It’s a weird feeling reflecting on something that occurred half your lifetime ago. March 2006, St. Patrick’s Day weekend. I was 2,200 miles from home, with two bags of clothes, $600 in cash, and this conundrum.
“I’m sorry sir, your reservation was canceled. We accidentally overbooked the hotel for this weekend.” Said the attendant.
People remember what I call the ‘life-changer’ moments. The moments where your choice is ultimately deciding how you behave and your path forward. At the time, you’re aware of its significance and that your decisions and next steps will change your trajectory.
In this scene, I’m 17 years old—exactly 17 years ago—and I’m now effectively without room and board for the next three days while I attend a comic convention in downtown Los Angeles. You know that camera trick they pull in movies when the background zooms backward as they push for a close up on the actor’s face to show them coming to a gut-dropping realization? If I was holding a coffee mug, I might have dropped it.
Now, a bit of set dressing. The convention is happening at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a futuristic building paneled on all sides by windows, the same site where they filmed the finale of Demolition Man, Instead of going to Daytona Beach or heading to New York or some other glitzy spot, I chose a comic book convention. When asked by the high school guidance counselor what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “Comic Book Writer,” and he promptly told me that wasn’t a real profession. It is, but getting to be one is more nuanced than a court briefing. So for me, this convention is helping me see a future that could be my own if lightning strikes just right.
Snap back to the Holiday Inn, where my brain immediately registers that I’m a teenager, in a new city, and have nowhere to sleep tonight. I don’t get upset. When I call my dad on my newly bought cellphone just for this trip, he gets upset. I tell him there’s no recourse for this, and he gets upset at me. People learn who they are when crises rear their head, and here I was—17 years old and facing my second biggest dilemma in a decade. The first was whether I wanted to live with my mom or my dad when I was 13 years old. We knew where that landed.
“I’ll call you when I figure this out.” Was all I said to my irate father before hanging up.
It was just a little past 10 A.M., and I was in one of the biggest cities in the country. Finding a place to sleep for the night was a matter of odds and determination. Any 17 year-old will tell you they don’t have a lot to be afraid of. Youthful exuberance removes any fear of being kidnapped or killed, and that kind of naive confidence is frankly and breathtakingly relaxing. Plus, I didn’t have much ways to go in terms of finding a place to stay.
Just down Figueroa, one block down and on the other side of the street was the Figueroa Hotel.
This story isn’t actually about a spring break trip that goes totally wrong. It’s more than just a dull recollection of a trip that goes okay. This is the type of life-changing moment that I experienced at 17 years old that remains one of the most improbable weekends of my teenage years. There’s no running up the hill montage or song playing in the background. There’s no falling in love or romantic thing here. It’s just a wide-eyed kid finding himself in an extraordinary circumstance and making the best of it.
The Figueroa Hotel in 2006 aimed for a sort of Middle Eastern themed experience. Hanging banners and warm iridescent bulbs gave off that faint yellow light, which cast the interior of the century-old hotel a Golden Era appearance. The man at the front desk looked at me mildly confused, which is reasonable. I looked like a wayward orphan with a suitcase and a book bag, wearing a black Hooters hat.
“Checking in?” he asked pleasantly.
I am, what you might call, an oversharer when it comes with the territory of feeling a lot of emotions and being open. I also have the habitual issue of telling people the truth when I should really suppress it or flat out lie.
“Actually I’m looking for a room. My reservation was canceled, and I don’t have anywhere to go.”
The front desk attendant looked at me curiously, frowning a bit, “Are your parents here?”
“Nope, I’m on spring break. I live in Kansas and this is my first time in Los Angeles.” Sure, I had been to Disneyland at age 2, but I didn’t remember any of it, which justified this half-lie.
“Mmm, um, well let me look. We’re booked up, I can tell you that much.” He said hastily.
“I can sleep in a broom closet. Long as I can lock the door.”
He scanned and schemed and ran his finger over an ancient CRT monitor. His eyes darted back and forth before raising a curious eyebrow and smiling.
“We have a room but it’s very, very small.” He said.
“I’ll take it. Again, broom closet.” I repeated.
He took a key off the back of the wall and put it on the old marble front, “Room 911.”
“9-1-1? You’re kidding right?” I said with a laugh.
“Seems you’re lucky. The room is $99 a night, is that okay?”
I took the key and the satisfaction that the room I now had was $50 whole dollars less than the Holiday Inn I was no longer going to be staying in. More to the point, the hotel had a restaurant in the lobby, so I didn’t have to worry about getting something to eat downtown by myself. I didn’t realize my luck at the time, but this was probably the safest place for a kid like me.
The room itself was as big as one of those miniature studio apartment displays you see at IKEA. The one where the bunk bed is also a nook for your computer and your bathroom is next to the bunk bed. It was embarrassingly small for a hotel room. At 130 pounds, 5 feet 7 inches at the time however, a twin bed, a decent shower and a place for two bags was more than enough for me. Room 911 was perfect. I set my bags down and quickly hustled back down Figueroa St. to the convention.
