Unconventional Conventions: What Is DerpyCon? 

For the past decade, Derpycon has brought happiness to guests of all ages by being a fun low-key convention. Which for many, was the first step needed to feel like life was back to normal.

The convention circuit is alive and well again. This fall marked the return of the in-person nerd symposium, with Dragoncon in Atlanta, Pax West in Seattle, GenCon in Indianapolis, and even — I kid you not — the Necronomicon out in Tampa, the centralized hubs for all things unconventional have returned. With the largest showcases in New York Comic-Con, having gone live this past October, and the world’s biggest convention, San Diego Comic-Con, expected back again this past Thanksgiving weekend. 

But how did we even get to this point? This strange time period in history where every sundry of fandom began having its own unique assemblies?  Well, the rise of the convention began late in the 1930s. During the first-ever ‘World Science Fiction Convention’, or Worldcon, a small not-for-profit event done in conjunction with the historically lauded ‘World of Tomorrow’.

the original world of tomorrow in black and white
A rare photograph of the original World of Tomorrow

The second most expensive event ever created on American soil, The World of Tomorrow’s sole purpose was to distract and entertain. To uplift the American spirit by giving it hope for a better future. At a time where the country was suffering from the woes of the Great Depression. The World of Tomorrow was a carnival about scientific possibilities. It inspired much about contemporary science fiction, later, even serving as the architectural design template for Disney’s Epcot Center.

Worldcon on the other hand? This was sort of The World of Tomorrow’s nerdy step-sibling. Meant to be more of a geeky basement sideshow while the big futuristic fair was going on.

Yet, of these two events, it was actually Worldcon that had ended up having more staying power. Mostly, because it was cheaper to produce. In the following years since their debuts, it was Worldcon that became the mecca for all things science fiction. Serving as host to Science Fiction’s most prestigious accolades in the Hugo Awards, and later, the Chesley Awards. Noteworthy guests in attendance of the first-ever Worldcon were writers Isaac Asimov, John W. Campbell, and even, an unknown fanzine magazine editor known as Myrtle R. Douglas. A woman who, along with her boyfriend, literary agent Forest J. Ackerman, became the progenitors of the first conventional ‘Fan Costume’ — better known today as the popular subculture of Cosplay.

Popular as these early Science Fiction conventions were, due to the onset of WWII, priorities shifted in terms of entertainment. As draft enlistments increased, conventional gatherings for all things entertainment became less-and-less appealing. But it was around this period, that a different medium began to circulate around the American zeitgeist. Where easy-to-read colored picture magazines, sometimes serving as US military propaganda, grew ever-increasing in popularity. Marking the beginnings of a new cultural phenomenon we now know as the Golden Age of Comic Books

A boom arrived in America just after the great war. Spending was lavish for those who returned home. The 1950s into the 1960s saw an unprecedented interest in pop culture and Maddison Avenue advertising sold ads at every corner of opportunity. Taking a page out of the classical Science Fiction Conventions, comic enthusiasts followed suit by placing ads out and hosting their own, creating tiny gatherings of comic interest across the nation. Over time, the convention had evolved, becoming popular, elaborate, and widespread, until one very unique convention stood out during the dawn of the 1970s.

It was called the Golden State Comics Convention. It was little more than what the original Worldcon had to offer, with only 300 people in attendance and a tiny signing and meet-and-greet, all packed into a small hotel basement. The convention did, however, feature a few creative legends in its first attendance. These included the creator of Captain America: Marvel’s Jack Kirby, along with the acclaimed science fiction author: Ray Bradbury. 

The GSCC was a major hit in the community. It would later be renamed the one and only, San Diego Comic-Con, known by today’s standards, as the greatest held yearly convention in the world. From just a humble gathering of just a few hundred attendees turned into a yearly phenomenon of thousands, and later, hundreds-of-thousands, over the course of four decades, with over one-hundred million dollars worth of profits made in the city of San Diego during convention season, and no stop in sight for SDCC’s size and scope. At least, up until it all came to a blinding halt when the pandemic began. 

crowd at san diego comic con
A normal crowd at San Diego Comic-Con before Pandemic

Last year, held almost no in-person conventions. Something which hadn’t happened since the early days of WWII. Through much effort, along with vaccines, mask mandates, and a lot of sanitation measures, conventions are now back, and things have seemingly gone back to normal. 

But what is normal? Statistically speaking, unvaccinated children and those at higher comorbidity risks, especially for people of color, have had a much more disruptive experience with Covid-19 — making attendance at such large-scale events feel somewhat… terrifying. 

