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July 17-19, 2009
Baltimore Convention Center
Baltimore, MD, USA
In the Compromise of 1790, the North and South who had been perpetually at odds with each other agreed on a location for Washington D.C., placing it between Virginia and Maryland in a spot that sat nearly in the center of the Eastern Seaboard. Just an hour away from our country's capital is Baltimore, the site of geekdom's own version of that North-South negotiation. I am, of course, talking about Otakon, a convention that is, without a doubt, the capital of North American anime fandom.
There are a number of factors that make this convention the "capital." Of course, it is the capital in terms of sheer numbers, since people from all across the East Coast (and even other parts of the country) flock to Otakon's location, which allows for attendees from both the north and south. But it is also the cultural capital of anime fandom, in that it is where the panelists, podcasters, bloggers, cosplayers, and other folks come together and meet each other. It's like the American dream of a giant melting pot, except with a lot more sweaty guys dressed as Gaara.
Otakon might not have the industry presence or attendance numbers of Anime Expo on the West Coast, but it is the largest fan-run anime con in the United States, and when that fan-run nature is unleashed in the wide halls of the Baltimore convention center for an entire weekend, it's sure to be the craziest weekend EVER. As a first-time Otakon-goer, I can confirm that, yes, it was indeed the craziest anime convention I have ever attended.
The biggest difference between Otakon and everything else is numbers, and with official attendance at 26,586 this year, it is clear that Otakon has once again proven itself as one of the biggest cons in the country. As a result, a panel about an obscure anime series scheduled opposite a Saturday night concert (often considered a "death slot") can pack the panel room, simply by virtue of the fact that, with so many people at the convention center, there are bound to be hundreds of people who are bored and looking for an event to attend, even during the concert.
That, combined with six panel rooms (not counting workshops), meant that Otakon had, without a doubt, the greatest panel lineup I've ever seen. There was a Leiji Matsumoto panel, a Mecha Appreciation panel, panels about Neo-Shonen and Yoshinobu Nishizaki (run by AWO's Daryl Surat), a panel about recruiting new anime fans (run by the Reverse Thieves), a panel about the word "otaku" (run by Alex Leavitt), a Japanese pro wrestling panel, as well as all of the typical Evangelion and zombie apocalypse panels and such things. Pretty much, if you were interested in anything anime-related, you could find a panel about it at Otakon.
And if you couldn't find a panel about it, you could sure as hell find a dealer selling it. While I only spent about two or three hours total in the Dealer's Room and Artist's Alley, there were a ton of great dealers (including Science Fiction Continuum, with $5 DVDs!) and artists (like Hieng Tang, who sells awesome clothing designs that are actually not even anime-style at all).
In terms of convention organization, things went pretty smoothly. Panels had no significant problems starting up (save for a lack of sound at the GeekNights' "Know Your Creators" panel), and there were techs on hand during all panels to keep any computer problems from slowing down the show. This unfortunately didn't help Daryl Surat, who had his panel shut down by the convention when his clip from Apocalypse Zero during his "Anime's Craziest Deaths" panel went too over-the-top for the staffer who was on-hand moderating.
The guest lineup was simply amazing, and while some guests didn't get as much attention as they should have, there was certainly a guest for nearly every interest. Whether you wanted to meet a director, producer, character designer, voice actor, musician, or translator, whether you liked moe or sci-fi, dubs or subs, you could find somebody interesting at Otakon. The con's ability to bring in high-profile guests should be a model for other fan-run conventions who say "we're fan-run, we can't get the big guests that NYAF and Anime Expo get." Otakon proves year after year that a popular fan-run convention can get guests on par with any professional convention.
As many readers might notice, Ani-Gamers hasn't posted any interviews from Otakon 2009. That's because we were unfortunately not approved for interviews with any of the four great guests we requested (Ishiguro, Yamamoto, Schodt, and Willingham), an outcome which I was not altogether surprised by. What I was taken aback by, however, was that I was never once notified of if I actually was approved for an interview or not. If I had known that the answer to all four requests was "No" by, say, Friday night, I would have been able to adjust my schedule so I could attend the Q&A panels for each of the guests I requested. As hard as the press folks at Otakon worked, with their constant Twitter updates and frequent accommodation of press requests, I would have very much appreciated some prior notice about interviews.
In all this hubbub about panels and press ops, though, let's not forget that conventions have been and always will be about hanging out with fellow fans. Being that it is both a fan-run con AND the "capital of American anime fandom," it is, bar none, the best place to meet other fans. I stayed in a hotel room with the Reverse Thieves and Ogiue Maniax, attended a room party filled with fellow podcasters, ate dinner with Twitter friends, and even ran into someone who I had only met briefly a year ago at a summer program. The greatest thing about Otakon is that you probably already know someone who is at the con, and if you don't, it is the absolute best place to meet someone new!
So, long story short, I loved Otakon 2009 and, time and funds permitting, I will be back next year to experience it all over again. As a fan-run convention, it definitely has its organizational flaws, but nothing beats the attitude that, for one day, pervades the entire Baltimore Convention Center: "We're all fans, and we're all friends. Now let's party!"