Friday, May 2, 2014

President Dog Takes On... Zenkaikon 2014!

Hey everyone, welcome to a President Dog Takes On... special feature covering the 2014 edition of Zenkaikon from Lancaster, PA!

This was a rare opportunity for me to get out and take a trip to visit an anime convention on my own as just an attendee, which I value highly in multiple respects. In the interest of full disclosure, the only major anime convention I get to participate in is Baltimore's Otakon convention, the second-largest of its kind in the U.S., but as a staff member. Needless to say, this limits what I can and see on my own as my priority is to help the actual paying attendees have the most amazing convention experience possible, though I get rewarded with other perks that am not at liberty to divulge. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything, but it's nice to witness the convention experience from the other viewpoint every so often.

Due to other obligations I could only attend the Saturday portion of Zenkaikon, but was still an absolute blast and I'd like to share with all of you my journey, some highlights and great memories I'll be taking away from this excursion.

First of all, the location for this convention, in my opinion, is excellent in both travel time relevant to where I live (basically a 1 hour, straight shot ride from northeastern Maryland that barely required GPS assistance) and the actual building, surrounding area and parking. The organizers of this convention selected the Lancaster County Convention Center and the adjoining Marriott hotel and it could not have been more suitable for a convention of its size. Unlike Otakon, which has to able to accommodate nearly 35,000 people over its weekend plus cram as many video rooms, panels rooms and other activities as possible into nearly every available space in the Baltimore Convention Center (even having to utilize the Baltimore Arena for its masquerade), Zenkaikon is a much more intimate, small-scale convention (approximately 4,000 attendees this year) which means a significantly larger amount of breathing room. Lines were never too long for any major event (except for maybe an autograph or two) and unless you were at the very tail end of a line, you could easily get a decent seat for a panel. To go along with that, props definitely go out to whoever set up the seating for the panel rooms. There was never a lack of seating for anything, even major events like the big voice actor's panel; I wasn't anywhere near the front of any given line throughout the day, but still managed to get a seat roughly 5-6 rows away from the stage at worst to any given panel. Granted, the one event that may have flown in the face of this would've been the masquerade, but I typically don't attend those and didn't in this case either. Another big plus came in the form of discounted parking for the local parking garages, which I was quite pleasantly surprised to see. I always approve of anything that keeps extra money in our wallets and parking is always a racket in normal cases, so big time thanks for cutting my parking expenses by more than half. One last location-related positive was the abundance of quality food options in the immediate area of the convention center. Beyond a random Subway sandwich shop, all the restaurants I saw in surrounding area of the con were local non-chain eateries, from a little hole-in-the-wall pizzeria (where I got an excellent, well-filled calzone for dinner), to a smoothie shop to an an actual Japanese restaurant, not more than a couple minutes walk away from the con at most. Not even Baltimore can boast that relevant to the BCC's location. Let's also not forget that in the same adjacent area, there is the oldest continually operating farmer's market IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY in the Lancaster Central Market. Regardless of what you personally go to Lancaster for initially, if you are ever there on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday morning or afternoon, go to that market. You will not regret it.

Anyway, on to the events themselves and I'll be going step by step throughout my journey through Zenkaikon, starting from registration to the end. I started my day by easing my way into things, heading to a video room and watching, of all things, Super GALS! Yes, I know I just reviewed it and I own the whole thing already, but I wanted to see if anyone else knew about the show. Sadly, most people seemed to peek in, saw what was being shown and promptly left. Granted, I think the showing had a couple of strikes against it: 1) they were showing the dub and 2) they were showing the first four episodes, which to the untrained eye aren't all that exciting (except for maybe the moment where Ran slaps Aya in the face in episode 1). Oh well, their loss. 

After watching a few episodes, I headed over to the vendor/artist's alley hall to do some exploring and not too far along into my journey I had my first big awesome moment. I ran right into one of the big guests of the convention, Doug Walker. For those of you who don't know, Mr. Walker is the man behind The Nostalgia Critic, a fairly popular Internet reviewer character and the mastermind behind the website, which hosts dozens of other online reviewing personalities. Of course I didn't want to be a bother to him during what appeared to be some free time in his certainly busy schedule, I asked for a quick hello, picture and handshake, to which he was more than gracious enough to oblige. Apologies for the terrible quality on the picture, but I only had time to get it with the front camera on my cell phone. 

After that exciting moment, I headed on my main reason for going to the artist's area, meeting up with one of my favorite artists, and at this point, friends, Jessi, who runs the excellent nerdy webcomic Geeks Next Door along with her husband Matt. I've given them a lot of business through conventions over the years and I've always praised their works immensely. Plus they're just wonderfully nice people to put up with me always hunting them down at cons and distracting them from their business. Seriously, check out the webcomic and buy a shirt or something from them, they deserve it. I mean, if Jessi's willing to dress up as a donut-themed Sailor Scout, the least you can do is check her webcomic out.

After catching up with my friends it was finally time to do some shopping, which means indulging in some art for the most part. I didn't bring a lot of funds, put I did pick up a few prints that caught my eye for one reason or another, such as an odd King of the Hill/Sailor Moon crossover, a stylized graveyard that the artist originally made out of paper scraps, a sweet Shaun of the Dead poster and an additional badge of a delightfully manic Harley Quinn. Maybe one of these days I'll do a feature on all the art I've collected from cons, because I certainly have my fair share.

