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