Leaping Wizards

Geek culture gets a jump at the Wizard World Austin Comic Con

Wil Wheaton
Wil Wheaton

Break out the phasers, pack your favorite zombie skull crusher, and grapple with the best wrestler in the world. Wizard World Austin Comic Con is back for its third year, and it's a lot more than just back issues. Yeah, we're coming for comic industry legends like Bernie Wrightson (Swamp Thing) and rising Austin superstar David Marquez (Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man), but the show is a nerd culture marathon, drawing in stars from the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation to The Walking Dead.

Wizard World Austin Comic Con takes place Oct. 26-28 at the Austin Convention Center (500 E. Cesar Chavez). Tickets are still available; see www.wizardworld.com/home-tx.html for info.

Sept. 28, 1987. Sci-fi TV was revitalized when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted to impressive ratings and critical applause. Two and a half decades later, the complete original crew of the USS Enterprise­-D will be assembled for duty at Wizard World.

For Marina Sirtis, becoming ship's counselor Deanna Troi changed her life and her career. She said, "Troi's really the only nice girl I ever played, because I always play bad girls." No kidding: Before joining the crew, she had portrayed period-piece temptresses and ill-fated gangland grifters, and then there was that infamous whip fight with Faye Dunaway in The Wicked Lady. The British-born actress could only afford to stay in the U.S. to audition for the role of the Enterprise's empathic counselor because a friend had loaned her some cash. On the day, the cockney bad girl turned into a British wallflower. "I was so nervous, they didn't see the real me. I couldn't speak. I was literally shaking with nerves from top to toe," she recalled. Two days later, she was ready to leave America. "I'm on an afternoon flight out of L.A. to London, and I had to take it because I couldn't afford another ticket. I took the suitcase off the top of the wardrobe, opened it up, and the phone rang. It was my agent telling me I've got the job."

Sirtis went from day player to internationally recognized genre icon: However, co-star Wil Wheaton had already been corpse-poking in Stand By Me when he joined the show. He said, "I was just thrilled to be part of this thing where I got to use my imagination, which was just the best part of being an actor, to live in that world for five days a week."

As the sometimes hapless Wesley Crusher, the self-described "weird and awkward and nerdy" Wheaton took more than his fair share of flack from fans. No one would have blamed him for walking away from geek culture. Instead, post-TNG, he's become one of its patron saints – co-curator of traveling geekfest w00tstock, frantic Tweeter, even playing an evil version of himself on nerd-com The Big Bang Theory. It's not what he expected when he first pulled on that famous Star Fleet uniform/onesie. "I wasn't mature enough to appreciate the global, pan-generational, philosophical ramifications of Star Trek. I was just glad to be part of something that I already loved."

For him, Star Trek wasn't about exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations. It was about, as Wheaton explained it, creator Gene Roddenberry's dream of "being able to work your way out of a problem when you have a whole bunch of people from different backgrounds and different lives and different belief systems all working together to improve life for everyone." That bright future beyond the solar system seems dim now, with the last space shuttle, Endeavor, a museum piece. But Wheaton argues that Roddenberry's dream is still alive in madcap adventures like Felix Baumgartner's parachute jump from space.

CM Punk
CM Punk

"Gene would have been so excited," he said. "He would have looked at that guy and said, 'You see, people? You see what he did? You can do that.'"

Professional wrestler CM Punk isn't one to depend on the kindness of strangers. But sometimes the global community of comic fans surprises everyone. One time, he and his travel buddy, fellow WWE superstar Kofi Kingston, were in between shows, and they found a comic book store. Punk said, "I was looking for a Daredevil omnibus, and the owner said, 'We don't have it.' So me and Kofi picked up some other stuff, and he refused to charge us. I offered him free tickets to our show, and he was already coming." After that night's show, WWE referee Charles Robinson found Punk and handed him a present – the store owner's personal copy of the anthology. "I was freaking out, trying to find the guy," Punk said. "That kind of hospitality and kindness is very, very rare these days."

One look at CM Punk tells you he's a comic fan. The WWE champ and self-proclaimed best professional wrestler in the world, has G.I. Joe's Cobra Command logo tattooed on his shoulder. When he hits the ramp before a match, he channels Marvel's the Thing and yells, "It's clobberin' time!" He said, "I've always read comics. There's always comics in my bag because I travel so damn much."

