, there aren’t a whole lot of them. Mike is a stand-in for every creative who got their dream but still hasn’t quite grasped the key to happiness. Then there is Mike’s friend in the booth next to him Katie Poole, a woman in the industry who has finally achieved an unsteady form of success, but corporate dealings and assholes are constantly conspiring to screw her over since she isn’t a member of the boys club. I feel for her the most, because you know there are a lot of women like her in the industry just trying to get by. Van Lente is definitely aware of the criticisms the industry faces, for not paying their creators properly, stealing rights, being misogynistic and weaves them through the story extremely well. They serve to ground the story and give a that needed element of reality.
The mystery is the weakest part of the story. It starts of strong, with a lot of interesting clues and whiffs of something going on beneath the surface but the end of the novel doesn’t come together as neatly as you hope it would. It feels like you have a puzzle with bunch of pieces and you could have put them together in any number of ways, Fred Van Lente just picked one version of it. A couple of twists seem to just come out of no where, or were masterminded by characters that I wouldn’t have considered overly intelligent. The novel begins strongly but peters out steadily the longer it goes on. By the end of the book the mystery is resolved but not much changes. Except that a lot more people are dead.
The setup of this novel from the beginning to the middle makes this book worth the read. If you’ve been kicking around the con world or are just familiar with the comic book industry with all its insider secrets and dirty deals then you are going to appreciate The Con Artist. It has some genuinely wonderful, laugh-out-loud moments, and an atmosphere that is so recognisable. It’s lighthearted and bizarre in the best way possible and while the mystery isn’t the strongest part of the book, you’ll still enjoy the ride.