04 September 2011

otakon, thrice attained

Recently, a website posted what might be the most concise Otakon report of all time. It said, in plain english, the following:

“I didn’t do s#!+ this weekend.”

Who wrote this most concise of con reports?


I’ve been to Otakon a few times. Three to be precise. I started attending in 2009 because of my fieldwork. Want to research anime fandom conventions? Go to the largest one on the East Coast and see what they say. While not the most productive weekend of the initial foray (that title goes to the much smaller AUSA in Arlington Virginia), it did nonetheless allow me to see a different side of the anime convention community that I was unfamiliar with. Prior to Otakon, I had been exclusively to smaller, more regional fare (the largest being Anime Boston), where the ethos and dynamics of the event are definitely geared towards a more intimate setting. I had thought that Otakon would have just been a larger version of what I was already used to attending, and treated it as such.

This was a mistake. Otakon, to put quite plainly, is a beast. To someone who is unfamiliar with its community, it is extremely easy to get overwhelmed by all the shouting and the crowding and the bodies flying through the air (sometimes literally), that it can be a complete turnoff to the wrong attendee. I gathered as much from my initial attempts to navigate the hallways and meet new people. I even went to far as to hire a friend to distribute more surveys for me, since I could not give out enough on my own, torn as I was between trying to understand the energy of the event and pull in as much as I possibly could.

The end result was a productive weekend, but one that I came away from feeling confused and let down. After all I had heard of Otakon being this “mecca of anime fandom,” what I found were a lot of teenagers obsessed with screaming out a certain catchphrase from “Family Guy” (you KNOW which one I’m referring to), a giant dealer’s room and a fascination with the actual city of Baltimore, less than the desire to return. Unlike any of the previous cons I had attended, Otakon felt the most like work, where I had to force myself to hand out just one more survey or visit one more panel. At one point even, I actually looked forward to crashing in my room, and not just from physical exhaustion. Otakon 2009, to put it plainly, kicked my butt, kicked it hard, and left a mark that took months to get past.

But return I did, with more surveys and panels. But this time I altered my expectations. Drawing on my experiences the previous year, I approached Otakon 2010 with the idea that I will be just a face in the crowd, going with the flow, meeting with my friends and trying not to experience as much of the milieu as possible (which, admittedly, wouldn’t be a lot), but rather to get from it what it gave, and see where that left me. And when the proverbial dust settled, I found that I had enjoyed myself so much more, gotten more surveys than the previous year, and a newfound appreciation for what the staff have to go through to make the event work.

But there was still one thing I was missing. I had never attended Otakon as an attendee.

For the past two years, my time had been spent roaming the halls, networking, shuffling to panel rooms, handing out surveys, dropping stuff off in my hotel and heading out to the next event or meeting or dinner or photoshoot or whatever. It was so hectic that last year I never even made it down to the Dealer’s Room, I was so stacked with things to do. And while for some people that might be the best way to experience and anime convention, for me it felt like I had missed out on something. In my attempt to go with the flow, I had passed by a lot of the flavor of the con that had been shoved in my face in 2009. I had a wonderful time with friends I rarely see, which I would not trade for anything, but just like in 2009, I also had the same residual feeling that things just didn’t add up, at least in line with what I had been expecting (and hoping) to occur.

And then, before I knew it, it was Otakon time again. I had spent the last few months of 2010 writing furiously, both for myself and for others, running from con to con, hosting panels and meeting new people. Early 2011 was a good deal of the same, with my first guest appearances at cons, and a weekend at Anime Boston that taught me even I had limits. June was a wall of cons, from Virginia to Maine, followed up by my yearly trip to Connecticon, living the con life I had come to expect after the past 2 years worth of doing the same. And then it was Otakon, and I was on the bus to Baltimore, with no plans and the desire to finally get from this con what I wanted from it the two years prior.

I had vowed that this year would be different. I was going to go to Otakon for the very reason I started attending cons in the first place: to be part of the community. I wanted to walk the halls. I wanted to spend hours in the Dealer’s Room. I wanted to sit and watch things happen. I didn’t want, or need, a schedule to tell me where to go and what to do. I wanted to make my own con out of this behemoth in Baltimore. I needed to, for the sake of my years in the con circuit. I needed something new.


