Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Hardy Boys Casefiles - 42
The Last Laugh
Franklin W. Dixon
"I still say comic books are kid stuff," Joe Hardy insisted, brushing a lock of blond hair off his forehead. "Why go to a comic-book convention when the beaches and girls of sunny San Diego are calling?"
Joe stopped on the sidewalk and held his arms straight out, making his brother, Frank, and their friend Chet Morton stop, too.
Frank Hardy turned his brother around to face him. At eighteen, Frank was a year older than Joe and had darker coloring - brown hair and eyes. He was an inch taller than his younger brother and slimmer, although both boys had strong, athletic builds.
"Joe, we all agreed to go to the convention first," Frank said firmly. "Besides, why don't you broaden your horizons? There'll be plenty of time to hit the beach when the convention's over. We have a week before we have to head east, back to Bayport."
"Yeah, don't be so quick to knock it, Joe," Chet Morgan put in, his round face serious.
Joe wanted to smile at Chet because of the way he dressed, but he held back. Chet was wearing a T-shirt with the Green Cyclone lifting a skyscraper, baggy khaki pants that flapped in the breeze, and canvas high-top sneakers covered with the laughing face of an insane comic character that Joe didn't recognize.
"Conventions are a blast. There's always tons of stuff to do and see. Original artwork going back to the forties is on display during the whole con. Tomorrow night there's that big costume contest, and the night after that, the convention dance."
"Anyway, Joe, if you want to meet California girls, why don't you just turn around?" Frank insisted.
Joe turned in time to see a group of girls dressed in shorts and superhero Tshirts pass by, laughing and talking excitedly.
Joe's face brightened at the sight, and he fell into step behind the girls, saying, "Hmmm, this might be worth checking out after all."
Frank and Chet exchanged knowing glances and shook their heads.
"Come on, guys," Joe called. "The con awaits."
As Frank and Chet hurried to catch up to him, Joe turned to Frank and said, "Maybe you could keep up better if you weren't weighed down with all the junk you carry in that shoulder bag."
"Junk!" Frank answered scornfully. "You didn't think it was junk when you wanted to borrow my camera this morning. Besides, you never know when something might come up - like a case."
The Hardys' father, Fenton Hardy, was a famous private investigator, and the boys were also well-known as investigators.
"Hey, guys, stop arguing and hurry or we'll miss Barry Johns's talk," Chet said.
"Who's Barry Johns?" Joe asked.
Chet filled the Hardys in as they lined up to buy their convention memberships. Although it was only one o'clock, the line for memberships already stretched out the entrance of the convention center and past the fountain that dominated the convention-center plaza.
"Johns helped organize some of the very first comic cons back in the early sixties," Chet explained. "He was also one of the first fans to break into the comics business."
"Is that unusual?" Frank asked.
"Not these days," Chet said. "But back then most people got into comics by writing for the pulp magazines, or by working as assistants for established cartoonists."
Joe was restlessly shifting his weight from one foot to the other as they waited. "What are pulp magazines?" he asked, his eyes darting back and forth, checking out the girls.
"They're what people used to read before they had paperbacks. Pulps were little magazines full of short stories. They had titles like Weird Tales and Nickel Western. They were printed on the cheapest paper available," Chet answered. "That's how they got their name - pulp magazines."
Joe nodded distractedly, not really listening. Frank and Chet continued to talk while Joe continued to look around.
"This line is hardly moving," he muttered to no one in particular. "There must be a bottleneck in the lobby."
Chet's round face lit up. "That must be where they've set up Barry Johns's collection of comic-book artwork. This is going to be great!" he said.
"What's so great about a bunch of old comic-book pages?" Joe asked.
"Joe, you don't understand. Johns has one of the best collections of comic art in the country. I heard it's insured for about a million dollars."
Frank and Joe both raised their eyebrows in surprise.
Joe emitted a low whistle. "A million bucks, huh? I had no idea the stuff was worth so much."
"Why is this art collection so valuable?" Frank asked.
"Because most of it's from the Golden Age - " Chet began.
"Hey, the line's moving," Joe cut in. The boys began walking toward the convention center's open double doors again.
"The Golden Age is the period from the late thirties until the midforties," Chet continued. "Stuff from that time's really valuable because of the high quality of some of the drawings and because not much has survived."
"Why is that?" Frank inquired.
"Until the early sixties not many people realized comic-book art had any artistic value, so nobody bothered to save it except for a few artists who kept work that they liked."
By this time they had reached the convention-center doors and filed through. In the lobby the boys were directed to the registration table. Chet suggested that they all buy memberships for the entire convention. They were given plastic membership badges, program books, and small plastic shopping bags filled with fliers, brochures, and promotional buttons.
Joe briefly flipped through his con package, then checked out the lobby. Lots of people were milling around, and the babble of excited voices was constantly punctuated by bursts of laughter. Against the far wall of the lobby Joe spotted a large group of people gathered around double-sided display stands. He moved closer and saw a placard on the wall that explained the stands held Barry Johns's collection of artwork.
People began filing into the convention center's main auditorium, and the crowd around the Plexiglas-covered pages of yellowing illustration board shrank to a few.
Frank and Chet joined Joe at the display as a loudspeaker announced that Barry Johns would be making his keynote address in five minutes.
Frank started toward the auditorium entrance, but Chet laid a restraining hand on his arm.
"Wait, Frank. Let's check out the artwork before Johns's speech."
"But I thought you wanted to hear this guy talk," Joe said.
"I do," Chet told him. "I just wanted to see his collection without too many people around. We can give it a quick look now and slip in before Johns starts his speech."
"Suits me," said Joe with a shrug. "I'm curious to see this stuff after hearing how much it's worth."
