THURSDAY, JULY 29
I had been to Otakon once before, so I knew what to expect: a huge anime convention consuming the Baltimore Convention Center (BCC) for two days (really three, but I wouldn’t be going Sunday), where anime, manga, webcomics, videogames, and various Japanese cultural elements meet to decide who is truly uglier: the dude cosplaying Inuyasha, or the fat dudette cosplaying Tifa?
The BCC was packed last year, and my friend Ben and I had every reason to believe it would be equally or more so this time around. So instead of arriving really early on Friday and standing in a huge—and by huge I mean three hours—line to register and get into the convention, we opted to preregister and stand in a line half as long, the day before the convention.
There is really only one thing of note regarding the preregistration line: I happened to notice several signs to the side of the queue, each indicating certain Otakon rules and regulations.
Here is the actual text from one of the signs (emphasis added):
There will be NO GUNS of any kind permitted. There are to be no:
Replicas of actual guns
Mini or Pistol crossbows
Dart or Blowguns.
Here’s what I want to know: why the hell is “Real guns” fifth on the list? What, is a Super Soaker a greater threat than a shotgun? You have to be kidding me...
Once we had our tickets, we were set. Ben and I planned out what we would do. He wanted to do gaming, mostly, while I had my heart set out on crashing any parties at Artists’ Alley. I should mention also that because Scott Ramsoomair, the creator of one of my favorite webcomics, VG Cats, was coming to Otakon all the way from Toronto, I was looking forward to meeting him and several other members of the VGC forum who, like me, planned to come see him and get several blurry pictures with no flash indoors.1
On the online forum, the members had agreed to gang up on—er, I mean, come see Scott at 1:00 pm on Friday. There we could hopefully get a group picture.
All was planned and ready to go... All we had to do was wait for the next day to come.
FRIDAY, JULY 30
Ben and I arrived around 9:00, and because we had picked up our registration badges the day before, we walked right in, thus skipping a line of at least ten thousand people waiting to get their registration that morning. Moral of this story: HAHAHA, SUCKERS!
None of the main events would open before noon, so we had three hours to kill while not standing in line. We eventually decided on watching a screening of anime music videos in one of the smaller BCC theaters. I had watched several of these the year previous, and I must say, the 2004 crop paled in comparison to the 2003 videos. They were more boring, for one thing... Although to be fair, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of Evanescence this time around.
At noon I promptly descended on Artists’ Alley. The artists, of course, had been allowed into the room early to set up their wares. In all, about 200 artists shared sections of the tables provided as they tried to sell prints, sketches, t-shirts, comic books, and various other souvenirs.
I met with the people who do Mac Hall, a webcomic with a similar following to VGC, and they thanked me for complimenting their work, but said, upon my asking, that Scott had not arrived yet.
By 1:00, two other forum members were waiting with me by the empty section of table where we thought the VGC artist would eventually come. These forumites, “Dr. Grumbles” and “Tino,” and I decided after half an hour to go our separate ways and hope Scott would arrive later.
Oh well, so not everything was going to plan... there were still things to do. I went to the Videogame Room and played some vintage Bomber Man for the Sega Saturn with total strangers who were much better than I was at blowing things up. I won once, but only once—and that was the first try, at that. Maybe there is something to that whole “beginner’s luck” shtick after all. On the Dreamcast version of the same game, though, I lost miserably every time. Granted, it did not help that I had never even played on a Dreamcast, let alone that specific game, before coming to Otakon 2004.
Once I grew bored of having my ass handed to me,2 I decided to do some shopping. In addition to the hundreds of Artists’ Alley wares available, Otakon also has a humongous Dealers’ Room full of authentic anime videos, manga, games, shirts, posters, bumper stickers, headbands, real swords and samurai weaponry, music, DVDs, and so much more.
In the end, I got one shirt from the Alley and one shirt from the Room. I consider it one of the most spend-happy hours of my life to date.
