If you think Batman, you think Adam West. Likewise, Lou Ferrigno is the primary source for The Incredible Hulk in bringing those comic book pages to life. Ferrigno starred as the Marvel Comics alter ego of Dr. David Banner (or Bruce Banner, in the comic series), whose anger turned the cool-headed doctor into the mean, green, tattered pants-wearing monster with super strength. The series debuted in 1978 and lasted five seasons. But more than 30 years later, Ferrigno still is the Hulk.
"The role changed my life," Ferrigno says. Before his TV debut, the 6'5" bodybuilder held titles in Mr. Universe and Mr. America competitions and competed alongside budding star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As a child, Ferrigno, who was born with an ear infection that left him partially deaf, immersed himself in fantasy worlds: the Steve Reeves-starring Hercules film and the Incredible Hulk comics — and he later played those title roles in film and on TV, the latter his first big break and a dream come true for a partially closeted comic nerd.
Ferrigno is a veteran of the convention scene, a seemingly never-ending traveling roadshow where celebrities from the geek ephemera greet hordes of glossy photo-holding, bespectacled obsessives. He's one of the guests of honor at the second New Orleans installment of the Wizard World Comic Con held this weekend at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. (Not shy of his inner geek, Ferrigno remembers his last visit to New Orleans by way of the premiere of Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace, released in 1999.)
Ferrigno says he'd "have a heart attack" to visit a comic convention as a kid again, remembering how he gushed when he first met Marvel Comics founder and Hulk creator Stan Lee for the first time. "I always wondered what he was like in person, what he sounded like. Back then he wasn't doing TV interviews, it was just the comic books. He had the scroungy voice, I said, 'Wow, this is Stan Lee! Thanks to you, you saved my life.' I was a bodybuilder, I got into fitness, but before it all began I was reading Hulk comic books — I was the real-life Walter Mitty."
Last year's Wizard World New Orleans Comic Con attracted nearly 10,000 visitors, says Wizard president Gareb Shamus, who founded the long-running Wizard magazine and geek bible in 1991. Last year, Wizard Entertainment closed its publishing operations and increased its convention output — it already had bought massive conventions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. And last year, it added New Orleans, a part of its North American Comic Con tour.
Celebrity guests at this Comic Con include Star Trek's William Shatner, Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew, actor Mary McDonnell, and dozens of other stars from cult films and TV series, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Walking Dead. The convention also sports a roster of more than 170 comic book artists and authors — rising stars and award-winning veterans — who participate in panel discussions and man tables on the convention floor to demonstrate their art, sign comics and chat with fans. Louisiana artists and writers Rob Guillory, who created the Eisner award-winning series CHEW, and Kody Chamberlain, author of Sweets, both return this year. The duo (with CHEW co-creator John Layman) participates in a panel discussion at 11 a.m. Saturday.
On the convention floor, the line blurs between convention guest and convention star — costumed characters roam the floor, man booths and tables and pose for pictures. Vendors load tables and booths with vintage comics, forgotten VHS tapes, mint-condition toys and other collectors' items on the geek black market. Costuming groups clad in homemade, film-correct Star Wars and Star Trek outfits playfully compete for whose obsession is superior, and rows of cult icons sign autographs. It's Ground Zero for packrats and pop culture completists alike.
Other events include "Jedi lightsaber master classes" with Star Wars stunt coordinators, "steampunk 101," and Q&A sessions with convention stars, including Ferrigno, who's a steady presence on the speaker circuit discussing health and fitness and, of course, the role of his lifetime. Though others have filled the Hulk's purple sweatpants since The Incredible Hulk wrapped in 1982, including Eric Bana and Edward Norton, Ferrigno still gets the last word — literally. He voiced Norton's green alter ego in 2008, and Ferrigno will return to voice the Hulk in The Avengers, the 2012 Joss Whedon-led reboot that Ferrigno says he'll be wrapping soon.
"I know there are so many comic books where you still have the original Superman, Batman. I know going on the big screen, with special effects, they're able to match the (comics), but in my opinion, it's very hard to compete with a human hulk," Ferrigno says. "When people see movies, they want to see CGI. It's nice to know — I always joke — that the CGI Hulk can't sign autographs, but I can."
Wizard World New Orleans Comic Con
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center; www.wizardworldcomiccon.com
Show flflfloor hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Single-day tickets $30, weekend passes $45