Entertainment

Fresno gaming and comics convention Zappcon thrives after tragic beginning

Michael “MJ” Ramirez poses with his two super-daughters, Robin (Sophie) and The Flash (Alison).
Michael “MJ” Ramirez poses with his two super-daughters, Robin (Sophie) and The Flash (Alison). DMC Photography

During the first week of March 2014, Michael “MJ” Ramirez was preparing to unveil a promotional plan for his brainchild – a comics and games convention that would unite all of Fresno’s geeks and nerds under one roof.

It would be called Zappcon, named after an early 20th-century Fresno amusement park. Ramirez had spent most of the month driving around California looking to secure guests through his contacts as a freelance comic writer and fellow California convention organizers.

Within days, Ramirez was gone.

“He had had pneumonia, and he just wasn’t getting well,” says Courtney Jones, Ramirez’s widow. “Our second ER trip tumbled into open heart surgery, but it was too late. His heart was beating, but it just wouldn’t beat on its own.”

Ramirez was 38. Doctors learned he had a hole in his aorta that should have been operated on much sooner. His overstressed heart gave out the week after his youngest daughter, Alison, turned 7.

Jones and her children were left to rebuild their lives without him, and his fellow members on Zappcon’s fledgling planning board had to start from scratch in order to stage a large event in five months.

120The number of vendors and guests at this year’s Zappcon in downtown Fresno.

Ramirez was a stay-at-home dad who also home-schooled the couple’s two daughters: Sophie, who is now 10, and Alison. The two girls now attend a charter school, where Jones says they have excelled in the arts – as Ramirez always did.

“It really changed our entire family dynamic,” Jones says. “After the initial grieving, we had to ask where do we go next?”

Jones first met her husband in a Yahoo chat room in 2000, when the two both lived Los Angeles. Ramirez, a Merced native, and Jones, who is from Fresno, bonded over their Valley ties. They eventually moved to Fresno, where they married in 2002.

The couple traveled to comic book conventions throughout the country, which eventually sparked the Zappcon idea in Ramirez.

“Anyone who lives here knows there’s this sense of ‘oh, there’s nothing to do in Fresno,’ ” Jones says. “And that’s not true. Mike saw that Fresno is big and geeky enough to do something unique.”

To accomplish this, Ramirez would need help. He contacted Sammy Gonzales, with whom he had bonded over a love of comic books while Gonzales taught his daughter art. Gonzales recruited his wife, Sarah, and another comics fan he knew, David Holland. Holland recruited Crazy Squirrel Games owner Jennifer Ward, and the five formed the first Zappcon board.

At a planning meeting for this year’s Zappcon, which runs Oct. 17-18 at Valdez Hall in downtown Fresno, the four surviving members reflected on that first chaotic year.

“We spent most of that April dealing with technicalities and paperwork,” Ward says. “The bank accounts and reservations were all in his name.”

It was just so sudden. We knew MJ had a heart condition, but no one expected him to die.

Jennifer Ward, Zappcon board member

But the board learned, Ward says. They established a four-person LLC with joint accounts. They secured vendors and guests, most of whom are local, for the first Zappcon.

“We wanted everything to be done locally,” Holland says. “And we really wanted to hold it downtown. We’ve been approached by other local venues, but it was important for us bring money to that area.”

And they did.

The first Zappcon drew 1,400 attendees and 90 vendors/guests. This year, the board estimates 2,000 people will come out to see the 120 vendors/guests.

“There shouldn’t be a barrier between nerds,” says Sarah Gonzales.

She sees Zappcon as several cons rolled into one – a melting pot of comics, games and pop culture.

“It’s really a con on how to be a better geek,” Ward adds.

This year’s Zappcon will include a station for crocheting your own “Harry Potter” scarf, dozens of playable tabletop games and a panel in which popular nerd-folk duo The Doubleclicks will teach attendees a ukulele song. Scores of other panels will cover movies, video games, comic books, TV shows, cosplay and more.

Jones and her two daughters, who inherited their father’s creativity, went to the first Zappcon and are planning to attend again this year. The girls are going to cosplay as Dipper and Mabel Pines, the twin main characters from Disney XD TV show “Gravity Falls.” The family worked together to make their own costumes.

For Jones, the convention represents a progress marker for her family.

“I was driving with the girls in their little charter school uniforms the other day, and we saw a Zappcon ad on a bus,” she says. “And I thought wow, we’ve all come so far.”

Zappcon

  • Oct. 17-18
  • Valdez Hall at the Fresno Convention Center, 702 M St.
  • $25 for one day, $35 for a two-day pass
  • Guests include actresses Andrea Libman (“My Little Pony”) and Gigi Edgley (“Farscape”), illustrator RK Post (Lucasfilm, Wizards of the Coast) and artist Ron Randall (DC, Marvel)
  • Details: zappcon.com
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