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Friday, May. 17, 2013

NERD LIFE!

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The word, “nerd” isn’t an insult anymore. In fact, it’s a badge of honor, worn proudly by those who devote themselves to pursuits that don’t involve being the all-star quarterback or head cheerleader. Hell, even athletes and cheerleaders have gotten in on the rise of the nerd/geek culture that has permeated our daily fabric. TV is full of shows revolving around science fiction and sitcoms with geeky characters such as “The Big Bang Theory,” which includes a recurring role of Stuart Bloom who owns a comic book shop. Most of the highest-grossing blockbuster films have their origins in comic books, sci-fi and other nerdy sources. This nerdiness comes to the epicenter this weekend as the sixth annual comic book/sci-fi/fantasy convention X-Con World invades the Myrtle Beach Convention Center starting today (Friday). X-Con may have started out small, but it continues to grow year after year. This year’s event promises more of the same with new twists, and a big buzz surrounding “The Walking Dead” stars Michael Rooker and IronE Singleton that will be making appearances. In sticking with the nerd theme, there’s going to be “The Geek Dating Game,” a casting call for the second season of TBS’ “King of the Nerds.” And a rapper by the name of Steve “Thunder” Tibbs is having a CD release party for his project entitled, appropriately enough, "Nerd Life." Has real life become “Revenge of the Nerds?” Follow along as we take a look at the rise of this local empire.

In a far-out comic shop, not so long ago...

Seven years ago, Steve Haines was working in a business struggling to stay afloat. Comic book shops were limping along. There were the faithful few who came to the shops. There were also gamers, who dealt in cards and team-oriented role-playing games, hanging around the shops. There were movies being released like “Spiderman” and “Batman Begins” that spurred a little interest in the source material. But for the most part, people had moved on from the pulpy pages of comic books. Haines didn’t give up and when his comic shop, Heroes Hangout, got into financial trouble, he called an old friend, Robin Roberts. Roberts is a bit of a Myrtle Beach renaissance man – an artist, an architect, an owner of an art gallery and a general contractor. “He called me and told me the comic shop was closing down,” Roberts says. “I didn’t know much about comics. I mean, I read them when I was a kid but I had room at Palmetto Studios, so I asked him if he wanted to move in.” At first, Roberts was clearly out of his element. “People can get really bent out of shape about a $3 paper book.” But he persisted and quickly discovered he already knew people in the industry and he became invested communally. “Steve and I did this thing together.” “The same year we opened, Steve and I went to the comic convention in Charlotte and I told him, ‘we could do this,’ and five months later we had one at Springmaid Resort Convention Center.” They continued at the Springmaid location for four years until moving to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center last year - a considerable step up in terms of sheer space and visibility. “Every year, we’d reconvene and debrief, think of ways to make it better each year. It became the ‘Build a Better Con Initiative,’ and we wouldn’t listen to anyone who said we couldn’t.”

With Great Cons Come Great Responsibility

Roberts and Haines are literally writing the book on putting on a great convention and adding elements every year. “The No. 1 rule in the training manual for our volunteers is to stay positive and treat everyone with respect,” Roberts says. “Not just the attendees but the vendors, the celebrity guests, the sponsors and the other volunteers. All these groups have to come together to make it successful and special.” And the numbers have risen each year, bringing in the faithful that have been there since the beginning and spreading to new audiences. “We have ticket sales as far away as Canada. I see 12 year-olds wearing X-Con T-shirts,” Robert says. “In Columbia, people are talking about it on the radio and we didn’t even buy ad space there.” Haines, who has watched X-Con grow and gather girth as it climbs in popularity, attributes its success to word-of-mouth and his and Roberts’ lack of sleep in preparing, but he tells us it’s all part of a plan. “There are a lot of smaller conventions that never grow because the people that put them on don’t want them to,” he says. “We have always intended for X-Con to get bigger and we made a 10-year plan to grow it accordingly, so far we are pretty much right on track.” Roberts and Haines travel non-stop during convention season to stake their claim in the scene and raise the X-Con flag. “We go to Charlotte, Orlando, to Chicago, to anywhere within a four-hour drive or a direct fly market, to make sure the travel time is convenient,” Roberts says. “We sell it to vendors and celebrity guests as a working vacation. We have a beach, affordable golf, restaurants and entertainment. I mean, who wants to go to a show in Knoxville, when you can go to one in Myrtle Beach? We are ambassadors of tourism.” And because of their relentless attitude toward bringing the geeks of the Southeast and beyond to the Grand Strand, they’ve been embraced by the city of Myrtle Beach. “There may’ve been a little hesitation at first,” Roberts says. “But once we started introducing city council members to the celebrities, everyone is happy. What’s not to be happy about, we’re promoting tourism and local artists while connecting with national talent?” Haines says about the city’s support, “It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to grow the show and really make it something amazing that everyone can enjoy.” And the same goes for the support of the other comic book shops, he adds, “We worked together with the other shops in town to do a lot of cross-promotion for the convention. We ran ads and did contests.” “The whole thing makes me excited. I have a big smile on my face about how fast it’s growing. More and more people want to do more stuff,” Roberts says. “It won’t be long until it’s a week-long event. With the enthusiasm and excitement from our community, we all want it to be the biggest show in the state, the Palmetto show.” But it couldn’t be done without the volunteers and there are plenty of them, teenagers and young adults from all over the Strand find a welcoming place to belong with Roberts and Haines. “We give these kids in town a community. We show them how awesome life can be. And they get it,” Roberts says. “These are cerebral kids. They are used to being on the outside of things. But now they represent X-Con. It’s a grassroots kind of thing.” These roots are beneficial to the growth of the shop and the convention, lending voices to spread the word. Roberts says, “There are some local high schools doing an X-Con update with their morning announcements.” But there are just as many older adults gravitating or staying attached to this geek culture, a culture that knows the importance of heroes and teamwork and believing in something bigger than themselves. Haines says, “The beauty of a dream is you never have to let it go.”

