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Austin Comic Con comes into its own

Esther Robards-Forbes
Wil Wheaton says he’s looking forward to seeing his ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ castmates at Austin Comic Con.

Austin is known for putting on a good festival, with events that draw music lovers, foodies and film fans.

For sci-fi, fantasy, comic book and pop culture geeks, there’s Austin Comic Con.

The convention, which has been going on for four years in Austin, has come into its own, attracting an impressive list of celebrities, including all of the central cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The cast is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the show, and it’s only the second time they have appeared together since the show ended.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing my castmates because I don’t get to see them as often as I like,” said Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on the series and has since added blogger, author and all-around geek folk hero to his resume.

Wizard World, the company that produces the convention, has been working hard to put Austin Comic Con on the map by attracting bigger celebrities, more vendors and bigger crowds. Programming includes panels with celebrity speakers; Q&A sessions with actors, artists and creators; vendor booths; and an artists’ alley. Many attendees show up in spectacular costumes patterned after their favorite characters.

“We want to be like Austin City Limits for geeks,” said Kevin Kelly, managing editor for Wizard World.

Austin is attracting bigger names to Comic Con because of its robust geek community, said Alan Rogers of Austin’s Dragon’s Lair Comics.

“We’re going to be just as unique with conventions as we are as a city,” he said. “The reason we’re attracting these bigger names in terms of writers and artists is because of the community that is being fostered and growing.”

The convention will also feature cast members from “The Walking Dead,” including Norman Reedus (Daryl), Jon Bernthal (Shane) and Michael Rooker (Merle). Reedus will also reunite with his “Boondocks Saints” co-stars Sean Patrick Flanery and David Della Rocco. Eliza Dushku, (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and Dean Cain (“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) will also appear, alongside a long list of actors from science fiction and fantasy media.

Celebrities will draw crowds, but comic book fans will be far more impressed with the artists and writers who will be appearing, including Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame member Neal Adams, artist and writer for “Batman,” “The X-Men,” “Green Lantern,” and “The Avengers.”

“It used to be that once a year, the circus would come to town,” Adams said. “Now, once a year the comic book convention comes to town. Only it doesn’t last for an hour and half, it lasts for three or four days.”

Wizard World has taken an integrated approach to programming for fans who want to see celebrities and fans who are more interested in comics, Neal said. That isn’t true at some larger cons, which can be very celebrity-focused and sometimes relegate artists to hotel basements.

While Austin Comic Con doesn’t approach the size of San Diego Comic-Con, the largest comic convention in the country, the smaller size of the convention in Austin means fans have a chance to interact with their favorite actors and artists and see more panels and Q&A sessions. Many artists are able to take commissions for original sketches and artwork when crowds are lighter.

“Just signing stuff is boring,” Neal said, “but slowing down and drawing a sketch of someone’s favorite character is interesting.”

Convention-goers might not be the only ones to get in on the fun. Organizers plan to take the convention outside the walls of the Austin Convention Center to surprise visitors in other parts of the city. In past years, celebrities have shown up at The Highball and the Alamo Drafthouse, and comic artists have hosted interactive sketch sessions in bars on Sixth Street. Watch the @WizardWorld Twitter feed for updates.

“The thing that I think everyone who comes to this con can look forward to is the opportunity to love whatever it is you love,” Wheaton said. “Whether it’s ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Walking Dead’ or ‘Sherlock’ or ‘Dr. Who’ or ‘Stargate’ or ‘Eureka,’ whatever the thing is that you love, you are going to be surrounded by people who love that thing as much as you do and love it in the same way that you do. And that’s really what conventions are all about. It’s about people who love these wonderful pieces of pop culture and get together and geek out about it in an environment where nobody is not cool and nobody needs to feel self-conscious.”

Wil Wheaton, a veteran convention attendee offers a few of his survival tips: