The Things We Share

AnimeCon2014_Group

New Hampshire isn’t known for much beyond political primaries and being within Boston’s sphere of influence. I grew up here and love the state and the region, with one notable exception: as far as my hobbies go, it’s a region of the U.S. that seems to be frequently and easily overlooked. I suppose being tucked up into a kind of mega-peninsula, the Northeast begins and ends with New York, or Boston if you’re feeling rather charitable and worldly, but anything north of the Massachusetts border might as well be Terra Incognito as far as geeky concerns are felt.

At least that’s how it was when I was growing up. I’ll blame it on the fact that there seemed that commerce was blind and bland such that regional concerns amounted to simple supply and demand. We had our share of chain stores like the rest of the country, as well as regional stores that the rest of the country didn’t have, but we had our specialty stores that catered to specific caches of people. For me, it was the generic “hobby stores” that sold model rockets and scale train sets, but also role playing games and pewter miniatures. Without the Internet in our lives, these places were small sanctuaries in a larger region that wasn’t a hot-spot for geekdom. We didn’t know any better, of course. What we saw on the shelves was the limit of our knowledge of what was out there.

We also had national TV and regional affiliates, and that’s where I started watching –pardon my loose co-opt of the term — anime. More specifically, Americanized anime. Amidst the G.I.Joe and Transformer showings was a weekly block of anime on our channel 56 called “Force Five”: a different anime series every day of the week that included shows like Grandizer and Gaiking. We also had Starblazers, and eventually Robotech. My friends and I knew all about these shows, and about the weird (and often times adult-themed) animation that obviously wasn’t domestically produced, and we watched it and enjoyed it as much as we could. There wasn’t a lot of outlets for anime at the time: there were no massive toy lines, no lunch boxes, no posters — at least, not that we could get in our corner of the U.S.

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Flash forward to 2015, and the head of my 12 year old self would explode upon seeing the wealth of engagement available to fans these days — even up here in the Land That Geekdom Forgot. Over this past weekend my family and I attended Another Anime Con 2015 in Manchester, NH. I learned that this is the tenth year of this convention being held in this state. That kind of blew my 41 year old mind, never mind what it would have done to my 12 year old mind. While we don’t have Boston, Houston, or Los Angeles-sized venues, the Radison in downtown Manchester has accommodation enough to house a main stage, a vendor room, and several concurrent panels and activities. This regional convention frequently attracts Names that anime fans recognize and spend hours lining up for. What it doesn’t have is the tedium and the formality of a larger and (pardon me for saying so) more organized event that you might find in a more “demographically attractive” city.

Anime isn’t really my thing any longer, although I’ve seen many of the “must see” series and movies simply to maintain some level of geek cred with this crowd. Instead, it’s my daughter’s thing. She easily outstrips me when it comes to this corner of the geek-o-sphere, having seen hundreds of series and read countless manga. Being a burgeoning artist, the anime style is her preferred style, and as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of my boastful shares can attest to she’s damn good at it for someone her age. We went to this convention at her behest, and brought one of her friends along as well.

It was weird to attend one of these events as a relative outsider. Video games are more my thing (natch), so while PAX East has inured me to the crush of crowds, long lines, and sensory overload of being surrounded by so much of interest, I was able to sit back and observe this convention with a detached (and sometimes uncomfortable) eye on this particular corner of geekdom.

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 Video game conventions (I say that in the plural, but I can really on speak to PAX East) seem to be more focused on the product first, and on the fandom second. Naturally by the fact that we’re all in attendance there’s a given level of fandom, but it’s directed outward; we want to see new things, and we want to see them first; We want to try those new things, and we want to try them first; We want to get the scoop on what’s coming, and we want to disseminate that info to our fans and followers first. Gaming geeks seem to have some need for primacy among other gaming geeks to the point where we don’t really seem to care that we’re being marketed do so long as we can help be the first on the virtual block to write up our impressions and opinions. Beyond the need to see what’s hot, there are those who are there for the fandom, and if we’re being honest, there’s really no fan like a cosplaying fan. No one else puts forth the effort nor is anyone more willing to go out on whatever limb is required to tell express exactly how much of a fan they are.

