Steam with a side of Punk: Nekocon 14
By Charles On 8 Nov, 2011 At 10:28 PM | Categorized As Conventions, Featured, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No GravatarHere is more of the Convention Coverage provided by the Staff of Real Otaku Gamer.

It’s always good to see something you like grow and prosper. There’s the satisfaction of knowing where it came from, and the pride in seeing where it’s going. And there’s also the inevitable bragging rights that come with having been there “first.” I’m feeling a bit of this right now, as I have just returned from Nekocon, a medium sized convention held annually in Hampton Roads, VA. I have been a regular attendee of this convention since 2007, when I first attended with a group of friends because I had the free time, and wanted to try something new. Along the way, Nekocon has been an influence on my life akin to the anime and games that I’ve been reflecting on of late, possibly larger than both other mediums at the end of the day.

He makes decent cookies. Courtesy of CIDXII

Nekocon was the first convention I ever deemed a “relax-a-con,” or a weekend where I didn’t do anything (this is also a term I applied to my experience at this year’s Otakon). Neko 07 for me was the first time I ever saw a con as a place where I didn’t need to rush, could take my time, maybe catch a panel, slow-browse the Dealer’s Room, lounge around my hotel room and maybe try my hand at LARPing or something else. And experiencing this kind of casual con environment was extremely easy to attain at Neko, because in all honesty, there was very little to do that year. There were few panels, most of them of the “OMGKAWAII” fan-type, which have never held my attention for very long. The Hampton Roads Convention Center was this huge expanse with lots of empty space for hanging out. And the attached Embassy Suites was (and still is) my favorite hotel of all time, the perfect venue for retreat after a long day in the halls of the con. And for me, this was perfect. I didn’t really need anything else. Neko 07 was the first con I attended where I didn’t attend panels, just made friends and spent money.

This trend of minimal panels and casual vibe persisted for the next few years, as I continued to make the long drive from NY to VA. The 2008 event went by too fast, but was significant to me because it was where I got the idea to do my fieldwork. The 2009 event was where I hosted my first ever panels. And the 2010 event, while a bit of a letdown, was nevertheless a reaffirmation of the same core experience I had come to expect from a south-VA event.

And then came 2011.

I want to preface this by saying that Nekocon 14 was the best experience I’ve ever had at this convention. And I truly mean that. Watching this convention evolve over the past few years has always been something of a trip for me, but seeing the leaps and bounds by which it grew this year was nothing short of amazing. Gone was the notion that this con had minimal programming. Gone was the general idea of lounging in the hall. Gone was the laid back vibe. Nekocon 14 felt more to me like Anime Boston or Anime Next than the Nekocons of old, and believe me, this is a good thing.

Location:

View from above. Courtesy of CIDXII

The Hampton Roads Convention Center is one of the main reasons why Nekocon manages to keep the feel of a small con despite having larger numbers. It’s a wide open space, more akin to the Hartford Convention Center where Connecticon is held, with plenty of floor space, and the panel rooms tucked into the walls. Nothing to disturb the flow, plenty of places to sit. The attached Embassy Suites fits the con as well, with giant, spacious rooms and free breakfast, perfect for a con scene that often relies on cheap food and cramped conditions. I had upwards of 9 people in my room this year on Friday night, but I never felt boxed in (and I even had bed space). The surrounding area of Hampton, VA has plenty of food options within walking distance, enough that I never ate at the same place twice. Plus the shopping mall across the highway is the perfect place to retreat to when the energy of the con starts to get overwhelming. (I actually outlined an entire panel there on Saturday between two other panels, and it was quiet enough to get everything done in under and hour.) But then again, I’ve always extolled the virtues of Nekocon’s location, and have often cited it as the main reason I attended the convention in the first place.

Programming

I was always used to light scheduling at Nekocon. This was one of the only cons that actually had panel space devoted to “Make Your Own Panel” back in 2007 and 2008. And those panels that did happen were either mostly composed of fluff and fandom, or filled up too fast to get into. Nekocon 14 managed to completely reverse this trend.

