In the 1999 sci-fi spoof movie “Galaxy Quest,” Tim Allen plays the down-and-out star of a canceled “Star Trek”-like TV program. At his umpteenth fan convention, Allen is shown robotically signing headshots. When a super-fan asks him a technical question about the fictitious spaceship helmed by his Captain Kirk-like character, Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, Allen loses it.
“It’s just a television show — that’s all, OK?” he yells as the queue of sci-fi geeks look on, dumbfounded. “There’s no [expletive] ship! You got it?”
Let’s hope that scene won’t be repeated at Boston Comic Con, which rolls into the Seaport World Trade Center July 31 through Aug. 2 with its usual sideshow of celebrities plucked from pop culture’s firmament.
The convention, or “con,” now in its ninth year, showcases the usual nerdy panel discussions on topics such as “Breaking Into Comics the Marvel Way,” opportunities to cosplay, and sample comics and other provisions from more than 150 vendors. But an increasing draw for Boston Comic Con is the chance to interact with stars from TV shows, films, and comic books. This year look for Billie Piper (“Doctor Who”), Robin Lord Taylor (“Gotham”) and Thomas Jane (“The Punisher”), among others. (Gillian Anderson of “The X-Files” fame was also scheduled, but dropped out at the last minute.) There are also hundreds of comic book artists and writers, from Marvel super-god Stan Lee to Tim Sale, Scott Snyder, and Amanda Connor, plus lesser-knowns and local makers. There’s even Ken Bald, an illustrator from the Golden Age of comics, who turns 95 Saturday.
Fervent fans hope to grab an autograph or photo, learn some insider secret, and otherwise exchange a few words with — or bow before — their idols. Brave wannabe artists arrive eager to show their portfolios to industry professionals. That’s the view from the plebeian’s side of the booth. But what about the POV of the VIP? What are their most memorable fan interactions? What do they get out of conventions, or is sitting at a booth for three days a big drag? We had the chance to ask.
“I try to go to as many conventions as possible because I love meeting the fans,” says Marvel’s Lee, 92, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. The co-creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and the X-Men says that convention-goers tell him “what they like, what they don’t like.”
“Naturally, I try to use what I hear to affect the work that I do,” Lee says. “I’m always trying to do things that appeal to the fans.”
Unlike William Shatner or someone from “Star Wars,” Cassandra Peterson says she owns the rights to her character, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the cult horror host she’s portrayed for 30 years. Peterson appears at conventions like Boston Comic Con about once a month; aside from her fee, she also rakes in proceeds from merchandise sales.
“My character is my brand,” says Peterson, who loves meeting her “very, very loyal, very hardcore group of fans.” About 10 years ago, she worried that “all my fans were going to die from old age.” But lately, she says, her fan base has leaped to teens and 20-somethings. Doing conventions, she says, “keeps me in the public eye.”
Does the new focus on celebs irk comic-book diehards? Boston Comic Con wasn’t always star-struck. Nick Kanieff, the event’s founder and co-promoter, says he and his team have grown the event from a one-day show in 2007 with 900 attendees to a three-day event attracting some 50,000 fans this year.
“The credit goes to Hollywood. Unless you’re living under a rock, these superheroes movies have left the realm of nerdom,” Kanieff says, and are “now household names.”
Unlike at some comic cons, comic books remain the heart and soul of the Boston show. But celebrities help pull in fans from all corners of the nerdverse. “You can only get so big by being a pure comic book convention,” Kanieff says. Media guests are “the cherry on top.”
At San Diego’s Comic-Con, the granddaddy of all pop culture cons, lines for events can be ridiculously long. Boston is actually a better place to celebrity gawk. But please, behave yourself. Most VIPs report that the vast majority of fan-star interactions are positive. Keep it that way.
That said, some exchanges push the boundaries of propriety.
Jason Latour, one of Boston’s featured artists, says that due to the success of “Spider-Gwen,” his comic book title that’s been topping bestseller lists, he’s now “completely inundated” at conventions. Most fans flock to his booth with words of praise, with some in costume as Spider-Gwen. But one recent encounter left him queasy. In June, Latour released a special charity cover for his “Southern Bastards” comic, which featured a dog ripping the Confederate flag to shreds; proceeds went to families of the Charleston shooting victims. At a recent convention, a fan cursed at him, Latour says, speaking by phone from his home in Charlotte, N.C. “I’ve been wrestling with the idea that a person who likes your book may not be someone who you want to be around.”
Peterson/Elvira says she “never, never” has trouble with fans. “I can have the biggest, scariest looking bikers in the world come up to me and all of a sudden they turn into giggling little girls.”
For every awkward exchange, there’s a moving one. Manu Bennett is best known for playing Crixus in the TV series “Spartacus,” Deathstroke in “Arrow,” and Azog the Defiler in “The Hobbit” trilogy. As a kid, his mother and brother were killed in a car accident. At one con, a girl told him her parents had died the same way.
“ ‘You can live with it, darling’ ” Bennett replied to her, recounting the story from California. “ ‘I know how you feel. You can make positives out of it.’ ” He sees his acting roles as taking on role models. Bennett says that soldiers “who served terrible time in Afghanistan” have became particularly connected to his characters. Recalling one convention, he says, “I’ve had a Special Forces guy cry, and look at me and say, ‘Hey, I watched “Spartacus” and it helped us get through that.’ ”
Fans can be big or small. “Little kids will leave an envelope for me and I’ll open it up and it has their drawings of Spider-Man,” says Lee.
Even minor celebs like Somerville-based artist and writer Ming Doyle, best known for “Constantine: The Hellblazer,” has fans who demonstrate fealty in surprising ways.
“A few times people have come up and given me drawings that they made OF ME,” she says. “To get out there in the world, and realize that people are really reading what you put out there and they’re enjoying it, that’s definitely a rush. It’s a thrill.”Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com and Twitter @ethanfreak.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the year that the movie “Galaxy Quest” was released was incorrect. The film came out in 1999.