Monday, April 27, 2020

No Elvis, Beatles, or Clove Cigarettes In 1997 Addison: My A-Kon 8 Story

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months (and if you HAVE been living under a rock for the past few months, congratulations! Turns out that was a really smart choice!) then you’ve noticed that the world is currently struggling through the COVID-19 global pandemic. As we social distance in an effort to stop the spread of this virus, we’re having to cancel pretty much everything, including anime conventions. Among the 2020 cancellations are Anime North, Animazement, Anime Central, Sakuracon, Kawaii Kon, Anime Expo, Otakon,and the oldest continually operating anime convention in the United States, Project A-Kon

I was there for the first ten A-Kons. The convention became a yearly ritual for our Atlanta gang, a revolving crew of which would pile into a few cars and drive twelve hours through Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Meridian, Jackson, Vicksburg, Monroe, Shreveport, Longview, and Tyler, finally reaching the Dallas/Fort Worth “Metroplex.” For most of us it was our first road trip without parents or credit cards or proper vehicle maintenance or even AC on a few trips, and to this day I marvel we got there and back so many times without more disasters than we had. 

You know what anime cons are like these days. They’re overcrowded, there’s a line for everything, lots of events you don’t care about are sucking up con time and space, and you can’t walk five feet without a con staffer telling you to go somewhere else or a con photog complaining you’re ruining their shot? That last A-Kon I went to was just starting to edge into that territory, a lot of fans taking up a lot of space and me in the middle, wondering why I’d come a long way to not have much fun. 

You see it all start to happen in a Let’s Anime column I wrote in 1997, one of the few times I’d sit down and detail an entire A-Kon journey. Since 2020 is going to be the first year since 1990 without an A-Kon, I thought it was time to drag this 1997 piece out, give it a going over, and present it as a historical, entirely subjective, possibly clinically narcissistic document of what it was like to visit one of the few anime cons in America at the time. 

early Project A-Kon program books

First the facts: Project: A-Kon 1997 was held May 30-June 1 at the Harvey Hotel Addison in Addison Texas, just north of Dallas proper. Guests included Amanda Winn, Steve Bennett, Kuni Kimura, Neil Nadelman, and James “Big Trouble In Little China” Hong, along with Hiroyuki Kitakubo, who worked on Mobile Suit Gundam, Pop Chaser, Robot Carnival, and Golden Boy, though none of his extensive animation credits are mentioned in A-Kon’s program book. 

Events at the show included opening ceremonies, karaoke, the costume contest (simply titled “The Cos-Play”), RPG gaming including Battletech, Stellar Horizons, Ani-Mayhem, and Japanimayhem, the Vampire The Masquerade LARP, the Hyper Fighting Challenge video gaming event, Cyberpunk RPG, Bullet Scenarios LARP, a Writing Fan Fiction panel, a cel painting workshop, a scavenger hunt, Anime Jeopardy, a water gun fight, Name That Tune, an Anime Video Contest, a dance, a model and miniature painting contest, an art show, a digital painting demonstration, an acting panel hosted by James Hong, a panel by a gaming lobbying group, and a panel about publishing fiction on the internet. One thing missing: panels about Japanese animation. If you’re noticing a trend, you aren’t mistaken; anime programming was getting thin on the ground at the longest-running anime con in America. 

But don’t take my 2020 word for it, let 1997 Dave tell you the story. 