Since the pandemic began, an unprecedented amount of women have left the workforce, with childcare costs hitting an all-time high due to labor scarcity, and the cost of living growing desparingly high due to inflation and unprecedented supply chain constraints. The great resignation is seeing people quit their jobs in historic numbers. It’s gotten so crazy, that we as a nation, have already almost forgotten that this year actually began with an assault on Capitol Hill. The first time a mob had ever breached the chambers.

Also, there are Covid variants now. Another wave of Delta cases is on the rise right now, with an even greater risk of the new Omnicron variant. The death count for Covid-19 has now crossed over 750,000 people in this country alone (at the time of writing this) and is on pace to more than triple the number of American casualties lost during WWII (291,557).

Suffice to say, I don’t think things are back to normal. Nor do I think it ever will be. I, like many others who’ve encountered loss-after-loss over the past year, am on the more reserved side of Covid-19, and would rather have tested the waters on a smaller in-person convention circuit, than say, New York Comic Con’s 150,000 attendees this past month. 

Which is why I was ecstatic to find that the last convention I attended pre-pandemic — which just so happens to fall on the smaller volume scale of attendance compared to those historically germ-riddled cesspools aforementioned above — was having an in-person event again. The delightful DerpyCon. Returned after a two-year in-person hiatus and one DerpyCon online. 

charlie explains a derpycon

DerpyCon is a New Jersey multi-genre convention that began in 2012 with a focus on anime, gaming, sci-fi, manga, comics, and more. The convention has run every October since its inception in Morristown, NJ. Its first big event was in 2014, with a guest list of only 700 attendees, but since then, has only gotten bigger, doubling in size and space. Branding-wise, DerpyCon attracts a lot of the Bronie community, as it’s seemingly named after Derpy, the googly-eyed My Little Pony from the popular animated series, later turned-internet meme. The convention administrators do claim, however, that this is of no relation.

This year, Derpycon was set at the Hyatt in New Brunswick, NJ, the city that I’ve called home for the past decade. Like so many others, I wanted to do an in-person event again, and so, feeling slightly more courageous after a third vaccine, l thought DerpyCon would be the best convention to cover. So I intended to cover it as a journalist…  

But also, went a trip down memory lane about life before the Coronavirus…

 

Day One

In the facile attempts of pretending that life is good and back to semi-normal, we at first, remember the very things that make us human. Needs. Desires. The moments that take the breath away. Platitudes of hope spoken in stark contrast with the cognitive dissonant reality of anxiety. Comparing ourselves to the existential other and how we choose to act by comparison. The fear of missing out. The longing for human intimacy. For some, it was finding solace around groups of people. For others, it was the very things about the external other people that absolutely terrify us. 

Which is why it took me ninety-six seconds to decide to touch the door handle. 

I don’t touch such things on bare skin. Not anymore, at least. Not without gloves or sanitizer or the sleeves of my shirt jacket. At the very least, sometimes, while a door is being opened, I like to play a game of swiftly leaping through the gap, getting by via the seat of my pants, hopefully, without touching a thing, right after someone opens it. Trying best to hold my breath as I pass within less than six feet of distance as air particles are exchanged with this random degenerate stranger. Masks on both our faces be damned. Air particles are how disease happens. Because, when you’re that close, it can travel through the sides of a facemask, and into the very nostrils of a paranoid weirdo humanoid, such as myself.

Thankfully, the other, rotating main set of doors I’d neglected to see, allowed for ease of access into the Hyatt hotel. Capacious enough to maintain six feet of distance while slowly rotating people ins-and-out contact-free. I had gotten through the door. The hard part was over. The rest was getting back in the saddle.

Immediately, left of the entrance, was a series of rocks stacked atop of one another. A tranquil cairn of stones attached by invisible rods that stood tall as stalactites, jutting from out of the ground. It was an artificially recreated cavern. The prime location for a photo op — which is what the people were doing on those rocks both at that moment and throughout the weekend. 

Conventions are places to take selfies. Upon entering, was no exception. Fall was, after all, the season for photographs, Halloween costumes, and Cosplay. A reminder that the moment just had to be encapsulated on Snapchat or Instagram. Else it never happened. A scary reminder ‘You Only Live Once’, unless, of course, you’re dead.

Perhaps it was being in front of a large group of people again. Maybe, it was just the general longing for fellow humans kicking in. But walking into again DerpyCon, after two years of everything terrible that’s happened, felt like an aura of strange familiarity. This ineffable essence, an overwhelming blanket of belonging merely seconds upon entering. I gazed at the large grey open-spaced entrance hall of a convention hotel and breathed in a mouthful of cloth… sighing in relief. This was home. 

