Saturday, October 31, 2020

the year without an AWA (almost)

For the first time in 25 years there isn't an Anime Weekend Atlanta happening this weekend in Atlanta. Sure, we're all better off. COVID is still happening and people are still catching it, still suffering crippling life-long disabilities, still losing their lives. It's ridiculous to think an anime convention is worth even the slightest chance of that outcome. And sure, we've spent the past ten months seeing mournful messages from con chairs and events coordinators, invoking force majeure and apologizing for their own no-shows. But AWA hurts a little more because darn it, it's my con.

AWA 1995 program book cover

I'm one of the goofs who looked around in the early 1990s and said to the room full of assembled Atlanta anime fans, other people are starting anime conventions, why aren't we? In hindsight the early years seem whimsical and almost foolish - we called the cheapest convention hotel we knew of, set a date, put out some flyers, sold a bunch of vendors tables and advance badges, and hoped for the best. The day before we all descended upon the Castlegate with boxes of VHS tapes and carts full of our VCRs from home. We built the main stage backdrop and video screens out of lumber from Home Depot and sheets from Wal-Mart and we printed the program books at work when the boss wasn't looking. 

AWA reviewed in the local paper

The first year was a success and we immediately started planning Year Two and we never really stopped. The convention moved from the Castlegate on the north side, to a Holiday Inn on the south side, down by the airport. This is where AWA learned to fine-tune their facility contracts. 

flyer for AWA 1996 promotional room party

Then AWA moved north again to a two-year stint at the Marriott North Central, filling its halls with cosplayers, mislaid Civil War bayonets, and Dessoktoberfests, not to mention our first Japanese guests.

Ippongi Bang at AWA 1997

memories of AWA 1997

vendor's hall at AWA 1998

1999: the convention went further north to the outer reaches of the Atlanta area, to the Gwinnett Marriot, where the guests were Space Ghost and Speed Racer voice actors, the dart wars filled the hallways, and the fans broke the elevator. That's another thing that goes in the contract for next time. 


Star Blazers fans (and voice actor Amy Howard Wilson) at AWA 1999

In the year 2000 AWA moved back to the Perimeter, to the Marriott Perimeter, a classy hotel we pretty much wrecked. 

AWA 2000 dance

guest Brett Weaver with costume contest winner

is "" still around? 

room party flyer for our Animazement party featuring the "suitcase full of drugs"

2001 was a make or break year for the show. AWA was moving to a full on convention center for the first time. The Georgia International Convention Center was on the other end of the compass, down by Hartsfield Airport close to the site of AWA 2. But that wasn't the only challenge. As it happened, AWA took place two weeks after 9/11. There were guest cancellations, there were attendee refunds, there was a convention center full of nervous fans. But like America itself, AWA soldiered on. AWA had a successful 2002 at the same location, but it became clear that the convention needed a new home. Mostly because the Georgia International Convention Center was closing.

guest Neil Nadelman and friend 

AWA 2002 flyer 

2003 put Anime Weekend Atlanta into its current home, the Renaissance Waverly and the Cobb Galleria Convention Center at I-285 and Cobb Parkway. The show has been there ever since. 2004 was when I left the the Atlanta area, moving 950 miles and an international border away. "Packing up for AWA" no longer meant loading the car up with boxes and bags and coolers, but packing a suitcase and getting to the airport on time. Staff meetings became a thing I could not attend, and whatever authority I had with the convention receded into pure ceremony, take the hint, people that still ask if I can make them guests.

2003: AWA's Lloyd Carter & Astro Boy producer Fred Ladd cut the Astro Boy cake

AWA has grown past any reasonable expectation we might have had in 1995. It has become a thing unto itself, sometimes only tangentially involved with the Japanese animation fandom that spawned it. There's a school of thought I occasionally entertain for whom this is terrible news, a wish that the fandom could have stayed a niche fandom. The wish is that anime conventions would remain where they were in 1998, a closed world where everybody pretty much knew everybody else, where the crowd moved from Otakon to Anime Expo to Project A-Kon to Katsucon to AWA to Anime Central and back again, sharing the same stories, watching the same fan-subbed VHS tapes, leering at the same Sailor Moon cosplayers. I see this opinion shared among anime fans my age from time to time and I understand where it comes from. 


AWA's SuperHappyFunSell

But let's face facts, Grandpa. Japanese cartoons weren't going to stand still. New anime TV and films were made every year, new American releases of those cartoons were hitting American eyeballs every season, there were new anime fans blasting into existence every time somebody caught a glimpse of Gundam Wing or Cowboy Bebop or Princess Mononoke or The Big O out of the corner of their eye on a TV screen at Mediaplay. These new fans don't care about how you hauled fifty top loading VCRs across five states to show 5th generation KIKU-TV Raideen episodes to mid-1980s sci-fi fanfic nerds. And why should they?