The anime convention is the absolute inverse. As a self-identifying “ultra-casual anime fan”, the best I could hope for at this weekend’s convention was to catch a glimpse of something around the convention that I recognize. But the overwhelming majority of people in attendance were cosplayers. From the drive up to the parking garage to the point at which we entered the convention center proper, there were people in anime dress everywhere. I was in my American Traditional uniform of jeans and T-shirt, and for the first time in my life I was dressed in a way that not only put my in the minority, but in a way that wasn’t even congruent with the status quo.

There were too many representations of anime I knew nothing about. My wife kept asking me “what’s that from” to the point where it became annoying: not annoying that she kept asking me, but annoying because my answer was always the same: I have absolutely no idea. Of course, there were the Naruto’s and enough Attack on Titan cosplayers to form an actual regiment. But beyond that…I couldn’t really tell what anyone was supposed to be representing. That not only showcased my disconnect from this segment of geekdom, but also showed me that the depth of anime fandom was incredibly deep. It wasn’t just limited to anime, of course. There were at least three Deadpools, several characters from Gravity Falls, and many from more Western comics and other fandoms that have probably had some kind of official anime treatment at some point in their timelines.

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My wife and I were sitting on a ledge outside of a lounge area just off the hotel lobby while we waited for our daughter and her friend who were in a panel. It was a prime people-watching spot, as everyone traveling from one side of the convention hall to the other had to pass through a choke-point that ran right in front of us.

Sitting there, we saw people approaching one another with first time introductions, usually complimenting one another on their cosplay, and starting up conversations. We saw a lot of people hugging. We saw a lot of people being very enthusiastic about one another, their outfits and props, and their interest in particular anime.

At this point I leaned over to my wife and said, “You’d never recognize this group from the way they’re portrayed in the media.” If persistent stereotypes were correct, then this convention shouldn’t even be scientifically possible. There’d be no way that that many geeks could psychologically handle being in the same space, let alone interact with strangers. According to the media geeks are “supposed  to be” A) socially inept, B) afraid of interaction, and C) self conscious to the point where they are unable to function in society, if popular representations of our kind is to be believed. There was nothing of the sort going on here.

Part of my discomfort among all of this (aside from being out of my element, being significantly older that most attendees, and also being one of the few non-cosplaying people in the place that wasn’t working at the convention center) was that I felt like I was intruding on someone’s club. This weekend I seemed to always be planting myself in a place where people were coalescing as a result of the gravity of their shared interests, or their chosen cosplay, or just because they were standing in line for something. There were no doubt people there who had arrived as a group, but I couldn’t tell the groups of old friends from the groups of new friends. While I was overwhelmingly happy to see these folks so comfortable with one another even when they were meeting for the first time, I was outside of all of this, unable, unwilling, and unequipped to participate, and it was a disquieting sensation.

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Societal pressure for conformity is overwhelming, no matter what your situation or where you live. As many gamers know and have admitted to, we’re still reticent to talk about hour hobbies without knowing we’re in a “safe space” because there’s still a lingering stigma surrounding gaming that paints it as a hobby for children. In many quarters, video games are things that need to be set aside so we can take on adult responsibilities and adult interests like sports and politics and home ownership (I guess…?) After this weekend, I better understand that for video game geeks, this is just a very small and very specific pressure, and doesn’t even compare to larger societal pressures surrounding gender, and body image.

Anime conventions are no place for bigots of any kind. Gender and body image played no part in how these people expressed their fandom or in how they chose to cosplay. This convention (and I have no doubt others like it across the country and possibly around the world) was a safe space for all of those in attendance. I often make a Big Deal here on the blog about the divide between the geeks and the non-geeks and how historically the non-geeks have treated the geeks, but that’s a scenario that’s changed significantly in just three decades, and pales in comparison to how people are treated on the basis of their their body size and shape or their sexual identity. I can’t even imagine how it is for people who have to endure on a daily basis in self-congratulatory “enlightened society”, but everyone had a unquestioned and inarguable place at this convention.

