The Long Con(vention)
The Anime in America podcast, hosted by Yedoye Travis, is available on crunchyroll.com, animeinamerica.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
Special thanks to Jim Kaposztas, Sue Monroe, Lace Heiskell, Adam Sheehan, and Charlene Ingram for joining on this episode.
This episode is hosted by Yedoye Travis, researched and written by Bamboo Dong, edited by Chris Lightbody and produced by Yedoye Travis, Braith Miller, Peter Fobian, and Jesse Gouldsbury.
EPISODE 3: THE LONG CON(VENTION)
Disclaimer: The following program contains language not suitable for all ages. Discretion advised. [Lofi music]
Alright, I’m sure you know the scene: people dressed up as their favorite characters, giant halls packed with toys and hamster plushes, hour-long lines to pack into a room to get a glimpse at creators and actors. Even if you’ve never been to an anime or comic book convention before, you know exactly what they’re like. You’ve seen the photoshoots, read the reports, or probably saw that one episode of Community where they go to an “Inspector SpaceTime” convention. Inspector Spacetime.
Conventions are a huge part of fandom. In 2020 alone, there are 62 anime conventions scheduled for the United States. And that doesn’t even include all the comic book and movie conventions that have anime programming, like San Diego Comic Con. Before all of this, before you could go to a different anime convention almost every single weekend in a year… it all started in a hotel room in Dallas. This is Anime in America brought to you by Crunchyroll and hosted by me, Yedoye Travis. [Lofi music]
The year was 1983. The inspiration? Star Blazers, the adaptation of Leiji Matsumoto's Space Battleship Yamato that aired in the U.S. in 1979. It was pared down from the original—names were changed, scenes were cut, and the violence was dialed back—but it still became a cult hit. So what do you do when you love something so much you just want to share it with other people? You start a convention.
The idea of conventions was not new, not even in 1983. Science fiction conventions date back to the 30s, but back then it was like, seven dudes in someone’s house reading Isaac Asimov, or some shit like that. Over time, it morphed into something that more closely resembled the modern fan convention formula—fans, panels, dealer’s rooms, special guests, and cosplay, although that specific word wouldn’t enter the lexicon until much later. Soon, fans started organizing conventions for other stuff too, like Star Trek, horror movies, and comic books.
Why was Star Blazers so special though? Up until then, most of the anime shown on broadcast television was episodic. So you could show any episode, in any order, and no one would know the difference. Not so with Star Blazers. By many accounts, it was one of the first serial anime series to air in the United States. [Star Blazers season one theme]
You had to watch every episode, in order, to follow this rich storyline of intergalactic warfare, cosmic politics, and a brave crew recruited to retrieve technology from a faraway planet to save life on Earth from the ravages of alien nuclear technology. It was the stuff of science fiction dreams, and a lot of people were hooked.
So in 1983, three guys—Mark Hernandez, Don Magness, and Bobb Waller rented some space at the Harvey House hotel in Dallas, booked some merchandise dealers, and hosted Yamato Con 1. Their video room promised one full season of Star Blazers, as recorded off the TV, minus the commercials, and the Space Cruiser Yamato movie in its original Japanese. Back then, not everyone had a VCR because they were still incredibly expensive. The average price of a VCR in 1983 was $500, uh which, given inflation, is more now. So just think- consider that.
And that didn't even count the VHS tapes, which cost $15.99 for a blank 90-minute tape. So just the idea of being able to sit around all day watching Star Blazers with other like-minded fans seemed revolutionary and very costly. Need I remind you, it cost a lot. Yamato Con even had a dealer room, with eight merchants selling everything from model kits to manga. About 100 people showed up, which is a lot when you think about how this was way before the Internet and message boards made it possible to advertise your event on a wide scale.
There is some controversy about whether Yamato Con was technically the first ever anime convention in America, but it’s certainly one of the earliest instances of a con being devoted entirely to anime. At that time, there were already anime screenings at science fiction conventions around the country, and yes, of course, obviously it was a lot of Star Blazers. [Lofi music]
Here's Jim Kaposztas, who in 1983 convinced New York’s oldest science fiction convention, Lunacon, to start showing Star Blazers in one of their video rooms. Side note, if his name sounds familiar, it’s because Jim is also credited with making the first ever Anime Music Video or AMV, or those videos you used to watch in like 2006 where Naruto would dance to The Pussycat Dolls or whatever it was. In Jim’s case, it was a montage of the most violent scenes from Star Blazers set to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” a tribute to the British TV series, The Prisoner. Which, I’m not sure, I don’t understand how that works as a tribute, but that’s fine.
Kaposztas: My first exposure with anime at conventions was Noreascon Two, that was the 1980 World Science Fiction convention in Boston. There was a group called the “Cartoon/Fantasy Organization,” or C/FO for short, run by one Fred Patten, and he was screening anime in a small room at part of the convention. One of the things that he did was he was showing this movie called Lupin the Third Castle of Cagliostro and he was running a survey for the distribution company, Tokyo Movie Shinsha. So people would come in, they would watch this subtitled movie and then fill out forms, but other than that he was running all sorts of anime that was popular in that time frame from a lot of the early giant robot shows, to Space Pirate Captain Harlock, some of it subtitled, some of it not.
Yes, before the internet was dominated by our very privileged sub versus dub debates, some fans didn’t have a choice but to watch anime in its raw Japanese.
Kaposztas: Back then, there would be people that would narrate it which, from time to time it’d be like part right, possibly right, and bordering on some Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Okay. Let’s take a quick trip back to 1981. Reagan is president, crack is at its height, and Post It Notes were just invented. It’s December, Philcon 3, and budding anime fans are hungry for anything anime. Jim Kaposztas again.
Kaposztas: They were screening the original Space Battleship Yamato, they were screening whatever they could get a hold of. I’d seen loose episodes of Space Runaway Ideon, Mobile Suit Gundam, and a lot of the times it was people figuring out “okay, this is what’s going on in the show,” and such. Usually there would be parties like on Friday nights and Saturday nights, people would put up little signs. In the case of Gammalon Embassy it’d be a picture of Deslock that says “Gammalon Embassy, Room Whatever!” And it’d be somebody with a VCR and a bunch of tapes and they’d show stuff and try and explain it to people. Used to get like 20-30 people packed into a hotel room, staring around a small television monitor.
