Being an anime fan out in New Zealand can be a frustrating exercise at times - we get to hear all the news from the large USA conventions with their interesting guests, diverse panels with a variety of topics and the large dealer halls that often have specials for the attendees but we simply don't do things here on the same scale. Armageddon is our local answer to these and while it pays a lot of lip service to the same ideas it is both necessarily smaller and is also a much less focused event.
Now this year isn't the first time I have been to one of these. When it first came into town and was being held at the Micheal Fowler Center (a town hall more usually used for concerts and stage events) I wandered along to see what was available. At the time I was highly unimpressed - it had lacklustre guests, charged expensively for entrance, had few panels or fan driven events and the wares available for purchase were a pretty thin selection uncomfortably sold on a mezzanine floor that was not at all ideal for task. This put me off attending and while I noted the expo coming through the next few years I really didn't pay a lot of attention.
But this year they had more interesting guests, panels that seemed to have potential and I decided to give the expo another go. So on Saturday the 19th of April I got up early on a rainy and cold day to see what the expo had to offer. For starters the venue has changed from the town hall to an Arena space down on the waterfront. One advantage this brings is easy parking underneath the event. Because the expo caters to a younger crowd the vast bulk of attendees seemed to come by bus or be dropped off to spend the day at the expo without actually parking. This meant I had no trouble parking a scant forty minutes before the event opened. The other side effect of this was that the queue was officially outside the arena but the parking had stairway access to the atrium entrance inside the first set of locked doors. Net result was that I was able to wait in a nice dry area that wasn't too cold and it allowed me to read a good fifty pages of a Ken Macleod novel.
Cons being nearly always the last minute panic fests that they are it came as no surprise to me when the ticket booth had issues with the Eftpos machine not working. While I had cash on me to pay for my ticket the event organiser chose to make everyone wait while the eftpos issues were sorted out. Personally I think he should have explained to the crowd the problem and let the cash ready attendees in. Instead he chose to get everyone to wait which led to a certain amount of wry amusement as the staff and early birds like myself joked about the holdup. Still it delayed entry by only ten minutes or so and with ticket in hand I was off to see what the merchants had to offer before going to any of the panels.
To give you a sense of the scale the hall as a whole is designed to hold Basketball games, amongst other things, so the main area was literally squeezed onto a basketball court. Seperating the main theatre/stage from everything else was just a curtain of cloth. Naturally this meant whenever a movie screening was occuring, which started early with a screening of the first hour of Tomb Raider Ascension, that the entire hall could hear it. Admitedly the crowd noise made it a bit more indistinct but given the bass heavy speaker settings being used the rumble was pretty inescapable. But that stage didn't come into use till 10am so everyone bypassed it to head into the merchant stalls.
These were pretty low in number and a bit odd in terms of content. Okay I get the comics stalls, Madman (being an anime vendor) and the various gaming related stalls. Even the minatures and swords vendor made pretty good sense. What threw me a bit was the Wrestling stall. This did seem to be a popular booth with people near it most of the day but science fiction and anime geeks tend to not be big Wrestling fans. The only thing I could put it down to was mainstream appeal for the parents also at the expo and the fact that the wrestling people seemed keen to be there by also providing live wrestling matches in a side annex. Mind you given that the SciFi channel in the US has begun broadcasting wrestling as part of its lineup perhaps it is more me that is out of step with events.
So I first things first I headed to the Madman stand to see what specials they had. One large box of deals lay in the centre of their space so I went for a rummage. Out of that I got a box set of the series 'Fafner' for $30, which satisfied my deal cravings. That was about all I could get from their stand - the crowd was absolutely nuts and the stand was simply innundated with people for the entire day. Sufficiently so that I never was able to actually get to the stand to inspect anything else other than the bargains bin. Probably a good thing for my bank balance really.
So ten minutes spent rummaging gave way to then wandering the rest of
the hall. Dominating the event was the Weta Workshop stand with the
lifesize signature vehicle from Halo. Used in part of the promotional
advertising for the release of Halo 3 this is a film quality replica of
the Puma err... Warthog.
I gotta say seeing it in person, compared to seeing it written up in the local newspaper or in the TV advertisments, was a fun experience. My one niggle with it is that given that the Spartans are supposed to be about my height or slightly taller then the cabin didn't seem large enough to squeeze one in. Especially not someone that big in full exo-skeleton battle armor. That said this vehicle is drivable and as a minor note the Bungie people who came out to New Zealand as part of the Halo 3 launch buildup managed to clip the side of a building with it. Looks like it survived this little experience without much issue - wonder if the building can say the same.
