Stranger in a strange land: My time at Colorado’s Animeland Wasabi

Animeland Wasabi

Fifteen degrees and a dusting of snow heralds in the first full day of Animeland Wasabi. After seeing the cosplay at registration yesterday, I wonder how some of the attendees will manage this weather. I’m clothed top to tails and I’m shaking like a dog passing carpet tacks. Nervously I shuffle my notebook and paperwork before glancing at my silver press bracelet, feeling like a fraud.

Let me back up.

Like most of the general public, I am familiar with Pokemon, Princess Mononoke and Sailor Moon, but I am a far cry from an anime fan. So when my editor asked me if I would be interested in covering an anime convention in my home state of Colorado, I said “No.” I politely suggested that while I have nothing against anime, I’m not the guy for the job. “I’m an outsider,” I told him. “Cover it from the perspective of an outsider then.” That was it. I was to cover Animeland Wasabi from the perspective of someone outside the community. This broad assignment should have taken some of the pressure off, but it didn’t. What the hell was I supposed to cover?! In asking for advice, I received everything from “Be prepared to see some weird stuff.” to “Cosplay is a way of life.” I had taken months to prepare for covering this event, but as I was standing in front of the convention center, I realized that my only course of action was to experience the convention firsthand. Which is why I found myself watching medieval sword fighting at nine in the morning.

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Badger Carpio Vice President Castle Wall Productions Photo Rob Walker

The center of the room is packed with a sea of rubber horns and fuzzy ears all baying for the blood of Eric Medved, President of Castle Wall Productions as he and a fellow performer demonstrate a “Robin Hood” style fight. “FINISH HIM!”, screams a girl in bunny ears. The crowd is into it and I can feel myself starting to relax. I don’t know what I expected at an anime convention, but this wasn’t it. This should have been the first clue that expectations would do me no good at Animeland Wasabi. It was the most anachronistic thing I had ever witnessed, a room full of young, bubbly cosplayers treating this carpeted convention room like it was the Roman Colosseum. A week later this room might be used to host an insurance seminar and those in attendance will never know that this very room was host to such passionate, simulated violence. “It’s basically community theatre mixed with a stunt troupe”, says Medved, in-between demonstrations for young convention goers as a part of his Knight’s Academy. “What we use is essentially the same thing you see in Hollywood, minus the wires and the retakes.” When I tell Eric and his troupe that this is my first anime convention, they all laugh, “Ours too! It’s been a really good time!” It felt good to know that I wasn’t alone.

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Voice Actors John DiMaggio and Billy West Photo by Rob Walker

While I don’t have the greatest knowledge of anime, I am a great admirer of animation as a whole, and soon found my way to the panel I had been looking forward to most. Voice actors Billy West (Frye, Futurama, Stimpy, Ren & Stimpy) and John DiMaggio (Bender Futurama, Jake the Dog, Adventure Time) took the stage and I could feel myself grinning like an idiot. “The mile high city should have been built a mile lower. Then I could live here,” chided West as an audience of winter-weary Coloradoans gave a laugh. Seeing these guys live was a dream come true. Both DiMaggio and West answered questions from the audience and told stories about the industry, even offering advice to those who might like to try their hand at a vocal performance career. I was a little surprised that the hall wasn’t packed full of people eager to see these legendary voice actors, but they held the cozy audience quite well regardless. However, it was actually this panel that tipped me off to one of Animeland Wasabi’s strengths. It’s small. While I’ve never had the fortune to attend the San Diego Comic-Con, I’ve heard from friends that the experience is overwhelming and exhausting after the initial excitement wears off. At the ever growing Denver Comic Con last year, if you wanted to see certain celebrity panels, getting in line two hours early became standard. Not that big cons are bad necessarily. The excitement of a large crowd of fans is always fun to experience, but there was certainly a more laid back vibe to this con and I was grateful for it.

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FLCL Scooter Photo by Rob Walker. For more info about this awesome scooter click HERE

It was suggested by many of the attendees that I check out the dealer’s room at some point during the convention. This wouldn’t be hard to do since it is easily the biggest room at the event. As I wander through the hall, I see people selling cosplay wigs, a booth selling gas masks with spikes on them and a gentleman selling an almost complete set of Welcome Back, Kotter dolls (Barbarino and Washington are missing). It doesn’t take me long before I find the Colorado Movie Cars display featuring a real life version of Haruko’s scooter from FLCL. This is in fact an item I recognize. At my brother-in-law’s suggestions I watched the anime years ago. Colorado Movie Cars participates in many of the big events in the area, providing movie replica vehicles for conventions as well as Free Comic Book Day. I was hoping to see a a real-life version of the Mach 5 from Speed Racer, but I was pleased with the scooter just the same. Before leaving the dealer’s room, I ran across a booth selling Japanese snack and drinks. The novelty of purchasing something while only having the slightest idea what it actually is was too much to resist. I purchased a pack of “Real Burger” snacks for a friend. I assume they’re a cookie not unlike an Oreo…I’m guessing.

