As some of you may know, before I started painting soccer banners, I made anime costumes, mostly for myself, sometimes for friends. Retired from the cosplay world in ’04, partly because it’s a younger man’s game, partly because soccer was starting to horn in on the budget. I was pretty good at it, too; won some awards, hosted instructional panels at conventions. Much like my soccer hobbies, also got a little Martha Stewart with other related crafts, most notably pumpkins, which I still do yearly.
Anyway, my ability to sew Japanese cartoon character outfits and stand in front of people to talk about sewing Japanese cartoon character outfits once got me invited as a cosplay guest of honor to a convention. There’s almost zero soccer content here, so come back another time if you want a gameday adventure. Otherwise, click on through for awkward times!
One day, I get an email from the chairman of a small anime convention in southern California called Ani-Magic. My name had been referred to the con by my friend Charlene, who, at the time, worked in the costume department at the Venetian in Las Vegas when she wasn’t making anime costumes for herself and her buddies. Char speaks highly of my talents, said the email, and would I be interested in being a guest at the convention?
Sure, I said; at the time, I was winding down my cosplay activities, but still had enough fresh material for a panel or two, and since Mike ran a then-popular anime news and review site, he’d be able to set up a few panels. We accepted the invitation and looked forward to receiving our schedules.
The convention was set for early October, so when we didn’t hear back about travel information or panels or anything until late August, we got a little worried. The con chair finally contacted us and asked for our travel and accommodation requirements. At this point, Mike and I are fairly seasoned travelers and pretty familiar with how anime cons work, and specifically that being low-maintenance is a valued quality in domestic (non-Japanese) con guests. We send back a list of panels we’ll host, the name of a writer for Mike’s site who’s in the area and would like a comp badge for appearing with us, a request to try to book our tickets nonstop and with at least one aisle seat (Mike is 6’4″ and I get motion sick easily), and a warning that if the con is providing food, note that I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian and will need some meatless options.
The con lists us on their website as upcoming guests of honor. Or rather, it lists me. There’s a “Michael Clayton” listed, so I guess that’s nice of them to bring one of my uncles out, but my travel companion is Michael Toole.
Three weeks later, we finally get our travel itinerary from the head of guest relations. We’re booked on the now defunct ATA, flying to LAX via Midway both ways. The email from guest relations misspells the name “Michael.” GR also informs us that we will not be told our at-con schedule until the convention itself. This is unusual, as most conventions work out their programming schedules as soon as they can, so as to allow guests and panelists to prepare. It’s also troublesome to us specifically, because what we pack to take to the con depends on what panels we’re doing–if I’m not doing a pumpkin demo, I don’t need to bring knives.
GR then sends us info about the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, which is about 90 minutes outside of LA proper. The shuttle is set to pick us up at 7:30, and there will be only one shuttle, as they have arranged for all their guests to arrive at a similar time. Our flight is set to arrive at 5, and there can be no special accommodations made to get us out of the airport any sooner. They won’t have live programming schedules until day of con, either. GR’s emails still contain some odd spelling and grammar errors; I’m told this is a con run by mostly high school kids, so I let it slide.
OCTOBER 2, 2003
We leave the house at 9, get breakfast, prevent our pal Neil from taking the Chelsea truck route to the airport, and arrive at the airport at 10 for an 11:30 flight…only to wait in a huge check-in line and an even larger security line. I don’t travel as often as my ten million miler dad, but I did inherit his travel habits, mostly in that while flying, I don’t like to fuck around. ATA, evidently, was an airline by and for people who fuck around. We board at 11:10–they are holding the door for us as we clear security. We are not fed on the plane, just given water and those weird little spice cookies. Our seats are middle and window in the mid-rear of the planes. Fortunately, since Midway’s mostly served by low-rent airlines that don’t feed people, their concessions are surprisingly good.
As per itinerary, we arrive at around 5 and the shuttle won’t be by for at least two and a half hours. Hey, I know, my brother lives here, maybe I’ll call him, meet my 5 month old nephew. No dice; they’ve got plans that don’t involve hanging around the airport. The terminal we’re in has no concessions before the security gates, so once you’ve left baggage claim, there’s really not much to do besides sit on a bench and count shuttle vans. (At the time, we were not familiar enough with the airport and area around it to go exploring–here in 2012 I know enough to get over to In-n-Out). We sat outside and tried to collect the mobile numbers of people we’d need that weekend.
The van finally gets us, then collects the other cosplay guest, a gal named G-Chan, who opens by discussing how Mr. T was doing a poor job of trying to be anonymous on her flight. We like G-Chan. The third cosplay guest has come down with food poisoning and had to cancel. The ride to Lancaster takes about 90 minutes, during which the van driver won’t shut up.
