Another victim of the pandemic is making its triumphant return after two years away, and local pop culture fanatics are welcoming it back with open arms.
Whether said arms are normal, hairy or scaly is another matter.
That freedom of expression is part of the appeal of VisionCon, which has provided Springfield and the surrounding area with a family-friendly event for fans of science fiction, comic books, television, film and gaming to come together and celebrate what they love, alongside special guests who work professionally in the media industry, for over 30 years now. This year’s event, which begins Friday, April 29, is looking to be no exception.
What started out in the early ’90s as a handful of pop culture enthusiasts meeting at the local library has since ballooned into a large annual convention that serves thousands, featuring vendors and artists, kids’ programming and costume contests among a wide variety of other activities.
“At VisionCon, you can be anything you want to be,” says Brandon Lauthern, the convention’s president. “Whether that is a Ghostbuster, a Time Lord, a Jedi, an unscrupulous villain or even your favorite Disney princess. There is cosplay, interactive role-playing games, comics, novels, artwork, vendor swag and a ton of other great interactions awaiting you.”
“We’re very proud of the event we put on: a weekend of costumes, games, activities and fun,” adds Elizabeth Nichols, VisionCon’s press coordinator. Between 3,000 and 3,500 guests are expected to attend over the convention’s three days.
The longevity of Springfield’s VisionCon
Keeping any event relevant for 30 years, especially in a smaller Midwestern area like Springfield, can be a tremendous challenge, but VisionCon has always managed to pull it off with flying colors. Lauthern attributes the con’s longevity to the constantly changing pop culture landscape.
“Because VisionCon is a community event that celebrates all fandoms, as public interest shifts, so does our content,” he says. “The fun thing about fandom is that the franchises that bring people so much joy just keep building. We love the old school stuff and are eager for current works of pop culture franchises. In that way, fans of all ages tend to enjoy the entirety. Relevancy is fairly easy when you keep getting content that pleases the fans.”
It’s a long-awaited return for the decades-old pop culture convention. As with most other organizations around the area, the pandemic took a tremendous toll. Not being able to meet in person for safety reasons led to the con having to go virtual for the past several years. The stress was compounded last year when, tragically, former VisionCon President Brandon Shane lost his life to COVID-19.
Naturally, con organizers were worried about whether or not they would be able to host an in-person event this year.
“We have worked closely with the Springfield Expo Center and the Greene County Health Department, following their guidelines carefully,” Nichols said. “We would not have followed through with this year’s in-person event if the official recommendations had spoken against it. What this meant was that our planning and organizing was delayed as we waited to make sure that we could offer a safe event in keeping with the best practices of the scientific community and the Health Department. Despite that delay, our volunteer staff has really stepped up and made it possible for us to host an event that was planned in a much shorter time than usual. This year is especially exciting after we have all spent several years isolated in our own homes. VisionCon 2022 is a chance to reconnect as a community.”
Things to do and see at VisionCon
This year’s in-person convention will feature several new activities never before seen in the con’s history. “Rampage: VisionCity” will allow convention-goers to craft their own buildings, eventually building up an entire community-made city from scratch. The winner of the subsequent raffle will then be allowed to tap into their inner “Godzilla” and stomp the city into oblivion. All the money collected will support both the convention and K9s for Camo, this year’s sponsored organization that uses inmates to train rescued dogs as service animals for disabled veterans.
Another large event that organizers are excited about is the LEGO build and display, featuring giant LEGO set pieces based on the sprawling worlds of “Harry Potter,” “Star Wars,” “Minecraft” and more. Also featured will be an eSports tournament featuring the popular Switch game “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” and a flash fiction contest, both with associated cash prizes. Finally, attendees can partake in tea, snacks and entertainment while being tended to by waitresses in anime costumes in a traditional Japanese maid café.
For many, the highlight of any convention is the special guests who will be present, including those who are, or at one time were, involved in the entertainment industry.
Special guests and first-timers
One such guest is voice actor George Lowe, who portrayed superhero Space Ghost in the animated talk show “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and its variety show spinoff, “Cartoon Planet.”
“I had a ball in Springfield last time around,” he tells Springfield Daily Citizen over email. “The fans are warm and friendly. Had a great time with the gang and glad to be coming back. Hopefully, the humming kid pretending to be the ice machine will stay away from my room this time.”
While Lowe has been a regular VisionCon guest for several years, some will be attending for the first time, including Megan Hollingshead. Perhaps best known for playing Nurse Joy in the English version of the long-running “Pokémon” Japanese animated series, VisionCon 2022 will mark her first-ever visit to Missouri.
“Conventions are the best,” she says. “Working in anime means working in a booth with a director and an engineer. No complaints, but it’s not super social. At conventions, I finally get to meet the audience. I get to meet people who were moved by shows that I got to be a part of. It’s awesome and humbling. For many fans, anime may have inspired them, even pulled them through some tough times. What an honor to have been just one small part of something that meant so much to someone.”
The city of Springfield also benefits from out-of-town guests taking advantage of local lodging and dining options, giving the economy a small bump. “I’m there to meet and greet,” Hollingshead adds. “And eat. I love local coffee shops and restaurants!”
Caitlin Blaine is a local artist and webcomic creator who has attended VisionCon several times in the past. For the first time this year, she’ll have her own artist table set up, where she can advertise her creative projects and artwork — and of course, geek out with her fellow enthusiasts.
“There is something fun and refreshing about conventions where everyone can let their walls down and express their inner geekiness to share their passions with each other,” she says. “Comic and pop culture conventions like VisionCon are beneficial to artists because not only does it allow them to connect with the community, but it also allows for artists to connect with one another.”
The intent of VisionCon
VisionCon’s goal isn’t to make a profit, but rather, to give back to the community. All staff are unpaid volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work to get the event set up and ensure that everything runs smoothly. Ticket sales are donated to a different charity every year, this year’s being the aforementioned K9s for Camo. Con organizers are also sympathetic to potential attendees who may have tight budgets. To help, the organization offers a service where con-goers can have their ticket prices drastically reduced by becoming “gopher” volunteers for the event.
When all is said and done, what VisionCon ultimately aims to bring to the area is good, clean fun for everybody.
“VisionCon provides a safe and supportive environment for fans of all media and fans of all ages,” says Nichols. “We provide a space for people to talk about and share their interests in films, games, art, television, anime and other popular culture. VisionCon gives fans a chance to meet celebrities. We have kids’ activities during the day in our VisionKids area and 18+ activities at night like a dating game. Even folks who have never been to a comic convention before can attend VisionCon and go to panels, play electronic or tabletop games, vote in our fiction contest and watch people in costume and cosplay. There really is something for everyone and something for fans of every type of pop culture media.”
“VisionCon, to me, means family,” adds Lauthern. “From our earliest days as a small gaming convention with an eclectic mix of vendors to our large-scale community event with more content than I can even recall, we have always been a place where attendees and guests alike feel like a part of the experience. We all can’t wait each year to get together with our ‘con-family’ and reminisce, play some games, talk about the latest pop culture buzz and enjoy some geeky fellowship. Come and get your geek on with us.”