2010 Anime Hell flyer celebrates the anime bust

AWA swelled like the rest, anime fandom becoming a mid-2000s youth culture touchstone alongside JNCO pants, raves, Nickleback and Coldplay. Doomed companies like Geneon, ADV, and Raijin Comics cashed in while the cashing was good; but the landscape shifted and the anime boom turned into an anime bust. Weirdly enough, people kept coming to anime conventions. Fifty bucks for three days of raves, costumes, anime videos, exclusive merchandise, and hanging out with your friends away from parents and bosses? It's a bargain. Attendance at anime conventions kept right on climbing, past the bust and into the new streaming video landscape, which has spawned its own ecosystem of anime-delivery businesses. The fandom convention world itself was growing way beyond what anybody thought was sensible or sustainable.

onstage at AWA 2012 opening ceremonies

Shonen Knife rockin' out at AWA 2014

the late night crowd at AWA 2015

At least it was... until this year. Like most 2020 conventions, AWA exists only in a virtual state, happening in December. 

The absence of AWA lends itself to a complex mix of emotions. AWA for me was a big chunk of my year, first the endless round of planning meetings and coordination, then the prep work of events and panels, and finally the schlepping of luggage and equipment down to the Waverly. It was a reunion of sorts with my Atlanta friends and friends from all over who also made AWA a priority. For most of the administration it was a thing we sacrificed time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears for. And now, poof, it's gone, and we're filled with both regret and relief. Sure, our thing isn't happening, but maybe this gives us a chance to catch our breath, get off the treadmill, and take a break.

Miyavi and friends at AWA 2018

This unintended year off might wind up being a net positive for the fan convention world. Volunteer organizers can catch up with their lives. Events coordinators can step back and see what works and what doesn't. Maybe the convention can re-evaluate itself, refocus on its core values, jettison some of the more costly or less relevant attractions. Who knows? Maybe anime cons will never return to the days of massive crowds of sweaty fans herded into event halls, all shouting and sweating on each other, a prospect that here in October 2020 disturbs me on a fundamental level.  We don't know what the post-COVID world is going to look like, and that includes anime conventions. 

In the meantime, enjoy your virtual meetups, wear your mask, stay home, and stay safe. Hopefully we'll all get together in 2021. 

-Dave Merrill

1995 was a long time ago, guys. Stay safe

Monday, August 31, 2020

1987 catalog of dreams and VHS tapes

When we talk about 1980s North American anime fandom we tend to emphasize the fan art, newsletters, costumes, tape trading, and other home-grown elements of the fandom. And sure, that's because the DIY stuff is interesting and clumsy and charming. Just as interesting might be the contemporaneous Japanese anime merchandise that American fans were, even then, shelling out their hard earned cash for. How buried in anime merchandise could an 80s anime fan get without having to fly to Japan and fill up some suitcases? Surprisingly buried, actually! 

Before specialized websites and email, we relied on business cards, xeroxed catalogs, and addresses we’d find in classified ads and on convention flyer tables. Nascent "otaku" and the Japanese-American community would shop together at Mitsuwa Plazas from New Jersey to Texas to Chicago. We’d haunt Japanese groceries, comic shops, and toy & hobby retailers, and if we had a stamp to gamble we might shop via mail order with companies like Books Nippan, Nikaku Animart, Kimono My House, and something called Wyvern Web Graphics. 

The mid 80s creation of three Florida anime fans, Wyvern Web Graphics (a wyvern is a legendary bipedal winged dragon) combined anime knowledge, language skills and relationships in Japan to start an anime-merchandise import company at a time when options were few for desperate American anime nerds with a few bucks burning holes in their pockets. Wyvern Web would sell via mail order and would table at a small circuit of SF and comic conventions in the Southeast for a few years.

So what were those 1987 American anime nerds able to purchase? An embarrassing amount of stuff, to be honest. Posters, movie booklets, Roman Albums, postcards, buttons, binders, pencil boxes, stickers, sweatshirts, scores of anime soundtracks on LP and CD, and literally hundreds of official release laser discs and tapes of both VHS and Beta variety. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the April 1987 Wyvern Web catalog. 

Posters were a big item, reasonably priced from $4.50-$6.50. I can recall paying $8 for the full size Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 posters at Atlanta Fantasy Fairs. Of course $6.50 in 1987 dollars would be $26 today. 

