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The Mike Toole Show
The Con Job

by Michael Toole,

This weekend, I'm at the combined New York Comic Con and New York Anime Festival. See, the facilitators of these two events, Reed Exhibitions, wisely decided to combine the two, since the former couldn't quite fill the Javitz Center and the latter couldn't quite fill one quarter of the Javitz Center. Consequently, we've got a combined nerdfest that is only slightly too big for its britches, with tens of thousands of people spilling out onto 11th Avenue in their Hetalia, Hatsune Miku, and V for Vendetta costumes.

Comics has the bigger footprint- while the anime program has scared up the delectable Minori Chihara and hard sci-fi author Tow Ubukata, among many others, the comics side is headlined by none other than Stan Lee. (Isn't it kind of weird that there's no English adaptation of Heroman yet?) But here's the thing: the very first thing I beheld upon my entrance to the show floor was an absolutely gigantic booth for Ubisoft, flogging their forthcoming Michael Jackson video game. So clearly, it's not just about the comics anymore.

What the convention was about was crowds. Lots and lots of crowds. Long lines, short lines, snarls at the escalators, throngs hovering around the cafes waiting for seats to open, full panel rooms, circles of attendees playing duck-duck-goose - you name it, at least a hundred people showed up for it. When I go to these conventions, I like to dream up a stock question to ask people while I wait in these lines, because making conversation with strangers is an important social skill. At Otakon, that question was "What is your essential Otakon moment?" I got a lot of answers, but the clear winner was the con's masquerade, which takes place in an 8,000 person theater and is quite a production. At New York Anime Fest, the question I've been asking is "Is this your first convention?" For the majority of people I've spoken to, the answer has been yes.

That's gotten me thinking about my first anime convention. It wasn't all that long ago - only fifteen years, which means that there's about a 50% chance that you were alive when I visited, dear reader. Back then, there wasn't a "con season" during the summer, because there weren't enough conventions. The biggest convention by far was Anime Expo, which in 1995 blew past the 1,000-person mark. My first convention was AnimEast, which took place in cosmopolitan East Brunswich, New Jersey, in November of 1995. Slightly more than 800 people attended. (For reference, I'm pretty sure that there's more than 800 people in the panel room I'm in at the moment. Yes, I'm writing the column about cons... at a con.) The guest of honor was then-Gainax employee Toshio Okada, who isn't really an artist or animator or voice actor. Was it any good? In a word, it was awesome.

In fact, I'm finding it difficult to capture the mood of the con without sounding like a shithead. I mean, I arrived at this midsized suburban business hotel with fucking stars in my eyes, picked up my badge (it was in color! and there was no line to wait in!) and quite literally gaped at the first cosplayer I saw (a skinny girl in a Battle Angel getup). Then I proceeded upstairs to the video room (there was only one) where I got to watch unsubbed Sailor Moon episodes that nobody had seen before! Obviously, the room was bursting with people; there had to have been at least 50 of us, all chanting along with the "Sera Muuun!" eyecatch. I got to meet the voices of Astro Boy and Marine Boy and watch them jokingly curse each other out (wish I had a tape recorder for that one). Pioneer were there—not only did they help bring character designer Hiroyuki Ktazume to the con, they hired a pretty girl to dress up in a prefab Moldiver costume. (Remember Moldiver? Nope, neither do I!) AnimEigo had just gotten the rights to two Lupin the 3rd films, and this was a very big deal indeed. I bought a tape from this new company called Software Sculptors called Metal Fighters Miku. I had to have it, you understand-- it was new! Nobody had seen it before, and as we all know, anything that is new is good. (It wasn't.) Toshio Okada was larger than life (seriously, he was pretty fat) and was able to answer questions in English, which was a big hit.

The entire convention turned up for Saturday evening's events, which opened with an impressive concert by legendary anime song artist MIO (now known as MIQ). There wasn't enough cash and resources to get a band together, but MIO bravely took the stage on her own, singing splendidly along with instrumental tape backing. Afterwards, the crowd was ambushed by a short set featuring self-proclaimed “live-action anime girl” Apollo Smile – who remembers her? – and then there was the masquerade, which featured some twenty five entrants. I don't remember who won, though. How about you?

Of course, back then, events like AnimEast were once-in-a-lifetime events, and now there's four or five “mega-cons” every single year. In fact, I'm pretty sure there are more people in this panel room than were at Anime East. Just as I write this, I'm sitting smack in the middle of a room with almost nine hundred Black Butler fans, most of whom are currently going nutso and bum-rushing the stage because the show's English language dub actor, J. Michael Tatum, is putting shoes on a lady dressed as the heroine. Earlier, I witnessed what had to be at least five hundred people sing along to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in perfect unison. It's hard not to smile at that kind of spectacle, but not THAT hard.

All of these experiences, at cons both old and new, wouldn't have carried any weight if I didn't meet people, which is probably the best part of all conventions. There's a Bantu world called “ubuntu,” which, before it was hijacked by Linux nerds, was a central tenet of philosophy across the African continent. It essentially means “We become people through our relationships with others,” and clumsily wielding ubuntu at my first convention allowed me to meet the likes of the late Steve Pearl, superfan, organizer, and American Otaking; Trish Ledoux, who less than a year later would be my editor in chief at Animerica Magazine; and Scott and Maria Rider, who would draw me into the planning committee for Anime Central, where I happily staffed for a decade. 

Going to a convention and being a huge nerd with hundreds of others ultimately established me with a network of people that would come to define both personal and professional aspects of my life. A decade and a half later, I find that this still rings true – the movie premieres and special guests and stuff are pretty great, don't get me wrong, but I won't remember them the way I remember seeing my friends and making new ones. So when you're queuing up for that Hatsune Miku movie showing at DoofusCon next week, don't be afraid to turn to the guy or gal behind you and ask a question. How about “What was the last anime you watched?” As for me, it was the Gundam 00 movie

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