Summer is winding down, and with it comes the end of beach weather, vacation, and of course for those of us who threw ourselves into the ocean that is nerd subcultures, the latter third of con season. There’s a few conventions left, and for the most part I never really paid too much attention to them or to what could be considered “con culture.” When I’ve gone to them, it’s for short jaunts, and I’m usually in and out in a few hours, seeing people I know, buying some art or books, and just taking off.
I recently went to Baltimore with my girlfriend and some of her friends to spend the weekend at Otakon 2016, the last time that the well-known anime convention will be in Baltimore. Next year is going to see the convention in Washington DC, which from what I hear is related to the expanding popularity of Otakon, which focuses on Japanese anime- and manga-oriented fandom. I can tell that the move is a good one just by being there, because the numbers of people flooding Baltimore year after year to wear homemade and intricately-crafted terrycloth and sculpted plastic costumes and weapons has apparently been climbing upwards almost exponentially. The name itself comes from “otaku,” a word meaning “a slavish fan,” and used initially somewhat derisively. However, the term has come, at least in North America, to be positively embraced as the terminology for fandom of Japanese comics, cartoons, and thus-influenced art and pop culture. It’d make sense for one of the biggest anime-themed North American conventions to name itself that, though again, we’re faced with the blessing/curse thing right there just in the name.
I remember being in college when cable’s Cartoon Network launched their [adult swim] evening block, a mix of weird adult humor-themed cartoons and licensed Japanese anime, which had always had a cult following in the US since the 80’s. My exposure to the style had actually started as a kid when I stumbled across a broadcast of the now-cult-classic Akira and regular airings of stuff like Robotech on TV when I was living in Europe at the time. Later on when I came back to the US as a teenager, I was exposed to Ghost In The Shell, Ninja Scroll, Cowboy Bebop, and the Gundam franchise, all of which appealed to my punk, sci-fi/fantasy, and trashy personal aesthetics. The crossover of punk, metal, video games, skateboarding, and Japanese cartoons peaked during my high school years, especially among the little circle of friends I developed in high school and college, though after that it eventually tapered off. The field was overflowing by the time I hit graduate school, and I was beginning to become more and more critical of the fandom, with its cultural fetishism, sexism, and weird obsessions with surefire crowdpleasers like hypersexualitzation, fanservice imagery, Nazi iconography, and of course, casual racism. I’ve since started to slowly float back to the field, and of course the good stuff that floated to the surface has always stayed on my DVD shelves and in my personal mental lists of great TV and movies. It’s hard to stay so attached to something though, when your primary problem is with the idea of that attachment.
I have a complicated relationship with fandom and with fan conventions. I have complicated relationships with the fandoms and subcultures I’ve been involved with my whole life in general, from punk music to anime to comic books to horror to literature, all of which I’ve found solace and fun in, but also clashed against ugly puritanism, hypocrisy, and toxicity in as well. I think it’s important to be aware of those two sides of any fandom and not throw yourself whole-heartedly into them, expecting everything to be roses, unicorn farts, and rainbows.
I tend to view conventions, like the large Wizard World-run NYCC (which I’ll be at for one day this year), or the smaller MoCCA (which I try to go to when I can), as weird idealized microcosms of fan worlds, which can be both a blessing and a curse. As a blessing, they’re the original “safe spaces,” places where we could find others who connected to the same things we did in a supposedly-pure state. A lot of this is also the curse aspect, because it creates a false illusion that fandom communities need to be pure and isolated in order to exist in peak “true” form, which ultimately leads to toxic fandom, gatekeeping, and the various other surprisingly-conservative and bullying aspects you wouldn’t necessarily expect from what is seen as, at least by those in it, as outsider culture.
However, the idea of a place to completely indulge in your hobby, see hobby-related stuff like talks and screenings and the like, it’s not bad, especially if you’re new to it all in general, and probably younger. If you’re an old bat like me who constantly yells and gripes, then you’ll be a little bitter about all the unbridled optimism and enthusiasm, free from the taint of the self-reflective critical eye. I mean, that doesn’t mean they’re bad, necessarily. Especially if you’re making an extended weekend of it camped out in a hotel room two blocks from the convention, which I’ve never actually done before. I went into this as an intensely-critical and borderline-grumpy observer who only barely skimmed the surface of the subculture attached to this, and I came out of it not entirely changed, but definitely a little bit unsure of of my lack of a place as a complete outsider in this sort of subculture immersion.
We left relatively early on Thursday, taking the bus from New York to Baltimore in order to get there early. It’s a four-hour trip by bus, and at the start of what ends up being a monumentally-awful heat wave blanketing the East Coast the whole time I’m in Baltimore.
