Ben Penrod is a geek.
Case in point: The coordinator of this weekend’s Awesome Con D.C., which is being billed as the first comic convention in the District, proudly lifts his shirt to show off his “Adventure Time” belt buckle. Shaped like the face of Jake — that’s the canine half of the boy-and-his-dog duo that headlines the hit Cartoon Network series — the saucer-size medallion is a badge of honor, signifying active membership in the once-maligned fringes of culture defined by comic books, cartoons, science fiction, fantasy, anime, television, action movies and video games.
Those margins are now the mainstream.
A smaller, upstart version of San Diego’s Comic-Con International, Awesome Con will take place in an approximately 18,000-square-foot “salon” at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (think large hotel ballroom) on Saturday and Sunday. Like San Diego’s annual celebration of pop culture, which since 1970 has mushroomed from 100 attendees to well over 100,000, Awesome Con will be, as Penrod puts it, “intentionally unfocused.” Meaning that, in addition to its core constituency of comic-book fans, it aims to appeal to anyone who enjoys any form of popular entertainment. That includes devotees of “Star Wars,” stand-up comedy, street art, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” gaming, J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, pop music, theater and collectibles.
That doesn’t leave many people out.
What once was considered lowbrow culture has become, to a large degree, simply culture. “If you had told me when I was a kid that ‘The Avengers’ would become the third-highest grossing movie of all time, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says the 30-year-old Penrod, who, as a teen, cut his teeth in the Annapolis comic book store Another Universe. Penrod, having organized conventions in that city as well as in Waldorf, says he felt Washington was ripe for its own event, thanks to its thriving art scene, plentiful colleges and a recent influx of young professionals.
Although Awesome Con D.C. is too new to attract the caliber of high-powered celebrities that San Diego draws, it’s off to a good start. Among the more prominent guests are actors Nicholas Brendon (Xander from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and Theodus Crane (Big Tiny on “The Walking Dead”). When asked about the appearance of Ernie Hudson, whose résuméincludes a recurring role on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” — hardly a show about vampires or zombies — Penrod looked at me as though I were crazy and said, “Come on. He was in ‘Ghostbusters.’ ”
In addition to appearances by pop-culture heroes and Q&As with celebrity guests, Awesome Con is setting aside a number of break-off areas from the main hall. One of them, the Mind of the Geek game room, will be devoted exclusively to gaming (with free play). Another room will feature activities and art supplies for young people.
Other offerings include sci-fi speed dating, life drawing sessions (featuring costumed models Eyrie Twilight and Maki Rolle), film screenings, a concert and live podcasts. Check www.awesomecondc.com for a full schedule, and keep reading for a closer look at some of the convention’s highlights.
Dressing up as your favorite character from comics, movies or TV shows — an activity known as cosplay — is an integral part of any comic convention. In addition to four organized costume contests at Awesome Con, including two exclusively for children age 12 and younger, the exhibition floor will be crawling with folks in full masquerade regalia. “It’ll look like Halloween all weekend long,” Penrod says.
These are the cosplayers, a community of part-time exhibitionists who spend hours, if not weeks — and often serious money — designing, sewing, molding, sanding and painting elaborate costumes, headgear and weaponry that they show off at one convention after another.
It’s serious fun.
Before 2009, Wendell Smith, 41, of Upper Marlboro had never set foot at a con. At the invitation of a friend, he attended that year’s Baltimore convention in a “Star Wars” costume he had found on eBay, making himself up as a Sith one day, a Jedi the next. At 6 feet tall and 280 pounds, the former Marine cut a striking figure, and he was mobbed at the door. “It was the most awesome thing I had ever felt,” Smith says.
He was hooked. Since then, Smith has attended numerous cons, amassing a wardrobe of at least 30 handmade get-ups, which he designs, sews and builds at home, creating the metallic look of armor, say, by mixing aluminum powder with fiberglass. These days, the self-described “computer guy” for the Treasury Department owns 18 lightsabers and routinely attends eight to 10 cons a year, specializing in African American superheroes such as John Stewart (a.k.a. Green Lantern).
