Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Zenkaikon, Eyeshine and Cielito lindo

I know a number of people who routinely attend cons: Worldcon, Fairiecon and any number of other Sci-Fi-fantasy-Star-Trek-and-video-gaming conventions around the nation.

Until this weekend the only conventions I had ever attended were annual meetings of the American Association of Museums, Investigative Reporters and Editors and several press associations – not exactly sober affairs, but still imbued with a veneer of professionalism.

But my daughter’s been looking forward to Zenkaikon – the premier Philadelphia-area anime and manga convention – for the past six months, and last weekend was my initiation into a very different world of “cons.”

Let me just say that AAM and IRE could learn a thing or two about throwing a party.

But first things first.

Anime is Japanese animation; manga are Japanese comic books more akin to graphic novels than to most Marvel and DC creations. It has been my daughter’s dream, for some years now, to grow up to be a manga artist/writer/editor. From her first attempts let me tell you, she’s got the chops.

Anime and manga devotees – particularly those in their teens and twenties – often dress up as characters from anime and manga and games such as “Kingdom Hearts,” and sometimes act as those characters – breaking spontaneously into songs associated with them, or performing full-fledged skits. All of which is known as “cosplay.”

With me so far?

Anyway, cosplayers don’t only congregate at cons (there’s a contingent that goes to the annual Sakura Sunday celebration in Fairmount Park so reliably that they’ve been given a stage on which to perform by organizers of the event) but the con is clearly their natural habitat.

Of the thousands of people at Zenkaikon Nov. 7 and 8, I’d guess 85 percent were cosplaying. The rest were artists selling drawing commissions and handmade t-shirts and ceramics, vendors of mass-produced merchandise … and parents. We recognized each other by the amazed look in our eyes. Who knew that so many young people shared our children’s delight in this art form?

The staff at the Radisson – the venue for the event – didn’t know what hit them. A lot of them looked perplexed throughout.

The thing is, there are a lot of anime and manga buffs. And they all lined up early to enter the con. Since the Zenkaikon organizers were understaffed and a little unprepared for attendance to double this year, the lines stretched across much of the Radisson’s property. For hours and hours.

Irritating, but nothing those of us who commuted into Philadelphia during the SEPTA strike hadn’t experienced for the past week.

Only a whole lot better.

Somehow, these young people knew something we SEPTA commuters didn’t. How to enjoy the wait. They called out each other’s character’s names. They smiled and waved and performed for each other. They evinced an easy camaraderie and a ready friendship with each other that, frankly, stunned me. They asked politely if they could hug each other – and then did. I’ve never seen so many people hugging while in line. Or anywhere, for that matter.

And in the two days we were there I saw only one instance of obnoxious behavior -- when one girl cosplaying character from the wildly popular “Naruto” series (fittingly, dressed as one of the villainous characters) shoved another while waiting in line to get an autograph from voice actor Johnny Yong Bosch.

It’s not that I think they all behaved like angels, but at least none of them threw themselves down at the front of the line and refused to budge until the police was called -- like one middle-aged, otherwise sensible-looking woman did at Suburban Station during the SEPTA strike.

At one point during the con my husband and I were standing outside, watching our daughter play a cosplay version of “Duck, Duck, Goose” with a group of other kids. I fretted as my daughter ran around in a long and voluminous dress convinced that any second she would trip and hurt herself and have to be carted out in an ambulance. She didn’t. But we struck up a conversation then with another parent standing by watching her own child in the group.

“I just can’t believe it,” she said to us. “My daughter has Asperger’s [a form of high-functioning autism] and usually doesn’t interact with others well. She spends a lot of her time alone, in her room. But look at her….”

We watched her daughter, not cosplaying, but engaged, having fun, interacting easily.

“I’m shocked,” the girl’s mother said. “She’s out there, making friends.”

None of the dreaded teenage love of social hierarchy was in evidence at this con, and little of the cliquey standoffishness those years are known for. These kids acted more like family and friends than a group of strangers -- tweens and teens and twentysomethings -- who hadn’t met until that day.

Maybe it was the costumes that did it.

And I find myself wishing – however quirky the context -- that this were the way of the world: exuberant and enthusiastic, accepting of difference and warmly convivial.

I’m not sure I can yet count all the gifts that this unusual weekend granted me.

I had real conversations with teenagers and twentysomethings who were articulate and creative and smart and kind. They give me hope that their generation will not muck up the world as badly as my generation did. Maybe, in fact, they’ll mop up our mess.

I was there for my daughter’s first live indie, edge-rock band mini-concert. I saw the look on her face the moment she realized that Eyeshine ( had just become her new favorite band.

And then, as I stood in line to buy Eyeshine’s CD for her, and have it autographed by the band members, I realized that they, too, were not what I had anticipated. Talented. Charismatic. And amiable, rather than emo or surly which I note with some surprise I seem to have expected. I forgive them for finding it so astonishing that someone as old and unhip as me would like their music – if they forgive me the slide into generational prejudice about imagined attitude.

And in the end, the weekend was all about how expectations confound.

As we get older we seem to expect always to see the worst of human nature – particularly in large crowds, particularly surrounded by those whose enthusiasms we don’t share or quite understand.

Moreso if they stand a little bit on the edge of convention (yeah, pun intended).

Sometimes we’re reminded unwittingly, people are just better – more generous, tolerant and loving – than we imagine they are.

The last lesson of the convention? I’m checking out of the Radisson on the second day and the distinguished and dapper concierge asks me why I’ve chosen to stay at the hotel that weekend. Remembering the looks of perplexity bordering on panic I’ve seen on some of the hotel staff’s faces during the con, I hesitate to admit that I’ve been there for that.

But I do admit it.

Accompanying my daughter, I hasten to add.

“Say it with pride,” the concierge says to me. “Think about all the trouble they could be getting into instead of being here, enjoying themselves. I know at their age I was doing much worse things.

“And you’re here with your daughter,” he says. “You’re here experiencing this with her. Isn’t that a great thing?”

It is.


  1. Sounds like an awesome weekend...I would love to have seen Bryan's reactions to all that. I can already sense the amused smirk that I remember.

    Morgan and her friends look terrific.

  2. Sounds like so much fun. I love the thought of a world that is exuberant and enthusiastic...and hope that my guys can be a part of it, too!


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