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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The big man with little dreadlocks aimed his camera at two Imperial Storm troopers. "Say 'Death Star!'" he ordered.
In "Star Wars," the troopers are lethal oppressors. At the 2009 New York Comic Con, a gathering for devotees of comic books, graphic novels and science-fiction gear, they are free photo opportunities.
Free is good at Comic Con, where this year attendees are getting their superhero fix on a budget. The financial crisis might not be driving people to soup kitchens, but rising unemployment and fiscal fear are instilling a new frugality.
"I'll be happy if I do 60 percent as much as last year," said Albert Stoltz, owner of Basement Comics in Havre de Grace, Maryland. "It's a little slow. This aisle should be full."
Stoltz, who paid $2,400 for a booth to sell comic books priced as high as $150 each, added, "This is escapism, but we don't need comic books as much as you need bread or food."
In the basement food court Ordalina Acevedo thought this year's conference wasn't as buoyant as last year.
"There are less people; it's because of the economy," she said as she rang up a customer's sandwich at a cash register.
This year, attendance actually rose, said Lance Fensterman, New York Comic Con's vice president and show manager. About 77,000 people attended, up 15 percent from last year. That is a slower growth rate than years past, but Fensterman said this was because of the Javits Center.
"We turned away thousands of fans on Saturday because we simply could not accommodate them safely with the space we had to work with," he said. "I was overwhelmed by the fan response to the event we created and the demand, in spite of the economy, clearly reflected that."
The hardcore fans did show up. At least half-a-dozen Jokers were on the prowl in Heath Ledger-style smudged lipstick, greasepaint, green vests and purple trench coats.
A few Batman masques and a masked "V" from the book and movie "V for Vendetta" made the rounds."
Promotional models, known as "booth babes," sashayed in short, tight skirts and T-shirts, turning the heads of bespectacled teenaged boys dressed as superheroes.
There was also a man playing Anakin Skywalker, better known as Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" films, explaining his flaws to a camera crew. "I make no good decisions," he said.
Comic Con can rely on ardent fans to stay flush in hard times, said Chris Stuppi, founder of Griffons Claw Armoury in Piscataway, New Jersey, which was selling replicas of knives, Samurai swords and other weaponry at the convention.
"People save up, knowing they'll go to the show," said Stuppi, who knows about financial crises. Two weeks ago, he lost his job at the Oppenheimer investment bank in New York.
For student Nick Barone, spending $300 to come was a must. Barone, 22, took the bus from Geneseo in upstate New York, and waited in line, dressed in a stretchy yellow Kid-Flash costume, to get an autograph from Teen Titans writer Geoff Johns.
"I really had to go all out," he said.
Eric Goldstein and his brother drove in from Westchester County, New York, along with their sons, who are on a $20 budget each. "For the most part we're letting them look more than buy," he said.
A moment later, the boys spotted drinking glasses with images of the Avengers, Captain America and other superheroes. Goldstein's 7-year-old son, Jeremy, held one of them in his hands. "I want this cup," he said. At $10, it was a keeper.
Reporting by Robert MacMillan; editing by Patricia Reaney