PAUL BENJAMIN: Writer, Editor, Supermodel

To Algeria… and Beyond!

It’s been a while since my last entry. To some extent, I think I’ve had a mental block on blogging because I felt my post on the Algerian comics festival should be as big as the show was awesome. I’ve also been busy with writing and editing projects, not to mention my Russian studies. However, the biggest offender is probably Dragon Age: Origins (Cue gaming nerd alert). If you’ve never heard of it, Dragon Age is a video game by my former employer, Bioware. It’s a swords & magic role-playing game with an immersive storyline that can change in big ways depending on the choices you make in the game. It’s sort of a self-contained game of Dungeons & Dragons that you can play solo, with the computer controlling the personalities of your companion characters who fight by your side (and maybe betray you if you haven’t done enough stuff to make them steadfastly loyal). I started the game over a year ago, back when I was in Austin. I had to wait until all of my stuff got to Uzbekistan after being in storage the entire time I was in D.C. Now it’s here and most of my evenings after Lisa goes to bed have been consumed by dragon fire. Now that I’ve moved onto the Dragon Age: Awakeningsexpansion (in preparation for Dragon Age II – yes, I’m that far behind the franchise), I’m taking a break to finish my blogging.

Actually, that’s only partially true. The passage of time on my blog, like in the Doctor Who universe, is a wibbly-wobbly thing. I was actually finishing up my blog on Algiera while riding an overnight train back from a wedding near the Uzbekistan/Afghanistan border. That’ll be a future post, I promise.

Now, onto Algeria. While it’s important to have a plan in life, I think I need to officially give up on guessing what comes next. If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be living in Uzbekistan, I’d have thought you were crazier than Charlie Sheen hopped up on synthetic tigers blood (that would have been an extremely timely joke back when I started drafting this blog post)! As those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook may know, about a month and a half ago, I flew to Algiers for a comic book convention. Well, technically a “graphic novel” festival, but let’s not split hairs. It’s called FIBDA! which stands for: Festival International de la Bande Dessinee d’Alger (or the Algerian International Graphic Novel Festival).

For those who know as little about Algeria as I did before I found out I was going, here’s a brief tutorial: Algeria is at the very northern tip of Africa built on hillsides along the Mediterranean Sea, right across from France. Because the French occupied Algeria for many years, there’s a love of big, hardcover graphic novels much like in France. The country became stable relatively recently after many years of civil strife and warfare and is now rebuilding many industries, including the Arts.

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Moving to Tashkent was crazy enough, but I certainly never imagined the State Department would be flying me to Algiers to serve as a comic book diplomat – or, as one notable at the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan likes to call me – the “Arts Envoy.” It all started with a random link on the web. I was on a comic book news site when I noticed a picture of my Austin pal, comics author Matthew Sturges, the esteemed writer of graphic novels such as House of Mystery, Jack of Fables, and Doctor Who: a Fairytale Life, as well as the fantasy novels Midwinter and Office of Shadow. I clicked on the picture and watched a video interview where Matt talked about how he rediscovered comics as an adult, leading to a successful new career.

The video turned out to be part of a project started by comics and game writer Brandon Jerwa, author of (her comes the plug) many G.I. JOE comics, Battlestar Galactica comics, Highlander comics and more. Brandon recorded Matt and dozens of other comics professionals as part of his documentary on the business of comics: Untold Tales of the Comic Industry. At the time, Brandon was (it would turn out) just hours away from successfully raising money via kickstarter.com to fund the documentary. FYI, if you go to the website, you can still join me and hundreds of others with a donation to help defray the documentary’s additional costs.

In reading about Brandon and his project, I saw an article from a year earlier about how Brandon and a few other American comics creators went to FIBDA! in 2010 as official representatives of the U.S. State Department. I emailed Brandon and reintroduced myself (we met around ten years ago when I was an editor at Humanoids), asking him to tell me more about this State Department grant bringing comics creators to represent the U.S. at international comics festivals. My hope was that I might be able to do something similar in Central Asia or Russia, perhaps somewhere like the Moscow comics convention. I was shocked when Brandon asked me if I’d like to join him at the show.

