Heaven In Aviles

I'd been in Spain a matter of hours. The wife and I had wandered from our hotel to the square where the festival would be held, and we'd just sat down at a cafe to mingle with the show's organizers. I was enjoying my first ever Spanish beer. A woman sat down next to me, and we began chatting. She was a cartoonist, a guest of the show as well. She said her name was Melinda. We were having a perfectly lovely conversation. As we talked, I very slowly started to figure out who she was. Then I mentioned something about my series "Scalped," and she very suddenly realized who I was. And next thing I knew, I was having a rather frank, heartfelt, at times awkward yet ultimately pleasant conversation with artist Melinda Gebbie about some of my comments regarding her husband, Alan Moore.

If my first ever conversation in Spain was any judge, this was bound to be a week full of surprises.

Located in northern Spain, Aviles is the third-largest town in the Principality of Asturias. For 16 years, it's been home to an international comic book festival run by Jorge Ivan Argiz. Jorge was 21 years old when he started the Jornadas de Comic de la Villa de Aviles. He was hosting a local radio show about comics when he first talked to the town about the idea of hosting a gathering. The festival that was born and that has grown and flourished there over these last 16 years has become something quite unlike any other convention I've ever been to or heard about anywhere else in the world.

The festival is paid for by the town itself. There is no convention center. There are no ticket prices. The show does not make any money. It is more a celebration of the arts, as sponsored by the people and the town government of Aviles. The show takes place in one of the main town squares, in the old part of town. And by old, I mean cobblestone streets lined with gorgeous archways and churches and fountains that date to the 13th century. There's a tent set up with a few vendors selling comics, there's a state-of-the-art cultural center where panels and press conferences are held. But for the most part, the show takes place at a nearby cafe. Guests sits at tables with fans, chatting and drinking. While I was signing stacks of "Scalped" and "Lobezno" (Spanish for Wolverine, I quickly learned), nearby Tony Harris and Rafael Albuquerque were sketching away. It didn't look like any convention I'd ever seen. It looked instead like just a bunch of friends hanging out. Which is exactly what it is, I soon realized.

I have no idea what the total attendance for the show is. Compared to most conventions I've been to, it's small. But the experience, for those fans, and the creators as well, is unparalleled. Suffice to say, by the end of the week, I had met and spoken with practically every fan in attendance and knew most of them by name. Compared to the hustle and bustle of something like San Diego, where you meet and greet loads more people but barely have time to make any sort of real connection with any of them, this was a whole different world. This was like being on a cruise with a small group of people. By the end of the week, I hadn't just signed some books and shaken some hands. Instead, I walked away from Aviles feeling like I'd shared quality time with many people and made some new friends along the way.

My typical day at the week-long festival went like this. Wake up around 11. Wander down to the cafe to drink and sign books and chat with people from all over the world. The fans came from all parts of Spain, and most of them had been attending for years. There was a contingent of French fans as well, who I sent home with huge stacks of signed "Scalped." The guests were from all over. There was the charming and talented Rafael Albuquerque and his lovely girlfriend Deb, both from Brazil; Irish artist John McCrea, who within minutes had become one of my new favorite people in the world; British artist Mark Buckingham, who's been coming to the show for years, and even met his wife there; Scottish artist Gary Erskine; American Kung Fu aficionado Ric Meyers; the aforementioned Tony Harris, from Macon, Georgia, and loads of other artists from France and Spain. At the cafe, everyone would just sit and mingle. The fans were all very polite, always offering to buy you drinks. As comic books shows go, this was as laid back and relaxing as you could possibly get.

Around 1 or 2 o'clock, we'd head to lunch. A big group of us, a group that got bigger and bigger as the week went on. Every meal we ate consisted of three courses. Lots of wine and veal and ham and beef with cream. Fabada, a delicious local staple, a sort of stew with beans and blood sausage. Loads of papas fritas. A distinctive-tasting local cider that the waiter would pour from way up in the air. And one night, whiskey cake. Every meal lasted three hours. At least. Seriously. We ate and talked and drank and talked some more. I chatted up legendary writer Steve Englehart about his experiences working in Marvel style. I watched a video of a boa constrictor eating a giant iguana that artist rep Renee Witterstaetter had shot in Costa Rica. I quizzed Ric Meyers on his favorite Kung Fu flicks. I made fast friends with Diego Cruz, who speaks eight languages and has been the festival's official translator for 15 years. Every meal is apparently like a big party in Spain, and we all certainly partied our share. My return flight home no doubt required more fuel than my flight over, due to the many extra pounds I picked up in Aviles courtesy of those three hour meals. But it was worth it.

