Great Falls Comic Expo: 'We're all a bunch of geeks at heart'

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Characters. Comics. Costumes. Camaraderie. Upcoming Lewiston Comic Expo promises something for everyone.

For a moment, the guy dressed as Mario drew all eyes in the room. Then Han Solo walked in with Dr. Who at his heels and attention shifted. It would shift again for a man dressed as a shark and then once more for a young lady in a cat outfit.

The event was only a tiny preview of the main event to come, but it got to the point where I was earnestly engaged in wondering what exotic character would next walk through the doors.

“You’ll almost always see Jesus,” a gamer named Dipper Castaldo advised me.

I didn’t see Jesus that day, but I got a sense of how things will look when legions arrive in Lewiston later this month for the Great Falls Comic Expo.

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The Expo on Sept. 23, the first of its kind in Lewiston, is about many things. We’re talking comic books, sci-fi, board games, card games, magic, sculpture, video games and a cool variety of other things.

But when talking about comic conventions and the culture they feed, the word “Cosplay” gets uttered with particular excitement. It’s not a term with which I was familiar, but fortunately there was Expo organizer Ben Santos to light my way.

“Cosplay is the combination of two words,” he says. “Costume and play. Basically, you dress up the same as you would on Halloween, but at a time when it’s not Halloween. Instead of going trick-or-treating, you go to a convention and hang out with people who have decided to do the same thing. You dress up and you just have fun together.”

Like so many other Mainers who get into cosplay, Santos’ journey began at the convention in South Portland known as PortCon. And like so many others, he didn’t get just a little bit into the culture, he went all in, taking a close family member with him.

“I got into it six or seven years ago when I went to PortCon just on a whim,” Santos says. “I instantly fell in love with it. Like, how have I not been doing this my whole life? Then I talked my dad into going and cosplaying. He does Han Solo because he’s the right age and he also does the original Dr. Who. He may actually like cosplay more than I do, which is impressive.”

His father, former toy store manager Bud Santos, confirms this assessment.

“I just absolutely loved it,” says Bud, 64. “Cosplay is just so much fun. I just can’t get enough of it.”

That’s the thing about cosplay and the comic-con culture: It’s hard to pin down a specific demographic. Drop what you’re doing right now and ask around. You’ll be surprised at the number of people you know who are into this stuff, be they young or old, man or woman, introvert or extrovert.

Marcela Peres, the 32-year-old director of the Lewiston Library, has been into the comic scene her whole life. She’s not necessarily into cosplay. But the rest of it? The comic books, the games, the sculpture? Oh yes. And she’s got the perfect back story to explain her indulgence.

“My father taught himself to read with comic books as a kid in Brazil,” Peres says. “As early as I can remember – maybe 3 or 4 years old – we were reading comic books at home, my dad and I together. He’d buy a bunch of comic books off those spinner racks at the grocery store. As he’d finish them, he’d pass them on to me, so I’ve been reading comics since I was a toddler. As I got older, I got more interested in all kinds of comics. My fifth birthday was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-themed party. I’ve loved this my whole life.”

Joseph Carro, a 36-year-old now living in Portland, gravitated to cosplay in large part because the act of dressing up has positive associations.

“I’ve always loved Halloween,” Carro says, “and growing up poor in Lewiston, we got free food and got to pretend we were someone else. When I got divorced back in 2011, I went to my first convention in Portland, and I was hooked from that moment. I attend multiple conventions over the year, in different states.”

Carro doesn’t just do it for fun. He also dresses up for charity events for children, mostly as Obi-Wan Kenobi from “Star Wars,” but also as Jareth from “Labyrinth” and Abraham Lincoln: “Vampire Hunter.”

“It lets you sort of feel famous for a day,” Carro says. “You make everyone smile, make their days brighter, and people who are into your character are instantly friends with you.”

Bud Santos most commonly attends conventions as the esteemed William Hartnell, the original Dr. Who. Don’t underestimate how many Dr. Who fans are out there. Bud Santos can tell you that from personal experience. When he went to his first convention thusly attired, fans of the show were all over him.

“They were like, ‘Oh, my God! You’re the original Dr. Who,'” Santos recalls. “It literally took me 45 minutes to get into the convention because everybody wanted to take a picture with me.”

You’ll see the same type of reaction among fans of a variety of shows: “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Batman,” “Suicide Squad,” “Deadpool” and “Game of Thrones,” to mention just a very few. And that’s not to mention the cartoons, anime and comic books that inspire millions to play dress-up at all times of the year.

For Ben Santos, it’s Hellboy, a well-intentioned half demon who first appeared in comics before crossing over into film. Don’t ask Santos how he first attached the Hellboy horns to his head. He won’t tell you because he doesn’t want others to make the same gluey mistake he made.

