Where in Springfield can you meet two of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, the voice of Winnie the Pooh (and Tigger, too!), the original actor who played the Incredible Hulk, the frontman of the heavy metal band Slipknot, a legendary WWE Hall of Fame wrestler, and the actress behind April O’Neil from the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, all under one roof?
The answer — the Springfield Expo Center on Feb. 11-12. The event — the first Missouri Comic Con.
The best part — that’s just a small sampling of the guests, and the fun to be had, at this event’s inaugural showing.
It’s the brainchild of Mississippi-based VXV Events and its founder, Jay Branch. His initial exposure to the world of pop culture conventions was as a music vendor. He loved the atmosphere so much, he eventually put on a con of his own. The next year, he put on five, and things grew out from there.
“I always want to find new places, new challenges, meet new people, work at new venues,” he said. “Me and my crew are always working to make bigger and better shows in new and interesting cities.”
VXV Events believes Springfield is an untapped market
He and his crew have done just that. Having put on cons in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and other lower midwestern states, it only seemed logical that he would eventually find his way up to Missouri — and, ultimately, Springfield.
“It was such an untapped market,” he said. “I love the vibe of it, from the first time we showed up just to tour the venue and check out the city. The town itself really spoke to me.”
There are a lot of factors when considering whether a city is a good fit for a successful pop culture convention, but Branch and his crew could immediately tell that Springfield had all the necessary ingredients.
“When I came the first time, we looked up stuff, how many comic shops, how many record stores, population, colleges, that sort of stuff,” he said. “There was just so much geek culture there, and I was like, I don’t understand why there’s not already a big event here.”
Branch tries to temper his expectations when it comes to putting on a con at in a new city. But Springfield, so far, has proved to be different.
“When I go somewhere, if I feel good about it, I give it time to grow,” he said. “Springfield has been an exception. It jumped really high from the moment we announced it. This is the best response we’ve ever had for a first show. I think it’s gonna be really strong.
“There’s been a couple places we went and did shows, and I don’t feel it, y’know? And you just move on. But if you feel confident in the city, if you meet people and they’re excited about it, you know you’re in the right place. You believe in the place and that it can eventually grow into something.”
Previous cons have experienced rapid growth
Branch has seen this growth firsthand in his other convention efforts. The first Mississippi Comic Con had about 1,500 people. Last year, they had 15,000. The first con in Little Rock — around 2,025 attendees. Last year — 20,000. If previous numbers are any indication, the sky is the limit on how much Missouri Comic Con can grow for a potential second showing.
“Everywhere we’ve been, people have been just head over heels from the first time we brought posters and started advertising,” he said. “It was just so positive, people tagging other people on Facebook and Instagram, people posting the event on their pages.
“Doing a first-year show, no matter how you feel about the area, can be scary because you’ve never been there. And when you have that kind of reaction right off the bat, you can relax a little bit. We added maybe five more guests than we had originally planned, but with the response the way it was, I was like, all right, they’re ready. They want this. Let’s go ahead and bump it up a little bit.”
Wide variety of guests scheduled for Missouri Comic Con
Having a wide variety of guests from all realms of pop culture is essential to Branch, ensuring that every person present has something — or someone — they can geek out about.
“I always want the most people possible to enjoy it, and I try to make it where it’s a well-rounded guest list,” he said. “You’ve got anime people, voice actors from cartoons, screen actors, horror people, musicians, comic book artists, cosplayers. A family of parents, grandparents and kids can all come out and be like, ‘I know that person!’ or ‘I know that character!’ The guests are kind of the magnet.
“Then once they get there, especially the first timers, that’s when they discover all the other things to do: stuff to buy, cool vendors and artists, Q&As. What do the people of the city want? What are they into? What’s going to make them come out and have a great time? Who’s going to make them go, ‘Oh, there’s so-and-so!’ I feel really confident in the list that we have. I think it’s great for a first-year show. There’s something for everybody.”
VXV Events works with a tried-and-true formula when procuring its various guests, reaching out to representatives to see if they’re available the weekend of the event and if they’re looking for a convention to attend. Sometimes a potential guest who has an opening in their schedule takes initiative to reach out to them. Branch uses Corey Taylor of Slipknot as an example.
“He’s in three different bands, so he’s usually pretty busy,” Branch said. “Cons are usually just a side gig for him. He happened to be available for a show in Springfield, so that’s how we got him. You never can tell who will pop up at the end.”
Other fun includes board games, video games and free-to-play arcade
Aside from celebrity guests, congoers can expect lots of board games and video games, including Branch’s personal favorite, a free-to-play arcade complete with pinball machines, not unlike what one would find at 1984. And of course, no con experience would be complete without cosplayers dressing up as their favorite pop culture characters.
“The biggest part of this show really is cosplayers and the costume contest,” Branch said. “Always standing room only.”
On the merch side, vendors will be selling everything from swords to T-shirts, comics to their own original art. Many have developed a close relationship with Branch and crew, following VXV Events wherever they can across the country to sell their wares. Like with Branch, they may reasonably have trepidation when going to a new con in a new place, unsure how their work will be received by a new audience.
“Some of them drive 8-12 hours to come to a show,” Branch said. “But they have great trust in what we do and the places we pick. The celebrity guests can be exciting, but those vendors and artists are the backbone that allows us to do this.”
‘You’re going to find something to fall in love with’
“No matter what you’re into in terms of fandoms, you’re going to find something to fall in love with,” Branch said. “You’re going to see people dressed up in costumes that you never expected to see. Even if you’re just into people-watching, come up and look at costumes. Be amazed by their artistry. Come and meet that person you never thought you’d get to meet.”
And what, to Branch, is the most rewarding aspect of events like Missouri Comic Con?
“Sometimes I just stand by the entrance to the main hall, watch people’s faces when they walk in, especially those people who have never been to (such an event). That’s priceless,” he said. “Just that sheer awe factor, whether it’s ‘Oh my god, look at those t-shirts!’ or ‘Oh my god, it’s the black Power Ranger!’ You get all these different reactions of people who come for all these different reasons, and then everybody together just melts into one great pot of fandom and celebrates it with each other.
“People stop each other in the aisles and say ‘I love your t-shirt’ or ‘I love your cosplay’ or ‘I didn’t think anybody would be into this thing.’ It’s that excitement. They’re gonna find something about it that they love, and then they’re gonna be glad they came and come back year after year.”
The phrase “year after year” is significant. Response to Missouri Comic Con’s first showing has been so strong that Branch and crew are already planning for the second annual event in 2024.
“We plan on being here for a long time,” he said. “If this year goes the way I think it will, we’ll be able to bring in even bigger guests next year (and) expand the space out. I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait for this show.”
Want to go?
What: Missouri Comic Con
When: February 11-12, 2023; Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: Springfield Expo Center, 635 E. St. Louis St.
Admission: $25 per day in advance, or $40 for both days; $35 and $55 at the door. Kids 10 and under attend free with a paid adult admission. Military discounts for active duty and retired personnel are available.
For more information: Visit the Missouri Comic Con website, or find them on Facebook and Instagram