Heroes and zeroes 

It takes a geek to catch a geek, so I felt eminently qualified to comment on anything that transpired during last weekend's MegaCon '99 comic-book-and-science-fiction convention at Orlando Expo Centre. Some of my most vivid memories are of trips to similar events up and down the Eastern seaboard, which I learned early on are always fascinating demonstrations of the lengths to which some of us will go to put off adulthood for as long as possible.

Little has changed since those halcyon days, it seems: On Saturday, the Expo Centre was besieged by an army of rabid fanboys (and girls), none of whom could have been more easily identifiable had they worn signs reading "I Skipped My Prom to Catch a Rerun of 'Babylon 5.'" Some arrived in costume, their ill-fitting long underwear and makeshift capes hanging loosely on decidedly unheroic bodies. Others were in uniform without knowing it, displaying the long, stringy hair and acne-hiding beards that every sword-and-sorcery buff thinks are the requirements for achieving the Conan-the-Barbarian look. To paraphrase Dwight David Eisenhower, they're dorkwads -- but they're my dorkwads.

Shows of strength

Unlike most of the comicons I'm used to (including the FX show, which this year moved from the Expo Centre into the more spacious Orange County Convention Center), MegaCon was less of a glorified flea market than it was a trade show in the classic sense. Quite a few of the booths were retained by high-profile entertainment firms doing grass-roots P.R. for their upcoming genre projects. There was even an exhibit staffed by representatives of the eBay Internet auction site, who had installed a computer system to demonstrate the web's buying and trading capabilities. If you had scored a great deal on a Kenner "Boba Fett" action figure elsewhere on the premises, I guess you could have run over to the eBay booth, logged on and attempted to instantly double your money.

In contrast to the tasteful roominess of the corporate areas, the mom-and-pop spaces were customarily crammed to the last square inch with toys and magazines. The merchandise spilled out into the aisles, causing regular nerdlock whenever the buyer traffic became particularly heavy.

As lunch time approached, I ventured into the neighboring Orlando Marriott Downtown to retrieve some money from the ATM -- only to be caught in another crowd scene, this one caused by a young fellow who was having trouble with the machinery. Though his "Star Wars" T-shirt was illustrated with more high-tech firepower than you'd find in a Pentagon procurement budget, the 20-ish Jedi just couldn't master the skills necessary to complete a simple transaction.

"Can I stand behind you, and watch how you do it?" he finally pleaded with me in frustration. Swipe the card, Luke, swipe the card.

Secret identity crisis

The longest lines were to be found in the autograph room, where first-, second- and even third-tier stars of the fantasy firmament hawked their John Hancocks for cash. It was somewhat depressing to see Sheldon Moldoff and other revered artists from the golden age of comics going the "will draw for food" route, turning out quick sketches on demand like Church Street Station caricaturists. More amusing was the appearance of TV "Superboy" Gerard Christopher. Remember back in 1989, when a starring role on a show filmed at Universal Studios Florida was all it took to make Christopher a true Orlando celebrity?

In the middle of the room were former child actresses Veronica and Angela Cartwright, who exhibited considerable good sportsmanship by sitting next to each other, unconcerned that they were adding to the confusion of every baby boomer who's ever mistaken one for the other. For the record, Angela was "Penny" on "Lost in Space," while Veronica appeared on "The Twilight Zone" and "Leave it to Beaver." Or was it the other way around?

"We like each other," Angela assured me, pooh-poohing the controversy. "I'm the dark-haired one," she clarified. "The YOUNGER one."

Thrown into the mix were a few Playboy Playmates of yesterday and today, whose presence at such a seemingly unrelated event appeared to confirm every stereotype of the science-fiction fan as a socially underdeveloped adolescent in a man's body. One of my female friends had suggested that I approach a random pin-up queen and ask, "How does it feel to know that you're the closest thing most of these guys will ever get to seeing a woman naked?" But even I'm not that crass, so I instead challenged Miss November 1975 Janet Lupo with the tamer query, "What makes you fit in at a comics and science fiction convention?"

"I'm supernatural," she returned without a moment's hesitation, immediately winning the debate on confidence points alone. In retrospect, an even better answer might have been "What makes you fit in at my table?"

New decade, same Bat channel

Floors Two and Three of the Expo Centre were reserved for special events, including a screening of trailers for upcoming feature films that might be of interest to the assembled caped crusaders. After an hour, it was clear that most of the movies we'll be seeing between now and Christmas will be inspired by classic TV shows, stage musicals and comic strips, and that 95 percent of them will star Brendan Fraser. The announcement of a big-screen version of "The Mod Squad" (one of the few releases from which Fraser was unaccountably absent) constituted the breaking point for one exasperated viewer. "Let's get the hell out of here," he moaned aloud, though no one followed his suggestion by leaving through the back door.

I skipped the "Marvel Comics in '99" panel, expecting few surprises. How many ways can you express the message "We're going to keep cranking out cheap crap in search of lucrative licensing deals?" Instead, I took my seat early for a lecture by genius writer/artist Will Eisner, a brush with greatness that was the convention's must-attend program.

Just as I had hoped, Eisner proved to be witty, charming and fiercely intelligent, possessed of a natural energy that belied his 81 years. His verbal tour through the earliest chapters of comics history took on a particular solemnity when his mike cut out after only a few minutes, leaving us straining to pick up every vital word.

"The only thing that will move a comic is content," Eisner sermonized, averring his disinterest in modern books that exist merely to present images of "bloody swords and steel breasts." I knew exactly what he was talking about -- it was just the kind of "art" I had seen peddled downstairs for most of the morning.

Still, the wise old guy seemed genuinely and admirably pleased to be in the company of the next generation of four-color junkies. Perhaps he knows something I don't about the average "Spawn" reader's ability to grow past titillating sex-and-violence scenarios into an appreciation of true sequential literature.

"Every time I come to a convention," Eisner related with childlike wonder, "I feel like a man who's been in outer space for about 25 years."

It isn't you, Mr. Eisner; it's the rest of us who are on the moon.


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