Otakon 2013 — The Halls are as Clogged as My Lungs

I may have mentioned it once or twice in past reviews, but I feel the need to mention it again here: there is always a line between real life responsibilities and fantastical indulgence, such as what we do at anime conventions and the like…and many times that line is the breadth of a strand of hair or thinner. But there come times when, intentional or not, one crossover over into the other and it becomes necessary to beat them back across their respective lines by any means necessary. Such was the case with my preparations for Otakon 2013.

In the days leading up to the convention, my biggest concern was jerry rigging my work schedule so that I would have the appropriate days off and, through various double shifts and substitutions, not miss any work—a zero-sum situation that I have no problem adhering to. But, as a (state) government employee, the paperwork for processing things such as days off or schedule changes is processed at a speed which could generously be called “relaxed.” That is to say, I wasn’t sure my requests for altering my (and a co-worker’s) schedule(s) wouldn’t be processed in time. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, and I ended up working some very strange hours for another coworker. Unfortunately, there was some level of flooding in the Midwest, which said coworker was stranded. When one of my supervisors informed me of this and told me that they might not get back in time to cover, I nearly flipped my shit. The paperwork had been processed already…and I completed my end of the bargain! What are you talking about?! Thankfully, one of them was reasonable enough to realize I’d be away for the weekend, and that driving up and down between who-knows-where in Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland, putting tons of unnecessary mileage on my car—and paying all those tolls!—was a bit of a bridge too far. I think they’d be disappointed anyway, seeing how I had my car loaded up with my personal effects and flew out of work on Thursday afternoon so fast I left two streaks of fire in my wake like I had just blasted back through time.

I was fully prepared to get the most out of this weekend, as Otakon is, without a doubt, my favorite convention to go to. As always, I had prepared a badass playlist on my iPod to listen to on the trip, and, being how I prepared for insane traffic and/or being much further from the Delaware Memorial Bridge than I was, I had about three hours of music to rock out to. Unfortunately, I only got through about an hour and a half of said music before arriving in Baltimore. I’d like to think it was because of my unprecedented driving skills, but it wasn’t; the traffic going to—and from—the city was relatively calm. Of course it didn’t straightaway mean I would just roll up into the hotel, check in and start partying. Because there was the hot-poker-up-the-ass issue of parking. If you’ve never tried to find parking in a city such as Baltimore, good for you, because the parking is atrocious. The Hilton, which is connected directly to the convention center (on the other side from the Sheraton), had valet and self-parking, but—probably because they knew there would be a convention in town—the prices were nothing short of highway robbery: $28 for self-parking, $40 for valet parking. Per day. My wallet was already hamstrung going into the con, what with unexpected expenses and my next payday coming after the con, which would’ve left me barely enough money to get home. Needless to say, the Hilton got off on the wrong foot with me. After almost an hour of driving around the Inner Harbor area looking for parking garages that wouldn’t steal from me hand over fist, I found a garage about five blocks away from the hotel itself. Easily the cheapest place I could find, and I was infinitely grateful that it was also the closest to the hotel. I was also carrying a prop Power of Love sword with me that a friend had asked me to bring down, and I make no exaggeration when I say that that got more weird looks than some of the people here for the con milling about in either their cosplays or usual geeky t-shirt ensembles. Also, someone asked me if it was real. It’s made out of what felt like balsa wood; balsa wood is real, so the sword was real (or maybe the woman thought I was going to attack her with it; I was too exasperated over the parking to care).

Of course, maybe it’s me still having the sort of naïveté of a newcomer every time I come to my favorite convention, but it was difficult for me to stay angry for too long.

The hotel itself was one of the nicest ones I’ve stayed at while going to Otakon. The lobby was spacious, and I had almost no problem checking it. I did have to get a key card from one of the others staying in the room, but as they arrived about the same time as I did, it wasn’t that big a deal. There was a bar downstairs, but the food was overpriced; that night, I tried to order a little nosh while sitting at the bar, but they ran out of the nachos I had originally ordered. I ordered a pizza, and it looked like a pizza-for-one you can find at a grocery store. Only there it’s two or three dollars as opposed to eight. At least the soda was free (and free refills).