Jim Kaposztas was addicted. He went to Lunacon in 1982 in costume, dressed as Captain Avatar--the first commander of the starship Yamato--complete with the beard, and all the other stuff. I don’t know what that guy looks like, so I wish I could give you more information, more of a visual. But you guys have Google.
He runs into a guy named Rob Fenelon who tells him, "Hey, I have all these Yamato tapes from Japan, but no VCR," so Jim drives the 30 miles home, just to get his giant VCR, and drives all the way back. They screened Space Battleship Yamato all Saturday night, then they do it all over again on Sunday morning. Months later, Rob gets in touch and says, "Hey, why don't we put together a video room at a convention?" They made a bunch of contacts, screened some anime with the local Star Blazers Fan Club, and a year later, at Lunacon 1983, started what eventually became known as the Star Blazers Video Room. And to fill time between screeners, he would include anime music videos, the aforementioned anime music videos. The first one he made took hours to make, and required the use of two VCRs. And thus was born the AMV, all thanks to Star Blazers.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, where it was actually a lot easier to stumble upon manga in the wild thanks to the large Japanese-American community, Fred Patten was doing his best to raise anime into the limelight. Patten, who tragically passed away in 2018, was one of the godfathers of the American anime scene, spending a lifetime promoting and writing about anime and manga.
In 1977, he co-founded America's first anime club, the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization or the C/FO for short. Around that time, he even became friends with Osamu Tezuka, who was "bewildered but flattered" that so many American fans took the trouble to figure out the plots of his manga, for a language most of them couldn't read. Tezuka was so flattered, in fact, that in 1980, he convinced Devilman creator Go Nagai, Lupin the Third Creator Monkey Punch, and a couple other manga artists to go to San Diego Comic Con with him to check out the American manga fandom for themselves. That same Comic Con, both Tezuka and Patten were presented with Inkpot Awards—Tezuka for the film Phoenix 2772, and Patten for “Outstanding Achievement in Fandom Services and Projects.”
So while anime video rooms, Japanese guests, and even anime conventions have been around since the 80s, it wasn’t until the 90s that the convention landscape as we know it today really started to take shape. And once again, it started in Texas. As things seem to do. [Lofi music]
Once again, there’s a little bit of controversy on which convention was technically the “first” anime con, but Project A-Kon is definitely the oldest continually running anime con in the U.S. that still exists today. The first one took place the weekend of July 28, 1990 at the Richardson Hilton in Richardson, Texas, and had an attendance of 380 people, which if you remember earlier, 100 is a lot. So now it’s 3.8 times that.
According to its flyer, it was the “first animation con run BY fans, FOR fans,” with guests like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animator Louis Scarborough, Jr., Animag editor and publisher Trish Ledoux and Jeffry Tibbetts, and celebrated Disney animator Tex Henson. Tickets were only $4 a day, $6 for the weekend, and included access to two video rooms, a masquerade dance, a dealer’s room, an art show, a model contest, and something called… Japanimayhem, which they described as a “LIVE”—all caps—”anime-style RPG”.
All that at $4 a pop, obviously your next question is “What is Japanimayhem?” What the fuck is that? Who knows? Japanimayhem was a card game released in 1989, designed by Mark Camp and Stephen Grape, with the alluring subtitle, “A Game of Violence on Video for Anime Lovers.” Basically, players represented parodies of anime characters who competed to see who can rack up the most victims in a killing spree. Which… hmm. For those parents who blame violence on video games, here’s a little bit of fodder for you.
But I digress. Back to Project A-Kon. Hopefully you still remember Star Blazers from... literally two minutes ago? It is the anime that inspired so many anime video rooms and fan gatherings in the 80s? Well, it was also partially responsible for Project A-Kon. When Star Blazers was being rerun on TV in 1982, it inspired a high school student from Denton, Texas named Derek Wakefield to turn his science fiction club into a Star Blazers fan club. Thus, the EDC—the Earth Defense Command— was born. The club grew in size, eventually putting Derek in touch with the Star Blazers Fan Club in New York—the same fan club that Jim Kaposztas and Rob Fenelon worked with to organize a small screening of the series before they launched their own video track. And now you see how everything is all related. [Lofi music]
1983, Yamato Con. EDC wasn’t involved with the event, but some of the members did show up and distribute flyers for the club, and one of those flyers found its way to an attendee named Meri Davis, who not only went on to later head the EDC… but also Project A-Kon. You see, by the late 1980s, the EDC had morphed from a Star Blazers fan club to more of an anime club in general. A really organized anime club, that had regular meetings, local chapters, fan zines, newsletters, screenings, and a tape distribution service that helped the anime scene in Texas grow like wildfire. So when one of them said, “I wish we could put on an anime con,” the wheels started turning, and from that Project A-Kon was born.
Once again, everything always comes back to Star Blazers. By the way, if anyone wants to learn more about this time period, you should definitely check out Dave Merrill’s blog, “Let’s Anime,” which is a great resource on that entire era. We’ll drop a link in the show notes just so you can check that out, ‘cause we’re nice people.
By 1990, the anime scene in America had really taken off. Thanks to the efforts of all the dedicated fan organizations, the growing availability of VCRs and fansubs, and writers like Fred Patten, Trish Ledoux, and Helen McCarthy, who was spear-heading the anime fan movement in the UK, anime in America was getting to be a big deal. So big that even the Japanese studios were starting to pay attention.
