Last weekend was the official 2014 G.I. Joe Convention, an annual event organized by Fun Publications. FunPub runs the official G.I. Joe fan club, and running a convention (two, actually) for nitpicky toy fiends is a thankless job. Despite the fact that I’m writing this book and I’m a G.I. Joe crazy person, this was only my second JoeCon, though I kept reminding people I’ve attended like 16 BotCons (the Transformers convention, including the first one, where I was the youngest pre-registrant, because I was a Transformers crazy person.) For those of you familiar with either convention, I’m writing today’s post with a little more general of an audience in mind (hi, Dad), so there might be some obvious facts in here. For those of you turned off by 3500 words, there’s a picture for every paragraph — almost all are enlargeable — and I’ve divided this post into three sections we’ll call “Friday,” “Saturday,” and “Sunday.” Also, “Introduction.”
JoeCon moves around every year — east, central, west — the better to allow people driving or with limited travel funds a shot at attending. So this is distinct from, say, New York Comic Con, which annually takes over the Javitz Center in Manhattan. My first JoeCon was an hour away — too easy to get to not to attend, and I had a nice time at that show with friend/editor Nick Nadel, as evidenced by this ineffectual hotwire job we did at the Providence Convention Center in 2010:
As my interest in attending BotCon has waned a bit, I’ve realized that I need to interact more with G.I. Joe fans. More talking online, more chatting in person. They’re a big part of my potential book audience, and a few of them I’ll eventually ask for help with my book. This year, JoeCon was in Dallas, but for everyone who says “Oh, cool, you’re going to a G.I. Joe convention? Where?” It’s worth noting the city rarely matters. While some people arrive two days early for local tourist attractions (Disney World when the con is in Florida, the George W. Bush Presidential Library this year), for me such a con is a well-worn path between my hotel room, the dealer room, and the Q&A panel room. I’m there for people, toys, and info.
My JetBlue flight was uneventful. I’m reading Jonathan Clements‘ great new history of anime, and taking notes, so I can better cover this next year in my History of Animation class. The book is academic, and mostly text, so if you’re used to “Art of” histories on Disney and DreamWorks from Chronicle, Insight, and Titan, this may not be for you. Tons of citations and endnotes, very few pictures, and I’m loving every word of it.
My taxi driver warned me of traffic, but we made it to my hotel in good time.
In the lobby were two pet peeves — How I Met Your Mother and a flat panel TV set to the wrong aspect ratio. But, hey! The Lawrence has milk and cookies from 5 to 7!
My room was cheaper than both of the official con hotels, yet only a block from the con itself. Here it is, through the magic of Sloppy Photo Collage, the Hotel Lawrence, with the giant 22-story Hyatt (and Reunion Tower) behind it.
One of the great things about attending a convention is how accessible the convention guests (famous people) are. There’s etiquette about accosting them on a smoke break and that kind of thing, but particularly before the event ramps up when everyone’s milling around the hotel lobby, you often spot, say, actor extraordinaire Michael Bell just chilling on a couch and checking his phone.
To keep you from seeing how out of focus my photo is, I’m keeping it small and not enlargeable.
I’d missed Boss Fight Studio‘s toy customizing class, so I met up with longtime friend/Boss Fight designer/imminent subject of embarrassment Andrew Franks to ask how the class went. Andrew, along with Boss Fight sculptors Dave Proctor and Fred Aczon, explained that wrangling 60 people of differing skill levels over 8 hours was a fun yet tough challenge. Soon we were joined by Boss Fight designers Erik Arana and Trina Cerise-Arana to informally kick off Friday night bar socializing. I decided to play against type this weekend and smile for the camera.
