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COMIC COUTURE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Should Spider-Man and Batman be seen riding the light rail this weekend, don't be alarmed. Baltimore Comic-Con is in town, with a hook that should attract even more of a costumed crowd than usual. Instead of just getting stared at or having her picture taken incessantly, this year's Supergirl could win $1,000.

"So many people come dressed up anyway, on their own," says convention organizer Marc Nathan, who's eager to see how many Supermen, Wonder Women and Fantastic Fours will show, attracted by the convention's first-ever costume contest. "If we can get a couple hundred people in costume down here. ... Think about it: A kid comes down to a comics show and thinks he met the real Batman. Why wouldn't that be great?"

Nothing says comic books like a guy dressed as The Hulk. Costumed fans have been a relative rarity at the Baltimore con - unlike at Otakon, the annual Japanese pop-culture celebration at the Convention Center, where a costume is practically mandatory, or San Diego's Comic-Con, the pop-culture phenomenon where many fans look like they just stepped out of a Hollywood screenplay. This year's costume competition, along with the prize money, should make Baltimore's annual comic book convocation look more like what the public has come to expect.

That means turning some heads. Wait until people get a look at John Reilly and his $900 custom-made Spidey suit.

"The first time I put it on, I was so nervous," says Reilly, who will be wearing an impressively realistic black Spider-Man outfit (think of a less-inhibited, more outrageous Spidey), and gets a real kick out of playing the part. "I'm actually pretty shy in person. But when I put that costume on, I get playful, I get bouncy, I like to run around. I'm pretty quick-witted, I'm full of one-liners."

He's also pretty photogenic. And the idea of having a couple of dozen web-spinners winding their way through town this weekend - Nathan loves the possibilities.

"Just imagine, putting them on parade and walking them around the Inner Harbor," he says. "We should mix 'em up with the Ravens crowd, a couple Robins and Batmans. Think they'll get noticed?"

Of course, there will be more to the con than a bunch of people in masks and capes. More than 100 comic book writers and editors are scheduled to show up, including Neal Adams, the definitive artist on Batman, Superman and a host of other DC Comics characters from the 1970s, and George Perez, who has reimagined and re-energized comic book characters (including Wonder Woman, a character he resurrected from comic book limbo in the early 1970s) and even entire comic book universes, through his work on DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths." Just about all the guests will be signing autographs and answering questions throughout the convention.

There will also be a dealers room, where more than 50 vendors will be selling comics and comic-related items old and new. Fan forums and panel discussions will offer conventioneers the chance to hear about what's going on in the world of comic books. Original art, by comic book artists both established and aspiring, will be available for purchase. On Saturday evening, the annual Harvey Awards will give industry professionals a chance to honor their own.

But nothing grabs a person's attention like a guy walking around in an Iron Man outfit or a gal decked out like Lara Croft.

For those who might find such behavior odd, who shake their head at what possesses people to wear red tights and a cape and make like Superman, or blue star-studded shorts and a diamond tiara in tribute to Wonder Woman: Hey, no one bats an eye when fans wear imitation Orioles uniforms to Camden Yards. It's all part of having fun, of enjoying a communal experience with people who share passions. And of having some measure of super powers for a day, which constitutes a good time not to be underestimated.

"It allows me the opportunity to be someone bigger than I am in real life," says Paul Lombard, a 41-year-old Web programmer from Gaithersburg who will spend the weekend dressed up as either Batman or various incarnations of his arch-nemesis, The Joker. "When I'm dressed up as Batman, I feel strong and powerful. When I'm The Joker, I feel more outgoing and flamboyant. My personality definitely shifts with each costume."

Adds Hannah Pagan, a 20-year-old college student from central New Jersey who will be at the con dressed as The Joker's crazed girlfriend, Harley Quinn, "It's a great conversation starter. I've made a lot of friends at conventions, because they've come up and spoken to me when I was dressed up.

"By dressing up as a character," she adds, "I'm identifying myself as someone who has this passion. And it's great, meeting people who share that passion."

Costumes have always been a key part of fan conventions. At Comic Con in San Diego, an annual summer event that has become a key pop-culture touchstone in recent years, some of the costumes get more attention than the actors who routinely come down the freeway from Hollywood to plug their films. And at Baltimore's annual Otakon, a weekend-long gathering dedicated to Japanese pop culture, elaborately costumed fans start lining up outside the Convention Center hours before the show starts.

By comparison, the costumed crowd at Comic-Con tends to be rather low-key and not so pervasive. With luck, maybe an organized costume contest - not to mention the $1,000 prize that goes with it - will kick up the enthusiasm level a couple of notches.

"When you're at San Diego, you see a lot of those Hollywood-level costumes that are very professional-looking and very expensive," says Kevin Perkins, a local media publicist who is organizing Sunday's contest. "Here, I think there's going to be a lot of creativity and a lot of home-grown talent."

Take Pagan and her Harley Quinn costume. Pagan learned to sew so she could make her own costumes. She bought her own sewing machine (her mom's 80-year-old model just wouldn't do, she says), then spent some 100 hours designing and creating her first version of the costume. A second version, which she'll be wearing this weekend, took only about 25 hours.

"I learned from my mistakes," she says with a laugh.

Costuming, Pagan says, is serious business. That's why she and others are willing to invest so much time, and sometimes money. But once they're made and put on, the fun begins. And playing a costumed character, she says, is about as much fun as the law allows.

"I love being overdramatic, taking on the persona of the character that I'm dressed as," she says. "People will get so excited when they see you dressed like a character they like. I've had a girl come up to me, she was shaking because she was so excited to see me as Harley. It's like, I made her day."

Of course, not every costume is going to look so good. Some, given a superhero costume's propensity to be rather form-fitting, might not exactly flatter the wearer. But that's part of the gig.

"It's a lot of fun," says Nathan. "But then you get the 300-pound guy dressed as Supergirl, and that isn't so much fun. But what're you going to do?"

If you go

The 10th annual Baltimore Comic-Con runs Saturday and Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. The costume contest begins at 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 for one day and $25 for both days. Call 410-526-7410 or go to comicon.com/baltimore

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