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Cover Story

Comic Craze

6/10/2015

Dajuan Kinney is not your average mother. Kinney loves to sew, but she doesn’t make quilts or simply repair the holes that inevitably appear in her 4-year-old kid’s jeans. Instead, Kinney spends her time sewing costumes for her family, friends and anyone else who asks for one through her Etsy shop. And while many moms will take their kids to the park or drop them off at a friend’s house for a slumber party this weekend, Kinney will be taking her son to meet some of his favorite comic book superheroes.

Kinney loves dressing up, and when she heard about comic conventions, she knew right away it would be something she’d enjoy. Her first convention was the Stars Wars Celebration in Indianapolis in 2005, where she met her husband. Now, comic cons are a family affair for Kinney, her husband Doug and their son Colin. Although Colin is only 4 years old, he’ll attend his third convention this weekend at Wizard World Comic Con, held at the Iowa Events Center June 12-14.

 

Dress-up for all ages

When the first comic conventions were held in the 1970s, they mostly attracted adult men who shared a love for comics. The San Diego Comic-Con International, which is one of the largest comic cons in the world, was founded by five men, and it was largely considered a male-dominated event.

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Dajuan Kinney dresses as Princess Leia, while her son Colin dresses as Luke Skywalker. Both costumes were made by Kinney.

Dajuan Kinney dresses as Princess Leia, while her son Colin dresses as Luke Skywalker. Both costumes were made by Kinney.

Those fans who attended cons were often deemed “nerds” or “geeks” in a derogatory sense, considered to be uncool for their intense interest in the world of comic books.

That has changed through the years as comic cons continue to grow and fans embrace their inner “nerd.” Shows like “The Big Bang Theory” have helped to put a positive spin on the term, and people now boast of “nerding out” on their favorite TV shows, movies and comic books.

Comic cons have become a place for men and women of all ages, from small children to grandparents, and they all come for different reasons. For Kinney, an Ankeny resident, it began with her love of dressing up.

“Ever since I was a kid, I loved Halloween — just to play dress-up and be somebody else for a day,” she said. “Once ‘Star Wars’ — the new movies — came out, I was like, ‘I can do this costume and wear it for three days around Halloween!’ ”

Kinney learned of the conventions and costuming by talking to other fans online. She saw all the costumes they had and wondered where they wore them.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’d be fun! More opportunities to pretend to be someone else for a day,’ ” Kinney said. “And so it kind of just grew out of that, because I wanted an excuse to be somebody else. Because it’s fun to dress up occasionally and just pretend you’re another character.”

Kinney created her first intricate costume after “Star Wars” in 1999, and in 2013 she started selling orders online. Most items she makes herself, manipulating patterns to get the design right for her vision. For other hardware items, such as fake weapons or helmets, she buys or trades with other sellers online.

She has made costumes for Colin and her friends. Kinney said her favorite costume to make was for a friend who wanted to be an Ewok.

“My friend is like 6-foot-5, give or take,” she said, explaining that Ewoks are about 2 to 3 feet tall. After a little creative thinking, she made the costume with one Ewok standing on the other’s shoulders.

Dajuan Kinney makes all of her own costumes, including this Iron Man outfit she will be wearing at Wizard World Comic Con Des Moines.

Dajuan Kinney makes all of her own costumes, including this Iron Man outfit she will be wearing at Wizard World Comic Con Des Moines.

“We ended up winning the judge’s favorite in the costume contest,” she said.

The costumes and opportunities to meet other fans in person are Kinney’s favorite part of comic cons. There are many reasons to attend cons, but for most fans, meeting their favorite characters in person is the most exciting part.

The same goes for the many celebrities who appear at conventions every year — it’s an opportunity to shake the hands of the people who helped them get there.

Cassandra Peterson — Elvira

After spending many years on the comic con circuit, Cassandra Peterson, known to many as Elvira, has seen firsthand the growing number of women who attend the events.

When “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” gained popularity in the early 1980s, Peterson would appear at various car shows to sign autographs. “Why those went together, I have no idea,” she said, laughing at the thought.

Car shows eventually turned into comic cons when Peterson heard about the San Diego Comic-Con International.

Cassandra Peterson first took on the character of Elvira in the TV show “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” in 1981.

Cassandra Peterson first took on the character of Elvira in the TV show “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” in 1981.

“When I first went to it — it was really funny — I think it was in the basement of a motel or hotel, and it was really small,” Peterson said. “And I swear to God, I think I was the only woman there; it was all guys. Nowadays, when I go to comic cons it’s at least 50 percent women, which is so great to see, because at one time, being a nerd was just a guy’s thing.”

Elvira’s fan base includes a wide variety of people, and after close to 30 years of playing the character and meeting fans, Peterson has seen it all.

“I sign as many autographs for females as for males,” she said. “I have a gigantic catalog of photos of people dressed as me, and also people with Elvira tattoos on them.”

Copying a costume is one thing, but adding a permanent photo of someone to your body? Now that is a compliment.

“The first time I saw somebody with Elvira’s face tattooed on them, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ But now I have a collection of many, many hundreds — probably over 1,000 people — of photographs with Elvira tattoos on some part of their bodies,” Peterson said. “There’s never a convention that I don’t see anywhere from five to 10 Elvira tattoos. It’s really a trip. And they have to live with that every day! I always tell them it’s the sincerest form of flattery.”

Peterson has plenty of experience in that department, as fans still approach her, decades after the start of Elvira, to tell her how it impacted their lives and how beautiful she still looks when she portrays the character.

“A lot of people come up to me and start crying. They’ll say, ‘I always watched the show with my dad; it was the one thing we liked to do together, and now he’s gone, and I can’t believe I’m meeting you,’ ” Peterson said, adding that some people will even bring the ashes of their parents for her to autograph.

“All these people come up and tell me these stories, and they’re just so sweet and really emotional, and I love it. I get home and expect compliments from my daughter, and I don’t get it,” Peterson laughed. “Forget this coming home stuff — I get spoiled!”

Some actors get bored playing the same character for so long, but not Peterson. She has been Elvira since 1981, and the character has become a part of her. She still dons the costume and makeup for each convention, and she’s still putting out new content. One of her most recent projects was “13 Nights of Elvira” for Hulu, which Peterson produced, co-wrote and starred in.

She also has a live show in October each year at Knott’s Berry Farm in Los Angeles, which is transformed into Knott’s Halloween Haunt, one of the largest Halloween events in the world. Peterson performs two shows a night for thousands of guests and says it’s her favorite thing to do.

“You get this immediate feedback — it’s like a kind of buzz,” she explained of performing live. “TV is fun; you can kind of fool around and stuff, but nobody laughs unless you make the cameraman laugh.”

Even though she has been performing for years, Peterson says she still gets nervous before every live performance.

“Before I do a live performance, I’m kind of a nervous wreck. No matter how many years I do it, it still is really tense. You just don’t want to go out and be a big flop. [You’re] praying to God you’re going to be funny and they’re going to like it.”

Luckily, Peterson says she never gets nervous for her convention appearances. Instead, she is “totally relaxed and laid back.”

“I really like doing it, and the people are always, always nice and friendly,” she said. It’s all part of the job she loves, which is dressing up and playing the character she created.

Peterson explained that her mom and aunt ran a costume shop when she was a kid, and she would always dress up.

“I was always wearing costumes,” she remembered. “And I would wear them to school and stuff, and people would go ‘What is wrong with that girl?’ But I couldn’t help myself.”

Back then, Peterson liked to dress up as Ginger from “Gilligan’s Island,” Morticia Addams of “The Addams Family” or Jeannie from “I Dream of Jeannie.” Currently, if she wasn’t Elvira, Peterson says she would still be into the comic con scene, but she would dress up as Maleficent, the villain from “Sleeping Beauty.”

Still, she can’t really imagine being a character other than Elvira.

“In the very beginning, I kind of had this fantasy that I was going to branch out some way, somehow, which turned out to be ridiculous, because I own the character of Elvira, and a character is not so easy to create,” she said. “If you find one that connects with people, you better stick with it.

“People say to me: ‘Don’t you get tired of being Elvira?’ And I say, ‘Hell no!’ ”

Ernie Hudson — “Ghostbusters”

The desire to continue on as one character for a long time isn’t there for Ernie Hudson, who played Winston Zeddemore in the “Ghostbusters” film series from 1984. While Hudson loved — and still loves — the Winston character, he won’t be donning the “Ghostbuster” uniform for Wizard World this weekend.

“When I first started doing cons, the fans always loved when I put on the Ghostbusters outfit because a lot of them would show up in their ‘Ghostbusters’ outfits, and it was a lot of fun,” said Hudson. “Now…it’s just me. I’ve done a lot of different films other than ‘Ghostbusters.’”

Although “Ghostbusters” is undoubtedly Hudson’s biggest fan-favorite at comic cons, it isn’t the sole reason his fans show up to see him. One look at Hudson’s IMDB (Internet Movie Database) page, and you’ll find a long list of his filmography, including titles such as “Congo,” “Taxi” and appearances in TV shows like “Once Upon A Time.” Hudson said he sees fans that know him as many different characters.

Even his role as the hard-ass FBI agent in “Miss Congeniality” garners a specific audience, though Hudson admits he doesn’t like playing that type of character much.

