Tokyo in Tulsa 2012
Confession: I’ve been burned out on anime for about ten years.
I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with anime, nor do I mean it’s somehow an inadequate hobby, but it’s something I’d drifted away from early in my geek quest and hadn’t thought to revisit for some time. Most of the things I watched back then are now considered “classics”, as I would learn, and are spoken about the way anyone under 30 speaks of the Beatles. I actually heard the words “my dad watched Dragon Ball Z!”
I’m now almost 30, and I felt I had an earned sense of seniority no one would care about. I debated dressing up, eventually deciding on a (sort of) Spike Spiegel costume from Cowboy Bebop, one of my personal favorite animes I desperately hoped someone would remember (I was later told it was airing currently on Cartoon Network and still fairly popular). The “costume” consisted of a yellow dress shirt with the top two buttons undone, a blue neck tie, blue jeans, and dress shoes. I’m almost positive no one thought I looked like Spike. I’m not sure what prevented me from going all out and trying for a blue jacket and green hair. It’s not that I think dressing up itself is wrong in any way, I just can’t bring myself to do it. It was a thing I grappled over for a good chunk of the con. It was a quiet but persistent question. “If these people feel so happy doing this, why can’t I join in the fun?”
And that’s really at the heart of this con and others like it; it’s fun. Nowhere else have I seen such a disparate group of people come together and have such an amazing time. Every possible age group was present. Contrary to the stereotype of the “anime geek” as a white teenage boy, I saw every shade of ethnicity, gender (more than 2), and body shape. Most surprising of all, however, was the absolute lack of any type of judgement. I’m not trying to pander or throw out empty platitudes here, these people had no obvious judgement of one another. Keep in mind this is Oklahoma, referred to as the belt buckle for the Bible Belt, so it was refreshing to see so much open displays of expression and then a complete lack of judgement thereafter.
All that being said, it would be hard for an outsider not to be a little taken aback when they first enter the con. I arrived Friday evening, and despite my lifelong love of comic book weirdness and crazy sci-fi, I’m sure my jaw hitting the floor was audible. It’s hard to describe exactly what I saw. I didn’t have the facilities to grab for my camera or remember any single thing as I was mostly trying to keep my head above water. The amount of costumes was dizzying. Skimpy catgirl outfits nefariously designed to draw the eye towards fleshy parts. Boys who looked like girls who looked like boys. Borgs. Rita Repulsa. There’s an all-female Avengers Team. Wait, there’s two groups of women dressed like Avengers. And I kid you not, a third. It was almost overwhelming.
After a few rounds around the con (and when I’d fully decompressed), I sat down to take notes. A friend called and I answered. She asked how it was, and I still hadn’t formed words worthy of what I was seeing. I just described in real time what was happening in front of me. “There’s a man dressed in an extremely well-done Assassin’s Creed costume sneaking behind the pillars in the main hall. He’s brandishing a fake knife. There’s a tall man with an oversized top hat wrapped in torn black lace that covers his hat and his face. He’s wearing some kind goggles that look like they’re made of old watch parts. He’s got no shirt and giant baggy pants with at least fifty zippers. Assassin’s Creed sneaks up behind Steampunk and fake slits his throat, Steampunk playing along and falling to the ground while his friends begin chasing the assassin through the crowd.” How can you not love that? I know that many of the people involved may take offense to the word, but it’s geeky. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, it’s in the name of our website, but it should be stated that what just occurred was geeky. It was also amazingly inclusive and everyone involved looked like they were having the time of their life. I was jealous.
I’m not sure what my nagging apprehension was to the whole thing. Maybe I was trying to deny my inner geek. I buy American comics religiously. I can tell you anything about the 616 or the 52 and everything in between. I can tell the difference between the Kubert brothers. Self congratulations aside, I could not find it in me to entirely give in to what was happening. Again, I’m not harboring any judgement against these people, hell, I was envious. I just felt…self conscious? How could I feel self deprecating at a place where I questioned the gender of 1 in 5 of the con goers? I never felt like I was being judged by anyone but myself, and it hit me…had seeing people who weren’t ashamed of their hobby forced me to realize I was? It weighed on me for most of the con, but I pushed on to the coverage. I had a job. This was no time for such intense self realizations.
Friday was mostly about getting acclimated. It took a few sweeps of the place before I felt comfortable enough to start talking to the other guests. The average age seemed to be between 16 and 25, with a slight edge to boys. It was genuinely surprising the amount of women that were in attendance. Even a male nerd like me can fall victim to labeling things with the “male nerd” stereotype. It was nice to see an ethnic diversity as well as gender diversity, and not once did I sense judgement from any of the attendees toward one another. This is something I noticed constantly and still amazes me, that such a diverse crowd could come together with virtually no prejudice and have fun. I dodged several hundred person long trains that randomly sprung up throughout the weekend. You’d see Master Chief holding onto a Cat Girl holding onto Deadpool holding onto Boba Fett and all trying to keep up with the next in line, and all grinning ear to ear.
As the night progressed, people began moving into the main hall. I took a seat towards the back wall and rested for a moment. The first band out was the Lizard Police, who I’d seen several times at a local bar called The Soundpony. They put on a great performance, but had a sneaking suspicion half of the crowd had never seen a concert before. After that, a few DJs spun and pretty on a pretty standard dance set. That’s not to say it was bad, but there’s a specific art to making a stand-out dance set, and it mostly involves drugs I’m certain were not in the building. I knew some after party opportunities were taking place across the street at the Double Tree, but I opted for the quietness of home.
