Hamacon 2016: General Impressions

hisui_icon_4040_round I now have an official entry at Animecons.com. I have been a featured panelist before this but I never got that illustrious position on the Internet hub for anime conventions. This year at Hamacon has changed all that. It does feel like I have step one very important step forward as a blogger and podcaster. This is not to take away from my previous appearances as a featured panelist at Genericon or Castle Point Anime Convention. Those were definitely fun experiences that paved the road to this point. I doubt this is going to lead to me be a Charles Dunbar styled anime panel professional but I do hope it is less of a fluke and more of an occasional treat.

I happen to attend several more professional anime conventions a year as a function of living in an area with a decent number of larger events happening around NYC. Because of that, I have been accused of not understanding what smaller conventions outside of my area are like. The only anime convention I have been to outside of the Northeast is Anime Expo and that is hardly a small local California relaxacon. So I was curious to see the REAL anime convention as opposed to the corps d’elite of conventions I am used to going to.

Before I go into my convention report proper I will mention two important points. One: This was the 7th year for Hamacon so they have had a few years to really build up a reputation, audience, and overall organization that a convention that just started could never have. In 2015 they had over 3,500 attendees which would still take more than 7 Hamacons to equal the number of people who attended the rather anemic numbers for Otakon 2015 but that is still a great turn out for a smaller local convention. Also, it is clearly doing well enough to fly in someone like me just to be a featured panelist. Therefore it means that while this is hardly the final form of Hamacon it is also possibly not the 100% standard experience one would have at a small convention.

What I am saying is this is probably one of the best examples of a small pure anime convention. If you wanted to know what is probably the premium experience you could have at a small to the medium-sized local convention then Hamacon was probably the ideal way to judge the best a smaller con has to offer.

How do the down-home charms of Hamacon compare to the big city razzle dazzle of Otakon? Let’s find out!

The first thing I noticed when I entered the expo hall was the fact that it was smaller than anime conventions I was used to. If I had to compare it to anything it would be  the Special Edition: NYC comic convention. It had a large main hub that contained the artist alley, the various gaming sections, the workshop area, a special events stage, a food court, an RC car track, and a giant inflatable Charizard. From that area, you could go to the dealer’s room and the two big panel rooms. Just before the entrance was an additional small panel room.

Overall it felt simultaneously very cozy but also very open. The Von Braun Center is a fairly big venue so there was no way that the convention could fill the whole center let alone the hall it was in. Even at the height of the convention, you could easily move around without any real trouble. I’m sort of used to most of my conventions, no matter how small, feeling very crowded. When Anime Fan Fest had a good deal of room it felt sort of deserted. Hamacon felt somewhere in between. It never felt empty but it also never felt like there was any sort of major crunch.

In fact, there was also a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the same complex although they mainly seemed to stay to themselves. Smaller conventions usually have to share their space with other events and this has led from everything to happy coexistence to some nasty incidents. While I often saw people from the Jehovah’s Witnesses conference at the hotel as far as I know everyone mostly kept to themselves and any interactions were politely pleasant. There was no group watching of The Flying House and Superbook but there were no verbal brawls as well.

I will admit I apparently never saw the real extent of the convention because apparently there was a good deal on the convention I never ran into made up of people who spent most of their time outside according to Ed Chavez. There was a nice little river with a waterfall as well as some grassy areas that people flocked to for cosplay pictures and hanging out. The problem was I never really went over there. The few times I went out I was either being driven around or going to town to get some free WiFi. (LOOK! There was a Journey to the West event in Fate/Grand Order. I needed to log on every day to collect Divine Peaches and Talismans. Xuanzang was not going to guide herself to the India.) I woke up and left early enough for my Grand Order runs that I missed most people as most of them were still sleeping.

I have to mention one of the most unusual parts of Hamacon. They had a whole section that was just pachinko machines. They had a fairly diverse selection of machines. They had a fairly older machine with an 80 fantasy girl I could not identify, a machine that might have been from the 70s, a  very popular Cowboy Bebop machine, one of the dozens of Evangelion machines they have made over the years, alongside several others. You had to buy balls to play but you could also cash in your winnings for prizes. You were mostly probably not going to win prizes. So it was the REAL pachinko experience. Well, no one was chain-smoking and the music was not mind numbing so I suppose it is not the 100% real experience.

