By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Vampires drenched in fake blood mingled with sword-toting ninjas. Martian manhunters rubbed elbows with Batman and Wonder Woman.
For the thousands of comic-culture fans who circulated around acres of exhibits at the New Orleans Comic conference on Saturday, the event was a chance to meet, or temporarily become, a hero.
"When I walk out in regular clothes, no one pays any mind," said attendee Jeff Kent, who was dressed in the gleaming white, robot-like garb of a "Star Wars" storm trooper. "But when I put this on, all of a sudden I'm a rock star."
The event, one of several staged around the country by comic book and digital publisher Wizard World, continued on Sunday.
Celebrities on hand to meet fans included actors William Shatner ("Star Trek"), Adam Baldwin ("Full Metal Jacket"), Mary McDonnell ("Battlestar Gallactica"), James Marsters ("Buffy: The Vampire Slayer") and Lou Ferrigno (Incredible Hulk"), along with
legendary comic book creator Stan Lee and a host of comic artists.
Cartoonist and comic book creator Larry Marder, who has published his "Tales of the Beanworld" comics for almost 40 years, told Reuters that at one time the primary focus of these conventions were the comic books and novels that shaped this peculiar segment of American culture.
"It used to be that the stories came first, and people read their monthly comics and were loyal to them," he said. But over the years, characters like Superman, Batman and Spiderman became brands that reached far beyond their book origins.
"It's almost as if the characters were real and they had agents who exploited their likenesses across many platforms - like movies, games, TV shows and breakfast cereal," he said.
Marder said that the launch of "Star Wars" by movie producer George Lucas set the stage for a merchandising industry that widened into toys, video games and action figures. The expansion of the industry made a host of characters into household names, and turned fictional heroes into megapersonalities.
"Superheroes are essentially power fantasies, and the superhero fan has become the backbone of our industry," Marder said.
Fans such as Chris Labrad support that theory. The Jackson, Mississippi, resident came to the comic conference with fellow members of the Mississippi Mandalorians, a "Star Wars" club he joined four years ago.
"I always saw those characters on television and thought, 'I wish I could meet those guys,'" he said.
Costumed as a S.H.I.E.L.D Sniper from Marvel Comics' Avenger Universe at the convention, Labrad said he is also a devoted "Star Wars" fan and has three different Jedi costumes, including Luke Skywalker.
"Events like this give us an excuse to dress up and be these people for a while," he said.
Many of the fan groups build their activities around charitable causes, with members donning their costumes for fund-raising events.
The man best known for his 1960s television portrayal of a 23rd-century starship commander has a theory about why certain types of people flock to events such as the New Orleans event.
"It's part of our need for heroes," Shatner told fans who had jammed into a meeting room for a question-and-answer session with the star of the original "Star Trek" television series and movies. "This is our participation in the mythology of 'Star Trek.'"
While "Star Trek" and subsequent movie series "Star Wars" were among the older cultural phenomena represented at the convention, their still-strong fan base made Shatner a big draw.
"Star Trek" devotees will never forget the actor's portrayal of the morally grounded commander of the Starship Enterprise, Captain James T. Kirk. Shatner purports to be sick of his decades-long association with Kirk, but he clearly enjoys having fun with it.
"Do you boldly go where no man has gone before?" a fan asked him, hearkening to the mission of the Starship Enterprise.
"It depends on the girl," the 80-year-old Shatner quipped.
(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)