1. Beer Me 

So you want to know about A-Kon 8? Let me tell you about A-Kon 8. First off we were an hour late even getting started on our 12-hour road trip. Every year the number willing to make this hellish journey shrinks. We’re down to two cars. Pretty soon it’ll be one guy on a motorcycle and the rest of us will get brains and fly. Anyway, 12 hours, bad food, lots of pee breaks, and four state lines later, we arrived in Dallas, checked in, met pals Ed, Neil, Anna, Max, etc., and proceeded to split for buffalo fajitas at a nearby upscale Mexican restaurant. Had the first beer of the con, a Corona. More to follow. The hotel is jammed with people checking in, looking lost, asking where the heck other people are. 

roadside monsters seen on the way to Dallas

Friday morning we get up late, trundle some crap downstairs to set up our fan table, split with Ed to buy liquor and food and get his cooler from his house in Euless (a solid 20 miles away), pet his pets, and return. The dealers room is kinda average and most of the dealers are pissed off because A-Kon decided not to allow SM CDs, which are some sort of Taiwanese-Korean-HK-Malay knockoff pirate brand that come ten bucks cheaper than the genuine article. Most of the day’s liquor run consists of Lone Star, Corona, and some Molson as a nod to our Canadian guests, who don’t drink anyway. Lone Star is one of those beers that respectable beer drinkers (meaning, “snobs”) turn their noses up at. Well, screw ‘em, that means more for me. Plus, shove a lime wedge down the longneck and it ain’t half bad. The prize of the day is Sailor Moon party plates and napkins found at the local Wal-Mart. This gives you an idea of what kind of con this was – I remember more about the liquor stores and the Wal-Mart than I do about the con itself. The fan table work was slow… not many people are interested in fanzines and comics when they can buy lesbian furry zines and anime character cheesecake pin-ups. I know sex sells, but here it seems sex is all that sells. 

the most Sailor Moon we found at this convention

2. The Ballad Of The One-Legged Cigarette Bandit Of A-Kon 8 

Anyway, a friend in Atlanta had arranged with A-Kon that we, the Atlanta crew, would host a “20th anniversary Captain Harlock Party” in the fan video room, ignoring my desperate cries that 1997 is, in fact, the 19th anniversary of the Harlock TV series. It doesn’t matter much, because said friend didn’t actually attend the party and people didn’t seem to care one way or another about Harlock in general. Instead we showed new Corn Pone Flicks stuff and some shorts while I passed out beers and snacks in the back of the room. I had a good time performing vital lime-installation surgery on long-suffering longneck beers, but as it turned out, I missed what has become the second most violent event ever to occur at an A-Kon – the attack of the one-legged cigarette bandit of A-Kon 8! 

The Ballad Of The One-Legged Cigarette Bandit Of A-Kon 8 (as told to Dave Merrill) 

Well, there were a bunch of what looked like middle-aged construction workers hanging out in the hotel bar on Friday night. Along about eleven PM, one of them - bald, obese, sweaty– goes to buy cigarettes. The cigarette machine doesn’t work (explanatory note for 2020 – a “cigarette machine” was a vending machine, found in bars, restaurants, and hotel lobbies, that sold packs of cigarettes. Smokers would insert coins or bills – a pack of smokes was $5 in 1997 – and then pull a knob to select their brand. These machines were once a ubiquitous part of the American landscape). Mister Baldy gets angry and starts whacking it with his cane. He’s got a cane for some reason. I guess he limps. That explains the “one-legged” part. The A-Kon security guys see this guy whacking away at the machine, so they approach him cautiously. Mr. Baldy sees ‘em coming and starts walking away fast. He starts trying doors. They’re all locked. Door after door is locked. The con security is closing in. Things are looking grim for our construction worker pal. Suddenly, a door opens, and Fatty shoots inside. It’s a convention video room – dark, smelly, and full of tubby disheveled guys. He fits right in. Except that the con security guys come right in after him and hit the lights. Busted! This time the hotel security is in on the game as well, and even though Sweaty starts laying about with his cane like Custer at Little Big Horn, he goes down. John Law arrives and Fatty is about to be inserted into the patrol car (a tricky business in and of itself) while a con security guy gives his version of the story to the cop. As the tale ends, Fatty speaks up. 

“Officer, there are a few objections I have to that story...” 

Addison’s Finest turns to Bald, Fat, and Stinky. 

“Aw, shut the FUCK UP!” 

Score one for the Addison Texas Police Department! 

