Lunchtime at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center: Boba Fett is on his smoke break, Princess Leia (in Jabba the Hutt-mandated bikini) is eating french fries, and the Ghostbusters are brown-bagging it. Behind me, a group of burly knights is beating one another with heavy foam axes.
Off the main floor of the Wizard World Comic Con (held Jan. 29-30), the traveling road show for comic book fans and pop culture addicts, worlds both real and fantasy meet. Anime characters and furries order fried chicken and Coke from bored, bemused vendors and then plunge back into aisles of bright colors, costumes, and general fandamonium for the obscure.
At pop culture's Ground Zero, I am reminded that, yes, even Jedi need to eat.
Wizard Entertainment, which published the comics and nerd industry bible Wizard and its sister magazine Toyfare, announced it was shutting down its publications and taking its show on the road the same week Wizard World made its debut as an all-encompassing pop culture circus on wheels. First stop: New Orleans.
Wizard president Gareb Shamus says more than 10,000 people attended the New Orleans pit stop — and he already has dates set for next year: Jan. 28-29, 2012. "When we decide to do an event in a market," he says, "it's our intent to be there forever."
A series of drapes created a symbolic divide between two parties: on one side, costuming groups dedicated to Star Wars, and on the other, Star Trek.
Behind the Baton Rouge's USS Corsair NCC-26556 (the local chapter of the Star Trek fan club STARFLEET International) are the Star Wars cults of costuming: the Mississippi-based Mandalorians and the good guys in the Rebel Legion, to the national Star Wars costuming group the 501st Legion and its Louisiana chapter Bast Alpha Garrison, its logo a stormtrooper riding an alligator.
These groups and others lend their costumed presence to events to raise money for different charities each month. The Rebel Legion supports the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Toys for Tots and a dozen other charities. One squad offers a "Shoot the Trooper" booth: donate a few bucks to shoot a Nerf gun at a stormtrooper, with proceeds benefiting Dylan Tujague, a 10-year-old Kenner boy born with a craniofacial disorder.
Ben Langlinais with the Louisiana Ghostbusters directs visitors to his booth, where fellow Ghostbusters — donning the brown or gray jumpsuits inspired by the films — hand out flyers to a film screening benefiting the Animal Protection and Welfare Society.
And for $20, you can sit in the Back to the Future time-traveling DeLorean DMC-12 to benefit Michael J. Fox's Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
Costumed characters, toys and collector's items fill up the scene, but comics — vintage, rare, new, forgotten and loved — are the main attractions. The Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat Fan Club table is adjacent to one vendor's complete set of the rare comic The Mummy or Ramses the Damned (based on the novel by Anne Rice). Some attendees are carting around suitcases to haul their keep. Vendors offer $1 deals, or three-for-$10 deals (which by late Sunday had become five-for-$10).
In Artists Alley, fans could meet the artists and creators behind their favorite heroes and villains, or meet new talent, like Kody Chamberlain and Rob Guillory, two Louisiana-based rising stars in the comics world with Sweets and Chew, respectively (see "Meet the Panelists," cover story, Dec. 7, 2010).
On this trip, they aren't pushing their books on new fans; their fans are coming to them. (Panels from their comics graced the cover of the Con's programs.)
"Typically, I'm trying to sell comics at shows, but Sweets has been so popular, people are coming up with more and more books that they bought at their shops and traveling to the shows with their books to get signed," Chamberlain says. "That means the book's doing well, and people like it enough to come meet the artist and get it signed."
Shamus says the Comic Con serves as a "venue for (comic artists) to meet the fans in their backyard."
"I'm kind of surprised there are so many fans here," says Guillory, who was interrupted by a fan wearing a Chew T-shirt. ("I believe this is yours," said the fan, beaming.)
"I really didn't have a whole lot in the way of expectations," Guillory says. "I'm from Louisiana, I've lived here my entire life. We haven't had a real major comic convention in Louisiana since the '90s. I've done as well here in a day as I would've done in San Diego," he adds, referring to that city's granddaddy of all comic conventions, Comic-Con International.
Mexican bootleg Star Wars action figures — mutated orange plastic lumps with, for some reason, glaring red circles for eyes — average $25 each. Under that table: a twisted mound of pink, naked G.I. Joe dolls, wearing nothing but their mustaches.
For all its mainstream presence, with artists from Marvel and DC Comics and guest stars from sci-fi blockbusters, Wizard champions the weird.
A few tables away, boxes and tables are loaded with films destined for a life on the film geek black market: Roman Polanski's Pirates, blacksploitation horror and other forgotten grindhouse treasures no studio wants to bear the grim responsibility of printing on legit DVDs.
A patient audience sits through a slow-paced Q&A with 73-year-old Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars entry The Empire Strikes Back), who faces a series of depressing questions about his longevity, career choices and regrets. He says he and fellow convention guest and Buffy the Vampire Slayer star James Marsters took the wheel from a drunk limo driver from the airport.
"I don't know what he was on, but it was pretty scary," Williams says. "He asked for an autograph, then he proceeded to go to sleep at the wheel. I gave it to him just before he started driving the car. ... I had this vision of myself going through some rail. It was strange."
Williams says he was offered the role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back from director Irvin Kershner himself while the two bonded over Buddhism and "Eastern philosophies" during a long dinner at Williams' home. That conversation turned to getting the role of the traitor-turned-hero — for which he apparently still gets hassled. "When I was picking up my daughter from school," he says, "I'd find myself in the middle of the schoolyard trying to justify Lando's actions to all of these little kids," Williams says.
TV Batman star Adam West opens the Dynamic Duo's Q&A on a solemn note, saying, "Burt (Ward) and I were talking, how much we admire your spirit ... persistence and courage to come back after that terrible water came in and inundated so many of you. You've been wonderful and it's good to be back here in New Orleans. The courage of you people. Thank you very much."
He then deflects a fan asking his thoughts on the other Batmen. "There are no other ones, he says."
Ward, Robin to West's Batman, defends their show's lighter take on the Dark Knight. "We really liked doing stuff for the whole family," he says, "as opposed to a segment of the population (which) seems to like a lot of violence, he says."
Meanwhile, members of the Steampunk Americans, a new New Orleans-based group celebrating the 19th-century tech and fashion found in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, showcase their custom Victorian-meets-Super Soaker weaponry, and members of the Castaways Open Theater Troupe indulge in pirate- and medieval-fantasy role-playing.
Fans descend to the show floor after each panel and vie for a spot in line to get an autograph or photo with the stars — and that's where the fantasies take a detour. Photo ops and autographs with Williams, Ghostbusters star Ernie Hudson, Star Trek's Walter Koenig and dozens of other celebrities all come at a price.
An autographed glossy of Williams shilling Colt 45 malt liquor: $60. A photo with Hudson taken with your own camera: $20. Assistants to the stars shield any incoming cell phone snaps from outside the line. But prices (and shields) didn't deter fans. Lines formed around the show floor, waiting to meet the sources of fan worship. Buffy and Dexter actress Julie Benz asked one fan if he had a girlfriend. He blushed and said yes.
In Artists Alley, comic artists took special requests: "$5 and I'll draw anything," read one sign. Many of them, Shamus says, signed up to return next year, including Guillory and Chamberlain.
"I come to New Orleans pretty regularly anyway," Chamberlain says. "To have a nice large Con here is going to be fantastic, to come back and forth every year."