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Geeking out: Thousands of fans proudly prove Grand Rapids Comic Con's star power


The Grand Rapids Comic Con is growing by leaps and bounds, this year drawing close to 30,000 visitors to the convention that is wonderfully proving 'geek' culture is for everyone.
When you think about Comic Con, or any ‘Cons,’ really, you tend to think of really big cities: San Diego on the west coast, New York on the east, and Chicago in the midwest — not places like Grand Rapids. But why not? Why not here? Certainly, the feeling of camaraderie, connectedness and just plain ol’ fun transcends geographical boundaries, and maybe that’s the overall appeal of these events in the first place.
 
Now in its fourth year, Grand Rapids Comic Con has grown by leaps and bounds despite still being in its infancy. Having quickly outgrown its initial home at Wyoming’s Home School Building, 2016 marked the second year of the DeVos Place Convention Center hosting the event downtown.
 
Nearly 30,000 fans flocked to the three-day fest filled with media and comic personas, artists, seminars and panel discussions, cosplay and costumes, and a vending hall chock full of anything any everything you (and your 10-year-old self) could want. Family friendly but not banal, the overall vibe of the event, held from Oct. 21-23, was that of community and, as silly as it sounds, joy.
 
Saturday, lines spilled around the block as people in every type of costume, from traditional super heroes like Captain America to more obscure characters from various anime and everything in between, waited to get inside the Convention Center.
 
Mark and Jennifer Hodges, the husband-and-wife duo who are co-owners of the event, have poured their energy into making this event the best it could be.
 
“My wife and I have put a lot of heart and soul in it for four years, but also we have an incredible bunch of people who work with us,” said Mark Hodges, a native Grand Rapidian and longtime events planner who got his start in the field as a Christian concert promoter at Muskegon’s (now shuttered) The Ice Pick, a “punk rock divey hole-in-the-wall,” as Hodges describes it.
 
“It’s really turned into an amazing group of friends running it,” Hodges says of the convention, which launched in 2013 with a budget of $9,000 and an attendance of about 10,000 people and now boasts about 29,000 attendees and a $500,000 budget.
 
Kevin Eastman, co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.National comic and media guests were present, signing autographs, chatting and snapping pictures with fans. Notable amongst the guest were Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the ever beloved “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles;” Denise Crosby of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame; Bryce Papenbrook, the man who provides English voices to some of the most popular anime characters today, such as Eren Jaeger in “Attack On Titan” and Kirito in “Sword Art Online;” and Austin St. John, the original red Power Ranger.
 
Plus, Hodges noted Derek Maki, who runs a celebrity representation company, Cool Waters, and manages such stars as Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Sigourney Weaver, attended the Grand Rapids convention after Maki’s mother told him our city was the place to be when it came to comic cons.
 
“Derek sent his mother to our show last year, and she came home from our show and said, 'I lay claim to this show; it’s mine,'” Hodges laughs. “He made his mother upset and sent her to Tulsa, Oklahoma last weekend, and he came to Grand Rapids.”
 
“Geeked” is putting it mildly when it comes to fans of the celebrities at the event. Caitlin and Jillian, two sisters from Rockford, Michigan were literally spinning in circles waiting in line for a meet and greet with Papenbrook. Attending their first Comic Con with their parents, it was obvious that this was the highlight of their experience so far. “I love the anime characters he voices; my favorite is Rin from 'Blue Exorcist,'” an excited Caitlin shared with Rapid Growth. “This has been really cool. I would love to go to more.”
 
This enthusiasm for meeting the celebrity guests extended to members of the adult crowd as well  like Dustin, a father of two, who had a good long conversation with St. John and left his booth beaming. Turns out, “Power Rangers” not only provided him with a sense of solace as a kid, but inspired his lifelong love affair with martial arts. He’s a black belt.
 
Beyond the fans themselves, the celebrity guests seemed genuinely enthusiastic with the West Michigan crowd. Kevin Eastman’s wife and manager, Courtney Eastman, said the “reception in Grand Rapids has been fantastic. Everyone is so welcoming and happy. We literally have the best work environment we could be in. Conventions are the happiest place on earth.”
 
A healthy representation of local artists and makers were also on hand.
 
Marco Riolo and his Gumball Monsters.

