It’s an undeniable fact that over the past decade, comic book culture has exploded on a huge scale. No longer the fringe domain of the uncool, “nerd” culture has gone completely mainstream with the colossal success of blockbuster movies like The Avengers and award-winning TV series like The Walking Dead.
With that has come a massive wave of new fandom, which frequently gathers to build collections, make new connections and show off self-made creations at Comic-Cons all across the country.
“The field has obviously exploded, mostly due to the popularity of nerd-based films and television,” said Mark Hodges, Grand Rapids Comic-Con co-owner and event director. “Netflix and other streaming services have been building their brand around genre-based productions like Daredevil and Stranger Things, and a simple reading of the top 10 films of any year in the past 10 years will show there is a huge interest in genre-based entertainment.”
Reflecting that rise in interest in what they do, the organizers behind the Grand Rapids Comic-Con have quickly scaled up the event, going from a wildly successful experiment inside the Home School Building in Wyoming during its first year back in 2013 to selling out the Deltaplex in 2014. Last year had more than 28,000 attendees at DeVos Place.
“The first show was started with $7,500 in credit cards and another $1,500 from one of our relatives, and we walked into that show with $50 to our names,” Hodges said of the huge personal and financial risk he and his wife/co-owner Jennifer Hodges took when starting Grand Rapids Comic-Con in 2013. “We had lines out the door literally over a mile long, and we knew that our lives officially were never going to be the same.”
Every year since, Hodges has seen an increase in attendance and enthusiasm, adding that Grand Rapids has quickly become a major hub for talented cosplayers.
“Two different cosplayers from West Michigan have placed or won divisions of the annual contest at C2E2, which I would consider the premiere cosplay contest in the Midwest,” he said. “There is also some tremendous artistic and writing talent in the area, and we feel very good about encouraging them in their work and watching them grow in their field.”
For the uninitiated, cosplay is the most noticeable element of any comic book convention. It’s where you’ll see Darth Vader waiting in line alongside Rick and Morty, or Wonder Woman sharing a laugh with Super Mario. Often fan-created, costumes run the gamut of geek culture, from movie favorites to video game avatars to anime icons. All it takes is a little ingenuity and some crafty skills and you could be the talk of this year’s con.
“If you plan on going and you have not attended an event like this before, my advice would be to wear comfortable shoes and empty the memory on your camera,” Hodges said. “You will walk a lot and you will shoot a lot of pictures. Read the program and make sure to check out some panels and presentations at the show. There is a ton going on. These shows are a lot more than the vending hall. Also, drag out the Halloween costume and have some fun.”
This year’s Grand Rapids Comic-Con will feature more than 20 celebrity guests, more than two dozen comic book artists and authors, an art show, a film festival, a gaming area, an anime room and more than 100 hours of programming. The show is also hosting several rising YouTube stars for the first time.
“I think what makes us stand out is the more family-friendly vibe, and the show is completely inclusive,” Hodges said. “Moms and dads can bring their little kids to a very family-friendly environment, and more marginalized communities feel that our event is safe and fun to attend and be themselves, which is something I strive for.”
That open inclusivity has Grand Rapids Comic-Con on pace to officially become a national event in its industry, as Hodges anticipates breaking the 30,000 mark for attendance this year.
“I think the biggest impact (we’ve had is) on the teen and young college market,” Hodges said. “For a lot of people in that age group, we have become a key event similar to prom and homecoming, which to me is pretty amazing. A lot of kids see our event as a place that is for them and that they can release some tensions and be themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of kids feel like they have to wear a mask throughout life, and with our event, they can release that and just be themselves.”
Grand Rapids Comic-Con
303 Monroe Ave. NW,
Nov. 9-11, $15-55