I scanned the massive exhibit hall. Every species of every imagined universe or alternate reality seemed to be here… and everyone was getting along. Even Darth Vader was nice, posing for pictures with fans. My three-year-old daughter approached him with equal parts curiosity and caution, feeling extra brave in her Batgirl pajamas. On that day, she became a “Star Wars” diehard and has been devouring the 40-plus-year-old franchise ever since. (She was even a pint-sized replica of the “Dark Lord” for Halloween one year.) And that is what drives events like these - fandom.
Comic book conventions (or “comic-cons,” for short) are fueled by a fervor for pop culture entertainment, attracting thousands of fans who come from all walks of life. While comic books are at the heart of it, many cons throughout the country embrace a wide variety of platforms and genres – events like Comic-Con International in San Diego, Cali., the New York Comic Con, and the up-and-coming Spa-Con in Hot Springs, Ark. These multi-media extravaganzas celebrate a love of science-fiction, fantasy, anime, video games, role playing games, and cosplay. (Short for “costume play,” cosplay is the act of dressing up as and taking on the persona of fictional characters.)
While other conventions vie to be the biggest (attracting upwards of 200,000 attendees), Spa-Con just might be the chillest with big names, manageable crowds, and a laid back location. A three-day, family-friendly event, Spa-Con is held each September at the Hot Springs Convention Center with panels, workshops, cosplay contests, video games, vendor booths, celebrity guests and thousands of costumed attendees. In its relatively short life span, the event has packed a big Ka-pow! with celebrities from “Star Trek,” “Twin Peaks,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and “Stranger Things.”
“If you’re going to just go to one con all year, that’s the one to go to,” said Gregory Harris, an attorney from Little Rock, Ark. who cosplays at comic-cons all across the country. Over the last few years, he has attended Spa-Con as both a spectator and as a special guest. In 2018, he brought his “Dr. Strange” cosplay which utilizes a holographic projector to create some mesmerizing special effects. “They have good guests and a good variety of stuff that they do,” Harris added. “They just put it together so well.”
Spa-Con is presented by Visit Hot Springs who collaborate with several community partners such as Mid-America Science Museum, National Park College, The Galaxy Connection Star Wars Museum and Alliance Rubber. Visit Hot Springs also produces several other popular events like the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the World Championship Running of the Tubs, which celebrates the city’s history as a bathing Mecca. A fun-loving mountain town, Hot Springs flows with thermal spring water. Its past as an elegant spa town with a seedy underbelly reads a bit like a crime-noir comic book, replete with tales of notorious gangsters escaping through underground tunnels. (An underground stone arch aquifer does, in fact, run beneath the city’s historic downtown, which was a haven for organized crime until the 1960s.) In addition to mobsters like Al Capone, the “Spa City” welcomed other notable (and much more reputable) figures – entertainers like Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, ballplayers like Babe Ruth and presidents Harry Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Hot Springs is also the boyhood home of former president Bill Clinton.) Today, events like the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and Spa-Con continue to attract celebrities to what is now a family-friendly and vibrant community.
“I have a blast every time I’m there,” said cartoonist and illustrator Pat Moriarity of Port Orchard, Wash. He has visited Hot Springs on multiple occasions, including twice as a Spa-Con guest artist. “I make enough money selling stuff at the table to justify my time there and I get to see my friends and maybe go swim in a swimming hole.” Launched in 2016, Spa-Con is a relatively new event, but it started with a big bang featuring celebrity guests Richard Hatch, who played Capt. Apollo on the original “Battlestar Galactica” series; Michael Hogan, who played Col. Saul Tigh on the 2004 reboot; and Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek.” Other attractions in the first year included replicas of the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” and the TARDIS, the time machine and spacecraft from “Doctor Who.” Spa-Con has only gotten better with age – growing, diversifying and gaining nationwide recognition within the con community. “I’ve noticed over the years it’s gotten more diverse and there are a lot more different types of artists and different types of comics so I’ve kind of witnessed Spa-Con grow,” Moriarity said, noting that he felt like he was the only person with “weird artwork” the first year. “It’s gratifying to see that it’s developing and growing and it looks like more people are coming each year too,” he added. Moriarity, who has also been a guest artist at Comic-con International, got his start as a punk rock artist in the mid-1980s. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and he created his own comic series “Big Mouth.” He worked as an art director at Fantagraphics Books and the Comics Journal, and is an assistant art director for Mineshaft Magazine. He has a new book out, “Pat Moriarity’s Deep Artwork” that comes with 3D glasses and he just completed his first animated cartoon, “The Realm Beyond Reason,” which he co-created with Seth Zeichner. It was awarded best animation film at the 2019 Oregon Independent Film Festival. Moriarity continues to create cover art and posters for various labels and bands.
