Most days, Chase Gray is a pharmacist in Memphis, Tennessee.
On Saturday, he was a biker scout for the Empire, scouring Trotter Convention Center’s first floor for “Rebel scum and sympathizers.”
“I’ve found just a couple so far, but you won’t see them again,” the fully costumed Gray grunted through his ominous-looking headgear. “Of course, that’s unofficial.”
Gray was among 11 costumed members of the Mississippi-based Rancor Raiders Garrison on duty for photos, in- and out-of-character interaction and ambiance enhancement at the first Golden Triangle Comic Book and Toy Expo.
Part of the 501st Legion, a worldwide organization of avid Star Wars fans who make their own costumes and tour as characters from the franchise’s “Dark Side,” the 11 Rancor Raiders — ranging from bounty hunters and storm troopers to imperial officers — stole the show.
Proudly displaying their attire and faux weaponry, they marched through the Trotter giving out high-fives to event goers young and old. Some even showed a softer side than one might anticipate from Empire guards, approaching initially awestruck or reticent children and putting a comforting arm around them.
“We try not to be evil,” joked Gray, struggling to stay in character. “Really, if civilians would just cooperate with us, everything would be OK.”
Inside the Trotter’s lower level conference hall, more than a dozen vendors peddled everything from designer toys, art and games to martial arts lessons and cell phone repair services. Meanwhile, video gamers engaged in a Super Smash Brothers Tournament on one side of the room, while cosplayers indulged in various magic-themed card games at tables set up on the other side.
And of course, there were comic books. Lots of them.
Collector Joey Smith lugged a healthy sample of his 40,000 strong bounty from Oneonta, Alabama, on Saturday, selling comic books for as low as $1. Some were much higher, including the prize of his collection — the first issue of Stan Lee’s “The Fantastic Four” released in 1961–that didn’t have a price tag.
“I’m asking $1,600, but that may be a little high,” he said.
Smith only started collecting comic books five years ago, after he walked into a store in Gadsden, Alabama, and bought an issue of “Dragon Quills.” He said Saturday was his first time to sell comic books at an expo, but he needed to get some of his collection out of his house.
“It’s a smaller kind of show to get my feet wet,” he said. “It’s been fun and a lot busier than I thought.”
‘This helps bring more pizazz’
It was everything organizer Christopher Tarantino could have wanted for the event’s first year, and it signaled hope for bigger and better such events in Columbus in the future.
“Everybody likes adventure,” Tarantino said. “So many people relate to comic books and culture, and this is a family-friendly environment where parents can bring their kids. Now that we know there is definite interest here, we are already planning a bigger event next year.”
A New Jersey native, Tarantino is an active duty senior airman who has served 4.5 years as an emergency manager with Columbus Air Force Base.
At first raised by a single mother who died when he was 8, Tarantino said he took comfort in comic books, superheroes and fantasy culture. As an orphaned child who was later adopted, he said he even identified with some of the back stories that had developed many comic book characters.
At age 23, he said he braved his first Comic Book Convention — or Comic-Con — in New York and has attended hundreds of events, both large and small, in the eight years since. He even organized a recent convention in Tupelo.
With the rising popularity of Comic-Cons, he wanted to give Golden Triangle residents easier access for tapping into the phenomenon.
“A lot of people think of Columbus as a retirement community,” he said. “This helps bring more pizazz to the area.”
Tarantino said organizers plan to donate a portion of the door proceeds to Palmer Home for Children.
‘Dressing the part’
The Rancor Raiders certainly weren’t the only ones dressed up. Cosplayers attending the event brought both easily recognizable and obscure characters to life.
Kynley Montgomery, 15, and Riley Thompson, 16, both of Parsons, Tennessee, arrived as characters from the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” video game. Montgomery, who has attended five comic book conventions or expos in the Mid-South, dressed as “Foxy the Pirate.” Thompson, who dressed as Freddy himself, has tagged along with Thompson on four of those adventures.
“I first discovered ‘cons’ a few years ago, and I nagged my dad to take me to one. He finally caved,” Montgomery said. “I love going, and my dad does, too.”
“It’s basically a way of life for us now,” Thompson chimed in.
The two girls made at least one Golden Triangle friend for their trouble on Saturday, as 15-year-old Meredith Sink of Starkville had officially become one of their crew by lunchtime.
“I saw how beautiful their cosplay was and just had to come over and get their autographs,” she said.
Bryan Law and his 15-year-old son, Riley, of Columbus arrived when the doors opened at 10 a.m., and they planned to stay for the duration. Law used to be into video games as a child, he said, and he passed that enthusiasm along to his son, who played in Saturday’s Super Smash Brothers Tournament.
Ostensibly, Law came because his son wanted to. The longer he talked, though, the more readily he admitted he also enjoyed reliving the good ol’ days.
“I’ve been reminiscing, looking at old comic books I used to have and gave away for free,” he said. “You know how it is.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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