Last weekend, for the third year in a row, The Young Folks’ music editor Ryan Gibbs and photographer-at-large Megan Phelps attended the 2017 Rhode Island Comic Con. The following is our annual, in-depth overview of the show.
In the six years since its founding, the Rhode Island Comic Con has grown into one of the biggest pop-culture events in New England, rivaling longer-lived conventions like Connecticon and even PAX East.
Megan and I have attended the RICC as press for the past three years; Our first con was a relatively positive experience, while we felt last year’s show fixed some logistical issues, but had its own problems, like long lines to see top celebrities.
For the 2017 installment, convention organizers Altered Reality switched their photography vendor to Celebrity Photo Ops in order to alleviate the queuing and wait-time issues.
This year’s show also had an impressive lineup of celebrity guests, including big, household names like Christopher Lloyd, William Shatner, Elijah Wood, John Cusack and “Weird Al” Yankovic. However, ticket-buyers were also concerned about the sudden cancellations of several stars just weeks or days before the show, including Mark Ruffalo, Richard Dreyfuss, LeVar Burton and Norman Reedus. In fact, Reedus and some other Walking Dead stars were blocked from attending by AMC in order to finish shooting that show’s finale. All conventions experience cancellations like this with previously booked guests, who may find themselves suddenly unable to attend a show due to filming or other conflicts, but it seemed like the response from fans was louder this time around.
Despite the cancellations, there was still plenty to do at this year’s convention, including plenty panels and a giant vendors’ space at the heart of the show. Additionally, the convention has spread into the neighboring Omni Hotel in addition to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and Rhode Island Convention Center, giving the show space in three of the largest buildings in downtown Providence.
Megan and I attended the sold-out Saturday of the convention together and, I went alone for a few hours on Sunday (work obligations meant we couldn’t have the in-depth coverage we had last year). You can check out some of Megan’s photos from Saturday over on her convention photo gallery.
For the remainder of this article we will be giving you our thoughts on the entire weekend, how the show was run, the merchandise selection and much more, including the best cosplay at the event.
Photo Credit: Megan Phelps | The Young Folks
Right off the bat, this was the biggest issue with this year’s convention.
We didn’t get to the full extent of the line this year, but Twitter users posted pictures of their positions far away from the convention center entrance. This photo by @YoWickedAnime shows the line stretching well into Federal Hill, a half a mile away (and it does not look like the end of it, either).
In the Dunkin Donuts Center, where we started out, the entrance was managed in a very specific way. Traffic in and out of the arena was only in one direction. If you decided to go in, you had to loop all the way around to get out. Those entering through the VIP entrance had the option of going around the arena or into the Dunk.
If you weren’t getting an autograph from one of the handful of big name headliners on the arena floor, there wasn’t much to do inside of the building. There were vendors in the upstairs and downstairs lobbies, but not nearly as many as in the convention center. Also, they seemed to block some of the traffic in the upper level. You couldn’t really stop to look at what they were selling with how many people were in there.
One of the biggest improvements between this con and the last one were lines in the Dunk. At least when we popped by on Saturday morning, they looked much better, much shorter and much quicker moving than they were in 2016. None of the lines seemed like they would result in a four hour wait.
Also, some of the big names, like “Weird Al” Yankovic, were moved to a heated tent outside instead of the Dunk, allowing for more space for all of the headliners. However, it still feels odd to me that the floor of the biggest arena in Rhode Island was once again taken up exclusively by lines.
Long, but not awful. Photo credit: Megan Phelps | The Young Folks
In the convention center, everything seemed like smooth sailing. It seemed to be more maneuverable than the Dunk, and it was easy to navigate from the main show floor and vendors’ area to the panels in the ballroom upstairs.
However, things changed after 1 p.m. or so. It seemed way more crowded, especially in the main lobby of the Convention Center. The two photos below, taken a few hours apart, show how bad it got. It definitely felt like a sold-out show, but there were way more people inside there than there should have been.
We ultimately left earlier than we planned because we had no room to take any more cosplay photos. In order to take a great cosplay photo – any photo really – you have to have a bit of room between yourself and your subject. At that point in the show, Megan did not have that space.
This was also around the time that a friend of ours who we planned to meet with finally got into the building. Due to how crowded it was, we were never able to find him before we decided to leave.
Before and after; Only a couple hours apart from being manageable and chill to…whatever this is. Photo credit: Megan Phelps | The Young Folks
Because we left around 2:30, we were not in the building when one of the more controversial aspects of the weekend happened. Apparently, there were several issues with the Stranger Things panel featuring cast members Sadie Sink, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin. First, the panel was originally scheduled for the rather small Ballroom E in the convention center, and the line for the event was longer than expected. Several anecdotal tweets noted how long the line was, or that it had spilled out into the entire top floor of the building. Eventually, the panel was moved to Ballroom A, where Gene Simmons’ panel was initially scheduled but wound up having a much smaller turnout.
II. Panels & Celebrities
Nightmare on Elm Street actress Lisa Wilcox signs autographs. Photo credit: Megan Phelps
Much like last year, the celebrity signing tables were placed in several strategically placed areas throughout the convention: The 10-12 stars in the Dunk, a few bigger names in the heated tent and the majority of the stars in the main exhibition hall. This year, there was also a separate room for the stars of The Walking Dead. While actors who used to appear on the show like David Morrissey and Michael Cudlitz got tons of love from fans, the room seemed a little bare following the cancellations of Norman Reedus, Jon Bernthal and Khary Payton.
In the Dunk, the biggest turnouts were for Paul Bettany and Christopher Lloyd. We heard that Dave Bautista had the biggest line of all, in that heated tent we mentioned above, but we were actually unable to find it.
