Peoria fan conventions bring big celebrities and attendance numbers
Fan conventions aren’t a new thing. Starting in the 1930s and gathering momentum since the 1980s, large-scale fan conventions like San Diego’s Comic-Con can have a major economic impact.
Peoria certainly isn’t at that level. But could it be?
“Nerd culture and geek culture in Peoria has always been around, ever since I can remember,” said Dan Crawford, owner of Cabbages and Kings Games in Peoria Heights. “But in the last 10 years, we’ve had a boom. I think there’s always been a want and a need for this outlet.”
Local attendance at fan cons is so large that two comic book conventions now need space at the Peoria Civic Center. QuadCon will be at the Civic Center July 22-23. PeoriaCon is moving to the space for its March 2-3, 2024 event. Both conventions are still growing.
“I would say the Peoria fan base is pretty loyal,” said John Wells, who co-organizes QuadCon with his wife Kim. “They always come out and support.”
Wells started selling comic books in 1989 at conventions in Tokyo, Amsterdam and New York. About seven years ago, he and his wife arranged their own fan convention in the Quad Cities. Now, QuadCon moves from city to city every weekend across multiple states, showcasing comic books and nostalgic toys.
In 2019, friends at Acme Comics and The Zone convinced Wells that Peoria needed a QuadCon. The 2019 RiverPlex event generated enough interest that Wells had to move to Northwoods Mall, where QuadCon still happens twice a year. He knew the community could support a larger event.
The first Civic Center QuadCon had 100 vendors, 1,000 attendees, and a guest appearance by DC Comics artist Rags Morales. Last year, Ross Marquand of The Walking Dead fame helped boost attendance to 3,000. This year, 190 vendors signed up. Actor Daniel Logan, Boba Fett from the 2002 film Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, will be offering a free Q&A panel, as well as autographs for a fee. Some 4,000 attendees are expected.
“If you’ve never been to one of our events, you should expect all things pop culture,” said Wells. “You’re going to see original art by artists and all different genres. You’ll see vendors selling anything that you can think of … that’s nostalgia.”
QuadCon booths are packed with comic book dealers, accomplished artists and nostalgic toy/collectible vendors. There also is an area for card game tournaments run by local game stores. Those can be competitive, though not as intense as the regional Super Smash Brothers video game tournament that could bring up to $3,000 to the winner.
Anticipation is always high for the afternoon cosplay contest and high-end collectibles live auction beforehand. This year’s auction features a Lego Batmobile set and a Sideshow Collectibles Spider-Man statue worth $700. Auction proceeds go to the Helping Hannah’s Heart Foundation, which supports families whose kids have congenital heart defects. QuadCon has donated more than $165,000 to the charity to date.
“I’m just some fanboy trying to do something that’s cool and it’s turned into a deal,” said Wells. “Keeping it low-cost, family-friendly and affordable, that’s pretty much at the top of the list.”
PeoriaCon organizer Jason Johnston and his family ran the RV and Home and Garden shows at the Civic Center for years. When he stepped away from those events and thought about what he wanted to do next, he focused on his love of geek culture and board games.
Johnston was tired of traveling to events in other cities where entry fees alone could be over $80 per person.
“My real goal was to be able to provide a fan fest that was far more affordable for people to go to,” he said.
PeoriaCon has been at Expo Gardens since 2019, catering to anime, toy, gaming and cosplay fans. The hall is split into collectibles, authors and artists, and crafters. Johnston brings in vendors and celebrities that he himself would travel to see.
An early PeoriaCon celebrity was Larry Kenney, a voice actor known for voicing Lion-O and Count Chocula. Around 1,500 people attended that year. While COVID caused a drop in attendance, 3,000 people attended in March of 2023 when PeoriaCon brought in Zack Taylor, best known as the original Black Power Ranger.
Johnston says the people make it worth holding the conventions. This summer he’s hosting the first GameOn, a small-scale gaming event where students and the outside public meet at schools to enjoy board games. The GameOn Peoria High School Gaming Circuit Expo will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 8 at the school, 1615 N. North St., Peoria. Johnston hopes to see the event travel to other schools.
‘Attitudes have changed. It’s a new day and age in geek culture’
“We’re going to be running a little cosplay contest, Magic, the Gathering and Commander tournaments, role-playing games. We’ll have a game library and some vendors,” he said. “The school is getting a little bit of money and some will go to the gaming and the video gaming programs that they have.”
Dan Crawford plans to continue supporting QuadCon, PeoriaCon, and GameOn in any way possible. He appreciates that the conventions offer a judgment-free zone for people, especially kids, to share something they’re excited about.
“You should feel welcomed,” said Johnston, who thinks the cranky-gamers-and-comic-fans stereotype has been retired. “Attitudes have changed. It’s a new day and age in geek culture.”