A non-geeks guide to FANATICON

So maybe you don't know a thing about comic books. Maybe you don't know your Green Lantern from your Green Hornet, maybe you've never stayed up late playing Dungeons & Dragons, maybe you haven't dressed up in tights and a cape since your second-grade Halloween (not that there's anything wrong with that). Hey, join the parade.

Photo by Trent Thornton
The Rebel Legion dresses for Dragon*Con 2009. Look for them at Fanaticon.

But there's a lot more to Fanaticon — Asheville's inaugural (and free!) comic book, sci-fi and fantasy convention — than just geeking out for the day. Sure, there'll be scores of comic-book vendors and panel discussions and gaming stations for all the fanboys and fangirls. But Fanaticon has got a lot for the rest of you, too, from SXSW-veteran indie-rock bands and a BBC Four documentary, to brainy discussions about comparative zombie mythology.

So pull that Wookie costume out of the closet and send your unitard to the dry cleaner. I mean, really, what have you got to lose? (Yes, yes, your dignity, we know…)

Costuming? Costuming? Where?

In the geekdom, there are few as fanatical about their outfits as Star Wars fans. But while it's easy to gawk at middle-aged adults dressed in homemade Jedi robes or Wookie fur suits — relax, PETA, it's imitation (we think) — over the years, these costumed DIYers have taken their craft from guilty pleasure to true art form.   

Since the late '90s, two major Star Wars costuming organizations have popped up: the Rebel Legion, for people who want to dress up like Luke Skywalker and co., and the 501st Legion, for those who want to look like the Empire baddies. Together the organizations boast around 7,000 members, scattered around the world in "outposts" from Austria to the United Arab Emirates. (There's even an outpost in the tiny African nation of Djibouti, kid you not). But joining the battle isn't as easy as just signing up. 

"These people aren't drooling, dead idiots—they're us," says zombie expert Dan Burrello.

"In order to be a member of the Rebel Legion, you have to have all the components of a screen-accurate costume," says Jada Marnew, commanding officer of The Rebel Legion's Blue Ridge base, which serves the Carolinas. The group will be hosting the Adventures in Costuming (4-5 p.m.) presentation at Fanaticon, which will introduce audiences to the world of the Rebel Legion and the 501st. "The guidelines are strict, because we do appear on behalf of Lucas Film, a lot of times. So they want us to look our best."

Take the Hans Solo costume, for example. The costuming standards on the Rebel Legion Web site require no less than nine different components for a Hans outfit, including "navy pocket-less pants" with "bloodstripes" and a "black leather belt punctured entirely with rows of three holes and a two-prong buckle." And that's just the beginning.

"Some people, say if they have blond hair, will buy a brown wig," says Marnew. "And some will go as far as to get hazel contact lenses and — you know how Harrison Ford has that scar on his chin? — will put a prosthetic scar right where his is." 

Of course, this level of dedication doesn't come cheap. In fact, according to Marnew, a well-built costume can run up into the thousands of dollars, especially for an accurate Darth Vader or Boba Fett molded suit. "I try to make my costumes as cheaply as possible," she says, "so I will shop the sales and go to thrift stores."

How I Became the Bomb probably won't play the "Cantina Theme" from Star Wars. Also plays the Fanaticon after-part at the Grove House complex. Details in the info box. Photo by Kevin Estrada

Though the Blue Ridge base does have a few professional costumers in the group (one of them even used to work with Jim Henson making puppets) the rest come from all walks of life: Doctors, nurses, lawyers, police officers, moms, scout masters. ("We aren't all living in our mother's basement eating Cheetos," jokes Marnew). Many of them had never even sewn on a button before their love of the force led them down the path toward costuming. Now, most of their free time is spent inside Star Wars garb.

"There are events almost every weekend," says Marnew, whose group gets requests to attend (unpaid) everything from comic-book conventions like Fanaticon to St. Patrick's Day parades and minor league hockey games. "We do at least 100 events a year. We go like gangbusters. I mean, it's not a convention unless you've got some Star Wars characters there."

But her favorite events are the ones for charity. She and her fellow Rebel Legionnaires often suit up for local children's hospitals visits, Toys for Tots drives, Make-A-Wish fundraisers, and the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life.

"Besides just the fun of doing this, we're here to put smiles' on kids faces," says Marnew. "Especially for the old-time fans: We're here to make their dreams come true of having a storm trooper come up and say to them, 'These aren't the droids we're looking for. Move along. Move along.'"

Zombies 'R' Us

Zombies are like the Oldsmobiles of monsters. Sure, they're not slim and sexy like vampires, or fast and furious like werewolves. But zombies, by gum, no matter how dumb and ugly and slow they are, they sure are persistent — which is exactly why we love to hate them. Of course, to local psychology teacher and zombie expert Dan Burrello, there's a bit more to zombies than just the fear factor.

"We resonate with zombies on a deep level," says Burrello. "Humans have been involved in zombie culture for a long, long time: from the Vodoun religion of West Africa, to the Golem creature in Jewish Mythology, to Lazarus and Jesus. This whole idea of reanimation, of coming back from the grave — the archetype has always been there."

Burrello, who is probably best known around here as the organizer of the annual Asheville Zombie Walk, will be hosting Zombie Nation (11 a.m.-noon), a seminar covering all things walking dead. Touching on everything from Sigmund Freud to Starbucks to Shaun of the Dead, the event will be both a scholarly discussion and a pop-culture geek-out into the world of zombies, replete with a PowerPoint presentation. (And when was the last time you saw a PowerPoint presentation on zombies?)