I bought the Locke The Superman and the 3-foot Lum posters from Wyvern. That Lum hung in my room for years, garnering sarcastic comments from every female visitor (don’t mind them, Lum, they’re just jealous). 

I'm fairly certain I purchased this Lum wallet from WWG but I'm pretty sure I didn't spend $16 on it. It's more of a coin purse than anything else. It's not listed in their catalog but I bought this Urusei Yatsura pencil case from them; it's one of my favorite pieces of UY merch, demonstrating exactly how well the series fit into the colorful, New Wave design aesthetic of the late 1980s. 

It's honestly kind of humbling when you see exactly what the anime home video market looked like in the 1980s - I recall actual anime on video being hard to come by, but here we see a comprehensive selection of the Japanese anime field. Of course, we have to remember that these hundreds of titles were all in Japanese with none of English subtitles or dubs we take for granted today.

Let's also take a look at these prices and remember it's 1987, the minimum wage is $3.35 an hour, and a Beta copy of the Daicon openings is going to cost you a cool hundred dollars ($236 today). Captain Harlock Arcadia Of My Youth was $146 on VHS – today you could purchase five Blu-Rays of the film for that much money. Bubblegum Crisis part 1 was only $80 ($190 today) and the Fandora OVA was only $64 for the tape, $57 for the laserdisc. Or you could wait a couple of decades and pick up an ex-rental Fandora VHS for 100 yen. 

I’ve never played Persona, but I’ve seen the Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei OVA on sale here from WWG on VHS for a mere $78. Is it essential? Jury’s still out! 

The selection of anime really is impressive, including Harmagedon. Giant Gorg, God Mazinger, three volumes of Galient, and all three Gundam movies. You could drop $120 on Lensman, or $80 on Karuizawa Syndrome - you know, the OVA by Yoshihisa Tagami about the romantic adventures of a freelance cameraman. You could make it a Tagami double feature with his Digital Target Grey for only $113. Or you could take the safe route and buy the crowd-pleasing Macross movie on laser disc for only $64. 

There isn't a price for this Queen Emeraldas Galaxy Express 999 TV special, but I believe I paid $70 for it. At the time I was making minimum wage at the local K-Mart, which meant I worked twenty hours for 45 minutes of video. I think it's worth it - the thing still hasn't received an official English release. Ditto for the other Leiji Matsumoto Queen here, Queen Millennia, a film that really deserves to be seen in the West. Why no Millennia, people? Get with it, and while you’re at it, sell it for less than $150! 

I did not buy this Urusei Yatsura laser disc from WWG - it's a loaner, and has laser rot to boot. But in 1987 it would set you back $64 ($150 today), and I sure hope you copied it to VHS before the laser rot set in. Price-wise, the most expensive item in the catalog is the extended version of the Final Yamato film, which will run you a cool $160 in 1987 dollars, or three hundred sixty four dollars and ninety-three cents here in 2020. That’s more than two dollars a minute to watch the Earth get drowned and Kodai and Yuki finally get it on. 

Music is a big part of anime, and anime music on LP and CD was a big part of things. The CD was still a relatively new format in ‘87 but a surprising amount of titles were available. I didn't pick up this Captain Harlock Symphonic Suite LP until years later. The Macross Song Collection album was a staple in anime fan record collections for years. 

If you bought this Prefectural Earth Defense Force CD back in 1987 it would set you back sixty dollars in today's money, and I think it's worth it just for the title track alone (I didn't get this from WWG, it was a gift). Similarly priced is the Urusei Yatsura Juke Box 2 CD, not to be confused with Urusei Yasura Music File or Urusei Yatsura Music Capsule or Urusei Yatsura Jam Trip. You'll go broke trying to keep up with Urusei Yatsura album releases. 

Rounding out our music selection is one of the most striking anime covers ever, the Zeta Gundam Symphonic Suite with the amazing Masao Yamazaki artwork that takes the anime right out of those anime characters. A bargain at twice the price! 

Wyvern Web’s operation lasted only a few years. Getting this treasure trove of anime merchandise in front of interested and educated buyers ready to shell out seventy or eighty or ninety dollars for VHS tapes in foreign languages was itself a tremendous challenge. The principal business owners relocated to Japan and the stateside end of the Wyvern Web business collapsed fairly quickly, leaving our part of America sadly bereft of high-quality anime merchandise; for a little while, anyway. But their catalog remains, a testament to the wide gulf between the strong desire of anime fans and the not-so-strong purchasing power of anime fan bank accounts. I guess some things never change.

All merchandise from the personal collection of D. Merrill