But that was later on; earlier I had managed to procure my press pass from the press ops people in the Sheraton, and they were very kind and helpful getting it to me. We also got free stuff that was of much higher quality, such as a mug celebrating the 20th anniversary of Otakon, and a fancy binder with pen-and-paper inside. The booklet was of much higher quality than I last saw, though I used it very little, as I had the Guidebook app to help schedule everything I was going to do for Otakon.

More about the hotel: the pool was a very happening spot this weekend, as all but one time did I go in was it packed. As much as I could’ve enjoyed a peaceful respite, I found the other con goers enjoying the pool and the hot tub made for a much nicer atmosphere. The pool itself was one of the strangest designs I had seen, as it was shaped like an “i”. That’s not a typo, despite Microsoft Word trying to tell me otherwise; the pool itself was just over 3½ deep, and about as wide as two roped off swimming lanes, with the hot tub taking the place of the dot. I could’ve leapt the width of this pool…and I’m built like a Ziploc bag filled with a mixture of cornstarch and water. There was also a sauna and a weight room available, but I only partook of the former once or twice. Still very relaxing, though.

I had to make the most of the convention for Friday and Saturday, as I had to be called home on Sunday due to personal/family issues, which I’ll explain about later. About the convention itself, or rather, the logistics thereof: the con has grown by leaps and bounds, and there’s never a shortage of attendees stuffed into every orifice of the convention center. That said, the congestion was terrible. It was especially bad in spots where there was only one way to go, such as the skywalk connecting one half of the convention center to the other. I had been hacking and coughing most of the weekend, so it felt like, to me, that the hallways were as clogged up and stuffed as my lungs. If the funk was any worse than it was, I would’ve had two different ways of not being able to breathe. Management of the lines was another low point for the con. The lines were designated with tape, which I can understand from a logistic point of view, as all those roped-off posts would be stolen/damaged/exploited in one way or another. But lines piled against lines, making for some huge messes. Plus, the press privileges—from what I’ve gleaned talking from other press people—weren’t always enforced evenly, if acknowledged at all. More than once a staffer was indignant with me for wanting to use my press pass exactly as it was intended.

When Friday started, I was cosplaying as Stephen Stills the Talent from Scott Pilgrim. I’m guessing the cosplay wasn’t all that recognizable, since it was merely his street clothes. In any event, I took to the panels with my journalism hat firmly affixed to my head…but the Wave Crusher Ari-Man was left back at the castle, sad to say (Castle Rockefeller play set comes with everything you see here; you put it together; batteries not included). The first panel I sat in on was called “Anime vs. Hollywood”, which was an intelligent discussion on how to define the two terms…and how the two were at points mutually exclusive. He noted a few well-known things about manga and anime’s production, such as limited animation and techniques, and how they were pioneered by these studios. The bigger boom came when the generation of animators influenced by prior animation and comics, as well as living through WWII—especially the firebombing of Tokyo—came into their own. He acknowledged Miyazaki’s contributions, and how it drove animation to the theaters. He also lamented the “Curse of Osamu”, and how Osamu Tezuka sold the rights to his works on the cheap, which led studios to adopt the long-standing practice of paying animation studios almost-jack-shit, a tradition which carries on to this day. At the end (and briefly at the beginning) the panelist pondered aloud what anime would make for a good live-action film. No one left that room without being covered in mud slung haphazardly about.

Being a fan of abridged series, I was drawn to the “Amateur Voice Acting 101” panel later on. It was a Q&A as to how you can do voice acting for fan works. I’m sure these are legitimate techniques for legitimate voice actors, but as I can count the number of fan works where I loan my voice to it on one hand, I couldn’t exactly call their bluff on it (plus it would’ve looked unprofessional for both of us). They talked about being comfortable in character, and discussed things like talking in that character’s voice for at least an hour before you’re scheduled to record. They also discussed techniques on how to record your lines, and they were especially fond of recording in a place such as closet, rationalizing that the numerous clothes hanging up would muffle and absorb any background noise, if a more traditional/professional setup wasn’t available. There was also talk of demo reels, and how they need to be diverse and varied, as the roles one could apply for would be just that. And apparently recording studios would treat them like “normal” resumes and decide whether or not they’d hire someone by looking at the first five to ten seconds of footage, so it was imperative to put your best stuff first.