Already minutes late, I boogied to the upstairs Press Ops. Signed in and was given one of those adorable custom-made Halloween-themed press badges. Looking at it reminded me of the Walking Dead badges NYCC had been giving out for the past decade. But the image of DerpyCon’s press badge was of a Funko-Pop-looking horde of chibi-zombies ravenously chasing after a journalist. A spot-on depiction of what it was like doing a press junket in a large-scale convention. 

The badge came with a colorful Welcome to DerpyCon pamphlet map, along with a surprisingly free copy of Ayn Rand’s Anthem that was freely being handed away. Immediately, I thought Ayn Rand was a befitting comic giveaway, especially since it was Halloween weekend during the second year of a dystopian-influenced pandemic that conveniently spared the rich — a narrative Ayn Rand’s writing specializes in (Fun fact: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was the inspiration behind the horror videogame: Bioshock). 

The main hall of Opening Ceremonies was the staging ground where those who run DerpyCon gave the rundown about this year’s events. Finding a spot near the back and squeezing my way in between two cosplayers: a One Piece Pirate and a muscularly toned Hello Kitty, I sat and listened to the Chairmen talk about keeping an eye out for DerpyCone. DerpyCon’s Where-is-Waldo mascot strategically placed around the convention that was little more than a decorated traffic cone dressed in an emoji. 

derpycone 2021

They also shared about the return of the awkward in-person gathering. A celebration that we had conventions again, so long of course, as all participants had a vaccine or negative Covid-19 test and wore a facemask. 

Walking about the convention after dispersing, I noticed a good number of cosplayers in attendance scattered throughout the convention’s long halls. Loki variants were by far were the popular costume of the season, but I also ran into a group dressed as the cast of Stranger Things — ghostbusters edition. The venue was much more open-spaced compared to DerpyCons of the past, as there was plenty of space where people could do photoshoots, sit to rest on the carpet, or even — as strangely often was the case — set up a game of twister with just for kicks. 

The layout of DerpyCon went like so: 

On the ground floor, past the main stage, was an artists alley full of vendors selling an assortment of convention goods and loot, as well as a few tables where famous anime-adaption voice actors were signing autographs. Past the two exhibit halls, at the back of the Hyatt, was a room for check-in. With a tabletop room for board gaming to the right of it, and a manga library to the right of that. On the upper level, were three panel rooms of 30 to 40 person occupancy, a room for cartoon karaoke, a tiny projector room that ran internet memes 24/7 throughout the entire convention, and a Video 9 ¾ room that played not Harry Potter, but rather, different anime and horror movies over the course of the weekend.

But the Creme de la creme for the convention this year? An entire gaming floor dedicated to consoles from every era, along with arcade cabinets, digital projectors, a large flatscreen for multiplayer tournaments, a DDR-like dancing game, and even two dedicated machines for pinball. It was here, where, as is expected during a convention, I ran into a few familiar faces. Friends I haven’t caught up with in a minute, and so, decided to traverse with on day one, taking in what the convention had to offer. 

The first event we attended was Kareoke. Where a DJ played songs submitted via a QR code — the entire process being contact-free. There were a lot of Japanese anime songs selected. The smell of teen spirit in the air, as many in attendance, were young high schoolers and college kids. Youthful young adults with the furor of pent-up liberation, a high-energy mix of candy and cosplay, as they rocked out to their favorite Anime Karaoke themes. 

A teen girl wearing a loose-socked and short-skirted Kogal schoolgirl uniform sang an entire rap straight out of memory from RWBY. Which for older folks who don’t understand this level of difficulty, is like the equivalence of singing the Barenaked Ladies ‘One Week’ rap out of memory. Afterward, a different fellow, not in cosplay, but still as fervently high-strung in spirit, sang the entire theme song to Undertale. 

If you listen above… there are no lyrics to the theme song in Undertale. Just sound effects and strange sound-defying mouth noises. In a strange recitation that drew the applause of this crowd. Making me feel the folds on my face sag into my first wrinkles — because I was officially: old.

When the event began its Disney-themed karaoke battle, and the inexorable selections of Disney power ballads were chosen, gems such as Frozen’s ‘Let it Go’ or Moana’s ‘How Far I’ll Go’ — because Disney is all about going places, apparently — we decided to check out the rest of the convention. Feeling less aged by escaping out of the children’s wailing space (To be fair, everyone loved Karaoke, it’s me who acts like a cantankerous old fart despite the fact that my work often requires me to be a glorified man-child).

