Inside Awesome Con and Its Fan First Approach

We spoke with Ron Brister and Ben Penrod, the creators of Awesome Con, about what sets their show apart from other big fan conventions.

This article is presented in partnership with Leftfield Media and AwesomeCon.

It happens nearly every weekend around the nation. Thousands of superheroes, villains, monsters, fantasy fellowships – and even a few civilians — gather alongside the actors who portray the characters, and the creatives who give them life. They gather to dress up, share their love of fandom, hear experts talk, pursue holy grail collectibles, nab autographs, and photo ops.

This is the world of comic cons, and it is quite literally show business where pop culture comes to life. And for the past decade, in particular, business has been booming as more fandoms emerge, and genre content takes over box offices, networks, and streaming platforms.

That’s where Ron Brister and Ben Penrod come in, two lifelong fans, and founders, respectively, of Rose City Comic Con in Portland, Oregon, and Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. The two serve as partners behind Leftfield Media, an event company that hosts large scale conventions, which also includes Big Easy Con in New Orleans and Anime NYC.

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Leftfield’s events features star talent; KJ Apa and Cole Sprouse of Riverdale, and casts from Cobra Kai, The Office, The Princess Bride, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more are scheduled to appear at Awesome Con, which runs from April 26-28 in Washington DC. 

While the stars will be in attendance, the company has also distinguished itself with robust programming. For instance, they partner with Smithsonian magazine for Future Con, a block of panels highlighting the intersection of science, technology, and sci-fi. Then there is the generous comic book programming spotlighting industry guests, and the kid-focused Awesome Con Jr.

For a company dedicated to delivering a fan experience unique to each host city, Leftfield’s partners each approached the con business from very different backgrounds – and neither initially involved comic cons.

Brister’s fandom began when he was a military brat living in Japan. He became hooked on animation before returning to the United States around the age of eight, and obsessed over Robotech anime and G.I. Joe comics.

“My mom had got me a comic book subscription at a local comic book shop, Lady Jane’s, because I didn’t enjoy reading and she wanted me to read,” says Brister. “But the Larry Hama silent G.I. Joe issue [#21] came out, and that really got me into comics.”

Similarly, for Penrod, it was also his mom that was the nerdy mentor, even though she wasn’t an “out in the crowd, open nerd.”

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Penrod’s mother loved Star Wars, and that opened the door to his passion, which led to his love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman: The Animated Series, and then buying and selling comics on eBay.

Penrod says he went from selling cars in 2008 to buying and flipping comic book collections, and had acquired a quarter million comics in his warehouse. Even though it never became a lucrative endeavor, it served as an intro to the convention scene.

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“When I was growing up, the scene wasn’t like it is now,” Penrod says. “There were cons around, but I grew up pretty poor, and didn’t have the money to go out and do a lot of things like that, and I also didn’t have anybody to go with, so I never really went to a con until I think 2009, and I was selling comics.”

“I didn’t really experience the Con thing as a kid, either,” agrees Brister. “There was an old comic book show that took place, but I never went to it; I don’t know if it just wasn’t on my radar when I was a kid, or if we were just far enough outside of the city that my mom wasn’t willing to drive into Downtown Portland at the time, and in an area that had been not the safest of neighborhoods.”

Brister’s first brush with the world of conventions took place while working for a comic book store in around 1991 – a job he took because it was across the street from the mall where his future wife worked.

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“I remember working in the shop, and lo and behold, Todd McFarlane came into the shop,” Brister says. “Image was just starting, and he came in to trade stuff like Spawn books because he had this Hot Wheels car that he was putting out and he was looking for hockey and baseball cards. So the first time I met a creator was in a comic book store outside of Portland, Oregon, and he was a guy just shopping for hockey and baseball cards, and had stuff to trade, just like anybody else.”

These early experiences where it wasn’t easy, or affordable, for them to get to cons proved formative for their work on Rose City, Awesome Con, and Leftfield as a whole. Rather than pay-to-play game tournaments, Brister said Leftfield offers “learn to play” tourneys, and strives to offer retro gaming, as well as diverse options in nostalgia, wrestling, and manga categories.

“We’re not in the business of chasing down attendees for $500 photo ops with all the stars,” Brister says. “We feel like that market is being served by other organizations …[but] maybe people want to learn about how to break into comics or want to hear from Greg Rucka or Greg Capullo or Scott Snyder or Tom King on how they got into comics.”

As an organizer, Brister says the upwards of 120 hours of programming — ranging from fan-submitted to “fun and goofy” to curated panels featuring astrophysicists — is worthwhile for his attendees at Awesome Con “from an educational standpoint and from a value standpoint.”