Against all odds, Punk dominates the wrestling industry. The squared circle had been run by the muscle-bound successors to Hulk Hogan. Instead, Punk was Chicago's tattooed antihero, a lean guy with Muay Thai skills, working the indie leagues before signing with the WWE. It took five years, and him quitting the company once in spectacular fashion on-air, for their creative team to finally realize how good he is: charismatic, unapologetic, unstoppable in the ring, and a genius on the mic. He's the number one reason a lot of wrestling fans continue to tune in to the WWE. But he's still a big, proud, self-confessed nerd, with his favored comic book store – he calls Challenger Comics in Chicago "home base" – and a collection driven by great writers like Ed Brubaker. "I love all the crime noir stuff," Punk said. He's just finished re-reading Garth Ennis' seminal Preacher, a tale of redemption, death, and the saint of killers; next up is Jason Aaron's Scalped, a gritty drama set among South Dakota's Oglala Lakota. "I do superhero stuff as well," he said. "I've just finished reading Avengers vs. X-Men." That's fortunate, because Marvel has asked him to write the intro to the hardback collection of the bestselling miniseries, due in stores on Nov. 21.

Even though he lives most of the year on the road, he's still an ardent collector of hard copies, filling his bag before he travels. He said, "I haven't even got into the digital stuff yet. It might be a good idea, because it might save me some space, but I'm always lugging trade paperbacks across the continent." That means no time wasted on individual issues: He can just burn through a whole complete run. "I don't think I read Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets until a year ago," he said. "All 13 trades were out, and I brought them all to Europe with me. I stayed up 48 hours and read them all straight."

Zombies are scary. Know what's scarier? Merle Dixon, the racist thug who sawed his own hand off in The Walking Dead to escape the undead horde. But actor Michael Rooker says you only think you know the merciless badass. He said, "There's different shades of Merle. Doesn't that sound sweet?"

When fans of the original comic started watching AMC's horror smash adaptation, Merle was a sure sign that they were getting more than what was on the page. He was the first big character created solely for the show and quickly became a blood-splattered favorite. Unlike the rest of the cast, who had dozens of issues of character development to read, "I had a very brief synopsis about who this person was," Rooker explained, "and I had no idea that this was going to be a long-term deal." Still, Merle has cast a long shadow over the show, even if he was barely in it. Rooker said, "I did an episode, a monologue, and a scene in the first two seasons, and with that amount of space, I created a very memorable character." For him, that's his job. "Even if you have only one scene, you still have to bring out everything you can in that character." The fans and the writers responded to Merle's raw brutality and coke-fueled cowardice. "They saw an actor doing his job, milking every ounce, every nuance, from a character who is written somewhat cliched."

Last time Walking Dead fans saw Merle, he was a fever hallucination, saving his brother Daryl (Norman Reedus) from becoming lunch. Since then, most of what the audience knows comes from "Daryl's memory of him, his delusion of him," Rooker said. When Daryl is at his lowest ebb, Merle appears as "his saving grace, his angel who came back at the moment of his death to basically kick his ass, to motivate him, give him some tough love, and get him up and running." Now season three has started, and the real Merle – down a hand, but up a nasty, bladed arm extension – is stalking back. Rooker said, "Merle has gone through some tough times, and usually that kind of stuff either makes you tougher, or breaks you."

Michael Rooker
Michael Rooker

So don't expect just the same old Southern fried killer. "It would be boring to play the role the way most people imagine Merle," he said. Maybe that's why the big, gruff Rooker has cornered the market in shifting paradigms. It's the same way he humanized a murderer in his breakthrough performance in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or how his Bill Broussard refused to step through the looking glass in JFK. Same with Frank Bailey in Mississippi Burning, who Rooker called "just this brutal, racist, KKK guy. But if you go back and you watch, he has this moment where you can see, yeah, he still is who he is, but he's still a human being with sensitive emotions going on. It's crazy shit, but it's fun for me to try to find those things."

And here's some more crazy shit. Outside of the zombie apocalypse, Merle Dixon is a walking rap sheet. But with the end times raging, his take-no-prisoners, leave-the-weak-behind philosophy seems prescient. "He's totally a man ahead of his time," Rooker said. "Even [lead character Rick Grimes] is saying, 'This ain't a democracy.' Merle said that in season one, on the rooftop. Everyone in this whole show is getting tougher."

The Women of 'Star Trek'

with Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden

Friday, Oct. 26, 6-6:45pm, Ballroom E

Patrick Stewart Q&A

Saturday, Oct. 27, noon-12:45pm,

Ballroom FG

'Star Trek: The Next Generation' 25th Anniversary Reunion

with Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, and Gates McFadden

Saturday, Oct. 27, 5:30-7pm, Ballroom FG

'The Walking Dead' Q&A

with Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus

Sunday, Oct. 28, noon-12:45pm, Ballroom FG

CM Punk Q&A

Saturday, Oct. 27, 6-6:30pm, Ballroom E

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