I then helped myself to a seafood dinner at one of the most popular restaurants in the Baltimore Inner Harbor region... which is to say, I had a fish sandwich at the Burger King across the street. Then it was after six o’clock, and I went back to the Alley to see if Scott had shown up yet.
He and his friend Nix were behind the counter, talking to fans. It was really obvious Scott had underestimated the enormity of Otakon; he only brought a few prints to sell, since none of his t-shirts had arrived in time for the convention.
I got his picture, blurred and off-center as planned,3 and he offered to draw a sketch for me. I told him to draw one of his comic’s characters, an anthropomorphic cat named Aeris, doing anything but standing still. My reasoning was simple: Scott usually draws his characters standing still; he should stretch his art more.
Well, it seems the long delays in travel that had made Scott late to Otakon had also worn out his imagination; instead of standing up, Aeris was sitting down in the final version of the sketch.
I laughed, but I said it was fine; after all, that’s what I get for not being specific, right? Scott, however, insisted that the drawing sucked, and I should bug him for another drawing the next day, after he had gotten some sleep.
Scott was traveling with an enterage of sorts. Besides Nix, there were Dave and Layne, two other close friends of the VGC artist. All four of them, Dr. Grumbles, and I went to the pizza shop next to Burger King and had a bite to eat with a side of really interesting conversation. These guys were all great to talk with, by the way. Even the ones who stay silent most of the time (only Layne and Scott, really) were cool to be around. I was flattered to be the dude guiding them to the nearest restaurant, but really, we were all equals and friends talking to each other, regardless of who was a bigger Internet celebrity.
Nix apparently knows a lot about cars... He also showed a certain curiosity as to whether or not his own vehicle could outrun the Baltimore police... “Hypothetically,” of course. As soon as I told him the local police tend to drive Ford Crown Victorias4, he smiled and said no more. Everyone laughed.
I left when my ride home came at 11:00 pm. I offered to give Scott, Nix, Layne and Dave a ride to their hotel,5 but the matter became complicated when I did not know exactly where their hotel was to begin with. So they said they would get a cab, and we parted ways.
Ben and I met up again (he had spent so much time in the game room... and, not surprisingly, he had faired considerably better than I at actually winning some of the games). We then went home to get as much sleep as possible before Saturday.
SATURDAY, JULY 31
The day started with a Webcomic Panel, where several writers and artists answered questions in front of a crowd of 400 people for ninety minutes. This was very entertaining, and I managed to get several out-of-focus pictures of the group.
Matt Boyd, the writer of Mac Hall, set the mood for the event with the sarcastic introduction: “Welcome to the Alternative Hentai Panel. Glad you could make it!”
The whole event was like that. I think the best moment of the panel belonged to the artist of Paradox Lost.
A fan simply asked, “What is the weirdest criticism you’ve ever gotten for your comic?”
The answer: This artist goes away from his email from time to time, but he had just come back after a four-week vacation to read his fan letters. One of them freaked him out to no end.
Oh, it started out innocent... The letter writer said how much he loved the comic, that it was great... And then, the same writer said that the comic was the only thing giving his life any meaning right now, and that the Paradox Lost updates were keeping him from committing suicide.
Keep in mind: the artist had not updated for four weeks, and this was a very old email.
I spent the majority of the rest of the day hanging out with Scott and Nix. I know I could have done plenty of other things while I was there, but honestly: how often does a person from Baltimore get to meet friends from Canada?
So we chatted and sold coca-cola when Scott ran out of prints to sell. (Nix had given me $10 the night before and told me to get as many Cokes as I could. I came back with four 12-packs, and he started selling them for a dollar a piece. Scott thought he’d get in trouble, but the security guards walked right by our table without commenting, so I guess it was cool. I’d say Nix made a fair profit by the time all was said and done.)