The Hilton had this giant atrium –
– which reminded me of the inside of Luxor (the world’s largest atrium, the world’s largest pyramid — yes, that hotel in Las Vegas). Convention socializing often happens at the convention bar, and Boss Fight had invited folks via Facebook, so many Joe fans (and many other people attending three other conventions at the same time) converged on the bar. I met for only the second time noted Joe fan Justin Bell, who lent me some toys in 2009 that I will keep forgetting to return. He asked when my book would be done and I just laughed. Then I met also-noted-Joe-fans Pat Stewart and not-at-all-important-fan Gyre-Viper. (A person with a real name who prefers a codename.) These three are on my list of G.I. Joe collectors who I’d like to read a draft of my book later this year or next. I’m confident on the comics and animation stuff, but there are toy folk out there who could point out some holes in my narrative. Gyre explained he didn’t like G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I suggested he watch the director’s cut.
Yet-another-noted-Joe-fan James Kavanaugh, Jr., who’s written some toy guides I should be more familiar with, pulled out a bottle of Jose Cuervo and toasted Boss Fight. There’s a whole market amongst G.I. Joe and Transformers fans for recreations of stickers and label sheets (think Autobot sigils and “Caution” stencils on airplanes), so I wasn’t surprised when Mr. Kavanaugh explained the bottle had a new label on it. Acoustics prevented me further deciphering the message, but he was happy Boss Fight was making such a splash at JoeCon — more on that later. He also had extra label sheets so anyone could customize their own bottle of Jose.
I met and chatted with other fans as well (Hi, Troy, hi, Jaime), several of whom said nice things about my blog. Then it was late and I returned to the Hotel Lawrence, but not before getting this not-at-all illuminating photo of the observation tower.
Saturday morning I headed to the Hyatt “brekkie place” to meet Larry Hama, with whom I try to get lunch once a year when I visit New York. Hama’s working off some major medical bills, and wryly explained to me that every hour he wasn’t at a panel or an autograph session would be spent in his hotel room drawing sketches to sell. So here’s a reminder for every Larry Hama fan out there: If you ever see Larry at a convention or store signing, he’s probably drawing 8.5 x 11 pencil sketches for 20 bucks — yes just 20 bucks — and he’s fast, and yes, he can probably do one for you. Snake-Eyes, Cobra Commander, Wolverine, you name it. Don’t be bashful. Anyhoo, we talked about the Captain America novelization Hama just wrote (4-month deadline!), and Hama’s vampire novel, and Wally Wood, with whom Larry apprenticed long ago — my store just sold out of Fantagraphics’ new Cannon collection, the espionage comic Wood drew for Overseas Weekly, which Hama ghosted on. And hey, Wood drew Hama bald in one story and killed him off. So let’s all dig up our Cannon reprints and find that, shall we? And after I mentioned I’d just seen Stagecoach, the John Ford film that made a star out of John Wayne, Hama rattled off a list of Westerns I needed to see (The Searchers, Ride The High Country, Will Penny, The Trap), and I suggested one back at him (The Proposition). Then the waiter took this bad photo of us, which you can’t tell is out of focus because I’ve shrunk it to very-small size.
Then it was time for me to wait in line. Without a pre-reg pass, I was buying a walk-in day pass, which offers no perks, and I’m fine with that. Pre-registering for the con gets you exclusive toys –
–but they’re expensive (though some folks immediately sell them for a profit or to pay down their trip — the capitalist in me agrees with this, but it seems a little at odds with the intent of con-only toys) so I skipped them.
The first thing you see upon entering the con room is Fun Pub’s merch booth, with fan club-exclusive toys for sale. Beyond that, the dealer room. This year attendance was down, and there were fewer dealers than the room could accommodate. This had the unfortunate effect of adding to the feeling that G.I. Joe isn’t properly celebrating its 50th year, but the dealers that were in attendance had a great variety of old and new, rare and common, loose and mint-in-sealed-box (MISB). I bought some art, and then pulled out my shopping list. I stopped being a Joe toy collector years ago when I ran out of room and accidentally purchased something I already owned. So I sold much of that collection, and am now focusing on information, a better fit for the book I’m writing. But I’ve got a photo in mind for Chapter 11 that I’d like to set up for my photographer this summer, and it requires a few loose, complete action figures from ’91 to ’93. And since I haven’t managed to buy them piecemeal off ebay in the last two years since I had the idea, maybe JoeCon would offer them up all in one place.
