Everyone - especially Philadelphians - loves an underdog.

Which helps explain why Wizard World Philly and Billy Tucci are larger than ever in 2008. Despite more cons popping up every year, and greater challenges in securing top talent, this year's Wizard World Philly (the seventh) has the Convention Center packed with a huge number of exhibitors, retailers and creators.

They don't get much bigger than Tucci, who is best-known for his award-winning character Shi - which he not only created but wrote, drew and self-published for years. It is a Rocky-esque tale.

"For about two years, I had tried getting freelance work for the majors, but, as luck would have it, they wanted nothing to do with my writing or art," he said. "I was told that my drawings didn't fit a Marvel/DC mold or style. As a result, I decided to self-publish. It was absolutely the best decision of my life to self-publish, and I've never looked back."

Since hitting comic book stores in 1994, "Shi" has been printed in four languages, appeared in over 100 comics, sold over 3 million comics worldwide, crossed over with characters like Wolverine and Daredevil and is about to be made into a film produced by Mimi Gitlin ("Thelma and Louise"). Tucci will help with the script for the film, and is overwhelmed by the success his Little Character That Could continues to enjoy.

"It's terrific," he said. "Since Ana's story is basically a modern day samurai tale, it opens up a lot of possibilities. . . . I would imagine that having this single Japanese woman who's haunted by the ghosts of fallen warrior monks that get her in all sorts of trouble is a nice starting ground. I am truly the luckiest man in the world."

Tucci also feels fortunate to be back in Philadelphia and said that he has yet to miss a Wizard World Philly show since it started in 2002.

"Philadelphia is a perfect gathering place for publishers, professionals and fans," he said. "I love this city, its history and its people.

"The literal birth of our nation took place here. What's better than that? Well, maybe the women - but I'm happily married, so having so many beautiful women [is also] the worst thing about it!"

Tucci will be on hand all weekend long to do sketches, sign books and promote his upcoming projects, which include his "dream project," a "Sgt. Rock" miniseries; a graphic novel, through Big City Comics, called "Zombie-sama!"; a screenplay; and a new take on Peter Pan and Tinkerbell in "Escape from Neverland."

Katee Sackhoff, who plays the immensely popular Starbuck on "Battlestar Galactica," will be making her first Wizard World Philly appearance Sunday and J.G. Jones, artist on DC's biggest comic of the year ("Final Crisis"), is on hand as guest of honor and will be doing panels and signings.

Other big-name comic creators include Garth Ennis ("Dan Dare"), Ethan Van Sciver ("Green Lantern"), Ron Marz ("Witchblade") and Jimmy Palmiotti ("Jonah Hex").

Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada will be appearing all weekend, as will DC executive Editor Dan Didio. Smaller publishers will also be in attendance, like Fort Washington-based Zenescope, Big City Comics and Dynamite, which plans an announcement from the creators of the "Blair Witch Project" on Saturday.

Legendary writer Peter David will be signing, attending panels and performing an exclusive reading from his upcoming novel, "Tigerheart." Others appearing include Brian Reed ("Red Sonja"), Jim Krueger ("Project Superpowers") and famed painters Greg Hildebrandt and Joe Jusko. (And don't forget to look for the Daily News' own Brad Guigar of "Evil Inc." and "Phables.")

Some true comic giants like Carmine Infantino (creator of Flash and Batgirl), Jim Steranko ("Indiana Jones" designer) and Joe Kubert, who appear frequently with artbook and graphic novel publisher Vanguard, will be absent this year. WWP staple Dazza Del Rio also complained of communication problems and won't be attending.

"I'm sure in all the hectic nature of running a major convention like Wizard World Philly, it was just a matter of someone forgetting that they hadn't booked any of the living legends that really built this industry," says Vanguard's J. David Spurlock.

However, other icons that have become Wizard World Philly staples will have a bigger stage this year. Just in time for heightened interest in "The Incredible Hulk" movie, the man most identified by TV fans as the character, Lou Ferrigno, will be on hand Friday for a retrospective on his time playing the Jade Giant, and will be available for signings all weekend. Another giant in his field, artist Michael Golden, will be set up in Artists Alley, sketching and selling his new book, "Excess: The Art of Michael Golden." Golden will also have a limited edition (only 150 copies signed and numbered) poster for the new Digital Webbing book "Demon's Regret."

The weekend will also include such diverse fare as the first annual ToyFare Hall of Fame Awards and toy sculpting lessons from the Shiflett Brothers, as well as wrestler Kevin Nash.

"It's always a pleasure to come back here year after year," Palmiotti said. "[It's] a really well-run show that not only looks after the fans, but treats its creators with respect. Plus, Philly is a great city with a wealth of history and beauty."

Tucci, Marz and Palmiotti also all look forward to Geno's cheesesteaks when they visit.

"Where else can I see half drunk people at 4 p.m. trying to stuff a sandwich the size of a baby's arm into their mouth while yelling insults at cops ticketing their triple parked cars?" asked Palmiotti. "It's wonderful, really." *

Wizard World Philly, Philadelphia Convention Center, Friday, noon-6 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.