“You can go to a ‘Learn to Draw Spider-Man’ panel, or you can go to a college level lesson or symposium on the evolution of Superman, or you can get on and listen to Erin Macdonald talk about the mechanics and the physics related to going to Mars,” Brister says. “And we’re going to have the director of NASA at Awesome Con this year! What other comic con has the director of NASA?”

Penrod adds the programming reflects an important goal of Leftfield Media to host shows that represent the city they’re in.

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“For Awesome Con to be special in D.C., it has to incorporate the city,” he says. “It has to stand out amongst all the other shows in the country, and be something you could only get in D.C.”

“We could have a big top tent, roll into cities, and just pop up like the circus and roll away, but that’s not our modus operandi,” says Brister, who noted every city has its own vibe that must be catered to, from the “creative, well-read, comic-centric” fans of Portland, those who love science and pop culture in D.C., and the horror, nostalgia, and strong cosplay contingent of New Orleans.

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Penrod says Leftfield also hosts events throughout the year, such as scavenger hunts, movie screenings, or events in local retailers designed to remain active in communities year-round. Brister jokes there is a strong connection between fan culture and beer culture – a connection he shares – and that Leftfield tries to create partnerships with local breweries in each city.

Not that Brister has much time for a cold one during a show, since he and Penrod are often running about, managing the fan experience.

However, both men have had their special comic con moments which eluded them as children.

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Penrod says it always shocks him on some level when a big celebrity guest arrives at a con, as was the case with the Twelfth Doctor from Doctor Who. “I know that there’s a contract, and they’re advertised that they’re coming to the show, but it’s always not real until they actually show up.”

Penrod says he knew Peter Capaldi had checked into the hotel, and was on his way to the event. But then he met him.

“He comes through the door, and I introduce myself, and then he’s got to go off and do his thing, and I just looked over at Peter, who works with us, and I’m like, ‘The Doctor is here! Like, The Doctor! He’s actually here!’ So, we kinda geeked-out over that.”

Poignantly, Brister’s experience goes back to his mom, who supported his fandom in the first place.

“My parents had split up when I was a kid, after we got back from Japan, the one thing that my mom loved, and still loves to this day, the old Star Trek,” reflects Brister. “So when I had the ability to bring in William Shatner in a number of events, it was a cool seeing my mom’s reaction to getting to meet him, and how genuinely nice to her he was — it was probably one of the best experiences for me, being able to give her that experience.”

While not every fan may meet Captain Kirk, Brister’s story sums up the kind of memorable experience available to all attendees who visit the unique Leftfield Media events.

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Awesome Con Events and Guests 

What makes Awesome Con so awesome? So glad you asked. The celebrity guest roster at this year’s event includes cast reunions for Star Trek: The Next Generation (Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden), Weird Science (Anthony Michael Hall, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Kelly LeBrock), The Office (Kate Flannery, Creed Bratton, Oscar Nunez), Karate Kid/Cobra Kai (Ralpha Macchio, Martin Kove, William Zabka), and The Princess Bride (Cary Elwes, Wallace Shawn, Chris Sarandon), along with KJ Apa and Cole Sprouse of the hit show Riverdale. Marvel’s Netflix shows will be represented by The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal and Luke Cage’s Mike Colter and Theo Rossi.

As if that’s not enough, other celebrity guests include Val Kilmer, Jason Isaacs, Milo Ventimiglia, Tom Payne, “Weird” Al Yankovic, Mary McDonell, Michael Biehn, Tara Strong, Susan Egan, Greg Cipes, Sean Schemmel, Zach Callison, Phil Lamarr, and more!

– On the comic front, Awesome Con is gathering top talent from the industry including Clay Mann, Greg Capullo, Tim Sale, Amy Chu, sci-fi author extraordinaire Timothy Zahn, Kevin Maguire, Chrissie Zullo, Margueritte Bennett, Steve Orlando and more.

Both Oni Press and Adult Swim are bringing exclusive goodies to Awesome Con including a Rick And Morty #49 comic limited to 500 issues with a limited edition variant by Kyle Starks.

– Drink up (if you’re of legal age) the exclusive Awesome Con beer Hop Bot, from Atlas Brewery. But always be a responsible nerd.

With both Future Con, and Awesome Con Jr., the programming takes flight with science and culture focused panels involving the Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and more — with World War Z author Max Brooks bringing his zombie expertise to the show. Meanwhile, the programming for younger fans at Awesome Con Jr. include Dreamworks, and The National Wildlife Foundation.

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Awesome Con runs from April 26-28 in Washington DC. Click here for more info!