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One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Otakon

Sexy warriors, euphoric raves, and Bronies converge for Baltimore's craziest party of the year

Photo: Photographs by Noah Scialom, License: N/A, Created: 2012:07:29 00:16:36

Photographs by Noah Scialom

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2012:07:28 15:42:19

Photographs by Noah Scialom

To see more of Noah's work visit noahscialom.photoshelter.com


For Otaku—people from all walks of life immersed in the world of anime, manga, and video game culture—Otakon is like Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July, and the last day of school rolled into one.

This year, more than 32,000 people came from all over the world for the three-day festival at the Baltimore Convention Center. Otakon, a fixture in the Inner Harbor every summer for 13 years, has a cast of characters, a language, and a culture all its own. It boasts elaborate cosplay (costume play)—many attendees spend all year prepping get-ups for this single weekend—video game competitions, autograph sessions with niche-nerd celebrities (like former Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger Jason David Frank), panel talks on topics as varied as the finer points of the Japanese language and the role of women in anime, film screenings, and musical performances from acts like K-pop (Korean pop) stars VIXX, just to scratch the surface.

For downtown passers-by, Otakon is a spectacle—perhaps the only time and place you will ever see a scepter-wielding girl angel and a Khal Drogo impersonator chowing down at the Harborplace Five Guys. (Otakon rules require all scepters/swords/staffs be less than six feet and three inches, and chains less than three feet.) But for otaku, it’s the rare opportunity to ditch a mundane day-to-day existence and celebrate geeky passions many of them have held since they were small children.

As a guy with no shortage of love for comics, animation, and assorted pop culture gobbledygook, it’s a little surprising that I’d never been to Otakon, although I’ve been fascinated by it from afar. How does the long-running convention inspire such huge, devoted crowds? What keeps them coming back year after year? What do they get out of this? How does one run around in a Chewbacca suit all day in 97 degree heat without passing out?

For answers to these and other questions, I ventured into the belly of the beast.

Saturday, 7:55 a.m.: I’m awake, thanks to a quick cup of coffee, but it melts into the general queasiness in my stomach. “Nerd Culture,” as magnified through the lens of the internet, has begun to wear on me lately. There’s a tendency within it to take excitement too far and ramp up well-meaning enthusiasm until it becomes shrill. I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with 16-plus hours of that today. On the other hand, I’m genuinely excited to observe fans in their element and maybe walk away from the whole thing having learned something. And who doesn’t love big elaborate costumes? It’s like Broadway on acid. In Japan.

I ritualistically apply hand sanitizer before I head out; although I’ve never been to Otakon before, years of hitting up comic book shows has taught me to use it early and often if I want to spare myself “con crud” (generally a pretty rough stomach bug that knocks you on your ass for a day or so). My friend Sarah has agreed to drive me down to the Convention Center. “Any secret for dealing with this quantity of nerds so early in the morning?” she asks. I think for a moment. “I’ve had my coffee.” It’s the best I can do.

8:13: Inside the Convention Center, I walk down a ways and pass a boy? girl? slouched over in a chair, asleep. In order to get to the Sheraton next door and get my press bona fides, a security office has to take me downstairs and through an enormous unlit room filled with folding chairs. There’s a gigantic IMAX-like screen playing what appears to be B-roll of snowboarding. A small group of men silently watches the footage, as if transfixed, and the whole thing suddenly gets an eerie Eyes Wide Shut vibe to it.

8:35: Otakon’s doors have officially opened. At this point, there’s a calm-before-the storm feeling in the air. In the upstairs lobby, attendees are briskly walking somewhere or standing around fixing details on their costumes. A teenage Asian girl and her friends chat and laugh as she helps one of them attach a furry tail to the back of her pants.

“I’m 16 now,” explains one of them. “If I can watch Die Hard, I can watch Yu-Gi-Oh.”

She’s presumably cosplaying as an anime or manga character, but her shock-white wig, tan trousers, and large camera suggest Andy Warhol. A few yards away, a mom excitedly takes a photo of her daughter as she’s approached by a long-tentacled green blob monster—the tentacles appear to have been foam swimming noodles in a previous life. After the family walks away, the blob remains in character and continues his shtick as he searches for another “victim.”

A pair of female kon-goers dressed like Pokémon trainer Ash Ketchum walk past. If they hadn’t been walking almost in lockstep, their precise appearance might almost go unnoticed: straight-legged blue jeans, blue hightop sneakers, and the character’s signature red/white/green baseball cap.

8:47: Further down the lobby, I come across several hundred people forming a loose line that zigzags through a maze-like, roped-off area before flattening itself against the center’s large windows. They’re all here to see Jason David Frank, the actor who played the Green Ranger on several Power Rangers TV series. According to the biography in the Otakon program, he still acts but his main pursuit is promoting his own line of Christian-themed MMA apparel.