Now, there were a lot of panels to check out throughout the weekend. Day one featured talks with voice actors Damian Mills, Dani Chambers, and Cynthia Cranz, all of whom I should have asked for interviews from, but didn’t. The first big panel I did attend was a history lesson about demon spirits of Japan. A panel aptly titled: ‘Yokai Girls Gone Wild’.

In it, cultural anthropologist Charles Dunbar spoke about many Japanese myths including the story of the Kitsune — the Japanese trickster fox. It was an informative panel. Surprisingly, con-like — meaning the crowd was small, the conversations engaging, and that discussions, both before-and-after the lecture, were had, as just about everyone in the room pined over their favorites about Japanese mythology.

You can see a clip of Charles doing the talk from years ago at Nekocon above 

After learning a lot about Yokai, DerpyCon’s adult-themed portion of the convention began, where only individuals 18 and older could attend events. This year, the highlight of the evening was easily the performers: BubblePop Burlesque. A geeky group of cosplay-loving body-positive performers who do… well, Burlesque shows, across different conventions in the US. 

We sat in the middle of the main hall cheering on as the performance began. For those unfamiliar, Burlesque is all about hype, with this one featuring women and men of all genders and sizes, performing differing acts while asking for encouragement from the crowd, as well as tips. 

Some of the acts in the show were a kinky ditsy Pokemon enthusiast, a toned yet sleepy slender man in a nap sack, and one performer who liked to step on Legos in their bare feet while doing a striptease. Respectful of privacy, I will omit names and specifics, including the things that were shared in the post-show Q-and-A amongst guests, friends, myself, and some of the performers. I will say, attending this show did forever change my perspective of kitties, and for that matter, the usage of the phrase: “Who’s ready for some Giant Anime Tit-Tays?!?”

Still, I must stress, in the two years I’ve attended, DerpyCon has proven itself to be a rather shame-free environment. With the convention, on the whole, being open to self-expression and being very LGBTQ-friendly. 

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a panel with some of the members of ’The Clockwork Dolls’, who are a Baltimore-based Steam Punk Historical Fantasy band. There was a talk about LGBTQ issues, where band member, Sam Lee (who goes by Allison Curval), and I had a really informative discussion about transitioning. I asked her about a predicament regarding one of my best friends, who is a trans man that, like actor Elliot Page, had gotten surgery as well as testosterone injections to transition. 

I wanted to ask about the stigmatization for being passing versus-non-passing transgender. Which to be honest, I really did not understand, though was seeing more and more in my immediate LGBTQ social circle community, that I was always assuming, were supposed to be allies? The response I got was enlightening. 

I learned that day, as is almost always is the case, that life is… certainly complicated. It all really depends on who you’re asking. Just as there are multigeneration feminists, there are as well, multigenerational trans rights activists, each with their own different views and stories to be heard. That every single person going through their journey of gender expression is different, even amongst the community. The importance being: in understanding the other person’s need to be understood, especially in relation to how they identify and in relation to my own actions (and the heteronormative cis-male perspective), and how we express that identity into the world. 

I learned that at DerpyCon from Sam all those years ago. I don’t think you get that type of conversation from a celebrity interview or an afterparty at New York Comic-Con. 

 

Day Two

The second day at DerpyCon was spent with an entirely separate group of friends. This included one of my AAA contacts from the gaming industry, along with my comics illustration partner for one of the graphic novels I am working on. Which is why it was a uniquely different day. One full of reminiscence. Memories of life before things turned.

Saturdays are almost always the busiest for a convention. They’re the days most people have off. When the children are out of school, and the parents, often go seeking for things to do with their kids. Saturdays are also almost always fully booked from start to finish, meaning there’s something that can be done at every hour on the hour, so it’s best to plan accordingly. 

We spent the afternoon checking out the artist alley. There was a lot of art, plushies, games, and 3D prints for sale, including this cute little Blastoise-dressed Pikachu I posted in the header. The board games and retro games selection ranged from all sorts of goods from the 1980s into the early 2000s. There was a VR racing game setup in a tiny corner next to a portable racing rig, along with several artists who’d drawn manga and anime-inspired artworks, along with the occasional Steven Universe or DCAU fan-prints. In the back, several bins of DC and Marvel comics were being sold, along with some Funko pops and figurines. It was everything you’d imagine being sold in a small convention market, which is honestly, the best place to find rare collectible gems if you know what to look for. After spending money on all this loot, we packed some items away into the car and then explored the things I wasn’t able to do, yesterday. 

Like a vortex of attention-deficit disorder, the distractingly compelling meme room upstairs called upon innocent bystanders like a siren asking, ‘come meme with us’. It was a darkened room with about 20 red cushioned chairs, where a projector that played memes the entire weekend, was left on repeat. We’re talking cat videos, the latest TikToks, and all things trending on the internet. Curious to sit down for a small respite, just like everyone else, we ended up staying for a while. 