On the Thursday before Otakon 2011, I had the privilege of recording a podcast with manga critic Ed Sizemore and fandom commentator Daryl Surat. The topic was centered on my recently published Master’s thesis, the project that had gotten me into the con circuit in the first place. More particularly, it was centered on who comes to cons, and why do they attend. Daryl and I represent two sides of the spectrum when it comes to anime conventions, though we agree on a lot of the main points (I cited him heavily in my thesis, in fact). During the recording, these motivations became more and more clear to me, especially when looking at what Daryl and Ed look for in a con, and what they do while they are there.

Both Daryl and Ed are men who I respect and admire for their time spent in the community, and the observations they have made regarding it. Both are also men who are “beholden to the schedule,” moving from panel to panel, attending viewings and reporting heavily on the nature of the event at hand. Both derive satisfaction from this endeavor, as it is the main reason they attend the cons. What I found interesting from the podcast session is that I am not like either of them. I didn’t start attending cons to learn more about anime, or even the fandom community, but rather to just be there. To escape from the drudgery of the real world and be a part of something else. As someone who rarely took vacations, aside from the occasional day trip to the Jersey Shore, the idea of five days someplace else was more powerful than what awaited me once I got there. My first trip to Anime Boston in 2007 was more for business than pleasure (I needed to meet with some bands I wanted to sign in Massachusetts, and their show coincided with the con. Win/win). Later that year, I viewed Nekocon as a chance to once more take a short break from the high stress worlds of graduate school and the music industry, and was glad to be there.

For me (and a lot of the people I’ve met at the cons over the years), an event like Otakon is less a chance to sample the field of new anime, and more a chance to just take part in something larger than ones self. Even today, I never attend industry panels, rarely attend concerts and viewings, and I’ve never even seen a Masquerade. But I’ve slow-walked through the Dealer’s Room, spent hours sitting with artist friends in the Alley, and walked the con hallways late at night, for the sole purpose of seeing what’s going on. The fact that people like me and people like Daryl and Ed can coexist at a convention is remarkable, but not unexpected. Each and every attendee goes for a different reason, but the end result is the same- they are at Otakon.

Going to a con as an attendee has both its pluses and minuses. On the minus side, you’re “restricted” to what you can do, by virtue of your badge. Unlike cons where panelists and press get certain perks (like use of the green room, preferential entrance to events, free water), as an attendee, you are very much on your own. You need to plan your own day, need to wait on lines, need to follow the signs everywhere, and generally “ford your own river.” This can run the gamut from tedious to downright annoying. Sometimes staffers like to yell at attendees. Sometimes the panel you really wanted to see filled up really really fast. Sometimes you really, REALLY need that water.

But at the same time, being an attendee also allows you a certain degree of freedom you don’t have when you are in an “official” capacity. You don’t need to attend any panels if you don’t want to. You don’t need to stand in line if you don’t want to. You generally get the ability to go with the proverbial flow. If something catches your attention, go and do it. Eat when you want, drink when you want. If you want to go back to your room and sleep, then by all means, sleep. For me, this was a far cry from other cons I’ve been to, where I’ve had to watch the clock, prep panels, talk with staff, and schedule meetings, dinners etc. Yes, I did those things at Otakon this year, but I also had the chance to schedule them on my own time, rather than around something else I had to do.

During one part of the podcast, Daryl mentioned that he never got why people would buy a badge then not do anything but sit around, when organizing a meetup would have been the same thing, and also free. Well, the general idea why can be said as such: yes, meetups are free. But they also lack one major factor of being at the con. Energy. Meetups among small groups are nice social events, but they differ wildly from the pure explosion of emotion that a con can convey. And for some of the attendees, those who go for the community and go for the fans, that energy is more important that an entry fee. It is something that cannot be found elsewhere. And those attendees thrive on it. I know I did. For the first time in what felt like forever, I felt the pure, undiluted power of fandom beating down on my head, and it felt GOOD. Over the course of those four days I was in Baltimore, I didn’t care about anything not related to where I was and what I was doing next. The normal me, who spends time watching news and scanning twitter for meaningful discussion, suddenly didn’t give a damn that the nation was about to default on it’s debt. The me who worries about how much money I have to work with these days gave way to a me who walked through the artist alley and snagged two commissions without even asking how much they were. Nothing mattered to me except the next hour, and the hour after that, who I was with, and where I would find myself at the end of the day. This power, this energy, is something I only feel at cons, and it makes the con weekend that much more powerful. I once saw on a poster at Anime Boston the following question: “How would you feel if every day were an anime con? Where all you had to worry about was where to go and how much money was in your pocket?” This is to a universal truth to the convention themselves, but it very much is an impact on those attendees who go for the pure escapism and raw power of the event at hand. This is also something that could never be replicated by any meetup.


