Fantasy Fans Unite

Comic Con is a place where favorites come to life, where beloved films, anime series, comic book characters and more spring from screens and pages to mingle with fans. Before 2012, comic lovers in Ocala had to travel far and wide to visit a convention, but no more thanks to two local men and their passion for cons.

Organizers Donald Gualandri and Christopher Major knew each other for years before the first Ocala Comic Con in November 2012. Like many good ideas, it was the result of a few drinks between friends. The two attended an event featuring Chandler Riggs, who plays Carl Grimes in the hit series The Walking Dead.

“We went to it, really enjoyed it and thought ‘why don’t we just do this in Ocala?’” Major recalls. “We both enjoy Ocala, and we just want something fun for people of different ages to enjoy.”

The closest convention at the time was SwampCon held on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. The two attended numerous other conventions thanks to their longstanding interests in comic books and anime, but now they had some strategizing to do.

“It worked out really well our first year because we went to other cons to see how they operated it,” says Gualandri. “It takes eight to 12 months to plan.”

When asked how and why they got started that first year, Donald cited three of the things he enjoys most.

“Pokémon, pro wrestling and promoting. I’ve been doing events in Ocala since 2006, which helped us form friendships with media contacts,” he explains.

Following the success of last year’s event and the predictions for this year’s attendance, this dynamic duo is trying to expand their brainchild to MegaCon’s proportions in the future.

“We’re aiming to find a venue for next year that is around 40,000 square feet,” Major says. “Last year we didn’t have enough space. We got about 2,400 people for the weekend, and this year we’re definitely going to double it, if not more. We rented out the entire floor this year so we could have a Pokémon tournament.”

“I’d say at least 4,500,” Gualandri added. “There are more talks here this year, and sales are up a lot faster. Right now we believe the Hilton will be maxed out. In order for us to bring bigger acts, we need a bigger venue for next year.”

Their goal for Comic Con 2014 centered on booking more special guests to entice the crowds, including comic book illustrators, famous cosplayers, voice actors and more.

“We saw last year how well the voice actors did, so we wanted to bring them back. We saw who was relevant at the time. J Michael just did Space Dandy, and Attack on Titan is coming out soon. We were lucky enough to get Seth Gabel who was on Arrow and is going to star in Salem,” says Major.

Donald is most excited to host illustrator Mitsuhiro Arita, best known for his artwork on the original Pokémon cards.

“Growing up, I had every one of his cards. He did the original Charizard, which is the most popular. I wanted to get Mitsuhiro because we’re pretty big on Pokémon. I found his contact and wrote him an email and now he sends me random messages. And he friend requested us,” Donald said with a smile. “I’m going to Disney with him.”

Pokémon fans are in for another treat this year. Con guests can participate in the Pokémon XY Tournament on Saturday for gift cards and, for the champion, a Nintendo 3DSXL. Veterans of Pokémon battles can even take on the Elite Four Challenge, battling specially typed teams of Pokémon for even better prizes.

Star Wars fans will not be disappointed either. Gualandri and Major plan to have a life-size Jabba the Hutt in attendance and a Death Star trash compactor scene for photos, and guests might spot R2D2 rolling around as well.

“We actually changed the date because we wanted them to be there,” Christopher said of the Star Wars replicas. No doubt con guests will be happy with that decision.

And don’t forget the last integral ingredient of conventions: cosplay.

“Three fourths of the people dress up. You’re going to see a ton of Attack on Titan costumes because J Michael will be there,” says Major.

Cosplayers are encouraged to strut their stuff in the cosplay contest. Entering the competition is free, and winners will receive a free photo shoot of the characters they’ve worked so hard to become. Tack on over 100 vendors, local artists, tabletop games and numerous special guests, and it seems Ocala Comic Con 2014 is the year not to miss.

Booking high-profile guests, organizing tournaments and contests, and filling a hotel with vendors is no small task for two men. Thankfully, they show no signs of stopping. The reasons they started—their love of conventions and hosting quality events in Ocala—are still as important as ever.

“I’m a huge anime fan, so meeting anyone who voiced one of my favorite characters is awesome,” says Major. “We didn’t have too many complaints last year, and we had a great moment of ‘wow, this rules.’”

