INFINITE IMPROBABILITY: Retro Con is the future of the true con experience

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First Posted: 9/16/2013

As I sit here and admire my custom sketch of the mirror-masked Cobra Commander from the original “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” series by his very creator, Larry Hama, I think it’s safe to say that the second annual Retro Con, held at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 14, was another rousing success, particularly for this nostalgia-loving nerd.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I wondered which building the con was in until I saw the Mystery Machine, General Lee, KITT, Bumblebee, a “Jurassic Park” jeep, and other custom vehicles displayed out front. Then I knew I had come to the right place.

I may have arrived a bit late for the Angry Video Game Nerd and Nostalgia Critic signings, but I did get there just in time for their Q&A panel, complete with a musical introduction by Kyle Justin, Internet-famous for his AVGN theme song. They answered many funny and serious questions, including from a puppet and your obligatory guy in a Deadpool costume, then snuck off together right after, so I expect another video collaboration relatively soon.

The main floor was twice as big this year, with two full rooms of dealers selling everything from your childhood. If your parents never got you that giant He-Man playset you always wanted, then Christmas is better late than never because you could buy it there still in its original box. The two warehouse rooms echoed with the sounds of ‘80s cartoon themes and other recognizable tunes from a DJ booth in the corner while fans haggled for rare and obscure toys or that one action figure that’s been missing from their collections. I picked up a few Marvel figures mint on card for the same price I would have paid back in the ’90s, along with a “Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars” Kang from 1984 still in the package for a mere $8. If that doesn’t excite you, you may be reading the wrong column.

The guests signing autographs ranged from Don Fullilove, who played future mayor Goldie Wilson in “Back to the Future” to Neil Ross, the voice of many memorable characters in “Transformers,” “G.I. Joe,” “Voltron,” and countless other beloved cartoons. Ross and I chatted about the “Pryde of the X-Men” pilot he worked on that wasn’t picked up for a full series, recalling that the recordings took all day and into the night with take after take as he signed a G.I. Joe comic for me.

I then discussed that same star-spangled franchise with author Mark Bellomo, who writes the most complete toy guides one could possibly imagine along with amazing behind-the-scenes information for the complete collections of the original Marvel comic series, now published by IDW. Learning about his writing process and how it ties in with his massive collection of every toy line from the ‘60s on (not an exaggeration) made my own fandom seem lacking in comparison, but very fan is created equal in a room like this – we’re here to share more than brag.

Though there was one competition – a costume contest that had some amazing entries. A woman dressed as the “Sharknado” won, taking home a custom-made Skeletor trophy, and many of the unique door prizes were also hand-crafted. Her getup wasn’t exactly retro, but it was extremely creative. The creativity I admired most came from Larry Hama, however. Wearing black cap and a t-shirt with the Arashikage clan symbol on it, he quietly sat next to Bellomo throughout the day sketching any character fans requested – I chose Cobra Commander because he was always my favorite of all the Joes and Cobras he created, and even those who asked for the same character were given completely different drawings.

He graciously posed for a picture (appropriately taken by a man dressed in a Cobra uniform) after signing a stack of my Joe comics and listening to me thank him and blather on. The opportunity really made me appreciate Retro Con even more; it may not be some massive, sold-out gathering with movie stars and directors flying in from the West Coast for big announcements and even bigger lines, but that’s not what it’s all about.

From the custom door prizes to the fan-favorite guests to the insane amount of toys and collectibles from years gone by, and even the opportunity to shoot Nerf darts at Stormtroopers for charity, Retro Con is quickly becoming one of my favorite conventions of the year because it’s small, simple, and DIY.

Many of the best cons in the tri-state area have turned into expensive investments with less and less payoff as prices continue to climb and focus on what’s important continues to fall, but Retro Con grew this year without losing sight of the reason why it did. I’m already saving for next year.

-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedimaster, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]