The theme of the weekend was “Steampunk,” but don’t let that fool you. Aside from having some very good panels looking into steampunk art, design and culture, this was truly a convention for people with diverse interests. I have to open by saying the majority of the panels I attended were ones I was hosting. I delivered 8 panels this year, a personal record for me, and still found time to drop into some others. Also unlike previous years, there were 3 programming rooms in the Embassy Suites devoted to 24 hour video, one straight panel and one workshop.

Courtesy of CIDXII

The reason I compared this con to Anime Boston was due to the nature of the programming. Gone were the majority of the “OMGKAWAII” fare, replaced by serious explorations into anime and Japanese culture. Aside from my own contributions, I sat in on panels devoted to the nature of otaku in Japan, beginner’s guides to both anime and conventions, “Mythbusting” anime, an exploration of Moe culture in Japan, and even one on being a good Dungeon Master. In fact, the variety of panels at Nekocon 14 was among the most varied of any con I’ve been to this year entirely. A lot of this was owed to programming head Bernie Klein, who wanted to expand on the nature of the event and bring in more educational fare, a decision I highly applaud as both a panelist and an attendee. Unlike previous years, this time around there were plenty of events to choose from, regardless of why any particular attendee was at the event. One major surprise of the weekend: Anime Jerry Springer, which was less about anime and more about fandom, but was ridiculous fun nonetheless, and a fine alternative to the crowded rave going on right upstairs.

Commerce

Saturday Night

I’m often very critical of how Nekocon manages it’s Dealer’s Room space, often citing the wide-open avenues that can make the room seem less populated than it is. This year that was less of an issue. In fact, there was more variety at Neko 14 than at many of the other cons I’ve been to this year. But that’s about all I can say about it, as I went into the Room only twice over the weekend, and didn’t really buy anything.

In contrast, the Bazaar was even larger and more open, holding not just artists, but the art show and tabletop gaming sections. Nekocon has always had a thriving artist community, and this year was no exception. But like the Dealer’s Room, I was only in there a few times before panels managed to snag my attention away.

Main Events

…were still skipped by me, but this year in addition to two live bands, they also hosted a Fashion Show by DJ/Designer Takuya Angel. From what I heard, the bands were okay. My full experience with them consisted of bumping into their lead singer twice in the same hallway on two different nights.

Vibe

Real Mandalorians wear kilts. Courtesy of CIDXII

I’ve always loved Nekocon’s vibe. Like any true community-centered convention, it’s the people which make the time well spent. And after a slight hiccup last year, that feeling was back in droves. At no point during the weekend did the energy stop flowing, nor did the con feel “dead.” From early in the morning until late at night there were always people streaming around the HRCC, and casual encounters were once more the rule of the day. Though I didn’t make any new friends this year, it felt good catching up with all my old ones, and I often found myself being dragged off to dinner by different groups each night.

Nekocon 14 exemplifies my assertions that cons are first about community. While this is something I have found to be persistent in many, if not most, of the cons I attend, Nekocon was where I first noticed this phenomenon, and it persists still. From cosplay to conga lines, Nekocon’s true strength has always been its community and the devotion of its attendees, and this year was no different. I’m not surprised the con grew this year, you could see it in the halls and feel it in the air.

Conclusions

I was ready to write this con off after last year. But thankfully that was just a stumble. Nekocon 14 proved that this con can grow and evolve with the best of them. From top-notch programming to strong community energy, Nekocon has a long future ahead of it. This was my “Most Improved” con of 2011, with good reason: if the programming continues along this track, and the community continues to take notice of the quality of the event, Nekocon can be for southern VA what Anime Next is for NJ- a welcome oasis in the sea of fandom, and a place where fans can come to grow in both their social circles, and their participation.

About -

Charles has written for ROG since 2010. An anthropologist and culture lecturer, he has previously been a featured panelist at Anime Boston and Otakon, the first educational guest at Anime USA, and frequently speaks at cons up and down the East Coast. He received his MA in cultural anthropology in 2011, and currently writes on convention culture, sacred culture in media, otaku identity and mythology.

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