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How are Michigan's comic and anime conventions faring?

Oct 29, 2015

Halloween is Saturday, but that won’t stop people from dressing up early.

Youmacon kicks off in Detroit today.

It’s the biggest anime, gaming, and comic convention in the state. The event is in its 11th year, and – along with a lot of other “cons” around the state – it continue to grow.

The popularity of these conventions piqued Lorraine Schleter’s curiosity, so she posted her question to MI Curious:

Comic and anime conventions are popping up all over the U.S. How are Michigan's comic and anime conventions faring?

Her question won our online voting round, so I went to see what these conventions are all about.

To find Lorraine Schleter, you have to go to one of her favorite places: ShutoCon.

It’s an annual anime convention held in Lansing each spring. Once I walked into the Lansing Center where the event was held earlier this spring, I understood quickly that the ShutoCon world was a different world to me.

And when I caught up with Lorraine Schleter, she said she had a similar experience.

She grew up in a small town in Indiana, and said she didn’t really fit in there.

"... for the first time, I was like, 'I'm home.' And I was like, 'I really like this, and they get me, and I can be myself.'"

“And when I went to my first anime convention when I was like – I must have been 17 – for the first time, I was like, ‘I’m home.’ And I was like, ‘I really like this, and they get me,’ and I can be myself.”

Schleter found a community and a way to make a living by selling her Japanese-influenced anime prints at these conventions.

There are conventions and gatherings like this all around the state. There’s JAFAX near Grand Rapids, AlmaCon in Alma, Con Ja Nai in Ann Arbor, S.S. Kaizoku Con in Muskegon – the list goes on.

You can find a listing of them here.

The biggest of all is Youmacon. Morgan Collin started Youmacon. I asked him about the numbers they’ve been seeing at the convention.

“Our very first year we had 1,078 to just having 17,500 people. So right now we’re using the entirety of the Renaissance Center, and that includes all their function space, and all 1,300 of their hotel rooms, and we’re using more than half of Cobo now,” says Collin.

And Collin says they’re using Cobo 24/7 for the first time this year. He expects more people to attend in the future.

Other conventions experiencing growth

And I heard the same message from several other anime and comic convention organizers here.

Will Burgess is involved with one of Michigan’s oldest anime conventions in the state.

It’s called JAFAX. It started in 1995, and was hosted at Grand Valley State University. The convention took this year off to look for a larger space. Burgess says they’ll be back next year at a venue in downtown Grand Rapids.  

"I don't think we'll ever go back to the '90s level where it's some sort of obscure niche sort of thing."

“Anime wasn’t all that popular in the '90s, but then when the 2000s rolled around, it started really growing in popularity, and I’ve only seen it go up from there. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the '90s level where it’s some sort of obscure niche sort of thing,” said Burgess.

Mark Hodges organizes and co-owns the Grand Rapids Comic-Con. They had to turn people away at their convention last year. This year, they had a bigger venue.

Hodges says people would be surprised by who turns up at these conventions.

“A lot of people think that it’s unemployed bums living in Mom’s basement collecting comic books, that kind of thing. The truth of the matter is it’s America,” says Hodges.

“You have everything here. You have everything from high school and college students to ... I mean, I had breakfast in our hotel this morning and there were two people that came up from Chicago, one of them was a banker, the other one was a doctor.”

Hodges says people come to these conventions to meet the graphic artists and authors who create the stories they love, but for a lot of people, it’s also a way to escape.

"I know people that have $6,000 in a costume."

“I think the big thing that’s most memorable is the costuming … some of these guys go to great lengths. I mean I know people that have $6,000 in a costume. I mean I know people who do, seriously. You know $6,000 – there are people who don’t have that in their car,” says Hodges.

The costumes are a big deal at these events

"Kaworu Nagisa" in Detroit.
Credit Kevin Fox / Fox Photography

Just about everyone is dressed up. Some are playacting. Some are working on coordinated dance steps. And some are fighting with foam swords.

It’s called Cosplay.

Stefanie Shall organizes ShutoCon. She says they encourage people to get into character.

“Interactive cosplay basically is we encourage our attendees to not only dress up as the character, but completely act like they are the character – to be in character,” says Shall.

Secret judges roam the hallways, and they give out awards for the best “cosplayer.”

Here's a sample from this year's ShutoCon:

Ray Spooner from Williamston dressed in a Meiji-era Japanese costume.

“Every year I come here. This has gotten bigger and bigger,” he says.

One woman’s costume really stood out. She only wanted to give us her first name – JoAnna.

She’s from Detroit, and she had on a pink dress, black boots, and a giant balloon-like mouse head that stood several feet above her shoulders. The mouse had X's for eyes.

“I wear a lot of pink, and I love the group Dead Mouse, and so I was like, ‘I want to be a pink Dead Mouse.’”

She has a lot of friends who come to these conventions.

“A lot of my friends, they feel very judged by normal people, and here you can do whatever you want, and dress as you want and nobody will judge you. It’s like walking into a whole other world. It’s like a home, a real home,” she says.

ShutoCon has been running for five years, and still more conventions are popping up around the state.

Organizers say these anime conventions are becoming more mainstream, and they don’t see the enthusiasm for them dying down anytime soon.

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