By Donald Wittkowski
John Kearney joked that he blames his mother for his obsession with a pop phenomenon that has continued for 40 years.
“She took me to the movies in 1977,” he recalled.
The movie he saw then was “Star Wars,” which led to Kearney’s penchant for dressing up like one of the imposing Imperial Stormtroopers, the ground forces of the evil Galactic Empire and Darth Vader.
Shrouded in the distinctive white body armor and the sculpted helmet of a Stormtrooper, Kearney made the rounds at the OC-Con show Saturday at the Ocean City Music Pier on the Boardwalk.
Accompanied by fellow Stormtrooper Brad Hall, Kearney drew both smiles and some wary glances from the crowd attending the memorabilia convention. Their authentic-looking costumes included some Star Wars-like weaponry to make Hall and Kearney even more formidable.
“They are very surprised to see us,” said Hall, 26, of Tuckerton. “They don’t expect to see a Stormtrooper suit with so much detail.”
Kearney, of Atco, said he owns five Stormtrooper suits. When asked his age, he quipped that he didn’t know because he is a clone.
In addition to Stormtroopers and other characters from the iconic Star Wars franchise, the OC-Con show was filled with virtually every other villain and superhero from comics, movie and science fiction lore.
The family-friendly show, which is organized by the city and the Ocean City Free Public Library, was brought back for its second year after a strong debut in 2016.
“Nerd culture, geek culture and pop culture are very popular right now,” librarian Shannon Belden explained of OC-Con’s success.
The show continues Sunday, headlined by a scheduled appearance by actor Seth Gilliam, who plays Father Gabriel Stokes in the zombie apocalypse “The Walking Dead.”
Billy Dee Williams, the veteran actor who portrayed the dashing Lando Calrissian in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” Star Wars sequels, highlighted Saturday’s show, including joining the audience for a question-and-answer session.
Hundreds of aficionados browsed through the comic books, trading cards, movie posters, action figures and other collectibles that were sold by vendors at the Music Pier.
“What’s really cool is that they have so many things for kids. I really enjoy this,” Juve Navas, 7, of Northfield, said while strolling the exhibit floor with his uncle, Tim Yarger, of Egg Harbor Township.
One comic book and trading card vendor, Dan Campbell, said he believes that this type of memorabilia is timeless.
“All of these people saw those old movies and TV shows while they were growing up. Years later, they say, ‘Hey, I remember that.’ It brings back great memories for them,” Campbell said.
Another vendor, Jamila Howard, was dressed up as Batgirl, a character from the 1960s-era “Batman” TV series. She was joined by fellow vendor Kevin DiPacido, of Buena, who was costumed as the villainous Joker, Batman’s archenemy.
“When I was growing up, I really liked heroes. I really gravitated to heroes. I wanted to be a comic book hero,” said the 35-year-old Howard, of Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Billy Dee Williams didn’t come attired in his caped Star Wars costume, but thrilled the OC-Con crowd nonetheless by talking about his character Lando Calrissian and other film roles during his more than 50-year movie career.
Asked by an audience member to describe the highlight of his appearances in the Star Wars movies, he replied it was a famous scene from “Return of the Jedi.”
“When I blew up the Death Star,” he said.
As Lando Calrissian, he was perhaps best known for losing the spaceship Millennium Falcon in a bet against Han Solo. One OC-Con fan, 15-year-old Kai Tripician, challenged Williams to gamble again, but this time using a Millennium Falcon trading card as the prize.
Tripician then joined Williams on stage to play the hand game rock-paper-scissors to decide the fate of the Millennium Falcon. This time, Williams won, but he insisted on giving the trading card back to Tripician.
Tripician, a Longport resident and freshman at Ocean City High School, thought it was “awesome” to meet Williams.
“It was a highlight of my life,” Tripician said. “I definitely would want to do it again.”
Williams, who will turn 80 on April 6, said he now enjoys painting and has no immediate plans to return to the movies, including playing in another Star Wars film.
“It’s over for me,” he declared.
But he added a legendary Star Wars phrase to close his remarks.
“May the Force be with you,” he said, smiling.