I was only in cosplay for a couple of hours on Friday; not because of the lack of recognition, but because a long-sleeved shirt was feeling rather uncomfortable and sweaty when wandering around with that much humidity and radiant body heat. So I got rid of it, changing quickly enough (thankfully I brought enough extra shirts for the weekend), and got some lunch. There are plenty of places to eat around the convention center area, which was nice if you didn’t grow tired of the same handful of cuisines and/or didn’t feel like ordering out or searching elsewhere in the city (I sure as shit wasn’t about to give up my parking deal). The Subway was good for breakfasts, while the California Tortilla next door was good just about any time—they even had breakfast deals and extended hours specifically for Otakon crowds. There was a Jimmy John’s attached to the hotel itself, and it provided a good meal for when Subway got too monotonous. I also partook of the Pratt Street Ale House after getting my press pass and settling in for the night on Thursday. Needless to say, I had to explain to many a barfly just what the hell was going on this weekend in a way that didn’t blow their primitive minds (oh, and the burger I ordered came out a little too pink. To prevent a repeat performance, I immediately sent it back. Thankfully, they understood).

Once I had lunch, I went back into the fray to check out “100 Years of Japanese Animation,” hosted by Daryl Surat of Anime World Order and Otaku USA (he admits the panel is a cliff’s notes version of history). Before the term “anime” was coined, it went by “doga”, based off of one of the earliest pioneer’s names. One of the oldest exhibitions of its kind was drawn directly onto 35mm film. The earliest stuff was short black-and-white films, all silent…most of which was destroyed by the great Kanto earthquake and during WWII. The next big landmark was called Mukozo Imokawa the Doorman, which was a five-minute long film drawn frame-by-frame on a chalkboard. Other hallmarks of the pre-WWII era include World of Women and Power, the first animation with voice acting in it; however, no copies have survived. The 30s and 40s saw lots of military propaganda, especially caricatures of allied (read: American and English) characters and leaders. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was an example of such, as the cutesy characters were repurposed for use in propaganda films. Once the US occupied Japan after the war, they not only churned out pro-West propaganda of their own, but they also brought with them the Disney films, which helped influence creators who had survived the war. Americans also brought back anime with them, leading to the first serialized anime to be shown on US TV in January of 1963: Astro Boy. Other titles would follow in its wake, such as Kimba the White Lion, Magical Witch Sally, and Tetsujin 28—though, due to copyright issues, it had to be renamed Gigantor. Soon, not only was science fiction taking off, but so was the usage of the term anime, which was starting to replace “Japanimation” (while some think it’s a combination of “Japan” and “animation”, it was originally an underhanded slur cooked up by its detractors).

Of course, to be fair, I had to take the good with the bad, and it didn’t get any worse than the apropos “Worst Anime of All Time” panel. It wasn’t a Q&A panel, as Mike Toole took great lengths to point out, because someone could just as easily throw around the phrase for some anime they personally don’t like. This was a showcase of legitimately bad anime, bad because of terrible stories, horrible characters, deranged animation, and the like. Aside from showing off such negative-star anti-classics such as Charge Man Ken, Ambassador Magma, Dark Warrior, Sparrow’s Hotel, and Psychic Wars, it also opened with the notorious scene of Dracula eating a hamburger, which I remember seeing from AnimeNEXT. Thankfully, though, no one ran screaming from the panel room this time.

Game shows are one of my favorite types of programs, so when someone says they’re doing an “anime” version of it, I’m all but guaranteed to check it out. Such was the case with the “Anime Game Show Supershow”. They had plenty of time, but they had two separate game shows they wanted to play through: the first was Card Sharks, while the other was Press Your Luck. I recognized the panelists before, as their Legends of the Hidden Temple cosplays are unmistakable. Contestants were randomly drawn via tickets given out as you walked in; if they matched your number when they called it out, you got to play. The fun thing about the Card Sharks game was, like in the original, they had oversized playing cards to use instead of just running everything through Flash (the question section was, though). Only these cards were also all anime themed and very nicely put together. Sadly, I didn’t get to play this time around. If there was anything overtly negative about the panel other than that, it’s that they almost blew out everyone’s ears over a botched sound check, and there was a massive dick-measuring contest as to who could throw out the last clap during a round of applause. And it wasn’t limited to just this panel, either.