“My Hellboy is pretty involved,” Santos says. “I mean, how do you make ‘Big Baby,’ which is a six-barrelled, sawed-off shotgun. How do you make that from the stuff lying around your apartment? If you’ve got craft skills, that really comes in handy.”

As the demographics of the cosplay crowd ranges wildly, so does the amount of money and time they put into their costumes. Some obviously spend gobs of money for outfits and accessories. Others hardly spend anything at all.

“It doesn’t matter what level you’re at. It could be as simple as you walked into Goodwill and picked a light saber off the shelf, threw on a robe and called yourself a Jedi. Boom, you’re done. Congratulations, you’re cosplay,” Santos says.

Arnold Splan, another incarnation of the doctor from “Dr. Who” has had great success without breaking the bank. To demonstrate, he holds up a garden variety umbrella.

“I went into a thrift store and found this,” Splan says. “Pretty much my entire costume came from thrift stores.”

To get further into the mind of the cosplayer, I tracked down Mario as he bounced across the room at the event called the Pre-Con Mini-Con earlier this month at the Lewiston Public Library.

Turns out Mario is actually Auburn resident Michael Lavoie. The 38-year-old does a splendid job portraying the bouncy hero from the arcade game Donkey Kong. He’s got the outfit, the mustache, the roundish build . . . clearly Lavoie is a man who knows how to play to his strength when it comes to picking out a character.

“I go with whatever happens to inspire me,” he says, “although I try to choose characters I feel I can pull off well – the voice, the mannerisms and that type of thing.”

Like the others, Lavoie was swept into the world of cosplay at PortCon, where in 2012, he portrayed Jake Blues of the Blues Brothers. As luck would have it, he met up with a stranger at that convention who happened to be dressed as Elwood, the other half of the Blues Brother duo.

“We got our pictures taken, we entered contests, we went up on stage,” Lavoie says. “It’s a great environment for geeks — anybody who’s into comic books, movies, cartoons, science fiction and fantasy.”

#$!@#! Pac-Man!

You know who else goes wild about comic conventions? Video game players, the kind you might remember from the arcades if you’re older than 40. The Great Falls Comic Expo will feature a live podcast from Controller Throwers, an online group dedicated to the frustration of those games that used to drive up your blood pressure and steal all your quarters.

“It’s basically all the video games of your childhood that made you want to throw controllers being played in a group setting,” Santos says. “You get to play all these infuriating games and win prizes doing it while making a complete fool of yourself. Or, possibly, you do extremely well and you become a video game god for an hour.”

Almost everyone you talk to about cosplay and the comic convention crowd will eventually get around to telling you that these kinds of gatherings offer something for everybody. Ben Santos said it, so did Peres, so did Lavoie. It’s not just a handy promotional saying; conventions have a reputation for offering that crazy variety, what Siiri Cressey of Lewiston calls “epic nerdy debauchery.”

“You get to meet celebrities, you get to meet creators, you get to meet artists,” adds Santos. “You can get autographs, you get to buy cool merchandise that you can’t get anywhere else. You get Q & A panels. You sometimes get sneak previews of things that are coming up. They’ll do teasers, they’ll have exclusive items that are only available at the convention. It’s just kind of a giant, geek-out fan fest. You’ll hang out with people who are into the same stuff you are.”

And speaking of celebrities, don’t expect any big ones at The Great Falls Comic Expo. It’s not that expo goers don’t like celebrities, mind you. Who doesn’t want to meet Sulu from “Star Trek” or some dude who provided a voice for “Futurama”?

But for his expo, Santos chose to skip the really big names so that people can focus on the local artists and creators. It’s a move largely supported by comic fans and the like.

“Celebrities are wonderful and it’s fun to meet them,” says Peres, “but sometimes that takes away from the everyday people who are also artists and creators.”

Santos, who works mainly in internet technology, so took to cosplay and the comic community that he created the website Cosplay Convention Center, which allows the user to narrow in on all available conventions in the U.S. based on region, date or theme. Type “Maine” into the search bar and up pop eight events scheduled in the coming year. The first one listed, of course, is the Great Falls Comic Expo now less than a week away.

That’s either a lot of time left to put your costume together or it’s not enough, depending on how big you want to go.

Even those who don’t typically cosplay might be tempted. Take Castaldo, for instance, the Lewiston man who’s mainly about gaming. While he wasn’t in costume for the Mini-Con at earlier in the month, there’s still time for him to get into a cosplay frame of mind.

“I can’t say I’ve never done it,” Castaldo says. ” I do have a body type that’s good for certain characters.”

