By Chad Hoyle (@chadillacgrilz)
Ambition was higher than execution at the RI ComicCon held this weekend in downtown Providence. In only its second year, the two-day event begged to be taken seriously by drawing an impressive array of celebrities, artists, and vendors who grabbed the attention of some 30 thousand attendees. Though successful in many ways, the experience was weakened by circumstances that at times were gross oversights, and at others, tragically unforeseen.
Like any comic convention, RI’s welcomed a cadre of colorful attendees, many decked out in in their favorite character costumes. The turnout was unexpectedly impressive- even halfway through the first day, the line for admission ran through venue, filled the adjoining civic center lobby and spilled into the street. Those who had passes arranged could bypass this queue, but were met with staff ill prepared for the onslaught they faced. When I arrived around 1pm on Saturday, I was given the wrong color bracelet and told that they had run out of pass lanyards that morning- not a critical miss of course, but an easily avoidable annoyance that lessened the value of the VIP passes held by others in my group.
Inside the venue, the crowds’ intensity was no different. The main exhibit hall was perpetual flow of bodies progressing through the exhibits and aisles and booth to booth like cars on a highway- stopping short at any point would cause a domino-effect backup. Cosplayers ranged from sexy zombies to Marvel Superheroes to Adventure Time characters- Finn from that show was surprisingly one of the most popular costumes on display. The costumes ranged from shoddy to mind-blowing, yet all were worn with honor by the person who painstakingly handmade and courageously displayed themselves in public. In some cases, the outfits pushed the boundaries of adequacy, which spurred complaints from many parents through the event's Facebook page. In the Con’s defense, these type of costumes appear at nearly every similar event, and are practically impossible to regulate without imposing on all cosplayers. However, a disclaimer suited to the parents of young attendees would solve the con’s issue of liability.
Three major sections made up the main floor: Comic book and Gaming stores from around New England set up shop in the center vendor area, flanked on one side by graphic artists and authors, on the other by the many celebrities on hand for signatures and introductions. Mixed in throughout were many various classic props from film and television, including four different Batman vehicles through the ages, the Dukes’ “General Lee”, a Star Wars landspeeder, and a full sized model of the Rancor monster from Return of the Jedi. Crowds gathered around each exhibit to take photos of themselves with the iconic items.
As expected, the celebrity area had the most foot traffic, since this year the show was able to entice some impressive names from all facets of entertainment to attend. There were too many to name, but notables included Danny Glover, Billy Dee Williams, and Ernie Hudson from the world of film, voice-over talents including Dana Snyder, Jeremy Shada, and Phil LaMarr, and a reunion of TV icons from the original Batman series that included Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar. Customary of any celebrity appearance, they were charging attendees for autographs, photos, and meet-and-greets. To the dismay of many, the values were set by the celebs themselves- prices for an autograph could range from $20-$120 depending on their popularity. Despite the costs, nothing could keep thousands of attendees from crowding every table for a chance to meet their silver screen heroes. Unfortunately, some of the planned appearances were unexpectedly cancelled due to the tragic LAX shooting on Friday impacting travel arrangements from California. Event coordinators were forced to cancel and reschedule event planned around the absent stars, including Nichelle Nichols from TV’s Star Trek and 80’s icon Anthony Michael Hall.
In addition to the main floor, the celebrities participated in panel information sessions where they shared stories about their projects and entertained questions from an audience of hundreds. However, a lack of signage made it difficult to find the panel ballroom on the top floor of the venue. Also noticed was a lack of Con volunteers in the main expo hall and mezzanine areas to direct attendees to various events- it appeared that the bulk of the volunteer force was recruited to assist with the celebrity signings, since each had a Con chaperone at their booths. VIP pass holders in the group also had trouble finding the exclusive reserved lounge, worsened by the fact that they couldn't find someone to point them in the right direction.
Favorites included Saturday’s Voice-Over panel that featured actors describing the development and evolution of some of their signature characters. On the dais was Dana Snyder, voice of Master Shake on Aqua Teen Hunger Force; Jeremy and Zack Shada, who have both played Finn on Adventure Time; Phil LaMarr, star of MadTV and many animated shows including Futurama; Alan Oppenheimer who voiced He-Man’s Skeletor; and Larry Kenny, the man behind Lion-O of Thundercats. After the stories, to everyone’s surprise, the panel acted out the full-length “Chinese Restaurant” episode of Seinfeld in their signature voices. Though entertaining, the event was poorly moderated with some incoherent questions to the panel and a lack of microphone in the audience when they welcomed questions from the crowd.
Sunday I attended an interesting panel that featured a rare reunion of actors who played bounty hunters in the original Star Wars trilogy. Though some saw various degrees of fame after their roles, most went on to lead relatively normal lives after bringing to life the now-iconic parts. The consensus was that none realized the passion that fans had for these seemingly-minor characters until decades later- in fact, most didn’t even know their characters had names when filming. Each actor emphasized that the fans are the reason their characters still resonate to this day, and the dais extended many thanks to those in attendance. The highlight for many was when Paul Blake, who played Greedo in A New Hope, ended the argument over the cantina shootout by explaining that the original script called for Han Solo to fire first. A Q&A session followed, improving on the format of the first day by having a microphone runner assisting with the audience questions.
Although there was some obvious room for improvement, the 2nd annual RI ComicCon was generally successful- despite the shortcomings, they were able to generate an event that demanded a higher caliber of talent than the previous year, and the resulting turnout was better than expected. From my perspective, we achieved our goal of meeting and interviewing Jeremy Shada and Dana Snyder, both of which will be featured on upcoming episodes of Ramble On. Attendees for the most part left elated to meet their favorite artists and celebrities, and to step into a in-ordinary world for a few weekend hours. The coordinators of the event were also very proactive in addressing the various concerns over the weekend, ensuring that they would take whatever measures possible to rectify issues and improve for the future. Many of the problems faced were results of inadequate preparation, lack of staff, and unclear signage- all of which are easy fixes that, once resolved, will make for a nearly perfect ComicCon in 2014,and I can’t wait to see how high they plan to raise the bar.