Convention turns Detroit into a fantasy land

Every year around Halloween weekend, downtown Detroit becomes a fantasy land. For three and a half days, East Jefferson Avenue is overrun with superheroes, fairies, samurai, alchemists, pirates and ninjas — all flocking to metro Detroit’s biggest anime convention: Youmacon.

Youmacon is a convention that celebrates Japanese popular culture and its influence on American culture over the past few decades. It began as a small convention in 2005, but with last year’s events bringing in a crowd of over 12,000 people from around the world, it is one of the fastest growing conferences in the country.

This year, Youmacon took place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3. Its events are hosted in Detroit’s Renaissance Center and Cobo Center, located within a 10-minute walk of each other along Detroit’s riverfront.

According to Youmacon officials, in 2011 Youmacon became the first event to ever completely sell out the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, the tallest hotel in the Western Hemisphere. Calvin’s Anime Club has attended Youmacon for the past four years. Sarah Fraleigh, current acting president of the Anime Club, says that attending the convention is an unparalleled opportunity for anime fans.

“Youmacon provides a very open, accepting atmosphere to hang out with a variety of passionate fans and meet some of the big name celebrities in the industry,” said Fraleigh. “Every year it’s a great bonding experience for all members of the club, full of priceless memories.”

Con-goers praise Youmacon for its friendly atmosphere and the bonding experiences it offers for fans to meet other fans.

“It’s a really fun experience,” said Rae Harring, a high school student from Midland who was dressed as a troll from the popular webcomic “Homestuck.” “It’s a good way to meet new people … I make a lot of friends every con.”

Youmacon features 24-hour continuous programming and events, consisting of panels, autograph sessions, two rave dances, a masquerade, video game tournaments, photo shoots and more, from Thursday afternoon to Sunday evening.

Every year dozens of famous voice actors from anime and video games, internet celebrities, Japanese bands and directors and producers of anime also attend. Con-goers can attend panels hosted by these guests and there are also opportunities to meet, take pictures with and get autographs from them.

Most of the event’s programming is focused around Japanese anime, but it also caters to those interested in comic books, video games, mainstream American cartoons and other fandoms.

“There are a lot of superheroes as well as Doctor Who characters and Harry Potter characters, so you don’t have to be completely interested in anime,” said Rebecca Spada, a college graduate from the Detroit area who has been attending Youmacon for eight years.

Harring said that many of the characters walking around would be easily recognizable by most non-anime fans.

“Especially with a big con like Youmacon, it’s not just anime,” said Harring. “You’ll see people from movies and TV shows; you’ll see storm troopers; it’s almost like Comic Con.”

According to Andrew Lebandowski, a Michigan college student attending the convention with a group of friends, Youmacon is still a worthwhile experience even for those who know nothing about anime.

“I’ve never really watched any anime,” said Lebandowski, “so I have no experience with any of this culturally. I get the mainstream American characters, but the Japanese stuff I don’t really understand as much. But, it’s still worth it.”

Most con attendees dress up as their favorite characters, an activity commonly known as “cosplay.” Some costumes are purchased, but many of them are handmade and complete with props and wigs. They range from simple outfits thrown together to lavish garments and accessories which can take weeks or months to put together.

Anthony Bellmon, a college friend of Lebandowski, said that cosplay helps fans identify each other and makes it easier for them to meet people who like the same things that they do.

“[Cosplay] helps you find people with similar interests,” said Bellmon. “If we dress up as [bank heisters from] Payday, we’re gonna find people who like Payday.”

Harring and Spada also commented on the vibrant and friendly atmosphere that cosplay creates.

“A part of the convention is seeing people get enthusiastic about the anime and shows that they watch, and the way they do that is through cosplay,” said Harring.

“You don’t have to do it in order to get the full con experience, but it is fun. You can run up to your favorite character and ask them for a picture or ask them for a hug,” said Spada. “It’s very communal.”

Lebandowski said that the con’s cosplay culture sets it apart from a normal convention.

“If they didn’t have [cosplay], I’d be pretty disappointed,” said Lebandowski. “Just normal people walking around in T-shirts is boring.”

Cosplay items can also be purchased at the convention’s Dealer’s Room and Artist’s Alley, which feature over 100 vendors and artists from around the world. Attendees can buy typical anime merchandise like key chains and T-shirts, as well as posters of original artwork, Japanese cultural items and much more.

Youmacon typically attracts a demographic of college age students in their 20s, but fans of all ages are not uncommon. Ages range all the way from toddlers accompanied by their parents to senior citizens.

Spada said that con-goers are especially welcoming of all ages.

“It’s for anybody to enjoy — you’re not going to feel segregated by going to any panels just because they’re full of young people,” said Spada.

In addition to merchandise, food, hotel and travel costs, attendees must purchase a one, two or three day badge. Thursday’s programming is open to the public from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., but for the rest of the weekend, badges are required to gain access to panels and the Dealer’s room. If guests pre-register online, prices can be cheaper.

Spada says that the prices for Youmacon are not bad at all because the value is very good compared to other conventions.

Youmacon attendees rank the convention very highly against other conventions in the area, although it doesn’t always run smoothly because Youmacon is mostly staffed by volunteers.

“It has its good moments, but they’re a little unorganized at times,” said college student Aldrach Libo-on. One of the dances, he said, was scheduled for midnight but started an hour and half late. Lines for autographs were also moved around at the last minute, giving little or no notice to attendees. Lines in general can be very long, with some attendees waiting an hour in line for an autograph or queuing an hour or two ahead of time for a panel just to get a good seat.

Even so, fans said that given the chance, they would definitely attend Youmacon again.

“It’s fun because you get to do so many different things that you don’t normally get to do on a daily basis,” said college student Sean Qashat. When asked to rate Youmacon, he and his friends gave a clear, enthusiastic reply.

“A plus, plus, plus, plus,” they said.