The answer was, of course, a thousand times yes. To make things even better, Brandon was already bringing along Steve Lieber and John Layman, friends I’d enjoyed hanging out with at many American comics conventions over the years. What’s that? Did you ask where you might have heard their names before? Well, it just so happens I have another shameless plug for you!

Steve Lieber has illustrated countless comics characters including Superman, Batman, Hellboy and more. He’s also the artist of the incredible Arctic murder mystery/thriller graphic-novel-turned-movie Whiteout and the spelunking murder mystery/thriller Underground. The mighty John Layman is best known for his multiple award-winning comics series Chew (about a cannibal detective who gets clues by eating people – it’s a comedy) and the Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths series. Okay, enough with the plugs. If you buy comics, I hope you enjoy my friends’ books. Now back to the story.

There were no promises from Brandon, of course. We only had around fifteen workdays to get me approved by the State Department and the festival, secure plane tickets, and get me an Algerian travel visa. I might not be able to go at all. Still, Brandon figured he’d run it up the flagpole. It turns out that Brandon’s contact at the Algerian embassy was a friend from Lisa’s intro to the Foreign Service class (her A-100 class, for those in the know) with whom I’d played pub trivia at an Irish pub in Arlington during training in D.C. She was immediately on board and had an easy time getting the State Department’s approval given my body of work. I think it also helped that during my time at Humanoids I worked on many books and comics that were published in French, including my first published comic book story.

The fact that I already had a diplomatic passport was a huge bonus. Getting the visa for Algiers proved to be much easier than the five visits it took to the Special Issuance Agency in D.C. to get my Uzbek visa. Because this was official diplomatic travel, once I had filled out all of the grant application paperwork, the always-fabulous folks at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent sent a driver with my diplomatic passport and paperwork over to the Algerian embassy in Tashkent and I got my visa in record time. With that in hand, the U.S. embassy in Algiers booked my flights and suddenly I was heading to Africa!

This being my first time traveling out of Tashkent, I’ll give you a little more detail on how that went then might give otherwise. Feel free to skip to the festival if you aren’t interested in the intricacies of travel from my difficult to reach post.

One of the reasons that Tashkent is considered a hardship post is because it’s difficult to get flights in and out of the country. On this occasion, I was flying from Tashkent to Prague to Paris to Algiers. Because this trip was part of a State Department grant, I was traveling on diplomatic orders. That meant I was able to make use of a driver/expediter from the embassy and my diplomatic passport, which, I soon learned, makes all the difference in Uzbekistan. My expediter picked me up at my house in an embassy vehicle with diplomatic plates and drove me to airport. He went right past the line of cars waiting to enter the airport parking lot and waved at the policemen at the next gate over, pulling into the government/diplomatic parking right in front of the concourse. We then went through the VIP entrance (no red velvet rope or girls in miniskirts – it’s not thatkind of VIP entrance) and proceeded to the security check to get into the airport. In the states, there is no security to enter the ticketing area of the airport like there is in many other countries, so this was a bit of a surprise. I handed my expediter my diplomatic passport and he set my suitcase on the X-ray belt while I did the same with my backpack, then the security guards waved us through the metal detector, though I still had all my stuff in my pockets. It beeped for both of us but nobody cared thanks to my magic passport. Note that my backpack contained 1) a full Camelback bottle full of water, 2) my iPad, and 3) my ziploc full of liquid containers. Any one of those would be a problem in the states’ security, but either they only want to look for bombs or they waved us through because of my VIP status (I’ve since come to learn that this is often the case at the entry to the airport in many countries and may have had nothing to do with my dip passport. They don’t care about what’s in your pockets, only what’s in your bag).

Inside the airport, there was a large press of people in front of the ticket counters in what would best be described as amorphous almost-lines. Looking around, I began to worry about my luggage having unprotected sex. That is, many folks, presumably Uzbeks, had wrapped their luggage entirely in saran wrap. I wondered if they knew something I didn’t. If my suitcase met a nice duffel bag in transit, might it end up needing a shot of penicillin once we landed in Algiers?

We waited twenty minutes while a man in a red shirt tried to check in, presumably doing so for a group. As we waited, the lines slowly grew even less defined as people pushed forward to be next. Seeing this, my expediter took my passport and itinerary to the front while the man in the red shirt was still absorbing the ticket agent’s attention. Clearly the diplomatic passport has power here, because the ticket agent quickly printed up my tickets and checked my bag all the way through to Algiers. I felt bad about cutting the line but my expediter said that’s the way things work. When he saw everyone else looking to jam themselves to the front, he did the same thing.

