One of the things I often lament about living in New York is the general lack of conventions. Year after year, I find myself hitting the road looking for cons to sate my often ravenous appetite for travel, community and anime culture. See, despite lamenting the lack of cons in my local area, I am also blessed that New York is somewhat centrally located, so when the need for travel arises, I am equidistant between a lot of the cons I choose to attend. But one of the furthest I make the commitment to travel to each year is Anime Mid Atlantic, way way down in south Virginia. Now, seeing as how AMA is a good eight hours away, there has to be some sort of draw to keep me coming back. Up until this year, I could never have told you what it was.
You see, when I began attending AMA, it was a mobile con looking for a home. It had left it’s longtime city of residence, Richmond, and gone back down to floating around the Virginia Beach area. I later found out that the Holiday Inn Executive Center was actually a last second replacement for a location, as their initial venue was “snatched out” from under them by another group. I found that location to be a bit cramped, but the convention itself still an enjoyable experience. Last year, the convention relocated to the much larger Hampton Roads Convention Center, a place I was already well familiar with thanks to repeated trips to Nekocon. Despite being something of a flip from the cramped halls of the previous year, I found the con to be lacking the energy I felt in 2008. Add to that the fact that the con had been “nickel and dimed” by the venue, it was not a surprise that they chose to relocate again this year. And I have to say, they hit the nail on the head this time around.
This year, AMA was located at the Chesapeake Conference Center and Norfolk Marriott Chesapeake. At first glance, the venue appears smaller than the Hampton Roads Convention Center, but this is misleading. In fact, there was a good deal more space than I expected: just enough to keep the halls easy to travel but not so much that the con seemed under-attended. Events were split up between the Conference Center, which housed Main Events, Dealer’s Room, Artist Alley and two workshop/panel rooms. The rest of the con was inside the Marriott, where the bigger panel and video rooms were located, flanked by tables for the local anime clubs and some guests. The one “out in left field” aspect of the layout was the location of certain panel and video rooms inside the restaurant: it took a few minutes for me to locate them, as they were sandwiched way in the back, past the buffet. (It should also be mentioned that I was giving two of my panel in the room at the far back. More on that later.)
Interestingly, despite the weekend heat (it cracked 90 with a good deal of humidity), there were a lot of folks hanging out on the lawn and in various spaces between the two venues. In fact, part of the reason the con wasn’t crowded was the sheer amount of outdoor space that was present and occupied over the weekend. While I’m not the biggest fan out summer heat, I can appreciate the appeal of relaxing outdoors.
Anime Mid Atlantic will be at this venue for at least another year, likely two, and it is a good choice for a con its size. The relative proximity to hotels give the attendee a lot of choice in selecting a residence for the weekend (A lot of attendees elected for the Red Roof Inn for it’s low prices, it was right across the street. I was at the Wingate, on the other side of the parking lot). The only aspect of the area I could see posing an issue is the lack of food in the immediate vicinity: for those unwilling to eat at the hotel concessions, the choices within walking distance are limited to a Wawa. While I did eat there for a chunk of the weekend, having a car is a definite boon as there are a lot of eateries to choose from just down the road- too far for foot travel, but close via auto.
Anime Mid Atlantic is one of the few cons I attend for the programming. Specifically, the art programming. You see, AMA, unlike any other con I attend, has a focus on art and digital media design. Their guests are drawn from a pool of webcomic artists and graphic designers, and for the aspiring artist, it is easily possible to spend an entire day in workshops. (I know this because Aleks spent a good 5 hours in Workshop 1 on Saturday). But aside from just art panels, AMA has a good selection panels on many subjects. Perennial guest Robert Aldrich can always be counted on to deliver ruminations into the origins of anime and animation culture through the ages, there was the “Model UN” Axis Powers Hetalia gathering, among other fandom related fare, and the obligatory “Guests Uncensored” style panels that are a favorite for the 18+ crowd. Interestingly, this convention also played host to a panel dubbed “AMA Urban Legends,” a response by con chair Edward Fortner to some of the stories that have sprung up around AMA over the years. Having heard a good chunk of them (and having spread them myself), I found the panel to be a truly enlightening experience, debunking a chunk of what I had heard over the past 18 months.