I felt odd buying toys that a dozen collector-friends would lend to me. But if I can’t be bothered to return what I borrowed from Justin Bell in ’09 (hi, Justin!), it’s just as well I own these outright. Found most of them, and left the dealer room to attend my first panel.
Which was the Boss Fight Studio panel. No photos allowed, so I drew them:
I have a fun relationship with BFS. One of its five partners, Andrew Franks, lives six miles from me and I’ve known since high school. Back then he was just a comics nerd who was getting out of toys, as high schoolers tend to do. But I bit him with the nostalgia bug, and soon we were renting Transformers: The Movie and Andrew was helping with my hilarious and embarrassing Transformers parody. After college, he wanted to break into toy design, but that’s a tough field. He pulled together a portfolio, and to my surprise and delight Andrew got freelance work for ToyBiz, and then Hasbro, and then a full time position at Hasbro! But then he was laid off. But then he and his partners, also former Hasbro folk, started their own company, the aforementioned Boss Fight Studio. BFS has freelanced for Hasbro, as well as Fun Publications (for its convention-only and fan club-only G.I. Joe toys), so with Hasbro not in attendance, Boss Fight filled the role of visiting toy company at JoeCon. Specifically, this year’s con-exclusive zombie outbreak/Eco-Warriors set was all Boss Fight. And since everyone at the con was buzzing about the Joe set, and Boss Fight was unveiling its first wave of original action figures –
– they were the belles of the ball. It was great to see all five partners up on stage, describing the design process, showing inspiration boards, sketches and turnarounds, photos of wax sculptures, CG models, and painted samples. Speaking with authority on a fascinating subject. So congrats to Boss Fight, and a special tip of my hat to pal Andrew Franks, who drew the picture below in 1994 and will be incensed that I’ve posted it — you’re the best!
Then it was time for more shopping, where I ran into collector/artist/dealer/customizer Kevin Watts. Who sold me a few loose Joes, and was showing off these finely constructed mash-ups of the 1983 Cobra HISS tank:
Next up was the voice actor panel, with left to right below Morgan Lofting (Baroness), Michael Dobson (Cobra Commander in 2004), BJ Ward (Scarlett), Michael Bell (Duke and Major Bludd), and Michael McConnohie (Cross Country). I was going to skip this because I’ve seen so many voice actor panels at Transformers conventions, and there are only so many anecdotes one can retell from 1985, but I’m glad I didn’t. These panels end up being fascinating because the actors get to talk about acting. About technique, about preparation, and since they are among the very best at what they do, it’s wonderful. And they perform the voices and say silly things, which is fun. This panel had a script written just for the convention, and just for these characters, so it felt like an exclusive treat for the 50 or 100 of us in the room. Actor Chris Latta, who originated Cobra Commander, died in 1995, so having Mr. Dobson play his version of the character was a nice substitute.
I managed to not accost Mr. McConnohie, who I gushed over 12 years back at BotCon. He’s the voice of Tracks, my favorite Autobot (A BLUE CORVETTE THAT FLIES), and I mimicked that voice for a project in college, a copy of which I gave McConnohie — oh, here’s a picture from back then, yes, that’s a VHS tape.
After another round in the dealer room, I sat in for a few minutes of the What’s On Joe Mind/Regular Joes joint podcast, but (sorry, guys) decided to skip it. I have lots of catching up to do on G.I. Joe podcasts, and everyone in Internetland can frown at me right now.
Then I chatted up the Boss Fight folk. Here’s Andrew sketching Mike Power: Atomic Man on a Six Million Dollar Man sketch/blank-cover comic, which is like drawing The Corps! on a G.I. Joe comic. Or, uh, for a more accessible punchline, is like drawing Gobots on a Transformers comic. And there’s Dave digitally turning Snake-Eyes into a zombie.
After the dealer room closed, I got lunch at this deli next to my hotel.