“I hate being a hard-ass because it’s just not how I see myself,” said Hudson.

If there is a reasonable backstory to it though, he’ll listen.

“If the character’s well-rounded — it’s not that I mind being the hard-ass, I just need to know why I’m a hard-ass. I can be anything, I just need to know why I’m this [way].”

Hudson said he tries to choose his jobs based on the characters and what they have to offer. A character is better when it shows multiple human aspects.

“What you really want to do is be all of it, because we are all of it,” he said. “I think the best characters are the ones that we can see life expressed in them, and it’s real, and that has integrity. I want to do things that are fun, that I like, and I can bring humanity to it.”

All of those aspects came to life in some way with his role in “Ghostbusters,” which is why Hudson has always liked the Zeddemore character.

“I thought the character was very sincere. He was a little bit, sort of outside of the mix,” explained Hudson. “Some of that probably had to do with the feeling I was feeling — kind of coming into this group that had been very successful and had been together for a long time. I think that comes through in the character. I think that’s why a lot of people respond to that character.”

One thing Hudson loves about “Ghostbusters” is its appeal to people of all ages. Even though there is some adult humor, it still resonates with kids.

Hudson said he has met families that took their kids to see the movie when it came out, and now it’s become a shared interest for all of them. Meeting fans with stories like that is the reason he attends comic cons. This year, he has about 10 on his schedule, including three days in Des Moines for Wizard World.

He was first invited to attend a convention in the early 1990s but declined. He thought it would be a lot of autograph signing and standing, and the idea didn’t appeal to him.

Hudson was approached again in 2005 to appear at a con in Hollywood, and he decided to go and see what it was all about.

“It was a really good convention, and I just had a great time,” he said. “I saw a lot of friends. It was fun meeting new people.”

He’s done several similar events each year since then, and he says seeing the kids who come dressed up in “Ghostbusters” uniforms is always fun for him.

Hudson remembered how much fun he had filming the movie while he watched a 30th anniversary showing in Chicago last year.

“As an actor, I see scenes, and I remember the day we shot that. I remember all the little things that happened, and it’s sort of a time capsule,” he said. “And movies sort of do that. I mean, I look at movies and I see myself as 30 years younger. But it was fun.”

Lou Ferrigno — The Hulk

Think of the Incredible Hulk as it appears in movies today: green, muscular and more than twice the size of everyone else on the screen. Thanks to computer-generated imagery (CGI), it’s now possible to view the Hulk as the larger-than-life character he was always meant to be.

Lou Ferrigno was the original Hulk in “The Incredible Hulk” TV series that debuted in 1978.

Lou Ferrigno was the original Hulk in “The
Incredible Hulk” TV series that debuted in
1978.

But when “The Incredible Hulk” TV series premiered in 1978 — long before CGI was conceptualized — the question was, how were producers going to create such a monumental character?

The answer came in the form of real muscle. Lou Ferrigno, the original Hulk, had spent years training as a professional body builder when he was chosen for the part. He was up against actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Kiel, but it was Ferrigno’s height and physique that made it clear he was meant to be the Hulk.

Ferrigno began weight training at age 13, and he set a “Guinness World Records” mark when he won his first Mr. Universe title as a bodybuilder at 21. Though his life was dedicated to fitness and bodybuilding, Ferrigno had dreamed of becoming an actor one day.

“I did have thoughts, but I never told anyone because I thought they would make fun of me,” Ferrigno admitted. “Because back then I was a kid dealing with adversity, I was ashamed to talk about it.”

Ferrigno, now a motivational speaker and fitness trainer, lost 75 percent of his hearing after suffering a series of ear infections as an infant. Though it was a considerable challenge, he never let it hold him back.

“All of my dreams I’ve had — I followed my dreams, I took action,” he said. “I made it happen.”

It’s that drive that helped make Ferrigno the unforgettable muscled figure he’s still known to be. He spent five years working on “The Incredible Hulk,” but even when the series ended, he would still carry the green man with him.

In between dozens of other acting projects, Ferrigno has worked on numerous Hulk-related movies and TV shows since the original. Most recently he was the voice of the Hulk in “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

“People connect more with the Hulk on the big screen and CGI,” Ferrigno said of the newer movies, adding that he thinks it’s cool that his voice is still a part of the contemporary versions.

“I know how (the Hulk) thinks and feels, so it’s great to get my voice at the movie theater,” said Ferrigno. “If it wasn’t for my voice, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Although his scripts weren’t lengthy in either of the “Avengers” movies, Ferrigno said his favorite was the second installment because he was able to show a little humor.

“When the Hulk punches Thor — the ‘puny god’ — I like that because it was a connection that shows the more powerful creature, which was very funny,” he said.