The con has founded a winning combination of how they’ve been setting up the main hall. The booths for stars like Brian O’Halloran, Samantha Newark and Doug Walker felt relatively casual and low-key, and fans who wanted to meet them were able to have a more personalized experience than just a handshake and an autograph. If you just wanted to meet someone and didn’t want a signing or a photo, that was totally doable with some of these actors or personalities on the mid-card. The bigger names that were in the main hall were along the back wall – folks like William Shatner and Justin Roiland – these lines too seemed to move with few issues. The only issue here was that the con vastly underestimated popularity of Roiland, the creator of Rick & Morty. His line was huge, even larger than Shatner’s and they had to cap it at several points in order to keep it from snaking into parts of the walkway.
We went to two panels this year. One with John Cusack and the other with “Weird Al” Yankovic, who both spoke to completely packed ballrooms. Yankovic’s Q&A in particular was a total blast to sit in on, and was definitely one of our highlights of the weekend. You can hear his panel here, and we’ve uploaded Cusack’s below.
The audio is a little rough on this Cusack panel, but the sound came out fine for Yankovic, so it might have been a problem with the microphones.
Photo credit: Megan Phelps | The Young Folks
III. Merch and More
As with the past two years, we kept tabs on what the most popular items were on the sales floor this year. The most popular items, by far, were Pokemon products. Many vendors had something Pokemon related and some, like The Awesome Couple of Derry N.H. had a booth exclusively filled with memorabilia from the Nintendo franchise.
Jessica Byron of The Awesome Couple said that the reason for Pokemon‘s popularity this year was due to both its 20th anniversary and its multi-generational appeal.
“At this point, it’s not just hype or a fad, it’s still going strong,” she said. “It’s the generation that was growing up when Pokemon was coming out, they’re now the generation that has young kids that are just the prime age. The kids are engaged in it naturally, but also the parents are able to relive their childhood through their kids’ interest without feeling guilty about it.”
Among the items that Byron had at her booth was a shadowless, 1st edition holographic Charizard card, which was highly sought after and very expensive in the late 1990s. The card has retained its value over the past two decades: Byron said that The Awesome Couple were asking $600 for this one, which was in a 5 or 6 PSA condition.
This card would have made you the envy of your fifth grade class in 1999. Photo Credit: Megan Phelps | The Young Folks
The other properties that seemed to have a bigger presence this year than they did in 2016 were Rick & Morty, Stranger Things, Back to the Future, Super Mario and Lord of the Rings. Last year had a lot of Undertale and Supernatural stuff, but we didn’t see anything from that game or that show this year. Game of Thrones also seemed to have a fairly limited presence than it did in years past.
On the other hand, there was a lot more Doctor Who merch and cosplay this year than last year, owing to presence of Billie Piper at the show and the upcoming first appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor, played by Jodie Whitaker. In fact, the most impressive cosplayer we ran into this year was a young girl who piloted her own, built-to-scale Dalek. Definitely something we’ve never seen before!
Abby Bruno in her Dalek | Photo Credit: Megan Phelps
As with 2015 and 2016, there were way too many Funko Pops on the sales floor, but there seemed to be fewer this time around. Instead of there being walls of them and nearly every vendor having at least 10 or 20 of them, their presence was fairly spread out. In fact, I don’t think a single Pop made it into any of our photos this year.
As always, there was plenty of DC and Marvel, Star Wars, The Walking Dead, Star Trek and Power Rangers stuff all over the place. Unofficial Lego-size mini-figs remained a sales standby, as did actual, honest-to-god comic books. Something that caught our eye this year was a couple stalls that were selling bootleg DVDs of Japanese monster movies, fan edits of the Star Wars films and TV shows that have never made it onto home video. These seemed to be very popular in the late 90s and early 2000s at shows like these before they became a big deal, but they’ve kind of disappeared since. It was very interesting to stumble onto them this time around, especially if you were seriously considering buying a Blu-Ray copy of the Harmy’s Despecialized Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy.
IV. Final thoughts
Overall, it felt con-goers experienced two very different Rhode Island Comic Cons this year. The vendors, cosplayers, panels and celebrities were all awesome, and the autograph and photography lines were vastly improved from last year.
The real knock against the show this time around, from our prospective as press and from those we spoke to, was the logistics and crowd control. On the sold-out Saturday, especially once the entire line outside made it into the building, it seemed extremely overcrowded, even in spots that we not last year. Although the easiest remedy might be to sell less tickets, that might not be feasible, especially as the con seems to be getting bigger and bigger each year. A huge crowd on a Saturday afternoon at a comic convention is to be expected, but the sheer mass of people they had in that place at one time did not make movement particularly easy for anyone.
The one-way movement system in the Dunk this year was a novel idea, but it didn’t really seem to work in concept. It might be an idea next year to re-arrange some of the vendors in the Dunk so they’re all in one space so people can actually look at their stuff instead of having to walk past. Never once did we feel as if we needed to go back into the Dunk after we left it.
The issues with overcrowding were our main knock against the show on the sold-out Saturday, but Sunday was a much better experience. It was a lot more mellow, easier to navigate and seemed to be the best day purchase merch. If you’re planning to attend next year, and especially if it will be your first time, I strongly recommend coming on Sunday unless someone you absolutely have to meet will only be there on Saturday. Although you might miss some panels, there’s just as many cool ones on Sunday too. It also seemed like a less stressful day for kids to come, too.
Ultimately, this year’s Rhode Island Comic Con was a fun experience apart from the crowd size on one afternoon. If the convention’s organizers Altered Reality can figure out a better way to corral the Saturday crowd next year, they’ll have fixed the major issue we had with this year’s outing.