Neil Gaiman’s 50th Birthday

It’s Neil Gaiman’s 50th birthday today, so it seemed an appropriate time to tell the story about how I met Neil back in 2003 and how it steeled my resolve for interacting with famous folks.

After my first convention experience back in 2002, I wondered if I’d ever be able to afford to go back San Diego for the big show, or to hang out with comic folks and ride that crazy merry-go-round again.

A year later I was living in Toronto and had started working for UDON on some smaller projects, slowly but surely building up professional relationships and getting a feel for how the business stuff worked with comic, illustration and video game projects coming in to the studio. Financially things were tight, but when the ever-gracious and amazing Howard Tayler offered me crash space at his hotel, I leapt at the chance to go back to SDCC and ride the whirlwind again.

Thursday night after the show Ray and I headed out to the CBLDF party taking place at a nearby Irish pub. People were talking about how amazing it would be because Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Will Eisner would be there. All of us had visions of hanging out with comic legends and feeling about 300% cooler than we were before. Making our way over to the party, there was a feeling of electricity in the air.

That lasted until we arrived.

The pub was absolutely jammed. There’s no way the place would pass fire code inspection. People were crushed in shoulder to shoulder and could barely even move. We slowly pushed our way in hoping to catch a glimpse of greatness, or at least to see people we knew, but no such luck. The noise, the crowd, it was beyond ridiculous. You could have body surfed your way to the washrooms. When we finally fought our way to the bar we discovered that pints were double price (with half going to the CBLDF) and we forked out $15 for the house beer with a sigh. Even though we knew it was for a worthy cause, the whole thing was just overbearing. When I asked someone where the big name guests were at, they told us they were upstairs in a private lounge and regular people weren’t allowed upstairs. Great, so we were in the same building as Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and Will Eisner. Not exactly what anyone was expecting.

Some brief conversations with friends, some awkward moments crushed against walls or tables and I was ready to get out of there. We downed the rest of our pints and started shuffling our way back out of the building. Getting impatient, I pushed a bit too much without looking where I was going and promptly shoulder checked Scott McCloud in the chest. Scott recognized me from last year and was as positive and upbeat as ever, even after I bumped him. He wanted to chat, but we explained that the party was just too much and we were on our way out to find a bar that had space. Scott told us he’d come with us, he just needed to say “Hi” to a few friends first. Not wanting to lose him in the insane crowd, we followed.

When Scott made it to the stairs, he was immediately waved up in to the VIP lounge… he is Scott McCloud, after all! We waited at the bottom as the bouncer stood between us, until Scott looked back and cheerfully said “Oh yeah, those guys are with me!”

And that’s how we made our way in to the comic book Forbidden Zone!

Upstairs was open, spacious and everywhere we looked there were big name comic pros hanging out, chatting and having drinks. Scott grabbed us a table and ordered a round while Ray and I looked at each other feeling guilty that we’d found a way up here.

After some nice conversation, Scott asked us if there was anyone we wanted to meet. I knew that Scott and Neil were longtime friends, but I felt really awkward asking for an introduction. I grew up as a huge Sandman fan and had just finished reading Neil’s American Gods book a few weeks earlier. It felt so fan boy-ish and I wasn’t sure how to broach it. Ray happily filled Scott in on how big a Gaiman fan I was and Scott grinned from ear to ear. I thought it was just because of their friendship, but what I didn’t know was that while we were talking about this, Neil was coming right up behind us. He reached right over me to shake Scott’s hand and I was dumbstruck, frozen. I wasn’t ready and Scott knew it. I didn’t want to make an ass of myself, but I just was not prepared.

Scott: “These are two good friends of mine, Ray and Jim.”

Ray: “Hey, a real pleasure to meet you.”

Jim (wide-eyed like a deer in the headlights): “Hi.”

Neil (looking at me a bit confused): “I’m Neil.”

Jim (still totally freaked out): “Cool.”

Neil (smirking a bit): “I’m a writer.”

Jim (smiling awkwardly in terror): “Oh?”

(horrible silence)

Neil (turning back to Scott): “Well it’s great to see you, Scott. We’ll catch up later on.”

And off he went. As soon as he was gone, Scott and Ray burst out laughing. They couldn’t believe how badly I’d seized up and how wigged out I was by the encounter. I was so horribly embarrassed and held my head in my hands, feeling like a huge moron. This guy’s work was a massive influence, had struck so many emotional chords for me and I couldn’t even greet him properly or wish him well. Fuck, he didn’t even know that I knew who he was! Unbelievable.

Over the next half hour Scott slowly rebuilt my ego and convinced me that I had to go try talking to Neil again. When would I have this kind of chance again? If I didn’t do it, wouldn’t I regret it later? Of course he was right. I had to try again.

So, I watched for a good moment when Neil wrapped up a conversation and went over to start again, introducing myself and telling him how I was thrown off guard when he came over to the table. I’m so glad I did. We had an absolutely delightful conversation about how much his work meant to me and how much I’d enjoyed the ending of American Gods. I’m sure he has no recollection of the encounter, but it was one I’ll never forget and it purged my fear of talking to professionals and celebrities alike.

After it all wrapped up, I asked Neil if Ray could snap a quick photo and he happily agreed. After 8 years doing shows, it’s still one of my favourite con photos as I am so goddamn happy in it, especially with Neil’s ridiculously appropriate “Learn to Dream” shirt in there.

All this to come around in my own foolish way to say Happy 50th Birthday, Neil. You’re a class act and an inspiration. Thank you for all you’ve done to unlock the imagination in all your readers.

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