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First R.I. Comic Con draws celebrities, gamers

About 15,000 people descended upon downtown Providence this weekend - among them stormtroopers, batmen, ninjas, superheroes, monsters and aliens.

Some of them trained to be Jedi. Others shouted obscenities at a live cast of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Some met and interacted with the celebrities who played their favorite fictional characters of their childhood - or adult - lives. 

This weekend was the first Rhode Island Comic Con, held in the Rhode Island Convention Center Nov. 3-4. Its website promised it would be "the biggest show in the smallest state." And with a conservative estimate of 15,000 attendees for the weekend - including a handful of Brown students - the convention nearly filled Rhode Island's largest convention venue. 

The convention took up a large portion of the convention center, with about 200 vendors, dozens of artists and celebrity guests setting up camp in a large - and completely packed - ballroom on the lower level. Other events, such as celebrity Q&As, shows and panels took place on the upper level.


Celebrity sightings 

In the celebrity section of the downstairs level, Claudia Wells, who played Jennifer Parker, girlfriend of Marty McFly in the 1985 "Back to the Future," stared at her cell phone intently, appearing to draft a text message.

A photographer clicked a few shots of her. She asked to see them.

After several attempts didn't meet  Wells' standards, she said it would be better to take a portrait in front of a large poster on display next to her booth, portraying her 1980s cinematic boyfriend (McFly) and her 19-year-old self wrapped in an embrace.

"It's like he's there," joked Nicholas Brendon, who played Xander in the late 1990s smash TV hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," from a few feet away at his table. Brendon adjusted his gray fedora and turned to resume fraternizing with his fans. He hugged almost everyone who approached his table.

Wells laughed at Brendon's aside, but now it was time for her photo op.

After almost 30 years of being known as Jennifer Parker, Wells had mastered this pose. The grown-up Jennifer Parker, juxtaposed with an image of her younger self, smoothed her hair, placed one hand on her hips, leaned her front shoulder slightly forward, lowered her chin, looked directly into the camera and smiled just in time for the camera to flash again.


Across the aisle sat 7'3" Peter Mayhew, an older British man almost exclusively known for his role as Chewbacca in the "Star Wars" movie series.

"I own, basically, Chewie," Mayhew later said at a public Q&A. "Chewie is me."

Not far away was one of the original Catwoman actresses, from the 1966 version of "Batman" and winner of 1955 Miss America pageant, Lee Meriwether. Classy, modest and charming, Meriwether's bright blue eyes and silver hair remind her fans of the Catwoman that accompanied Adam West, the original Batman.

At a press event, Meriwether reflected on the legacy of the most famous women to play Catwoman since her time in the role: Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway.

 Hathaway's performance in the 2012 "The Dark Knight Rises" "captured the best of what we all had contributed up to that point," Meriwether said, embodying "Michelle's acting chops" and Meriwether's own feistiness.


Kermit meets Marty McFly

Upstairs, on an upper level of the convention center, there was no shortage of events to keep fans or even celebrity guests entertained.

Saturday afternoon brought together four voice actors, including RICC headliner Billy West - an iconic voice responsible for characters such as Fry on "Futurama," Stimpy from "Ren and Stimpy" and Doug from the namesake show - to do a voice panel reading the "Back to the Future" script.

In the panel, the audience chose which character's voice would be used to read out which character's part in each scene - for instance, one actor might read the part of Marty McFly as Kermit the Frog.

An hour of laughs and discussion ensued. Voices from mainstream television and obscure movies read aloud the script of the 1980s classic.

"...And scene!" shouted one of the panelists at the conclusion of the reading. 

The crowd erupted into a standing ovation.

Nearby, a few rooms over on the upper level of the center, was a room that drew a much smaller crowd than other places in the convention. 

In this room, RICC attendees both competitively and casually played a variety of games, including "Magic: The Gathering" and "Munchkin" - both card games.

Several tables offered entering patrons an opportunity to learn to play the "Pokemon Trading Card Game" or Magic.

At the Pokemon table sat 9-year-old Ian Robb, U.S. champion for the junior division in Pokemon, the second best youth player in the world and an advertised celebrity guest for the convention. He taught other children at the table how to play Pokemon.