To tell this story, we gotta jump back to the 80s once again. You might be familiar with the name Studio Gainax. They’re the Japanese studio behind legendary titles like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gurren Lagann. Well, the founders started animating as a hobby, creating short videos in 1981 for an Osaka sci-fi convention nicknamed Daicon. Like many cons, it was a pure labor of love. At that same con, the group of fans also had a table where they sold garage kits, which were these small-batch resin models that would only be available for a limited time at certain conventions. They were so successful that the following year, they launched a company called General Products, with the goal of making model kits that were actually licensed. At the same time, they continued animating under the name Daicon Films. [Daicon IV Opening]
This was before the two officially combined to form Studio Gainax, one of the first studios that had animation and merchandising under one roof. And General Products was actually really successful. They had two brick and mortar shops in Japan, and they helped organize the Wonder Festival in 1985, a toy and figure show that still runs twice a year today.
At some point, it made sense to expand overseas. Gainax’s animation division had already dabbled in the US market in 1987 with a movie called The Wings of Honneamise, a coming-of-age tale set in an alternate world about a man who becomes the first person in space, amidst political turmoil and conflict. It’s a love letter to what humans can achieve when they dream and work together, but that’s... not really what American audiences saw. The version that premiered at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood was heavily edited, hastily dubbed, and renamed Star Quest. And it umm… it didn’t do too well. It bombed. And it basically disappeared until it was re-translated and re-dubbed in the 90s. But General Products wanted a piece of the American fandom pie, so in 1989, they launched GPUSA. They stuffed the catalog full of shiny new anime merchandise, but they wildly overestimated fans’ interest in their products. For starters, a lot of those titles hadn’t even made it overseas yet, so anime fans had no idea what they were even looking at. So due to poor planning, GPUSA flopped and closed its doors a few years later. But not before they sponsored… AnimeCon.
You might better know AnimeCon by its modern name: Anime Expo. Kind of. Which, I’ll get to it later, it’s… you’ll understand soon. AnimeCon was run by Gainax, Studio Proteus, and two anime clubs: UC Berkeley’s Cal-Animage, and Bay Area’s CA-West. It was scheduled for three days, starting August 30, 1990, a couple of months before I was born, at the Red Lion Hotel in San Jose, California. Because of Gainax’s connections, they were able to get an incredible line-up of Japanese guests, including Kenichi Sonoda, Katsuhiro Otomo, Haruhiko Mikimoto, Gainax’s own Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Toshio Okada, and amazingly, Leiji Matsumoto. And just a quick round of applause for getting all of those names in one go, first take.
Before we get ahead of ourselves—Matsumoto ended up canceling his appearance, but the convention was a huge success regardless. It drew around 2,000 attendees, in comparison to the previous 380 and 100 figures that we dropped earlier. That was five times more than Project A-Kon 2 that same year, which had about 500 attendees.
Sadly, there never was an AnimeCon 2. They just ran out of money, they went broke. But from the ashes of AnimeCon rose the SPJA, the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation. A collection of Bay Area sci-fi and anime fans, they officially incorporated in April 1992 under the leadership of Mike Tatsugawa, who in 1989 had co-founded Cal Anime Alpha at UC Berkeley. They struck an agreement with AnimeCon to purchase their assets and obligations, and on the Fourth of July weekend, 1992, they put on the first-ever Anime Expo. But all was not good in paradise. [Dramatic music rises in the background]
There was a generational rift in Bay Area fandom, and it split into two camps-- East Bay versus South Bay, C/FO versus Cal Animage, the new kids on the block. The result was two competing anime conventions scheduled for 1993, held on back-to-back weekends, only 40 miles apart. [Dramatic music fades]
Anime America was set to take place the weekend of June 25 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Anime Expo was scheduled for the following week, July 4th weekend, at the Oakland Convention Center. It seems like July 4th is a bad time to host an anime thing, but maybe that’s just my opinion, and maybe I’ll be proven wrong in the next couple paragraphs.
Anyway, the industry was not pleased. In fact, they flat-out refused to support both conventions. In December of 1992, Viz founder Seiji Horibuchi wrote the con chairs of Anime America and Anime Expo a stern letter, pleading with them to either make nice or separate their events.
Here’s a little snippet of the letter, which was co-signed by publications and companies like Bandai, Shogakukan, Studio Proteus, Animerica, Animag, and of course, Viz. [Piano music plays throughout]
“Dear Convention Chairmen,
We, the industry professionals listed here, do not believe that there should be two ’93 Bay Area anime conventions in close time proximity. It’s as simple as that… Japanese guests don’t have time in their busy schedules to attend two conventions. Retailers don’t have the resources to set up for two conventions. And there’s no way the fans (those outside the Bay Area, anyway) can afford to come to both cons… We’re writing to let you know we’ve talked among ourselves, and that we’ve all agreed that unless (1) there is only one Bay Area anime convention, or (2) Anime America and Anime Expo are separated by time and/or distance, we all withhold our support from both conventions… We would like to hear from you by January 8, 1993—a new year for a new convention. If we don’t hear from you, we’ll have to assume you do not wish our support… Please, won’t you consider our proposal? We don’t think we’re being unreasonable. We freely offer you our full support—the combined forces of the entire American anime industry—if only you’ll put aside whatever has been holding you back and do what’s right.”
So, they were not- they weren’t mad. They were just… disappointed, I guess. That’s a lot of words to just say “Hey bro, chill! Relax. Move the conventions. What are you doing?” This could’ve been a Tweet. It could’ve been a Tweet.
Spoiler alert, both conventions went on as planned, both had Japanese guests, and both had attendance counts north of 1,000 people. So… suck it, anime industry! Ha-ha! Both had an industry presence, as well, with A.D. Vision, informally known as ADV, opening their first preorders ever at Anime America for their subtitled release of Battle Angel. And surprise, Seiji Horibuchi ended up going to both conventions. Look at that, look at God.
Even with the fan interest, it became clear to the SPJA that change needed to happen. In 1994, they moved south to the Anaheim Convention Center, a few blocks away from Disneyland, of all places, and they’ve stayed in Southern California ever since. For the most part, they’ve always taken place on or around Fourth of July weekend. One big change, of course, is that it’s a lot bigger now. Last year, they reported around 115,000 unique attendees. For reference, that’s about the same number of people who live in the entire city of Berkeley. So [exhale]-hWow that’s umm.... that’s a come up, right there. That is a come up.
