Fans geek out at comic con’s in­au­gu­ral Hous­ton visit

En­thu­si­asts col­lect mem­o­ra­bilia in­spired by video games, sci-fi

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Emily Burleson STAFF WRITER emily.burleson@chron.com

As peo­ple passed Alex Bet­sill’s booth at NRG Cen­ter on Satur­day, many could name ex­actly what he was sell­ing: ocari­nas, an an­cient in­stru­ment that may date back 12,000 years.

How do they know? “Leg­end of Zelda,” of course. The ubiq­ui­tous video game se­ries fea­tured the in­stru­ment in 1998’s “Oca­rina of Time” for Nin­tendo 64.

Su­per­fans and less-pas­sion­ate on­look­ers alike strolled the aisles of Fan­demic Tour’s week­end takeover of the NRG con­ven­tion hall, where they shopped for collectibles in­spired by sci-fi, video games or comic books in be­tween meet-and-greets with ac­tors from “The Walk­ing Dead” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and events such as “Just Add Zom­bies” and “Hamil­ton Sing-a-long.”

Ven­dors were at the ready, sell­ing lightsabers, signed Cap­tain Amer­ica shields, ac­tion fig­ures, posters and even rare, hand­made mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

“It’s a full-time job,” said Bet­sill, who lives in Dal­las and was in Salt Lake City last week for a fan con­ven­tion. He trav­els to up to 36 con­ven­tions and re­nais­sance fairs a year, mak­ing his liv­ing fir­ing, paint­ing and sell­ing ocari­nas and other in­stru­ments.

Bet­sill has been play­ing “Leg­end of Zelda” since the mid-1980s, when the se­ries de­buted, but now he spends more time mak­ing the in­stru­ments. Each takes about a week to make, but 20 can be fin­ished per day.

Amanda Van­der­beek makes her art by hand, too, but it wasn’t for sale. The 23-year-old Bel­laire woman makes cos­tumes — 62 and count­ing — for her ser­vice dog, Merly, to wear to con­ven­tions as they walk to­gether.

Merly, known on In­sta­gram to al­most 17,000 fol­low­ers as @the­cos­play­dog, was in­vited to Fan­demic as a celebrity guest less than three years af­ter Van­der­beek at­tended her first fan con­ven­tion, Comic­palooza.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go check it out and see if any­one is sell­ing Mag­neto art­work,’ ” she said. “And that’s when I started. I was like, ‘Oh, peo­ple dress up?’ I didn’t know. I mean, I like Hal­loween.”

To­gether, the duo has been to more than a dozen con­ven­tions. Cos­play­ing, or dress­ing up like pop­u­lar char­ac­ters, was com­mon at all of them. Fans crowded around Merly’s booth on Satur­day, hop­ing to give a few head scratches to the dog-turned-Bat­man. She was curled up along­side Van­der­beek’s other dog, a minia­ture dachs­hund named Kirby, who was at­tend­ing her first con­ven­tion as “Rob-ween.”

The cos­tumes, while fun to make, serve another pur­pose for Van­der­beek: to help her get out of her shell.

“When I’m in my reg­u­lar clothes, I can’t talk to peo­ple,” she said. “When I’m all dressed up with an out­fit on, a mask on and con­tacts in, no one re­ally knows what I look like, and I feel more com­fort­able.”

Another photo-op-ready guest at Fan­demic was the Juras­sic Park Jeep on dis­play, sur­rounded by faux “10,000 volt” fenc­ing. It’s a work in progress, but fans still paid $10 to be pho­tographed in­side the car, owned by Hous­to­nian Vic­tor Por­tillo, 32.

“It’s a celebrity,” he said. “You’re driv­ing the Jeep and see­ing ev­ery­body wav­ing and smil­ing and tak­ing pic­tures. It’s quite an ad­ven­ture.”

Por­tillo said he al­ways loved the di­nosaur movies and played with Juras­sic Park toys as a kid. In high school, he cus­tom­ized and swapped parts in his Honda with other me­chanic-minded teenagers.

And as an adult, he re­al­ized he could make the movie come to life.

“It started with some­thing sim­ple. I’ll buy a Jeep, paint it, and that’s it,” Por­tillo said. “And then I met oth­ers — a group of en­thu­si­asts called the Juras­sic Park Mo­tor Pool. And it’s a global Juras­sic Park build­ing group. Once I found out that there’s more peo­ple ob­sessed with this, it just snow­balled.”

His first cus­tom Jeep sold for around $25,000, but he only re­cently broke even af­ter gut­ting the in­side of the 1992 model.

Por­tillo said he plans to con­tinue mak­ing cus­tom Jeeps, es­pe­cially now that he has dis­cov­ered a mar­ket for his cars and all the gear is ready in his garage, wait­ing for a new project. He also loves vis­it­ing con­ven­tions — he tries to at­tend any within a five-hour drive of Hous­ton.

“It’s just meet­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple who share the same pas­sion,” he said. “There’s a big group for it, but my friends aren’t into the movies that much, so it’s not like I can sit there and geek out with them.”

Yi-Chin Lee / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Diana Den­ton smiles with her fi­ancé, Robby Whilburn, left, and her son, Ryan, with the car from “The Evil Dead” at Hous­ton’s first Fan­demic Tour on Satur­day at NRG Cen­ter. The con­ven­tion had been sched­uled for last Septem­ber but was de­layed by Hur­ri­cane Harvey.

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