Comics convention goes bookish

Thousands put video tie-ins, costumes aside, honor the page

September 11, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,sun reporter

It was easy to distinguish the New York Yankees faithful from the comic book fans, both of whom descended in droves on the Inner Harbor this weekend. The baseball fans were the only ones in costume.

Unlike last month's Otakon convention, where nearly half of the attendees at the Baltimore Convention Center dressed like Japanese pop-culture icons, the seventh annual Baltimore Comic-Con gathering drew a more sedate crowd of comics aficionados.

The bookishness is by design, said organizer Marc Nathan, who criticized other regional conventions for focusing on appearances by "B-list, aging TV stars" to increase attendance, and said the Baltimore convention was an antidote to the mega-confabs of San Diego and Chicago, where film and video game tie-ins to comic book culture have overshadowed the books themselves.

Not that there was a total absence of B-list, aging TV stars: The Incredible Hulk television star Lou Ferrigno was one of the attractions, signing autographs at $20 a pop.

Preliminary box office receipts indicated that Comic-Com attendance would outpace last year's showing of more than 10,000 attendees, Nathan said. So, although there were no Pratt Street showdowns between Batman imposters and Derek Jeter wannabes, there was enough superhero worship inside the convention center yesterday to rival that at Camden Yards.

Jessica Weiss, 10, of South Brunswick, N.J., came for the autograph of her hero, Jimmy Gownley, creator of the Amelia Rules! comic book, which chronicles the misadventures of a girl with recently divorced parents.

"It's funny, and it's like my friends," said Jessica, who is seriously considering adding comic book artist to her list of career prospects, which already includes "actress, movie star and famous singer."

Jessica's parents shared a passion for comics when they met as teenagers and have encouraged their daughter's new hobby. "We do require her to read 20 minutes of a novel before reading 20 minutes of comics," said her father, Mike Weiss. "It usually works."

After watching Jessica get a complimentary sketch of Scrooge McDuck from Donald Duck artist Don Rosa, Weiss scanned the convention hall and approved of the diversity of the crowd, which he said reflected the comic book culture's increasing appeal to women and young children.

"For a long time, comics were aging along with the readers," Weiss said, "but now there's a push for all-ages books."

Still, most comic book fans in attendance did resemble him, he acknowledged with a laugh: "Potbellied guys, balding and with glasses."

Weiss said he regularly purges his collection and donates the discards to schools and hospitals, but for the obsessive and well-heeled collector there were about 70 dealers and retailers hawking items, some quite rare.

A worn-looking Amazing Fantasies No. 15, in which Spider-Man is introduced, was on offer for $3,200. So was the 31st installment of Detective Comics, from September 1939, featuring a young Batman. The asking price: $14,500.

Both were described by the dealer as in "very good" condition, but buyers didn't have to take the dealer's word for it. For a price, collectors could submit books for an on-site evaluation by CGC, a company that inspects and grades vintage comic books.

"We're like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," said CGC President Steven Borock, who founded the company seven years ago when Internet-based trading of comic books drove demand for independent appraisal services.

On the second floor of the convention hall, behind locked doors, a team of CGC graders inspected comic books for tears, wrinkles and evidence of restoration work. Once a grade was agreed upon by at least three graders, the book was hermetically sealed.

Borack said CGC has graded about 800,000 books, with an average value of $1,000, and hoped to handle about 1,500 more in Baltimore during the event.

By yesterday afternoon, he had already appraised two repaired copies of the inaugural issue of Action Comics, the comic book that introduced Superman.

Isaac Bagley learned yesterday that he still had some work to do on his own Man of Steel. The aspiring comic book artist from Columbia came to Comic-Con looking for professional feedback.

Bagley, a sheet-metal worker who draws on his lunch break, said that artist Tom Fleming pointed out an anatomical deficiency in Bagley's bulging rendition of Superman's neck.

But Bagley wasn't discouraged. A small publishing house had taken a liking to his sketches and offered him some freelance coloring work. And after surveying the work of other artists in the convention hall, Bagley said he felt "by no means" out of his depth. "I'm motivated," he said. "Motivated to get some anatomy books."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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