It looks closed from the outside because all the windows are covered, a small business no-no. Also, the theatre on the other side of the Hotel Lawrence actually was closed–
–leading me to think this section of downtown was depressed. But my sandwich was good, and the 40 high school volleyball players in the deli (one of those other conventions) didn’t hold up the line. Between busy convention-scheduling or back-at-home-owning-a-store-ruining-my-schedule, lunch at 5pm is par for the course.
Then I wandered back to the Hyatt to chat with Andrew Franks (him again!) and Fred Aczon, before the rest of Boss Fight went to the Casino Night Dinner. Both JoeCon and BotCon always have gambling with dinner, a combination I find odd, particularly it hasn’t anything to do with G.I. Joe or Transformers. But I understand the con organizers want some kind of fun gathering, and games and socializing do fit together. Since it wasn’t for either of us, Andrew and I went to the hotel restaurant and ordered far too much delicious food.
Notice how happy Andrew is. He doesn’t realize that 10 days after smiling for the above photo, I’m going to embarrass him on the internet.
Anyway, I was expecting average hotel fare, but was blown away by the tasty and well-prepared quinoa, spinach, and “tableside guacamole.” If you’re in downtown Dallas, I recommend Centennial Cafe in the Hyatt Regency. Also, check out this rad Art Deco installation in the lobby:
Then we tried to repeat Friday night with bar chatting late into the night, but neither of us could muster, as hotel beds and sleep beckoned.
The Hotel Lawrence offers a breakfast buffet of eggs and cereal that can best be described as “perfunctory.” But excepting the styrofoam plates, it was all fine, and meant no waiting for waitstaff, so I was back at the con in no time. To my surprise there was no line for walk-ins — yes, the con makes you stand in line a second day in a row and does not offer a two-day walk-in pass — just one of the old-fashioned idiosyncrasies I hope Fun Publications irons out.
On the topic of old-fashioned idiosyncrasies, something I am pleased by (because it reminds me of the early BotCons before cell phones) is this actual bulletin board that Fun Pub posts near its information desk and toy display:
People do much wheeling and dealing on Thursday and Friday night before the dealer room even fully opens. The analog nature of the above board, and that it immediately makes me feel like I’ve arrived late (some of the offers are already over!) is fun.
Sunday’s first panel was “Battleplan G.I. Joe: G.I. Joe . . . The Battle Begins!” with Kirk Bozigian (marketer and VP on the ’80s and ’90s line) and Larry Hama (who’s, like, written some stuff I guess?). I didn’t imagine I’d learn anything new as I attended this panel at JoeCon ’10 and have extensively interviewed both men for my book, but there’s always some nuance or anecdote that gets added to the body of knowledge. Of note was the last minute addition of Frank Coroneos, vehicle designer for the ’80s line (the Avalanche, for one), who I think just showed up at the convention, a surprise last-minute guest. I haven’t interviewed him, so hearing his tales of designing real military vehicles before coming to Hasbro was great. I didn’t take a photo or draw in my sketchbook, so here’s what it looked like from memory:
Right as this panel ended, the Joe Declassified one began. Joe Declassified is a small group of toy collectors who’ve made it their mission to find and share G.I. Joe toy development materials from the ’80s to today, and to illuminate the unknown details of the brand’s history. I used to think of them as competition, because they try to see and buy the same drawings and paintings and memos that I collect for my book — to the extent that I kind of blew them off at JoeCon ’10, but now I am of a different opinion. Sam, Gyre, Chris, Pat, and James, as well as others who weren’t in attendance or weren’t up on stage, have done a real service to Joe fandom. And it is they who I will ask to read my manuscript this year or next, as I figure out what holes are in my own history of G.I. Joe.
