In the corner of the basketball gym at Stony Brook University on Long Island, there’s a man sorting through a pile of cardboard boxes. He’s trim and muscular, and the sinew of his forearms quivers when he rips open one box, then another, and begins fanning out piles of comics and hardcover graphic novels on a folding table. He’s almost lost amid the flurry of activity about him. It is, after all, Saturday at I-Con, the busiest day of a sci-fi convention that takes over the campus for one weekend every spring. This is the 30th year of the convention, whose guests of honor are usually a mix of obscure authors, artists and actors like Denise Crosby, who played Tasha Yar for a season in Star Trek: The Next Generation. For a man like Thomas Jane, setting up a table to sell comic books seems like an odd way to spend the weekend.

The star of 61*, The Punisher, The Mist and HBO’s Hung is dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of boots that don’t match — one’s brown and one’s green. When he turns around, he adjusts his cap. There’s Korean lettering on it that translates to “Bad Man.” He spreads his arms out wide, cocks his head back and addresses the small crowd gathering at his table.

“What’s up, weirdos?” he shouts.

Blunt and uncharismatic wouldn’t seem like an ideal way for a Hollywood celebrity to win over a crowd of storm troopers and sorcerers, but it’s apparent that “weirdos” is a term of endearment, and he counts himself among them.

He isn’t there to plug the third season of Hung, anyway. He’s headlining the booth for RAW Entertainment, a comic book and independent film studio he cofounded with renowned artist Tim Bradstreet. Jane co-wrote the comics on his table, and the jewel of the collection is Bad Planet, a sci-fi epic about an intergalactic community deciding that Earth, with its constant bickering and warring, isn’t fit to join its ranks. Earth is labeled a “Bad Planet” and its apocalypse is scheduled.

Jane dropped out of high school to pursue acting at 17. While scraping by in bit parts, he harbored a love of offbeat sci-fi and film noir that he developed as a kid. He loved comics, too, just not the traditional superhero kind. “The guys in tights having a big soap opera with each other? I just didn’t get that,” he says. And that’s why he turned down the title role in 2004’s The Punisher — twice — before finally accepting it.

“He had only seen the Spandex-white boots version of the character, and he couldn’t see himself as that,” says Bradstreet, who, along with writer Garth Ennis, helped update the character for Marvel’s gritty, realistic line of MAX comics. “Then they showed him the work that I did. He said, ‘I want to be that guy.’”

The two men got better acquainted while Bradstreet was working on concept art during pre-production for the film. After a day of promotional work, Jane shared his vision for Bad Planet; Bradstreet was hooked and RAW was essentially formed that night.

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Signing autographs at his booth, Jane looks tired, and with good reason. Late on Friday, he finished a 75-hour week filming Hung, then caught a plane to New York. He still manages to give every convention-goer his full attention, posing for pictures and answering questions. He’s frank and honest throughout the day, offering up unfiltered opinions in a Q&A forum at midday, then again in the early evening to a nearly empty classroom — a cold wind and rain having descended upon the campus to decimate the crowd.

He gets asked a lot about his workout regimen, particularly how he got in shape for the The Punisher.

“I’ve never been a real gym guy,” he says. “At the time, I was just a glowering actor guy, who really despised going to the gym, but I did it because it was part of the job. What kind of broke the mold for me was the Navy SEALs guys. They came in [before the film] and gave me the training that the Navy SEALs do... I just follow direction and do it.”

Most people in this crowd, though, want to hear about why he opted out of the sequel, Punisher: War Zone, a critical and commercial disaster. He’s happy to oblige.

“I knew if I showed up at a convention after doing that piece of garbage that you’d throw tomatoes at me,” he tells a small auditorium that’s not quite half full. “So I had to turn that down. They offered me a lot of money to do the second one and I was just like, ‘Guys, this script is so bad, I can’t do this. I’m going to get slaughtered. I’m the guy that has to say this shit.’”

Later in the day, he’s headed off to another panel, scarfing down a Kashi Go Lean bar as he walks, his head held high, no effort made to keep his face out of the rain that’s starting to come down. I ask him if he’s disappointed by the size of the crowd and if I-Con is really what he thought it would be.

“Going to San Diego [Comic Con] is great, but to tell you the truth, I’d rather be at a place like I-Con,” he says. “It appeals to my sense of culture. I like the smaller conventions that have been around a while and have a presence. You know that the people who come here are real sci-fi fans, and these are the fans that I want to try to reach and try to attract and get an audience with.”

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On our way to the Earth and Sciences labs, the site of his next panel, we pass through the Physics building to keep dry. Some of the classrooms are decorated for the occasion. When you’re looking for a particular panel like “Autonomous Warfare: When Will We Have Robot Soldiers?” or “What to Wear: A Guide to Medieval Clothing,” it’s helpful to know that you’ve come to the right place. Jane stops at one doorway and stares at a student sculpture made of packing tape; it’s meant to look like arms and a face, a ghost coming through the door.

“This is nice,” he says without a hint of sarcasm. “This is really nice.”

A few minutes later, he ambles into a small lecture hall. There are two cameramen waiting for him, and no fans. He toys with the idea of canceling the appearance and heading back to his booth. Ten minutes later, though, there are nine people in the audience, and this, apparently, is a big enough crowd to command his full, undivided attention. He talks for almost an hour, telling inside stories about big Hollywood projects as well as his straight-to-DVD movies like Give Em Hell Malone, for which he purchased props online and personally performed the color timing. He says it was a lot of fun to shoot, but stops short of saying it was any good.

Jane admits to the crowd that his penchant for filming B movies has hurt his career. One of his major regrets is turning down the role of Wolverine in X-Men to act in a murder mystery called Under Suspicion with Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman. According to Jane, the movie, and the experience, “sucked.”

I suggest that the fame and fortune of being Wolverine through four major movies and counting might prevent him from taking on his smaller projects and essentially make him “too big” for something like I-Con. He’s quick to shoot down the notion.

“I’d be here,” he says. “I’d be able to get more movies that I like financed. That’s the difference… I guess in America, you always want to be the biggest and the best, but my heroes as a kid were not the biggest movie stars. The bands that I liked were underground bands. I was a fan of punk rock. Punk rock was do-it-yourself, outside-the-system stuff. Unfortunately, in the movie business, you can’t operate so far outside the system that you can call yourself punk rock. But I’m trying to be as close as I can, you know?”

With that, Thomas Jane summarizes his philosophy on success. Over and over he says that Hung is a blast to make and probably his best work, but you still get the sense that even his most successful mainstream projects are only grudgingly finished as a means to fund another round of indie films and comics. In Jane’s world, success isn’t measured in big box office numbers or Emmy nominations, though he’s perfectly capable of stacking up both. Success is freedom, and right now, he’s living his dream, no matter how many people get to see what it really is.

Check out our Q&A with Thomas Jane, where

the former MF cover star talks about comics, movies, and alien life forms