Sadly, Anime America closed its doors after its 1996 event, but the Bay Area isn’t without anime cons. These days, there’s about a half a dozen events that fans can go to scattered throughout the year.
The 90s were a really great time to be an anime fan. It’s nothing like it is now; fans are just straight up spoiled now, they got everything. All their anime streaming on demand, all the Hulus and the Netflixs. But the 90s were really good. Anime was getting distributed left and right, and you could even pop down to your local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video and rent a tape for a dollar. For the younger listeners, Blockbuster is like… it’s like Netflix, but you had to umm... you had to look a person in his face when you rent porn. [Silence] It’s like that. [Lofi music]
Even though it was a lot easier to find anime, the best place to watch it was still anime conventions and your local anime club. Thanks to fansubs, tape trading, and pooling resources, clubs often had access to the newest shows and a vast library of titles they would routinely lend out to members. And because they already had experience booking venues for screenings and communicating with other clubs, it made sense that clubs all over the U.S. would eventually arrive at the same conclusion—let’s start an anime convention.
A few weeks after Anime Expo 1994 hosted a 2,000-attendee convention in Anaheim, all the way in Pennsylvania, a much smaller fan gathering was taking place. Started by four guys from the Penn State anime club, it was held at the Penn State Days Inn, in State College, Pennsylvania from July 29-31, 1994. They called it [Sparkling]… Otakon! Guests included comic artist Robert DeJesus, a handful of professional and fan translators, and notable members of the local anime community. Like most anime conventions, it also included screening rooms, panels, a dealer’s room, model competitions, and other now standard events. By official count, it had about 350 attendees. They weren’t going for a huge, record turnout, though. They just wanted to go to an anime convention that was efficient, well-run, and had stuff that they liked. Prior to planning Otakon, the founders had just attended a different convention, and on the way home, got to talking.
Monroe: They went to the convention, and I can’t remember which one it was, it’s on the website somewhere, and it was the four fathers, the four guys in the car. It was Bill Johnston, Mitch Hagmaier, Dave Asher, and Todd Dissinger. And the convention they went to was very, very small, but it was also apparently very badly organized, and as they were driving back from the con, they were saying “you know, we could do a better job,” and then they decided to do it.
That voice you hear is Sue Monroe. She wasn’t at the first Otakon, but she heard about it from her cousin Matt Pyson, who did go. She ended up going the second year, and she liked it so much, she asked to be on the staff. She’s been on the staff ever since, and even served as Otakon’s first female president and Con Chair in 2002.
After that first year, Otakon just kept getting bigger and bigger.
Monroe: Every year, the whole plan was “we can do better.” So we would sit down after the con and we would talk about all the things that hadn’t worked out and how could we fix it so that that wasn’t going to happen again? And by the time that I was Con Chair, we had 17,000 people, we were at the Baltimore Convention Center.
Monroe: For a while there, we were increasing at an exponential rate, because each group took something that they were interested in and just focused on making that better. Every year, it was something else that they were going to do to fix things, make them more efficient. And the whole idea was that it’s by fans, for fans, so we looked at what we would want if we were going to a convention, and we tried to make it as much like that as possible.
In 2001, Otakon surpassed 10,000 attendees. By 2004, that number had shot up to almost 21,000. Which is fucked up.
Monroe: We didn’t have enough staff to handle everybody. We had to make sure we had enough people, and since we’re an all-volunteer staff and we’re a little picky about who we bring on to staff, we just couldn’t handle that many people. We also had no room. People were very, very- well, that was also around the time that yaoi paddles came out.
Oh, okay. Yeah. Right. Yaoi paddles. Cool. Look… bro, if you know, you know. I don’t know what to say. They’re umm… they’re kinda like umm… fraternity initiation paddles- you remember the paddles they had at frat houses they would hit you with? It was that, except they said “YAOI” on them in all caps, which is a call-out to a popular genre of manga and anime featuring romantic and oftentimes sexual relationships between men. It’s gay anime, why are we saying… it’s a lot, why’re we saying it like we’re Republican Congressmen?
They were sold and popularized by a doujinshi vendor, Hen Da Ne, but if you follow the Internet crumbs back far enough, you’ll find the actual source, a woodburning artist named Mike who goes by the online handle Akicafe. In a Cosplay.com thread from 2004, he posted the origin story of the paddle. He said it started out as a joke between himself and the owner of Hen Da Ne, since a big chunk of the company’s business relies on the sale of yaoi manga and doujinshi. So he crafted the very first yaoi paddle, with nice wood burned letters, and a high gloss acrylic finish. Apparently Hen Da Ne liked it so much, they decided to mass produce them, much to Akicafe’s dismay and without his final consent. [Sarcastically] Haha, ain’t that fun, how that works?
So the paddles took off. They were sold at every convention that Hen Da Ne was at, and for a while, everyone was happy. Until people started misusing their powers. Unruly fans ran around, smacking strangers with wooden paddles, and throwing them at each other. This was around the same time “glomping” was a popular thing— and glomping, if you don’t know, is when fans would just run at each other and tackle people with bear hugs. Very violent practice. It all came from a good place, or course—it was genuine fan excitement and love for their fellow fans—but it also got to be too much. People were getting slapped and hugged without consent, and it became kinda a problem. Like, a big problem.
Monroe: We had a lot of glomping going on back then, so you’d have people running through the hallways, well not running because you couldn’t run, it was too crowded, and throwing themselves on other people. It just became very… it wasn’t fun, and if it’s not fun, why do it? When I was Con Chair in 2002, I’m the type of person who reads all of the reviews, so after 2001 I read all the reviews and I marked all the things that were problems that people had complained about in the reviews. And we used to do that every year. And then we tried to fix them, tried to make things better. But we were getting to the point where we couldn’t do that because the absolute problem was we had too many people there. It was just too full. The downtown area liked us, although it got to the point where the people at Burger King didn’t want to work on our weekend anymore, because we always shut them down.