The video playing was a sketch parodying the slasher genre. Where the victim, a high-pitched screaming black male — who was taking the role of a white and helpless Karen in a horror movie — took their sweet time in running away from what might actually be the slowest serial killer in history. All from the point of view of the serial killer. The Karen proceeded to scream, then made a sandwich, shared a blood-curdling yelp, and then, decided to warm up and then eat a slice of pizza. Afterward, Karen did a bit of his taxes, and even, fit in a bit of bike cardio, right before the murderer finally crept up and decided to finally go stabby-stab. 

It was hilarious, to say the least, and after a bit of ugly crying out of laughter, I decided to leave the room while my friends kept enjoying more memes.

I walked over next door to the Video 9 ¾ room, which yesterday, played the horror movies Plan 9 from Outer Space and Phantom of The Opera. At the moment, the room was running the first five episodes of Cowboy Bebop, likely given because of the soon-to-be Netflix TV series. Rooms like the Meme and 9 ¾ rooms are really meant for taking breaks at DerpyCon. Though I didn’t spend a lot of time in 9 ¾ because there was a group of teens who were taking up the space to play twister, something which seemed to happen a lot at DerpyCon on a Saturday. I figured, at least it was a free room for use while anime played in the backdrop. One away from the public foyer and the public Derpy gaze.

After leaving the video rooms behind, we headed to the lower tabletop area, which I was concerned about yesterday given all the hand germs, were copies of the Oregon Trail. And that was oddly it. An entire board game room and all they had was a game from my childhood, where I was constantly dying of explosive diarrhetic Dysentery. Or so I would leave on my headstones each time my party failed to reach Oregon.

There were station stations next to hydration stations in every room throughout the convention, and it was obvious given how low the hand sanitizer was in the board game room, it was often being utilized here. There was a good chance the other games were temporarily being cleaned when we checked it out. 

I spoke with my DerpyCon contact that day, regarding all the efforts made to keep the convention safe, there was a lot of sanitation done between every event along with a whole lot of effort being made to protect people with just a skeleton crew and a whole lot of infectious positivity. Which made me relieved. 

Apparently, this weekend, also held tournaments for Settlers of Catan in the game room. We didn’t partake but winners who did would actually qualify for the US championships. Something which I didn’t even know existed until that day. Feeling slightly disappointed with the game room, I was pleased to run into Charles Dunbar again, who was actually there to set up a round of Existential Dread. 

And though I was initially excited as I thought this was going to be us philosophizing about life while playing the Jenga-built horror scenario game known as Dread, I was wrong. Because there actually is a game called Existential Dread. A review of it is linked below.

Heading next door, we checked out DerpyCon’s manga library. Where a group of guys who checked people in at the door, were actually playing rounds of the Yu-Gi-Oh card game. Which was also, a popular cosplay theme of today (I would learn more why, tomorrow).  They asked us to check in our IDs and ironically, my illustrator apparently knew some of the group, having been a frequent attendee of AnimeNext in the past. 

The room itself was surprisingly small. There was a series of round tables set up for reading, and to the left, about two library rows of selected Manga. Browsing through, I recognized almost none of the titles save for a few Warcraft books and some Bleach. 

It was then, that a skinny man in a light blue shirt, about early-40s and looking awkwardly out of place, began perusing the selections across from me. He asked, “Weird, huh? All these mangas. I recognize none of it.”  

“Yeah, me too. There’s a ton,” I replied, and then squatted to inspect the lower shelves to see if anything looked familiar. “There are these World of Warcraft books. That’s about it though. Most of the things I was into were from circa 2004. ”

“Same here. Adult Swim era, right? Ever watch Fooly Cooly?”

“I love Fooly Cooly!” I said a bit overly excited, “Eccentric bass guitar battles?” 

“Sexy bossy alien girl next door? Weird world-ending monsters? What’s not to like?!”

It was at that moment, I felt like a teen again. And, weirdly enough, I think, so did he. That’s sort of the magic of conventions — it brings you back via the story. To that moment in time where it all meant something to you. Before life swept it away with the responsibilities of the now…

“The music was kitsch. I was really into that intro that scene back then, but now? Do they even show anime in Adult Swim anymore? It’s weird though because my kid? Well, she’s really into it. It’s a lot more accepted now. Even cool.” 