3. I Feel Pretty Drunk 

Anyway I missed the whole thing and had to console myself with another smoking adventure involving my acquaintance “A.” During the video room party I wandered over to the Karaoke event which Ed Hill was running; meaning, Ed had to pay for the karaoke machine himself. I saw the bill. Come on, cheapskate conventions, pony up. Anyway, I sat in the hotel bar and watched non-singers painfully attempt to sing. My pal “A” drunkenly wandered over, and we started talking. He was talking a blue streak about something or other, and when he’s drinking he’s gotta smoke, and it being the 90s he’s gotta smoke clove cigarettes, which I normally hate but I’ll tolerate because, hey, A-Kon only comes once a year. Well, what happens is some con security person comes over and tells him to put the clove out, because smoking anything except cigarettes is illegal in Addison. Pipes, cigars, hookahs, and cloves are all forbidden! It’s even in the con program book. I’m sure there’s a funny story behind that law, but in the meantime, “A” sadly snuffs his clove and we part. An hour later I see “A” again, disturbed, agitated, bouncing off the walls, babbling incoherently, obviously in a clove cigarette withdrawal downward spiral. Don’t start, kids. I wander over and do my part to help out. “Hey man,” I say in my calmest, most down-to-earth tone, “it’s time to call it a night. Hit the sack, huh?” My duty done, I move away from this accident waiting to happen. The scene ends when A-Kon security forcibly puts him to bed in an A-Kon staff room. I guess he was on staff? Or did they just kidnap a guy? 

4. Con In Security 

So the video room party thing ended. A whole multi-state crew of us assembled and proceeded to find somewhere we could plant our beer-soaked carcasses and talk all night, as multi-state assemblages of friends tend to do. We sat in the hall, and security told us to move to the mezzanine. We sat in the mezzanine, and security showed up again and told us to move. “What the f*** is going on?” we howled indignantly. “What kinda f***ing con is this where we can’t f***ing sit out in the con area and f**ing talk? I mean, what the f***?!” Our command of English was noticeably hampered by our liquor intake, nevertheless our point was made, delivered, and comprehended by the hapless security thug, visions of an inebriate-fueled pummeling visibly contorting his features. Finally after consultation with the higher-ups, they deigned to let us sit in an empty panel room. We trooped in and occupied our territory, taking control of our destinies until about four in the morning, at which point I staggered to my hotel room in a desperate race against the rising sun and my own falling consciousness. 

the A-Kon "artists alley" / "fan table" area

5. Let’s Dance 

Saturday saw me rise before noon, eager to accompany Ed and assorted pals on a mystical journey deep into the heart of Dallas in search of liquor, paychecks, and Dealey Plaza. Ed’s new car performed magnificently, Dave III enjoyed seeing where JFK was perforated by a crazed lone gunman, and booze was found. Plus, we got to play with Ed’s dog; nothing takes one’s mind off a convention like trucking on home for pet time. Upon our return we found it 5pm; we’d missed most of the entire day’s worth of convention activities. With fanzines and merch retrieved we again set up our fan table, and were immediately informed, by yet another self-important security jerk, that we were not allowed to sell fan stuff outside of normal dealers room hours. I ask you again, what kinda f***ing con is this? We helped Carl Horn set up his Evangelion-themed martini party, we put on some snazzy duds for Saturday night party hopping, and I handed out souvenir promotional AWA foam-rubber handguns to those waiting in line outside the costume contest. This year the contest had moved from last year’s too-small banquet facility into a too-small con function room. I attempted entrance, was rebuffed by security, entered through another door, stood on a chair in the back of the room to try to see what was going on, and was halted by yet another security goon. Then I tried – okay, get this; sometimes conventions will patch a video feed of popular events to another location, preferably a video room with seating, to provide alternate event viewing options. What A-Kon did here was to patch a video signal to a TV that was placed in a hallway. So if you attempted to watch the costume contest on the TV that was placed specifically for the purposes of watching the costume contest, yet one more security staffer would make you move along because you were blocking traffic… by trying to do the very thing they put the TV there for. 

