The Japanese phenomenon of anime has, at this point, long since taken Americans by storm. What was once a fringe fandom that encompassed Japanese animation, comics, and video games has established itself firmly as part of mainstream pop culture — witness the rise of regional anime conventions, like Detroit's Youmacon. Now in its 11th year, Youmacon is expecting more than 18,000 attendees, and stands as the 10th largest anime convention in the U.S.
It's a far cry from when the convention's founder, Morgan Kollin, got his first taste of the art form as a child in the '80s. "I literally grew up watching anime, everything from Voltron to Star Blazers," he says. But anime was hard to come by in those days — Kollin says he used to have to save up to buy import VHS tapes ("for a ridiculous price of $30 dollars for two episodes").
By Kollin's reckoning, anime enjoyed a huge bump in the late '90s as networks like SyFy and Cartoon Network added more Japanese animation to its programming. "They started showing really amazing, groundbreaking series like Outlaw Star and Cowboy BeBop," he says, "Those really captured the imagination of people and made it a lot more mainstream." And things exploded from there.
One hallmark of anime conventions are its cosplayers, or a subculture of superfans who create intricate, detailed costumes and dress as their favorite characters. Many conventions award prizes for the best costumes. "Cosplay has been one of those things that it started off with a handful of people, and usually these people would be featured during the costume contests at all these conventions," Kollin says. "But more and more, people decided that they just wanted to dress up as their favorite characters, even if they weren't competing." In fact, Kollin counts himself as an avid cosplayer. He says this year he'll be attending his festival as Sonic the Hedgehog's mustachioed villain Dr. Eggman.
Speaking of Sonic, this year's Youmacon will feature a special performance by Crush 40, aka Jun Senoue, the composer of the Sonic video games. "This is going to be their first U.S. public performance ever," Kollin says, adding that the group's only other stateside performances have been at private Sega events. Another musical act to look out for is Steam Powered Giraffe, "a vaudeville-style mechanical band" (you have to see it to believe it).
Other Youmacon happenings include refreshments at a Japanese-style "maid cafe," an expanded table-top gaming section, and an extensive 28,000-square-foot video game section, with consoles, PCs, and arcade games all on freeplay. Kollin also notes that Cobo Hall will be open 24 hours, with nonstop programming planned throughout the weekend. There will even be "live-action" versions of video games like Mario Party, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man events.
"We like to think that we can offer a lot more than a comic con can, because most comic conventions these days are just a big dealers' row, where you come in there, all you can do is buy some stuff for a few hours and pay for a few autographs," Kollin says. "We offer more programming than a person could actually experience if they attended our event five times over."
Convention fans are a diehard bunch, and it's not uncommon for fans to travel a long distance to attend multiple events. That's why Kollin says another goal with Youmacon was to help make Detroit a destination on the circuit. And by Kollin's measure, it's worked.
"We've been spending 10 years now dispelling all of the terrible myths about Detroit and assuring people that we actually have a thriving economy and we're not that scary place that everyone imagined us having in the '70s and '80s," he says.
He notes that the majority of Youmacon attendees come from well outside of the southeastern Michigan region. "We actually have people that have traveled from all across the U.S., and we actually have an international following at this time," he says. "We have a full contingent that's been coming in now from Australia and Sweden. We have individuals that come from England, Spain, France, the Philippines, China, and even Japan."
Youmacon is Thursday, Oct. 29 through Sunday, Nov. 1; see website for full schedule; Events at the Renaissance Center, 400 Renaissance Dr., Detroit and Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit; youmacon.com; registration varies from $20-$60 depending on day.