On Saturday two acquaintances from the Japanese Consulate came down to experience Otakon. I met up with them outside the Dealer’s Room, where I had just made my one purchase of the weekend (the complete Tezuka’s Buddha, for those interested in such things). They were walking around, looking at all the people, and smiled when they saw me. We made plans to meet a bit later, after they had a chance to see a panel.

We went for coffee at Kona Grill, and watched as the steady stream of congoers passed us by. It was something they hadn’t seen before, having been to Anime Next a month earlier, where the dynamic was markedly different. They were interested in seeing more panels and more people later on at the con. They were interested in seeing the community in all is glory, as they had little to compare it to in Japan. But these people were also fans of the same shows. We spoke of Dantalian, Gundam and Evangelion. We laughed about the crazy things fans do. They had a chance to see the massive crowds sitting by the Charles St lobby, waiting for photoshoots. They walked through the game room and artist alley. They had a chance to see how extensive the community is. Overwhelming? Possibly, but also a reflection of how far fandom has come.

This here is the essence of the fandom experience, and the reason I love this community to begin with. This was why I went to Otakon this year. I had missed the freedom of being an attendee, and wandering around aimlessly, making decisions based on how I felt at the time. And while Otakon is gigantic and ever flowing, it also can offer the same things smaller cons can. I didn’t realize this the first times I went, but I saw it now I felt it in the snaking lines. I saw it in the smiling faces. I watched as cosplayers met in the halls. I watched as people with huge grins dragged their purchases from the dealer’s room to their hotels. I hung around the artist alley late at night, talking to friends who made their living drawing for people who couldn’t. I sat in the large circles that dotted the con-scape until they closed the BCC, then sat around with the same people on the street, discussing anime. Could I have done the same online? Yes. Would it have been the same? No.


At one point on Saturday night, I was sitting in a bar across from the BCC. I was with two friends, enjoying a beer and getting ready to go back for some late night programming, and feeling generally relaxed. The con had already been a success in my mind, I felt great and I was feeling a bit bad that it was going to end the following day, and I would be on the bus back home. And a girl approached me. She asked me if I was in town for the convention (I wasn’t wearing a badge, but my friend was) and she asked me what the deal was with it. Not in a judging way, or as if she was asking for validation that it was a gathering of freaks. She honestly wanted to know what it was, and why it was so big. So I tried my best to explain the fandom to her, in as brief terms as possible. I mentioned the community, the interest in Japanese media, the love of cosplay, and how much money the attendees throw around. She looked at me, wide-eyed, and asked if I was kidding. I told her no. There’s around 30,000 people at this event right now, all here for the same thing, generally. And she said she had no idea that anime fandom was this big. I laughed and told her to Google “Anime Expo” and check them out.

After she had left, I finished my beer and sat back, looking around the bar. There were a smattering of other attendees sitting around, a few in costume, but mostly just in plain clothes, their badges twisted around their necks. People just like anyone else, out for an evening pick-me-up. Members of a community, like me and my two friends, unwinding after a long day. Laughing, sharing stories and planning for the next year, the next con.

I looked at my friends, people I had met though the con scene, and grown close with in a little over a year’s time, and I asked myself: strip away the anime con and all its trappings, would I still be here? Would these people still be my friends? Most likely not. The community introduced them to me, and the community keeps us in touch. That’s what Otakon is about, at least in my little sphere of the world. The community brings us together, keeps us strong, and delivers experiences around which we can share and grow. That’s powerful. That’s important.

That’s Otakon.

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