I did not play any but Ed Chavez showed off his true salaryman spirit by playing an older slot machine-styled machine complete with 3 poker themed reels in the center in addition to all the bumpers and balls that make up a pachinko machine. It was interesting to observe the game loop and how baits people into continuing to play. You pour your little balls in the machine and then they go down what feels like a pinball machine layout complete with flipper and bumpers. Unless you hit a jackpot you lose some but not all of your balls. This continually gives you feeling that you might turn your luck around despite the fact that you’re almost always running out of balls. I think it also makes you lose track of how much you have spent since the ball return can easily throw off your mental count of how much you have spent. It is sort of the next evolution of the standard slot machine.

The dealer’s room, video game room, and table top room were small but fairly diverse. I think at this point I am more interested in what people are buying in the dealer’s room than actually interested in buying anything. I was surprised that the table top room usually had as many people as the  video game room and was actually pretty packed on Saturday. The table top room is rarely empty at other anime conventions but I can’t think of another convention where that section was this popular.

I was  actually taken off guard that someone had made pretty professional looking anime themed wall clocks in the artist alley. They were actually nice enough that they seemed like the sort of items that Japanese companies might ask to be removed from a bigger convention because thewy seemed too much like licensed products.

The big draw for me was the panels at Hamacon. I have generally heard that smaller conventions can be very hit or miss with their panel selection.  You can find a lot of diamonds in the rough at small conventions but the rough can be very rough and extremely plentiful. It seems that Hamacon has really been going out of their way to make sure their panel selection is a cut above. You don’t spend money to fly in Ed Chavez to do panels if you don’t care about them to some degree. But I feel overall even the regular panelists were very good.

Was every panel up to the standard to Otakon’s best? No. Then again not every panel at Otakon is up to the standard of Otakon’s best. I think the fact that I never went to any bad panels all weekend and I spent all weekend in panels very encouraging.

That said I do have some complaints about panels. First of all was the fact that since there were no  breaks in-between panels it meant that all panels were 50 minutes long. I threw me for a bit of a loop all weekend as all my panels are timed to be an hour-long. It made all my setup and presentation a bit of a rush. If Kate had been with me I think I would have dealt with it a bit better but without her to time things I always felt like I had to race through my material. I wish they either had breaks between panels listed on the schedule or t least gave me the full hour.

Also, I think I always had some sort of technical predicament every time I tried to run one of my panels. Once I had to lend my sister’s laptop to Ed so he could run his panel in the small panel room. It never killed any of my panels but it ate up a few additional minutes of each of my panels. Since I was already running behind it also exasperated the problem. There was always technical staff in the room but it made it even more apparent why more conventions have the buffer time between panels.

It is almost impossible to attend an Ed Chavez panel and not learn something. His panel of alcohol themed manga, A Toast To Manga: Drinking Manga, was definitely eye-opening. While it was interesting to learn about the origins of alcohol themed manga and how it grew with the seinen genre the biggest piece of information was the reveal of the ur-bar manga. As it turns out Bar Lemon Heart is the father of all bar related manga. Like how GeGeGe no Kitarō very clearly has shaped every other yokai manga that has come after it Bar Lemon Heart clearly became the template for almost every later alcohol themed series.  I think what surprised me most was I had never heard of the series before that panel so I was a little surprised to find that such an influential manga is otherwise unknown to most people even in the most scholarly parts of western fandom.

The Hot Dads of Anime panel was really inspired because it happened to be held during Father’s Day but really it was an idea that would have been golden any day of the year. It was basically a run down of some of the best and worst dads in anime. The hotter they were they better. So that, of course, means you have the extremes like Shou Tucker in contrast to Maes Hughes with Van Hohenheim landing somewhere in the middle. The panelists also mentioned the merits and flaws of all the dads the featured. Since this was a panel with a distinct appeal to women and gay men there was a whole section of hot dads from otome games. It really seems like another one of those panels that 10 people could do and you would get 10 different takes on the idea.

I admit that everyone loves the Let’s Go Eat Some Italian Food episode of Diamond is Unbreakable. The problem is the STAND PROUD: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure panel made it the center point of the panel by playing the whole thing. It is a great episode to play a clip from but playing the WHOLE THING is just too much.

1. That is far too long for a video at a panel.
2. A little mystery about the conclusion of the episode would be a better hook for people who are unfamiliar with the series.
3. The episode actually only has its full impact because it subverts so many of your expectations about how a normal Jojo’s episode works.

The material outside of the clip was fine but that huge middle around Let’s Go Eat Some Italian Food made the panel feel far too thin especially since it was only 50 minutes long.

The Pain Train is a panel with a collection of strange clips from all over media in the vein of Anime Hell. I think this was the panel with the largest turnout. In fact, the only thing that might have gotten more people would have been the Cosplay Masquerade. I always wish these panels would have a little more anime content but at this point, that is like asking that it rain less in Seattle. You can ask all you want but you better not expect anything to change.

