Geek culture fans usually flock to conventions in New York City or San Diego to see their favorite stars and connect with fellow nerd enthusiasts. However, as fan conventions have become a pop culture phenomenon, D.C. has slowly been gaining steam as a convention hotspot.
Awesome Con returns to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (801 Mt Vernon Pl., N.W.) for its fifth consecutive year on Friday, March 30-Sunday, April 1. For three days, people can indulge in nerdy pleasures featuring hours of celebrity guests, exhibits, panels and connecting with fans of “Star Wars,” “Smallville,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and more.
Awesome Con founder Ben Penrod, a self-proclaimed “big nerd,” never expected his passion project to become the largest geek event in the D.C. area.
Penrod grew up in Annapolis, Md., with a love for comic books and superheroes that eventually grew into buying and selling comic books on eBay in the late ‘90s to make extra cash for more comic books. In 2009, Penrod went full-time selling comic books and began to travel to conventions across the country. He continued on to found Annapolis Comic-Con and Southern Maryland Comic-Con with Third Eye Comics founder Steve Anderson before Penrod decided to branch into Washington.
“People think of D.C. and they don’t immediately think of fans of comic books and pop culture,” Penrod says. “But the people that you would think of as a typical D.C. resident, like an attorney or a lobbyist or a federal employee or somebody in the military, I think that the representation of science fiction, superhero and comic book fans among those people is so high that Washington, D.C., is one of the best nerd communities in the entire country.”
The first Awesome Con kicked off in 2013 at the Convention Center with an attendance of 7,000 people. The event gained attention throughout the region and Awesome Con 2017 saw a spike in attendance with 70,000 guests.
Over the years, fans were invited to see their favorite celebrities in person for autographs, photo-ops and panels. In the past, the guest list has welcomed stars from hit shows such as “Doctor Who, “Star Trek” and “The Walking Dead.” This year, the lineup includes “Star Wars” breakout star John Boyega, Stephen Amell and out actor John Barrowman from CW series “Arrow” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” cast including Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn.
Penrod says celebrity guests are chosen based on a combination of fan demand and TV shows and movies currently trending. The convention has roots in science fiction, but Penrod admits sometimes he purposely seeks out stars purely for nostalgia.
The cast of ‘90s sitcom “Boy Meets World,” Ben Savage, Rider Strong and Will Friedle, are on the guest list this year. While the show went off the air in 2000, it maintained a strong fan base through re-runs on the Disney Channel.
“It was meant to be this comic book convention with sci-fi, superhero celebrities. But what it’s turned into is this really broad celebration of pop culture and whether that means we’re doing the ‘90s nostalgia stuff with ‘Boy Meets World,’ that doesn’t really have a sci-fi, superhero realm of things, but it definitely fits. But you can’t pinpoint exactly why it fits,” Penrod says.
The convention also includes programming geared toward specific interests and groups.
Future Con, where science meets science fiction, will feature panels such as the “Science of ‘Black Panther,’” “Harry Potter and the Genetics of Wizarding,” “What’s Happening Now to Make the Sci-Fi Space Travel We See in Movies a Reality” and more. Programming is in partnership with the biggest names in science such as NASA, National Geographic and the Smithsonian.
“We didn’t just start Future Con because we thought it would be a good idea,” Penrod says. “We had so much involvement and so much outreach from all these governmental organizations, science-based organizations, whether it was NASA, the Smithsonian, the Science Channel. We had all of these people reaching out to us. We’re like, ‘This is special and nobody else could do this. Except D.C.’”
Awesome Con Jr. offers kids an experience crafted especially for them with character meet and greets with Paddington Bear, Buddy from the “Dinosaur Train,” Ranger Rick, “Dragon Ball Z” characters and the Easter Bunny. In between photo-ops, kids can attend panels such as “Intro Spells for Young Witches and Wizards,” participate in live art contests and play video games.
As for LGBT-specific content, Awesome Con has joined forces with Geeks Out, a non-profit organization based in New York City for the LGBT geek community. Together, they created Pride Alley, both a physical space and group of programming for LGBT patrons.
Pride Alley is part of Artist Alley, which highlights arts, crafts, comics and more from LGBT creators. There are also panels that focus specifically on queer identity and fandom.
“The Queer Gamer Meetup: with D.C. Gaymers” offers a place for LGBT people to meet and play video games on Friday, March 30 at 5:30 p.m. “GAAAYS IN SPAAACE,” is a panel on LGBT representation in “Star Trek” on Saturday, March 31 at 12:30 p.m. “Slash of Our Ancestors,” a panel on the history of same-sex fan fiction, takes place on Sunday, April 1 at 2:15 p.m. Geeks Out will be hosting Snikt: D.C., the official queer after party of Awesome Con, at the Dew Drop Inn D.C. (2801 8th St., N.E.) on Friday, March 30 at 9 p.m.
It also wouldn’t be a convention without cosplay. In addition to the con’s daily cosplay contests, Pride Alley offers the panel “Sexuality in Cosplay: Nuff Said” on Friday, March 30 at 8:45 p.m. featuring representatives from NYC nightlife, an LGBT therapist and cosplayers.
Geeks OUT President Nicole Gitau praises Awesome Con for giving the LGBT community a home at the con.
“The group at Awesome Con, they’re really great,” Gitau says. “They really wanted to increase the visible presence of diversity on the floor. I can only commend them for that. Conventions are known for not always having been the most welcoming of spaces. I think that’s changed a lot in the last few years. It’s nice to see that Awesome Con is really committed to that.”
Penrod says Awesome Con needed Pride Alley because LGBT fans were already engaged in the convention.
“It was important because we knew that community was very well represented in our fans, in our people who are already exhibiting and at the con, and the creators who are making comics, TV and movies,” he says. “We knew that in this world of nerd stuff and geek culture that the LGBT community is a very big part of things. I wanted to take the opportunity to make that a focus at Awesome Con.”
For Gitau, who identifies as queer, the LGBT geek community is a haven she hopes can make the general geek community have “positive associations in their life” of LGBT people and to “think differently about the social climate we’re in right now.”
“One of the fun things about this is to be amidst a group of people who understand not only my cultural references but also my cultural critiques,” Gitau says. “There’s sort of a safety. Geeks, we love things passionately. That is what makes us geeky about a thing. But when you love something you want it to be better. And that ability to have free conversation is what is really exciting for me.”