By 2005, Otakon started capping their audience at 22,000, which is a good problem to have. The year after, they raised it to 25,000, and it just got to be too big. But despite some grumblings here and there about crowding and wait times, fans still loved it. Anime conventions had gone from being local gatherings to bucket list fan destinations. They were even hosting music concerts for legendary acts like Yoko Kanno, T.M. Revolution, and L’Arc~en~Ciel. Even Japanese fans started coming to America, just to check out these conventions.
The industry was happy, as well, and Japanese guests loved having a reason to come to the U.S., and they loved being able to meet their American fans in person. Guests like Madhouse co-founder Masao Maruyama liked Otakon so much, he’s been back 15 times since his first guest appearance in 2001. He’s even listed as an honorary staff member, which is insane. Although that origin story is kind of wild. We’ll let Sue tell that one.
Monroe: In 2002, which was my year, was his first year as a guest. And it was a wonderful time and he was a wonderful guest, but at one point somebody stole his pack that had all of his electronics in it. They just walked in while he was doing a panel and walked off with it. And his passport was in it. And it had been such a really excellent con, and here was the most terrible ending we could think of to it. And Maruyama-san voluntarily came to the Dead Dog-
For reference, the “Dead Dog” she’s referring to is slang for an informal party on the last day of a convention. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Maybe worse.
Monroe: We were trying to get the Japanese guests to be a part of the Dead Dog after the con, so that the staff, who worked throughout the entire convention and didn’t get to see all of stuff that the fans, the rest of the members, did, that they would have an opportunity to interact with the Japanese guests. So he was at the Dead Dog, and we discovered that this had been stolen. So a number of us went back to the BCC and it was like one of those Keystone cops things, we drove back to the BCC and we had 35 minutes that we were allowed to be in the building before our contract ran out. And we searched and searched and we went in to the- you know that wall that moves to close off a room? Well that’s where we found his bag. They had taken the electronics, but they left his passport and his tickets because they didn’t find it. So we found that five minutes before we had to be out of the building.
Luckily, no one else needed to lose their passport to be convinced to keep coming back. They just liked it. And the American market was growing really fast in the early 2000s. It was at its highest around 2002/2003, when the anime-related market in North America was valued at about $4.84 billion. Home video sales hit a high of $415 million, and fans could even buy anime at mainstream retailers like Walmart, or watch it on Cartoon Network.
Even with all that, they still kept going to anime conventions. And where the fans were, the U.S. anime distributors were, as well. Companies like Geneon, Bandai, Tokyopop, Viz, and ADV were setting up massive booths at shows like Anime Expo, which hit 25,000 attendees in 2004. Its enormity stunned long-time fans like Fred Patten, who wrote that the event seemed to “flood and overflow the Anaheim Convention Center.” He blamed the “unexpectedly poor management” as much as the crowds, lamenting that registration lines the first couple of days were four to five hours long.
Even more surprising for fans who had grown up in the era of tape trading, 2004 was the first year that anime distributors started publicly cracking down on pirated and unlicensed anime DVDs. During their Anime Expo panel, Bandai announced that they were bringing legal action on four dealers caught selling bootleg DVDs. Several other exhibitors were given warnings to remove all their counterfeit merch, and those who didn’t were kicked out and banned from the dealer’s room.
In just a decade, Anime Expo had gone from a dueling Bay Area fan convention to the largest anime con in America. [Convention music fades in] American distributors started jockeying for power, building bigger and louder booths, hosting mini concerts, and holding autograph sessions of their own. Part of it was advertising to attendees, but part of it was just to impress their business partners in Japan. [Music ends] Because so many business licensors also attended Anime Expo, it kinda turned into a… what’s the word? A pissing contest. A contest for piss.
Heiskell: It’s all Anime Expo, that’s all it is. I mean, if you go to Otakon, no one has big booths there. And then if you go to- it’s just Anime Expo is the only dick measuring contest now. And it’s gotten to the point where it’s two levels. The first of them, and then the second tier.
That’s Lance Heiskell. He was at Funimation for 13 years, first as a Senior Brand Manager, then eventually the Director of Strategy.
Heiskell: And you know, Anime Expo just makes money off of that, because to be within the corporate liensors, if you have a big booth it means that you are a, to them, you’re a big anime company. And we didn’t have a big booth until I kind of forced the issue of Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s like this is a huge show, we need to bring our- we had a corporate booth, but it was more for licensing show. So we retrofitted it for Otakon, and that was in 2004 whenever Lark and Show was there, and then our booth was- I mean, sorry, our first episode was the opening act. The first dub. And then you had all of this Japanese press there, covering Lark is Dale, covering Fullmetal Alchemist, we had like Aniplex there, and we had to have a booth. And so that was the first time that we had a big booth. Then the next year after that, I think that’s when Adam started doing the conventions, because Anime Expo we had our first like big boy booth, and that was Tsubasa was that first big booth for Funimation. I think the big booth era, I think the height of it was probably 2004, because I know that it was- yeah, it was probably 2004, 2005, because I just remember Tokyo Pop’s Monster House booth, and then it was right next to Bandai, and I remember Jerry Chu just blaring noise from speakers towards Tokyo Pop’s booth, and Tokyo Pop doing the same, that when you would walk through, your ears would just be kind of garbled. And then every 30 minutes, you’d hear the drum, they’re throwing stuff off. I do have video of that, of the drum and the throngs of people. I have video from 2005, because the Funimation booth was on the far right side, and ADV’s was on the far left side, and they gave ADV the biggest sighs because their booth was really kind of quiet until the drum. And then you just saw everybody swarming due to the them, with the big drum. So, they invite the press to throw stuff out, or just anybody to throw stuff out. I mean, that would be fun. And then, I mean ADV’s booth served two purposes, because the second level was meeting rooms, meetings with the Japanese licensors. This was before the Marriott, so it wasn’t really a good space to have meetings.
The Adam he mentions is our very own Adam Sheehan, Director of Events at Crunchyroll, who prior to coming over here worked alongside Lance at Funimation for 10 years. They know a lot about anime conventions, because they’ve both been to a LOT of them.