For the Love of Cosplay

Long believed to be the domain of high school nerds, cosplay has become more accepted in recent years. It’s even cropping up in reality TV, like Heroes of Cosplay on the Syfy Channel. Ocala Style sat down with three local cosplayers attending Ocala Comic Con to see how they become characters for a day.


Shelbie Swilley

Shelbie is new to the world of cosplay but has years of sewing experience to put to work now that she’s started. 
At only 17, she has already created entire costumes by 
hand and shows no signs of stopping.

When did you first get into cosplay?

I love superheroes, Marvel and DC. Batman is my first love. I love costumes that are interesting and loud. I love huge accessories and props.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t sewing, but I got into cosplay January of last year when my friends invited me to SwampCon. I’d heard of conventions before but didn’t have much interest. Then, they told me I could dress up for it. It was three days before the event, so I had no time. I went to the fabric store and made a terrible Nyan Cat costume. Now I’m addicted to conventions.

What is it like making a costume?

We completely converted the guest room into a sewing room. It can take about a month and a half to make a really good costume.

How did you learn to sew?

My grandma taught me. She tried to teach my mom, but she just wouldn’t have it. The first thing we made together was a table runner. So far, my favorite is Harley Quinn. I think she’s very well made. Right now I’m working on Hawk Girl with the wings and the mask.

Why do you enjoy it?

I’m a theater kid—I love theatricality and being someone you’re not. I’m 6 foot 2 inches, and whenever I walk out in public, people stare or ask about my height. With this, I’m not myself; I’m a character. Since superheroes were drawn to be 10 feet tall, I think I fit the bill OK.

What do you think about Ocala having its own con?

Last year I wasn’t expecting much, but it was extremely well organized for a convention in its first year. I’m excited to hear they’re expanding, and I have no doubts this year will be great.

To see more of Shelbie’s creations, visit


Danica Rockwood and John Gray Shermyen

This cosplaying couple shares an interest in making detailed costumes from scratch, and beyond attending Ocala Comic-Con in character, Danica will be a judge for the cosplay contest. Here’s their insight into what takes cosplay to “a whole new level of cool,” including how Danica learned to give her talent shape.

Why did you start cosplaying?

Danica: I started when we started dating. He looks like David Tennant who plays Doctor Who, and he would dress like him and go to cons. I’ve always liked nerdy stuff, but I never knew cosplay existed. He said ‘dress up like your favorite character and we’ll go.’ I worked my butt off on this really terrible costume. The first cosplay you make will always be horrible in your eyes.

John Gray: Cosplay is just playing pretend. I’ve played pretend forever. I think from age 4 to 12 I was only myself 10 percent of the time. I was a geek throughout high school, but I suppressed that part of myself. Now I’m older, and I don’t care anymore. I just like being other people. I think anyone should be able to cosplay anything they want.

How long does it take to make a costume?

D: The Star Wars one I worked on for nine months. If you ask me that question before MegaCon, I’ll say I finish it three months in advance. I try to have it done a month before the con so I can troubleshoot it and make sure there won’t be problems. For example, when you cast, you sculpt a piece of clay and normally spend about 200 hours. I spent 275. Then you cover it in plaster, get it locked in, and you may not get it back out. It’s craftsmanship. I’m attracted to characters I see a little of myself in, that are relatable.

How did you learn to make them?

D: YouTube!

JG: There are online resources for how to do everything. If it weren’t for the Internet, the community wouldn’t exist. All this isn’t in books. Everything Danica is doing is the purvey of special effects experts.

Why do you enjoy cosplay?

D: It’s addicting because you meet awesome, talented people. You experience a tight-knit community that brings a lot of people together. You get to make friends based on what you’re wearing. You’re like a walking hashtag. And you get to freak out people on the way when you stop at CVS.

JG: It’s like any other scene, and it really is an art scene in a way. It’s easier to get close to someone quickly when you know you have something in common.

What has been your crowning cosplay moment so far?

D: At Pax Prime, the press release conference for the video game industry. It was awesome because I got to meet David, a designer from BioWear, which is the team I cosplay from heavily. It’s not uncommon to be stopped every five minutes and asked to take a photo, but he had to wait until I was done crying to take mine. He said it was the best Morrigan he’d ever seen.