Unlike the Hulk, Ferrigno is not an angry man. He enjoys the experience of meeting his fans at comic conventions, attending his first one 15 or 16 years ago in Hollywood.

Just like Peterson, Ferrigno started out signing autographs at car shows. When comic conventions started to gain more popularity, he decided to give it a shot and found he really liked interacting with his fans.

“It’s very exciting when they get a chance to take a picture with the original Hulk,” he said. “They tell me how much they loved the show, how much it affected their life. I never get tired of it because I meet so many different fans; I get charged up, and I feel good because they walk away with a smile on their face.”

And some fans walk away with more than a smile or an autograph. There are always those people who go above and beyond dressing up as their favorite persona.

“One time a woman came to me, she had a Hulk picture on her leg — a tattoo — and she had me sign her leg,” Ferrigno said. “And she came back later, and she had my autograph tattooed on her leg with the Hulk tattoo, which I think is the greatest compliment you can get from a fan.”

He’s also experienced women crying and even fainting in front of him. He has now seen Hulk tattoos on just about every part of the body, and he’s autographed his fair share of body parts, too. Ferrigno said he never tires of traveling to conventions and meeting the people who love that quintessential green character.

“(The Hulk) kept me alive; it made me famous,” he said. “And I’ve always been connected with that character, because 40 years later the legacy’s bigger than ever.”

Billy Dee Williams — “Star Wars”

Billy Dee Williams

Billy Dee Williams played Lando Calrissian in the final two episodes of the original “Star Wars” films.

What would any comic convention be without the franchise that started it all? “Star Wars” made its debut in 1977, and the world of cinema was forever changed. Almost 40 years later, it remains one of the most popular (and financially successful) film series of all time, and it’s all thanks to its devoted fans.

“The whole ‘Star Wars’ franchise is a whole phenomenon. It’s going to go on forever,” said actor Billy Dee Williams, who played Lando Calrissian for the first time in “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.”

Coming into the series some three years after “Star Wars” premiered, Williams knew he was entering something big, but he says no one could guess exactly how popular it would be.

For Williams, the job was more than just being a part of the “Star Wars” cast. His character holds a special place in his heart.

“Lando’s one of my favorite characters of all time,” he said. “I lived with him for a long time, and I actually created the whole persona. I’ve played a lot of characters in my career, but certainly Lando is one of my favorites.”

Like many great actors, Williams had significant creative freedom in forming his character.

“I would certainly say a lot of [Lando] is me, in many ways. Whenever I do the character — when I parody the character, when I do things like ‘Rebels’ or all the animation stuff — it’s pretty much my persona, my voice,” explained Williams. “I actually don’t like anybody else to do my voice. There’s something very unique about my voice, and I think that uniqueness comes from the way I’ve approached the character.”

There have been plenty of opportunities for Williams to take on the role of Lando since he was introduced in 1980. Since 2000, he has acted in, or voiced the character for, video games, TV shorts, movies and several TV series.

The work keeps him busy, but he still enjoys taking time away from it to appear at comic cons when he can.

Williams estimates he attended his first comic con more than 20 years ago, but it’s a distant memory among the dozens he has visited since then.

“These comic cons and conventions have grown tremendously,” he said. “I find myself traveling quite a bit during the year — at least maybe five.

“I always look forward to it. Just meeting everybody, and I think there’s something really gratifying about knowing that people have given you so much support throughout the years.”

A comic community

Though it started as a way to escape reality for a day and take on the identity of her favorite characters, Kinney says she attends the conventions because she loves the experience of being in a place filled with likeminded people.

Thousands of people will descend upon Wells Fargo Arena for the Wizard World Comic Con June 12-14.

Thousands of people will descend upon Wells Fargo Arena for the Wizard World Comic Con June 12-14.

“In the everyday world, people will nerd out and be all silly toward the fandom, and that’s fine, but you don’t necessarily know it,” she explained. “But when you’re at a convention, you have other people who are as into these things as you are. So it’s cool to have in-depth conversations about the characters and the movies.

“Meeting people like that, and then just seeing what other people do for costumes — things I wouldn’t have thought of — it’s inspiring. It makes you want to go home and make better things than you did.”

Kinney takes pride in the costumes she makes, and she prefers to make costumes rather than buy them, especially when it comes to her son, who she has always included in her comic adventures.

Coincidentally, Colin was born on May 4, which is known as Star Wars Day. Kinney says she’s excited to take Colin to his third con here in Des Moines.

For Wizard World Comic Con, Colin will be Captain America and Kinney will go as Iron Man.

“He loves Batman and Marvel characters,” said Kinney, “so I’m hoping to introduce him to more of this craziness that we do.” CV

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