As it worked out, our last out-of-state foray for 2017 took us to the longest-named event of our year. Since 2012 Fanboy Expo has been a staple of the scene in Knoxville, Tennessee. After a presumably successful show in June, this year they branched out to a second show in October, the Fanboy Expo Totally Awesome Weekend. We’ve never been to a basic Fanboy Expo, but we gathered the Totally Awesome Weekend spinoff was built to focus more on the actor guests than on the “comic” in “comic con”. I deduced this not from any public statements on their part, but on the fact that the guest list on their official website listed five (5) comics/animation artists and six tattoo artists. This is abnormal compared to the events held in our usual bailiwicks.
That disparity doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. My wife Anne and I are more satisfied when a show finds a fair balance comics and entertainment guests. This time, however, we saw FBTAW as a companion piece of sort, the flip side of the previous weekend’s Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. There, I’d had the opportunity to overdose on comics; this weekend it was Anne’s turn for a whirlwind reunion tour with familiar faces from the classic TV of her childhood. It was only fair, especially since her birthday’s this coming week.
The ultimate destination for our 5½-hour drive: the Knoxville Convention Center, opened for business in 2001 at the foot of the world-famous Sunsphere, super-sized souvenir of the 1982 World’s Fair.
The Knoxville Convention Center isn’t the smallest we’ve seen, but was smaller than we expected. It has just two exhibit halls. FBTAW occupied the larger one, while the smaller was devoted to Food City Fest, a big foodie show held by a local supermarket chain. For a second we considered double-majoring, but decided to focus.
FBTAW had everything we’ve come to expect from the cons back home, but on smaller scales. A security checkpoint at the front door kept things safe, and looked more deeply into my bag than any other security guard ever has. At best our bags normally warrant fleeting glances under the assumption that neither of us would be caught dead with a .22 made from 3-D printer parts and wedged at the bottom. The Will Call roster was printed on paper instead of stored in digital devices, and didn’t include the names of anyone who’d bought tickets online within the past week (including us). The show naturally had a line of fans waiting before showtime, but less than a hundred by my count. You can always judge a show’s performance by the first line, whether it’s the village-sized masses of the gargantuan C2E2 or the handful of us who tried to get excited about the flop-tastic Awesome Con Indy three years ago. FBTAW’s entry line wasn’t colossal, but it was a manageable size for a modest affair.
As long as we have cosplay, we know it’s some kind of comic con. And so there was:
From their website alone, I honestly couldn’t tell if FBTAW would have any comics dealers, toy salesclerks, craftspeople, printmakers, or even self-published novelists in attendance. At all. They never posted an exhibitor list or a map of the show floor. That’s generally a sign that a given show won’t be large enough for anyone to need those amenities. A few dozen businesses and creative types did indeed show up and ply their wares, but many of them looked like this:
I did find one (1) proprietor at a table selling comics: Storme Smith, publisher and co-founder of Buño Books, who previously exhibited at Baltimore’s SPX in September before coming to Knoxville. Pictured below are the wares they offered: Smith’s own jazz bio-comic Rhythm Man: The Legend of Chick Webb, illustrated by Derick Jones; the all-ages adventure Cloudia & Rex from Ulises Farina and Erick Freitas, collaborators on IDW’s American-ized Judge Dredd series; and the mini-hardcover Light by Rob Cham, an artist/editor/teacher in the Phillippines overtly influenced by Jeff Smith’s Bone. I was so happy to detect a comics presence, I bought one of everything.
Longtime MCC readers have heard me protest in the past that, with extremely few exceptions (Hi, Brian! Hi, Luther!), I don’t buy novels or art prints at conventions. At some shows where prints ‘n’ prose comprise 80% of their Artists Alley, that doesn’t leave much shopping for me to do. It’s kind of a good thing that I also don’t buy back issues anymore because I don’t think I saw more than three comics dealers on site at FBTAW. However, we do owe another shout-out to the folks at Sassy Pants Sweets & Treats, the snack artisans we just saw two weeks ago at Cincinnati Comic Expo. Like us, they seem to be getting around a lot this year and found parts of Knoxville to enjoy.
