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Strange Daze 

Thursday, Nov 10 2005
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To look like Emily the Strange, you need a ghostly white oval face, long black hair, a short black dress and Mary Janes. Four black cats would follow you around wherever you go — graveyards, secret laboratories, dungeons, dark stairwells. You would listen to the Damned, the Germs, the Clash and Siouxsie’s the Creatures while tending your garden of poisonous, carnivorous plants. You would snarl and tell people to go away, get lost, don’t bother me, stuff like that.

So I don’t know what I’m expecting, really, at the Emily the Strange Look-Alike Contest and book signing at the Century City Shopping Mall. A legion of murderous little Goth girls with attitude, probably. Tons of junior Morticias. And their cats. Definitely cats. Definitely legions. Because despite her protestations to the contrary, Emily the anti-hero cartoon character is decidedly popular — over 1 million visits to her Web site every month; $5 million in sales of Emily merchandise, including stickers, graphic novels, T-shirts, wallets, notebooks, bags and ski masks.

But only 10 people are waiting on plastic folding chairs at the back of Brentano’s bookstore where the signing is being held: a few young Latina and Japanese women, a guy dressed in head-to-toe black clutching an Emily comic book, two Brentano’s booksellers, but no little girls. Right on time, Emily mastermind Rob Reger and illustrator Buzz Parker walk in. Reger pulls behind him a small rolling suitcase. Even though it’s night, both men wear sunglasses. Even though we’re in a mall, both carry open bottles of beer. “Where are we today?” says Reger, “Is this Westwood? We like to call it ‘the Beverly Hills of Santa Monica.’ Anybody from Alabama here?”

Silence.

“Japan?” a woman tries.

“You win a prize!” Reger digs around in his rolling suitcase and extracts an Emily comic book.

A total of three people have come officially dressed for the contest. Or maybe they look like that normally. It’s hard to say. They are: 1) a woman in a quintessential, knee-length Little Black Dress and striped tights; 2) a woman in a black skirt, a cardigan and an Emily the Strange logo T-shirt; 3) Rob Reger, who is wearing a long, black wig with fluffy bangs. They are all equally cute, I think. Though Reger’s wig could stand a good brushing.

“So. What do you guys want to do today?” he asks.

Silence.

“Uh, maybe we should read something?” says the Brentano’s bookseller, who is kind of accidentally Emily by virtue of her long black hair and fluffy bangs (not a wig.)

“Okay. Yeah. Let’s read,” says Reger, gamely flipping open the newest Emily book, titled Emily’s Good Nightmares. “ ‘Emily and Emily the Strange are registered trademarks of Cosmic Debris all rights reserved. ISBN 0-8118-4771-3 . . .’ This is my favorite page. Do you guys want to hear the copyright stuff?” he says before starting in on the Table of Contents, in Emily-speak, the “Table of Contempt.”

“No!”

“Do you want to know how Emily was born?” asks the bookseller, looking like she can’t decide if she is irritated or charmed, and Reger begins a complicated story about a tree, a knot hole in the tree and Jesus. “And that’s not how Emily was born,” he concludes. People groan.

Emily, it turns out, is based on Reger and Buzz, and is an agglomeration of all their warped anti-establishment, asocial, punk-rock, artistic and otherwise oddly creative impulses.

“She stands for being yourself. For doing your own thing,” says Reger. “Celebrate your strangeness. Everyone has that feeling of being outcast from society at one point or another. Of not fitting in. You know all the stuff that people make fun of you for? That’s the best part of you.”

“So,” someone says, “tell us about the four cats.”

Emily-ites know all sorts of trivia, like the fact that one of the four cats is named Sabbath and one is named NeeChee. They know that Emily is 13 years old. They know that she started over a decade ago as a character who appeared on stickers that Reger and Buzz handed out at clubs and parties, and that Reger has a thing for M.C. Escher and Dali and Dr. Seuss. They don’t know that Emily’s secret language — the cryptic symbols sketched into her books — was born when Reger was a kid and forced to go to church. Instead of praying, he liked to scribble into the hymnals. When it comes time to pick the ?winner of the look-alike contest, Buzz asks the tie-breaking question: “Name the precise colors in Emily’s color palette — aside from black and white.”

Red. Red. Red. Red.

Reger whispers something into contestant number two’s ear.

“Pantone Matching System color number 185.”

“That’s cheating,” says Buzz. Two pep-squad-pretty girls wander in just as he asks, “What is the name of Van Halen’s first album?”

“Dumpling!” one of the two yells out.

Huh?

“Can I have 10 minutes?” she whines, “I’m gonna call my dad.”

“I’m bored,” says her friend, loudly hefting a Gap shopping bag over her shoulder. “I’ve never read an Emily book. She’s probably boring anyway. Can I have free stuff?” She sighs, “What time is it?” The people in the audience look down uncomfortably.

In the end, both contestants gratefully accept stickers and Emily the Strange Disorganizer planners.

“You,” Reger says acidly, peering over his sunglasses and pointing at the heckler girl, “need to go buy a watch.”

What would Emily do? Black dress. White shoes. Black hair. Cats? Yeah. The girl’s a time bomb.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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