Wednesday, August 22, 2007

San Diego Con Report

This happy conventioneer is filling in the gaps of his Huckleberry Hound collection(note checklist on right)


By the time I arrived for my first day ever at the 38th annual San Diego Comic Con, admission for all four days was completely sold out. This resulted in a separate open-air mini-convention just outside the convention hall: The San Diego Ticket Scalpers Con.

Imagine, if you will, the circumstance where people are willing to pay scalper’s prices to get into this event. Bear in mind, this is not an event like, say a basketball final or a Rolling Stones Farewell-For-Godsakes-Farewell-Already concert. No…this is an event in which the primary goal is to siphon off as much from your Visa card without the wife finding out. What, you though the “Con” in San Diego Comic Con stood for “Convention”? Ha!

How can I begin to give you a picture of the enormity of this event? Imagine the largest airport you can think of. Empty it (except for Security). Refill it with hundreds of tables piled with plastic things and lots of people touching them. At first, I was overwhelmed by table after table after table laden with action figures, DVDs, video games, and, what else? Let’s see…oh yeah, comics. This is a Comic-Con, right?

After a while, I became less traumatized by the shear volume of stuff being hawked. 99.9% of what I saw I was not interested in. To be more precise, 99.9% of the stuff I saw I simply could not understand since I lead a sheltered life in a thatch hut in the woods. Electricity? What's that? Once I began to treat all of this merchandise as an endless continuous fogbank, I found that I could begin to find my way to the places I really needed to go: the Starbucks kiosk and the bathroom.

Lots of folks were dressed for the occasion: superhero costumes, devil horns, capes, this season’s latest Jediwear, fake-fur codpieces, and bikinis. There were a lot of people who looked like zombies, and then there were a lot of people dressed up as zombies. You could tell the latter ‘cause they trailed toilet paper and smelled faintly of ketchup.

I had on a tie and felt grossly overdressed. However, here’s a tip from the ol’ seasoned pro who has attended approximately one San Diego Con: Wear a necktie. A nice unlimited edition silkish tie from J.C. Penny’s secured the VIP treatment wherever I went. This meant receiving a hint of a smile to go along with a firm, “No sir, this is not an exit. Turn your sorry ass around.”

For many con-goers, attending the San Diego Con means achieving one of the biggest thrills of a lifetime: standing in line. Wherever I went I saw lines. Lines for sneak previews of coming films and T. V. shows, lines of outtakes from old movies and T.V. shows. and lines for the bathroom.

Since I have already mentioned them a couple of times, a word about the bathrooms at the San Diego Comic Con. I know that dozens of volunteers were hired during the course of the weekend to help direct traffic. I spoke to several and hung out for a while in the Volunteers Briefing Room out of curiosity and free snacks. They had volunteers manning the doors, directing traffic, refereeing light-saber duels, but unfortunately not a single volunteer on bathroom duty.

You would have to pay someone cold, hard cash to grapple with those Convention Hall bathrooms. Remember, this is San Diego where every third restaurant is Tex-Mex and the official food of the city is the chili-dog. It has been proven statistically that the more comic books you read, the more chili-dogs you are liable to consume. The cost of a pretzel at the Convention Center is higher than a mint copy of “Playful Little Audrey #67”; so many conventioneers get fueled up on their way to festivities each morning. Hence, the very least the Comic Con organizers could have done was to station a volunteer at each bathroom door to issue gas masks and disposable plastic wading boots.

Across the hall from where I was scheduled to speak there was a line of several dozen people waiting for a Q and A session with a T and A starlet who once played the well-endowed three-breasted Venusian from the third season of Battlestar Protractica. I passed another line that had clearly been forming for hours judging by the fact that most of the waiters were sitting on the floor. When I asked why, I was told by a Kingon that this was a line to get a (I swear this is true) ticket that may or may not allow the ticket holder to get an autograph of Stan Lee. I moved quickly on when the nervous Klingon, sensing that I might be trying to butt in, stuck a phaser in my gut.

A surprise came when I arrived at the hall where I was to speak about the golden-age cartoonist, Fletcher Hanks (Who he? Go to: and buy a t-shirt for God’s sake), only to find it ¾ filled with people waiting to hear about this dead guy whose strange work has little relation to the computer generated imagery I had been bathing in all day at the Con. There must have been about 100 people in the room and none of them were related to me! The lecture went very well. They laughed at the right times and nobody tried to lynch me at the end.

