“Do You Know Where Stan Lee Is?”: A Day With Ben Penrod, Founding Father Of Washington DC’s Awesome Con

Devon Sanders writes:


[As I was putting the final touches on this article, I read of the passing of Joan Lee, Stan Lee’s wife of nearly 70 years. I wish to offer my sincerest condolences to Stan Lee and all that loved and knew her.]


A lot of work goes into bringing a convention together. Months of prep come down to when the doors finally open. This is the story of just three of those hours.

8 a.m. on Saturday, June 17th, day two of Awesome Con and its founder and organizer Ben Penrod asks me a question I couldn’t possibly answer:

“Do you know where Stan Lee is?”

awesome con
Ben Penrod, in all his bearded glory.

It’s said as a joke, but Ben really, really Ben wants to know where Stan Lee is. Stan is the featured guest at the 2017 Awesome Con and is due to appear at 8:30’s Bagels & Coffee with Stan Lee. The thing has Stan’s name on it and already over a hundred people are there to meet a living legend. And Ben is worried. Stan is a legend and Ben is a guy. If a legend wants to grab a few more minutes to meet the day, Ben knows he has to deal. The man’s earned that.

So, the question goes to me, “Do you know where Stan Lee is?”

I look around and say, “No.” Ben smiles, smooths back his hair and the next second is gone.

Months earlier, on Facebook, Ben posted an announcement he knew would change the trajectory of Awesome Con, a convention that five years before, took up a single room in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, a structure that takes up a full block of prime downtown Washington D.C. real estate.

The day of the announcement, Ben posted a picture of a happy and smiling Stan Lee and the convention world was put on notice: things done changed. Awesome Con was leveling up.

Five years before, Ben walked into Fantom Comics, the comics shop I ran until 2014 and asked me to post fliers for a little convention he was running. It was named Awesome Con. I took the flyers, shook his hand and as soon he walked out of the door, said to my coworker, “I have no idea who he is.”

This Saturday, as I walked into the convention center to meet him at 7 a.m., he approaches tired but ready. He’d told me he’d been sick Friday — the day of the con’s opening — but feels better. He has to be. He’s running things.

Located within walking distance of The White House, the convention center will fill with tens of thousands of con-goers. Cosplayers ready to know if the pinpricks to their fingers were worth it. Kids ready to see Tinkerbell, Captain America and Wonder Woman walking among them. Exhibitors ready to display their craft and earn back the cost of tabling and more.

On Saturday alone, Awesome Con will feature two WWE champions in Shinsuke Nakamura and Charlotte Flair, the duo set to change DC Comics history writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo, writer/director Edgar Wright is there to preview his new Movie Baby Driver as is The Tenth Doctor and Kilgrave from the Netflix series, Jessica Jones, David Tennant are all in attendance. They are all there and Ben has brought them all here. For three days, Ben Penrod has essentially become the mayor of an entire block of The Nation’s Capital.

But right now, there’s a new crisis.

A Loki cosplayer has just walked into the room. Ben darts away to make sure Loki has his bagel and a good view of Stan Lee.

By now, at 8:30 a.m. and with two hundred others in the room eating breakfast, beside the Lord of Lies, Ben is fixing a minor crisis. There’s a stage where a stage shouldn’t be and for a meet-and-greet, a stage could mean gridlock and less interaction with Stan and his fans. The stage has to go. Like, now.

Seriously, like, NOW.

Ben darts away again, asking very politely but firmly, who can remove a stage before the guest of honor arrives. Questions are answered and as I begin to ask a question, Ben is gone again. I look over and he has a mike in hand, letting them know that he’s just heard that Stan is on his way. There is applause. For Stan.

And Ben quietly makes his way back over to me, as I’m about to ask the question that’s been on my mind since 7 a.m. a young lady walks over thinking he’s a con volunteer and asks a question. Reluctantly, he offers that he’s also the con founder. She lets out small yelp and says to Ben, “Thank you so much for this. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

In the nearly two hours I’ve been chasing him, this is the first time I’ve seen him relax a bit. Her ease put him at ease. Stan is on his way. She knows it. He knows it.

“Thank you,” he says and chats a while longer and motions for me to wait for him while he waits for Stan.

We go into a room and he quietly checks his email and I ask him, “Has this gotten any easier for you in your five years of doing this?”

Ben, for the first time since I’ve been with him today, stops everything and says, “Not when you’re looking at twice the amount of people as attended last year. Let’s go downstairs and wait for Stan.”

Ten minutes later, I’m on the elevator with Ben and Stan Lee and I find myself staring at the man who with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and more created a modern mythology and just…wow. I look over and Ben is quiet.

Stan walks off the elevator and readies himself to walk through the door. I watch him and marvel because I’m watching a man who 100% knows what he means to this world. His shoulders become straighter. His eyes find their mischief. He puts his hand to the door, they swing open and the audience goes wild.

And Ben just watches. Stan Lee is where he said he’d be.

As Stan regales the crowd with his stories, he notices that he needs a napkin and again, Ben is gone, returning with one in hand for Stan.

Elsewhere, the con floor is filling up and this convention housing the population of a good-sized town is going along just fine.

As Stan talks, I walk over to Ben and let him know I’m going to let him continue his day and I thank him for the opportunity to just watch him do his thing.

It’s barely 9:30.

He has a convention to run and the doors stay open until six p.m. Saturday. He’ll have to do this again on Sunday.

I look over and Loki has his bagel and Stan Lee.

There are tens of thousands of these stories. Ben’s is just one of them.

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

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