When Awesome Con started in 2013, the comic convention drew about 7,000 fans and fit into a single room at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown D.C. This year, with an expected 60,000 attendees, Awesome Con will use almost the entire complex on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“For our fifth year, we’re taking over the whole convention center, minus a room or two,” founder Ben Penrod says.
What accounts for the growing popularity of this annual celebration of comics, movies, gaming, cosplay and more?
“The people who live in D.C. are kind of geeks and nerds,” Penrod says. “We have people who work for NASA, who work in R&D for defense companies, who work in the arts. These are the kind of people who are also interested in science and ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ and superheroes.”
To further cater to those people, Awesome Con has partnered with Smithsonian magazine to debut “Future Con” this year. “It’s a celebration of science and entertainment, almost a mini-convention within Awesome Con,” Penrod says. Future Con’s panels include “Harry Potter and the Genetics of Wizarding” and “Parallel and Multi Universe Theory in Sci-Fi.” Big-name guests at this year’s Awesome Con include former “Doctor Who” star David Tennant, “Mystery Science Theater 3000’s” Felicia Day, and director Edgar Wright, who will offer a sneak peek at his new film, “Baby Driver,” on Saturday.
In honor of Awesome Con’s fifth birthday, we chatted with three of the con’s veterans about some of this year’s can’t-miss sessions.
Before Megan Mattingly went to Awesome Con in 2014, the now 30-year-old investment banker from Alexandria had never been to a con before. This year, she’ll be getting married at the convention in a panel room she’s reserved for an hour. “I’m going to be dressed as Wonder Woman with all DC Comics bridesmaids, and my parents will be Zeus and Hippolyta,” she says. Her fiance is going as Deadpool, with Marvel groomsmen by his side.
‘CosLove Presents: #icanbeaHERO’ (Fri., 2:30 p.m.) At this panel, cosplay enthusiasts will share how they have turned their hobby into an opportunity for community service — for instance, by entertaining children in hospitals. “I think it’s really amazing how cosplay can bring joy to so many in the community, and this panel will help anyone interested to be a part of that,” she says.
‘#TotallyAwesomeAsians: Creators and Representation’ (Fri., 5 p.m.) This panel will explore the creative contributions that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to American comic books. “It’s important to recognize diversity and make sure we’re really promoting it within pop culture,” Mattingly says.
’Love Your Cosplay Body’ (Sat., 3 p.m.) Speakers at this session will discuss how to deal with trolls and construct costumes for a variety of body types. “I’m really excited about this panel to help discuss what it means to work with your body so you feel comfortable doing cosplay at any size, and have the strength to go be any character your nerdy heart desires,” Mattingly says.
Carmen Shamwell, 36, went to Awesome Con for the first time in 2013. “My mom was in town and we were dealing with the aftermath of my grandfather’s death, and I didn’t really feel like I deserved to have fun,” she recalls. Her mom encouraged her to go, and even tagged along. “Now it’s my favorite weekend out of the year. It’s like a mini vacation for me,” says the Hyattsville, Md.-based product manager.
‘The Total Solar Eclipse, from NASA’ (Fri., 5 p.m.) NASA scientists will explain how they’ll gather data during the Aug. 21 eclipse to better understand the sun. “A lot of the crazy fictional elements in sci-fi, fantasy and comic books are based in science, and so it’s cool Awesome Con is putting an emphasis on actual science this year,” Shamwell says. “Plus, I want to hear what to expect during the solar eclipse, because I’ve never experienced one before.”
Phil LaMarr Q&A (Fri., 4:15 p.m.) The extremely versatile actor appeared in “Pulp Fiction” and has voiced many comic book and cartoon characters on TV, including Samurai Jack, Green Lantern and Static, of “Static Shock.” “I want to get into voice acting, so I’m interested to hear what he says about working in that industry,” Shamwell says.
Artist Alley (duration of conference) This section of the main exhibit hall features costumes, artwork and other wares inspired by Awesome Con attendees’ core interests. “These artists and vendors are really putting a lot of thought into interpreting aspects of our culture and making them into art,” Shamwell says.
Wendell Smith, 45, hits eight or so comic book conventions every year, including Awesome Con, which he’s attended from the start. “I’m loving the fact that it’s growing and it’s not just a sidebar on someone’s calendar anymore,” he says. A devoted cosplayer, the Upper Marlboro, Md.-based information technology specialist wears a different costume every day of the convention — often Marvel characters like Thanos and Apocalypse. “Sometimes I’ll even do two costumes on the same day,” a trick he pulls off by changing in a friend’s hotel room, he says.
John Barrowman Q&A (Sat., 5:30 p.m.) Barrowman, best known for his role as Captain Jack Harkness on “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood,” is a quick-witted speaker who tells lively stories about his work, Smith says. “He’s one of the most energetic and fun celebrities I’ve seen at a con,” Smith says.
Stan Lee Q&A (Sun., 10:30 a.m.) The former head of Marvel Comics, 94-year-old Lee helped create many a comic book character, including Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Hulk. “He’s someone who has been very, very influential for this industry, and he loves what he does,” Smith says.
Awesome Con: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place NW; Fri., noon-8 p.m., Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $10-$525.