The trip there the day before the con officially opened felt like we’d already arrived, with a few groups on the bus obviously also headed to Baltimore for the same reasons we were. It’s a little obvious with the anime-themed t-shirts and the Japanese parasols popping up while we were in line for the bus outside.
We checked into our hotel, which was already crawling with cosplayers, either checking in, in costume, or heading out into the oppressive heat in costume for badge pickup at the Baltimore Convention Center, where Friday through Sunday would become otaku-central, spikey wigs, giant cardboard gunswords, and all. After checking in at the con and realizing that the BCC is a sprawling decentralized structure I haven’t been in since I was about seven years old, the rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, reading through our schedules of the upcoming weekend, and dealing with dinner and drinks.
The heat was intensely oppressive. How people in full and very oppressive costumes weren’t passing out left and right in the streets by the harbor, I don’t know.
We perused artist’s alley, and you could see that the need to expand out of Baltimore was necessary. The convention center is not only spread out and a bit unruly, but it’s definitely getting too small.
We ended up in line for a panel on Japanese punk rock and heavy metal at one point, which besides eating french fries covered in Old Bay at Shake Shack later was the highlight of the day for me. It was really interesting to see a panel like this magically appear, especially considering how out-of-place I was feeling at times. I’m older, I’m not as enthusiastically a part of the subculture as I was (was I ever?), and I haven’t watched or paid attention to this subculture in about a decade. So to find this type of panel going on was a really pleasant surprise, and it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed, starting a move towards what continued towards the next day.
But first, as my notes tell me, more drinks and a swim.
Had a swim and some caffeine on Saturday morning, which on a 100-degree day after the night I had in our hotel room and then going out in Baltimore, felt good.
Back to the convention center to hit the floor, wander, run into some people my girlfriend knew, and pick some stuff up. Besides the usual copyright-violating fanart prints, booths of more copyright-violating pins and buttons and hats, the sword vendors hawking every variation of katana, and of course the always-disturbing body pillows and nerdy “thing-plus-thing” tshirts, my girlfriend and I grabbed a tabletop RPG and some manga from vendors. In particular I was excited to find Black Magic by Masamune Shirow, who is probably best-known for the franchise Ghost In The Shell. As I seem to constantly do, I wrote about Shirow in my Master’s thesis on cyberpunk, so I always have a soft spot for his work.
It was, while not surprising, also notable to see levels of development and construction going on in Baltimore side-by-side with obviously clear socioeconomic and racial divisions, which was starting to make the whole weekend of plastic gunswords and elaborate homemade fictional Japanese high-school uniforms even more surreal. While this is something we’d been seeing and talking about all weekend, the dichotomy of the convention center and waterfront area working really hard to cater to a temporary influx of tourism and cash flooding the city compared to the significant homeless population camping out in the open-space areas around the harbor and across the street from the Baltimore Convention Center strikes someone as almost parody-level tragic and dystopian, which would fit oddly well with the anime theme of the weekend.
I woke up, rubbed the grit off my face, dressed myself, and found myself sucking down breakfast at a sorta too-expensive and too-fancy coffee/pastry place ended up not being run very well. My bus is in an hour, I think as I badly played a round of chess with someone and I’m processing the past few days so far still.
The sun was, of course, still bearing down in thick and suffocatingly-hot air, making escape from Baltimore like fighting to get out of a microwave.
I danced at one point the night before, the last night we went out and I continued the trend of the weekend of listening to a lot of electronic music, though Saturday night was, as my girlfriend noted, mostly the kind of Euro-trash techno she sneered at versus the gothy-industrial electronic stuff we, and she especially, prefererd, Ironically, we’ll always be music snobs.
The bus pulled out of Baltimore to head back to New York and I put on a podcast to listen to. In this case, it was a true crime story about obsession and stalking in a fandom, and trying to persevere in fandom despite it.
Not a terribly-irrelevant way to end the weekend, at least in my eyes.
I still kind of hate fandom. I think it’s something that needs to be carefully dealt with and never taken at face value, because as things like Sad Puppies, GamerGate, comic book gatekeeping, rampages of harassment in subculture publishing, and more have shown us, it’s so often a shockingly-useful screen for intensely toxic behaviors and individuals who are, no matter how many Halo t-shirts and Superman action figures they have, predators.
Still…it’s heartening to see the enthusiasm. I can still remember being younger and wanting to be in these types of immersive places where we all spoke a common language, and while that common language has evolved and grown and moved onto a circle of friends as opposed to a large gathering of strangers, knowing that those strangers are out there can be a powerful thing to someone young, confused, and eager to throw themselves into a larger world.
It’s nice to be reminded of that and know, or at least hope, that those kids are making that leap a little more prepared and knowledgeable than previous generations on how to protect themselves.