There’s no denying it: geek culture, once relegated to the fringes of society, has now blasted into mainstream American media and is gaining speed faster than a less-than-twelve-parsecs Kessel Run. (That’s an original 1977 Star Wars reference for those who missed it.)
The evidence is everywhere. If you’ve set foot inside a Target recently, it was probably hard to miss the explosion of Star Wars-themed merchandise adorning aisle after aisle, all in anticipation of the upcoming December 18 release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which will feature many of the beloved original actors (and hopefully no more Jar Jar Binks CGI monstrosities).
Star Wars is just one example of this phenomenon; if you ignored Doctor Who’s warning and blinked, it would still be impossible to ignore. Just consider the rampant popularity and sky-high ratings of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (physicists and other nerdy types), HBO’s Game of Thrones (fantasy) and True Blood (vampires), AMC’s The Walking Dead (zombies), movies based off of Marvel comic books (The Avengers, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy), and the so far highest-grossing film of 2015, Jurassic World (dinosaurs).
Clearly, what was once fringe is now mainstream – and it’s affecting Rhode Island in a big way.
Maybe you’ve already read that Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, will be gracing Providence November 6-8 for the 4th annual Rhode Island Comic Con (RICC, with “Con” short for “Convention”). Convention organizers estimate that 60,000 people will attend; in 2012, RICC brought in 16,000 guests – still an impressive number for a fledgling con, but let’s not kid ourselves here. This thing has gotten huge, and in a very short amount of time.
Cons in other states have shown similar trends. San Diego Comic Con (SDCC), the 40+ year old original mother con that started them all, brought in 130,000 attendees this year, selling out presale tickets almost immediately. New York Comic Con (NYCC), its relatively younger sister celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, already surpassed SDCC in attendance with 151,000 attendees in 2014. I’ve witnessed it myself: my comic book-loving brother and I went to the first NYCC in 2006; when we went back again in 2013, the room that once housed almost the entire con was now home to Artists Alley, a comparatively tiny portion of the massive Javitz Center now required in full to accommodate so many fans. In the last several years, comic and other geek-themed cons on every topic (anime, fantasy, literature, zombies, video games – just to name a few) have been popping up in states all over the country; still, they struggle to keep up with demand.
Amidst this proliferation, Rhode Island is shining in its own small, idiosyncratic way (as we do). Carrie Fisher is notoriously difficult to get to appear at any comic con; RICC has caught a big fish. Joining her will be Darth Vader himself, David Prowse (not to be confused with James Earl Jones, who provided Vader’s iconic voice) and at least ten other Star Wars actors, as well as Jason Momoa (Khal Drago of Game of Thrones), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy), almost all of the Power Rangers including Amy Jo Johnson (another reluctant congoer), Kristy Swanson (Buffy the Vampire), cast members from hit shows like The Walking Dead, Supernatural and Doctor Who, as well as WWE stars, voice actors from popular cartoon shows – even the karate kid himself, Ralph Macchio, Henry Winkler (Happy Days) and the infamous “Soup Nazi” (Larry Thomas) of Seinfeld fame – and that’s just to name a few.
RICC aspires to be a “well-rounded con” according to Susan Soares, who handles press for the convention – yet their ability to attract so many big name guests is exceptional in the convention industry, helping it to earn its slogan, “The Biggest Con in the Smallest State.” Susan attributes this success to RICC’s professional, hard-working team including 500 volunteers, as well as founder/leader Steve Perry’s relationships and reputation within the industry for being a very fair and easy-to-work-with producer. “Basically, word gets around in the actor community, and the big names want to come to conventions where they know they will be treated fairly and professionally – many have even reached out to us on their own, wanting to attend because they heard from others that it’s a great experience,” she says.
Although RICC has a reputation for being more of a “celebrity con,” it does feature comic writers and artists as well, and Susan shares that they would love to attract Stan Lee or other comic book titans someday.
With such phenomenal expansion in such a short time, there have naturally been some growing pains for RICC, which encountered a press disaster in 2014 when the con unexpectedly surpassed capacity, and fire marshals came and barred reentry to guests who had left the building. It was the first time an event had ever filled the Rhode Island Convention Center to capacity.
RICC has learned from last year and is addressing the problem in 2015 with a threefold solution: expanding into the Dunkin Donuts Center for more space, adding an extra day to the con (Friday), and also distributing new electronically-barcoded badges which all attendees must scan upon entry and exit, so that capacity will be closely monitored (the same system used by NYCC). Susan anticipates that these changes should solve the major issues from last year.
Other Geek Communities in Rhode Island
Comic Con is far from the only manifestation of geek culture rippling through Rhode Island. Trying to cover all of them in-depth could probably take up this entire issue, so I will try to highlight just a few others with the help of my friend Liz Lirakis, the sole proprietor and artist/maker behind Middletown-based TRACIMOC: It’s Comic Art, Backwards. Since 2010, Liz has taken “homeless” original comic books and cut them up to make one-of-a-kind wearable art including wallets, clothing, jewelry and decorative objects like canvas collages and photo frames. Her first time as a vendor was at Boston Comic Con in 2011, where she shared a six-foot table with another artist. Now, she attends 15-20 conventions and maker’s fairs a year, and finds it challenging to fit all of her products into a 10x10 booth.
I consider Liz an expert on all things geek, so I asked her what she thought about the local scene: “I have been a part of Rhode Island Comic Con since its conception, along with Rhode Island Mini Maker Faire since 2011 and various other local RI craft fairs,” she says. “I love the artistic culture in Rhode Island, and of course was thrilled to hear that we were going to have our own comic book convention.
“The unique thing about RI is that since the state is so small, local events develop into close-knit family communities. I have made great friends throughout the years, meeting people who I probably would have never otherwise known, [that] share the same geeky interests that I do,” she explains. “So don’t be fooled – we geeks are everywhere.”
She’s right – if you have a niche interest or hobby, there is most likely an easily driveable meetup group or facility to pursue it locally. The Steel Yard in Providence offers courses in blacksmithing and silversmithing. Temple Games in Pawtucket is host to tabletop gaming, which refers to just about any game played on a table such as trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, miniature wargames like Warhammer, what I like to call “next generation” board or card games (some better-known examples are Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity, but current offerings are far more vast).
Temple Games even has its own yearly convention in Warwick called TempleCon, a unique blend of gaming, performance art and Steampunk, a form of costuming and roleplaying that Wikipedia describes as incorporating “technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery” (think of the Will Smith and Kevin Kline ‘90s remake of Wild Wild West). There are also other gaming meetups that happen regularly all over the state.
Liz and I have both observed that being a “geek” is now more socially acceptable than ever before. She notes, “With national support and approval for geeks, who were previously only perceived as poindexters and the targets of bullying, many people now finally feel comfortable being more vocal about their love and admiration for comic books, technology and geek culture in general.”
As someone who finally embraced her own “inner geek” after more than a decade of trying to hide it, I would emphatically agree. And to anyone eager to crawl out of the woodwork and explore similar interests, I would strongly encourage you to seek out online and in-person meetup groups, places and events where you can meet with others who share them. You don’t have to travel far at all, given how prevalent these communities are right in Rhode Island and neighboring towns. It’s a great time to be a geek in the Ocean State.