"That's the great thing about zombies, you can enjoy them on all these different levels," says Burrello.

Take the zombie-as-insatiable-consumer angle, for example, a theme explored in the 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead. "When I was in my psychology graduate program, I was also working at the mall as a customer-service agent. And if you want to see zombies, there's nothing like sitting at Starbucks in the mall and watching all the people wander hungry with their shopping bags, looking for something. Except these people aren't drooling dead idiots — they're us." 

And then there's the whole apocalyptic fear that zombies tap into. According to Burrello, who's currently writing a book on the topic, it's a common theme in our modern culture, seen in everything from the Rapture-themed Left Behind series to the 2012 end-of-the-world theories, to Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Road. And if you guessed it's simply because we fear the end of the world as we know it, you'd be wrong. Walking dead wrong.

"The real fear that we have is that an apocalyptic event won't happen," says Burrello with a laugh. "What if 2012 comes and goes? What if the aliens don't destroy the Earth and enslave us? What if Jesus doesn't come back? What then? We'd have to start dealing with the real pressures of everyday life, of having to learn to accept each other and live together. And wouldn't that just be the worst thing in the world?"

Along with the seminar and a zombie makeup/sign-up table, Burrello says to expect a few more zombie surprises throughout the day. Best watch your brains, folks!

Synth City

What, you were expecting them just to pipe the "Cantina Theme" from Star Wars the whole day? Far from it. Fanaticon has a pretty stellar line-up of musical acts, everything from indie-rock bands to a live musical number from the local Little Shop of Horrors cast.

For all you Pitchfork-loving music nerds, make sure to check out the Nashville synth-pop band How I Became The Bomb (1-2 p.m.). Besides having one of the best band-geek names this side of We Were Promised Jetpacks!, these SXSW veterans have been steadily gaining fans since forming in 2005. With a sound that falls somewhere between '80s new-wave revivalists like The Killers and We Are Scientists, HIBTB weaves jittery rhythms and blooping electronics under frontman John Burr's romantic yelps. Oh, and they write clever songs about video games and robots and intergalactic love. I mean, when was the last time you heard a band cheeky enough to rhyme "moribund" with "cumberbund?"

On the more caped-crusader side of the rock spectrum is Atlanta's The Falcon Lords (3-4 p.m.). Bedecked in their signature black and gold unitards and superhero crab masks, the comedic hip-hop/punk trio fights the good fight with songs about taking down villains in Falcon City and chilling out on the dance floor of their underground lair. Then there's Charlotte's even more geek-centric, Star Wars-referencing This Is Not The Band You Are Looking For (noon-1 p.m.). With a slew of homemade videos already up on You-Tube, the newly formed folk trio sings songs about their swooning crush on all things in nerd-dom (sample song: "I Love You, Joss Whedon").

And for the theater crowd, don't miss out on a peek at the local production of Little Shop of Horrors (noon-1 p.m.). In the midst of the show's two-week run, Asheville Community Theatre will be performing a number from the hit musical.

The Fantastic (BBC) Four

The comic book world has more than its fair share of oddballs (yes, we're looking at you, Alan Moore), and one of the most interesting is legendary comic-book artist Steve Ditko. If you've never heard of him, Ditko is the co-creator of the groundbreaking 1960's comic Spider-Man, which went on to become one of the most popular comic-book series ever put to paper. His other claim to fame is creating Dr. Strange, a comic book series he created in 1963 that had artwork so trippy and surreal, readers were convinced the people at Marvel Comics were all high on LSD.

And while Ditko is nowhere near as eccentric as Moore or R. Crumb, he does have his quirks. Like how he likes his privacy. We mean really likes his privacy. In fact, since he rose to fame in the '60s, Ditko has refused to give one single interview or make a single public appearance.

And that's where Jonathan Ross comes in. In 2007, Ross — the flamboyant English TV personality, comic-book fan and close friend of Ricky Gervais — decided to take a BBC Four film crew to the US to track down the elusive artist for an hour-long documentary entitled In Search of Steve Ditko (4-5 p.m.). Along the way, Ross interviews a variety of famous comic book luminaries, including writer Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Coraline), graphic novelist Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta), and the undisputed godfather of modern day comics and the other co-creator of Spider-Man, Stan Lee.

While ostensibly a film about one man's attempts at finding his childhood hero, In Search of Steve Ditko is really more of a belated tribute to the life of an artist who has never really gotten his fair due. And it's a pretty hard-to-find video, even in the Internet age. So for those who haven't seen it, this is probably your best chance.

who: Fun, FANATICON-related parties
what: Comics, collectibles, pop culture and more
what: Free screening of Galaxy Quest at the Asheville Brewing Company's downtown location on Friday, May 14, at 9 p.m.. Kick-off party at Scandal's Nightclub featuring a DJ Dance Party with DJ Zorro and DJ Acolyte, plus a super hero / super villian drag show. 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. Cover is $6 members, $8 guests, and $2 off the cover if you're in costume. Also, the FANATICON after-party is at the Grove House entertainment complex, three levels of post-CON fun, starting at 9 p.m. More info at www.thegrovehouse.com.
where: Asheville Art Museum
when: Saturday, May 15 (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. www.fanaticon.org)

[Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]


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