Animeland Group Shot

Animeland group photo with Hachiko, Dan, Mike and Felicia Photo by Rob Walker

Artist’s Alley is directly in front of the atrium. People were taking large group shots, so during a lull I managed to duck behind a photographer and see what the artists had in store. This room was more in line with what I had “expected” from an aesthetics point of view. Many of the booths were cloaked in pink, displaying classic anime style artwork on book marks, key chains and prints. It was there that I had a chance to chat with artist Tara Fernon. Fernon’s style is gorgeous mix of classical illustration and illuminated colors. A particular piece showing Jake the Dog from Adventure Time in a bucket with baby chicks catches my eye. “I’ve been touring around conventions for a couple of years.” She tells me as a group browses her art. “How are you enjoying yourself so far?” I ask. “It’s good. This is a smaller convention, I’m surprised how many people are here. So it’s a good first convention to go to if you’re new to this sort of thing” She says. “So what makes the anime community different than other communities?” I ask. Fernon takes a second to think before answering. “What I love about anime fans is that they’re really friendly and are really open to communities with down syndrome, autism and aspergers. And everyone is just really welcoming and loving and I love that. The community is so welcoming.” This was not the first time I would hear these sentiments expressed. If I were to put a theme on the convention, it would be one of acceptance.


Eric as Proto Man Photo by Rob Walker

“See you’re not as ignorant as you thought,” a young woman tells me when I call out her Homestuck cosplay. “What brings you guys to the convention?” I ask. “People here are so nice and so fun and you share interests. You get the feeling that no one is judging you,” her companion tells me. Up until that moment, I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that someone at the convention might get judged for their interests. I mean, weren’t we all living in a “post-nerd” climate now? “It’s kind of the same thing of how people like sports, it’s just, we like something else, that’s all,” said Hachiko, a young woman with a cosplay group. “It is a close-knit community and it is a small convention, so all of the locals know each other.” This sentiment is echoed by Eric, a gentleman dressed as Proto Man, who tells me that he’s actually used to staffing conventions and that it’s a relief to go to one as a fan. “There is a big sense of camaraderie and family between everyone [who goes to conventions]. You could show up not knowing anybody and have twenty new almost best friends by the time you leave.” My previous convention experiences have essentially revolved around my established social group. I guess I never conceived that so many of the people in attendance at Animeland Wasabi were there meeting old friends and making new ones.

Hellsing cosplay

Ashley Kalfas Integra Hellsing Cosplay Photo by Rob Walker

I had been told by my friends and NR cohorts that anime culture goes hand in hand with cosplay. While I had seen and interviewed several people in the cosplay community, I was looking for more of an insight. This led me to my final panel of the convention, “Cosplayers Galore” featuring Destiny Nikelsen and Nicole Marie Jean. The panel began with Marie Jean asking, “Does anyone know what this panel is supposed to be about?”

“We could tell you stories, but they tend to get a little awkward. It might be better if we had a moderator.” Nickelsen added. I had to laugh. We often see these folks primped and polished to perfection. From the perspective of an outsider, professional cosplayers can come across as somewhat aloof. However both Nickelsen and Marie Jean were charming, candid and gave a better explanation of the cosplay career than I could have asked for. “It’s our art.” says Marie Jean. “I tell people that I am a walking easel.”  Up until this point, I had only the barest understanding of cosplay, but hadn’t really thought of it in those terms. When you see people in costume, you’re seeing their work, their art. Hours of time and lots of money went into those costumes. Nickelsen and Marie Jean don’t do it for the fame. They do it because they love it. They were down to earth, funny and had excellent advice for getting into the hobby. The rest of the panel was a pleasure as both women told stories about growing up being interested in Transformers and preferring Cryptkeeper dolls over Barbies. It was the perfect panel to end my time at Animeland Wasabi.

My first anime convention was a wonderful experience. Animeland Wasabi was small enough to be relaxed, with a guiding feeling of still being by the fans and for the fans. Everyone I talked to seemed to be having a great time and as I was gathering my notes in the atrium, I caught myself listening to a group of friends. “C’mon. This is the last day to cosplay and have fun before it’s weird to dress up.” That statement typified this convention for me. Eric, the Proto Man cosplayer, told me that there are friends he has, that he only gets to see when he attends conventions. There are people here that only get to dress up and share their interest once a year, making new friends and sharing their love for all things anime. Animeland Wasabi is like a cosplay-filled Brigadoon, disappearing after a brief 52-hour period. Once it’s gone people will have to go back to their regular lives, but at least for another hour, interests will be shared, friendships forged and costumes photographed. Until next year.

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