We arrive at the hotel, check in, and are greeted by some screeching teenagers, which are just perfect in a tile-floored room at 10 pm after you’ve been in transit for fourteen hours. We also meet the guest relations head, whom I was not expecting to be a middle-aged lady, given her writing skills. She gives us our room keys and meal vouchers for the hotel restaurant; as predicted, the meal vouchers do not include anything I can eat. I ask about having requested vegetarian meals and what became of that request, but immediately think better of this and say we’ll deal with it later. Mike and I head to the room and order a pizza, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door from a woman who introduces herself as Con Mom and who wants to know about the problem at check in. We tell her we’re quite tired from our travel day and will handle it in the morning. I feel kind of like I’ve just handed them J-Lo’s concert rider.
OCTOBER 3, 2003
Friday morning, we hang out poolside, which is where main programming is held. Most conventions are held at hotels with various size ballrooms and meeting rooms, with the largest rooms reserved for a dealers’ room and main programming. Ani-Magic is held at a low-slung hotel built around a courtyard–four single-story strips of rooms frame a courtyard and pool area, with a secondary meeting room hall in an adjacent lot. Main programming is in the courtyard, and the smaller panels and dealers’ room are in the other building. The hotel is in Lancaster, CA, not convenient to anything in particular, not even the Air Force base, and it’s a bit run-down, such that we’re pretty sure we see Nicholas Cage wheeling a shopping cart full of liquor into one of the corner rooms.
Programming does not begin until 2pm, as most of the con attendees are in school. Despite the desert location, there is no water service in the rooms or function spaces, so I join a few folks for a ride to Target to get bottled water and some supplies for a crafts panel I was hosting. At registration, we notice that they have wireless internet, but can’t give us the password. We’re given schedules, which we immediately have to change, because Mike wants his website panel on Saturday when our guest Christian can be there. At most conventions, this is the point where you get a packet with the program book and your name badges. We get the badges–my name is misspelled–but no sign of program books.
At 2pm, I do the cosplay panel with Char, G-Chan, and two of Char’s friends. It goes pretty well, people seem to dig it, and there are a lot of neat costumes in the audience. Things are very low-key, and it’s kind of a neat vibe. Mike and I hang out and people watch for a few hours until opening ceremonies.
The GR head gives us binders assembled by our “personal assistants” for the weekend, which include brochures for local attractions we will not see. These are to be returned to our assistants at the end of the weekend; we leave them in the room. Our assistants are both high school students who’ve never staffed conventions before, which is highly unusual in convention circles, and for good reason. GR staffers are normally con veterans who’re at least 18, preferably 21, and who don’t do the “fanboy” thing so as not to embarrass guests. (This is more of a concern with Japanese guests, but in general you want your con’s guest liasons to be your most professional faces). Mike and I decide to make it easy on these kids by telling them to take a DVD from the pile of freebies we brought as panel door prizes and then to take the rest of the weekend to enjoy themselves.
As at most other cons, there’s a green room for guests’ use; it appears to be an unattended suite with a few bowls of snack food set out. Like I said, it’s pretty casual here.
At opening ceremonies, the con chair introduces us by making a fuss out of our being from the east coast; we really don’t get why that’s a big thing, as nobody at the other conventions we attend makes noise about being from the west coast. I take the mic and ask how many people skipped school to be there, then say “me too!” (I was in my second semester of grad school). As per convention tradition dating back to Hammurabi, the opening ceremonies are mostly very self-congratulatory. Then there was a pretty rad taiko drum show, during which Mike was invited onstage to try his hand.
After the opening ceremonies, it’s time for the cosplay revue, in which various folks get onstage and sing songs while dressed as the characters who sing those songs in cartoons/video games/mall parking lots. Char put this all together, which is why she had the good judgment not to involve me. Mike, however, does take part, as the grand finale is an open group singalong.
Once everyone’s out of costume, Mike and I join Char and some of her friends for a Denny’s run. Unfortunately, the group swells in the way that convention dinner parties often do, which is to say nobody was able to tell the creepy lisping guy with the dragon puppet that his presence was not required. The dinner conversation is almost entirely convention/cosplay drama, all of which was complete horseshit nine years ago so damned if I’m rehashing it now.
OCTOBER 4, 2003
Saturday morning, we meet up with our friend Christian, and our pal Emma. This is the first time we’ve met either one in person, though we’d known both online for some time. In the courtyard, there’s a swap meet/bring n’ buy area, where I get my only souvenir of the weekend–an official Ty Mothra Beanie Baby. Two bucks! What a deal. Mike, Christian, and I host the panel devoted to Mike’s site; the panel room is jam packed with five attendees, none of whom, save Emma, were familiar with the site. A trio of cosplayers from an anime called Sugar walk past, and I introduce them as “Bob Mould, David Barbe, and Malcom Travis,” because jokes are only funny when nobody gets them. There’s also a creepy staring dude who comes in and out of the panel; we end it early and go get Korean food.
That afternoon, I do the Martha Stewart anime crafts panel, poolside, to a crowd of roughly a dozen people, whose numbers dwindle steadily as I do the pumpkin carving demo. I end the panel an hour early and send everyone to Mike’s Dubs that Time Forgot panel. I also bring the carved pumpkin, which later topples and collapses (though repairably); ultimately the pumpkin is abandoned at main programming.