Other celebrity guests over the years have included Sheryl Lee and Sherilyn Fenn from David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Shannon Purser from “Stranger Things,” Sean Maher from the television series “Firefly” and the follow up film “Serenity,” and Pam Grier, who, in addition to numerous film roles, starred in the science fiction television series “Smallville.” Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster in the classic 1960s sitcom “The Munsters,” made a guest appearance in 2018, along with the Munster Koach, the family car that appeared in the series. Other vehicles on display have included the Batmobile, Herbie the Lovebug, and Ecto-1 from “Ghostbusters.”
The event has also hosted well-known, professional cosplayers such as Ginny Di, Krystle Starr, Lady Kate, Paul Forest aka Spock Vegas, and Thomas DePetrillo of Extreme Costumes. Known for his award-winning, larger than life, robotic costumes, DePetrillo took Spa-Con by storm in 2018 when he appeared in a nearly 10-foot-tall “Transformers” Bumblebee costume. “Spa-Con was an amazing convention,” DePetrillo said. “The people there really were friendly in a way that you don’t get to really see in a lot of places and it was a good environment for me. Some environments are tougher to perform in.” With costumes or “suits” that weigh up to 100 pounds, DePetrillo said he can’t easily interact with individuals at the larger conventions where there are huge crowds of people. “At Spa-Con, you can be in a suit and interact with individuals and you can have a lot of fun with that, and that’s really an amazing experience,” he said.
Spa-Con’s attendance averages about 5,000 people allowing for a more intimate experience between fans and guests. In 2018, I found myself gawking at Pam Grier from just a few feet away, but I was too starstruck to say anything… She was a hit at Spa-Con in part because of her role in the science-fiction series “Smallville,” but I know her best from her award-winning role in “Jackie Brown,” Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the “Blaxploitation” movie genre which catapulted her to fame. I’m a big Tarantino fan and felt a little out of place amid all the science-fiction and fantasy but I was excited to bring my daughter to see all the amazing costumes. And if it weren’t for events like this, “Star Wars" would have been lost on her… and me. I won’t gain any fans here by admitting that I had never actually seen the trilogy despite having grown up in the 1980s but now I’ve watched them all.
The seven-foot-tall Darth Vader at Spa-Con who first piqued my daughter’s interest is a member of the Diamond Garrison of the 501st Legion, a worldwide, volunteer organization of “Star Wars” costume enthusiasts. Its members create and wear screen-authentic costumes and make appearances at various community and nonprofit events throughout the world. The Diamond Garrison represents the “Empire” for the state of Arkansas and its members appear at Spa-Con each year. They also frequent the Arkansas Children’s Hospital and are active with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “It’s a great organization for that sort of stuff, kind of the nexus of caring and having goofy fun too,” said Adam Webb, who has been a member since 2012. As the Assistant Director of the Garland County Library, he’s had a big hand in the event each year. When I told him about my daughter’s introduction to “Star Wars” and her resulting obsession with it, he laughed. “I love to hear that,” he said.
Held Sept. 20-22 at the Hot Springs Convention Center and Bank OZK Arena, Spa-Con 2019 will kick off with a live performance by the robotic rock ‘n’ roll band Cybertronic Spree. The three-day event will also feature celebrity guest Michelle Harrison, who plays Nora Allen, aka “Mama Flash,” on the CW’s hit series, “The Flash.” Other television series she has appeared in include “House,” “Cold Case,” “NCIS,” “Emily Owens M.D.,” “Continuum,” “Supernatural,” “The L Word,” “Stargate Universe,” “Eureka” and “Fringe.” She has also starred in several popular movies including “Paycheck,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Love Happens,” “Good Luck Chuck,” “The Invisible” and “40 Days & 40 Nights.” Harrison will be the official starter of the Superhero 2K Fun Run and 5K held Saturday, Sept. 21 in conjunction with Spa-Con. Participants are encouraged to dress up in superhero costumes to be “caped crusaders” for kids. Funds raised from the event benefit Tri-Lakes CASA (Court-appointed Special Advocates), which serves children in Garland, Hot Spring and Grant Counties.
Other Spa-Con celebrity guests include Barry Bostwick, who played Brad Majors in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” There will be a special screening of the cult classic on Sept. 21 with Bostwick in attendance. Bostwick and Harrison will both be available for question-and-answers, a photo session and a VIP pass holder meet and greet. Cosplayers Harris, Spock Vegas and DePetrillo will be returning to Spa-Con this year. Along with his mega-machines Hulkbuster and Reinhardt, DePetrillo will be bringing back his award-winning Bumblebee costume. Arkansas Ironman will also make an appearance along with a host of other special guest cosplayers like Akakioga Cosplay and Legendary Rose. Moriarity will return for a third year to showcase his artwork and there will be a special art exhibit celebrating the Japanese art form of manga. Other activities include workshops, panels, games, cosplay contests, parties, a Spa-Con Midnight Madness scavenger hunt, and much more. For a complete schedule of events or to purchase tickets visit www.spa-con.org.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.