They conquered America's movie theaters. They seized its television screens. Now the comic book stars — superheroes, zombies and spiky-haired Manga kids — are storming Lexington Convention Center.
On Saturday, the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention becomes the city's first major comic book show in memory. Organizers expect more than 1,000 attendees to browse back issues of comics, games, DVDs and other collectibles, get autographs from celebrities and revel in a nerd culture that has gone mainstream.
"It's trendy to be a geek now, even if not everyone realizes it," show organizer Jarrod Greer said.
"For example, not a huge amount of people have ever read The Walking Dead, the comics," Greer said. "But The Walking Dead the TV show is probably one of the top-rated shows in the country right now. And of course, the TV show started with the comic book."
Forsooth, compared with comic books' Golden Age, about the time of World War II, relatively few people follow the monthly print adventures of Superman, Batman and other colorfully clad crime-busters.
The first issue of Captain America, in 1940, featured our hero slugging Adolf Hitler. It moved nearly a million copies. By comparison, Cap's still- running title sold a puny 47,000 copies in January, most of them at specialty stores that have replaced neighborhood drugstore spinner racks. Comic books have largely dropped out of the public eye.
On the other hand, last year's Captain America movie grossed an estimated $370 million at the box office worldwide. And then there's the Captain America video games, action figures and animated cartoons. And behold, Captain America stars in the Hollywood blockbuster The Avengers, opening in theaters nationwide May 4.
People still love super heroes, Greer said. They just don't necessarily read comic books.
"They're not really comics conventions anymore; they're pop culture conventions," Greer said. "I'd guess about 45 percent of the vendors sell actual back issues of comics and another 55 percent are selling all the stuff that goes along with them — the movies, the toys and stuff, the costumes. You walk in and there's wrestling, there's horror and science fiction, there's reality TV stuff. A lot of it, though, you can trace it back to comics."
On Saturday, visitors may meet several of television's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; Fark.com founder Drew Curtis; Luke Skywalker's Aunt Beru from the Star Wars movies; professional wrestler Tammy Sytch, aka "Sunny"; and Katie Doyle, Road Rules reality TV star turned Playboy model.
Also, yes, there will be comic book artists, including Bob McLeod.
McLeod has begun to write and illustrate children's books, starting with his popular SuperHero ABC. For decades, though, he drew Superman, the X-Men and other comic book stars. In 1982, he co-created and drew the first X-Men spinoff, The New Mutants. One mutant, Cannonball, was a young coal miner named Sam Guthrie from Eastern Kentucky — possibly the state's first superhero. Marvel still publishes The New Mutants, still starring Cannonball.
Back in the day, McLeod said in a phone interview, he scrambled to finish his pages and mail them to his editor, seldom thinking beyond the next issue. Now he travels the convention circuit and is asked by fans to autograph comics from a lifetime ago, carefully preserved in Mylar bags with acid-free backing boards.
Many of the fans are middle-age men who bought the original comics as kids and never lost their love for the medium. However, comics companies aggressively republish their old material in snazzy new collections, attracting some young readers born long after McLeod's ink dried.
"You never realize what sort of an impact you're going to have," he said. "Had I known that all these years later, with the comics I drew, that people would still be buying them, reading them and talking about them 30 years later — it's great, but I would have worked even harder on them. Some of them, I was on deadline, whipping the pages out."
One local fan ready to greet McLeod on Saturday is Jonathan Gilpin, who provides Web support at the University of Kentucky's department of agronomy. Gilpin, 49, has collected comics since he was "6 or 7 years old," he said. For fun, he coordinates a group of Lexington-area comic book creators who regularly meet and compare their work.
Cincinnati and Louisville have developed strong annual comics conventions, so it's satisfying to see Lexington join them, Gilpin said. The shows aren't necessarily competitors, he said. Some fans in the region happily will attend all three.
"For collectors, there's a sense of nostalgia you get when you look at these things," he said. "It's a time capsule that takes you back to when life was simpler and you were more enthusiastic about things in general and more passionate about your hobbies."