Once we had my tickets, we went to the line for customs. More accurately, we walked right to the front of the line. Clearly that’s just the way things work here because when he saw my dip passport, the agent took my customs form (which my expediter had filled out while I waited in the first line). At the customs window they took my passport for a minute and then I shook my expediter’s hand, thanked him for his help and was on my way. I stepped through the customs gate, now on my own.

In the airport proper, I headed towards my gate. I discovered another security check and waited in line behind a family whose little girl had a pirated Mickey Mouse. No, not Mickey dressed as a pirate, but an unofficial Mickey with brown hair and a brown nose, rather than black. This security line scanned both my bags, still with all my liquids and iPad in the bag. I did have to take off my shoes and empty my pockets this time.

Inside the second stage of security, I walked down the long corridor, passing the young people who were hanging out in the glass smoking box with its door open, clearly missing the point of the enclosed box. There was no food past security, only duty free stores and a bar serving beverages, candy and cigarettes. I then waited at the gate until it was time to board the shuttle bus that would take us out onto the Tarmac where our plane awaited. I noticed a number of Israeli passports and people reading Hebrew books, so I guess Prague (my first destination) is a hub for travel to Israel, though I saw on the arrivals/departures board that there is a direct flight to Tel Aviv from Tashkent. The shuttle bus arrived and I followed advice you may remember from a previous post, waiting until I was the last one on so that I would be the first off and onto the plane.

The flight on Czech Air was quite nice, with a fair amount of legroom. A big man sat next to me in the middle seat and by dint of his size, automatically hogged the armrest. However, he then got a chance to sit with friends and moved, leaving an empty seat, always a bonus! Too bad Czech Air and Lufthansa are pulling out of Uzbekistan. It’s going to make getting flights that much more difficult.

During the flight, I went to ask one of the flight attendants about the Prague airport. I had only 55 minutes to make my connection to Paris and reading the airport’s website, it looked like getting from terminal 1 to terminal 2 required exiting the airport to get a shuttle. She assured me that I wouldn’t need to exit, though I would need to go through passport control and a security screening. Though we’d taken off 40 minutes late, she said we’d be landing only 5 minutes late and that I should have enough time. This took a lot of weight off my mind. She then offered me tea, coffee, water… any beverage, asking me a few times to be sure I wasn’t declining out of politeness. It was refreshing to speak with a flight attendant who was so friendly and clearly interested in doing whatever she could to make the flight more pleasant. In fact, when she came through with our last round of beverages, she assured me we were still only 5 minutes late and again encouraged me to drink something more than the water I requested. Maybe she was a Jewish mom or something.

As soon as we landed in Prague, I leapt up to deplane as quickly as possible. I zipped easily to first class where a different flight attendant stopped me. Apparently first class gets to deplane first, no matter what. I rushed to the ramp, asking people who were spread out across the jetway and plodding along (also known as “human cholesterol”) to excuse me so that I could run by… only to discover that the jetway took a hard right to stairs down to where a shuttle waited to take me and all the slowpokes to the airport proper. I wanted to be this guy:

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But instead I was his lamest villain – The Turtle: Slowest Man Alive

 

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Once in the terminal, I found my flight on the board and ran for the gate. I quickly discovered I would not have to leave the building after all. The two terminals were connected. I did have to go through customs control and security, but there were no lines at either one, so I made it to my gate with fifteen minutes to spare before boarding. That was just enough time to make use of the fifteen minutes of free wifi at the airport so I could check in with Lisa. My flight to Paris was short and sweet. The baby across the aisle cried some, but was extremely cute and expressive the rest of the flight, so I happily helped his mother play the “pick up the binky” game the few times he tossed his toy beneath my seat.

