Is there any sound more gratingly condescending than the low-to-high slide of “hey, guys” coming out of the mouth of a convention volunteer staffer? They raise their hands to chest level, lock eyes with you, and smile sympathetically—it’s not your fault you skirted around the line, you’re just too stupid! “I’m a dealer, actually,” I say, flashing a smile and lifting up my badge as proof. They let me pass after a closer examination (what if I had counterfeited one of the red dealer badges emblazoned with the large-breasted anime astronaut and her ponytailed and less featured male pal?). Harmless interaction, right? Sure. Except that I had it about fifteen times over the course of the three days I navigated the Baltimore convention center as a part of Otakon, the east coast’s largest anime, manga, and Japanese culture convention.
Otakon is still staffed and run entirely by volunteers, which is fairly impressive for a con of its size, particularly in this age of ReedPop! that we live in. As a result, it suffers from an unfortunate dichotomy: on the positive side, it definitely feels more communal and its staff has a lot invested in its success, on the negative side, it is somewhat mismanaged and the worst of its volunteers are on a definite power trip—as evidenced by a mix-up in our badges by their guest relations people that resulted in us being yelled at, talked over, and then made to stand in a corner like misbehaving toddlers (again, for a thing that was not our fault). Lines were chaotically managed, and it seemed to vary person to person how much information you could get out of a staffer and how correct that information may actually be.
Staff is only part of the people equation at Otakon. Otakon is crowded. Otakon is crowded with cosplayers. Otakon is very crowded with cosplayers, a majority of whom are carrying gigantic fake swords, hammers, and railguns. Otakon, as a rule, smelled worse than any other gathering of nerds I have ever been to. I got clocked in the side of the head a lot by foam weaponry. I got awkwardly hit on far more than I would have liked (pro tip! If you offer me a “free hug” and get into my personal space bubble, I will threaten to carefully and systematically dismember you). There were a lot of puppy-piles of nerds lining the hallways, something that, as the soulless, cynical monster I am, annoyed me as I stepped over them. There was a lot of delighted shrieking and yelling.
After sitting through the sweltering “Matsuri” on Thursday (a mostly empty gathering of tents and tables that my boyfriend and his tourmate performed at to a crowd of maybe eight people), and our less than fun experience getting set up in the dealers room (with the badge mix-up and scolding) on Friday morning, I was pretty much done with Otakon by 2PM on the second day we were there. My boyfriend was scheduled to judge the Otakon talent show preliminaries that night and I was dreading it, assuming that this would be the worst of the worst of the worst of the Otaku.
That is where I was wrong. I’ve been suffering, of late, of a bout of what I’ve been referring to as “nerd fatigue.” With my whole life dedicated to the service of comics, literature, and pop culture, I’m beginning to get burnt out. I don’t want to talk about Guardians any more. I don’t want to feel obligated to read my weekly pull of single issues. I find it hard to muster up excitement for new comics announcements from an industry that I still find to be continually lacking in representation for anyone who isn’t a straight white male.
But the Otakon talent show turned out to be the kind of thing that makes me remember why I choose to self-identify as a nerd in the first place: a gathering of people who are obsessively dedicated to what they love, who are willing to put hours and hours of their life into a cosplayed Wushu routine that looks like they are using the bending skills from Avatar: the Last Airbender. Highlights from the talent show included a tiny girl in a Kingdom Hearts costume doing a highly energetic dance routine to a mash up of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit,” a crew of B-Boys in full costume absolutely slaying a Street Fighter routine that ended with a hilariously bizarre tribute to Frozen, and a boy who was probably twelve years old, painted entirely pink from head to toe as part of his costume, doing a truly badass sword routine to Skrillex’s “Bangarang.” Soon after the first few teenagers took the stage to belt anime theme songs in wavering voices (though there were a few truly gifted singers), I began to feel incredibly invested in the success of every single person competing. There was a point where I felt truly a part of the community in the room, and watched each new act with unbridled joy, as evidenced by this tweet:
…and then it lasted for four hours.
Otakon had not put a cap on registration for the event and there were nearly fifty people signed up, each entitled to three and half minutes of performance time and a judge’s critique. My sense of euphoria faded considerably the closer we edged towards midnight, particularly after a pair of “comedians” with ukuleles got up and performed a stunningly racist bit where they made up Japanese-sounding words to fake anime themes. Eventually, they called the contest and allowed the remaining four contestants to move ahead to the final round without performing. Whatever sense of geeky togetherness I had was completely gone, and I retreated back to the hotel to drink Sauvignon Blanc in silence.
As you may recall, to prepare for Otakon, I watched all the anime. This was mostly so that I would be able to identify what I was looking at in terms of cosplay and merchandising while there. Despite watching the most popular shows on Crunchyroll and crowdsourcing data in a highly professional journalistic fashion,
I still had no idea what I was looking at 90% of the time. When I walked into the Artist’s Alley, I was shocked to find that I had apparently missed several popular titles in my quest to know all of anime and manga—most notably, that “swimming anime” is apparently old hat, to be replaced by “biking anime” (Yowamushi Pedal), which was the subject of much erotic fanart in the Alley.
This removal from the culture, this divorce from fandom, pushed me into a place where I felt I was having a kind of out-of-body experience in regards to attending a con. There were no panels I wanted to see, no guests I wanted to meet, not really even anything I wanted to buy, save a gigantic Alpaca plushie that my incredibly kind partner purchased for me (see image for scale/supreme cuteness). I was wandering the halls of a convention center as a pure observer and I realized that, overall, conventions are goddamned weird.
There was a time, before con culture became such a part of the mainstream, where they were pleasant. Tickets wouldn’t break the bank, panels were accessed easily. At Otakon, I saw lines capped off mere moments after the doors opened to the public for panels that were not happening until hours later (something that also happens at larger American pop culture cons like NYCC). The swag for sale in the Dealer’s Room, to the credit of Otakon, was at least mostly imports that would be difficult to find outside of the United States, whereas the show floor at Western media conventions is usually a repetitive jumble of things that can be found easily online or in Diamond’s Previews magazine.
But from this newfound outsider status, I was better able to see that Cons are just an insane idea. Why do we pay $50 for a one-day ticket to be hustled through lines and just hemmhorage money at every opportunity, whether it’s for food, or novelty tee-shirts, or comics that we could find cheaper literally anywhere else? By not being party to Otaku culture, I got to witness things from a perspective that painted them in a bizarre light—for example, there was a lengthy line to meet Dante Basco (of Hook, and the voice of Zuko on Avatar: The Last Airbender), a person I did not know was a real celebrity. I never quite learned why he was such a hot ticket to meet. Apparently he does things on the internet? There was a band named X Japan, who had one of the most elaborate booth set-ups I have ever seen, that also seemed to be perpetually empty all weekend save for two bored looking young women in really gothy outfits.
Despite its many annoyances, the thing that stopped me from completely writing off Otakon was the sense of happiness and togetherness that permeated from its crowd. For these kids (and they were, mostly, kids. I often felt like the only grown up in the room, even if there were people older than me there), it was a haven, a paradise where they weren’t teased for four days out of the year, where they got to go by fake names and wear elaborate wigs and wield those foam weapons like they really were magic. While I may never willingly go back to Otakon, I am glad it exists for the people who need it.
But, yeah, please never make me go again.