The display was totally deserted now. A big smile slowly spread across Chet's face as he stared intently at a comic-book cover from 1942 that depicted a muscular, square-jawed hero in a star-spangled costume slugging Adolf Hitler.
Peering over Frank's shoulder, Joe saw that his brother was studying some pages with an army of Amazon women in metal breastplates and short skirts battling a horde of lizardlike aliens.
Joe moved on, glancing briefly at several pages, but nothing held his attention until he came to a large cover illustration from a comic called Wonder Tales. The cover was of a giant blond strongman fighting an equally huge robot in the middle of Manhattan. A second robot in the background was climbing over a landscape of wrecked skyscrapers. Joe smiled at the clunky, old-fashioned robots, but he liked the cover as a piece of art. The lines of the hero's figure were as slick and well-drawn as any illustration he'd ever seen, and the colors were sharp and vibrant.
"Come on, you guys. We'd better go," Chet said, signaling the Hardys.
Chet led the way to a side door into the main auditorium. The hall seated several thousand people, and it was packed. Fans were standing along the back and side walls. Joe scanned the room, looking for any place to squeeze in.
"There's nowhere to sit or even stand," he complained. "I knew I should have gone to the beach."
Joe turned at the sound of a loud whisper from their right, near the front of the hall.
"Psst, Chet! Hey, Chet!"
A tall red-haired teenager with round wire-framed glasses was waving them to come over. Chet obviously recognized the boy and waved back. He and the Hardys carefully picked their way down the crowded aisle to join the boy leaning against the wall. He smiled broadly as he pumped Chet's hand.
"Hi, Chet. Good to see you, buddy," he whispered.
"Same here," said Chet. "Tom, meet some friends of mine, Frank and Joe Hardy." He turned to the Hardys. "Tom lives in San Diego. We always get together at cons."
Joe and Frank leaned around Chet to shake the redhead's hand.
"Hi, fellas. I'm Tom Gatlin."
"Nice to meet you, Tom," Frank replied.
"Chet's told me a lot about you guys."
"Some of it good, I hope," Joe cracked.
Just then the lights went down, and a pleasant-looking blond woman walked across the stage to the speaker's platform.
Chet leaned over to whisper to the Hardys. "That's Sandy Mendoza, the president of the con."
"Good afternoon, everybody," said the woman, "and welcome to the Twenty-first Annual San Diego Comic Convention. It's my pleasure to introduce the convention's guest of honor, Barry Johns, president of Zenith Publishing."
Loud applause broke out. Johns strode to the speaker's podium, smiling and waving. He was a moon-faced, boyish-looking man in his late thirties with clear brown eyes behind his tortoiseshell glasses. He was dressed in an expensive gray suit.
Johns raised a hand to silence the crowd, then began speaking. "Hi, folks. It's great to be back at the San Diego Con again. But then, it's always great to be here."
The crowd erupted in loud cheering, forcing Johns to motion for silence again.
"Johns seems very popular," Frank commented.
"He is," Chet told him. "He's got one of the most successful new comic-book companies in the country. He writes and draws two comics a month, and writes a couple of others, too. He does Metaman."
"Metaman?" Joe asked in a puzzled voice. "Never heard of it."
"That's because you don't read comics," Chet responded. "It's only one of the best-selling comics in the country."
"Shh." Tom Gatlin elbowed Chet. "Can you talk later? I want to hear this."
Up on the stage, Johns was speaking in a pleasant, slightly high-pitched voice.
"And a lot of fans have asked how I broke into the business. Well, it wasn't easy. It took me a couple of years of writing and calling all the major comics companies before I could even get in the door to show them my samples. I worked hard to make my own drawing and writing better. Studying the work of the best cartoonists and illustrators ... "
John's voice trailed off as the doors closest to the stage swung open and two costumed figures burst into the auditorium. The larger of the two led the way, roughly pushing audience members aside. The man's massive frame was encased in what looked to Joe like blue-gray metal armor that included a breastplate, shin guards, and forearm guards that ended at metal-studded gloves. His breastplate was crisscrossed with bandoliers holding a dozen grenades. The square helmet he wore had a smooth silver visor that completely concealed his face.
The second figure wore a tight red-and-black costume with red tights. His head, except for the lower half of his face, was encased in a tight black hood with a flamelike splash of red across the nose and eyes.
As the two men approached the stage the crowed began cheering and applauding.
"That's the Human Dreadnought and Flame Fiend," Chet whispered excitedly. "They're supervillains from Terrific Comics. Terrific Comics is one of Johns's biggest rivals. I bet this is some kind of publicity stunt."
The crowd's cheering quickly stopped after the Human Dreadnought grabbed a convention security guard and threw him against a wall. Flame Fiend slugged another security guard in the jaw, sending him reeling. Then he leapt up onto the stage. Barry Johns was frozen in place, his hands tightly gripping the sides of the speaker's podium.
Joe watched, horrified. This didn't look like any publicity stunt to him. He started to take a step in the direction of the stage, when the Human Dreadnought pulled the pins from two grenades and hurled them into the aisles. The grenades didn't explode but began spewing clouds of jet-black smoke. Joe heard some coughing, and as the smoke spread, someone in the crowd started screaming.
All at once everyone began rushing for the exits. Joe felt the press of panic-stricken people wedge him against the wall. He couldn't budge.
They're going to trample me, Joe thought.
Joe peered through the smoke at Frank. "How are we going to get out of here?" he yelled, but Frank couldn't hear him or see him.
"This is no publicity stunt, Chet!" Frank shouted into his friend's ear. As the smoke was disappearing, Frank saw the Human Dreadnought toss four more smoke grenades into the aisles, causing even greater panic. People were coughing and screaming and shoving their way to the exits to escape the choking clouds of smoke. The smoke alarms suddenly sounded, adding to the growing confusion.