Of course, I can’t give this review without at least mentioning my own “children:” one of the major reasons I attended was to present (and in this case, also debut) my panels. Speaking purely from a panelist point-of-view, I found the crowd to be more than accommodating to my nerves while I was presenting “Castles, Forests and Bath Houses” and especially good sports when I had to present “Dead Like Us” without a projector. The one downside: I was in the aforementioned small panel room at the back of the restaurant for two of them. This lead to a number of people getting lost or being turned away at the door. On the flipside of this, there was a grease fire in the kitchen right in the middle of Modern Mythology, which forced everyone outside. I expected that to be the end of the panel, but when i got back inside, I found there to be even more people, including a number of new faces, which had waited near to hotel for a chance to get in.
Anime Mid Atlantic has the smallest Dealer’s Room of any convention I attend, both in terms of floor space and number of vendors. This is both a blessing and a curse: for those seeking obscure anime related merchandise, this is not the con to attend. It is possible, and indeed likely, that an attendee can make the rounds of the Dealer’s Room in under 15 minutes, and not find a lot. Many of the major vendors are there, but the selections they bring can be very limited given space. That said, for those looking to save money, having such a small room can aid in that desire. I know I went through the entire room and came out with a few manga, two swords for Aleks, and a copy of “Arkham Horror” for myself.
The Artist Alley is quite a different story. As spread out as it was, it still contained a great deal of variety. For someone who enjoys supporting local talent, this is a great place to browse wares and get commissions done. Of particular note: The Clockwork Dolls, who were playing the Charity Dance Friday night set up a “Steampunk Tea Shop,” complete with signed mugs, fresh scones, and a whole lot of Victorian attitude.
Events and Guests:
I will be the first to admit, I tend to avoid Main Events. I have never attended an opening or closing ceremony, pay little, if any, attention to the Masquerade and am of the perception that I am “too old” for the raves. That said, there is still plenty to do at AMA. They always take the time to present a quality AMV competition, the idea to host a Charity Dance was very welcome (and getting the Clockwork Dolls to play was a nice surprise, as they put on a great show) and they never bog themselves down with unnecessary hoopla.
As for the guests: AMA still holds the title for “Friendliest Guest List” among the cons I attend. Given the fact that many of their perennial guests are fans themselves, it leads to them going above and beyond for the community. Rather than existing in a world separate from the rest of the attendees, they take the time to talk to the attendees long after the panels end, pose for pictures and have even been known to take groups out for eats. Of particular merit was one Vic Mignogna, who refused to end his autograph session before each and every person who wanted to meet him got the chance.
Anime Mid Atlantic posits itself as a family convention. This mindset comes with a good deal of attached connotations: there are very few 18+ panels to attend, and most of those are of the “Uncensored” variety, meaning it’s the same panelists that give the all ages versions, just with more colorful language involved, if even that. Chair Ed Fortner says he always likes to cultivate an atmosphere where parents and their children can appreciate anime together. This year’s AMA I feel embodied that aesthetic more than previous years, as I witnessed a good deal more families attending panels, or wandering the halls, or just being there together. As a person who believes very strongly in the appeal of anime as a family event, this con is a model of why this is so, and how it works best. There was an air of excitement at the con from the moment I stepped into the hotel Friday morning, and it was still there Sunday afternoon as everything was winding down. People laughing, interacting, dancing and singing is always a welcome sight, and this year’s AMA had some of the liveliest for a con its size.
I’m glad that Anime Mid Atlantic has found a home and community for itself. After learning how much love and attention the staff puts into the convention year after year, it’s satisfying to see how much the crowds appreciate them, and how they keep coming back. This is a small con that is still growing, even after ten years, and it will keep growing larger still, because they care about the fans, care about the community and care about each other. I mentioned earlier how AMA likes to call itself a family oriented con. Well, I don’t think it’s such a stretch of the imagination to think that everyone involved, from the staff to the guests to the attendees, are all part of some larger, wacky family enjoying it’s yearly reunion, and taking home new memories and a sense of refreshment and camaraderie. I know I’ll be back.