Saturday, 26 September 1998:

Mad Media 5

Did I mention that I picked up a couple of CDs on Friday? Joshua Redman's new album, Timeless Tales (for Changing Times), is okay, but it seems to lack the inspiration of his previous two, Moodswing and Freedom in the Groove, although from a purely technical standpoint it is excellent. On the other hand, it took a while for Freedom to grow on me, so this one probably will, too.

I also picked up Miles Davis' Amandla, one of his last albums. It, too, is technically very tight, although it grabs me more than the Redman album does on the first few listens. It's a very laid-back album, and showcases Davis' trumpet to a greater degree than most of the earlier work of his that I've heard. His earlier albums seem to emphasize Davis' songwriting and arranging talents, but the bands are very egalitarian and integrated, whereas the band on Amandla seems clearly to be a backing band for Davis. Not that this is bad, but it's different.

So today I went to Mad Media 5, the latest of a string of media-based conventions held here in Madison. Some of the people who run it used to be involved in Congenial, and the con was founded with help from WisCon's parent organization, SF3, although they're almost entirely independent now. (I understand there was some bad blood between SF3 and Med Media, and that since SF3 is financially in excellent shape they [we] decided to take a financial hit to avoid having to deal with the bad blood any further. Really a very good decision, in my opinion.)

Mad Media has been a fairly small convention - maybe 100 to 200 people - through its existence, but this year they pulled out all the stops in getting top-flight guests of honor: Topping the bill was noted SF author Harlan Ellison, who has been a significant figure in science fiction and fandom for decades. Also attending were Neil Gaiman, author of the World Fantasy Award-winning comic book series The Sandman, Peter David, comics author and writer of episodes and novels for Star Trek and Babylon 5, and Timothy Zahn, writer who is well-known for several Star Wars novels.

The convention was clearly centered around the guests, and they were the main reason most people came to the con. (Attendance reportedly topped 700!) There were a few other worthwhile parts of the con: The dealer's room was nice, with a nice mix of book dealers, video dealers, and dealers of other equipment and goodies. (I hadn't realized that they've started releasing Babylon 5 on videotape.) And the gaming room looked well-organized and was usually packed. On the other hand, I heard that the con suite was very lame (very poorly stocked). I never got to the art show, which, like the con suite, was in a separate hotel.

And many attendees stayed in a separate hotel, since the con hotel's air conditioning was having serious trouble (estimates were that A/C was working in about one room in six, including function space, and rumor has it that the hotel will probably be demolished before next year). It was a hot and very humid day, so this was rather inconvenient, although it was rarely intolerable.

I commuted from home and bought a one-day membership to the con, which turned out to be a good move because the majority of the interesting events were happening today anyway.

Harlan Ellison was, I was assured, in rare form today (this is the first time I've seen him). "Caustic" hardly begins to describe it. One friend said to me that at one panel "he's only called the audience 'fuckers' about twelve times so far". He regaled us with a series of anecdotes from his life (and he's had many), expounded on his disdain for the Internet ("while you people are checking your e-mail, I'm the only one in the world getting any work done!"), talked about Babylon 5 (for which he is the "creative consultant", which basically means that he and Joe Straczynski are good friends), and moderated the panel on comic book censorship.

In the evening, he helped run the auction. He auctioned off a complete guided tour of his famous house, from outside to inside, for two people, which ended up going for $1200 (yes, twelve hundred dollars).

And he auctioned off two items which he described obliquely but did not show us before bidding commenced. The first he described as "twenty thousand hand-written words by Harlan Ellison", notable because he uses a typewriter to write and keeps all his original manuscripts. This item went for $800, and turned out to be a book of crossword puzzles he had completed over the past eight years. To his credit, he offered to allow the bidder to exchange the book for something more traditionally worth that kind of money if she wanted, but she kept it anyway. (I got the impression that she's a collector who has a lot of money for that kind of thing anyway.)

The second item he described only very vaguely, saying he'd received it in the mail before coming to the con. He said, "C'mon, who do you trust? Who loves ya, baby?" The item got bid up to $300, and turned out to be a set of 20-to-30 pages of original artwork and pen-and-ink drawings by comics artist Frank Miller for his series 300, which is about the defense of Sparta against the Persians. My rough estimate is that each of those pages will eventually fetch a minimum of $50, so the winner definitely came away with a terrific bargain.

I got Ellison to autograph my very, very dog-eared (and water-damaged) copy of The Essential Ellison. I had to wait in line for 50 minutes. He was a very good sport about autographing; he announced about 20 minutes before the end of his session that he'd be stopping promptly on time because he was exhausted and wanted to have coffee with Timothy Zahn, but to his credit as the clock ticked away he started moving the line faster and faster, and eventually just got out of his chair and walked down the line signing almost everything placed in front of him. He got through the whole line and a few stragglers besides.

