The Rapidian

Strength of 30,000 nerds: Grand Rapids Comic-Con begins to flex its muscle

With this year's attendance again breaking records, Grand Rapids' annual geek gathering at DeVos Place gears up for not only for event expansion, but for more powerful community impact.
GR Comic Con attendees

GR Comic Con attendees /Marjorie Steele

GR Comic Con attendees dressed as Han Solo and Rey from Star Wars

GR Comic Con attendees dressed as Han Solo and Rey from Star Wars /Marjorie Steele

GR Comic Con attendees dressed as Captain America, Deadpool and Doctor Doom

GR Comic Con attendees dressed as Captain America, Deadpool and Doctor Doom /Marjorie Steele

Humble origins are often the precursor to greatness, and that’s proving no less true for Grand Rapids Comic Con than for the superheroes who flocked there in droves last weekend. The event that arose in 2013 in Wyoming’s Home School Building has completed its second year running at DeVos Place with record attendance, looking likely to break 30,000 attendees over its three-day span. But, according to event director and co-founder Mark Hodges, Grand Rapids Comic-Con is just warming up.

“In the field, 30,000 turnstiles is considered a major national event. We’re going to be really close this year. And then we’ll get what I call our ‘big boy pants,’” said Hodges at a press conference Sunday morning.

Attendance the first year was capped due to the Home School Building’s 1,500 person capacity, with rumors of up to 5,000 people being turned away at the door. In 2014, the event clocked in nearly 20,000 people at the Deltaplex. With over 20,000 estimated attendees from Friday and Saturday alone, and another 8-9,000 attendees expected on Sunday, this year’s Grand Rapids Comic-Con will easily break last year’s attendance record of 22,500.

This year over year growth can be attributed to a growing “nerd market,” the strength of which has surprised local conventions bureaus, according to Hodges. But it’s clear from the vibe of the event that the “mom and pop” management style of Hodges and his wife, co-owner and Vending Coordinator Jennifer Hodges, has also played an instrumental role in the event’s surging success.

“I believe the show belongs to the community,” said Hodges, who, along with his wife, has actively avoided large corporate sponsorships and incubated a vending environment that favors local sole proprietors over large corporations. The pair has also done their best to facilitate “weirder and weirder requests” from the nerd community itself, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) wedding which took place in one of the event’s stages on Saturday morning. This year’s visiting TMNT celebrities, including reuniting cast members from the 1990 TMNT film Michelan Sisti, Leif Tilden, and Josh Pais, as well as TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman, volunteered to participate in the ceremony—pro bono.

That community-centered attitude articulates itself consistently throughout the Hodges’ management, all the way down to the couples’ take-home pay. According to Hodges, the two cut annual salaries of $15,600 each—which is likely another key reason the event has been able to turn a profit (albeit a modest one) in its first five years of operation.

Events like this, Hodges said, take at least five years to turn a substantial profit. Last year’s event netted $16,000, which helped its recovery from losses the year before. This year “will be the first year we’ll actually make what I call ‘real’ money,” Hodges said.

From the tone of Hodge’s plans, it sounds like that profit will be re-invested into expanding next year’s event. Grand Rapids Comic-Con has already reserved several ballrooms in the Amway Grand Plaza for evening pop and heavy metal concerts next year, and is working to secure the JW Marriott’s 13,000-square-foot ballroom as a dedicated gaming room which would run throughout the event. Many attendees come just to game, Hodges said, so giving gamers their own dedicated space would be like creating another “mini-con” within the larger Comic-Con, just a 10-minute walk away from the main event.

Hodges will also be leveraging the credibility gained from larger attendance numbers to secure more renowned celebrities. “Certain celebrities and vendors won’t even talk to you until you hit [30,000],” Hodges said. Army of Darkness actor and Michigan native Bruce Campbell is high on Hodges’ wishlist for next year. National vendors such as SuperHeroStuff may also turn their attention towards Grand Rapids.

For 2018’s event, Hodges is laying the groundwork to bring in a celebrity speaker series of epic proportions. While no names were mentioned, the speaker panel budget is estimated around $1.5M, and Hodges is in negotiations with PBS to air the panel live, and TMC to air re-runs.

In addition to expanding the event’s venue and roster of events, Hodges said Grand Rapids Comic-Con plans to kickstart a new charity arm this winter. The new nonprofit, which will be underwritten by the event, will most likely focus on “bringing Comic-Con” to children who are hospital-bound due to illness. The nonprofit will also take over the administration of “Dan’s Dream”, a charitable exhibit of comic sketch art which has been a regular at Comic-Con. Under the event’s leadership, Dan’s Dream will tour nationally and pursue publication of its curated collections.

“We’re pretty charitable now, but we want to step that game up,” Hodges said. “We’re a community show, and there’s a responsibility when you are a community event. You should do things that are beneficial to your community.”

With that in mind, Hodges expresses his misgivings for the potentially negative ripple effect from the event’s boom. He laments the impact market oversaturation may have on the many smaller “nerd cons” which have sprouted up across the state in recent years. Despite the fact that the “nerd market” is growing, Grand Rapids and Detroit’s larger events are pulling from smaller events. “I think we’re going to see at thinning of the herd in the next couple of years,” Hodges said.

Negative impact on small convention markets notwithstanding, Grand Rapids Comic-Con has done its best to position itself to be a force for good. “It’s important to be on the forefront of social change,” Hodges says, citing their involvement in next year’s gay pride parade, and the diversity of the visiting artists and celebrities they bring. The comic universe has always championed the causes of those whom society has historically marginalized, Hodges emphasized, pointing to the original "Star Trek’s" Lieutenant Uhura, a groundbreaking role for a black woman in the 60’s, and the strength of the female character “Rey” in last year’s "Star Wars: the Force Awakens."

“But [Comic-Con] is not only about people who are on the fringes of society,” Hodges emphasizes. “It’s about everyone.”

Next year’s Grand Rapids Comic-Con will be held Oct 20-22 at DeVos Place, Amway Grand Plaza & JW Marriott. Visit for more information.

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