Given the fact that my lecture had nothing to do with any video game and not a single Hollywood starlet appeared semi-clad on stage with me (although, believe me, I tried to find one), I was very pleased with my turn out, until someone pointed out to me that if there are 2.5 million fans in attendance at this Con that meant that about .000025% of all attendees came to my show.

When “my pal” mentioned this I recalled that indeed there had been several guys simply using my lecture hall as a reading room, and against the side wall there was a group engaged in a game of Dungeons and Dragons or perhaps craps, and several audience members were clearly there only to get a good seat for the next lecture (the Wonder Woman Wet T-shirt Contest), and one fella had taken off his shoes and was stretched out across four chairs in the front row snoring pleasantly, a half-eaten chili dog resting on his heaving tummy.

So what did the 2007 San Diego Comic Con leave me with?
1. A deep appreciation for the modern technology it took to create the triple paned windows in my hotel room that masked out the sounds of the freeway and airport.
2. A well-read copy of “Playful Little Audrey” #67.
3. A reconfirmation that a terrorist group need look no further than the San Diego Comic Con to make their case against the gross appetite of this wasteful culture.
4. A blue-green bruise in my gut from that Klingon’s phaser.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Restaurant Review

Do you remember the animated cartoon character Astro Boy? He was a quasi-boy like Pinocchio except instead of being a puppet; Astro Boy was a robot with very peculiar feet. Sometimes they turned into rockets and sometimes when he walked they were kind of like suction cups or toilet plungers hitting the ground. They even made a sucking noise as he walked.

I heard this same sound, “Soook. Soook. Soook”, as I walked up the stairs in the restaurant, Mariola. This is due to the fact that Mariola’s is a very old restaurant and they are so busy making delicious things to eat that they cannot be bothered with time-consuming tasks such as washing the sticky stairs.

Also, a tip if you should choose to dine there: do not under any circumstances touch the handrail. You will need a pair of pliers and a beefy guy from the highway department to pry your fingers from the glue-like railing finger by finger.

Mariola is located in a small town called Jesi (pronounced Yay-see) where one of the campuses of the International School of Comics is located. Every week I taught in Jesi as well as two other branches of the school in Rome and Florence. I could never quite get a straight answer from anyone exactly why there was a branch of the school in Jesi, but I think it had something to do with the notion that they wanted to teach the students that professional cartooning is a struggle, so they located it in a town that was a struggle to get to.

The head of the school in Jesi is a buoyant woman named Graziella. Graziella knows details about each student’s life that even the students themselves do not know. Hence she is able to keep them in line much as a mother duck keeps her ducklings in line. They love her and she loves them but occasionally she needs to give them a sharp nudge with her bill.

There is little not to love about Graziella. She was born and raised in Jesi. Her mother was a professional cook who liked her profession so much that on a Sunday, her day off, she would ask little Graziella, “What shall we do today for fun? Something special together, eh? I know…let’s bake a half dozen pies!” As a result of this upbringing one of the many lovable things about Graziella is that she loves food. She says that the reason that she is so fond of the city of Naples is because you can buy fresh bread on Sunday. “Imagine! Fresh bread on Sunday,” she exclaimed to me, “Now that’s a city I could live in!”

This appreciation for food, cooking, and restaurants was very fortunate for me because every week she took me out to dine at one of Jesi’s fine restaurants. We ate well and in very nice, clean, modern restaurants.

But I was curious, “Garziella,” I asked innocently one day, “are there any restaurants in Jesi that are not very nice, clean, modern? Restaurants that are old and, y’know, rustic?”

In answer she looked over her glasses at me and smiled that smile that I had seen her give the students as she got them in line. “You want rustic? I’ll give you rustic.”

This is how we ended up at Mariola’s one fine afternoon along with her son, Elia, and my translator, Rafaella. The hand painted sign outside reads, “Da Mariola, Vino e Cucina”: “Mariola’s, Wine and Food”. Note the order.

The woman who runs the joint is named Maria . Mariola is a nickname of endearment. But nobody in Jesi calls the restaurant “Maria’s” or “Mariola’s”. It has always been known as “Maria Culo Bello”, or “Maria with the nice ass”.

How about that, huh? Not so odd, really. After all in the U.S. we have an entire restaurant chain named “Hooters”.

“Back in the day Maria’s nice ass was well known around town,” Graziella told me, “Maria herself used to proudly explain that it resulted from cooking day after day. All the exercise from mixing and bending over to put food into the oven and taking it out gives one a nice rear end.”