Next on my agenda was my first big panel, the big collected Voice Actor's panel with, among others, the other major guest I came to see, Jim Cummings. Best known for his work with Disney animation, most people will know Mr. Cummings as the voices for Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Darkwing Duck and many more. He was even part of the singing voice for Scar in The Lion King, which seriously shows off his skill. Many didn't even recognize him for that since the blending of his voice during the song was so seamless. Along with him at this panel were four other voice actors:

  • Marc Swint, known as The Engineer in his work with online reviewer Bennett the Sage and his major role in the anime for Mass Effect as Mason.
  • Greg Houser, a veteran of voice over in several fields as well as roles in the recent Evangelion movies.
  • Bill Rogers, the current (not original, as there was some confusion at the panel) voice for Brock in the Pokemon anime, as well as roles in Gravitation, Boogiepop Phantom and Genshiken.
  • and finally Brina Palencia, the voice for Ciel in Black Butler, Natsuki from the movie Summer Wars, Tony Tony Chopper in One Piece, Mad Moxxi from the Borderlands video games and many more.
The panel consisted of two major parts, a few sessions of fan Q&A, and my personal favorite, reading from famous movie scenes as their respective characters. Since this part was too good to pass up, I filmed it to preserve and share with all of you. Please enjoy and forgive any jitters from my handheld camera.

Following that panel I took a little time to eat and explore the various gaming areas, both an expansive area for board, card and tabletop games with an impressive library of games for all to play and rather intimate video game room that include a few arcade machines, such as this excellently preserved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cabinet. 

 Later on I attended a more dedicated Q&A with Jim Cummings, where he went a bit more in depth on his background and the business of voiceovers, from being the class clown of a Catholic school in Ohio to shaping the childhoods of multiple generations from his iconic characters. He also shared a few funny stories and bits of insight, such as a certain musing about how much fun villains are as their own characters and if they ever get a song, it's usually a tango or something of the sort, unlike heroes whose musical choices aren't nearly as fun. I was also lucky enough to get his autograph and a picture with him afterwards and I value his time spent amongst us, the fandom. 

With another big meet and greet out of the way, I then shifted to having some real fun and attended a panel on bad video game cartoons which turned out to be a real hoot. To give any of you a tip as to how to either run a convention panel or pick which ones to attend, leading off by dumping out several huge bags of candy and promising to toss out every single piece to the crowd is a good way to start. We were encouraged to make fun of the terrible cartoons, which consisted of an episode of Captain N: The Game Master (Episode 8, “Mr. and Mrs. Mother Brain”) and a episode of the Saturday morning Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (Season 2, episode 1, “Game Guy”), to which the snarky quips and chocolate flew to all, not to mention other weird things, like (no fooling) a plush Hungry Little Caterpillar I grabbed for shouting out how terrible and off-model Rotor the Walrus looked in the Sonic episode we watched. Yes, the same Hungry Little Catterpillar from your elementary school library. In between shows we had random bad trivia games and even worse NES challenge competitions, though I think the problem was in the competitors rather than the games, which made it more hilarious and more agonizing to watch people fail at completing basic things such as getting through World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. as fast as possible or knocking out Glass Joe in Punch-Out!!. I will give them a little slack about trying to get through the first level of Contra on three lives, that does take a little practice. At the end of the panel, they even made cleaning up everything into a game which they rewarded people with random junk prizes. I cleaned up and got a DVD copy of the awful Will Ferrell/Jon Heder figure skating movie Blades of Glory to go with my Hungry Little Caterpillar plush. Weirdest prizes ever. 

So after that blur of sugar-rushing weirdness I thought I'd wrap up the day with a pair of panels run by Doug Walker himself, the first being a quite stimulating discussion panel on movies, specifically ones where we have a differing opinion to our peers. Whether we enjoyed a movie the majority of people hated or we couldn't stand a film that everyone praised, it was up for discussion here and made for a very engaging and entertaining group exercise on expressing our own structured opinions despite what the majority thinks, which as always been a personal driver for me and this blog as a whole. Unfortunately I didn't get called on for my personal choice of movie, which would've been Shrek 2 and its appealing to the lowest common denominator, but those who did share praised films such as The Rocketeer and the recent Ender's Game movie, while deriding popular films such as Frozen, The Nightmare Before Christmas (providing an interesting comparison to the classic Land of Oz books) and even such supposed classics as The Breakfast Club. Following that panel, along with a game of convention-style musical chairs involving leaving the panel room and getting in line to back into the same panel room, we had a more dedicated Q&A towards The Nostalgia Critic and Doug's website as a whole. Doug went into details about learning from mistakes and projects that failed to find their audience, as well as more about his personal favorite choices of his catalog of work. He really expressed his love for all forms of media and showed to us that the only way to succeed in anything creative is to try everything you can and learn from all the experiences. And of course someone had to get him to do his classic Nostalgia Critic freakout over the Bat Credit Card from his review of Batman and Robin. 

Also, enjoy this funny scene of Doug interacting with a flirty dragon hand puppet in the dealer's room:

Alas, that was all for me for this one day as the siren song of the road home and my bed was calling and I could not stay longer. Overall, I think Zenkaikon was a wonderful experience and a refreshing change of pace from the big cons I'm so used to attending and working. It really felt like you could do anything and everything you wanted without waiting in never-ending lines or fighting through crowds. From the guest lineup to the layout of the space to all the fans and attendees involved, everything went smoothly and pleasantly and makes me want to come back next year, hopefully for an entire weekend in that case. Don't get me wrong, I love the atmosphere and fellowship that Otakon and its tens of thousands bring each summer, but for a more focused experience, a con such as Zenkaikon was most definitely worthwhile. To wrap this up, I'll share a few nice pieces of cosplay I found in my journeys throughout the convention center halls and encourage you all to come back for another edition of President Dog Takes On... where I'll (hopefully) be getting back into the swing of reviewing anime. Enjoy!