After lunch, I'd stagger back to the cafe, all bloated with food, or maybe back to the hotel for a bit of siesta. At some point during the week, each guest had their own panel where Diego would sit next to you, whispering in your ear, translating everything as it was said, then scribbling notes as you talked and translating your reply. I'd never seen anything like that up close, and it was quite amazing to watch.

Usually around 10 PM, we'd start gathering for dinner, then head off for another three-hour meal. By the time we made it back to the square, around 1 AM, there'd be a bar open in the tent, where fans and guests would mingle and drink together until the wee hours of the morning. I saw some things in that tent I will never forget. I saw someone make the mistake of passing out in the same room as John McCrea and Tony Harris and, no surprise, waking the next morning to find strange and obscene things drawn on their face. I saw Tony, out of frustration, tie his right hand to his pants with a bandana, though you'll have to ask me sometime when we're both drinking before I can tell you exactly why. I saw Ric bend a spoon into a corkscrew. I saw the artist of "Blacksad" dance. I drank some sort of Spanish moonshine that tasted like lighter fluid. My wife took to calling the bartender "El Diablo," which he didn't seem to mind. Later in the week, after R.M. Guera, my amazing collaborator on "Scalped" had arrived, he and I stood just outside that tent and I pitched him on an insane idea for our next project. Thankfully, he was just crazy enough, or drunk enough, or perhaps both, to be into it.

Come 5 AM each morning, I'd wander back to my hotel. The little cobblestone streets would be all deserted. It'd be like something out of a movie.

At the end of the week, as part of the closing ceremonies, there are awards given. First were the Spanish critics awards, where "Scalped" (or "Scalp-ed," as the Spanish pronounce it) made a clean sweep. I won Best Foreign Writer, apparently for the second year in a row, Guera won Best Foreign Artist (Guera lives in Spain but he's actually Serbian) and "Scalped" won Best Foreign Series. A totally unexpected surprise. Then, the festival gives its own awards, all named after past guests. I had been gunning all week for the Ron Garney Award, which goes to the best looking comic creator, but shockingly, I lost. I instead took home the Brian Azzarello Award, which is given to the "best night owl," I believe was how they phrased it. That basically just means that I stayed up the latest and drank the most. Tony Harris and I had been battling it out for that award all week, but then he stumbled by falling asleep early one night and I managed to pull ahead. Tony instead won the George Perez Award for the festival's coolest guest. Which reminds me...

You know who's awesome? Tony fucking Harris.

That dude was up every night to the wee hours, chugging whiskey, chatting with fans and making us all laugh our asses off, staying up way later than almost everyone (everyone but your Brian Azzarello Award winner, here), but come the next morning, he was always the first motherfucker at the cafe doing sketches. He sketched his ass off all week and was an absolute blast to be around, and the fans loved him for it. That final night in the tent, in the last few hours before the dawn, Tony shouted out one final goodbye to the fans who were there, and they all began chanting his name. It was something to see.

I've never felt like that at the end of a show, where I honestly did not want to leave.

My wife, meanwhile, was in tears, though the good kind. It was the first time in Spain for either one of us -- first time in Europe -- and my wife had certainly made the most of the trip. She'd won the award given to the best comic creator's spouse or significant other and had made several new friends. She bought a copy of "Lost Girls" to ask Melinda Gebbie to sign, and Melinda drew an amazing portrait of my wife on the inside cover.

Melinda, I'd like to point out, is a thoroughly charming and delightfully gleeful lady, and I'm truly glad we had the chance to meet and talk.

My wife hated to leave. We all hated to leave. At our last dinner together, some of us made a toast to Jorge and the show's organizers, thanking them for showing us such an amazing time. Tony said something about how he wished other shows could be more like Aviles, and while I agree with the sentiment, I ultimately don't think that's possible. The festival in Aviles is so magical because it's so unique. It manages to take the best parts of most other shows, those laid-back after-hours moments, and makes those the entire show. It doesn't do it for money or profit. It does it for love of comics and love of the town. It is as pure and perfect a show as I can imagine, and I hope to God it never changes.

If you don't believe me, go see for yourself. I guarantee you I'll be right there with you.

Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series "Scalped" for DC/Vertigo and "Wolverine," "Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine" and "PunisherMAX" for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.

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