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We sat in line for a panel next to a small group of cosplayers that were joined by a solitary participant who was unknown to them. I had seen this girl wandering around the center, but never in the company of anyone else. She seemed friendly enough, although possibly too friendly for this group of similarly dressed attendees. They were obviously unhappy that she had attached herself to their group because while this solo member attempted to talk to them and to participate in their conversation, they talked around her and never responded to her. I stole a glance in her direction for a while as she was trying to share with them, and the look on her face was heartbreaking at the point that I think she realized that even though she wasn’t feeling welcome, she couldn’t bring herself to break away from people who shared her interest in their particular fandom.

Once the line started moving we found ourselves holding a place in line for a few folks who had to run to the bathroom or some such before we were let into the room. These folks had been eating breakfast in line, and my wife asked if they’d had time to finish before they had to stand up and move, and the young woman immediately started telling my wife about her battle with anorexia, and about how she was working on her recovery, and how strange it felt now that her body was demanding more food every time she ate.

When in line for autographs, another young woman next to us was comfortable striking up immediate conversations with anyone and everyone around her. She told us (and anyone else) about her preference for the older Sailor Moon anime, and not the more recent re-cut and re-dubbed versions. She talked about medical issues. She talked about family issues. She talked about how this was her first convention, and elaborated on her cosplay process (she was there as Merida from Disney’s Brave). She stopped passers-by, called out to cosplayers that she liked, and took every opportunity to speak with people. She was kind and complimentary, but I had a feeling based on the things she said, the way she said them, and the ferocity with which she launched into her life story that she was actively seeking connections with somebody, anybody, and everybody she could engage.

While attending a Pokemon panel emceed by Michele Knotz (the voice of Jessie from Team Rocket in the series, as well as many Pokemon, and voice actress in many other series), I ran into the archetype found at far too many of these geek conventions, the Loud Guys. These attendees believe that heckling is an under-appreciated art form as they shout comments, memes, and turn any event into a forced audience participation event for their personal lulz. I still cannot fathom what drives people to behave like this, although it could be that the attention they get from hitting the right joke at the right time makes them feel connected to other people who “get them”. I really don’t know.

As a detached observer standing outside the flow of foot traffic it was easy to forget the tenet of sonder and view everyone in attendance as one big sea of amazingly attired fans. But during a talent show, one young man took the mic and relayed a spoken word piece that he had written entitled “She is Beautiful”. His piece talked about how his life had been going in the wrong direction as he found himself following his neighborhood friends into gangs and violence as a result of an uncertain future. But then he discovered anime and it’s fandom, and it gave him something to concentrate on that made him feel good. Though conventions and online interactions he was able to find similar fans and new friends and was able to break out of his spiral. The “She” in the title referred to anime itself, and I suppose that under many circumstances it could have some off cheesy as hell, but I can’t say that I remember any time in recent memory that I had been so moved by being allowed a glimpse into someone else’s life.

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My daughter and her friend were cosplaying as characters from the anime Hetalia. My daughter is very much my child. I can lay claim to having introduced her to anime at some point in the cloudy and distant past, but it was her interest and the interest of her friends that really ran with it, taking it far beyond any involvement I have to this day. Like video games for me, anime is one part of the foundation of her identity.

Still, being my child she’s inherited all of the insecurities that I’m convinced are required for geekdom. She’s not outspoken, and she has difficulty talking to people she doesn’t know. It’s taken us years to get her to order her own food at restaurants, and even then she only really feels comfortable ordering at places we frequent. She doesn’t like to stand out and doesn’t like to be singled out; she claims that she would love to act in a play, but admits that she has crippling stage fright that makes that impossible.