The rest of the stalls seemed a little tame by comparison. That and surprisingly few deals to be found. My only other score of the day was a book on H.R.Giger that I knabbed for $20. This book was one I had looked at while I was in London some years back but couldn't get then. So grabbing it here was a nice perk. But other than that there was little of great note. What colours this a little for me is the fact that I am not a great comic collector and pleasingly these were well represented at the expo. While it wasn't of interest to me seeing a good selection of product as well as a few notable writers and artists present cheered me up a little as to the worth of the expo - at least someone was getting a good selection to peruse.
All in all the stands occupied for me about thirty minutes. That was with me checking most stalls twice just in case I missed something the first time around. By the end of this scan around the place had filled to capacity and moving through the stall area became a slow laborious process from here on in. Later on I twigged to the fact that most people hadn't realised that the corridor running down to the animation and comic panel room was not heavily used and allowed you to bypass the major traffic jams at the Wrestleshop/Dymocks stand area as well as from the Demon Energy to the Gamewizz stands. In those spots, really only two people wide at best, it was always a crush getting through and highlighted the lack of space this layout gave people. My thought would be that perhaps the main stage should have been down the back of the hall where the animation signing area was - most people going to the main stage were there for the full hour panels/showings and not moving so much. That way they would have bled off from the traffic flow as well as, cunning marketing weasel thought here, have to go past all the stalls to get to it. Sadly this wasn't the case and traffic flow was just awful the whole day.
With the stands providing short distraction I settled down to wait for the first panel I was interested in, which was at noon, this meant I opted to watch the Tomb Raider Ascension screening - to debate whether this film would be worth seeing at the theatre or not. My verdict? Certainly not. It is a low budget continuation with the consequent lacks in sets, special effects, acting skill and music talent that that implies. While no one was overtly bad the acting was uninspired and at times verged on campy when they were trying for a serious tone. Still it diverted me for an hour when I decamped to the animation panel room. Finding it empty I settled down and was grateful for the fact that I had both brought a book to read and also had a warm coat to wear.
Y'see, as a sign of the importance the animation panels held to the expo, they were set in a back room that was right next to the airconditioning machinery for the hall. Definitely not a heated room and the machinery made matters worse by being fairly noisy as well making hearing the panelists, if they didn't use the microphone and speaker system, very difficult. It also was too small with the Spike Spencer panel having around fifteen more people than seats present. Spike's panel was fundamentally a big sales session for an audio reading of his book "What Happens at the Con Stays at the Con" - a collection of amusing short stories and annecdotes. However he was a charming speaker with a good sense of humour who kept the whole thing lively and not too much of the straight sell. He certainly is funny, always giving off colour jokes and voices as a running commentary on whatever is happening and he worked the room well. If you haven't had the chance to hear him speak I'd highly recommend it merely to see this running patter in action.
So the hour flew by of his panel and I opted to get some lunch before getting in line for the greatly delayed signing session that Spike Spencer and Liam O'Brien. Lunch didn't really take long as aside from the catering at the expo there wasn't much else close by the event to choose from. So I had an hour to kill before the signing and I went cos-play hunting. This is a trend that is being copied from the US conventions and certainly people have been increasingly putting effort into it year to year. First up was a Spartan from 300 - which naturally I had to photograph next to the Warthog. Now some people I have talked to were less than kind about his costume but talking with him he had problems with what he had originally planned and had a scant two days to recover. For two days emergency work it isn't a bad effort and he certainly had the right attitude of doing it for fun. One nasty side effect of the competition judging the best costume, which occured on Sunday, is a quietly increasing bitchiness and elitism about costume play. Fortunately most of the people present on the Saturday were there because they enjoy putting the costume together for its own sake rather than anything else. What perhaps was a little unfortunate for our Spartan friend was that he was somewhat outclassed by a team of four Spartans who had gone to some trouble with their costumes. Althought they did share one thing - the wounds you can see on his chest and one of the foursome below were all being done by a makeup outfit near the entrance to the expo. It seems they did quite a few wounds and embeleshments for free for the costume players today. I wish I could give them a plug here but I never did remember to find out who they were. Still very cool of them to do these touch up wounds.
These four spent about two months on their costumes, crafting the weapons and shields as well as the outfit itself. It helped they obvious had been doing gym work to make them toned and buff for the day. Indeed a friend of a friend was sufficiently impressed that I was given explicit instructions to get a few photographs of them because they looked that good. This naturally gives me plenty of ribbing opportunity with jokes about various beefcake proclivities. Joking aside these were a dedicted team who made definitely the best Spartans on the day and I hope they rated well in the competition the next day. They certainly were the talk of the day with several people commenting to me about their excellent costumes.