In Paris, I stopped at one of the PAUL bakery kiosks for a delicious apple tart from my namesake. In France, even the airport pastries are delicious. This one had a crunchy, flaky edge that managed to be chewy and crunchy at the same time due to the caramelized sugar infusing it. The center was sweet and juicy. Once near my gate, I found a cafe where I could charge my iPad and use another fifteen minutes of free wifi. I discovered Steve Lieber was on my Paris to Algiers flight and in the airport. He was no longer online, so after I finished my apricot and pistachio pastry (yes, my second dessert in an hour -that’s just how I roll), I went off in search of Steve at our gate.

Sure enough, Steve was there, illustrating thumbnails (little tiny sketches) of comic book page layouts in the margins of a script. We chatted while waiting for our plane, and I quickly realized that Steve had not heard about my recent move to Uzbekistan. Once he found out, I was surprised when he asked me if I speak Russian in Russian! Turns out he, like Lisa, got into a better high school by joining the language program for Russian. Soon enough we were on the plane to Algiers, ready to really start our foreign adventure!

We arrived at our hotel…

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…we were wary of the open elevator with so many of its workings visible to the naked eye. It turned out we were right to be concerned since Brandon got stuck between floors while rushing to catch his outbound plane after the festival was done.

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Steve and I had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, ordering off the menu. I had a decent dish of chicken with mustard sauce. Little did I know it was the best meal I’d have in the hotel all week. The next morning I headed downstairs for breakfast, hoping for a buffet of some local food. It turned out the hotel’s breakfast would consist of the same thing every day: three varieties of croissants, hard-boiled eggs, and, if you could get the waiters to go get it, some yogurt. That first morning, Steve and I were joined by Layman and international creators who would become our friends before the week was out. After breakfast we hung out in the hotel’s courtyard and enjoyed the perfect weather then took a walk to explore the area near the hotel while waiting for the festival to get officially underway.

Here I am outside an apparently famous post office near our hotel.

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The inside of the post office is just gorgeous… as are my fellow comics creators.

From the left: French artist Rimka, John Layman, Steve Lieber, and Spain’s “AJA” – Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque.

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We also saw this monument to when the Mighty Layman conquered Algeria centuries ago.

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In some ways, Algeria reminded me a lot of Uzbekistan with both places having Persian influences here and there. While the Uzbeks had much better trash collection and more modern buildings, both countries have tons of policemen on the streets. Unlike in Uzbekistan, the Algerian police sported machine guns, but I’m not sure if that should make me feel safer or not.

The festival itself was in a prestigious location at the top of a high hill overlooking the city, right at the base of the famous Monument of the Martyrs: a monument to the citizens who died freeing the country from French occupation.

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Admission to the festival was free, a celebration of the Arts open to everyone. About half of the tents were gallery tents where comics art was displayed as if were hanging in a museum. Comics art doesn’t get that kind of respect at any American comics convention I’ve ever seen.

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The show got started off with the usual fanfare, just like you see every year at San Diego Comic Con…

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The bulk of my time at the show was spent hanging out with comics creators from Europe, Africa, and elsewhere, plus my friends from the states. I was already friends with John and Steve, but I got along famously with Brandon. Much of the interplay between us consisted of escalating cut downs and rude comments at each others’ expense. I felt right at home. We all talked comics with this international crowd thanks to help from various translators either from embassy or other multilingual creators. I met talented folks like AJA from Spain and Joumana Medlej from Lebanon and NATIVE from… well… Africa by way of New York and now Paris. Truly, there were too many talented folks to mention here, but if you read French, you can learn more at FIBDA’s website: FIBDA! You can also check out Joumana’s Lebanese super hero webcomic here:

Malaak: Angel of Peace

 

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One tradition at comics conventions is to carry a sketch book so that artists can do drawings for you while everyone is hanging out. I have a mythology themed sketch book full of gorgeous drawings from various shows, but I accidentally left it at home. However, I got plenty of sketches from the creators once I was able to find a story with a notebook. I gave the book to Steve Lieber at the airport to get a sketch from him and will post the sketches once Steve gets my sketch book back to me.

Speaking of Steve Lieber, he’s one of the most talented and personable comics professionals you’ll ever meet and a hell of a nice guy, not to mention hilarious. Must of Steve’s time was spent holding forth on art for other professionals and for locals. Steve talked technique and business. In fact, any aspiring pros out there (and some already in the biz) could benefit from reading his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel done in conjunction with comics author Nat Gertler. It’s an excellent reference for those looking to break into the business of comics.