She spent months with her friend planning their cosplay outfits. She ordered materials from across the ocean, and they found parts at local stores as well. Their excitement was a palpable force as we got into the car and headed to the center for their inaugural convention experience. I was in half a mind to be concerned; I knew cosplayers tended to get attention at conventions, so for a person who shied away from being called out, how would my daughter handle it? Would it be overwhelming for her? Would she regret her decision and let it turn her off from such participation in the future?

But she did well. Her and her friend were stopped several times by attendees asking to take their picture. When they inevitably ran into others who were cosplaying from the same source, there was at least some level of rapport. Throughout, though, it was obvious that my daughter wasn’t entirely comfortable. She didn’t have the apparatus to deal with this kind of attention, but I noticed that she wasn’t entirely shying away from it either. When a random passer-by saw them and rushed to them and asked for a hug, she obliged. Although neither she nor her friend actually took any pictures themselves, they always allowed themselves to be photographed. The crowning moment was at the end of the day on the last day when we approached the table for an autograph with one of the girl’s favorite voice actors. Knowing how my daughter does when confronted with a situation where she’s forced to talk to someone she doesn’t know — especially if she feels intimidated — I was worried that she’d freeze up. She didn’t, though. She was confident, at least on her personal scale, and was excited enough that she forgot that she should be so self-conscious. It was a small victory at the end of an exhausting weekend, and I was very proud of her.

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Even though it wasn’t “my crowd”, it was a splinter of my crowd. Anime falls under the geek umbrella, and I suppose I knew enough to be dangerous if presented with the right category, so there was some esprit de corps. 

From my daily point of view in spending time within a segment of the geek community, there’s circles within circles within our communities, like any person’s friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and the general population at large. I’ve written (exhaustively, in my opinion) about our community and how it can be horrible and about when it’s not, and I’d always been left dissatisfied with the self-imposed limits on work we allow ourselves to do on our own behalf, about how we put our egos ahead of goodwill even though we should be using our common interests to come together with more cohesion. We spend too much energy on driving ourselves apart when it would be so much easier to let go and allow ourselves to come together.

That was never more in stark relief than after this weekend when I learned how it could be done, and how it should be done, as evidenced by people I had little in common with. The willingness and the ability of the attendees of this convention to flaunt how wrong society is about geeks was astounding; I’ve seen people confident, and now I’ve seen cosplayers at an anime convention, and I realize that the other spaces under the geek umbrella have so much further to go, and could learn so much from these people. The levels of acceptance and of friendship and of pure joy was just off the scale. These people loved their fandom, but it was obvious that they loved the people who loved the fandom just as much.

When we were in line for autographs, the Merida cosplayer was talking to the line-minder who was trying to keep people clear of doorways and out of the aisle. Saying that this was her first convention, the minder replied with something to the effect that your first convention experience will always be the best and the one you really remember. Of course, that made me immediately think of my first convention that first year PAX East was held in Boston. I recalled the Tweet-up where I met people I’d previously only known online, about the spectacle of the show floor, and the panels I attended. If you’re married, then you’ll remember that you might not actually remember anything about your wedding day. It’s the same with your first convention: there’s just so much going on, so many places that demand your attention, so many things to see and do that it’s all over before you realize it, and what you do realize that you didn’t spend enough time focusing on any one thing to retain the photographic memory.

What you have, though, is that feeling in your gut that you experienced something amazing. You might not remember what it was specifically, or you might not be able to remember every little incredible thing that happened during the event, but when you think back to it later it gives you a feeling of excitement and wistfulness that’s even better than just remembering where you were or what you did. Memories seem to fade as we get older, but the emotional impact somehow still remains.

This was my daughter’s first convention, and by the end of it I could see that she had come through it with that exact understanding. Prior to this weekend I’d thought that maybe some day I could bring her to PAX East, but I’m glad that this was her first, real convention experience. The crowd at Another Anime Con was unlike any that I had experienced, and that’s from the point of view of someone with no real horse in the race. I can’t fathom what it must have been like for my daughter. During the very first PAX East keynote, Wil Wheaton said that for gamers, PAX was our home. For my daughter, I can tell that this anime convention — and the greater fandom, and the people that inhabit it — is now her home.

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