A half-century ago, comic book and toy collector conventions were low-budget informal affairs that fans held in their parents’ garages, talking about their hobbies face to face and maybe trading a little.
Now cons, as they’re called, are often big-city affairs with huge crowds and high prices. The San Diego Comic Con, founded in 1970 as one of the pioneers in the genre, is now known primarily for bringing in stars from upcoming big-budget superhero, fantasy, sci-fi and horror films.
By contrast, Santa Rosa Toy & Comic Con, returning Sept. 22 for its sixth year, still retains the feeling of an old-fashioned, fan-based con with like-minded aficionados just hanging out, even though the event also will feature some film and TV actors, including LeVar Burton of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“Actually, as many people know him from ‘Reading Rainbow’ on PBS as from ‘Star Trek,’ because we all grew up with that,” said convention founder Mike Holbrook, 41, of Santa Rosa.
Other headliners include actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who starred in the movie ‘La Bamba’ and had a five-season run on the TV series “Longmire,” and Adam Baldwin of the TV series “Firefly.”
At an event that boasts a Batmobile replica and cosplay crews dressed as characters from “Ghostbusters” and “The Avengers,” you might be surprised to find an actor from the hit crime TV drama “Breaking Bad,” but R.J. Mitte, who played lead character Walter White’s son Flynn, will be there.
And as Holbrook points out, “Breaking Bad” did inspire a line of toys. One more intriguing example is the replica of White’s mobile RV meth lab, repurposed as an incense burner, priced online at $21.95. (But don’t count on finding that one at the con.)
“I got a call, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to come up and meet the people and hang out and see what you’ve got,’ said Mitte, who come up from his home in the L.A. area for the Santa Rosa event. “I enjoy the conventions. There’s always something new.”
Some of the convention’s guests don’t have so far to travel. Jon Provost, 68, who starred as Timmy on the hit TV series “Lassie” from 1957 to 1964, has lived in Sonoma County since 1970, and has appeared at every Santa Rosa Toy & Comic Con since the event started six years ago.
Lassie, the apparently telepathic wonder dog, could technically be considered a rural superhero of sorts and appeared in comic books for decades from a couple of different publishers, and there was a wide range of Lassie merchandise.
“I have dozens of Lassie comics, the books, the children’s books. We even had a line of Timmy and Lassie clothes that were sold at JC Penney’s back in the day,” Provost said.
Fans often bring Provost memorabilia from the show, which range from plush Lassie toys to lunch boxes to posters and lobby cards from South America, Asia and Europe. The main item he brings to the conventions is his autobiography, “Timmy’s in the Well,” with the title mocking the complex messages deciphered from Lassie’s barks in some episodes.
“The thing about these cons around the country is originally they just started out as comic cons, and then like horror cons or sci-fi cons, but what the they’ve done over the past 10 years is they’re injecting people that maybe don’t fit that certain bill, but they’re iconic to the generation,” Provost explained.
If You Go
What: Santa Rosa Toy & Comic Con, with guests Levar Burton, Adam Baldwin and Lou Diamond Phillips
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, with a special early bird start at 9 a.m.
Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa
Admission: $15; $25 for early bird entry; free for age 5 and younger