Sheehan: Hi, I’m Adam Sheehan, I’m Director of Events here at Crunchyroll. We do about 12 to 13 events- we attend- Crunchyroll, on a regular basis. Back in the day, when I was young and gungho at Funimation, we did up to about 25, 30. I remember like one month, I was doing one every single week for four or five weeks in a row, and I was a shell of myself at the end of it. So I was like “I’m getting too old for this, so I basically need to figure out a better way to do it,” and also, we actually focused on doing more at less, so instead of basically doing the same thing over and over again at multiple cons of different sizes. We pick or choose our ones, and then do a LOT at it, like a bigger activation. More guests, larger panels, and things like that.
Looking at Anime Expo’s attendance numbers, you wouldn’t guess that there was actually a period of time where the anime industry was kinda shaky. Right around 2006. Anime companies were launching 24-hour on-demand video channels, they were partnering with Japanese companies to directly license and distribute anime, they were expanding into more and more retail locations, and then… the bubble popped. The home video market went from $375 million in 2005 to $316 million the next year. By 2010, it would only be $200 million. Lance pins the exact apex of the bubble to the first ever North American Anime Awards, hosted in February 2007 by ADV.
Heiskell: That’s when ADV had all the Sojitz money. It’s 2007, and that’s when ADV spent so much money on that event, because it’s New York, you have to hire union camera people, that was just this big thing, and their network was really popular, they had all the Sojitz titles.
And then came the music store closures.
Heiskill: Like 2006, around September, because Funimation launched the anime online website in 2006. In 2006, Suncoast and Sam Goody had major store closures, and that was like the first cripple, because that was Tokyo Pop and it was also Pioneer, with a lot of returns. And then February was American Anime Awards, then one month later, it was- Geneon closed one month later. I mean, the bust was the music industry. The music industry crippled the anime industry. A lot of manga, and a lot of anime, was in- this was in the era when Suncoast was the number one anime retailer. It wasn’t Best Buy, it wasn’t Amazon, it wasn’t WalMart, it was Suncoast. And Suncoast was built on music. And Suncoast was Suncoast and Sam Goody and FYE and it was all the malls. And so this is when malls were still popular, but then you had some of the department stores kind of teetering where malls were still popular. And all the Suncoasts were in the malls. But then when you had the iPod, and you had iTunes, and then you know, you had just everybody shifting to digital on their music, that’s when all these stores kinda needed something else. And so they brought in- they always had anime, but they brought in anime more. And whenever manga got popular, they brought in manga. It’s very similar to when Gamestop brought in toys. Because Gamestop brought in anime around the same time, too. Because they thought it was cool. I mean even Hot Topic- and also they had Fafnir T-shirts at Hot Topic around this time. Fafnir. I saw it with my own eyes, I should’ve taken a picture for evidence. But yeah, so whenever the music- whenever Sam Goody would close a store, then everything in the store would have to be returned. And so this was a lot of manga, a lot of anime, and if you’re closing half your stores and all the anime companies would sell in a lot of product, and it was all- you could all be returned. So if you sold in 10,000 units to Suncoast, and then around that same time their stores closed, then they could say “hey, I need a refund on 8,000 of these,” and if a company just doesn’t have the money, then the anime company is on the books for it. So they owed a lot of debt to Suncoast, and Suncoast and Sam Goody and all of those kept a lot of stuff in their warehouses that they would just do these random returns. And so it was capital, it was cash. And it was the music industry that really hurt the anime industry. It wasn’t streaming, it wasn’t digital downloads, it was the music industry.
Over the next several years, the anime industry went through a lot of changes. Companies like Geneon Entertainment and Central Park Media closed, while others, like ADV, restructured and completely rebranded. Publications like Newtype USA and Anime Insider shut their doors for good, followed a few years by the closure of Borders, which is literally where I used to buy ALL of my manga. Any manga I ever read as a child: Borders. That’s where it happened. Even Best Buy, once a mini-haven for anime fans, slashed their inventory across the country. Now they got that little DVD section that’s only there to sell TVs and Playstations. [Lofi music]
Somehow, throughout all the chaos, anime conventions kept going strong. Anime Expo kept getting bigger and bigger, hitting nearly 50,000 attendees the same year Bandai Entertainment announced it would stop producing and distributing new titles. The American anime home video market had taken a nasty beating, but fans still wanted their anime, and they still wanted to go to anime conventions. By the late 2000s, it was no longer about marathoning anime in video rooms—fans could already stream anime online, both legally and uh… less legally. Anime was everywhere. The rise of online retail meant that fans didn’t even have to go to dealer’s rooms anymore to get their merch.
What the internet couldn’t provide, though, was all that stuff that’s brought fans together for decades, even back in the early sci-fi days. Just hanging out, meeting people who share a common interest, and also cosplaying.
Okay now, I know what y’all’re thinking. Y’all’re probably thinking “Hey! Hey- hey but, isn’t- isn’t cosplay from Japan? Everybody knows that the world ‘cosplay’ comes from the Japanese portmanteau for ‘costume’ and ‘play.’” But people have been going to conventions and dressing up as their favorite characters as early as 1939, when science fiction editor, writer, and superfan Forrest Ackerman rolled up to the first World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon for short) in what he called “futuristicostume”, a VERY dumb name.
Everyone was presumably delighted and not weirded out, because the next year, WorldCon had its first ever official masquerade, a tradition that has kept up even until now. The idea of dressing up rippled through different fandoms, from the earliest Star Trek conventions, to San Diego Comic Con, which began hosting its first official masquerade in 1974. Whether or not American science fiction cosplay inspired Japanese fans is up for debate, what we do know is that the word “cosplay” itself was coined by a Japanese writer named Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1983.
But by then, dressing up had already been a popular part of Comiket and local Japanese community gatherings and conventions since the 70s. Whatever the origin, though, the word “cosplay,” it blew up. It’s in this podcast, it blew up. Y’know, this podcast, the pinnacle of fame. Everyone knows what it means, regardless of anime fandom or even comic book nerding, at all. Everybody knows cosplay.