You can also see in the background the 501st Legion stall and the,
now almost obligatory, stormtrooper costume. While I must admit to
getting a little jaded on the whole Star Wars thing these days these
costumes were also really good and it was amusing to hear the bitching a
couple of the troopers were engaged in describing the outfit as 'the
worlds most impractical armor' given the difficulties they had moving in
it. We also had a good Roy Mustang (aka the Flame Alchemist) from Full
Metal Alchemist who had managed to get his costume off E-bay, as I said
to him it is amazing what is available via E-bay these days. A
Frankenstein's Monster rounds out the collection although I believe he
was there in a professional capacity as advertising rather than a home
made costume. Still he was good at striking poses for the camera. But my
pick of the costumes on the day has to be the Zelda and Link pair who
had really gone to quite a bit of trouble and picked parts to play that
suited them well.
All this chasing about kept me entertained right up to when I needed to get into line for the signing. Now I had actually come down to say hello to Liam primarily, whom I had chatted to before briefly at an IRC Voxbox session run by the people over at dubreview, so I had brought my copy of 'Ergo Proxy' for him to sign (a series I like enough to be doing some analysis of.) but not anything for Spike. Fortunately the expo had us covered and provided free signing cards with an image of Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion (which is perhaps the English dub role Spike is most known for in anime circles) and Naruto (whom Liam provides the English voice for). Spike then proceeded to not just sign the card but also deface Shinji to one degree or another. Common touches were beards, glasses and often a moustache - all to give Shinji some desperately needed masculinity. Nice to see the person who had to voice the role finds the same character flaws in Shinji that we the viewers had and sympathises. Indeed as he went on to relate in his voice acting panel he spent large chunks of his time wishing Shinji would grow a backbone and get some resolve rather than always always always running away.
Anyway Liam was very gracious and amazingly actually remembered the IRC chat session as well as looking like he was pleased to see an Ergo Proxy set. It was a crying shame that with the celebrity dinners they had organised to go with the Expo that Liam wasn't one of the dinner sessions. I'd dearly have loved to have longer than the two odd minutes the line permitted to chat with him. Maybe next time you are down this side of the world, Liam.
This meant the next panel I was interested in was Lisa Furukawa's anime music concert which was a good two and a half hours away. Enough time to hear the tail end of Gary Grahams question and answer panel which was interesting and a last spin around the stalls to see if the madness around the Madman stand had settled down at all - no. This did give me the chance to spy Lisa Furukawa selling CDs at the Hub Productions stand. Now I only knew of Lisa from the Otaku Generation podcast where she had been interviewed and samples of her music played. Naturally I brought this up when chatting with her while buying one of her CDs. She was a bit surprised to find that people do listen to the OG podcast out here and related a little about the fun time she had doing that interview.
Even having done that I still had a couple of hours to go. Thankfully I found a seat and lost myself in the aforementioned Ken Macleod novel again while the more child oriented events of the ice-cream eating contest and the Dragonball Z Kamehameha contest (which was exceedingly noisy to say the least) continued on. I must admit with the screaming and shouting I was getting a little tired of the event as a whole by this stage. That changed when the concert started and I was glad I had stuck around for it.
Opening with a preamble about the large influence that Yoko Kanno had had on her, also a favoured musician with me, Lisa started the concert signing and playing her interpretation of 'Inner Universe' the title theme to the Ghost in the Shell : Standalone Complex series season 1. This is a tricky piece to say the least with a fairly demanding vocal range that Lisa handled well. Admitedly she had reworked it to let her avoid going quite as deep in tone as the original but it was very recognisable and a solid reworking. Next came a piece from Beck, a series that I think she expected a little more audience recognition of - unfortunately for Lisa at the time of the Expo only volume 1 of that series had been sold localy so not many present knew it (myself included).
Two more anime themes followed - both of which I have managed to forget the names of as they came from series I not only haven't seen but hadn't heard of before. Lisa then rounded out the concert with one of her own songs, 'Pearl' I believe, before we ran out of time. Having since then also listened to her 'Reaching the Dragon' CD as well as this piece I must admit her style reminds very strongly of Tori Amos and it was a question I meant to ask if she had also been an influence. But it was a good concert that made all the waiting around worthwhile. If you get the chance to hear Lisa in person at an Expo/Conference near you then I highly recommend attending. Here is to more concerts like it at future Expos.
With that over this was the end of the Expo experience for me. So what to make of the Pulp Expo? Well to be honest my opinion of it hasn't really changed. If you enter looking for good merchandising or rare items then by and large the Expo is a failiure. Yes I did collect one or two items at a good price but the range of merchandise and the number of vendors was very limited. If that is what you are coming for then simply save your money - all the items available could be, by and large, obtained for the same price at regular stores. But if you have three odd guests you want to see then it becomes a little more worthwhile. Yes you will have to put up with heavy crowds, a slightly shambolic organisation that means the schedule is nearly always slipping and frankly an emphasis on pandering to the casual visitor rather than the more dedicated fanbase that actually go to the panels. It is that last point that is the most disappointing of all really.