Born and raised in Grand Rapids,
Marco Riolo’s “Gumball Monsters” booth featured adorable little custom creations, available for only $5 to anyone who needs a little bit of monster-love in their lives. “I draw these guys to ward off the hate makers and naysayers of the world,” Riolo shared. “Customized, we kind of identify an individual’s dreams, their aspirations, and these little monsters are their own candy-coated guardians of good.” Some of you may remember Riolo from Artprize, where this particular project debuted. A boy of about seven years old walked over to his booth with his father and quietly sat on his knee while Riolo asked questions and helped this little boy’s ideal monster come to life. He grinned and handed over the art, shaking the boy’s hand as he shyly smiled.
 
Riolo grinned as the little boy left. “It’s like a dreamland here, isn’t it? All the fun people in one place. It’s just filled with mirth.”
 
Indeed, that’s a fairly accurate description of the controlled chaos at Grand Rapids Comic Con. A space where everyone felt comfortable being themselves, dressing up or simply perusing the boxes upon boxes of unsorted comics, looking for those gems missing from the collection. Everyone got along. Differences that normally divide seemed null, and all that radiated from the attendees was a vibe of excitement.
 
Members of Great Lakes Garrison 501st.

For some, being who they are meant dressing up in elaborate Star Wars-themed costumes, like members of the
Great Lakes Garrison 501st. A thematic group that attends events and uses their costuming for good, volunteering their time and energy with various Michigan-based charities, had a featured booth to introduce their organization, and their impressive costuming skills, to attendees. To say their outfits were elaborate is likely an understatement.
 
In addition to the eye candy of all the costumes and cosplay, the celebrity guest and comic book artists, there were also seminars scheduled throughout the event, featuring everything from how to create a comic book to cosplay 101. If you weren’t interested in the uber fandom aspects of the Con, the vendor hall alone was enough of a reason to go.
 
Imagine your childhood dreams in one big room, all for sale. Toys, comics, manga, replica swords and handmade creations ranging from 1980s inspired jewelry to steampunk style custom made clocks were all available for purchase. Pro-tip: start saving up a few months before any Con — you’ll be happy you did. (Guilty admission: this writer spent a couple hundred bucks between goodies for herself, her husband and two kids.)
 
All of this  the tens of thousands of fans, the incredible lineup of national and local celebrities, and more  is coinciding with a time when comic culture is clearly on the rise in Grand Rapids. With the debut of the downtown comic book shop Vault of Midnight a little more than two years ago, the founding of the MI Geek Scene website from Joe Hubbard (who provided his own extensive coverage of the Con), and the general overall interest of what was once considered a niche market, the city is proudly showing its inner geek.
 
“There definitely has been a major change,” Hodges says of the increasing interest in comic culture, with the convention co-owner attributing much of this embracing of all things "nerdy" to be stemming from recent Hollywood movies featuring comic book characters. Of course, it’s more than just pop culture that’s drawing everyone from toddlers in Halloween costumes to adults in cosplay to an event that has basically tripled in size since its inception in 2013.
 
“I think this show works in Grand Rapids because it’s pretty PG,” Hodges explains. “It’s one of the most family-friendly markets in the country, so Jen and I did a PG show. If you walked around the show, you saw a lot of families with little kids and strollers, and the kids had their Halloween costumes on. You don’t see as much of that at other shows around the country because, frankly, there’s so much stuff parents don’t want their kids to see.”
 
While the convention’s success continues to grow exponentially, Hodges says they will never lose sight of their fans and will always make it about the community.
 
“We want to keep the [ticket] prices as cheap as possible because I want the average guy with a family at home and who makes 12 bucks and hour to be able to go. I don’t want this to be out of reach for them.”
 
All of this still not enough for you to consider attending next year? Still thinking, “So, what’s really the appeal of Comic Cons?” It’s simple — memories, new and old, tangible in the form of a signed first edition of a comic book or laughing with strangers over a shared passion. For seasoned “nerdy” fans to newbies alike, it’s an atmosphere that features something that speaks to everyone. It’s no longer “geek culture,” it’s everyone’s culture. It’s a modern day pantheon of pop heroes and cult classics. It’s your shared love of Power Rangers growing up, it’s that next comic book issue you can’t wait for, it’s your undying fandom for Star Wars (despite those middle three movies), it’s watching your kids understand the awesomeness that is the Ninja Turtles and knowing you’re raising them right.
 
Thank you, Grand Rapids, for bringing this event to our door.
 
Authors note: The terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are used as terms of endearment, and not meant to objectify or insult. Indeed, the author describes herself that way, quite frequently.
 
Already excited for next year’s Comic Con? It will be held Oct. 20-22 at DeVos Place, Amway Grand Plaza and the JW Marriott. For more information, visit the Grand Rapids Comic Con website and Facebook page.
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