“Nice! Yeah, I’m jealous. I kinda wanna show my niece and nephew one day, the things I like to watch. I started with Steven Universe, right? But the kiddo’s terrified of monsters. Still too young,” I laughed remembering that one time when I showed my nephew the children’s series. He had curled into a terrified little hedgehog ball and nuzzled his way under my armpit, scared when one of the Crystal Gems had bubbled one of the centipede monsters. “If you don’t mind me asking, how old’s your kid?”

“Fourteen. She’s the best. But um… well… I-I kind of only have her for the weekend,” he said with an uncomfortable change in tone, “It’s complicated.” 

“Oh?!” I replied without pressing the issue. 

“I just thought we’d bond over this trip? But she’s off with her friends. It’s good. It’s just… I… don’t know what to do? I’m just here… trying to see if I can find something she’d like… talking to a complete stranger… Not how I pictured the weekend going.”

He looked at me with a look of guilt. I wasn’t sure what to say. Painful public silences say more than words, and so, feeling incredibly uncomfortable for about ten seconds, I tried for positive reinforcement, “Well… Um… You picked a good place to be! You know, they are playing some anime upstairs? A Cowboy Bebop marathon is happening… Just an idea. Maybe you can show your daughter?”

“Maybe. Thanks,” he said in fake reassurance, “What you here for anyway?”

“Journalist. Trying to capture the DerpyCon experience. You here for the whole convention?”

“Just today. I don’t… get custody often,” he said with a complete lack of conviction, “I dunno. It’s hard. Ya know? All of this. Everything. Life was already pretty intense before. But this pandemic? It just made being able to see her even harder. I only get this small window to try and do so much? It’s like, no matter what I do, the universe has a way of saying nothing I do is good enough this year. I’m just… I’m tired of feeling so alone.”

I don’t really remember what was said after that. I did try to reassure him. Shared with him, all that I’d seen throughout the convention, including everything that you’ve read thus far, reader. But honestly, this was kind of hopeless. It wasn’t really about the convention. It was someone sad wanting another person to hear their story.

When we realized we didn’t want to spend too much more time in the library, given all the big events happening, we grabbed our badges and left. The main event of Saturday was the Masquerade Cosplay showcase, which was basically the best costume competition, but sadly, given how popular the event was, we couldn’t get inside as the room was at max capacity. 

So we went people gazing. Around the convention at that moment, there were a lot of werewolf outfits. And kitties. And… bears. In fact, I began to notice a theme. That there were a lot of people upstairs in furry costumes on Saturday evening. People dressed in animal skin costumes from head to toe, who were often, to the side somewhere, who then disappeared for chunks of time throughout the convention — but I digress.

After showing my friends the karaoke and game room, I was starting to feel famished. Having to meet with his girlfriend for dinner, my illustrator parted ways with us, while me and my gaming friend, went for some grub in New Brunswick.

The city of New Brunswick itself has a lot of history. The aptly nicknamed ‘Hub City’ is home to Alexander Hamilton’s alma mater, the Old Queen’s Campus, later known as Rutgers University. The only school from the classical 1700s United States to reject Ivy League status. Atop of this, New Brunswick is home to the NJ State Theatre, one of the state’s oldest performing arts venues. Likewise, its Courthouse serves as the premier law institution within the county. 

More importantly, New Brunswick is home to Johnson and Johnson, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company — which influences just about everything built about the city from its numerous hospitals, medical research facilities, restaurants, and even its infrastructure and architecture layouts. If Resident Evil’s Racoon City were an actual living-breathing place in real life, it would most likely be New Brunswick, New Jersey. Which was all the more reason it was the perfect place for a Halloween convention. 

We began with a walk across George Street. The heart of the Downtown district. Named after the benevolent despot King George I, the Duke of Brunswick, George Street was where you went to drink when you were too old for College Avenue, but just old enough, where you were a semi-working adult, high-functioning alcoholic. 

There was a 10% discount for convention attendees at many of the local food joints. There was some of the savoriest pork-broth at Ramen Nagomi, the exotic new Cambodian featuring homemade Chili Mayo at Cambo Box, outdoor jazz music and pub venue at the George Street Alehouse, and another popular city brewpub known for their in-home beer distillery at the Harvest Moon Brewery. However, given that Blackthorne was the official late-night venue of DerpyCon 2021, and the fact it was quite literally across the street from the convention, we choose to eat there for the evening.

Touting food and drink specials as well as late-night musical entertainment at this Irish-themed tavern, Blackthorne had a decent selection. Plus, a pint of foamy-headed Guinness on draft, along with some bangers and mash, or better yet, a creamy shepherd’s pie, did sound divine at the time. Carbs and beer being refueling essentials for an all-day convention. 

