Written by Phil Cerroni
By Phil Cerroni
With Halloween right around the corner, it might be fitting to see a few early blooming heroes and villains roaming the streets of Irving. On closer look, some of these costumes are much too involved for your average trick or treater. That is because the Dallas Comicon held one of its Fan Days or, more appropriately, fan weekend, Oct. 19-21, at the Irving Convention Center.
All the levels of the Irving Convention Center were put at the service of the comicon and jam packed with vendors, illustrators and actors as well as number of fans. Among the myriad of infamous villains was Ian McDiramid, the Shakespearean trained actor who played Emperor Palpatine in both generations of the Star Wars Saga.
Down in the madding crowd away from the quiet chambers of the celebrities, there were many new faces on the comic book scene working alongside salty veterans. One of these young bloods was Mariano Castro. After serving in the Marine Corps, Castro is trying to break into a new industry as a boot writer and illustrator with his comic book Life in Blues.
“The reason I wanted to write Life in Blues [is because] it's also a teaching tool,” said Castro, talking about his inspiration. “Going up 20 years in the Marines, teaching young Marines things about financial responsibility, alcohol problems, stuff like that, I thought to write a story that's humorous and at the same time filled with those problems that they need to go through every day.”
Not a branch of the our armed forces proper, but wielding an impressive array of weapons and organization nonetheless, is the 501st Legion, a massive group of cosplay enthusiasts who don storm trooper armor in the service of charity.
“We dress up in Star Wars costumes, and we go to public events,” said David Petty the squad leader of the North Texas Squad, our local reminder of the Empire's iron fisted rule over the galaxy. “People love seeing us in public, and they'll pay us to do it. So [we decided] let's not charge them money. Let’s raise money for charity.”
Their heartwarming mission was enough to melt even the heart of George Lucas, who is known to ruthlessly crush those who dare infringe on his copyrights.
“[Our relationship with George Lucas is] very interesting; it's also very tongue in cheek,” Petty shared the secret of blatantly rebelling against the creator of Star Wars. “Lucasfilm kind of turns the other way when it comes to the armor being made saying, 'Look you guys are doing this for good, so you guys keep doing what you're doing.'”
Lucas loved the group so much that he even included them in the latest Star Was film, Revenge of the Sith. They were the clone troopers that accompanied Anakin on his genocidal rampage in the Jedi Temple. (Maybe Lucas does not like them so much...)
In keeping with their fun loving racket, the 501st set up a station where children could pay to use one of their Nerf guns – ranging from very small to large ones – and shoot storm troopers.
Squirreled away from the costumed heroes were the plain clothed ones. On the fourth floor far above the crash and rabble of the vendors on the first floor were the writers. If they were not signing comics or talking shop, they were all sketching on pads or pieces of scrap paper.
Joe Eisma is an illustrator currently working on a comic entitled Morning Glories. He glossed his backstory and the challenges he faced along the way.
“I always loved screenwriting,” Eisma said. “I [went] to film school, and I worked in that area for a little while but quickly got burnout. I still one day want to write. It's really just about the chance to tell stories, to hopefully write something that affects someone the way something I really enjoyed affected me.”
After leaving film and television, Eisma took a crack at one of his other early loves, comic books, deciding that, sometimes, dreams have to change slightly in order to be realized.
“When I wanted to break into comics, I wanted to be a writer first, and I started looking at it and trying to find artists,” he said. “I quickly became discouraged because of how difficult it is to get an artist because a lot of artists are flaky. They don't want to commit – it's really no pay or too little pay – so I basically gave up the idea of writing and said, 'You know what I'll draw, because artists seem to be pretty well in demand.'”
If the most obviously creative types were on display on the fourth floor, there were plenty of other ones hawking their wares on the first. One such dynamic duo was Kyle and Leah Chennault who, for the past seven years, have spent their spare time crafting custom action figures.