An Otakon volunteer, clearly exasperated already, shouts, “This is not an official autograph line! We will start the lines at 9 A.M.!” But the mob of people there to see their childhood idol suddenly rush in with a burst of shouting and laughing.

“You’re creating a fire hazard! You need to get back,” the volunteer shrieks to little effect.

Three 20-ish black guys stand together in the line. Byron Tolson is wearing a striped orange hoodie with foam ears pasted on. He’s from PG County, and he’s cosplaying as Arcanine, a Pokémon.

“I’m a big fan,” he says of Frank. “Huge role model when I was young.” When I ask if there’s anything else he really wants to see while he’s here, he excitedly mentions the legendary raves Otakon hosts at the end of each day.

8:53: My attempt to head down a large staircase to check out the Dealers’ Room portion of the show is foiled by a volunteer.

“That’s a one-way entrance.” She tells me I can get where I want to go if I “go around, down, down, left.” I wonder if she realizes how much that sounds like a video game cheat code.

8:55: The Dealers’ Room hasn’t opened yet and there’s another long line. In the corner, a Brony—a self-identified male fan of the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic—with the name tag “DJ PON E” puts down a ghettoblaster and blares My Little Pony fan music.

“Do you have ‘Pretty in Pinkie Pie’?” another cosplayer, this one dressed as Batman villain Harley Quinn, asks. A few feet away, a young Asian man with a bleached-blond streak in his hair busts a move with two of his friends to their own beatbox. Impromptu dance-offs are common at Otakon.

10:34: I spot my friends Terrence and Sam—their identical grey/blue striped T-shirts give me the initial mistaken impression that they’re dressed up as the protagonist of some heretofore obscure anime. We make it into the Dealers’ Room. It’s impressive. The space is filled with booths selling wigs, discounted manga, brown-paper mystery grab bags, steampunk apparel and accessories (goggles, leather gloves, gas masks, etc.), and replica weaponry. There are crudely drawn cardboard “Help Wanted” signs on many of the booths, which offer free stuff in exchange for a few hours of work. I’m dumbstruck by these: That someone would pay the show’s $80 admission/membership fee, only to spend some of their precious free time as largely unpaid labor, seems strange. In the day and age of minimum wage, this feels like a trade-off more at home in the American Frontier.

One of the most visible items at Otakon are “Necomimi,” plush mechanical cat ears, which boast that they move in response to the wearer’s mood via brainwaves. You can’t walk five minutes without seeing a pair twitch or droop. Terrence buys a green cap from one vendor, and I spy what ends up being my sole purchase of the show: a set of replica metal Batarangs (Batman’s boomerang-type weapon). They’re $25 and I decide that I need them in my life. They have the unintended but necessary effect of reining in any potential pretensions I might have had about myself during the show. No one, it seems, is too cool for Otakon.

11:40: Lunch break. A cluster of kids parkour-jump from one statue ledge to another at nearby McKeldin Fountain. A slender girl in a Bjork-like swan dress strikes dramatic poses for photographers.

12:31: Time for the Game Room. The space is predominantly made up of flat-screen televisions hooked up to PlayStation 3s or Xboxes with a smattering of arcade games and a deep row of tables for tabletop card games (mostly Magic: The Gathering but at least one game of Go). Around a Guitar Hero set-up, onlookers clap as two players nail Chicago’s one halfway decent hit, “25 Or 6 To 4.” Further down, a boy-girl duo go crazy on a Dance Dance Revolution machine, their frantic steps very nearly in sync. “That was unbelievably disappointing,” exclaims the girl as they step off the rig.

2:10: A Ronald McDonald/Heath Ledger Joker composite smokes a cigarette and poses for photos. If ever there was a poster boy for the nerd tendency to mash up one pop culture thing with another, it’s this guy.

3:00: To treat myself and kill some time, I sit in on the first 30 minutes of Stephen Chow’s incredibly funny, 1996 signature-style screwball comedy God of Cookery, which I suspect is being screened to tie in to the Otakon 2012 “convention theme” of cooking. This seems totally bizarre and incongruous at first, but if you think about it there’s a sort of logic to it: Otakon at its core is about creation and enjoying the creations of others. These people are here to express their borderline-obsessive affection for characters and concepts prepared by professional authors, artists, musicians, etc. They honor them by coming here—whether to wait in long autograph lines or to don painstakingly crafted costumes. In a sense, what is Otakon but 32,000 nerds issuing their compliments to the chefs?

3:38: The exterior cement stairway down from the Convention Center balcony reeks of phantom piss.

4:36: Overheard conversation: “You know that chick who pretends to be evil all the time?” “Yeah, that girl wouldn’t know evil if it crawled up her leg and blew her.”