A few comments on the clips from the Pain Train: I have to say it has gotten to the point where Hard Gay clips are no longer a staple of weird Japan collections so his videos have actually become a welcome sight again. Also, I oddly keep running into people talking about Griffin’s Amiibo Corner now that I saw in the Pain Train. I guess that series has hit the overall consciousness of the Internet.

I also attended the little mini concert by Junko Fujiyama. It was a nice little tranquil oasis in the day where I could just relax with some piano music. She is a Japanese artist who currently lives in Atlanta. While she mostly played covers she did play some of her own music as well. She clearly is a fan of Utada Hikaru because she was the only artist to get multiple covers in her set list. She also did a melody of several Studio Ghibli themes which probably got the biggest reaction but that should be no surprise. Junko Fujiyama’s performance was an unexpected treat that was simultaneously classy and reinvigorating.

I think my panels went fairly well. I basically hit the ground running by having to do my  I Hate Sports panel shortly after I got to the convention and did my basic checking in. The panel went well but I really had to cut a bunch of my clips to fit the panel into the time allotted especially after I lost some of that time due to technical hiccups. If nothing else I got up to the Taisho Baseball Girls so I got to the best material in my humble opinion.

I was glad to see a good deal of people coming out for the Epic Grail Battles of History. I was encouraged when the panel got a crowd at AnimeNEXT and that trend continued with Hamacon. Thankfully this panel is extremely modular so I was just able to cut a few clips and still hit everything. It was the only panel that I had quite a few people rush up to me to talk about the panel afterward. If I did not have to go to dinner I would have stayed and talked more about Type-Moon and Servants. This panel once again solidified the idea that the next version of this panels needs Tamamo no Mae. People really love Casko.

Your New Favorite Manga and New Anime for Older Fans are always reliable panels. They work fairly well and always get a good reaction. I did get one or two compliments for the Your New Favorite Manga panel. I think there is a real hunger for manga recommendation panels but overall there are outnumbered by similar anime panels. I think the emphasis of anime at most conventions combined with the flash of video clips make it so anime will also get more attention but there is clearly a demand for more manga panels. I don’t think manga recommendation panels will ever be as prevalent as their anime siblings but a few more would easily fill a niche that is being underserved.

I also was a part of the Opening Ceremonies, State of the Manga Industry, and Vertical Industry Panels. I mostly just got up on stage, made a few bad puns, and then plugged the blog and podcasts for my part of Opening Ceremonies. With State of the Anime Industry, I was pretty much the moderator who asked Ed Chavez about the inside baseball of manga in the US while I chimed in with some comments and opinions of my own. If anything the factors that have led to Yen Press and Seven Seas going from smaller publishers to the two major players was probably the most enlightening part of the discussion.  I then just stayed on the stage and acted as the Ed McMahon to Mr. Chavez’s Johnny Carson during the Vertical Industry panel. I think I added some solid comments in my role as sidekick.

I have to say I really enjoyed being a guest at Hamacon. Despite just being a writer for Reverse Thieves I was treated like a full-fledged guest. I got a great room, was fed yummy food, and always felt like a minor celebrity thanks to the staff. I really just wanted to thank Hamacon for inviting me and then treating me with more courtesy than I probably deserved. As someone who often feels like a minor nobody in the fandom, it was extremely encouraging.

I think Basil really summed up Hamacon very well when he said, “Hamacon is the little convention that punches above its weight class.” If I could compare it to anything it would be that Hamacon feels like Anime Weekend Atlanta’s younger brother. They both are conventions in the Southeast that have an emphasis on good panels, interesting guests, and a commitment to be an anime convention before anything else. While Anime Weekend Atlanta is clearly a much bigger affair it is also three times older than Hamacon.

In a way, I see why people would accuse me of not understanding the banality of smaller conventions. If Hamacon were just the dealer’s room, artist alley, and game room it would be something I might attend for half a day at most. They were all well-run sections of the convention but nothing worth attending three days to explore. The thing that sets Hamacon apart and makes it worth coming to all weekend is the fact that they have the guests, panels, and events to flesh it out into a full weekend if you want to do more than just hanging out with your friends.

At this point, I don’t think that Hamacon is a convention worth travels across half of the US to attend. It still does not have that type of draw. If you live in Alabama you would be foolish not to go. If you live in the Southeast you might want to think about attending at least once.  Everyone else probably wants to keep their eyes on the convention. While it might not be a full-fledged regional convention yet but if it keeps up with the best practices it has implemented I could see it being a top-tier convention everyone talks about in a few years.

 

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