Here’s a pic of Steve holding forth while he does a sketch of a character from Whiteout. When asked why he always draws the same woman, Steve answered, “Because she holds still for me.”

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Mind you, the government didn’t just spend your tax dollars to send us to Algeria on vacation. We did a lot of press, from print to radio to television interviews, talking about American comics and showing our country’s support for improving international relations through a more unusual kind of diplomacy. We also taught kids about comics at an Algerian elementary school one day and at a center for underprivileged youth the next. Steve Lieber was the real star here, showing them drawing tips that turned every kid in the class into a budding cartoonist. Mind you, while most of the kids know about characters like Spider-Man and Batman from the movies (and even had things like Spidey pencil cases) many of them had never even heard of, much less read, a comic book. Here’s pics of us teaching plus the characters Steven drew as well as some art from the kids.

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In one story idea, the kids made Brandon the bad guy. Here he is breathing fire on the hero’s cloud home. Also pictured: after I showed the kiddos how to use a simple square to draw a Hulk head (about the best I can do), one boy created the heroic monster knowns as Five Heads. I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.

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We also had several opportunities to represent the U.S. to important Algerian officials. This was diplomatic representation at its best, with the Algerians asking us to help them rebuild the Arts in their country and us telling them what we’d been doing on this trip to help fulfill that mission. Brandon gave a particularly excellent response to one official, telling them how one of the school teachers planned to incorporate elements from Steve Lieber’s art presentation into their program. Brandon deserves special recognition for that one. We writers need constant validation, so I’m sure he’ll appreciate a little pat on the back.

While the festival and companionship couldn’t have been better, I’m sorry to report that the food at our hotel left a lot to be desired. The hotel served our group dinner, but it was basically the same food every night: some kind of oily soup with mystery meat, cous cous with sheep meat, and fruit for dessert. The fruit part was nice and I always took some to have with my breakfast the next day. However, we did have a delicious meal when we went out to lunch with embassy folks. It was a welcome change of pace.

The restaurant had an underground, cavelike entrance. Here you can see Steve and Brandon enjoying the soup and couscous dishes.

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Unfortunately, when we went to an exclusive party that night at a fancy hotel, we had an identical meal for dinner. Both meals included a variation on the soup and couscous with meat, just of a higher quality. It turns out the fancy hotel is actually a building reserved specifically for housing and greeting special guests of the government. We didn’t get an overnight stay, but the meal was certainly better than at our hotel.

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We also got to spend some time playing tourist. We visited Bastion 23, a palace fortress at the edge of the Kasbah. The building features open air courtyards and views of the Mediterranean from the tiered rooftops designed so that defenders could fall back from one to the next, always maintaining the high ground.

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I’ve heard that cannons can also help with defense.

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Fires in the kitchen vented through the ceiling so that they could heat the roman baths on the higher floors.

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Many ceilings were intricately painted and the top of the open air courtyards are as gorgeous from the roof as from below.

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The surrounding neighborhood gives a hint of the streets and alleys of the Kasbah.

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Next up was a trip to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Afrique, commanding an astonishing view of the city of Algiers.

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By the time we arrived, the cathedral was closed. Still, it’s a gorgeous buidling and worth seeing.

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It was also fun to see the four different football (soccer to you Americans) games that had sprung up around the edifice. I’ve never given much thought to why football is so popular around the world, but here it finally hit me. All you need is a ball and some stuff to mark off your goal posts and you’re good to go! That is, so long as you don’t kick the ball off the cliffside!

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On the final day of the show, it was time to talk super heroes! The panel kicked off with a presentaion on super heroes created by countries all over the globe the segued to a Q&A session complete with translators to help us understand the questions and to translate our answers to the audience. It was an interesting panel because the questions were not like those at American comics conventions. At an American show, one might expect to expound on the upcoming events in the life of the Spider-Man. Here, people asked questions like, “When you write G.I. JOE, don’t you worry that you’re validating an international culture that idolizes war?”

