She originally had planned to become a neurosurgeon. He studied computer science, but had designs on being a video-game developer.
What Jessica Merriman and Chris Stuckey had in common, though, was their affinity for anime, the Japanese style of animation that caught fire in the U.S. in the 1990s. Fifteen years ago, they were members of Anime O-Tekku, the anime club at Georgia Tech — “a bunch of nerds,” Merriman says — with whom they happily claimed affiliation.
Out of that club of a few dozen enthusiasts came a convention, MomoCon, in 2005. The event now brings more than 30,000 people to Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center over Memorial Day weekend but keeps Merriman and Stuckey — now married — busy all year.
It’s a circled-in-red extravaganza of cosplayers, gamers and comics fans that just keeps getting bigger and more sophisticated. There’s even a half-day career fair for those hoping to do what Merriman and Stuckey did and turn avocation into vocation.
MomoCon — “momo” is Japanese for peach — made the jump from the Tech campus to the massive convention complex in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. For more information about MomoCon 2019, which runs May 23-26, see momocon.com.
“We’re invested in this,” Stuckey says. “We want to grow this to be one of the largest events in the country…. As stressful as it is, we’re fortunate to do something we’re passionate about.”
The couple, who reside just outside Brookhaven in DeKalb County, discussed that passion and their plans for this year’s MomoCon with us recently.
Q: How did MomoCon get off the ground way back when?
Stuckey: It was a lot of effort by Jess to start it. It had 750 people the first year, then it doubled, then it doubled again. We have grown through word of mouth and grassroots marketing and geek hangouts. And we were early in social media with a Facebook page and group.
Q: Explain the attraction of cosplay – costume-wearing and creation — to its most devoted fans.
Merriman: Cosplay people feel very attracted to a character and want to create a costume around that. Some just love the character. Others want to meet like-minded people around the character. It’s a personal expression of relating to something fictional. There’s also some awesome craftsmanship.
Q: What are some of the current trends that we might see reflected at this year’s MomoCon?
Stuckey: E-sports have become bigger. We’ve used our connections there to help us grow. We’ll have 60 different game tournaments this year. We’ve cultivated “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” and are expecting 1,000 competitors in that alone. We work with people who understand the space well.
Merriman: We have a partnership with the Girl Scouts regarding STEM programming and robotics. That’s a new thing.
Q: What’s the key to staying current across so many genres?
Stuckey: To stay relevant, you have to be a fan yourself — and we are. We’re on top of the latest and greatest. It’s easy to stay in tune through social media. That’s where the culture is. For example, within a minute of the start of an episode of “Game of Thrones,” there are memes showing up on social media. Also, we’ll attend other events to network, and we invite influencers as MomoCon guests.
Q: How does Atlanta rate in the eyes of those who attend these types of conventions?
Stuckey: Dragon Con [held Labor Day weekend in Atlanta] has been going for 33 years and was one of the first big fan events in the U.S. It helped grow the Atlanta geek scene in the late 1980s. You could say Dragon Con started the culture here. It made cosplay and prop-making professional. Some of the people in the film industry in Atlanta got their start with Dragon Con.
Q: The numbers on MomoCon are staggering. You’ve got 1,200 volunteers divided into 70 teams. You have more than 600 sessions scheduled across four days. And you’re handling marketing, contracts, web design, apps and more. How do you keep from going crazy?
Stuckey: I tell people that running this convention is like keeping a bunch of plates spinning. It’s difficult. Two months out, it’s all day, every day. We’ll go see the new “Avengers” movie, but even that’s kind of work-related for us. Then two weeks after MomoCon, we’re off to E3 [Electronic Entertainment Expo] in L.A., then the Anime Expo [in L.A. in July].
Q: Does it ever get to be too much? Any thoughts of leaving this behind?
Stuckey: This is a passion, and I like that I can still work with game developers as part of it.
Merriman: I’ll do this until I die.
MEET A COSPLAYER
Mo Vermenton is a cosplayer from Buckhead who will portray comic book hero Green Lantern at MomoCon.
Q: How did you first get into cosplay, and how long have you been a cosplayer?
A: I am a lifelong geek. I’ve loved comic books and superheroes since as far back as I can remember. I started getting into cosplay probably around 2013, and my first cosplay was Hancock [from the Will Smith movie]. The first convention I attended in cosplay was Dragon Con.
Q: What’s the most unusual thing that has happened to you in costume?
A: I guess the most surreal and interesting experience was the first time my dad saw me in cosplay during our trip to New York for New York Comic Con. Up to that point, I think my dad had only seen my cosplay in pictures, never in the flesh. Because my dad is old-fashioned and in his seventies, I didn’t know what his reaction would be to see this “hobby” I had chosen for myself. To my surprise, he was complimentary and super supportive. I could tell that he saw how much I enjoyed doing this and how happy it makes me. It was by far one of the best experiences.
Q: What makes MomoCon special?
A: I think MomoCon is a great experience for fans and geeks of all ages. It really sets itself apart from other cons by making its programming and events open to a wide variety of not only genres and fandoms, but diversity across the board.