Peter David, if you don't know, is a card. He can write very witty stuff, although I think he's at his weakest when he's writing purely witty stuff. He's at his best when he's tackling a dead-serious issue head-on, but injecting his hilarious brand of comic relief into it. One exception to this is his Babylon 5 episode "Soul Mates", which is almost entirely humor, and which is drop-dead funny, and worth seeing even if you have zero interest in the show otherwise.

David writes a weekly column for Comics Buyer's Guide called "But I Digress", and his speech at the con was entitled "Peter David Digresses". And he did. He read us an old column from CBG about the unsung hero of Star Wars, "Skippy, The Jedi Droid", and he provided some of his own anecdotes, including one where he autographed books for a couple of his fans without even opening them. (In fact, he'd autographed them beforehand, having noticed them sitting on a bench outside the room while their owners were off somewhere. But he freaked them out by going, "ALAKAZAM! Your book is autographed!")

I got David to autograph my paperback collection of his very first (so far as I know) professional work, a Spider-Man story entitled "The Death of Jeanne Dewolff". I know writers hate it when people say things like this, but I still think it's the best work he's ever done. It's really a very powerful, moving, deep and complex story about a madman who murders a friend of Spider-Man's, how Spidey reacts to it, and the differences in his philosophy and his fellow hero Daredevil's. I said to David, "I bet you don't see many of these these days," and he said, "No, I don't." He drew a little Star Trek insignia pin inside the "D" of his signature.

Neil Gaiman is considerably lower-key than Ellison or David, although still clearly outspoken about things he cares about, such as censorship. Gaiman seems to have largely moved away from comics and into writing novels (and the occasional screenplay, such as "The Day of the Dead" for Babylon 5). I don't think he gave a solo talk today, and I saw less of him than Ellison or David. But he made up for it.

Earlier in the day I'd found a hardcover copy of "Season of Mists", in my opinion the best volume of his Sandman series. I'd originally brought two other hardcover volumes for him to autograph, but when I got this one I decided to forget the other volumes and just have him sign this one. I feel a little uncomfortable about asking an author to sign multiple things at once, although the rule of thumb seems to be that they're willing to sign up to three things at a time.

So I put the book before Gaiman, and he opened it up to the inside front cover - which is dark red - and signed it using a silver marker-pen. As I told him that it and The Books of Magic are my favorite work of his, he wrote, "Michael - Sweet Dreams, Neil Gaiman". I asked him if he knew if The Books of Magic was available in hardcover (he said he didn't think so), and as we had this exchange, he went to the other page on the inside cover and did a little line-sketch of the book's protagonist (Morpheus, the King of Dreams). As far as I had noticed, he hadn't done this for anyone else, and I thought it was very cool. Afterwards, the more I looked at it the cooler I thought it was (it's actually a very nice little piece, especially for a 30-second drawing). I thanked him earnestly and let him move on to the next person.

I'm still wondering that (and why) he did this. Maybe he thinks "Season of Mists" is the best volume, too? Maybe he felt that since I only asked him to sign one book he's give me something extra? I dunno, but I'd definitely rather have this one really neat signing than three simple signatures on different books. It made my day.

In general, I don't have a lot of interest in autographs. I mean, if I have a choice between a signed and an unsigned copy of a book, sure, I'll take the signed copy, but for most books I'm not likely to pay a lot more just because it's signed (especially if it's, say, a mass-market paperback). I like to get autographs for my own stuff in person if the opportunity presents itself, especially if I have something I really like to have autographed, but for me it's in large part a tangible reminder that I saw this person, and it adds something nice to a book I already enjoy. But even beyond that, I really value this signature of Gaiman's.

I spent some of the con hanging out with Jennifer, a local fan I met at this past WisCon. We went to dinner, and ran into Bill and Tracy there ("there" being Michael's Frozen Custard), so we all chatted for a while. And we sat through the auction in the evening. (Yes, I am kind of wondering if she's interested in me. I'm also kind of wondering if I'm interested in her. Life is complicated.)

There wasn't much at the auction I was interested in. There was the very first hardbound copy of Gaiman's Stardust illustrated novel, autographed, which I would have happily paid $75 for, but it went for $200. (Again, I'd be perfectly happy to pick up the hardcover in its regular issue, and have Gaiman autograph it when and if I see him again.) I certainly would have been interested in the Miller artwork that Ellison auctioned, but if we'd know what it was ahead of time it would have gone for a lot more. Similarly, I'd have been interested in the tour of Ellison's house, but I don't think I'm prepared to spend that kind of money on that particular kind of thing at this point in my life. Maybe I'll have another opportunity someday.

I finally straggled home around 1:30 am, which is the latest I've stayed up in quite a while. But it was a good day; it was all worth it.

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