Scott drew me another picture. I remembered how “anything but standing still” had not been specific enough, so this time I requested that he draw Aeris surfing. I do think Scott put more time into that drawing than anything else I saw him draw that day... He did most of it while we were taking a break from the Alley table to play some obscure card game called “Munchkin” with two other webcomic artists: Tim Buckley of Ctrl+Alt+Del, and Brian Carroll of Instant Classic. There were also two people whom I did not recognize at the game, and I forgot to ask their names before they had to leave... But in all, there were seven of us playing until the Unknown Two left, at which point we declared Nix the winner and went separate ways.
I followed Scott around, since I had nothing else to do—I’m so pathetic like that—but we talked and toured the premises and ate at the pizza place again... Which wasn’t really necessary, since a few minutes after we returned to the Alley so he could get back to drawing sketches and meeting fans, Nix and Tim Buckley were making plans for dinner.
By then it was 9:00pm, and I had to leave at 11:00, when my ride home would arrive downtown. Nix said it’d be no problem for me to come along for dinner, since we’d be sure to get back to the BCC by eleven.
So Tim, Nix, Scott, Brian Carroll, and I went out into Baltimore in search of food that was not pizza or Burger King.
NOTE: Before I go further, I should explain the following about Baltimore City:
It’s a shit hole. Seriously, the entire city is one of the worst urban centers in the country. We get at least 300 murders every year for the 600,000-person population, typically, and it would be even more were it not that we have Shock Trauma, an excellent emergency room hospital, right in town.
Baltimore is also proud holder of the national title for the highest percentage of citizens with gonorrhea. To put this into perspective, Los Angeles is second place.
Add to this the typical July weather, which, in Scott’s own words, “slaps you like a bitch” with humidity the second you walk outside, and you get a complete picture of the murky, putrid, run-down, and ultimately dying city, where even though the local conventions may be nice, it’s best to stay indoors when possible.
Once we were fully two blocks away from the BCC, a prostitute came up to us yelling, “Baby, baby, baby, baby!” When we’d passed, she just looked at us as if we were one person and said, “Aw, he’s gay.”
One block further, we passed two cab drivers talking to each other in Jamaican accents. We only caught one sentence, but it made Nix laugh so hard, he’s turned it into a catchphrase:
“You bang a sixteen-year-old, and they throw your ass in jail.”
It’s not that funny a sentence, really. But it was so random, right after I had told Nix about the city’s STD statistics... So we all got a good laugh out of that and moved on.
We would have gone to the Baltimore Hard Rock Cafe, but they were crowded and had a fifteen-minute wait. The ESPN Zone, two doors over in the same building complex, had a table ready for us in under ten minutes, so we took that. I had a cheesesteak, but the food was hardly consequential compared to the night’s topic of conversation:
Tim was talking about how he had made his comic successful at turning a profit, and he spent half an hour detailing various strategies for self-publishing etc. VGC might be trying a book sometime in the next year, so this was definitely of interest. I was particularly alarmed when Tim stated the startup costs for publishing—he might not want me quoting exact figures, but suffice it to say, it’s huge. I give him a lot of credit for making it all work out, and I sincerely hope he can help Scott do likewise. We shall see...
Back at the BCC, I met up with Ben again and said farewell to Scott and Nix, knowing full well I had made some very good friends in two days.
I’m not quite sure how to close this convention report, so I’ll just include some random Otakon facts.
Approximately 17,000 people showed up, according to the Baltimore Sun newspaper.
Over a thousand came by Scott’s table; he drew at least a hundred sketches for people over the course of two days.
Ben participated in the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament in the game room. He made it to the second round, which is better than I could ever hope to do.
Of the cosplayers, the most awesome costume I saw was of The Cheat from Homestar Runner. The worst? Well, let’s call that a 500-way tie.
The ESPN Zone kicked ass. Kudos to the people working there. One criticism: put less cilantro in the nacho sauce. Other than that, the meals were perfect.
1I hate my digital camera.
2A solid hour and a half.
3I really hate my digital camera.
4I could be wrong about that, though; it’s not like I regularly meet with the police, anyway. But I heard somewhere that they use Crown Victorias.
5It’s a big van.