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Convention Attention: Behind The Scenes at Grand Rapids ComicCon

Last month I attended Grand Rapids ComicCon, held in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the Event Co-Coordinators, Mark Hodges, was instrumental in helping me buy tickets ahead of time. We had a nice chat over the phone, and I never got the chance to thank him for helping me out. When he agreed to be interviewed for Convention Attention, I got to thank him for something else. Read on, to learn what that was, how to start a ComicCon from scratch, and the challenges of planning an event when you don’t know how much space you’ll need, or how many tickets you’ll sell, or what specifically the attendees will be most interested in. Mark also let me in on a few secrets of where Grand Rapids ComicCon is headed in the upcoming years.

Andrea Johnson: How did you get involved with Grand Rapids ComicCon? How did this convention get started?

Mark Hodges: I started a poster business back in 2005 and started travelling to comic-cons and other trade shows with that business. I was sitting at a rather boring vintage toy and comic book show in Pittsburgh and thought to myself “Why couldn’t this be done in Grand Rapids?”

Over that weekend, I pictured something more grand than a typical comic-con: something that includes the arts, science, music, literature. Sort of part comic-con, part spectacle, part learning experience, and all fun. I looked at all this and thought, “Mark, that is the dumbest thing you have ever conceived!” I tried to put the idea to bed, but it just would not go away. After a couple failed smaller ventures over a five year period, I was ready to throw in the towel when my wife Jennifer convinced me to go for broke.

The first year was difficult, because we had very little to work with on a financial level: my wife and I put in $7500 and we had a relative put in $1500. That was the starting point of the Grand Rapids Comic-Con. We did a very successful test show in 2013, and last month we put on the first major show held on this scale in West Michigan since a Star Trek show back in 1991.

AJ: You must be a comic book fan to be so involved with a ComicCon! Who are some of your favorite comic book characters?

MH: You would think so, but not as much as you would think. I do read some comic books, but I am more of a movie buff. I do enjoy a lot of the superhero films though, especially Batman and The Punisher because I could see that kind of thing happening if there was somebody with enough money, contacts, and motivation.

AJ: Grand Rapids ComicCon was pretty amazing! Can you give us an insider’s view on some of the planning that goes into an event like this? How far in advance do you start planning? How do you decide what guests to invite, or how much space to devote to different events?

MH: There is a committee of fifteen people who work on the show, almost all of them volunteer labor. I know a lot of the shows in West Michigan, and I sort of rifled through their staffs to get the best people I could without hurting the other events. They each operate their own aspect of the show, such as logistics, programming, guest handling, and so forth. I give them the freedom to run as they wish to an extent–I mostly keep a handle on the economics of it but that is about it, I let them be as creative as possible. That way, we get a better show than we would if I was operating everything.

We started planning the 2015 show more or less within 48 hours after the 2014 show ended. It is a never-ending process. If it tells you anything, I have an appointment today to book our dates into 2020 and I am negotiating for two guests I really want for 2016 that can not attend in 2015.

To be honest, how much space we dedicated to certain things such as the car show and the Star Wars guys at the 2014 show was a guess. In both of those cases we were wrong a bit, as the Star Wars guys could have used a little more room. As for the car show, we had two vehicles back out at the last week so that ended up looking a bit sparse. We lived and learned, and we will do a bit of adjustment for next year.

As for guests, I do my best to listen to the fanbase. We actually did a survey last year of what shows people would want us to bring into the event, and we were surprised when Supernatural was the winner, and it wasn’t even close. We just sort of assumed it would be Arrow or The Walking Dead. I had to learn a bit about Supernatural because quite frankly I had never watched the show or even knew much about it other than one of the lead males was the guy who survived in the 2009 Friday The 13th remake. In that respect, we try to make the event the community’s show and not our own, which is almost impossible because of so many people with so much differing tastes. We try, though.

AJ: The highlight of my day at ComicCon was most certainly Nichelle Nichols, who gave an amazing presentation and was gracious and friendly to the fans who lined up to speak with her and have their photos taken. This isn’t really a question, more of a Thank You for giving me the opportunity to be in the same room with such an amazing and inspiring woman!

MH: You’re welcome.

AJ: Another special guest at the convention was golden age comic book artist Allen Bellman. Can you tell us about the award Grand Rapids ComicCon presented to Mr. Bellman?

MH: We didn’t present an award to him–we are soliciting the federal government to recognize the survivors of the Golden Age of Captain America comics for their contributions to the war effort for WWII. We were hoping to present it at the event, but the military moves slow in these kinds of things. We’ll see if it happens.

AJ: Do you have any “how to prepare for the day” tips for someone who has never been to a ComicCon before?

MH: The two things I would say are this: 1. Bring a camera, because the photo ops are unique; and 2. Wear comfortable shoes, because you will walk a lot!

AJ: How do you see Grand Rapids ComicCon evolving over the next five to ten years?

MH: It will get bigger, better, and more encompassing. We are already working on expanding the 2015 show from the 2014 one, including a larger car show, more programming, larger vending hall, and an expanded gaming room. We are also playing with the idea of a nerd-based music festival as part of the show, and we will be announcing a few major players in West Michigan entertainment being involved starting next year with after-hours events that are more family-friendly and all-ages. We also have a few ideas that we will roll into the show in future years–a major speaker series, an indoor renaissance festival, banquets with major celebrities, stuff like that.

The long-term goal is to develop an event that will include the entire DeVos Place, the Van Andel Arena, the convention space at the JW Marriott and Amway Grand Plaza, and the new Venue space which opens in 2016 [in Grand Rapids, MI]. That will take a few years because we have to wait for space to open up and the finances to develop, but we will get there in time.

AJ: Thanks so much Mark!

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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