To keep up with Danica, visit


Guests of Honor

Mitsuhiro Arita, illustrator

Mitsuhiro Arita was one of the three artists responsible for the original 150 Pokémon cards and has contributed artwork to the Yu-Gi-Oh card series, Final Fantasy XI online content and much more. He will be a headlining guest at Ocala Comic Con, autographing fans’ cards and drawing commissioned artwork.

What made you decide to come to Ocala Comic Con?

One day last year, I got a Facebook message from Donald, a man operating Ocala Comic Con. He said he wanted to invite me. I couldn’t judge if this offer was real or not, so I asked him to introduce himself in detail. He sent me back details and a picture of him holding several Pokémon Cards from the very first edition and asking me ‘please come to Ocala.’ So I believed in him and decided to come.

When did you begin drawing and illustrating?

I’ve been drawing since I was a child. There is nothing different from many people. I draw because everybody said ‘you are good at drawing.’

What is your favorite subject to illustrate?

Water. There is ultimate possibility to express.

You illustrated some of the most famous Pokemon cards, like Venusaur and Charizard. Which one are you most famous for?

Mewtwo. Some people have said ‘your Mewtwo is handsome.’ I think so!

Can you tell me about your mobile paintings?

I did them around 1999 to 2003. In the end of 1999, almost nobody knew [tablets] were on the market with beautiful full-color displays. Also there was good, free paint software for that device, which had Corel Painter, a texture function. At that time, I had trouble with painting natural environment lighting, like cloudy skies. I thought I could solve that if I could paint real things outdoors. The mobile painting was the best tool to do sketching with unlimited colors. I drew over 20,000 drawings with that, and the experience built the foundation of my artwork. Once I was called a human camera.

What is the strangest thing a fan has asked you to sign?

A woman’s shin. She said it would be a tattoo. I hope that was joke.

What do you consider your greatest success so far?

I never mind such things. I’m still going. But I think I am very lucky to have worked on many major titles. I want to say thank you to everyone still loving those titles and my artwork.

David Vincent, voice actor

In his 17 years of recording, David Vincent has voiced characters in some of the most highly acclaimed anime series to date, including Bleach and Code Geass. He has also recorded for video gama characters in famous titles like Resident Evil. One of the most famous guests coming to Ocala Comic Con talks about life inside the sound booth.

How did you begin voice acting?

I got my start doing stand up in New York City. I was doing a sketch show in Times Square making fun of TV commercials and doing a thousand voices. I had a gal come up to me, and she helped me get my first agent. My first audition was for a Rolling Rock beer commercial, and I booked it. As far as anime goes, my first voiceover was for Ghost in the Shell.

How do you bring an animated character to life?

Half the time, you get a picture of the character, and half the time, you don’t. You do get a character breakdown with a little background information, like what their age is, if they’re a hero or a villain, melancholy or excitable. I ask ‘what is their attitude and why are they saying what they’re saying? What does the character want?’ That’s where the voice comes from.

Which characters were your favorites to play?

One would have to be Grimmjow Jaegerjaques. He’s absolutely insane. I loved getting to play the arrogance of that character. Another one is Jin Kisaragi from BlazBlue. He’s got this crazy obsession with his brother, so it was fun playing the crazy laughs. Van from Gun Sword was my first role, and the character has so many different levels to him that it was a joy to play him. I actually rerecorded some dialogue and proposed to my wife in that anime.

What’s different about voicing anime than other recording scenarios?

In commercials, your voice is not the star. You’re guiding the audience to a product. With anime, you’re matching the lip flap of the animation from Japan in a recording booth with a big TV. In anime your voice plays a much bigger part because you’re bringing a character to life. You’re bringing drama and comedy to that character’s life for the audience.

Do you watch the Japanese anime series before you record?

I try to avoid doing that unless a director asks me to. It’s not about mimicking the Japanese actor but bringing something American to it and catering to a native English speaking audience. I rely heavily on my director for what they want to see.

How do you feel about coming to a newer convention?

I absolutely love smaller cons because you get to just hang out with people. You can go play Dance Dance Revolution where at bigger cons you’re being escorted around. Smaller cons are more of a family feel.

What’s the weirdest thing someone has asked you to sign?

I had a guy come up to me and, apologizing the whole time, asked me to sign his to-go bowl of spaghetti. I guess it was an inside joke with his friends. The coolest thing was a Jeep Wrangler totally redone in Resident Evil fashion, and I autographed the dashboard.

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