Mike’s panel plays to a legitimately packed and too tiny room, although the crowd won’t shut up. Because this is 2003, there’s a group of Inuyasha fans who insist that he talk about Inuyasha. Mike later complains that he twice had to tell people outright to hush, and was being ignored when shushing the audience in general. We both find this baffling, as he’s done this panel before with larger audiences that seemed genuinely interested in the old anime material. Not here. Later Mike says he overhears an Akira cosplayer explaining to someone that “it’s from Akira, the first anime they ever dubbed.”
Meanwhile, I attend to my guest duties as part of the cosplay workmanship judging, alongside G-Chan and the artist Aimee Major-Sternberger. They’re both wearing elaborate custom dresses; since I’ve just done a crafts panel that can’t be done in costume, I’m wearing a bathing suit and Hello Kitty beach coverup. The costumes we judge are pretty decent, as a whole.
That evening, it’s time for the masquerade. If you’re unfamiliar with anime convention masquerades, they’re typically the centerpiece event on Saturday nights, a contest where individuals and teams enter to show off their costumes and perform torturous skits before a packed house of fans who haven’t yet caught on that this is the time to go to dinner before making the room party rounds. (Many cons have realized this and jettisoned the skit portion in favor of a more tolerable fashion show). Traditionally, the domestic convention guests serve as judges for the contest, and that meant us.
The masquerade, of course, is delayed for a bunch of incomprehensible self-serving announcements. G-chan complains she needs her inhaler; I have a tremendous sinus headache and spend the pregame announcements trying to find the night’s baseball scores. Fortunately, the show only lasts for thirty entries, or about ninety minutes (it’s not uncommon for longer masquerades to reach into 4 hours); we fill our judges’ notebooks with such detailed notes as “I FUCKING HATE YOU,” “MAKE IT STOP,” and “BLOW JOB.”
We adjourn to the green room to deliberate, and this part was kind of cool, experiencing how convention masquerades are judged and awards are given from the other side of the stage. We went more for people who had a “total package” even if their costumes were less than perfect, more for the people who can wear an okay outfit well than someone who can wear a terrific outfit badly. Each judge is also allowed one award they give on their own, typically a gag prize; I’d promised I’d give mine to the worst drag performer of the night, and come to find out weeks later that the rest of his group was upset that I’d given him the (jokey, made-up) award and not them. I also presented my award by first asking if there were any Oakland A’s fans in the audience.
“Cool, y’all lost 3-1 in the 10th!”
OCTOBER 5, 2003
Sunday morning, it hits us. Main programming’s been abandoned. We’ve got nobody to talk to except for Taka, one of the translators who was assisting a since vacated Japanese guest. We’re really bored. See, Friday morning we were chilling, digging the freeform vibe of the con. At this point it’s gotten intolerable.
At most conventions, the staff fills as many rooms as possible with programming for as long as the facility will allow (some go all night, others have to close late night, etc). There’s rarely a moment where there’s nothing on the schedule. Not at Ani-Magic! There are hours long stretches of no programming whatsoever on the schedule, and the panels that are on are poorly publicized, even to their panelists. The main programming courtyard is frequently used for nothing but posing in costume and playing loud Japanese techno. If you’re hosting a panel there, the outdoor format also means you can’t bounce people who aren’t interested in what you’re presenting. At that point on Sunday, however, there was no programming and nobody to whom to try to present. Just a big empty swimming pool courtyard out in the middle of nowhere. If we’d had a rental car, we would have left right then. Instead, we waste time until closing ceremonies, which is very unofficial, so unofficial we stumble upon it by accident.
After closing, Char thanks us for coming and tells us how much she admires us, that when she first started doing costumes she looked to me for inspiration, and she thinks of us as the cool older kids in high school you want to hang out with. I’m taken aback by this, because it’s genuinely sweet and flattering and I always think of myself as a piker as far as costumes go. Then it’s a whole lot of nothing, including watching a Women’s World Cup match, until we go to the end of con dinner. As we’re walking around the grounds after the con has closed, we finally find the convention program book. The photo I sent them makes me look like I’ve washed my face in a deep fryer. This is the least of the book’s problems.
Post-con dinner’s at a serviceable Chinese buffet, in a function room where most of the con staffers keep screaming. Mike and I return to the hotel and call it an early night, since, well, there’s not anything else to do.
OCTOBER 6, 2003
Monday morning, the shuttle arrives to take us back to the airport, only there’s some confusion as to whether or not the con has paid for the special hotel pickup fee. The driver listens to a smooth jazz station where every song involves that shimmery chime sound. The airport’s a mess, ATA specifically, and a can of Pringles costs four dollars. LAX to Midway is full of babies, but we luck out on the Midway to Boston leg, scoring a half-empty flight where the pilot keeps us up on the Sox scores.
So that was my time as a cosplay guest of honor at a convention, an experience that managed to miss the lowest expectations Mike and I had. We had a pretty great time with pals like Char, Christian, and Emma, all of whom we’re close with to this day, but as anime conventions go, you’re better off at MLS Cup.