I even met an American on the train a few weeks later who had lived in Jesi for a while. As with most conversations I had in Italy, within minutes the subject invariably turned to food and restaurants and for a moment as we talked I could not remember the name of the restaurant, “Mariola”.

“I went to this really unique place,” I began to tell him, “It was called Maria’s…no…Marianna…no, that’s not it”

“You mean, Maria Culo Bello?” he snapped.

One enters the restaurant into a dark room with a bar. The dining room is on the second floor (known in Italy as the Prima Piano, or, logically, the First Floor) so we “soooked” up the stairs and entered, except for Elia who was still prying his left sneaker off the top step.

Several years ago my brother-in-law, Steve, took us to a little restaurant in the Tuscan hills referred to by the locals as, “Dracula’s Wife’s”. not because the owner was evil, but because there was no better way to explain his blood-sucking wife. When you entered that restaurant, Dracula’s wife, herself, would hand out the menus and take the orders. She would then proceed to bring to the table whatever happened to be ready in the kitchen or whatever she had too much of. Whether it resembled anything you ordered or not did not matter. What did matter was that you shut up and ate.

At Mariola’s the waitress simply skipped the pretext of handing out menus. She gave us our order. “There’s 3 portions of lasagna left, so that leaves one of you taking the rigatoni. Skewered meats sound good? Good. Water? Yes? Wine? Good?”

She left in a puff and we looked around the room. Three elderly men sat at one of each of the three other tables. They looked as though they had eaten lunch daily at Di Mariola for most of the 150 years that the place had been serving food. If they were curious as to who these strangers were, they did not let on, as they were far too involved in relishing the food before them.

(Graziella shoots Elia "the Look")

Light streamed in through two open windows gently lifting the lace curtains. Good thing, too. If any serious gust were to burst through, the delicate threads holding these ancient curtains together would disintegrate. The room was painted an off-white and decorated with a pattern: “Splatter-di-marinara”. A charming 8” aluminum air duct ran up the corner and diagonally across the ceiling. There was a small painting on one wall that could have been a landscape, or an expressionistic portrait of a pizza.

(Rafaella demonstrates the tensile strength of the so-called curtains)

This was not exactly the cozy wooden beamed trattoria that I had in mind when I said the word “rustic”. Did I mention that the dining room was lit with 3 and sometimes 4 flickering florescent tubes?

The lasagna showed up just as I was considering bolting for the stairs. It didn’t look like much. Just lasagna only flatter. Not the gargantuan constructions that I am used to in the States with bits of the kitchen sink sticking out here and there. Graziella shot me another one of those glances over her glasses as I took my first bite. As I chewed, she tilted her head to one side and raised an eyebrow. I swallowed and she smiled. Word exchange during ecstasy is not necessary.

We licked out plates clean and I had a crunchy nibble on the plate, itself, in hopes of divining a few extra morsels that might have seeped into the porcelain molecules, when the skewered meat arrived. In between each tidbit of chicken, sausage, and, well, let’s call it “other meat”, was a bay laurel leaf folded in half and skewered. This gave every bite a particular flavor as the bay interacted differently with each meat.

(At Mairola you can have some coffee with your sugar)

Coffee and a simple piece of torte were followed by the appearance of Maria Cullo Bello, herself coming to inspect the strangers. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed. In her housedress and apron it was difficult to tell if she had any culo at all, let alone whether it was bello. She stood at the end of the table and surveyed our work. Seeing the clean plates, she determined that we were worth speaking to and proceeded to give us the history of the restaurant most of which, I am sorry to say, I did not understand. The most important part I got: she had been cooking in that kitchen for 65 years. There are certain things that you learn after cooking professionally for 65 years, like, for instance, how to cook.


To top things off she pulled out a bottle of homemade after-dinner wine. We toasted her cooking, tossed it back. We toasted the town of Jesi for supporting this fine institution, and tossed back another round. We toasted a few more things as well, and tossed a few more back. At this point we, ourselves, were nicely toasted.

We soooked down the stairs and as I passed the kitchen and saw the dishwasher. She was older than Maria, herself. Could she be Maria’s mother? Possible. Certainly it explained the reason why I could spell my name on the greasy edge of my plate. I will say nothing about the bathroom.

“How does the town allow her to stay open?” I asked Graziella. “In the States, the Board of Health would have closed her down years ago.”

“Who do you think those three guys were who were dining when we came in? She has every official in town eating out of the palm of her hand. And…” Graziella shot me another one of those over-the rim-looks, “they all remember that bello culo.”