It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s SPA CON!

words: Dwain Hebda
images: courtesy Visit Hot Springs

By day, Amy Shipman is a mild-mannered high school librarian. The demure blonde maintains racks of books and periodicals for the benefit of young minds, few of whom ever suspect that beneath her sensible, learned exterior beats the heart of a warrior, a superhero ready to spring into action on a moment’s notice.


And that moment – Spa Con 2018, Hot Springs’ pop culture and comic convention – is approaching.


“My kids [at school] find it hilarious,” Amy says. “I went last year as [the character] Maleficent, and they didn’t know it was me. And when they found out, they thought that was the coolest thing. They were like, ‘You’re a librarian! You read books for a living.’”


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In reality, Amy would make a great comic book character all by herself. She really is a librarian (at the superhero-y sounding Hot Springs World Class High School, no less). And, she really is an award-winning cosplayer, one who dresses up in costumes and wins trophies for it.


“I love that I can go and have this escape,” she says. “Last year I dressed up as Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones one day. It is a lot of fun dressing up as more of a villainous character because nobody likes her. Just walking the halls, people were scared of me. That is fun; I know that sounds weird, but it’s fun to see how people react.”


Bill Solleder has superpowers of his own. As the Director of Marketing for Visit Hot Springs, he’s been integral in this event from the beginning. “When I came into the job they said, ‘Okay, we’re doing this event, Spa Con,’ [which was the brainchild of the Garland County Library]. It had never been done before. And we were two months out. Literally, my predecessor said, ‘Here’s my notes. Have fun.’ I’d never even been to an event like this before. Admittedly, I was a Star Wars freak in 1977, that was my jam. And, I’d organized a couple of music festivals and a film festival, so my background was producing events.


“The Garland County Library does a fantastic job of programming to multiple audiences. They’re great, great programmers and a tremendous resource. Visit Hot Springs advertises and promotes the entire city and we manage the convention center and its staff, so we had that at our disposal. It’s the largest convention center in the state and having that backbone was a huge asset to the first Spa Con.”


Garland County librarian Cori Williams talks about how this successful collaboration came to be. “We’d originally wanted to do a Dr. Who fest, but the funding never worked out. Visit Hot Springs approached us about doing a literary festival, but there’s already some of those in the state, and they’re doing very well, and we didn’t really want to reinvent the wheel. We basically said, ‘You know, we have this idea.’ At first, they were like, ‘Is this a big deal?’” she says. “They came back and told the staff about it, and the staff was like, ‘That’s a great idea!’ They got all excited. It kinda went from there.”


There was a time when a comic book convention wouldn’t fill a banquet room at the Arlington Hotel, much less the swank Hot Springs Convention Center. Once limited to a subset of comic book fanatics, sci-fi wonks and Dungeons and Dragons aficionados, comic conventions (or “cons”) have enjoyed exploding popularity, in part thanks to superhero blockbuster movies and the expanded acceptance of geekdom in general.


“These were the places that people could get together and kind of nerd out and not be heckled about it,” says Gary Jackson, who’s operated Star Toys in Hot Springs for twenty years and attended comic cons longer than that. “Now you have something for everybody.”


From the beginning, Spa Con was established not just to suit the traditional comic book and sci-fi crowd but as an entertainment platform covering a wide range of genres. Horror, animation, anime, manga, toys, collectible card games, video games, web-comics, fantasy novels and general pop culture are all represented to some degree.


“Some conventions, you can see everything in an hour and after two hours you’re done,” Bill says. “My goal was, how do we get the normal con-goer to an event, do the vendor hall and then stay because there’s more to do. And that’s been my raison d’être since then. We need to add things. More workshops, more panels, more hands-on activities. Really well-produced events in the nighttime.”


This broader view greatly enhanced the appeal of Spa Con without alienating the hard-core fans of such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. No, and a cacophony of crime-fighting comic book heroes.


“There’s kind of a formula [to comic cons],” says Erin Baber, special events coordinator with Visit Hot Springs. “There’s a big expo hall kind of thing where there’s vendors, and people walk around and socialize, sightsee, people watch. And there’s always a panel and workshop element and then you’ve got the celebrities. It’s a formula we’ve mostly stuck with; we’ve tried to just add a little bit here and there.”


“Last year we added laser tag in our arena, which really expanded attendance and the show ended up taking up the entire convention center. We also had some guests that were a little different, we had two of the stars from the 1990s TV show Twin Peaks and Barb from (TV show) Stranger Things.”


“The show here, I like the way they’ve done it. They’ve done it correctly,” says Gary, “You don’t want to alienate any part of your customer base. You need a good variety. And that’s what I really enjoy about this. What I’ve seen with some shows is, they try to focus on one aspect or two aspects at most. If you’re focusing on Transformers and Power Rangers, the people that focus on comic books, there’s not going to be anything there for them.”


The crowds at Spa Con have not only grown but diversified. Kids and families abound at the event as well as adults whose fandom for their favorite TV show, comic book or video game characters knows no bounds.


“You have the hardcore collectors, say from Star Trek, who speak the language, they know every start date of every episode,” Gary says. “I’ve done the Dallas show for years, and we used to have a group of Klingons come up, and they looked like they stepped right out of the film. Once they got into costume, they spoke Klingon, nothing else.


“They would come to your booth and they had another guy dressed as an alien who interpreted for them. He told me, this is nothing; they’d go to IHOP or Denny’s, they’d order in Klingon, and he’d have to tell the waiter what they wanted. That’s devotion.”


As for our librarian/heroine Amy, she’s been working late into the night constructing a new costume for the 2018 show by which she will try to defend her cosplay title.


“It’s so cool walking in here,” Amy says. “The costumes are amazing. I’ve seen full robots like Alphonse Elric from Full Metal Alchemist walking around. It’s no big deal to walk around the corner, and there’s R2D2 rolling around. I love everything from Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Disney. Seeing it all there together, it’s awesome.”


Spa Con
September 21-23, 2018
Hot Springs Convention Center

Several celebrities will be at Spa-Con, including Pam Grier, star of several movies including Jackie Brown in 1997; Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster from the 1960s’ TV show, The Munsters; and Veronica Taylor who voiced Ash Ketchum in the Pokémon anime.



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