From Nov. 9-11, Grand Rapids Comic Con returns to DeVos Place with a variety of events and programming, including a vending hall, fan panels, costume contests, film screenings and art shows. Back in 2006, though, it was only an idea. While attending a toy show in Pittsburgh, Mark Hodges, co-owner and event director of Grand Rapids Comic Con, contemplated if it was possible for Grand Rapids to have its own comic book-style convention.
His pursuit was hindered by the financial demand and the logistics of the location.
“To be honest, it was a crazy idea,” Hodges said. “I wanted to do this on a pretty grand scale, and we were talking about one of the most conservative markets in the United States. This was a time when other conservative markets, such as Des Moines and Salt Lake City, did not have shows.”
It was not until 2012 when Hodges’ wife, Jennifer, convinced him that his dream could turn into a reality. A year later, with $7,500 in credit cards and another $1,500 from a relative, the couple organized the first-ever Grand Rapids Comic-Con.
Nerves transformed into exhilaration once the couple saw the crowd of people waiting outside to attend. “We had lines out the door, literally over a mile long when we hit fire code,” Hodges said. “We knew that our lives officially were never going to be the same as of October 12, 2013.”
Five years later, Grand Rapids Comic Con has grown into such a popular event that Hodges even compares it to having the same significance as prom or homecoming for many teens and young adults. “A lot of kids see our event as a place that is for them and that they can release some tensions and be themselves. A lot of kids feel like they have to wear a mask throughout life, which is very unfortunate,” Hodges said.
Because of this, Hodges feels a responsibility to the community to ensure that this weekend-long event is inclusive to all people. No matter your background or views, Hodges explained that the Grand Rapids Comic Con can be a place for anyone to connect over their shared hobbies and passions.
“It puts people on a level where the rich and poor, gay and straight, Christian and atheist, and so on can interact about common interests and enjoy this strange thing we call fandom, and in that process, hopefully grasp that we really aren’t that different from each other. We all look for inspiration in things that are bigger than ourselves,” Hodges said.
Adam Withers and Comfort Love, a husband and wife comic-creating team, said that the opportunity to connect with members of the community during comic cons is what they love most about attending these conventions. “Whether it’s talking with people at the table or inspiring and entertaining fans at our panels, our ability to have a positive influence on people’s lives, if only for a moment, that’s magic,” Love said.
It is these types of moments that have shown Withers and Love the importance of forming relationships with fellow fans and readers. “With communication becoming so disconnected and impersonal, having the chance to shake somebody’s hand and talk to them directly about the things we love means so much more,” Withers said.
Comic cons can also lead to mentoring between professionals and aspiring individuals. Because it is where their dreams of becoming comic book artists started, Withers and Love view comic cons as an opportunity to help those who desire to create their own comics one day. “We were there ourselves, portfolios under our arms and dreams in our heads. We want people to know it’s possible to make that dream real, and to help them get up and get going like the creators we admired did for us when we were young,” Withers said.
Even if creating comic books is not your professional goal, Withers and Love want to show individuals there is so much more to this comic world than just what is shown in the movies. “It’s incredibly important to us to help new, casual comic neophytes become dedicated life-long fans and readers. So many people watch the movies and love the characters, but we want to get them reading books and becoming part of the greater community,” Love said.
In addition to creating a community of fans, Grand Rapids Comic Con aims to celebrate a love and appreciation for modern mythology. Hodges explains that places like the Grand Rapids Comic Con are what makes comic culture thrive. “Superheroes and other popular culture are our society’s legends and lore. Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Iron Man have become our Odysseus, our Odin, our Paul Bunyan. These have become truly American folklore, and we have sort of turned into the local epicenter for that for this area,” Hodges said.
For more information, visit the Grand Rapids Comic Con website.
*Photos by Jacky Petters Photography