But to be honest, being at Blackthorne reminded me of days before Covid. When this place was a New Orleans-themed Jazz Bar called the Old Bay. Back then, the Bay was the place to be for late-night 12 a.m. romps with local musicians and artists, meeting fellow young locals, and going on a cascade of dates, both amazing and awful and on some occasions, swinger-friendly. 

The manager of the Old Bay, a buddy of mine from my bar-rat days, had actually left the joint when the original owner had died and decided to open his own bar down in New Orleans. All during the heart of this Pandemic. It’s called Jinx and this was sort of his dream. The realization that life had to be had now, at the moment, because no one knows when the next one of these possible world-ending events will be on the horizon. 

I heard recently that comedian Craig Robinson has been visiting recently. Which was poetic, given that Tommy was a stand-up comedian in the scene in-town. The city was also home to the famed NJ comedian Vinny Brand, who owned the Stress Factory Comedy Club, right across the street. The venue hosted shows with some famous stand-up acts such as Drew Carrey, Gilbert Godfried, Dave Attell, and even, Chris Rock. I even remembered taking a date to the Bay one night after seeing Louis C.K. live in the city — before the comedian’s shitty revelations. 

It’s fair to say, my entire 20s were in this town and a lot of it was at this bar. Fistfights and stop signs. Alcohol and cigarettes. That time we were kicked out by Ed, for puking in one of the outdoor flower pots after a few too many. A flood of memories overcame me, and during dinner, I couldn’t help but talk about some of them. Just like I am right now. Though there was one particular story that came to mind…

One evening, about five years ago, on a light snowy day in the front of the Old Bay, I was smoking one of my red cowboy killer cigarettes, when I had met a beautiful woman at the small church across the street. She was in the graveyard. Slender, with long blonde hair, a petite physique, and piercing blue eyes. She was doing her best to tiptoe about as to undisturb the graves, and smiled and awkwardly waved hi, in her white winter coat, highrise skinny jeans, and fingerless hand-knitted mittens. Intensely focused, she was taking photographs of some of the gravestones from the 1800s with her DSLR. 

Curious, I approached and asked what she was doing. She smiled and laughed slightly embarrassed, saying that she wanted to see if she could capture a ghost from the past in a photograph. I was love-stricken, in a strictly chemical way, in a way that my brain acknowledged that my emotions were irrationally propping this princess up on a pedestal and it would be better to ask her to the bar to get to know her. 

I learned that she was a violinist in town for a concert at the State Theatre, working as an orchestral musician for some famous musician, whom to be quite honest, I didn’t really much care for. Possibly, Rod Stewart, though again, I can’t really remember. I told her my story, my mental health job, and more importantly, my dreams of being a screenwriter. 

She shared with me what it was like living in LA. Touring across the nation as a concert violinist, a dream job in every way up until it wasn’t, and that sort of conflicting loneliness that affects you when you’re spending too much time on the road for too long — and never at home. I asked her why she’d chosen to play the violin. She said that she never really thought about doing anything else because she loved doing it. And it made her happy. She asked me why I write… 

“You love it though, right?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, does it make you happy?” 

“I think… it’s familiar. That gives me comfort. But I don’t know if happy is the right word. I really don’t know how to be happy. The same way I don’t know how to not write. Sometimes, I think it’s a lot easier to express the things I want in words, rather than in real life? I can control the story here. But real life? That gets complicated. It’s scary. People are terrible to each other. Things get bad. People die. That’s sort of my story. I don’t think happiness is why I write… the truth is, writing is the only way I know how to exist without feeling so hurt at the end of the day.”

After dinner, we returned to DerpyCon and went back into the gaming area — which was arguably the best thing about the convention. The games available were many, including Street Fighter, Donkey Kong, House of The Dead, Uncharted 2,  Persona 4 Arena, Pump Prime 2  (a DDR-like machine), Turtles in Time, Tekken 4, Halo 2, Crash Bandicoot, GTA: Vice City, a whole lot of Sonic, and a whole lot of Mario Kart — for every generation. Oh, and Soul Calibur, Centipede, and Jak and Daxter. The entire gaming dungeon was run by the Save Point store, which sold old console games from every generation. And after some Aladdin and Turtles in Time, we played Mario Kart, and then called it a day.

Actually, no. Then, I took my friends to the Bubblegum Pop Burlesque show. This time, it was a Halloween-themed event. Almost everything was slightly different.

