Over the weekend, Wizard World held its 2018 Austin convention, inviting geeks, nerds, gawkers, media, and the curious to check out the festivities. I visited on Friday as everything kicked off, and it was quite a scene as thousands of visitors crawled all over the Austin Convention Center, chatting it up, attending different sessions, and taking photos with noted guests. As I walked in, I nodded at a man that I swore was Kato Kaelin (90s kids will know)—I went up to a him shortly afterward and found out that he was Kato Kaelin and was the event’s M.C. (he was terrific at it, too).
It was a very different experience for me. I’ve attended quite a few anime conventions, but this was my first comic book one. While there’s some overlap, the audiences between each type of convention is fundamentally different, and it affects the programming and procedure. Conventions are full of young people, with the majority, I would say, being ages 15-24. It’s no surprise, then, that the energy level at anime conventions is much higher than at Wizard World Austin, where there were more families as well as more older attendees. Adults who are 30+ tend to have more spending power, so many could pay the sometimes high (over $100) autograph fees; such costs are usually accompanied by loud complaints at anime conventions, even at lower prices.
The atmosphere is different, too. Many of the Wizard World Austin visitors seemed in awe of the convention. But while it has that same pilgrimage feel as anime cons do, the purpose of the visit seems to be different. I spoke to attendees this past weekend who were there to meet one single person or be in the same room as their favorite actors—many were attending by themselves or with just one other person. At anime conventions, larger groups are more typical. In Texas, attendees travel from con to con in order to meet their convention friends and spend time together; guests and panels are often secondary. Late night meetups are the norm as convention hallways at anime cons remain open much later.
The differences are likely subtle to those without much convention experiences, but active con-goers would certainly be able to tell. I was thrown off a little myself. Although I consider myself as much a geek as an otaku, I’m out of my depth in either environment, really. I was reminded of the bible study group I was part of years ago. Three of us were nerds, but the other two were more traditionally so in their fantasy, comic book, and sci-fi interests—I was the token otaku.
Thankfully, Wizard World Austin featured plenty of anime-related guests to help me feel more at home. I spoke with Elizabeth Maxwell, the voice of Ymir, and Mike McFarland, who voices Master Roshi and is heavily involved in scriptwriting and ADR direction (we’ll be posting articles on these two in coming weeks!). I also interviewed Patricia Summersett, who has recently risen to prominence as the voice of Zelda in Breath of the Wild.
All three VAs were kind and generous with their time, and in fact, I noticed a very positive nature to the proceedings overall, including in my chats with non-anime related guests. Lou Ferrigno, who most famously portrayed the Hulk in the 1970s and 80s series (his voice is still used in the MCU films), spent some time with me and it was enlightening. I asked him what he though of the MCU portrayal of the Hulk, and he responded, “Mark Ruffalo is a great actor, but I don’t like it. [The Hulk] should be more serious.”
We also talked about a more intense subject—bullying. Ferrigno was bullied as a child because of his profound hearing loss. I wondered if those experiences were ultimately a good or bad thing for him, and he remarked that they were good in a sense, as they “helped make me who I am.” Ferrigno is passionate about about the topic and offered encouragement for kids suffering through bullying, suggesting, “If you are victimized, you can take action,” suggesting that victims share their concerns with people around them, like parents or police offers, and emphasizing, “The bully is the one with the problem—not you.”
I spent even more time speaking with Kevin Sorbo, best known for playing the title role in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. I grew up watching the series on lazy Saturday afternoons and remarked to Sorbo that the show had a very upbeat tone. He credited the producers and writers for intentionally creating a positive atmosphere with the series. Since that time, Sorbo has been in a variety of shows and movies, including Andromeda, and has recently gained notoriety for his work on Christian films like God’s Not Dead.
But his faith hasn’t always led to career success. “I lost my agent and my manager,” he began, explaining that many in Hollywood were unwilling to work with him, while allies couldn’t find him work. The recent success of films financed by faith organizations and developed for Christian audiences has literally been a godsend, but it also just fits into Sorbo’s life. He grew up in a Christian household and attends a non-denominational church, crediting his pastor for spiritual guidance.
The conversations I had were fantastic and event was, in one sense, unreal—I told Jerry Mathers and Lou Ferrigno that I grew up watching them, rubbed shoulders (literally) with David Tennant, and exchanged retweets with Kato Kaelin. But I also found Wizard World Austin to be grounded in people, making it every bit as “real” and authentic as anime conventions. It wasn’t a place of celebrity as much as a celebration of nerd culture and the people who made it happen, both behind the camera and those watching from out in front, and the weird sort of love that bonds us all—even for an otaku in a sea of Whovians.