Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mr Nutter welcomes you to Philadelphia

Once upon a time, quite a long time ago, my friend Murphy and I were sat drinking tea in a large warm hall in Manchester, UK. We were exhibiting at the very last UKCAC (United Kingdom Comic Art Convention) but we weren't happy. The comics industry seemed to be dying on its arse and we'd chosen absolutely the worst time to launch a new British independent imprint. We'd sold a lot of comics, mind you. All the signs were that we had a hit on our hands. But there was no confidence in the future of the medium, and without confidence, no one was willing to invest in us and we simply didn't have the funding for further issues. We sipped our tea in a sullen silence. It felt like we were at a wake. UKCAC was no more and, for a couple more years at least, there would not be a decent comics convention in the UK . Meanwhile the San Diego Comicon seemed to be growing larger and more successful year by year. Murphy looked at me gloomily.
"We ought to go to Comicon you know", he said, "Just the once. Just to see what it's like."
"We will", I said confidently.

It took us a bit longer than expected. Ten years in fact (The UKCAC in question was UKCAC98). Between then and now, work, family life, other projects, holidays and all manner of other distractions had got in the way and Murphy and I had never been able to synch our free time and travel arrangements. But this year, like some weird geeky planetary alignment, everything came together. Murphy had to fly to the USA for work and, as he works for an airline, I could travel with him on a 'buddy ticket'. I had some available cash to spend and so did he. Best of all, our friend Joel Meadows (mentioned several times before on this blog) was launching his and Gary Marshall's Studio Space book plus the new issue of Tripwire. We had an excuse to be there. Everything was right. The adventure was finally on. It was all too good to be true. But, with all such cynicism pushed aside, Murphy and I turned up at Gatwick all ready to fly out to San Diego via a short stop-over in Charlotte, North Carolina. My buddy pass was a standby ticket but a quick check the night before had revealed loads of free seats. All would be well.

"I’m afraid there are no seats", said the nice lady at the airline desk at Gatwick. "There were thunderstorms in South Eastern America yesterday and lots of flights were cancelled so your standby seat has had to be allocated. Sorry."

However, a short series of phone calls, emails and whining later, Murphy and I managed to get seats on a later flight to Philadelphia. It meant a stop-over in the city before flying on to California in the morning but we were cool with that. Neither of us had been to Philly before.

And so, after a long but comfortable flight we found ourselves in the City of Brotherly Love. We asked at the hotel where we should head for in order to taste true Philly culture. A delightful young lady called Taneesha or Deberra or Lerneeda or something equally familiar and yet unfamiliar told us, "South Street, man. It’s poppin’."

South Street runs east-west through the Center City neighbourhood. It's very Bohemian and the area between Front Street and Seventh Street is the best bit with comedy clubs, bars, eateries, art galleries and eclectic shops like Condom Kingdom, a sex supermarket. I'm told that during the 1980s and 90s it was much like Carnaby Street used to be in London in the 1960s. There are remnants of this left behind in the street murals and wall art like that of the famous Zipperhead punk fashion and lifestyle shop. It's now moved premises but the iconic artwork and bizarre ant sculptures are still there. So, apparently, are the equally eclectic and Bohemian residents. One of the first people we met was a cyclist in a Viking helmet.

We'd been told to head for Jim's Steaks and the Fat Tuesday bar. Fat Tuesday had a great atmosphere made all the better by the fact that they asked me for ID to prove I was over 21. It may be a statutory requirement across the USA, despite the obvious silliness in asking a 46 year old man if he's 21, but it is good for the ego. The bar gained a bad reputation in 2001 when, after a party got out of hand, shops were looted and the streets were full of drunken rioters. The incident painted a negative image of Philadelphia and has led to an increased police presence ever since. We spotted at least 8-10 cops on patrol on bicycles. But we didn't let their Spandex cycling shorts, tight shirts pulled over ample beer bellies and cycle helmets lull us into ridiculing them; they were armed to the teeth with tasers, pepper spray and real handguns.

Jim's Steaks (est. 1939) was altogether more mellow. The shop was tastefully art deco downstairs and utilitarian white tiled public lavatory chic upstairs. It allowed us to sample the local speciality, the Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich. It consists of shavings of prime steak, onions and cheese served up in a bread roll. It's a ghastly looking thing - I heard it described as looking like someone had wiped their arse on a bun - but it tasted amazingly good. Neither of us could eat a whole one.

The jet lag was beginning to set in as we were now running five hours behind our body-clocks but we managed to grab a few hours of sleep before we set off for the airport and the five hour coast to coast flight to San Diego and the 39th annual Comicon. Ten years of waiting would soon be over.

More American posts soon y'all.


Stuart Peel said...

Nice to see you, to see you nice.

Stevyn Colgan said...

You don't get anything for that comment ... not in this game!

Stuart Peel said...

Any chance of a Stevie bonus ?

willow said...

My daughter lives in the Rittenhouse area of Philly, which is nicer. Looks like you were in spot that is a tad rough around the edges! I can't tell you the number of hours I've spent in the Philly airport.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Stu - Good game, good game.

Willow - Airports are pretty much the same the world over i.e. dull and generally ghastly. But Philly wasn't too bad. Glad the faces make you smile!