While I was at the convention, I stayed away from the dealers’ room, citing my very tentative budget. I’m not the kind of person who would piss away all his gas/parking/toll money on something he just had to have, but the temptation of seeing all that stuff that I couldn’t logistically have, looking at me from the vendors and the shelves, taunting me, just wasn’t worth the aggravation. The artists’ alley and game rooms were exactly what I had seen in years prior, almost with the same setup for the latter (though some games were moved around). I ended up turning in relatively early on Friday night, and much to our collective chagrin, we didn’t do nearly as much drinking as we thought we would this weekend.

Saturday was off to a better start, as I geared up in my Hoenn!Ash cosplay and was ready to take the con by storm. After a good breakfast at Subway, I made it in time for the panel “Three Rs of Fanfiction: How to Get Your Stuff Read, Reviewed and Recommended (or How to Succeed Without Really Trying).” I just had to attend because of course I would. It was easily the least attended panel I covered this weekend, mostly because it was held at 9 in the morning; you can imagine people staggering into a fanfiction panel hung over and/or without sleep on your own time. For what it was worth, they were knowledgeable about what they were talking about, and they made it clear it was a panel not about how to write fanfics, but how to market them, essentially. Though they talked about things such as sentence and paragraph formatting, characters, plots, writing an actual summary as opposed to an “I suck at summaries/this is my first fanfic” disclaimer, and doing your research, it seemed to be geared more towards getting reviews and nothing else. If someone’s going to just post a review about how much they love your work and see no fault in it and not offer any criticism or critique, that’s nothing special. It seemed as pointless as people who go fishing incessantly for Facebook likes. It seemed like that’s where the professionalism started to break down.

I took more than my share of pictures this weekend, as did everyone else who went, and I did so with the help of a new camera. Aside from being a better gadget than my previous one, something as little as not having to right-clickàrotate every single vertically aligned photo like with the old one made me incredibly happy.

Easily one of my favorite panels was one that was just as self-aware as its source material: a panel about old, bad video game accessories called, “I Love the Power Glove…It’s So Bad.” Of course they showed clips from the glorious 90-minute Nintendo commercial that was The Wizard, but they also did some updates on the actors in that movie…specifically how “Lucas” is now a pedophile. The movie itself was possibly self-aware, and filled with very glaring—possibly deliberate—gaming errors. What’s especially strange is the legacy of the Power Glove…and how people have taken to modding it in all sorts of crazy ways. There’s even a documentary on the Glove at ThePowerOfGlove.com. Only two games were made specifically for the Power Glove: Super Glove Ball, and Bad Street Brawler; everything else that wanted to use the glove involved keying in a code from a massive list. And suffice to say, the commercials didn’t make it look even remotely like how it really works. The panelists also pointed out how a lot of these “accessories” were covered by the Angry Video Game Nerd, but there were far, far more than just what was in the Nerd’s review of them. Atari had a device called the Mind Link, which supposedly let you control the game with your thoughts, similar how those robot-cat ears are controlled. Unfortunately, it read not your brain waves, but the movements in your head, and was never released. The R.O.B. robot peripheral from the NES was also talked about, and how it too only had two games—Gyromite and Stack-Up. There were also such abominations as the U-Force, the Roll-n-Rocker, and the Laser Scope. Good grief, I experienced these things firsthand as a child.