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At the festival’s final bash at L’Auberge du Moulin, we definitely got to eat something unique: Meshwee. After my previous meals, I was trepedatious. When I heard that Meshwee, which means, basically, “grilled food,” consists of a sheep grilled with a rabbit and frogs with pasta in place of the sheep’s entrails, I was even more concerned. Then I found out that we were supposed to eat the meat by tearing it off the carcass with our hands. Anyone who’s been a professional at a comics convention knows that by the end of a show one has frequently contracted “con crud” of some kind due to late nights without sleep and shaking the germ-ridden hands of dozens and dozens and friends and fans. I was not looking forward to eating food touched by a hundred of those hands. I needn’t have feared. The meat was absolutely delicious! It was hot to the touch, moist, and practically melted on the tongue. In fact, it reminded me of some of the best brisket to be had back in Austin.

Here’s the Meshwee, before and after (vegetarians beware):

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One of the highlights of the party was talking with a beautiful young lesbian. Not just because she was a beautiful woman who shared my appreciation of beautiful women, but because her sexual orientation is banned in her home country. It takes a special kind of bravery to live in a place where one could be jailed or worse based one’s sexuality, but she claims no desire to move from the place she calls home. She’s young now, but I fear for her as the years go by and pressure to marry a man mounts. I wish her the very best!

After the show, it was time to head back to Tashkent. By the way, my travel from Tashkent to Algiers wasn’t even the longest. Steve’s flights from Portland to Los Angeles to Paris to Algiers took 24 hours. John had layovers so long that he was able to go out for meals with a comics shop owner in Chicago and his Chew publisher in Paris (not that I have much sympathy there). Brandon won’t want to be outdone and I’m sure he has a tale of how he had to sit on the wing or something. Well, flash forward to the end of our trip where we discovered at the airport that Steve’s return ticket was actually purchased for the wrong day! Undaunted by this turn of events, Steve moved his flight to Paris up by a day then stayed overnight with our new friend from the show, Native.

By the way, I think any American who wants to gripe about security pat downs in U.S. airports should be required to travel to Algiers for perspective. Here’s what I had to do to reach my plane on the way out of Algiers:

1. Go through a metal detector and put my bags through the X-ray machine, plus get a pat down just to enter airport.

2. Show my passport and itinerary to get in line for my ticket and to check my bags.

3. Show my passport again to get my ticket.

4. Show my passport and ticket to enter passport control.

5. Fill out the customs form and show my passport and ticket to the customs agent at the window.

6. After the customs window, go through the main security check by showing my passport and ticket, getting my bag X-rayed, emptying my pockets to go through metal detector, and getting another pat down.

7. Just past customs, I had to show my passport and ticket to proceed to the gate. The woman here asked if I had any dinar (Algerian money). Apparently it is illegal to take it out of the country over a certain amount. However, you can’t exchange dinar for dollars or euros at the airport (I tried). I showed her my 2,500 dinar (around 20 American dollars) and she let me keep it. She totally could have had some extra cash if she’d taken it, as it is just monopoly money to me at this point. Perhaps I will come back next year for FIBDA, in which case it will be useful to have cash in hand. If not, I guess I will just mail it to one of my friends in Algiers.

8. At the gate, I had to show my passport and ticket to enter the security corridor to the jetway.

9. At the entrance to the jetway, I had to show my ticket and passport to a security guard who tore my ticket and kept half of it.

10. I entered the jetway and waited in a security line. At the end of the line, I gave a guard my bag to open and search. Then I got another pat down.

11. Finally, I was able to get on plane. I was glad the flight attendant’s didn’t insist on patting me down before using the restroom.

Overall, though there were a few travel hassles and some unimpressive food at the hotel, the show was great fun and I had an incredible time. It was truly incredible to talk comics with people from all over the world. No matter how little we had in common, we all shared a love for the glorious meidum of comics! With luck, I’ll even be collaborating with some of the folks I met at the show.

Here’s a few more pics from the show:

Hanging with my A-100 friend!

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Art by an Algerian fan who’s read even more DC Universe books than I have!

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The retail tent was full of graphic novels both foreign and domestic, all in French!

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Boy do I hope this isn’t my and Lisa’s next post!!!

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Not your usual comic con crowd.

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And finally, one of the best parts of the trip came when I opened the gate in front of my house in Tashkent and walked into the courtyard. That was when I discovered that I really felt like I was coming home. It was nice to know that, after just 8 weeks, Tashkent is absolutely my home.

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