Friday, March 26, 2004

ORLANDO, Fla. — A stormtrooper taking a cigarette break. Batman withdrawing cash from an ATM. A droogie from “A Clockwork Orange” sipping a Pepsi. A Twi’lek Jedi master hailing a cab. Even Disney World and Universal Studios Florida couldn’t compete with the eclectically costumed characters who spontaneously appeared at the 2004 MegaCon.

Held at the Orange County Convention Center, the three-day fest lived up to its reputation as the purest of popular-culture events by offering almost 20,000 participants the chance to bond and to saturate themselves in the worlds of film, television, science fiction, fantasy, comic books, animation and role-playing games.

Zadzooks made his annual trek to the Sunshine State and offers the following observations of the frenzied fans and personalities:

• At first, I was disturbed by the lack of heavyweight comic-book publishers at the year’s first major comic-book convention. There was just one large display, by CrossGen Entertainment, and a booth from Antarctic Press, but that did not stop an avalanche of sequential-art luminaries from attending. Fans in the know could find stars such as Wonder Woman artist Phil Jimenez, cover creator extraordinaire Kaare Andrews, Daredevil artist-writer David Mack and golden-age Flash artist Harry Lampert hanging out at tables, ready to do a sketch or sign a book.

• The man I credit for single-handedly keeping the non-sports trading-card business alive for the past nine years, Allan Caplan, president and chief executive of Inkworks, was once again at the show. So were his troops, who passed out promotional cards and touted their upcoming licensed card sets of Scooby-Doo 2, the Simpsons, Hellboy, Charmed, Catwoman and Aliens vs. Predator.

Mr. Caplan attributes his success to dogged perseverance and giving fans what they want.

“I don’t ever say quit; I never say die,” Mr. Caplan said. “We should have legitimately been out of business three years ago. We just kept doing it. We have a great marketing team that once a month talks to over 8,000 retailers about every product we do. We also know what people like.

“They want clean, crisp pictures; they want well-written backs of cards and autographs of the major stars,” he said. “We pay our printers more than anyone else and offer great customer service. To keep this industry alive, you must give people what you promise them.”

Despite the success, his only regret is not locking up the Pokemon license when he had the chance.

“If I had grabbed that, we wouldn’t be talking right now — I would be retired,” Mr. Caplan said.

• Vendors were as eclectic as the fans’ costumes. Buyers were able to purchase just about everything, including name tags with LED messages, colorful cellular phone covers, fairy wings, Slim Jims, “Dawn of the Dead” shot glasses — and Kenner’s 1992 Bull Alien action figure with head-ramming capability, priced at a mere $4.50.

• Celebrity firepower during the three days included the entire cast of the original “Lost in Space” television show, minus the departed Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith); “Smallville” ace reporter Allison Mack; and Brad Dourif, who was seen displaying the same disposition as his “Lord of the Rings” alter ego, Grima Wormtongue.

Although he willingly greeted fans, posed for pictures and signed autographs for $20, he shied away from any press interviews — much as Grima might while running into Gandalf the White — because of an unexplained controversy. Do not despair, Mr. Dourif. I am sure Peter Jackson will unroll your cut scenes in the mega-extended “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” DVD release this fall to quell your internal controversy.

• Artist James O’Barr may have looked as resigned and mellow as ever when discussing the media plight of his tortured comic-book character, the Crow, but a flame of disdain continues to burn inside him. During a panel discussion, he spent most of the time expressing his disgust for the way the old men of Hollywood sit around a big table and adapt original material to the big screen.

“If art creeps into your movie, it’s by mistake,” he said. At one point, he even was told by a producer that a musical “The Crow” — starring Michael Jackson — was being considered.

Mr. O’Barr did manage to sneak in a few fond memories about working with a very dedicated Brandon Lee during the shooting of the 1994 film, which adapted his story of Eric, who comes back from the dead to wreak revenge upon his killers. He also considered the first film a fairly faithful retelling of his tragic series, considering that the hero of the comic became known for shooting morphine into his head and cutting his arms with razors.

• The saddest moment had to be seeing a forlorn former commander of an Enterprise, Walter Koenig (“Star Trek’s” Pavel Chekov), sitting in the corner of a vendor booth waiting for anyone not only to recognize him, but plop down some cash for an autograph, too.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016, fax 202/269-1853, e-mail, or write to Joseph Szadkowski/The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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