There was, for me, a very Pokémon-heavy narrative, the first half of which was a panel entitled “Pokémon as a Mythic Narrative”. And again, of course I was going to attend it. It was held by Charles Dunbar, who actually has a degree in anthropology. He argued that the franchise requires you to dig deeper when playing around in it. He researched over 150 Pokémon across all generations, and found that each one is based off of something, somewhere. The mythology of the Pokémon franchise is deep and vast, and like others mythologies, it evolves (no pun intended). Stories stick around as the mediums change, and symbols relevant to them still hold meaning. Life lessons such as the coming-of-age story, issues of self-reliance and independence crop up, as do bonds between friends, weapons, and rivals. Archetypes such as the everyman, the fool, companion/s, mentor/s (with or without them dying, a la Obi Wan), anti-hero, rival, and godlike villain are also present, and the people watching him speak had fun pointing out just who was who. Individual Pokémon have their roots in various traits about mankind’s history, a lot of which are similar throughout a lot of ancient civilizations—Arceus and its ilk are based on the Shinto myth of creation; Groudon and Kyogre is based off of beasts found in Judeo-Christian mythos; Zekrom and Reshiram are the Taoist balance; and the engineering of our own downfall can be seen right there in Mew and Mewtwo. It was all very interesting stuff.

Remember when I said I had my journalism hat on? Well, I got to show that off in one of the best ways possible, by recording an interview for the site. Today’s guest was none other than Vic Mignogna. I was more than a little nervous for this, mostly because my past interview experience has been with random cosplayers/fans of the site during the cons’ last day, when everyone’s gearing up to go home. I had one interview with another voice actor under my belt, and it was with Jon St. John, in one of the most ad-hoc setups I ever experienced (thankfully he was a really good sport about it). This time the equipment was much better, though I did feel like I was going to say something that would piss him off (not because it was Vic Mignogna, I was just naturally anxious about everything). I got him to talk about his love of the Star Trek franchise, including his thoughts on the reboot movies, and other highlights of the various series. He also talked about how he’s playing the role of Captain Kirk in the fan series Star Trek Continues, which essentially picks up where the original series left off. Thankfully, he wouldn’t bring the Shatnerian hamminess to the role, because quite frankly we as a society have had more than we can bear, something we both agreed on.

Now…more than one person has had their complaints about Vic, for whatever reason they may have. I don’t have any kind of connection to whoever was supposedly victimized by him, because by the time the stories reached my ears I would think they’re too ridiculous to be taken seriously (and I assume they went through several filters of embellishment in the interim, so the truth probably got lost along the way). But the main idea I’m making here is that he was nice to me. He showed nothing but the utmost professionalism even as I might have come off as a twitchy, stuttering mental case, and despite his devotion to his religion, the most bible-thumpingly thing he did to me was ask—tongue-in-cheek, now that I think of it—if the “G” in VOG stood for God. I shudder to think how he’d react if he found out I’m a Freemason. So what does that have to do with the review? Well, here’s my story relating to him: when I was given the time for the interview from press ops, it was an hour later than it was originally scheduled. So instead of just putzing around the press ops or the press lounge, I decided to kill time in the game room. About an hour later, I go back and do the interview, and once that’s said and done, I go to attend Uncle Yo’s newest stand up special. Thankfully this was one of the times when my press rights were acknowledged, and he didn’t single me out for darting up to the front of the room while his set was in full swing. About ten minutes in, a shocking thought crosses my mind: “Where’s my backpack?” And I go straight into panic mode. See, I had my backpack with me to carry a DVD of Conqueror of Shamballa which a friend of the show wanted to have him sign. So I bail out of Uncle Yo’s set (if you’re reading this, good sir, I apologize for leaving early, and I’m sure you put on a hell of a performance, as always) and retrace my steps. Since I was only in the game room before the interview, I start to dread the worst as I look around—that someone walked off with it and I’d never see it again. It didn’t help that the people running the game room told me that the lost-and-found was on the other side of the convention. So as I sulk out of the game room in almost a stupor, it slowly dawns on me, “Wait…didn’t I set it down in press ops?” So I hurry back to the Sheraton and up to press ops. And what happened next might as well have been right out of an anime. As I go up the escalator, who do I see coming out of press ops at that very same moment? Vic fucking Mignogna, that’s who. He greeted me as he passed my dumbstruck ass, and I ran back into press ops to find, surprise-surprise, I left my bag on one of the chairs. The DVD was still in there, and like an insane fanboy, I charge after him calling out to him, taking the steps on the escalator two at a time (it was a miracle I didn’t face plant on the way down). I stopped him and his aide/handler at the bottom of the escalator, just before the door. I explained the situation, and he was more than happy to sign it for me. He could’ve just as easily told me to fuck off and come back Sunday during his autograph session—god knows his handler wanted to—but no; he heard me out and hooked me up, and for that, I thank him.