Beyond the dealers’ area in the center of the exhibit hall, that left the couple dozen actors, musicians, and other talents lining its perimeter for autographing and photo-op purposes. A handful of them became Anne’s best reasons for making Fanboy Expo Totally Awesome Weekend her birthday outing for this year.
The biggest group in the house was an Aliens reunion featuring Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, the two masterminds behind the creature effects, and a handful of the Colonial Marines who, all combined, had fewer lines than Newt. I love the film but opted out of that entire section, which is just as well because Biehn and Henriksen had the longest lines of the day. (I’d already met Henriksen previously.)
Rather, Anne was there for Sesame Street. The quintessential kids’ educational series began in 1969, the year before Anne was born. She spent many years watching its cast of ethnically diverse humans and Muppets living and laughing and singing together in an urban setting, an altogether exotic locale for a white suburban family like hers that needed to know the entire world was more than what she saw around her every day. On hand were four of the actors from her Sesame Street heyday. Of those, she’d already had the mind-blowing chance to meet puppet master Carroll Spinney (Big Bird! Oscar the Grouch!) at the first and so far last Wizard World Indianapolis. The others played live human characters, friendly neighbors integral to the world she knew.
First on her wish list: Bob McGrath, who’d been on the show since the beginning. Bob played the character “Bob”, one of the few white characters. (Though Anne believes the Sesame Street characters had last names, she doesn’t recall ever hearing them on the show.) Bob did much of the singing on the show, continued to do so for a good 45+ years, and has recorded multiple children’s albums.
During Anne’s encounter, Bob pointed out that his wife’s name is Ann, but that she wishes it had an E at the end like hers. When she hugged him, he kissed her on the cheek and thanked her for being a “Sesame Seed” — what they call the kids who grew up watching.
Next table over: Emilio Delgado — a.k.a. Luis, who ran a fix-it shop. He was one of two Hispanic characters she remembers, the other being Maria played by Sonia Manzano. Each of them taught viewers Spanish words; in 1988 they fell in love and got married. Anne made sure to watch even though she was a teenager by then. Bob was best man, while Elmo was ring bearer who fretted about dropping the rings. (Direct quote: “DON’T DROP THE RINGS!”)
Third table for the hat trick: Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon — the third actor to play Gordon, in fact, but he’s the first one Anne remembers. Gordon was married to another character named Susan. In the late ’80s, Gordon and Susan adopted a son named Miles, who was played by Orman’s real-life son Miles. Roscoe told Anne that Miles now has two kids of his own. Cheers, Grandpa Gordon!
(Extra special thanks to Anne for writing 90% of the preceding section. Full disclosure: I seldom got to see Sesame Street as a kid because for whatever reason my grandma never turned our TV to PBS. By the time I earned any real voting authority on our viewing schedule apart from Saturday morning cartoons, I was too old and missed out.)
Aliens and Sesame Street weren’t the only reunions going on. Other classic-TV viewers should recall Norman Lear’s Good Times — the first African-American sitcom, the one that paved the way for everyone from The Cosby Show to Black-ish. I missed the original 1974-1979 run but caught dozens of reruns in syndication, where their take on a loving family in the Chicago high-rise projects was the first show to come anywhere near resembling the section-8 apartment complex of my own lower-class upbringing.
Sadly, momma Esther Rolle passed away in 1998 and stern father-figure John Amos doesn’t do conventions, but their three kids were in the house, beginning with comedian Jimmie “JJ” Walker, he of the catchphrase “DY-NO-MITE!” which was America’s favorite thing for about fifteen minutes back in the 1970s.
Bern Nadette Stanis was middle sister Thelma, who had the displeasure of suffering two brothers but proved a role model for girls like her everywhere that needed to know they did not have to put up with that kind of nonsense. Today she’s an author with four books to her name.