rare photo of Carl Horn without a tie

Okay, anyway, the rest of the evening included more drinking, more wandering, the Eva party, and some late-night hot tubbing. We did visit the dance, which was a not-great selection of desperately random tunes that failed to inspire the crowd to do anything other than roll their eyes. We left when they started playing “My Sharona.” Okay, it’s a power pop classic, but not exactly a groove-shaking dance floor tune. So we missed the low point of the evening when all present were driven from the room by – what else? The Macarena. Why does God punish us so? What crime have we committed, what offense have we made? Tell me, O Lord! 

The point is, the con was dying a painful Saturday night death, suffocated by bad music, lack of seating at the costume contest, and few parties. We therefore found ourselves back in our hotel suite, bitchin’ and moanin’ with Alec and Neil and the rest, when suddenly we found ourselves blasted into what turned out to be the most interesting thing that happened the entire weekend!! 

6. The Rumble 

Basically, this involved three friends of mine. Friend One (let’s call him Riff) was at the dance, hitting on a chick on the dance floor. Friends Two and Three, Tony and Bernardo, were also at the dance, sitting on the sidelines. The target of Riff’s attention disengaged herself from Riff, prompting derisive comment from Tony. Riff responded with a rude hand gesture, and Bernardo countered with an even ruder comment concerning said hand gesture. Riff riposted by attempting to yank Bernardo over the railing separating them, and failing this, biffed and baffed Bernardo a few times about the head and face. Riff then left the dance, followed closely by an agitated Bernardo. Riff entered our hotel room, where we were all smashed to the gills, and he explained the preceding events to us just in time for Bernardo to bang on the door, demanding to “talk” to Riff. 

At this point I, drunk as a lord, took action. Drunk action. I knew that if I let these two attempt to settle their differences mano y mano, nothing good would come of it. The days are past when men could fight each other to a decision and then shake hands and thereafter be friends. Any combat between these two would result in a lifelong feud and the shattering of a circle of friends that had only recently learned to work together. This situation needed resolving, and only drunk me could do it. So I told them both that Bernardo wasn’t gonna get anywhere near Riff, that Riff wasn’t gonna get anywhere near Bernardo, that what Riff did was wrong and he should feel bad about it, and that my friends weren’t gonna fight each other as long as I could help it. Or words to that effect. Memory is hazy. Like I said, I was blitzed. 

Anyway it seemed to work. Bernardo left, Riff calmed down, and the story was told and re-told to everyone else who came in. The rest of the evening was uneventful, if slightly marred by a little cookie tossing and some technicolor yawning, but again, that’s what happens when you get drunk. Don’t start, kids! 

7. Sunday Morning Coming Down 

Sunday? I sold some zines, finally. Spent some table time sketching some of Dallas’ more distinctive examples of fascinating fandom facial physiognomy (there are some really… interesting looking fans with some interesting fashion choices in the DFW scene. Bad skin, unwashed hair, trucker caps, black trenchcoats in June, poorly fitting t-shirts decorated with airbrush renderings of explicit lesbian furry art). Closed down the table, did some pool volleyball action, and then a large group of us decamped to Planet Hollywood Dallas, which deserves its own review – let’s just say it closed in 2001 and is not missed. 

actual anime fans in their natural habitat
Sunday night we settled up the hotel bill. The “Bernardo/Tony” half the gang left for home in the middle of the night. The rest of us woke up Monday morning, packed everything, said our goodbyes, and started the long drive Atlanta bound. 

Sometime late Saturday night, in between the fistfights and the vomit, Alec and I compared notes about that year’s show. At one point I mentioned “next year” with the caveat “if I DO wind up coming back.” Alec laughed and replied “you’ll be back, Dave. You’re hooked.” And I guess I am, because the thought of returning to Dallas actually does appeal to me, if only for the chance to throw an even better party, to wallpaper the con with flyers for our show and hand out more foam rubber guns. 