And Peres, drawn to the expo mainly for the comic books, says although she’s not into cosplay specifically, she’s not completely opposed to the idea of dressing up.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” she says. “I’m going to dress up in some way, just not necessarily as a character.”

Santos doesn’t have a problem with that. Come in full costume, he says. Come in street clothes, or come in a way that’s kind of in the middle.

“You can just put something together right out of your own imagination,” Santos says. “You can do whatever you want – whatever makes you comfortable. Whatever is going to be fun.”

And while he’s talking about the crazy range of fun to be had, Santos wants parents to know that the expo will be safe.

“A lot of people in the area have never gone to a convention,” he says “And a lot of people don’t know what cosplay is. There are misconceptions out there.”

Confusion over cosplay and furries, for example. Where cosplay encompasses a broad range of characters, furry fandom involves people who dress as anthropomorphic animal characters exclusively. In some circles, furries are regarded as a kind of strange and occasionally dark subculture, a notion that became more widely recognized after the hit show CSI released an episode called “Fur and Loathing,” which highlighted the seamier side of furry fandom.

“People make jokes about furries,” Santos says, “but they’re actually the nicest folks you’ll ever meet. You’ve got to give them credit because, man, it is hot in those costumes. They know all the tips and tricks to stay cool. For the most part, they’ve very nice people. To tell you the truth, that CSI episode didn’t help them.”

Which is neither here nor there. When the armory is taken over by those legions of self-appointed cosplay nerds, you’re bound to see a plethora of characters you recognize and an army of those you don’t.

“You never know,” says Lavoie, “who’s going to come as what.”

For those who eschew the costume part of the scene, comic conventions present a chance to network with like-minded souls.

“I do eight to 10 conventions a year,” says Auburn sculptor Sheryl Westleigh, who sells her art at the conventions while mingling with others of a like mind. “There are a lot of Maine artists that do conventions. They’re kind of like my own Con family. We always seem to find each other when we do conventions in other states.”

Something for everyone, is what they promise, whether it’s a chance to spend a day as Groot, the sentient tree-like creature from another planet, play a few rounds of Shadowfist with strangers or finally get your revenge on Pac-Man.

And let’s be honest. Who among us hasn’t craved at least some of these things on occasion? 

“We’re all a bunch of geeks at heart,” Santos says.

Mike Lavoie (Mario), Bud Santos (Han Solo) and Arnold Splan (The Doctor) will all be at The Great Falls Comic Expo in Lewiston. 

What: Great Falls Comic Expo

Where: Lewiston Armory, 65 Central Ave.

When: Sept. 23 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

How much: General Admission is $5. Free for kids 12 and under.

Find out more: gfcexpo.com

Lewiston Library Director Marcela Peres at her Teenage Mutant Ninja themed 5th birthday party. “My father taught himself to read with comic books as a kid in Brazil,” she said.

Joseph Carro, of Portland, as Obi-Wan Kenobi

Ben Santos, organizer of the Sept. 23 Great Falls Comic Expo, as Hellboy.

Sam York, of Lewiston, left, as Dark Phoenix, poses with Miss Genderbent Cyclops at the Denver Comic Con in 2013.

Adam Runnels, of Auburn, as Dr. Horrible for the Boston Comic Con.

Michael R. Edgecomb Jr., of Lewiston, as Johnny Raygun, posing with Rich Woodall, creator of the comic book character.

Lewiston Library Director Marcela Peres at her Teenage Mutant Ninja themed 5th birthday party. Peres grew up with comics and is looking forward to the Great Falls Comic Expo Sept. 23 in Lewiston.

Bud Santos, left, of West Minot, as Han Solo and Joseph Carro, of Portland, as Obi-Wan Kenobi at a convention in Portland.

Ramon Juanso Jr., right, of Auburn, demonstrates his “Ghostbusters” costume at a previous comic expo.

Heather Loubier, of Litchfield, as anime character Seto Kaiba at the Nan Desu Kan anime convention in Denver, Colorado.

“For me, I’m all about gaming,” said Dipper Castaldo of Lewiston while playing Splendor during the Pre-Con Mini-Con event at the Lewiston Public Library two weeks ago. 

Paige Pursell, dressed as Temmie, plays the game Magic: The Gathering during the Pre-Con Mini-Con event at the Lewiston Public Library two weeks ago. 

Sheryl Westleigh of Auburn shows Lee Howitt her artwork during the Pre-Con Mini-Con event at the Lewiston Public Library. Westleigh sells her sculptures, sea life jewelry and prints under Noadi’s Art. 

Great Falls Comic Expo organizer Ben Santos.

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