I called my dad, told him I had a room, it was cheaper, and that if anything else happened, I’d let him know. I also made a note to not tell my mother because she would’ve had an out of body experience. My parents were pretty tightly wound, as you could guess.
Ironically, the reason for me going on this trip, the Wizard World Los Angeles Convention, was the least memorable thing for me. I didn’t go to conventions to see new previews, I would see them soon enough. I didn’t go to wait in line to get autographs from guests. I wanted to meet artists, writers, and everything in between.
The convention itself fit into a very tiny hall, so it had absolutely zero reason to be in the Los Angeles Convention Center’s mammoth interior. I walked around, bought some prints, got a commission or two and some comics before quietly slinking away from the convention at 6 P.M. Tired and mildly jet lagged, I sat in my room until I was hungry and ate a so-so hamburger at the hotel lobby kitchen.
I noticed the same comic book creators I’d seen at their booths slowly walking to the back of the hotel. I was not interested in alcohol; I spent half my younger days in them with my dad who was a salesman and did a lot of his business over drinks. My mom just liked whiskey and coke, and I’ll leave it at that.
As I walked down the darkened hotel hallway to the back of this relic of the past, I descended into mystery. What strange things would I find behind this veil?
Little did I know that my life would be forever changed by what I experienced beyond that threshold.
The Hotel Figueroa Bar was a kitschy Tiki Themed establishment with a single bartender and a 12-foot bar. The bamboo reeds and thatched roof hung with palm leaves. The pool was an amoeba with blue raspberry colored water shimmering in the pool lights. Iron wrought tables lined the pool with hooded heaters that hadn’t been turned on yet. At a table, sitting alone was a man with yellow tinted glasses and spiky hair, the distinct mark of a cool guy in the early 2000s.
This one man ultimately changed a lot of how I thought, felt, and acted. His impact is immeasurable on the 17 year-old he was about to meet at this very moment. Not only would he influence me as a person, but also as a purveyor of art and comics as a whole.
“You’re that artist, Brooks, right?” I said.
He looked up from his drink, “You can call me Mark. Who’re you?”
“My name is Drew. I saw you at the show.” I said.
About as good a conversation starter as crashing your car through your date’s living room and slapping the father on the cheek.
“Yeah.” He nursed his drink and shrugged, “I liked it better when it was at Long Beach.”
Small talk ensued until we hit the A/S/L questions. Being 17 and from Kansas, he was more shocked I’d picked coming to a comic convention rather than going somewhere enjoyable for a Spring Break. We moved forward, from me wanting to be a comic writer to what his journey as an artist was.
From recollection, Mark Brooks got his start at Udon Comics in the early 2000s. His DeviantArt page was his portfolio, and his love of anime and his styling of blending incredible draftsmanship and very good color skills angled him right in with the rest of the talent Udon had acquired in the 2000s. Mark went on to start working for Marvel Comics exclusively, having finished a run on the New Mutants with and drawn (and in the process of drawing) Ultimate Spider-Man annuals. Brooks was basically a ‘one of one’ type of talent in the industry.
In short order, the rest of the ensemble of people arrived. Ale Garza, who had finished working on Batgirl. Talent Caldwell, who had worked on several limited series for Aspen Comics. Joel Gomez, an inker for hire who was with his wife at the convention, who also worked with Aspen Comics. Finally, Mark’s wife, Lisa Kwon. The table immediately devolved into work and comics conversations, all of which I’ve forgotten over time. The genuine confusion of me being at the table was tossed aside casually. Simply acknowledging I was 17 and somehow in a bar in Los Angeles with a bunch of up-and-coming comic creators was enough for them.
As topics rose up about readership and styles and pop culture, I slowly found myself chiming into the conversation. I wasn’t met with skepticism, hell I was being acknowledged. It felt great, like I’d suddenly walked into a meeting of weirdos who understood weirdos. I most remember my conversation with Lisa, who told me about her life on the road as a comic book creator.
Once the table broke up, I ended up meeting and being introduced to more and more people from the convention. Joel introduced me to his wife. Ale Garza shook hands with Jim Lee who then smiled and shook hands with me. Jim ordered a round, and he and Garza chatted it up. Talent sat down with the Aspen Comics crew, and none of them made me feel out of place. They even asked me what I wanted to read, which blew my mind as a 17 year- old fan. We spoke about what really drives sales and what readers want and need. I shared how I resonated with the Peter Parkers, the loners and strangers in public places. Looking back, maybe in this moment, I had been that character. Rather than developing superpowers, the people I met in that bar realized I was just alone and needed people to talk to, and they were more than willing to share their experiences.
By the time the night had wound down, it was 1:00 A.M. I was absolutely exhausted and fell asleep instantly, despite the adrenaline rush of meeting so many incredible people. I hadn’t processed exactly what happened or how insanely lucky I was to have had it be me.