These days, you can hear it on mainstream TV shows, or as the punchline to late-night talk shows. It’s so popular, you can go to your local JoAnn Fabrics, turn the aisle, and see entire displays devoted to cosplay, complete with commercial patterns that look suspiciously like Sailor Moon and Vash the Stampede. Fans who don’t want to sew can even buy entire costumes from overseas retailers or wigs pre-styled for a certain character. Because as I said earlier; these kids are spoiled. They don’t work for shit. Make them do stuff. They all on TikTok. Tiktok? Doin’ the dances.
To get some insight on the ever-evolving cosplay scene, we talked to Charlene Ingram, who’s worked in the industry for 10 years as a marketing director for companies like Funimation, Viz, and Capcom. But some fans may actually know her by another name: Tristen Citrine, a celebrated cosplayer whose impeccable handiwork and love for the craft made her a frequent guest at anime conventions around the world. Her first anime convention was Anime North in 1998, in Toronto.
Ingram: I didn’t even know, honestly, at first, like I heard that they had a masquerade, and I participated in it, but I didn’t know it would be like, such a stage production. And I had from my internet browsing, and this was I mean, this was early late 90s. I had seen some of the earlier cosplay postings and message boards. I remember American Cosplay Paradise was around way back then, Tokyo Cosplay Zone, all of the almost UseNet-looking boards that the Japanese cosplayers would use, I remember looking at their pictures and seeing what they were doing and seeing how they posed and everything like that. But there was nothing like just being there and seeing it. That was… that was the real epiphany that not only were people dressing up, there was the beginnings of kind of a stage production. And it was very, very rudimentary back then. It was a lot of “walk on this stage, and pose” and the MCs back then were more akin to things like something out of like Vaudeville, where they kinda riffed with you and it was very tongue-in-cheek. There wasn’t a lot of huge theatrics, like sometimes people would maybe try to recreate a little bit of a sword fight, or something from a scene of their favorite shows, but it’s close to unrecognizable to what we have today, how much it’s grown and how much it’s matured.
Competitive by nature, she was drawn to the world of masquerade contests. Her turning point was Anime Expo [crowd cheering] where she experienced for the first time fans cosplaying and singing from the Japanese Sailor Moon live-action stage plays.
Ingram: There was a Sailor Moon skit, and it was based on something that I hadn’t even heard of at that time. I didn’t know that Sailor Moon had musicals in Japan, and they’d had them since like 1994! And that was amazing, like I didn’t even know it, and these girls were on stage and they were dancing to one of the theme songs from that, and they had all the Sailor Guardians, well not all of them, they just had a few of them, but it was like nothing else in that masquerade. In that Anime Expo masquerade, it was a lot of like what I had seen at Anime North, but to see that singing and dancing, and then all of that glitter and splendor, I knew. I was like “This is the type of masquerade I want to be in, I want to be- like I want to perform, I want to have these big, bodacious things, and I gotta meet these girls.” And I didn’t get to meet them until it was a month or so later, at San Diego Comic Con. I met them, and we started chatting on the internet, and we started laughing and sharing our interests and our love for Sailor Moon and my love for anime and being this new girl on the West Coast because just like moving to Los Vegas, I was very much like a fish out of water, and I was very intimidated by folks from California because growing up, California was this magical wonderland where the best and the brightest and the most beautiful hung out, and I would never be good enough for that. So, just seeing this, just hanging out with these girls and eventually, them inviting me to be a part of the group and learning that I have this sewing ability and all these dreams that I had, it was really, that was really a game changer like I really bonded with these girls and I wanted to do something great and celebrate Sailor Moon together.
Before long, her talent and craftsmanship were being recognized, and she was getting invited to anime conventions as a special guest.
Ingram: Because I really took the bull by the horns, I was very passionate about it and I really wanted to show off my sewing ability with this new genre I was really into. And it started in 2000, and I remember that was my first time I had a guest appearance was AniMagic 2000, and it was in October of 2000. And this was a convention that happened at the end of convention season, when there was still a convention season, and it was a place for everyone to kind of chill and it was out in the middle of nowhere, it was in Lancaster, California, and it took place at this hotel that all the rooms were centered around this pool. And they did the masquerade poolside, so it was very nice and casual, it was kinda like anime camp. And that was the first time I was a guest at a convention. And then I was a guest at Anime North, and then Project A-Kon, and the list goes on and on. But really starting in around ‘98, like actively with cosplay, to get to that point was probably really unheard of by today’s standards.
Busy as she is with work, Charlene still tries to find time to cosplay, though she says that some things haven’t really changed.
Ingram: If you look at a lot of the costumes from back then, the really well made ones, and some conventions now even have exhibits for cosplayers’ costumes, especially from the past and currently. Good sewing techniques have not changed all that much over the years. The process for making things and making things well, especially with fabric craft, hasn’t really changed all that much. Your fundamentals are still your fundamentals, you just have the advent and introduction of a lot of materials, especially your themal plastics and your EVA foams and stuff like that, that have been invented that make different types of things easier. And that’s really cool, I do have a lot of fascination with the new materials as they come out, I always like to buy them and play with them and see what they’re all about, and I do like working with EVA foam, but I just feel like… I almost feel like a soul bond when I’m working on something that is fabric-based.
One thing that has popped up in the last several years, though, is the advent of the professional cosplayer. If you just Google “professional cosplayer,” you’ll get a torrent of hits. Everything from cosplayer influencer salaries, to dozens of “what is it like?” articles, to message boards filled with fans wondering how to break into the career. It’s another side effect of conventions—and cosplay—reaching a high point in mainstream culture. But for Charlene, it’s all signs that we’re living in a magical time.
Ingram: And it is very wonderful that some cosplayers can actually make a living at dressing up and going out and doing events and working events, that’s really rather magical and I really love that side of things. And I’ll say that I love all sides of professional cosplay, be it the spokesmodel type, the event worker type, the just the person at just like you go to Comiket or Tokyo Game Show and there’s a line forever and they have to bring extra security. I love that person. I love the professional cosplayers on Patreon that do pictures and chats and stuff with their fans, and they make their living that way. I even love the cosplayers that are cam girls. I love them, they’re doing- they’re living their passion, they’re living their best life.
