Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Family Favorites at Awesome Con

This past weekend our family attended Awesome Con in downtown Washington, D.C., a fandom comic-book media event. We had a good time Saturday, despite a few con-management issues; the experience also demonstrated a few elements I thought would make any convention more family friendly.

I try to focus on the positive and avoid the negative in both my online presence as well as real life (to varying degrees of success), so I’ll gloss over the convention management issues that threatened to put a dent into our one-day con experience – lack of entry signage and communication; an hour-long wait to get wristbands for people who bought advanced tickets online; and surly/clueless/oblivious con volunteers wearing shirts emblazoned with “Volunteer: Brute Squad” that seemed subtlety unwelcoming – and focus on convention activities that really impressed us.

Our family had a few ulterior motives for attending the convention. We primarily wanted to see our friend and Star Wars author Timothy Zahn and his wife, whom we haven’t seen for years; although we only chatted with them briefly, Tim and his wife were gracious as always and really made us feel welcomed (something Tim does whenever he meets a fan, even for a quick book signing). I was also interested in meeting Rod and Leanne Hannah, creators of the wonderful Star Wars parody web comic Blue Milk Special; we chatted briefly about a few of their other projects in the works, particularly the kid-oriented Hickory Hippo. And finally our son, the infamous four year-old “Little Guy,” has reached a point where he’s really into superheroes, partly from watching Batman and Wonder Woman reruns on TV and from reading about them at the local library (when those particular picture books aren’t checked out or outright stolen). We hoped to expose him to some generalized fandom, including a huge dose of superheroes.

I rarely attend large conventions anymore, nor comic-oriented events. So I was pleasantly surprised to find some very engaging elements to the convention, some planned by management as part of the con experience, but most reflecting a generous, friendly spirit in con attendees.

NASA & the K-Zone

Aweseome Con set aside an area on the exhibit hall floor as the “K-Zone,” a section with child-friendly activities.

The con volunteers here were the friendliest we met; they welcomed us and pointed out the various tables tempting kids with balloon artistry, Nerf-gun target practice at costumed members of the local 501st Legion organization, a slew of tables with crayons and coloring books, and several hands-on science and craft tables run by NASA.

The NASA tables offered a host of demonstrations and crafts all related to space science. The volunteers here (I’m not sure if they were from the con or NASA itself) really knew their stuff, went out of their way to engage youngsters, and gave away tons of goodies. We wandered up to the static electricity display, where the volunteer talked with the Little Guy, asked him if he wanted to go into space when he grew up, and then demonstrated static electricity with a red balloon and some table salt strewn across the table. A cool demonstration, but more relevant still when she described how the astronauts on the moon brought dust into their spaceship because of static electricity, all while the Little Guy listened with rapt attention. The Little Guy also learned about ultraviolet light and made a bracelet out of light-sensitive beads. But by far the best part was building and launching his own rocket. Volunteers helped him build a rocket out of a taped construction paper tube with a cone at the top and stabilizer fins at the bottom; then he brought it over to the launch zone where kids could put their rockets over one of two “gantries” (plastic tubes affixed to tripods) hooked up to hoses and a plastic bellows...by stepping on, or usually jumping on the bellows, they sent their rockets high into the exhibit hall atmosphere with much gleeful cheering.

We loved the K-Zone, with the Little Guy requesting several return trips throughout the day to launch his rocket. For future cons it might help to have the K-Zone somewhat more insulated location from the loud, pressing crowds of the exhibit hall floor, perhaps one of the meeting rooms used for panels (where apparently they did have programs for kids, though we didn’t notice these on site). I’d also suggest offering a con-exclusive coloring book or page with small packs of crayons kids could take home. Dare I mention that, if located near the equally isolated game room, intrepid organizers might offer demos of appropriate kids games....

R2-DC Builders

While wandering around the exhibit hall floor we happened upon a small crowd watching the comic antics of a life-sized R2-D2 droid, a remote-control creation of the R2-DC Builders, a fan club focusing on constructing actual-sized props from the Star Wars films (though primarily droids). Although the Little Guy was too shy to pose for a photo – he was too shy to take a photo with any costumed character – numerous fans took advantage of the opportunity for a shot with a blinking, beeping R2-D2. Aside from offering photo ops at their booth, the operators frequently took R2 out for a spin around the exhibit hall floor, spreading their excitement and bringing some unexpected wonder into everyone’s con experience.

Complimentary Con-Goers

Maybe I’ve not been to any major conventions in a while, or to any that encouraged costumed participants, but I was very encouraged to find that not only did many con-goers wear costumes, they were extremely encouraging to folks in costume. People stopped for photo ops, offered compliments, and – especially the kids – talked with their favorite comic book personalities in character. The costumes ranged across every license in fandom. Some costumes were simple, others complex, some homemade, others realistically elaborate. Old and young and even infant showed off their diverse costumed finery in a parade that coursed through the long line for pre-paid ticket-holders outside and into the packed exhibit hall.

The Little Guy, dressed in his very simple Han Solo outfit, got a few compliments and “Isn’t he adorable?” comments (and, in true Han Solo fashion, we had to offer him a reward to dress up; yes, I know, we’re terrible geek parents). But now that he’s on a superhero kick, he really enjoyed saying hello to every Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spiderman he passed (though he admired the more intimidating costumes from a distance). Many actively engaged him with high-fives and conversation, though he was a bit too camera shy to pose for photos.

Return Trip?

Will we go to Awesome Con again next year? I’m not sure. It’ll probably depend on whether Timothy Zahn is a guest, how con management resolves some of the issues and suggestions from this year, and where the Little Guy stands in his own superhero and fandom enthusiasms. But from our parental point of view we’re definitely considering bringing him to other conventions of a similar nature. I’ve already brought him to Historicon (as I reported earlier); we’re planning a return trip this year with the entire family for a day. We’re also considering other, smaller conventions which offer a nice assortment of costuming, gaming, and children-specific programming. And thanks to NASA, I’m already plotting in my head how to build our own compressed air gantry-hose-bellows launch set-up so the Little Guy can gleefully send his homemade rockets into the stratosphere.


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