I need to escape this room soon.

4:53: I get to sit down and chat with Michael Sinterniklaas, a voice actor most famous for bringing to life Dean Venture on The Venture Brothers, an animated love letter to comic books, David Bowie, and failure that airs on Adult Swim. I’m a big fan of the show.

Sinterniklaas is soft-spoken and polite. Although he recently turned 40, he carries himself with the weight and enthusiasm of a teenager. I ask him how he found himself involved in voice acting, and he walks me through his high school flirtation with anime and eventual casting in the American dub of anime film Bubblegum Crisis. He tells me how he recorded his initial test audio for The Venture Brothers in a closet, clutching a tape recorder with a sock over it.

City Paper: So what’s your take on this whole otaku thing? I’ve done comic book conventions and stuff, but this is impressive.

Michael Sinterniklaas: Yeah, Otakon is a pretty amazing convention for that. It’s so much in your face the whole time. From “Ice Cold Water Dude” (see “Ice Cold Water”) to the cosplay. I’m into excitement and passion, like, if you’re into something, cool! I think the worst thing is being too cool for something. That’s lame. And lately I think there’s been geek-on-geek harshing. I feel like there’s been more and more conversations like, “Oh, that guy’s not a real geek.”

CP: I agree. As nerdiness becomes more acceptable in the mainstream, it develops a sort of cynical “hipsterism” within itself.

MS: I [also] cringe a little bit at “This Is For Geeks!” and it’s sort of a dumbed-down, spoon-fed “What is Cosplay?” I’d like to see kind of [next-level] nerd reporting where you can just sort of assume things and treat us [as] smart.

CP: Yeah. The title of this piece I’m working on will be “Biff Bang Pow Otakon!”

MS: Oh really?

CP: No.

7:00: I approach Lauren, a nervous 20-year-old girl in a green and white sailor suit, and ask her about cosplay.

“I don’t necessarily like what reality has to give me, so this is my escape,” she says with confidence, picking at a small plate of potato chips.

7:15: I chat with Conrad Johnson, a convention public safety officer roughly in his 50s. We’re nearly drowned out by a marching chorus belting Disney hits. The group of 12 or 13 is mid-way through “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You,” as made famous by Donny Osmond in Mulan.

This is Johnson’s second Otakon. He’s happy to see the convention here and what it does for the local economy. His tone is that of a grandfather watching his kids play on a jungle gym.

7:40: I run into my friend Terrence again and I wait for him as he joins a small group taking photos of a woman spotlessly done up as Ivy from the fighting game Soul Calibur. She poses with other guests in mock-fighting poses. Her very revealing outfit is only made possible, I assume, through body tape: a tight fitting purple unitard that her cleavage threatens to spill out of should a stiff wind pass. I spot a Convention Center employee covertly taking close-up pictures of her ass from above and I debate whether I should say something.

It was only in hindsight that I was able to pinpoint why that skeeved me out so much. Yes, cosplay, at its very core, is about showing off: You don’t spend days/months stitching together an outfit like that if you don’t want to be noticed. When you cosplay, you’re demanding the attention of the people around you. “Look at me. Look at how much I love this character. How cool do I look? This is who I want to be, if I could be.”

Otakon allows individuals three days to dress pretty much exactly how they want to without the social stigma or questioning looks that might come otherwise. That’s the appeal. But within that, there’s a degree of trust between cosplayer and observer; taking pictures at a photo op implies consent, but lurid spank-bank snapshots feel like a violation.

8:00 to midnight: I need a drink. I head out of Otakon to the outside world, where body fur and gas masks are not nearly so common.

Midnight: I witness the much discussed rave. It’s a sea of body odor and LED lights and thumping bass and grinding and claustrophobia. Blue light floods the enormous room with streaks of green and red from televisions and the wristbands and plastic laser swords of dancers. Non-descript live techno plays as couples grind up on each other. Here and there, spectators circle around and watch one-on-one breakdancing competitions. At the center of the rave stands an extended cherrypicker; two Otakon volunteers stand atop it like lifeguards at a nighttime beach, overlooking an ocean of light.

I move through the ocean of bodies and notice solitary otaku seated along the back wall, on their phones or just resting. The dance is the Otakon experience on a micro-scale: a bizarre, uncomfortable yet undeniably eye-catching hotbox of nerd socializing.

12:34 a.m.: I’ve had enough. It’s too much. I feel old. The surreality of the situation is enhanced by the Hunter S. Thompson cosplayer I catch on the elevator out of the corner of my eye. As I watch friends and couples exhaustedly lean on each other and head out into the night through the automatic doors of the exit, I’ve decided Otakon might not be entirely my bag, but I’m glad it’s somebody’s.

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