by Gideon Pellegrino
Nerd Fest! That was my first thought. The only place where grown men can walk around in full-body spandex and be socially accepted. That was my second thought. Sounds pretty fun, right? That all depends on your perspective. Hours of nerds in costumes running around finding things to geek out about? To be honest, I was dreading the idea of covering Branson’s 2017 Visioncon.
We all know the saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” In this case, those words were true! But it began just as I had imagined. Spider-Man riding up the escalator. Batman with the Joker followed not too far behind.
Some costumes looked like they were purchased at dollar stores — others looked like they just came off a movie set. Faces full of excitement (except the cosplayers who take their character so seriously the never break their equally serious characters.)
I’ve never really been the one to be overly excited about these sorts of things but my perspective soon changed. As I shook hands with iconic Visioncon guests, I felt my hidden, inner nerd wake up. It began with my first interview. RJ Haddy, the famous makeup artist known as the “Face Off Rockstar. Then there was voice actor Steve Downes — “Master Chief” in the popular Halo video games. Next was John Wesley Shipp (known for his TV character The Flash). Then there was Brian Muir, sculptor of many movie sets and props, including Darth Vader’s mask, Imperial Stormtrooper armor, entire sets from Indiana Jones, James Bond, Harry Potter, and many more.
Not only does Visioncon have famous guests, they also have classes taught by famous guests.
“I was a classroom teacher for a while and now I go and teach workshops and conventions like this,” says Haddy. “And I love it because my favorite part about teaching is when you show somebody something they didn’t know — but wanted to know — and they gasp and you can see that light bulb go on. You see it over their head and they’re just so excited.
“Plus, I feel like I wanna give something of value to the people that come to these conventions because they have to pay extra to attend the classes. But the way I see it, if you’re going to pay 20 bucks to get an autograph from somebody, pay 20 bucks [to] take a class and let me show you how to do something, I’ll give you an autograph while you’re there.”
Muir chuckled as he explained his perspective. “I started at the age of 16 and have worked in the film industry for 48 years and I’ve retired now. I’ve had a great time with my career and it’s been a privilege to be involved in a lot of fantastic work. Now this is a bonus! I’m traveling the world going to conventions like this! Last year I was in China twice and the Middle East and all over America and Europe, just having a great time!”
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For more than two decades, Visioncon has been the annual comic book, science fiction, fantasy, live action, role playing and gaming convention of SW Missouri. Since it began, Visioncon has had two main goals: offer a fun convention for all ages and to raise money for local charities. More than 25 years later, Visioncon has given tens of thousands to area nonprofits. In the midst of cosplayers, vendors, ongoing gaming, panels, guest speakers and more, there’s a feeling of community in every corner.
Above, from left includes The Riddler (Shpoo Fahr), Cruella Deville (Samantha Snyder), Black Mask (Danny Rothermel Jr.), Deadpool (“Wade WinstonWilson”), Bucky (Adam Bass), The Joker (Nathan Bonner), and Shredder (Geoff Denton).
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Conventions like this become a great place for local businesses as well. From artwork to comic books to crafts, the list goes on and on. Aisle after aisle of booths are filled with their work. For many, they don’t just sell their work. They invest their heart into their work.
Springfield artist Isaac Crawford explained his personal investment. “My son has autism and he doesn’t function like most people do. He’s really quiet. When I was a little boy my dad told me bedtime stories. When my son came along, I wanted to keep the tradition going. So all these stories you see here I wrote for my son. When I read him these stories, it calms him and we get this great moment to connect with each other. He’s the reason I do this.” Crawford’s stories, inspired by folklore from around the world, come to life in striking black-and-white images.
There is always a reason behind what someone does. If you don’t see it, it is only because you have not looked hard enough. There’s a story behind every hand-crafted piece of art, every painstakingly created costume. And somewhere between creating something of meaning and getting together with friends and fellow cosplayers, it seems we find a place where we feel comfortable to be ourselves.
“I’ve enjoyed it! It’s cool too see the people getting out and interacting. There’s not really a group of people that doesn’t fit in here. It would be hard to come here and not feel accepted. That’s the cool thing!” shared Clint Loveland, local artist and photographer.
As I explored the crowded halls of the Branson Convention Center, I smiled to see entire families cosplaying together. One family (I dubbed them the Ghost Buster Crew in my mind) walked past, the father carrying a little “Ghost-Buster-in-Training” on his hip. Several little Flashes — complete with yellow lightning bolts sewn onto red bodysuit — ran around with other cosplay kids of unknown origin.
For one weekend, Visioncon was a huge, multi-generational mishmash. Young kids, teens, adults of every shape, size and age converged. There were comic book nerds, gamers, artists, novelists, photographers, cosplayers, tattoo artists, wood crafters — the myriad diversity was inspiring — all kinds of people from all different walks of life, all coming together.
I found I didn’t have to be a true-blue nerd to enjoy this convention. This place is open to anyone who walks in the door. And I left with a much different perspective than when I had first walked in. Visioncon is a place of acceptance and it is like a great big family. Every person has a role to play — and those roles differ greatly from person to person. But when all the roles come together? It’s a little like a puzzle. You can’t make a beautiful picture out of pieces that all look exactly the same, right?
I’d say Master Chief (Steve Downes) summed it up best. “This sounds corny, but my favorite part about these conventions is the people. People who are not familiar with the gaming culture and conventions — all they see is people dressed up in cosplay and all that. You know, just some nerd convention, right? But you know what? I’ve been to hundreds of these things and never had a bad experience. These people are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Story by Gideon Pellegrino.
Photography by Patrick Kuhne.