A few adults were seated at the table as well. They seemed to listen in, surreptitiously seeking tips from the Pokemon master as well.


'We're going to offend you'

Down the hall, attendees watched RKO Army, a shadow cast group, perform a variety of live shows, including "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Dr. Horr
ible's Sing-Along Blog" and "Buffy the Musical."

At the start of "Rocky Horror," an announcer from the group - clad in terrifying zombie-like makeup, with neon color contacts to boot - asked any audience members under the age of 18 to stand up. A parent in the back lifted up his toddler.

"Wait, lift the baby up again!" the announcer shouted.

The parent lifted up the small child as a tech assistant scanned the spotlight toward the raised child.

The announcer didn't skip a beat, belting out the beginning notes of the opening song "Circle of Life" from "The Lion King" movie. 

"Naaaaaaaants igonyama, bagithi Baba!"

He then summoned all the Rocky Horror "virgins," audience members who had never seen Rocky Horror with a live cast, to the stage. About 20 people approached the front, some nervous, others obviously ecstatic and most dressed in some sort of costume.

"This is like a frat party at the Teen Titan tower," the announcer jabbed.

The "virgins" were taught a dance that involved lots of hip thrusting to be used later in the interactive show. One member was selected to be in the show's cast for the night. 

"If you're gay, we're going to offend you," a cast member warned before officially starting the show. "If you're straight, we've probably already offended you."

And the show began.

Costume or character?

The attendees of RICC in costume at the convention were not just dressed up - they were almost always in character.

When prompted for a photo, those in costume spared no time in assuming their signature pose: an often photogenic action shot that highlights their elaborate costumes as well as their character.

I asked a particularly promising couple of characters who the inspiration for their costumes had been. 

"I am secret agent Leon S. Kennedy from 'Resident Evil 4,'" one woman barked, raising her closed fists - one hand positioned slightly lower than the other, both providing protection to her face - a stance ready for simultaneous defense and attack. Her friend was Baird from the video game "Gears of War."

But other people in and out of character at the conference were characters by profession. Professional wrestlers, Jake "the Snake" Roberts and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, both offered commentary on the future of professional wrestling at a press event.

"To me, wrestling is like having sex," Roberts said. "The idea is to start out slow and real, not shoot your best shot first." 

Duggan agreed. As a professional wrestler, you "have to tell a story," he said.

Both wrestlers also recalled their experiences wrestling Andre the Giant, a 7'5" wrestler who weighed between 500 and 600 pounds.

"Just to be in the ring with him was an experience," Duggan said.

"There's nothing scarier than being in a ring with a playful f-king giant," Roberts said. "Things that weigh 550 pounds shouldn't be allowed to be playful."


RICC reloaded

Lisa Franklin '14.5 attended RICC with a friend on both days. Saturday, they dressed up as planeteers from the 1990s animated cartoon "Captain Planet and the Planeteers." 

During her time at RICC, Franklin said she talked to a variety of celebrity guests, including Larry Thomas, best known for playing the "Soup Nazi" in the TV show "Seinfeld," a role he secured an Emmy nomination for. 

Franklin said she particularly enjoyed the voice panel from Saturday afternoon, but also attended a number of other events. She said she was ecstatic to meet her "childhood idols," the Power Rangers, at their panel.

"I was surprised at how much fun I had," she said.

Though RICC was her first comic convention, the event was in general was "a lot lower-key than other ones," she said.

While this is the Ocean State's first Comic Con, it will not be the last.

An event that took two years to plan by organizer Steven Perry, Sue Soares, the convention's publicist, said, finally came to fruition this weekend when the convention exceeded its expected attendance of eight to 12 thousand for the weekend to a "lowballing" number of 12,000 on Saturday and an additional two to three thousand day tickets purchased Sunday.

"We never expected to surpass that range," Soares said.

Soares said the convention has been signed on for at least one more year, and it will take place again Nov. 1-3, 2013. This marks an extra day of the convention for fans to do everything they participated in this year and more.

"I have gotten a lot of thank yous" from excited attendees at the convention, Soares said. "It's been an amazing weekend."


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