by Majorie Steele
If Grand Rapids Comic-Con is any reflection of the nationwide industry, the era of nerd culture’s “boys only” policy is over.
While the historically male-dominated nerd culture industries of gaming, comics, sci-fi and fantasy have become both more mainstream and more diverse, a new industry has been quietly rising: comic conventions. Although San Diego Comic-Con, the Godfather of comic conventions, has been around since 1970, the lion’s share of these conventions have cropped up in mid-sized cities around the globe only in the last decade. Of these newer conventions, a majority—including Grand Rapids—have emerged only within the last five years.
Quietly, but surely, women have claimed their place in nerd culture.
Last year’s swarm of Wonder Woman cosplayers aside, female attendance at comic conventions globally has been on the rise for years. Between 2010 and 2013, New York Comic Con saw its female audience grow at more than double the rate of their male attendees. In 2014, Emerald City Comicon saw women actually take the majority, at 52 percent, with men at 46 percent and non-binary individuals at 2 percent.
But what the data can’t show is how the culture has evolved. The narrative of the nerd is changing.
“I have seen many positive changes over the years,” said Grand Rapids Comic-Con co-owner and Vending Director Jennifer Hodges. “Being nerdy was uncool; It’s now become mainstream and socially acceptable. I see grandparents bringing their kids and grandkids to this event; passing on their love of superheroes to the next generation.”
April Carden, a Grand Rapids cosplayer who’s been attending Grand Rapids Comic-Con since its first banner year in 2013, observes the changes from a women’s perspective: “When I was younger and started getting involved in [nerd culture], it was assumed I was there with my brother. Now I am accepted for who I am without being asked if I’m here with [fill in the blank].”
Carden observes that not only is the Grand Rapids geek community “welcoming and willing to share their love of the [nerd] life,” but she’s also found most online communities to be positive and inclusive as well. Kristy Eason, Gaming Director for Grand Rapids Comic-Con and longtime gamer, remembers: “When I played Magic and other [collectible card games] at my local hobby shop when I was a teen, I was that “token girl.”.As time went on, I was less and less alone, and by the time I got to college, my gaming group was full of women — we had to actually go searching for guys to come play D&D [Dungeons and Dragons] with us.”
“I have seen many positive changes over the years.” —Grand Rapids Comic-Con Co-owner and Vending Director Jennifer Hodges.
Grand Rapids is often representative of the challenges and trends faced by Middle America’s mid-sized cities, and it would seem this is no less true for the city’s rising nerd culture. Held first in 2013 in Wyoming’s Home School Building, Grand Rapids Comic-Con underestimated attendance by as many as 5,000 in its first year, turning thousands of would-be convention goers away due to capacity fire code restrictions. The convention has seen steady growth since then, with nearly 20,000 attendees in 2014, 22,500 in 2015 and more than 26,000 in 2016. This year, the event expects to come close to 30,000 attendees—a ceiling break which convention co-owner Mark Hodges says will put them in “the big league,” in terms of the star power and vendors it can attract.
Growth isn’t the only factor which makes Grand Rapids Comic-Con noteworthy. Seven of the organization’s eight department heads are women, and while some conventions may have trouble attracting woman celebrities, GR Comic-Con has had representation from Star Trek’s leading female cast members each year since 2014 (Nichelle Nichols, 2014; Marina Sitaris, 2015; Denise Crosby, 2016), with The Next Generation’s Gates McFadden (who played Dr. Beverly Crusher) slated to appear this year.
Women writers, artists and cosplayers have also found a platform at GR’s convention. In the upcoming 2017 October convention, six out of ten of the event’s paid literary guests are women, as are three of the event’s five cosplay guests. Women artists represent a minority of the convention’s Artist Alley, but the quality of work demonstrated by local writers like Kari Lynn Smith and local artists such as Sarah Lindstrom and Heather Schilling speak to women’s powerful presence in
It’s safe to say that both Grand Rapids Comic-Con and nerd culture at large are onto something special.
To Hodges, echoing the voices of countless others, it all comes down to love.
“The people I know and work with have huge hearts,” Hodges said. “They are willing to give to the community, willing to stick up for the “little guy.” Nerds can break down barriers, come together as strangers or make a child’s day. I’ve seen cosplayers play the part of a character for a child who thinks it is really Cinderella, Batman (or insert any character);the facial expressions I’ve seen are pure magic. That is what this community is—magic.”
What: Grand Rapids Comic-Con
Where: DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
When: October 20-22
Schedule and ticket information available here.
Marjorie is a writer, consultant, and an adjunct faculty at Kendall College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in The Rapidian, cultured.GR, The Bandit Zine, and on Medium’s subscription platform.