I've never been able to attend the same convention twice. I went to a Robotech convention some time in the 80's. In 1996, I went to Anime Expo. In 1997, I went to Otakon. This year, I went to Comic-Con International in San Diego, California. The San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) was unlike any convention I've ever attended, and it was awesome!
I had originally planned to attend Otakon '98 this year with the usual CJAS contingent, but to my dismay, that fell through. Nonetheless, I felt the need to attend at least one convention this year, and the SDCC sounded interesting. Since I'm not really into American comic books anymore, I was a little bit concerned that I wouldn't have as much fun at the SDCC compared to the anime cons I'm used to. When I got to the con, my concerns quickly disappeared. As an anime fan, I was more than satisfied by my Comic-Con experience. One thing to note about the SDCC compared to other cons is that it's huge. The San Diego Convention Center dealers room was monstrously large, and even my Cornell-conditioned legs hurt after walking around so much. A wide range of media arts -- American comic books, foreign comics, alternative comics, anime/manga, movies, television, sci-fi, fantasy, role-playing games, etc. -- was represented at the con. It was interesting to see what kind and how many anime exhibitors were present in the dealers room. From what I saw, anime is bigger than ever. In addition to the big companies (Viz, AD Vision, Pioneer, Central Park Media) promoting their stuff, there were plenty of other anime/manga dealers selling their goods at the con.
Considering that I spent over twice as much money as I did at Otakon '97, I'd say that the SDCC dealers room is at least as good as most anime cons, if not better -- especially considering the fact that, in addition to anime and manga, the dealers room contained so much more in terms of overall content, as well as variety. Some of the more interesting exhibitors I saw in the dealers room included the company that is bringing JoJo's Bizarre Adventure to the US, the company that is bringing a new line of Macross figures to the US, the company bringing Queen Emeraldas toys to the US (I bought a gorgeous Queen Emeraldas figure from these guys), and the super-hyped but very cool-looking Bandai/AnimeVillage booth, where they promoted their models and their future domestic anime releases (Saber Marionette J, Escaflowne, Gundam, CLAMP Campus Detectives). I was very happy to find that my favorite anime poster people from Nikaku Animart were there, and they were probably just as happy, considering how much I spent on posters.
The main shortcoming of the SDCC compared to anime cons was the lack of events specifically related to anime, especially the fan-oriented stuff: panels discussing fandom, anime room parties, anime game shows, anime karaoke, and anime costuming (beyond the usual Sailor Moon/Ranma stuff). However, the general costuming at the SDCC was truly impressive, if you are a sci-fi fan like myself.
On the other hand, Comic-Con had two major anime Guests of Honor, Naoko Takeuchi (the creator of Sailor Moon) and Kia Asamiya (the creator of Silent Möbius, Steam Detectives, and the original character designer for Nadesico). Due to the popularity of Sailor Moon in the US, Naoko Takeuchi's panel was well-attended, as was her autograph session. The panel was entertaining but not so informative, as the questions asked were a bit inane, in my opinion.
The Kia Asamiya panel was much better. It was less crowded, more informative, and very light-hearted. We had the privilege of being the first fans in the world to preview a two-minute test clip of the as-of-yet unreleased Steam Detectives anime (the manga can be found in Viz's MangaVizion). A recluse like Masamune Shirow, Kia Asamiya very rarely makes public appearances, avoids being photographed, had never before visited the United States, and had only once before in his 12-year career done a public signing. Attending his panel discussion, we felt extremely glad and honored to be in his presence. At an anime con, he would have been swarmed by fans, but at the SDCC, the autograph line was very reasonable, and on the first day of signing, he generously drew sketches for as many fans as possible (something he has never done even in Japan). I asked for and got a beautiful sketch of Yuki Saiko from Silent Möbius, which now decorates my wall. Although I've seen and even met a few anime celebrities in the past, I'd never before had anything signed and certainly not anything sketched by them until the SDCC. Had it been an anime convention where more people would have known who Kia Asamiya is, I probably wouldn't have been able to get a sketch.
After waiting in a ridiculously short line, I also got the signature of, and a photograph with (!), Yuko Moriyama, who played Iria in the live-action Zeiram films. Furthermore, straying away from anime a little bit, I got my picture taken with Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Bojay (Jack Stauffer) from Battlestar Galactica, and I saw Mike Teevee from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Uncle Owen from Star Wars -- and the lines were so short! By anime convention standards, even the Naoko Takeuchi line was short. As anime fans catch on to this convention, and as anime becomes more popular in the United States, the lines are only going to get longer. This year, however, it was great.
For the first time in my convention-going history, I actually worked at the con. I helped my sister sell 'zines in the dealers room, which was pretty fun, but not as fun as wandering around looking at cool stuff. She also scored us some press passes, which was cool because the staffers treated me better and gave me access to prime photo spots, but you don't really need a press pass to enjoy the convention -- it was just a perk.
If you can get to San Diego next year, I highly recommend this convention. The staffers were courteous and professional, the entrance fee was reasonable, and the con's organization and handling of events was better than any con I've attended. The dealers room was spacious and well-stocked. There were anime showings throughout the con -- many of them domestic premieres. The guests were more accessible than they would be at most anime cons. If you're at all interested in other media in addition to anime, you can't go wrong with the San Diego Comic-Con.
That such a high-profile and diversified convention had so much to offer anime fans gives me a good feeling. It makes me realize that American fans and fan groups (such as CJAS) have done their job letting the anime companies and dealers know what the fans want, instead of just sitting back and letting the companies decide what the fans "ought to want." It's a great time to be an anime fan in the United States. By participating and by supporting anime at conventions and elsewhere, it'll only get better.
[12/2/04 Update: For further articles by Lawrence Eng, see his anime page.]