“[When] Revenge of the Sith came out, I was looking on eBay one day and thinking about buying some Star Wars customs that I came across,” Kyle Kyle told the story behind the creation of their impressive toys. “My wife was like, 'Man don't bid on that, we could just make our own.' We started making some Star Wars stuff and would sell a little here and there on eBay.”
However after the demand for Star Wars figurines died down, the Chennaults were forced to rebrand themselves.
“We just kind of transitioned into Super Heroes because it seems like every summer there's a new super hero movie that comes out,” continued Kyle.
If George Lucas' relationship with the 501st is relatively clear, the relationship between comic book companies and artists like the Chennaults is muddy.
“We're only making one individual piece, [so] it's kind of artistic expression,” Kyle talked about the thin line they walk with the rights of both the comic book and toy companies.
Besides, everyone else does it.
“There're plenty of artists here who are drawing Batman, Superman, I don't know if they have permission from the comic book companies,” he said.
It takes between 10 and 15 hours from the beginning their research until the model is finished, and although the Chennaults are not actually casting any pieces, it is not cheap create one of their figurines. They charge $150 for time and labor, and the pieces parts usually run about another $100. So if you want one of their impressive models, you are looking at spending at least $250.
“There's no limit to how fanatical people can be over certain characters they love,” Kyle laughed affectionately about his constituency.
The work of Cal Slayton may be of interest to some of the Chennaults' fanatical fans. Besides illustrating comic books, he makes sketch cards – a very unique cache in the collecting world.
“They'll produce a set for the Thor movie, and they'll have stills from the movie and then they'll have randomly inserted [hand painted] cards. They'll send an artist a pack of blank cards, you draw on them and send them back,” Slayton talked about his work. “[The companies] randomly insert them into packs. So a collector may open a pack and get an actually hand drawn sketch card.”
Not only does this afford the public with exciting collectors’ pieces, but it stretches the trade craft of the artist as well.
“It makes me a better artists; you have to turn out a lot of artwork in a quick amount of time. Doing all that repetition is good for your skills,” he said.
No matter how fascinating the vendors and artists are, a convention would be nothing without the fans, and those who made their way to the Irving Convention Center were an impressive lot.
A nameless shock trooper from Halo 3: ODST was wearing a suit that has not only stopped bullets thanks to its kevlar parts but came complete with smoking barrel and hidden speakers that played the music from the Halo games. The question many people wanted to know is what motivates someone to put this much time into a costume.
“I did ODST because I'm too short for a Spartan,” the trooper said. “I'm kind of obsessive so I kind of go all out whatever I do, so it all works out in the end I guess.”
Science Fiction is much more exciting to him than other popular, contemporary genres.
“Vampire sparkles – it just doesn't work for me. I mean, this could happen – it is happening. The Future Warfighter system they're building for the military is powered body armor that looks very similar to this,” the shock trooper defended his particular obsession.
Jeremy Williams is another fan who was impossible to miss. Dressed up as Buddy Christ from Kevin Smith's 1999 film Dogma, Williams has been working at renaissance fairs and going to conventions for almost 20 years. In this time he has come across a wide range of misconceptions about nerds.
“One, the standard 'that's stupid' – terrible things to think, but honestly most people don't understand that's it's part of everyday life,” Williams enumerated on the ignorant bigotry fans have to face in the outside world. “You look at the box office the biggest draws have been comic book movies. The very phone you're recording on is virtually a tricorder.”
Williams explained that nerds are just one step ahead of standard consumers.
“These are the things they have been talking about is sci-fi for decades, and we now have them. It's the world we live in right now, people really haven't quite accepted that part yet,” he said.
Like many of the people who came to Irving for the weekend, Williams lives out of state, and has not been to Dallas for a comicon before. A resident of Oklahoma, Williams would regularly travel to Illinois for CONVENTION in Chicago. Not only are these people traveling to Dallas now, but they are the same people who travel to San Diego and A-Kon. It looks like Dallas is beginning to earn a place among serious comicon destinations.