The Small Town Con
How Wisconsinites Are Bringing the Fun Home.
When I stepped into the Cedar Mall in Rice Lake, Wisconsin this past weekend I wasn’t sure what to expect. This wasn’t my first comic convention, but with a population just shy of 8,500 it’s hard to imagine what kind of turnout there would be for the inaugural Cedar Comic Con.
The driving force behind this convention is Jennifer Braemer and this is the first convention she’s produced herself, although she’s no stranger to this type of event.
“I’ve been attending conventions for years now. I’ve spent a lot of time at conventions in Minneapolis and Chicago. I generally enjoy doing cosplay and meet & greets with the convention goers”, she told me on Sunday. Cosplay is the art of dressing up and impersonating your favorite characters from movies and comics.
Jennifer’s decision to start her own convention stems from an idea that birthed the San Diego Comic Con in 1970. An idea to bring together people who shared unpopular interests to connect with one another.
“I really enjoyed meeting passionate people. With everything going digital, it’s becoming harder for people to get the experience of going to the comic shop, meeting new people, or discovering something new you hadn’t heard of,” Braemer explained.
When I asked her why she chose Rice Lake she replied, “I moved here two years ago with my husband and every since then I noticed a growing number of people who were all interested in the stuff, including artists. Conventions help them show of their work to the public and I wanted to help share that passion.”
Another reason she chose Rice Lake was the venue. “Like most of the artists and vendors here, I have a day job here in the mall. I was able to work with Cedar Mall to help promote the businesses inside,” Braemer explained. “Most venues charge a percentage of ticket sales and a percentage of what the individual vendors make from sales. Here, all the money goes right to the vendors and artists and it’s also how I could make this a free convention. I’ve never seen a free convention before!”
Tim Andrews runs Local Underground in Forest Lake, Minnesota and he was one of the vendors present last Sunday. A collection of older books stacked on his table, along with records and some choice underground titles. “I drive through Wisconsin pretty frequently for my other job”, Andrews told me. “I don’t mind it and I come through here enough. Once I heard they were going to have a convention, I knew I had to be a part of it.”
Tim met Jennifer at the Minneapolis Comic Con which is how he heard about the Cedar Comic Con. I asked him if going to smaller conventions is worth it for him as a vendor.
“I attend about 6–12 conventions a year, and I prefer the smaller venues. It’s nice because you get to take your time and get to know the people on more of a personal level. You always meet the most interesting people at the smaller conventions. Nicer too.” This sentiment was the deciding factor that pushed Tim to start his own convention in Forest Lake.
Social interaction seems to be the heart of the conventions. As comic books and movies become a bigger part of pop culture, it’s not surprising to see these grassroots conventions spring up.
Even though this is the first con for Rice Lake, this is not the only comic convention in Western Wisconsin. The Eau Claire Comic Con started 4 years ago, and has gotten bigger each year. The No Brand anime convention in Eau Claire has become so big in recent years, this year they relocated to Wisconsin Dells to accommodate the growing crowd.
Thomas Jannusch, a local artist, informed me about a new anime convention in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. “Since they moved No Brand to the Dells, a lot of my friends were upset there was no longer an event closer to home. We all decided that someone needs to start a new convention and somehow it fell on me!”
I asked Thomas what kind of obstacles he faced starting his own convention from scratch. “Advertising is the biggest hurdle. These small town conventions don’t last unless people show up.”
Before I left I spotted Jennifer again, getting ready to take photos with some children who were waiting patiently. This time instead of her jeans and t-shirt, she was now dressed as Elsa from Disney’s hit Frozen. She waved to me as I passed and she seemed almost more comfortable in character. But if this convention wants to come back next year, it’s going to need someone like her to make sure it happens.