There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people

The sixth edition of X-Con does bring it. “It’s still a full year’s worth of work to get good guests, vendors and programming. It’s gotten a lot easier than it was the first couple of years though,” Haines says. “Now, that we’ve gotten six years of experience and we’re more well-known within the industry, it’s much easier than it was. We still have to work hard and that’s OK, putting in the extra time and effort makes the convention that much better each year.” This year, it’s rich with zombies. There’s a bevy of the undead from the hit show, “The Walking Dead.” The actors who played the barn zombie and Grandpa Zombie will be there. They got a guy who played multiple zombies who died in various ways. The zombie who ate Lori and the first zombie to take a bullet to the head will be there. But the zombie-fest will be topped off by IronE Singleton or T-Dog, one of the leading characters of the show, and the racist character everyone somehow learned to like, Michael Rooker as Merle. Rooker goes way back in X-Con friendly films but he just upped the ante by being cast in Marvel’s upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy” to be a partner franchise to the blockbuster, “The Avengers.” (See our conversation with Rooker on page 16). Another act of cosmic synchronicity was the booking of Deep Roy for this year’s convention. You may not know the name, but you know the actor. He has been in four Tim Burton movies and played all 165 Oompa-Loompas in Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He was in “The Never-ending Story” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” He also played a pivotal role in the second season of HBO’s “Eastbound and Down,” as Kenny Powers’ sidekick-turned-foil. He has the nerd-war distinction of marching down the middle of the “Star Wars” versus “Star Trek” debate by appearing in both “Return of the Jedi” as a member of Jabba the Hut’s house band and in J.J. Abrams’ reboot of “Star Trek” as Keenser. Roy was the guest star of a Hollywood-style premier of “Star Trek - Into Darkness” Thursday at Grand 14 Theater at The Market Common. The convention also brings in Lee Arenberg, whose career spans from the pissed-off bookie Mike Moffit on “Seinfeld” to Pintel in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy to Grumpy on the hit TV show, “Once Upon a Time,” and about a hundred roles in between those. And how can you miss a chance to ask actor, Garrick Hagon, how it felt to say, "I’m going in. Cover me, Porkins"? When he played Biggs Darklighter in “Star Wars: A New Hope?” But wait, there’s more. As far as actors, there will be a Power Ranger and a horror screamtress, Cerina Vincent. There will be an actor who played four different villains on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” Camden Toy. There will be a survivor of “Survivor” and wrestler, Jonny Fairplay. There will be Jeffrey Breslauer, who is a puppeteer, writer, voice-over artist, ballroom dance instructor and an actor who appeared in “Police Academy” and “Doctor Who.” There’s also Cyndi Crotts who acts, models, produces and directs. X-Con dips its toes into music as well, when the aforementioned Tibbs, a Californian rapper championing the pitfalls of living the life of a geek, will premiere his debut industry-recorded album, “Nerdlife.” The attending artists vary in form and mediums and feature many X-Con returnees. Tom Fleming is an illustrator for comics, games, movies and TV. He is also the author of the bestselling book, “Draw & Paint Fantasy Females.” The creator of “The Ren and Stimpy Show,” Bob Camp will be returning so, “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.” C. Martin Croker is a guy responsible for a handful of Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” shows including, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Vinnie Tartamella is an artist/designer for action figures/tiny sculptures for McFarlane Toys, Diamond Select, Toybiz and Bowen Designs. Three studios will have booths. Tsunami Studios have a stable of comic book artists who have worked on “Spider-Man,” “Batman,” “X-Men” and like a billion more big titles. Empty Room Studios produce table-top role-playing-game products and art books. Lost Story Studios create comic books with titles such as “Zombie Dickheads” - and will also zombify your favorite characters at conventions. You can only go in a couple of directions if you’re a magazine named, “Stiff.” But it would seem this bi-monthly out of Charlotte will do whatever it wants as it sticks itself into horror and alternative culture. The writers on the schedule this year are also a mix of local and national talent. Michael Knost covers stories and journalist columns in sci-fi, fantasy, horror and thriller genres. Shane Moore is a former football player, former cop and now a novelist of the “Abyss Walker” book series. Jonathan Hickman writes for the Marvel Comics titles “Secret Warriors” and “Fantastic Four.” He also created his own comic series, “The Nightly News.” Returnee, Tim Seeley has created two comic series “Hack/Slash” and “Loaded Bible.” He has worked on “G.I. Joe,” “New Exiles,” “Wild Game,” “Forgotten Realms: The Dark Elf Trilogy” and “Weapon X: First Class.” He also wrote and illustrated the mini-series “Ant-Man & Wasp.” There will be plenty of cosplay, short for costume play or an elaborate type of playing dress-up in honor of favorite comic or game characters. 501st Legion, a group who dress as screen-accurate replicas of stormtroopers and other villains from “Star Wars,” will invade the convention center. The Carolina Ghostbusters will cruise in their converted hearse, ECTO-1 and fighting for parking space with the Mystery Machine from Mystery Incorporated. But if all else fails you can dip into the Game Truck, the ultimate mobile gaming theater. “We treat all of our guests and vendors with respect, make it comfortable, like they’re one of us,” Roberts says. “But we also show them hospitality. Invite them to hang out and have a good time. A couple of them ended-up moving here after the convention.”

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