But the fact is that A-Kon ‘97 was not a good con. The negatives far outweighed the positives, especially considering the distance traveled and the money spent. The con was over-run with jerky gamers, vampires, Klingons, and other assorted non-anime persons, so gaming-crazed that they felt the need to execute an A-Kon leaflet campaign warning fans to “hang onto their Magic cards because they might get stolen!” The dealers’ room was a clone of last year’s less than stellar dealers room. Video programming was lackluster; better titles were being fansubbed in the hotel rooms. Con guests were only scheduled for one panel, and if you missed it, too bad! The con security staff treated attendees like inmates to be herded and controlled, not like, say, fellow fans. It seems A-Kon’s evolved from a small, fun anime-centered show into a larger, jerkier, gamer-focused convention that happens to have an anime room and some VHS tapes and toys in the dealers room. The plain truth is the convention wasn’t fun for me this year. 

Project A-Kon 8 registration

In A-Kon’s defense, it bears mentioning that two of the organizers had health issues this year and weren’t able to fine tune the con as well as theymight have. Like every show, some things fell through the cracks, for instance like crediting the person that provided the 8th Man artwork seen throughout the program book (that was me, by the way). Since the death of the Dallas Fantasy Fair, there really hasn’t been a convention for the local weenies other than A-Kon, so I imagine A-Kon has to change somewhat to meet the needs of its constituency. And sure, I enjoyed the hot tub, and I enjoyed seeing my friends, and A-Kon did hand out little flashlights as a memory of a previous A-Kon when the power was knocked out for half of the con, that was neat. 

Next year? Will we return to Dallas ready to renew our campaign to force Japanese animation back into the maw of this ostensible Japanese animation convention? Time will tell! 


With a couple decades’ hindsight it’s easy to see where things were headed with A-Kon; more gaming, more SF, more media guests, less “anime”. Or you could say “anime” muscled its way into the mainstream of nerd entertainment and became one more hook to hang a general media pop culture convention onto. Whichever. I attended the 1998 and 1999 Project A-Kons and by the end I was wandering around the DFW Hilton, once more being hassled by security, asking myself why I was bothering coming to Dallas, I had my own convention to worry about! 

anime t-shirt selection circa 1995

But still, 2020 will be the first year since 1990 without a Project A-Kon, and that’s a loss. In spite of whatever grumpy issues I had with the show, A-Kon has entertained thousands and thousands of fans over three decades and the world is poorer without it. 

One more takeaway from 1997 is the brutal truth, reconfirmed during years of event organization, that a successful con is dependent on a bewildering variety of variables. Some of these elements you can control, and others you can’t. Whether or not any particular attendee has a good time – in my book that’s the only yardstick of “success” - is tied up with things like the weather, the attendee’s health, the state of their relationships with their at-con friends, the size of the attendee’s bank account, and whether their expectations were in line with the convention’s goals, or whether the attendee had his or her own hierarchy of needs that might not have anything to do with the convention at all. It comes down to the question, that metric I mentioned earlier: did the attendee have a good time? It’s a roll of the dice for every single badge sold. It turns out in '97 much of A-Kon was interested in rolling the dice for saving throws during RPG gaming, which is not at all what I drove 12 hours for. 

And yet, even if my own 1997 experiences don’t accurately reflect the entire panoply of A-Kon totality, I wasn’t alone in feeling miffed that the first place we’d found to carve out our own territory away from the sneers of the Trekkies and the gamers and the general sci-fi nerds had been turned right back over to them. What had briefly been our own special place was now just like every other convention. Did this experience affect our decisions once as we went home and started our own anime conventions? It sure did. 23 years later, we’re still seeing the effects of those decisions.

Or we will, once we start having conventions again. Stay safe out there everybody! Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home, see you in 2021!

-Dave Merrill