The character Smith is taking to Awesome Con won’t be recognizable. Smith is unveiling General Almagulus, a character he created for a movie he and some like-minded pals are filming in Baltimore. (You can check out Smith’s Facebook fan page under Scorpking Costuming.)
Among Awesome Con’s many themed panels, the one with the broadest appeal is probably the “Futurama” discussion on Sunday at 11 a.m., featuring the animated show’s voice actors Phil LaMarr (Hermes Conrad) and Billy West (Fry/Dr. Zoidberg).
Originally broadcast on Fox, then canceled and since revived on Comedy Central, the Matt Groening and David X. Cohen cartoon about the crew of a 31st-century package-delivery service inspires intense devotion. Like a true geek, Penrod is able to rattle off his all-time favorite episodes: “The Luck of the Fryrish” and “Jurassic Bark.”
According to LaMarr, cons were once thought to be where washed-up performers “went to die.” That’s no longer the case, he says, noting that today’s con attendees are the trendsetters of tomorrow and that, more often than not, celebrity guests seek them out because they have something fresh to flog, other than a dead horse. (Although he is most often recognized from his on-camera work on “Mad TV” — or from his cameo as the guy John Travolta shot in the face in 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” — LaMarr would much rather talk about his work on the Hub channel’s “Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters” or the new animated “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series and upcoming feature film.)
His advice for the uninitiated comic con guest, who doesn’t know the Hulk from the Green Hornet and who may feel out of his or her depth? Relax. People at the con may be passionate, LaMarr says, but geekdom is just another word for love.
That happens to be the same advice he gives to the borderline obsessive fanboys or fangirls who may have followed his career from the excitable delivery man on “Mad TV” to Wilt on “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.”
“What I do is not a super power,” LaMarr says with a laugh. “It’s just me doing funny voices.”
The art of storytelling is at the heart of Awesome Con, which gives comic book fans the chance to meet heroes like Larry Hama, best known as the writer of Marvel’s “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.” Other big names in attendance include artist Ben Templesmith (“30 Days of Night”) and writer Justin Jordan, a rising star whose series “The Strange Talent of Luther Strode” has led to a gig at DC Comics, writing for the series “Green Lanterns: New Guardians.”
But Awesome Con also offers the chance to discover emerging talent. Carolyn Belefski is one such up-and-comer. The 30-year-old Virginia native is the creator of “Curls,” an online strip based on a comic Belefski drew for the Commonwealth Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Commonwealth University. Unlike the more testosterone-fueled tales that tend to dominate the comics universe, Belefski’s comic is about the adventures of a girl who’s friends with a bunch of cute animals — and a talking piece of toast. On Sunday at 2 p.m., Belefski and Joe Carabeo, her writing partner on several other comic books, will be hosting a live podcast with Theodus Crane of “The Walking Dead.”
Belefski doesn’t necessarily dream of print syndication for “Curls.” “The Web is where the action is now,” she says. But the artist has some other pretty big ambitions. “My life goal,” she says, with just a hint of facetiousness, “is seeing one of my characters become a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
One of the oddest attractions at Awesome Con may be the Super Art Fight (Saturday at 5 p.m.). Billed as a mash-up of a live artist demonstration, professional wrestling, stand-up comedy, improv theater and the Exquisite Corpse parlor game, the event is essentially a drawing competition consisting of four 25-minute bouts between two costumed artists, each of whom scribbles madly in front of an audience on a 6-by-12-foot sketchpad. Winners are selected by audience applause.
A spin-off of a similar art competition called Iron Artist, Super Art Fight was born at a recent Katsucon, an annual local anime convention, when technical problems shut down a live video feed of an art demonstration. According to Super Art Fight organizer and emcee Marty Day, panic led to hilarity when the two artists simply started drawing on each other’s work, inviting audience participation and attacking each other — literally. “We realized we had stumbled upon a unique way of watching live art,” Day says.
The essence of the show flies in the face of the stereotype of the solitary artist, according to Day. “Artists spend enough time alone in a room,” he says. “Let’s make them rock stars.”
The whole thing sounds like a pitch for a reality TV show. “You’re not the first person to tell me that,” Day says. “If Bravo came calling, we wouldn’t say no.”