 

Day Three

On the final day of DerpyCon, smack-dab during Halloween itself, were a lot of people dressed in Yu-Gi-Oh cosplay. Including a few with a full-on arm deck holder, just like in the Anime. I saw some Seto Kaiba’s, Dark Magicians, Dark Magician Girls, and really, just a surprising amount of Yu-Gi-Oh fans — myself being a closeted one of them. Having grown up with the show, and playing the card game with my best friend as a young teen, it actually only occurred to me on that last day: that the reason there was so much Yu-Gi-Oh was that it was the convention’s biggest guest.

And so, I attended a Q and A with two voice actors from the show. Erica Schroder, whom many may recognize as the voice of Mai Valentine/Dark Magician Girl from Yu-Gi-Oh, Nurse Joy from Pokemon, Emma frost in X-men, or best of yet: The Pokemon, Eevee. 

Though with Erica, doing a digital Q and A via a gigantic projector behind her in the main hall, was voice actor, Dan Green. An actor whose voice many anime fans may recognize as Mewtwo, Entai, and of course, the titular character of Yami and Yugi Moto, in the hit children’s animated series and Pokemon rival: Yu-Gi-Oh!  

Like actors Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier), Mike Colter (Luke Cage), and Calista Flockheart (Ally McBeal), Dan Green was actually, a Rutgers New Brunswick graduate himself. He was here doing several digital panels, as well as promoting The Heart of The Cards Podcast. I assumed DerpyCon had him as to guest for this very reason. 

During the panel, Dan revealed his absolute love of the Campbellian myth. How he’d learned to really embrace it during the time of quarantine, and really, how Monomyths influenced almost everything in storytelling. Meanwhile, Erica replied to a question regarding the fan-shipping, or desire to see two characters romantically together, in regards Joey and Mai from Yu-Gi-Oh; and how, on one funny occasion at a different convention, the two actors pretended to recite their character’s love — in a Shakesperian accent. 

After several other questions, the actors talked about what changed during the pandemic, such as the rise of the at-home studios. As technology with zoom-like programs became standard and people generally loved doing the work from home. They spoke about how voice acting is not what used to be 20 years ago and compared it back then to now. 

For instance, Dan revealed they had actually never got a full script for Yu-Gi-Oh. Just brief character descriptions, where you’d have to travel into the heart of the city, into a recording booth, and be given directions. With maybe about 10 minutes of prep time for a 5-minute booth session. 

Erica shared that it was much harder back in the day because the actors really had to really absorb the script and release their take on the material almost instantaneously, compared to nowadays, where long practices could be recorded and edited over long periods of time, for a single perfect take. She stressed the need for improvisational skills back then, as often, you’d only get 2-3 line takes right away.

After the panel, Ericka stayed for autograph signings as Dan did a voice acting guide online with any guests in the main lecture hall. I did a rundown of the convention with the group of friends I was with, and then we broke for lunch, making it back only in time for closing ceremonies. 

It was revealed at Closing that due to the Delta Variant, there were only 3 months to plan for DerpyCon compared to the usually 18-months to prepare for a program. When asked for possible improvements for next year’s Derpy,  they mentioned more card game tournaments being a possibility with Magic The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh in the future. The closing events also gave away prizes, gift cards, and loot. We also learned that 1,387 people were in attendance over the weekend.

 

Unconventional Conventions

A lot of the convention work between program guides, posters, talent, logistics, and dates, is all in due thanks to these overworked volunteers. Folks who run these conventions and struggle to make it happen without the large-scale budget of a big Comic-Con. They are the unsung heroes of these little happy gatherings, who do the work for the same reasons I choose to write: because we just know that we should. That doing so makes the world hurt a little bit less, and that just maybe, that little joy of escape is more than enough to warrant the need for them.

There’s a certain love to be had of smaller conventions. The friendships made, as well as the stories crafted along the way, which honestly, I feel is a lot more intimate at a small con than at some of the large-scale ones. What I really like best about smaller conventions, is that the towns themselves sort of become a character in the experience. Small conventions can bring out a whole culture of fandoms, and really, serve as sort of a testament to the resilience of folks wanting things to get back to normal. Wherever there are ideas, and more importantly, whenever there are stories, you’ll find a convention.

I don’t know if things return back to normal. Nor, do think that they should. But I will say, that in regards to this new reality of conventions coming back — whether under weird guidelines, happenstance coincidences, and living-on-a-prayer hopes that there isn’t some massive new outbreak — I think they’re important.

Maybe, from now on, all conventions from now on are just unconventional conventions. And that’s okay, so long as they’re there, as we figure the next part out.

 

 

 

Christian Angeles
Christian Angeleshttp://www.christianangeles.com
Christian Angeles is a screenwriter who likes sharing stories and getting to meet people. He also listens to words on the page via audible and tries to write in ways that make people feel things. All on a laptop. Sometimes from an app on his phone.

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