By the way, I wasn’t the one who first referred to his assistants as “handlers.” Though I did have an image in my head of a team of animal trainers leading Vic from event to event via dangling a chunk of meat on a string. A combination of fatigue and panic will generate strange ideas…

I got dinner sometime after that, and played around in the game room a little bit more. While there were a couple 18+ panels I wanted to attend on Friday night, I couldn’t, because the line to get the wristband for said panels was a fucking nightmare. It had to have taken up a good half of the floor the registration was on, and that’s even including packing the roped off lines to their fullest. Even worse, there were only three stations working the line giving out those wristbands. And there was no way in hell I was waiting in that goddamn long of a line…especially since the staffers who maintained the line itself showed me no sympathy whatsoever. Line mismanagement seemed to be a recurring theme this con. Thankfully it wasn’t nearly as bad on Saturday, for whatever reason, and I got my band with virtually no trouble. I only wanted to go to one 18+ panel that night anyway—“Voice Actors Unleashed.” Before that, though, I hung out at the rave a bit. It was alright, though my experience with the raves is less than stellar. I only lasted about half an hour before I had to go, to make the panel. I got a good seat close to the front, and the panel was run by Todd Haberkorn, Kyle Hebert, Uncle Yo, and a few others. It was a Q&A panel, and for each person who came up to ask a question, the panelists would flip a coin—call it right and you got to ask them a question; call it wrong, and they’d ask a question of you. The real stealer of the show, though, was an unnamed assistant for a deaf attendee close to the front row. He was a really good sport about it, especially when Uncle Yo would ask him what lewd sexual term/s were in sign language and he would either sign them correctly, or do a quite lewd interpretation of said act. And more than once, he mock-picked a fight with him. Good times all around.

I always dread the last day of a convention, mostly because of the lack of desire to go home and back to the “real” world. I dreaded it even more because I had to attend a family function for a freshly minted one-year-old. The party was gaudy, tacky, and heavy on the Disney themes, including (but not limited to) loud Disney songs blaring over the speakers (which grate me on general principle) and a Belle impersonator wandering around talking to the kids in-character. It took me all of five minutes of being there to discern that the birthday girl was the last reason the party was held in such a way to begin with. Not only was the party not even remotely worth it, but the poster woman for Stockholm Syndrome wasn’t even the best Disney Princess™ cosplayer I had seen all weekend, much less the best Belle cosplayer. And even worse, by the time I got there, the main courses had been taken away and a few desserts were left.

And when I’m in cosplay, I can’t hold together being in character for more than a few minutes at a time, and that’s with fellow fans my own age; that woman had nerves of steel to do that as long as she did that day.

I love Otakon deeply, but like all things I love, I don’t just ignore or overstep their flaws; I want to see them improved on if not erased altogether. The line management was abysmal, and while I do love how the convention grows with every passing year, it’s clear that Baltimore can’t contain it anymore. On that note, I learned a few days after the fact that Otakon was moving to Washington, DC in a few years, to a much bigger locale. Hopefully they’ll be able to get the entire convention center in our nation’s capital and not have big chunks of the convention center off limits and/or used by other less consequential events that weekend, like NYCC and the Jarvis center. At least with the bigger venue in DC, the same number of people won’t seem quite as overwhelming since they’ll have more room to spread out. Of course, there are two burning questions for DC!Otakon: Who will sell us our ice-cold water? And will it still cost only one dollar?

Ari Rockefeller

When he is not training Pokémon and being the very best, the Master of the Written Word churns out convention, video game, anime and movie reviews like clockwork. No one is more productive and dangerous with a pen and paper (or, in this case, a keyboard).

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One Response to “Otakon 2013 — The Halls are as Clogged as My Lungs”

  1. VX says:

    Now get back to work!

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