Ralph Carter was Michael, the youngest of the Evans clan. Anne and I both vividly remember the episodes after John Amos’ character was killed off, which left the surviving cast to mark his passing (read: Amos’ firing) in their own ways. Michael was the most devastated of all, lashing out and provoking candid conversations about faith and grief that left a mark on us younger viewers. According to the kindly Mr. Carter, that young boy’s tears weren’t entirely acting.
But wait! The reunions didn’t stop there! Once upon a time five years ago, in a story I have yet to retell online (I promise it’s on the to-do list), Anne got to meet three of the six kids from The Brady Bunch at a special Kings Island event while my son and I went on rides and totally missed out. One of the three remaining Brady kids was on the guest list for FBTAW and neatly crossed his name off her bucket list: Mike Lookinland, known in a former life as li’l Bobby Brady. Anne brought the Kings Island group 8×10 that the other three had signed — a rare photo of the entire cast doing needlepoint together between takes — which Lookinland asked if he could snap a copy on his phone to show his mom. Apparently needlepoint was one of the many activities that kept the kids busy on set while the grown-ups were taking their sweet time with the really boring aspects of making a TV series.
Anne had also already met the third Brady in their autograph row, but I hadn’t. In addition to his good ol’ days as TV’s Greg Brady, we had fun watching Barry Williams in a recent season of the Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America, in which he and several other stars of lesser stature than The Greg Brady had to compete in a goofy Cooking 101 contest. Williams was denied victory and basically robbed, but the Worst Cooks celebrity editions aren’t exactly the fairest of game shows.
Despite that stinging loss, Williams was more than happy to help me fill my jazz-hands quota for the day.
Longtime MCC readers know jazz hands are our thing when it comes to actor photos. To date we’ve met exactly two celebrities (Rosario Dawson and Brenda Strong) who responded with the phrase “Fosse Fingers”. Williams topped them both: not only did he work with the legendary Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse in his youth, Fosse gave him his first post-Brady gig as the lead role in Pippen. To bask in the presence of a performer who’d actually, literally been paid to master the fine art of jazz hands…let’s be honest: no other convention has ever given us that before. Frankly, I was floored.
Nevertheless, I composed myself and prepared for our final encounter of the day: John Wesley Shipp! Comic book fans of my generation fondly remember him as Barry Allen, our hero from the original 1990 TV version of The Flash. Younger fans today have seen him in the CW’s current take on the DC Comics mythos, in which Shipp has played both Barry’s beleaguered dad and the elder Flash of another Earth who’s been a mentor to the promising upstart speedster. The new show’s gotten a number of things right and impressed me at turns (and, okay, sometimes frustrated me), but one of its cleverest moves to date was letting the original Flash shine as he passes on the legacy of heroism.
Beyond just dropping by and putting the “awesome” in “Totally Awesome Weekend”, Shipp was also plugging his audio drama Powder Burns, an ongoing Western series about a blind sheriff.
…and that was just about it for our Fanboy Expo Totally Awesome Weekend 2017. None of these tremendous folks had long lines early in the day, though I certainly hope that changed later for the better. Between the lack of crowds and the small dealer turnout, we considered ourselves wrapped up before noon. Admission was cheaper than the average con, leaving us satisfied and guiltless at our early departure. They had Q&As scheduled for later in the afternoon, but we can take or leave those, and we had some ideas on local tourism, which we’ll cover in future entries.
For the size of show and breadth of guest list, FBTAW suited us fine and we appreciate the experience. I can’t say for certain whether or not we’ll be back, but our noncommittal response is no fault of theirs. Anne and I keep telling each other we need to do fewer shows in 2018, and preferably keep them closer to home — partly due to burnout, partly because we have new expenses in our immediate future, and mostly because the time expenditure is complicating some things for us. But if we can keep finding the right mix of suitable guest lists, manageable drives, and worthy comics creators, you’ll hear about them here ASAP on MCC.
Thanks for reading! Lord willing, see you next con…