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Keeping alive the joys of ‘nerd-dom’ at comics convention

Blast of color in black-and-white world comes to D.C.

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2013

In a city ruled by suits, ties and tight schedules, there exists a burgeoning community unbound by daily monotony and black-and-white rules: comic book fans.

This weekend, the Washington Convention Center transformed into a vivid world of science fiction, fandom, and not a few homemade costumes, as thousands of fans celebrated the inaugural Awesome Con D.C.

Dressed in tan jumpsuits nearly identical to the ones worn by Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in "Ghostbusters," Devon Black and Erik Faden stood observing the awards ceremony for the group costume contest.

Around the room children, teenagers and adults adjusted their colored wigs, face paint and handmade props as they eagerly awaited the results.

The 27-year-olds played their own private game of one-upmanship, with Mr. Black showing off his homemade proton pack and the glow it cast, thanks to working fiber optics.

"It was either going to be a lot of work or a lot of money," Mr. Black said. "I chose the work."

"We try to out-nerd each other constantly," Mr. Faden, who had no proton pack, said with a smile. "We came here to immerse ourselves in nerd-dom."

Nerds or not, the District is home to many comic fans, which was why it was an obvious choice for Ben Penrod, the Waldorf, Md.-based convention coordinator, to host the comic-convention in the nation's capital.

"It's an event people want to come to to have fun," Mr. Penrod said. "People come to show off costumes, buy stuff from the dealers, look around, see celebrities. It's a trade show and flea market with a little bit of Disney mixed in."

Pausing to direct a customer to a box of comics, Harry Hopkins, 61, of Fandata Bargain Comics said he has been in business since 1978. When he heard about the Awesome Con, he signed on so quickly that he got the first set of vendor tables. He said that Saturday was the best single business day he has ever had.

On Sunday, the tables were weighed down under boxes neatly stuffed with comics ranging from the Avengers to Zatanna.

"D.C. hasn't had a show in more than five years," the Fredericksburg, Va., resident said. "There's a lot of pent-up demand."

While there might be a demand, it's important to keep up the interest in comics before momentum is lost, Mr. Hopkins said.

"When I was growing up, television was black-and-white," he said. "Any color in life came from when you would draw or pick up a comic book. I'm doing this because I love comics and I'm trying to pass it on to the next generation. The comic industry is in a very gradual but inexorable decline."

While comics have been around for decades, comic conventions are seeing newfound popularity.

Mr. Penrod, 30, credited a mix of comic and cartoon love passed down from generations, as well as blockbuster superhero movies, for the tens of thousands of fans at ticket counters.

"Everybody loved cartoons, and kept loving them as they got older and they realized they still love that stuff," he said. "It created the pop culture we have now."

On Sunday, convention attendees dressed in costumes that ranged the gamut of pop culture. Fictional anchorwoman April O'Neil posed for pictures with one of her mutant ninja turtle friends, while Indiana Jones watched a group of X-Men finish an on-camera interview. Disney princesses dodged a pack of Batman villains, while father and son Ghost Riders dueled by the stairs.

And for those not participating in cosplay that's "costume play" for the uninitiated plenty of vendors and exhibits stood waiting for eager eyes and deep wallets.

As she watched her son be interviewed by April O'Neil and her turtle sidekick, Ariel Casey of Rockville said at the very least, Awesome Con was much closer to home than some of the other conventions she has attended.

"This one in particular is more about artists," the 32-year-old said. "The ones in Philadelphia or in San Diego are about noise and pomp."

The child of two professional dancers, Ms. Casey said she learned on her own to appreciate comics and movies thanks to the 1978 Christopher Reeve film "Superman," based on the flying DC Comics superhero. Her son Michael, 12, was equally as passionate about Marvel Comics.

"People forget this culture exists," she said. "People took creative ideas and put them on paper, and people took those stories and put awesome pictures to go with it."

Comics are a way to embrace creativity, while for some it's a way to escape. Brett Carreras, 34, who promotes Virginia's Comicon, said the larger crowd could be because of the fact that Boston's comic convention was scheduled for the same weekend, but was canceled after the city shut down while police hunted the two suspects in last week's Boston Marathon bombing.

"I've seen people who came here instead of Boston," he said. "People just wanted to get away from the reality of this week."

For those who missed this year's convention, Mr. Penrod said he already was planning on another Awesome Con next year.

"A show like this needs to be annual, it's gotta be like the Super Bowl," Mr. Penrod said. "You've got to stoke the flames."

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