Cosplay is now more accessible to everyone than ever before, but it also means that conventions have needed to step up in another way—by making it safer for people to be in costume. In 2014, New York Comic Con became the first major convention to publicly post signs with four simple words: Cosplay is not consent. One of its primary pleas: “Keep your hands to yourself.” No touching, no groping, and please, no gross propositioning in elevators. Basically, don’t suck, don’t be a shitty dude, and remember that under every costume is a fan just like you and me. At its core, the Cosplay is Not Consent movement is about the basic tenets of respect and personal safety. Luckily, it’s grown over time, with more and more conventions adopting their guidelines and declaring their support by posting information around the venues and in guide books. It’s hard to know for sure exactly how much it’s helping the cosplay community—only time will tell—but convention organizers hope it will at least embolden cosplayers to speak out for one another.
Ingram: But the cool thing is now, we have these signs at conventions that say “cosplay is not consent,” and we have this culture where people will say “No!” or people will call it out, or like people will correct each other and that’s really cool. And people will ask for hugs, which is also really cool. Or people will ask what your name is, and not just talk to you like you’re the character. There’s this understanding that there is a human underneath the costume that wasn’t always there before. And I think in that way, that’s also making cosplay a lot more welcoming for folks. [Lofi music]
And she is right. We’re growing and evolving, and so is fandom. As the convention scene gets bigger, our expectations for them are growing, too. Like demanding safer environments for attendees, purging counterfeits from dealer booths, and just holding everyone to higher standards. Anime fans have become a global powerhouse-- driving a market worth $18 billion worldwide. So it’s no surprise that anime conventions have grown with it. What once was just a chance for fans to cluster around a TV and watch Star Blazers is now its own ecosystem, with thriving cosplay scenes, world premieres of brand new anime titles,, concerts with the kinds of mega-stars that sell out baseball stadiums in Japan, dealer rooms the size of those stadiums, and fans who will cross continents and oceans just to hang out with their friends at these events.
There are so many anime conventions that now, instead of just going to the nearest one, fans can even decide which one they want to go to based on their vibe. Like… Anime Weekend Atlanta if they’re really into anime music video contests, or Dragon Con if they want to see some really intricate costumes across different geek genres. Or local hidden gems like Anime Los Angeles, where all the California-based cosplayers debut some of their newest builds. Or… Crunchyroll Expo, shameless plug, where you can be amongst the first fans in the world to check out new titles. From Crunchyroll. By the way, Crunchyroll Expo. Gang? Gang, gang. Squad. Yes. Do it.
Anime has also carved out increasingly large spaces at comic book conventions like San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con. There are video rooms that run around the clock, giant publisher booths, autograph sessions, and cosplayers galore. What once was a space carved out at these conventions by dedicated fans, is now a draw to pull in more attendees. There’s even a cosplay contest at South by Southwest, which most people probably know more for its film and music programming.
That’s not to say that anime conventions have fundamentally changed over the years. They haven’t. We just expect more from them now. Here’s Adam Sheehan again, who’s been doing this long enough to really track all the little, subtle changes.
Sheehan: Yeah, the expectations have definitely changed in that, as I mentioned when I found out AnimeCon, I had no idea what it was or that it even existed. But now it’s like you have your shopping list. You got the schedule ahead of time. If you’re looking for something new, you’re aware before you walk in. You’re like “oh, there’s a premier of this show I’ve heard about, I want to show up for that because that sounds neat.” It’s not about walking through the door and going “there’s a bunch of rooms, a bunch of people, let me figure it out.” Because of that, the expectations of what people want are different, almost based con by con. You bring DragonCon up. They do panels, they have what are called dealer’s rooms there, too; but what they’re mostly known for is the cosplay, then evening events. Everyone gets their own theme about it. Expectation for an event level is almost along that line. It’s like Anime Expo, San Diego Comic Con, you know you’re going to get some big news, some big guests showing up. Local con in Florida, you’re maybe not as much, but maybe you were expecting to go and buy stuff. And see, they’re friends, so that basically is almost an event level what people are expecting, so the exploring, if anything, basically has changed from “I don’t know anything, walking in the door, surprise me” to “I have expectations, but there’s still a chance to blow it out of the water by who’s the guest? How good’s the show? How much fun do they have with their friends?” So all those things mixed together is basically what some of the big changes are. It also helps now that anime’s mainstream, it definitely was not mainstream in the 90s, us nerdy little kids in the corners in the clubs had to basically educate other people and say “no, this exists!” Where now it’s like it’s either mentioned like on the Big Bang Theory, or there’s movies about cons, or it’s mentioned like that, so people get the general idea that a convention exists and people go there and that they buy stuff and they meet people and they dress up. So that base knowledge is good for the casual goer, even if it’s just a parent bringing a kid to their first con, they’re like “oh, this is generally what they’re going to walk into.” But you never quite know what you’re going to see. The trends I’m seeing across that since AX’s growth has been just around the overall trends of the anime world. Merch getting better, technology getting faster, or I guess more easier access to, as well as just the overall growth of anime. Like almost every single convention around the nation over the last five or six years has had either stay the same or an increase, there’s been very few that have actually gone down, because anime fandom has just been growing. And we joked at one point--God this must’ve been like four or five years ago, at one point?-- that we were looking like, we did the math and said “oh, if you take every convention around the country, small, large, no matter what size the event, there’s a con every single weekend of the year, including Christmas and New Year’s that you can go to.” So basically if you want do the full otaku livestyle, you could be at a con every single weekend for a straight year, and never stop.
Where are anime conventions going to go from here? Only time will tell. But even during the short history of anime in America, they’ve changed so much that it’s hard not to be excited about their future. So the next time you go to a convention and you’re just standing around, waiting for an autograph from your favorite director or voice actress, take a moment to look around and think about the humble origins of anime conventions. And how it all started with Star Blazers. Peace. [Lofi music]