C-Kon 2002 - The Anime Review's Perspective

I'd never been to an anime convention before. Yes, amazing shock of shocks, this reviewer had never been to one of the ever-expanding Holy Grails of anime fandom known as a con. Now there's some history behind this, to be sure. Without boring you, I got into fandom seriously in 1988 through various comic book conventions that had anime rooms. Although I learned a lot about anime from these and am immensely grateful for the folks that got me started, I also learned that the average anime fan was male, smelly, badly dressed, generally obnoxious, and weird. Now there were some really cool people then too, but this was so true for so long that I got out of the way of fandom as I understood it. It was just too strange. Also, being an Indiana resident with only limited abilities to leave on weekends due to my work, it was almost impossible to get to any of the major shows going on in Chicago, L.A., or New York. Even minor shows proved difficult to manage, and I never got to one.

When I read about C-Kon 2002, a convention being held in Indianapolis and run by students from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, I was excited and nervous at the same time. Could a major yet quiet city like Indianapolis support a convention? Would it just be a reunion of the freaks I remembered? How would students from a school over an hour away from Indy run this thing well? And could it be any good without representatives from all the major companies and only a stable of voice actors as the main guests? Honestly, I expected the worst.

And what do you know, friends? I was dead wrong.

That's not to say there were no glitches or problems with the convention, and I'll speak about that in a little bit. Nevertheless, it was a convention that given room to grow could become something truly worthwhile for the Midwest. I was very pleasantly surprised. Although there was no way to take in everything at the convention by any means, there were some really impressive moments, and I'll try to share some of those here.

Originally, the convention planned to have opening ceremonies beginning at roughly 3pm. However, Indy being the kind of city it is, most people were not off of work yet, and so there were as many people on the "opening panel" as there were in the audience! The convention staff wisely chose to move the official ceremony back to 7pm. However, those of us who were there for the start-off had a real treat as the guests were introduced. It was clear that most all of them knew each other, and they swapped brief stories and made hysterical comments back and forth that would simply not happen in a more formal setting. Besides learning the general sentiment that anime could save the world--thus the hilarious gag that the US should simply drop VCRs and videos into Iraq to stop the madness--it was apparent that these people would be worth listening to in their smaller forums.

There were a surprising number of guests for a show that was expected to be quite small. Voice actors and actresses included Tristan McAvery (Gendo Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion and writer/director on various dub scripts), Tiffany Grant (ADV voice actress extraordinaire), Amy Howard Wilson (Nova from the ancient and legendary Star Blazers), and Rikki Simons (Gir from Invader Zim and artist on various US productions). Other positions in the industry were represented by Keith Burgess (producer for Manga Entertainment), Steve Bennett (former animator in Japan and head of manga publisher I.C. Entertainment), and Robert DeJesus (an artist known for various anime-related work from old Ninja High School stuff to recent covers for gaming magazines). Although there were no Japanese guests or big-name surprises, per se, all of these folks turned out to be quite knowledgeable and entertaining.

Various panels throughout the convention drew crowds both large and small. A large representation of different interests were presented, from "how-to" classes that proved immensely popular to more philosophical discussions on mythology in anime and differing viewpoints between Eastern and Western culture. I have to say that the guests and convention hosts were incredible troopers for these. Casey Glanders, chairman of the convention, took over at least two panels on cultural hot topics when the con's scheduled guest for those talks (a professor from Ball State) couldn't make it. As it turned out, these panels were done extremely well and likely included more audience interaction than any regular presentation would have included.

Meanwhile, Steve Bennett proved a class act when he started I.C. Entertainment's panel with only me and my friendly webmaster in the room! He didn't care whether anybody else would be coming or not; he just presented what I.C. Entertainment was doing for us as if we were his new best friends. (Thankfully, a few others eventually filtered in, but it was brave to take on a super-small audience.) He brought hands-on copies of different manga that the company has released, such as Vampire Princess Miyu and Ogenki Clinic, and he discussed the pros and cons of "flipping" for American audiences. Steve also discussed why the industry is starting to go for the "unflipped" books that mirror closely their Japanese counterparts, as well as why some Japanese authors want things done in certain ways for Western audiences.

The whole thing wound up with a hysterical discussion on what it takes to break into anime and manga, eventually dissolving into a formative idea for a new manga title known as "Edmund's Lesbian Cars." Don't ask...you had to be there. Nevertheless, Mr. Bennett was a delight to speak with and not at all egotistical, which he would have the right to be considering his animation work on seminal animated shows like Urusei Yatsura. If you happen to go to a convention, I would strongly advise checking his booth and panels, if nothing else because he's really a great guy to talk to.

