I had a Batman movie to watch, and Neil Gaiman was coming.
Our Clarion class had yet to meet Neil, but we’d been warned about his arrival. “Don’t take photos of him near your dorm,” we had been warned, “And if you do, don’t post them on the Internet. If you do, his fans will figure out which dorm he’s staying in and harangue him in his sleep.” Which was my first indication that Neil’s popularity put him more in the category of “rock star” than “popular author.”
We weren’t sure what that meant. At Clarion, the six-week boot camp for sci-fi writers, we had a new author every week. Each teacher brought their own culture with them, as each person had their own teaching methods and ways of hanging out. Kelly Link had been warm and motherly, Jim Kelly had brought raucous watergun fights and stand-on-the-couch energy, Mary Anne Moharanj had brought a scholarly air with her list of assignments and duties.
What would Neil Gaiman bring? We had been told that Week Four was often the boiling point for Clarion, as it’s when everyone was stressed out from a solid month of brain-wringing writing lessons, and psychodrama often occurred. Would Neil be able to steer us through that? He’d never taught before, let alone taught a group of eighteen very different personalities.
So I was a little concerned. Would he step out of a Cadillac, a groupie on each arm, wearing sunglasses and only allowing us to talk to him through intermediaries? It seemed unlikely, but then again it seemed unlikely that someone would track him down by triangulating the background in a picture of him posted on Facebook.
That wasn’t my priority, though. The Dark Knight was. Yes, we were at Clarion, which was the most work-intensive thing I’ve ever done (twelve-hour days of writing and critiquing were common), but goddammit I was mad to see Heath Ledger’s performance. I was a full-on Christopher Nolan fanboy, had been ever since Memento – and even though hacking three hours out of the tangled Clarion schedule was like chopping kudzu, I was hell-bent to see it with friends.
So I asked, “Who wants to go with me?” I expected Dana, maybe Keffy, and a few others – our class had comic nerds, but wasn’t composed of them. I asked on Tuesday, because I knew the logistics of getting eighteen students to a movie theater would be hell (most of us had no cars), and at first there were a few enthusiastic “yea!”s followed by “maybes.” But then people started getting sticky in that sense of “Oh, Kat’s going? Well, maybe I’ll go too,” and by Thursday, it looked like all eighteen of us were probably going to head on down.
Which would be hell. As an inveterate Box Office nerd, I knew this would be a blockbuster movie, and we had to get the tickets in advance. People were all like, “Oh, we’ll just get the tickets when we get there,” and I grabbed them by the lapels, my eyes crazed and bloodshot, yelling, “NO YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS IS A TSUNAMI OF TICKET SALES, IT WILL BE SOLD OUT, SOLD OUT, SOLD OUT.”
They thought I was crazy. I probably was, a little. Because orchestrating tickets for the same show for eighteen people, figuring out what show and then buying them online and then managing payments and then “Oh, Monica wants to go too” kept me busy at Fandango.com for way longer than I would have liked. But they humored me, even if I’m pretty sure several of them thought, “What a nutter.”
Then someone asked, “Should we invite Neil?”
I suppose I should have been thrilled that I would see Batman with Neil Gaiman, but at the time I was like, “GAH ONE MORE TICKET.” And Neil would be arriving, as it turned out, perilously close to the theater time. And he did, in fact, want to go!
On the day of the movie, I insisted that we all go an hour early. Many didn’t, mainly because frankly, going and waiting for an hour at a movie theater seemed like a rather boring thing to do. But I corralled three of my Clarion friends, who I think went mainly just to shut me up, and we arrived at the box office to stake out our spots.
The theater was already sold out. The next showing, three hours later, was already sold out too. And the theater was swarming with people.
As it turns out, The Dark Knight was an even bigger box office smash than I’d envisioned, being the fastest movie in history to cross the $200 million mark, racking up six other box office records along the way. And it was crazed there.
I went into damage mode, knowing that I was the only one who held all the tickets, so I had to stand outside to hand them to the other students as they arrived. “Quick!” I said. “Get inside the moment the theater’s ready, and mark off our rows of seats! Get nineteen of them!” My friends sprung into action, three of them running into the theater and scurrying about like ants – I’m told it was quite the challenge, with three people fending off a theater full of eager moviegoers trying to steal their overly-large block of seats. I kind of envision it like a weird videogame, actually.
Meanwhile, I was calling people like crazy, telling them to get down here now, we need people to hold the line. Eventually, more folks showed up, and with seven Clarion students in the theater, I’m told it got easier to mark off our block. But a few folks were running late, which was a problem because with so few cars one person behind schedule caused pileups for everyone, and I had become this sort of insane sargent in a World War I movie where I was blazingly, fanatically, determined to get everyone into the theater. I think at one point I may have stood on a ficus plant and shouted, “NO MAN LEFT BEHIND, GODDAMMIT!”
Small children quailed from the funny, yelling fat man.
Eventually, the only person left to arrive was Neil, and the group picking him up at the airport. I had to stand out front and dispense the remaining tickets – well, okay, I didn’t, as my Clarion friends were kind enough to offer to swap places with me and let me go and have a rest. But as I said, I was crazed. This job would not be complete until I gave away the final ticket! But Neil was running slightly late, and would he arrive in time? The previews were starting! I scanned the crowd, looking for my buddies.
And there was Neil! He’s much taller than you’d think he is. His mop-headed black hair stood out gloriously in the crowd. And I believe the first words I ever spoke to Neil Gaiman were, “Here’s your tickets, GET INSIDE GET INSIDE NOW!” as I thrust the last of my payload into my friends’ hands and broke into a run towards the theater.
I did not sit next to Neil, which was fine. I sat next to Dana, who squeezed my hand during the intense bits and we shared soda. And when we got out of the movie, I did track down Neil – who I didn’t think had ever written Batman, but as a comics writer I was curious to get his feedback nonetheless – and asked him what he thought. And he pursed his lips thoughtfully and said, “I think I saw a brilliant performance, housed in an ordinary action film… But I’m going to have to think on that.”
Fortunately, Neil was a very nice man, and a very good teacher, and while the fourth week had its share of challenges as eighteen writers were pushed to the breaking point – to this day, it’s a mark of pride that Neil Gaiman called my story “boring” – he navigated it through with grace and charm. Having seen Neil at a handful of conventions since then, I’ve come to realize how remarkable it is to spend a week in his presence – at cons, he’s beset by so many people that you’re lucky to eke out ten minutes even if he wants to see you. We had some long, nice conversations, which I treasure.
But really, my main memory of Neil is me, waiting in a busy theater lobby, hoping he’ll arrive soon with my friends.
And so as the new Batman movie opens, I find myself wishing I was with my Clarion buddies all over again. Neil was there for a week, and wonderful, but in truth I spent six of the craziest weeks of my life with Dana, Keffy, Monica, Steffi, Kat, Gra, Paul, E.J., Emily, Megan, Durand, Dan, Mary, Lauren, Damien, Sarah, and Crystal. And I would stand for ten hours in a theater lobby if it meant I could be back with you guys again.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.