I quickly realized that Saturday was the main event. Arriving early, I noticed a substantial increase in people, as well as a drastic increase in the diversity of costumes. I stopped by several workshops, and discovered layers upon layers of things I had no idea existed previous to this con. LARPing was being represented in almost every corner. I must admit, I’m not entirely up to speed on most of it, but I can say I’m now intimately familiar with something called “glomping”, which is apparently just running up behind someone and hugging them extremely hard. There was a 12 year old girl seated next to me who tried her best to help me understand, but I’m admittedly still confused as to why this exists or what its exact purpose might be, but the people in the hour long demonstration seemed extremely entertained. I suppose that’s reason enough.
There was a small conference room located down a side hall that sounded interesting, titled, “Cosplay: A Healthy Motivator”. Two attractive young women were giving a PowerPoint presentation on a projector. It was about what you’d expect, with targeted advice like “don’t sit on your laptop all night” and “stop eating junk food while on your laptop”, but the standout moment was when a member of the audience, a large man dressed as a southern belle, essentially took over the last half of the panel with own personal experiences and “tips”. This exchange was the perfect encapsulation of the event; a crossdresser in his 50s talking health tips with two young women dressed as an angel and Japanese Pippi Longstocking, respectively. I wasn’t sure if anyone else in the room realized how exceptionally amazing this exchange was, but how could they? The entire con was filled with scenarios every bit as bizarre to the outsider, but without a hint of self realization.
I walked in and out of rooms for most of the day, catching bits and pieces of the event and trying to form it all into a cohesive idea, something I could write about. I have to admit, much of the ongoings were beyond me. You don’t realize how quickly you can fall behind the curve of pop culture, even something in which I’m involved most days. The internet can only keep you so informed. So many of the costumes had me completely lost, and when I’d ask who the character was supposed to be, I was even more confused when I attempted to pronounce the names. I’m willfully showing my ignorance here because I don’t want anyone upset or suspecting I’m being patronizing, I’m not, but it needs to be said that a large part of the weekend was spent catching up to something in which I at one time considered myself an expert.
The costume contest seemed to be the big event, and I luckily secured myself a seat early. The main hall was packed. A parade of cosplayers lined the back walls. They shuffled out one at a time, each replete with moves and poses that were obviously well rehearsed. I honestly couldn’t tell you who half of them were, but these folks were dedicated. I took pictures, but my the spotlight drowned out the figures and made them incomprehensible on film. After the initial parade, there were skits put on by groups of the cosplayers, resulting in some of the greatest and utterly incomprehensible moments of the entire show. At first I thought maybe I wasn’t in on the goings ons, as had become standard by this point, but after talking to several dedicated anime fans immediately around me, this wasn’t the case. As near as I can gather, the skits were meant to be homages or famous scenes from anime shows, but instead of the spoken dialogue you’d see in a play, it was snippets from the cartoons they were portraying. Blame it on the sound guy or bad recordings, but the dialogue was complete gibberish. This made for some of the most awkward performances to which I’ve ever borne witness. The stand out had to be My Little Pony set, which, despite the impressive amount of work put into the show, was completely wrecked by the “WHARBLGUGUGLELED” sound shredding out of the speakers. I glanced at the auditorium behind me, and the confused look I had was contagious. Onstage, a father and his two teenage daughters tried in absolute earnest to pull off a complicated stage production, complete with lifesize cut outs, glitter bombs, lights, and of course costumes. You had to admire the work and love put into the show. No one laughed or booed or acted otherwise condemning, and they received a round of applause that was heartwarming. A room filled to the brim with teens and not one snarky jerk? Was I even IN the U.S. anymore?
The contest and prizes were handed out. I’m not sure who the winner was, as the energy drink had punched my kidneys and I was forced to duck out. The rest of the evening was spent wandering from room to room. The gaming hall was impressive, with everything from the newest fighting games to Guitar Hero to D&D on display and available to jump into. More than once I saw huge groups huddled around an intense Smash Bros game. They had full size arcades with Street Fighter and a DDR setup, though I never saw anyone playing. Walking into the game room was like walking into a modern (but slightly less fit) Shaolin temple. Rows upon rows of intense training with nothing but the sound of button mashing echoing throughout. I’d walk by two people engaged in a Dragon Ball Z bout, and the steely determination was almost uncomfortable. I felt like I was walking in on a personal moment, almost as if you’d caught someone at their most focused, when they were on the brink of either failure or victory. This was the only room that felt uninviting, and rightfully so. Who was I to disturb these people with dumb questions?
The end of the con was nigh. I had been introduced to so many new forms of pop culture I wasn’t sure how to process it all. The more I learned, the more I realized how ignorant I actually was to the lifestyle. It had changed so drastically from when I was involved, to the point I barely recognized the thing I once considered an avid hobby. The anime culture in America has grown and morphed and become its own entity, almost separate from the culture from which it spawned. The biggest takeaway for me was the communal spirit these people shared. The utter lack of the typical teen snarkiness we’ve grown to expect is difficult to convey, these were some of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met and had the privilege to get to know. If anything, I learned more about myself and my own geek quest than I learned about anime. I’m well aware how corny that sounds, and guess what? Just like the con-goers, I really don’t care.