Comic Con: The Con That Ate PVD (in a good way)

RI Comic Con is like that radioactive mutant that just won’t stop growing. But in a good way. This year’s event once again took over the entire Convention Center and Dunkin Donuts Center, and pretty much all the hotels, bars, restaurants, arcades and parking spots downtown PVD had to offer.

Saturday was a fully sold-out crowd, and the estimated total attendance over three days was 75,000. That’s up from about 60,000 last year, but the overall feel of the crowd was generally less stressful, because the event was spread over that third day (thank you, Veterans Day, for falling on a Friday this year). With such a massive number of humans, many

Family of Wonder!

Family of Wonder!

of them eccentric, there are sure to be snags and snafus, but the event overall has become more smoothly run each year, and this was true to that course. Behind the scenes, it seemed to be coordinated and happy – no last-minute lock-outs, magically disappearing booths or fits of online nerd rage. Schedules were accessible, events as easy to find as they can be in the sometimes labyrinthine building, and even the weather cooperated.

RI Comic Con gathers such a large number of celebrity guests that one or two drop-outs rarely make any difference. Miss Kate Beckinsale (who basically got called in for her day job)? Go check out Gal Godot. There was something for everyone, from Power Rangers to voiceover artists to comic book creators to illustrators to professional wrestlers.

There were also intense break-away sessions. One hall was dedicated to gaming – board and role playing. Another to Sci-Fi Speed Dating, and one to the art and philosophy of cosplay. Seminars included publishing tips, illustration advice, voiceover tips and numerous other topics. There was even a mock-up of the reality show “Hellevator” hosted by local horrifier AV from The Viennagram (a local spectacle rock band).

The two drivers that really make entering Comic Con feel like stepping onto another planet are the vendors – the hundreds of vendors present an insane variety of geeky purchasing and browsing options – and the cosplayers. Gracious guests bring the con to life by democratizing the entertainment, and some of the costumes (and in-character behavior) are jaw-dropping.

This year saw an expected plethora of Wonder Women, in all shapes, sizes and from all eras (she’s had a lot of outfits over the years). It didn’t hurt that Gal Godot, star of the upcoming Wonder Woman film, was in attendance. We caught the amusing spectacle of security (efficient yet reasonable, but mostly not pop-culture nerds) trying to figure out how to properly search a life size Dalek (see “Doctor Who”) as it entered. There were Hulks, Thors, Captain Americas, a gaggle of 8-foot tall Velociraptors and a full contingent of ghostbusters. An 8-foot-tall Grodd was stomping around for a while, and RI’s native monsters from Big NAZO were on patrol — and that’s only scratching the surface. Probably 10% of the attendees were in serious, “that took some effort and skill” costumery.

Here are some highlights from panel talks over the course of the weekend – with apologies in advance because we were only able to hit a small fraction of them.

Stan Lee delighted audiences with his reminiscences. Due to age and health concerns, this was Mr. Lee’s last trip to the East Coast – but you will doubtless see his cameos in more upcoming Marvel films.

Gal Godot spoke well in English – which is her third or fourth language – about the tribulations of playing Wonder Woman. She was joined, unexpectedly, by Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg in the upcoming big-budget Justice League film. When panel hostess Clare Kramer (big bad Glory from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) asked what it was like first stepping into the iconic costume, Godot said, “Tight.”

She elaborated that she was, “So excited, I said it was fine, but really I couldn’t even breathe.” Things were loosened up later, and she did eventually breathe. She also described her rigorous training regimen: “Lots of horseback riding, which was awesome and … painful. Lots of martial arts, which was awesome and painful. It was great, but I’m so happy I’m done with it!”

Summer Glau (Serenity, “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles”) had a comfortable chat with her audience, revealing that while she’d always loved performance as a ballerina, she started taking acting classes in part to get over anxiety about public speaking. That’s certainly come a long way. She also confessed her favorite line to date: “Also, I can kill you with my brain.” (from “Firefly”) and described the empowerment of playing a Terminator – “Everything is breakaway. So I grab a car door handle, and the door comes flying off. I hit a door, and it bursts into pieces. It’s pretty empowering.”

In his panel, John Ratzenberger (Cliff from “Cheers,” and at least one character from every Pixar movie), described his early acting experiences (“I kept expecting one of my school teachers to show up and say, ‘What’s he doing here with all these famous people? He got Cs and Ds. He doesn’t belong here.’”). He talked about not taking his work home – his children thought he was a carpenter when they were young, because that’s all they saw him do. He also revealed his secret to getting a role in every Pixar movie made for the big screen so far: “They called and asked me to do a voice for a toy, and I said, ‘OK.’ Then they asked me to do another one, and I said, ‘OK.’ Then they just kept calling. I actually thought it might be a clerical error – a computer glitch or something. But I kept saying yes.”

Millie Bobby Brown, the not-yet-13-year-old actress who captured hearts as the mysterious “11” in this year’s runaway Netflix hit “Stranger Things,” handled her audience like a trained conductor with an orchestra. Her energy and joie-de-vivre kept an audience of hundreds engaged and wondering what she’d do next. She opened and closed her session with a “mannequin challenge” – live tweeting a video of a posed crowd not moving. She was joined halfway through by her 4-year old sister Ava, a scene-stealer who claimed to have no interest in acting because she’s “too shy,” but then didn’t hesitate to take the mic and advocate for her favorite name for the family’s new dog (“Ralph”). The British actress, born in Spain and living in the US, had an unexpected accent and was astutely interviewed by Tami Stronach, the former child star who played the Childlike Empress in The Neverending Story. Ms. Brown also showed up unexpectedly from the audience in cameos during other panels (once startling one of our reporters with an unexpected shout-out from 6 inches behind him). If she keeps that energy as she grows, it seems this young lady is going to be showing up a lot.

“The Walking Dead” panel bore no real surprises, but was buoyed by the comfortable buddy-comedy vibe between actors Josh McDermitt and Michael Cudlitz, who played Eugene and Abraham, long-suffering comrades in zombie decapitation on the show.

Billy Dee Williams was one of the keynote attendees. He was mellow and relaxed, talking about his entire filmography (not just the Landau Calrissian parts). If anything, he was most invigorated discussing his Colt 45 beer commercials – yes, he really does like the taste. He was able to share that, while he felt Landau’s cape was essential to the character, he has no interest in bringing it back as a fashion trend. And when asked about the theory that Finn (from the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens) might be his son, he simply said, “No.” He didn’t know (or couldn’t say) whether he’d have a cameo in a future Star Wars installment. “I am the sort of guy who will go and do my thing and get paid and go home. Outside of that, I’ve led an eclectic life. I want to be remembered as Billy Dee Williams. The first Landau, but the first in a number of roles. Being number one – that comes and goes; but being first, that’s historic,” he explained.

Overall, the vibe at this year’s Comic Con was cheerful and supportive. Despite the record crowds – and the occasional bottleneck, or 6-hour wait to say hi to Stan Lee – things were overall chill, yet awe-inducing, and left us eagerly anticipating the next time Planet Comic Con spins into Providence orbit – doubtless at a new mutant scale. “If you liked that,” says Comic Con PR Director Susan Soares, “Keep your eyes open for TerrorCon in February!”

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