In other panels, both Rikki Simons and Tristan McAvery proved to be funny and worthwhile guests as well. Rikki spoke at length during a voice acting panel about his experiences working for Nickelodeon. He originally was simply a friend of Invader Zim's creator who did work on backgrounds; he got an audition because they couldn't find anybody they liked for the voice of Gir. Although unrelated directly to anime or anime voice acting, his take on the workings at Nickelodeon were fascinating and truly a must for anyone who thinks they have what it takes to get into the "big time".

Tristan McAvery showed up during a variety of different panels, always with a strong opinion and a goofy outlook. Tristan was never boring by any means! Although his outspoken nature might not ensure him future work in the anime community, especially when he takes on some of the biggest guns in the business (such as ADV), his viewpoint was reasonable and certainly presented in an entertaining manner. If nothing else, fandom has a fan in Tristan.

What truly stunned me on Saturday were the great numbers of people in costume. I would guess that roughly a third of the attendees were cosplayers or in some form of anime outfit. Though some were better than others, there were a few standouts--most notably, a 9-foot rendition of No-Face from Spirited Away that took "best of show" honors in the cosplay competition. Very impressive indeed.

The other fantastic thing was to see women there in droves. Now I'm not saying this just because I enjoy the presence of the fairer sex, but because it really shows diversity in the anime community that was once missing. I would guess that 40% or more of the attendees were women. In comparison to what I experienced ten to fifteen years ago, this was wonderful, and it shows just how influential shows like Sailor Moon have been. My high-school age niece is an anime fan, and I was happy to see that she would have felt right at home here.

Overall, the staff of the convention were amazing. It would be one thing to say that it was well run for college students. It would be more appropriate and much more of a compliment to say it was simply well run. Staffers were always making sure that guests were at their proper panels on time. In virtually every panel, a staffer stayed throughout to make sure things ran smoothly, and water and refreshments were brought to the guests often. (Somebody was obviously thinking ahead--happy guests tell good stories and make for happy con goers!) The polite atmosphere extended from the chair of the convention all the way down. Although I couldn't attend Sunday's events, if things ran like they did the other two days, all should be right with the world.

Now, there still were some issues to make note of to make for better conventions in the future. There were two rooms dedicated to non-stop anime, which was a great thought. However, the rooms were small and the televisions smaller, and the shows presented didn't always make the most sense. It would have been great if there had been different rooms for different concepts--a room for old but great anime, another room for "everybody must see" programming, and a third for brand new material--and decent means to see those shows. It would have also been nice to have seen something truly grand on the big screen in the main conference room, such as Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door or Millennium Actress which have been seen at various recent shows. Unfortunately, there were no true standout anime being shown anywhere, to my knowledge.

The video gaming room was nice enough and the staff friendly, but again, it didn't make much sense to the uninitiated on how to get in on the action. Some rules and perhaps a FAQ on the door would have helped. I do give the room credit for a having a nice, large-sized projector that allowed for games to be seen for the benefit of those passing by or through. I'd also never seen DDR, Dance Dance Revolution, in action before. Seeing some of these guys dance 200+ steps in a row perfectly at mind-boggling speeds was enough for me to be impressed.

The dealer's room was nice enough, but disappointing at the same time. As many had commented, nobody expected that the kind of numbers that turned out would be there, and so a lot of groups only brought limited stuff. That was really too bad, because it appeared there were plenty of buyers. I was disappointed that there wasn't more stuff for old-timers like myself in terms of books and such, but I realize that even in Japan, bookstores carry what's the rage right now, not a show from 10 years past. I was also annoyed to see one dealer selling Hong Kong bootlegs. Now the guy wasn't selling any titles licensed in the US, interestingly enough, and it appeared that he would show discs to a potential buyer to guarantee quality (which even I grudgingly admitted was often excellent). However, even the appearance of these in the dealer room was disturbing to me.

I have to say that I saw the best and worst of fandom at C-Kon 2002. On the one hand, there were many people that were kind, pleasant, very thoughtful of others, and genuinely happy to be at a convention. Even many of the cosplayers, who can get out of hand in my experience, were very friendly, enjoyable people to be around. On the other hand, there were the typical people that make you want to tear your hair out. There were several people who couldn't stop talking about how much they know about anime while revealing their ignorance. A couple cosplayers decided to act like whiny brats "to be in character", and a few catgirls went around meowing for no good reason. On Friday, which I suppose was filled with more hardcore folks, I was really nervous when I saw these folks in abundance. However, Saturday proved my fears wrong, and I was pleased that so many typical folks with a love for anime came out.

On the whole, I wish the best to the Ball State University Japanese Animation Society for putting on this convention. Although there were rough spots along the way, these folks did a wonderful job. Hopefully, they'll take the small bits of advice and run with it for next year. Although C-Kon has been handed back and forth between different Indianapolis-based fan clubs for a few years, this is the first year I'd really heard of it, and I wouldn't suggest another handoff after seeing the excellent work these folks did. Good job...I hope to see C-Kon around for many years to come.