By Devon Sanders
I first met Ben Penrod, founder of Awesome Con, two years ago. He came into Fantom Comics, the shop I managed at time, with this bold statement that Washington, DC-area geek culture had been underserved and he wanted to do something about it.
I had nothing for him but doubt.
True, the DC area has been underserved. The greater DC/Maryland/Virginia area has its fair share of excellent comics shops, many of which also happen to do gaming and Doctor Who-loving fans.
The DC area also plays host to anime/cosplay con, Katsucon, Small Press Expo (SPX) and Baltimore has its Otakon and Baltimore Comic-Con.
Sure, we all knew we'd wanted a pop culture convention in DC. People talked about it all the damn time but no one had ever actually done anything about it but until 2012…?
This coming April 18th through 20th sees Awesome Con return to Washington, DC and featuring Comics Guest of Honor George Perez and media guests Billie Piper (Doctor Who), Sean Astin (Lord Of The Rings), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Danai Gurira ( The Walking Dead's Michonne) and Firefly's Jewel Staite and Ron Glass.
I'm happy to say I've been proven me wrong.
In this interview with Ben Penrod, find out why Awesome Con will be the convention people you will be talking about and why this is the year to break a Guinness World Record.
Devon Sanders: What made you want to tackle something as ambitious as Awesome Con?
Ben Penrod: We ran the first Annapolis Comic-Con in 2011, and that's when I realized that I wanted to run conventions full time. It was so much fun and I felt like that's what I was meant to be doing my whole life. It's the type of job I'd leave my vacation early to go back to, that's how much fun I'm having. Not that it isn't a lot of hard work, but it's work I don't mind doing. I knew that I wanted to run conventions, I knew that DC didn't have one, so we just did it. I've traveled around the entire country going to comic-cons, and prior to 2013, Washington was the only major city that didn't have something like this.
The ambition really came in during planning for last year's event. We had to stop advertising because we knew that if we did any more promotion we wouldn't be able to handle the crowds. If I had the budget last year that we have for this year, we could have had 25,000 people at the 2013 event. So knowing that we definitely couldn't go back to the small exhibit space from 2013, the next logical step at the Washington Convention Center is their 50,000 square foot ballroom. Well, the ballroom costs the same as the 110,000 square foot exhibit hall and is ten times more difficult to load our exhibitors into. So we decided if we were going to rent the exhibit hall, we'd have to put on a show worthy of the exhibit hall. And since then, we've signed some of the top celebrity guests in the industry and expanded to over 200,000 square feet of exhibit hall space. At this point it's growing on its own and we're just trying to keep it on the rails.
DS: What made the DC area the perfect venue for Awesome Con?
BP: DC is perfect for Awesome Con, but right now the entire world is clamoring for this type of fan convention. There's no reason that there isn't one in every city, large or small, at least once a year. We are so lucky to be in DC, though. We've got the best convention center, we've got the nation's strongest economy, and our local area is full of students, soldiers, sailors, professionals, and geeks of all ages.
DS: This year, you've amped up your comics profile adding high profile creators such as legendary comics artist George Perez (New Teen Titans, The Avengers) and New York Times bestselling author Andrew Aydin (MARCH); what made this the year for ramping up that particular profile?
BP: We've scaled everything up, not just comics. Our goal was to bring in a few legendary, recognizable superstar creators like George Perez, but put the focus on creators who are extremely relevant in 2014's comic scene, like Justin Jordan, Jim Zub, and Jerry Gaylord. And the fact that Mr. Perez is STILL relevant today really accomplishes what I wanted with our comics guest list. You mentioned Andrew Aydin, who is fantastic, he's a great guy and he's probably tired of me gushing about how much I love March to him, but we've also got Rep. John Lewis coming to the con on Sunday, he co-wrote March: Book One with Andrew and it's actually the story of his life. This book was so powerful, I recommend it to anyone, and I can't wait to sit in on their panel on Sunday at the con.
DS: Cosplay has become an incredibly integral part of the convention going experience; this year, you're going to attempt to break the Guinness World Records for the largest gathering of people dressed as comic book characters. Last year, we started hearing more about cosplayers being harassed at certain con venues, what's Awesome Con doing to ensure a safe and respectful environment for cosplay?
BP: First, yes, we're trying to break the record, and we need ALL THE HELP WE CAN GET!! Please come out, the current record was set in China, so it's essentially your patriotic duty to be a part of the new world record.
Back to the question at hand, we're working with Hollaback Philly, they provided us with some great training materials. Last weekend we did our volunteer orientation, and a huge part of that was our harassment policy and how to handle those types of situations. We hope we never have to use the training, but we are prepared if we need to. We will also put our harassment policy online and in our program, and there should be some good signage around the con.
I really think that 99.99% of people in the fan community are super nice and just want to have a good time, and they want everyone else to have a good time with them. If that wasn't the case, everyone would just stay home on the internet. There's a reason people still want to get together and do things in person, it's because we all want to have a great time together. I also think most harassment is unintentional, so we need to be out in front as far as educating people and letting them know that they could be offending someone without knowing it. The number of true jerks in the world is much smaller than we generally assume it to be. I think education and preparation are really key to making sure everyone feels as safe as possible.
DS: Talk about what would you ultimately want the takeaway from Awesome Con to be?
BP: I just want everyone to have fun. We've worked so hard on this, I haven't slept in weeks, I just want everyone to come out and have a good time. There is truly something for everybody. We've got comics, games, toys, t-shirts, collectibles, celebrity guests, comic creators, discussion panels, stuff for kids, there's so much that I can't remember it all. There hasn't ever been anything like Awesome Con in Washington, DC before. Also, come out Friday, April 18th at noon and help us break this record!
Devon Sanders, when not walking his panther and pitching woo is writing. You've just read something he wrote so he's back to pitching the woo. He can be found on Twitter at @devonsanders.