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A husky 48-year-old man dressed in a spandex tron costume sits in the cockpit of the airplane and goes through the pre-flight checklist. "Put your seatbelt on," he tells me.
The pilot is Jay Maynard, a.k.a. "Tron Guy," a Minnesota computer consultant and internationally famous internet meme. Maynard is at the controls of his $133,449 pride and joy: a brand-new AMD Zodiac XLi, custom painted to match his Tron suit.
The Tron Plane was recently featured on Wired magazine's website, but that was hardly Tron Guy's first taste of fame. He has been a regular on Jimmy Kimmel Live, mocked on South Park, and the butt of ridicule on Fark.com, all just for being Tron Guy.
And yet as overexposed as Tron Guy may be—you can hardly surf the web without encountering his spandex-clad junk—surprisingly little has been written about the man behind the jpeg.
Which is how I ended up in Tron Guy's cockpit.
Maynard makes his home in Fairmont, a hilly two-hour drive south from the Twin Cities. It's a town of just over or just under 11,000 residents (depending on which roadside sign you consult) ten miles from the Iowa border in lake-dotted Martin County. Only in a tucked away Midwestern hamlet like this could a man reach worldwide internet fame and scorn, yet still grocery shop unrecognized at the local Hy-Vee.
Maynard and his roommate, Paul Neubauer, own a home together just a block from a lake. They greet me in their front yard wearing matching T-shirts from the web comic Schlock Mercenary. "This was purely coincidental," Neubauer jokes.
The first floor of the house is cluttered with empty shipping boxes, old computers (58 in all, of which they use eight or nine), and memorabilia from all corners of the geek universe. Between the sci-fi DVDs and videos, a Lego set, and a pachinko machine, the living room looks like it was decorated by a 10-year-old boy in 1997.
Noticeably absent from the home is anything related to the film Maynard is so closely tied to. There is no homemade shrine to Tron. Maynard's suit is not mounted on a stately mannequin next to glass cases of film props. There's not even a Tron movie poster on the wall.
"Everybody assumes he is obsessed with Tron," Neubauer says. "But look around you."
I'm sitting between matching Animaniacs throw pillows. Framed and autographed animation cells from the Warner Bros. cartoon dot the walls. The smallish TV has Animaniacs figurines on either side. A card-catalogue-size VHS drawer system houses every episode of the show, the numbers written neatly in black Sharpie on white labels.
Animaniacs is much closer to Maynard's heart than Tron ever could be. It was Animaniacs that brought Maynard and Neubauer together. Back in 1996, they met online in a chat room for Animaniacs fans. At that time, Neubauer was planning a move to Fairmont to work for electronic-scale maker Weigh-Tronix, while Maynard was a systems administrator in Houston. They identified in Animaniacs a throwback quality seldom found in modern cartoons. The show was unafraid to take risks and wink at the audience.
From that initial, long-distance friendship, a much deeper bond developed. They eventually met in person for the first time later that year when Maynard visited the Twin Cities on business. The men kept in touch for a few years, until earlier this decade when Maynard decided he needed a change of scenery. Tired of working in computers in Houston and ready to try small town living, Maynard took a job with a Minneapolis company that allowed him to work from wherever he desired. And he desired to be with Neubauer in Fairmont. Maynard arrived on Christmas Day 2001. It's worked out quite well for them. They even share a love of costuming: Neubauer is a furry who dresses as a made-up character named "Orven the Ox."
"I'm satisfied with things the way they are," Maynard says with a Texas drawl. "I have adequate companionship with Paul."
Maynard first saw Tron when he was 22. He remembers liking it; it was the first movie he ever saw twice in theaters.
"I went by myself. There was a brand-new movie theater that opened out in my part of Houston, and I went on a Thursday evening or some such," he recalls. "They had the 70-millimeter print and the gorgeous sound system and all that. It was a really nice way to see the movie, and almost nobody was there. I walked out of it thinking I had really gotten my money's worth out of it."
Twenty-one years later, Maynard turned that enjoyment of the film into worldwide fame.
Tron Guy was conceived in 2003 at Penguicon 1.0, a convention in Detroit for both computer and sci-fi enthusiasts.
"I was going for the computer-y kinds of stuff," Maynard recalls. "The science fiction stuff was there, too, and that was pretty interesting."
One of the events at the convention was a costume masquerade. It was here that Maynard had his inspiration.
"Penguicon, being a crossover between science fiction and computing, it struck me that Tron would be a good subject to draw from. I spent the next year plotting and planning and designing."
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