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Creatures, comics and cosplay: Lilac City Comicon’s larger and larger crowds put founder on firm footing

Nathan O’Brien, CEO and founder of Lilac City Comicon, started the comic book and pop culture show, the largest in Eastern Washington, back in 2007. This year’s event is being held at the Spokane Convention Center Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2, 2019. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Nathan O’Brien, CEO and founder of Lilac City Comicon, started the comic book and pop culture show, the largest in Eastern Washington, back in 2007. This year’s event is being held at the Spokane Convention Center Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2, 2019. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Johnathan Curley The Spokesman-Review

Nathan O’Brien’s job moved him from Whidbey Island to Spokane in 2006. After settling in, he began searching the web to find out when Spokane’s next comicon convention might be.

Nothing. Not a trace.

So he called a local comic books store to see if maybe there just wasn’t much on the web about it. The person on the other end of the line was nice enough, but also laughed. Out loud.

That’s when O’Brien realized he wasn’t finding anything because Spokane literally had neither an annual celebration of comic books and science fiction nor a real appreciation for flux capacitors and light sabers.

O’Brien knew what he needed to do.

He would start his own.

“I wanted to create a slice of the comic book and pop culture world in Spokane so people could have something that they could own for themselves and enjoy,” he said Friday afternoon as this year’s version of the Lilac City Comicon began to take shape within the Spokane Convention Center.

It will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are available at the venue.

2017 - Dylan Beecher smiles as Clint Young, right, opens the door and lets him sit in the 1966 Batmobile, used for the 1960s TV show, for a photo at the Lilac City Comicon Saturday, June 3, 2017 at the Spokane Convention Center. Young, who has owned the car for 30 years and charges for photographs with and inside the car, takes the car to comic book and science fiction conventions and often dresses in the 1960s Batman costume. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
2017 - Dylan Beecher smiles as Clint Young, right, opens the door and lets him sit in the 1966 Batmobile, used for the 1960s TV show, for a photo at the Lilac City Comicon Saturday, June 3, 2017 at the Spokane Convention Center. Young, who has owned the car for 30 years and charges for photographs with and inside the car, takes the car to comic book and science fiction conventions and often dresses in the 1960s Batman costume. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Despite his experience as the resident dining manager at Gonzaga, feeding entire classes of freshman and sophomores for nine months at a time, there aren’t exactly instruction manuals for how to stage an elaborate pop culture event for people not afraid to dress like an obscure video game character or randomly speak Vulcan. So he turned to his web of contacts from past comicons he had been involved with as an artist.

In his first year, 2007, O’Brien’s comicon attracted a crowd of 300 to Gonzaga’s Cataldo Hall – a venue typically reserved for weddings and banquets. And also not exactly easy to find if you’re not familiar with the college’s campus.

In the second year, 300 became 500. Then 500 became 750. Cataldo Hall turned into Spokane Community College. As attendance climbed each year, the regional event grew as fabled as the universes it featured. O’Brien’s homegrown skills were being summoned to consult by upstart comicons from Stockton, Calif., to Wenatchee.

Actor Tim Russ, best known for playing Tuvok, a Vulcan, on “Star Trek: Voyager,” talks about his work Saturday at the Lilac City Comicon at the Spokane Convention Center in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Actor Tim Russ, best known for playing Tuvok, a Vulcan, on “Star Trek: Voyager,” talks about his work Saturday at the Lilac City Comicon at the Spokane Convention Center in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The event graduated from the confines of SCC to the Spokane Convention Center in 2015, and along with the change of address also came a change in name to Lilac City Comicon. Crowds are now north of 8,000 attendees.

The comicon also hosts the largest cosplay contest in Eastern Washington, with the winner taking home a cash prize and the con’s titular, yet oddly awesome, cosplay championship belt – think WWE meets The Avengers, with a little Las Vegas thrown in for good measure.

It’s the costumes that have changed over the years. In the early days, O’Brien said a few people might dress up. At some point, the halls of the convention center began to look like Hollywood and Halloween held together with a dash of duct tape.

“The cosplay has evolved tremendously, especially over the last five, six years,” O’Brien explained. “Pop culture in general has just become more common in everybody’s vernacular and consciousness.”

In the past, the Lilac City Comicon cosplay contest has seen everything from a cardboard Xenomorph to a life-size Groot costume … complete with an “I Am Groot” voice box.

Spokane’s 501st Legion, a group of diehard Star Wars faithfuls with movie-quality costumes from the series and fixtures at the event, weren’t afraid to enlist the help of the Seattle branch of the Imperial Guard for this year’s comicon. So be prepared for an even bigger taste of the Dark Side.

There are a fair share of real stars, as well. This year’s stars include Saturday Night Live alum Chris Kattan and Hall of Fame wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.

Last year, you could see the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. In an era with agents and managers, O’Brien simply reached out to his royal greenness directly.

“He represented himself, which was really cool,” O’Brien said. “He would be calling me, texting me, personally. He had a great time here and everybody loved him so much. He sent me a friend request on Facebook because he had such a good time here.

“He’s called me a few times and he’s like, ‘This is Lewey’ and I’m like, oh we’re on a nickname basis now, alright, well ‘This is Nate-y.’ ”

Stories like that help explain the incredible growth of the Lilac City Comicon.

Today, the event occupies Exhibit Hall A inside the vast Spokane Convention Center, an accomplishment O’Brien places entirely on the fans.

“The crowds, the fans, the people just blow me away,” he said. “I feel like we’re slowly becoming part of the community.”

2017 - Quentin Matheson, 4, has his photo taken with Alexandra Baxter, who was wearing a costume she designed to resemble the character Groot from the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” on  at the Spokane Convention Center, the site of the Lilac City Comicon. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
2017 - Quentin Matheson, 4, has his photo taken with Alexandra Baxter, who was wearing a costume she designed to resemble the character Groot from the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” on at the Spokane Convention Center, the site of the Lilac City Comicon. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

And for as much as the community has given to the local comicon, O’Brien has made sure to give back even more. This includes working with Our Place Community Outreach and donating to Catholic Charities of Spokane and the Spokane Fire Fighters For Kids Foundation.

Each person who donates a canned food or nonperishable item will receive a free entry ticket.

Every person who donates will be entered in a drawing for a locally made arcade machine worth $2,500.

Costumes might be optional but there’s no doubt where the best people-watching will be in Spokane this weekend.

And that makes O’Brien smile. Or whatever Sheldon Cooper – also a noted comicon afficionado from the television show “The Big Bang Theory” – would do when he is happy.

Bazinga.

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