For this Powerpoint, Declassified showed slides of mock-ups, drawn designs, and packaged samples from 1980 to 1982, clarifying and slightly rewriting the history of what we’ve known about the Real American Hero brand. It’s important to note here why there’s so much mystery: Dozens, and later hundreds of toy designers, engineers, sculptors, and marketers built the 3.75-inch G.I. Joe toy universe of figures, playsets, and vehicles. Which means tens of thousands of documents. Some are long gone, thrown away and in Rhode Island landfills. Others are still at Hasbro, with some lost in the I-hesitate-to-call-it-”archive,” and others on display in hallways or offices. Still others are in the hands of former Hasbro employees, and many have found their way into the hands of collectors. Like me, and Joe Declassified. To assemble a timeline of who did what when, and why, is a Herculean task. Memories fade, and some people who worked on Joe have passed away. So to misuse a word, it’s a kind of archeology. (Hi, Chris!) While I wish Declassified wouldn’t “scoop” me — and several of their slides did — they now have some objects that I never knew about, so I want and need their help. Anyway, to step back from this lofty paragraph, it was a great panel, with many folks in the audience making noises of surprise at the images shown. No photos allowed, and no sketchbook doodle, so here’s two photos of me with two of the Declassified guys, Chris “topson” Murray (left) and Gyre-Viper (right).
Please note, no photography was allowed in the Joe Declassified booth. Eagle-eyed readers will notice Gyre and I are very much in the Joe Declassified booth, with Bill Young’s Arbco Lab painting behind us (that I have Photoshop-obscured). I kept saying “We can point the camera elsewhere,” and Gyre kept saying “It’s okay, the Arbco Lab painting has been seen on the internet,” (like when I lost the ebay auction for it years ago to Chris or Gyre or someone!!!!). If you’re ever in the Joe Declassified booth at a toy show, please keep your camera away, even for the Arbco Lab painting, which I wish was hanging on my wall. And yes, Gyre was all about unflattering photos while eating a hot dog.
Then I bought more toys, and skipped the remaining panels, and hung out at the Boss Fight table. Over at the art contest area, a few pieces jumped out at me. One was Kirk Bozigian’s (him again!) repainted 1983 Sky-Striker:
This is funny because Kirk, you know, worked on G.I. Joe at Hasbro, and was an award-winning modeler even years ago. And here’s a big Pit based on the cutaway from issue #1, I think made by Caleb of the Austin Toy Museum:
The con ended at 3pm, so I got the same lunch at the same deli across the street, had a little adventure with the key not opening my hotel room, and caught a cab to the airport, the reverse drive we’d done Friday:
I was vaguely aware of a manicured plot of grass we were passing as the taxi drove out of downtown Dallas when my cabbie said “That’s where the President — that’s where it happened –” and I perked up and yelled “Oh!” And recognized the grass, and then across the street, on our right, saw an austere plaza that looked like a memorial. And dumbly I yelled “Yeah!”, and said “Oh!” again. And then the cabbie pointed into the lane to our left and said “That’s where he fell,” and there I caught a glimpse of a white “X” painted into the road. Lastly, my cabbie said “And that red brick building behind us–” I craned around, “–that’s where he fired from.” And I thought of the famous and infamous places my father, a history scholar, has visited that I have also visited, and the very few that I’ve been to that he hasn’t, and then realized that surely he’s been to Dallas, and my father in fact was in D.C. in 1963 and with a friend witnessed John Kennedy’s funeral procession, driven by a riderless horse along Pennsylvania Avenue. And I thought of the other notable things I’ve missed in cities where G.I. Joe conventions and Transformers conventions have taken place, and the little plastic men in my suitcase in the trunk of the cab.
On the flight back I read the entirety of Liz Prince’s upcoming autobio book Tomboy. I’m one of a few pals doing a final pass and making editing suggestions. Tomboy is out in September, and my comic shop will have some kind of event or signing. And the book is great!
Looking back at the convention, I was struck by how many families and dads with kids there were. It wasn’t a packed show, and we hear about toy sales declining, and G.I. Joe’s star falling. But I saw many kids wearing G.I. Joe t-shirts, and moms helping dads and boys and girls pick out toys and merchandise. This was not an uncommon sight:
I know the ’60s GI Joe is very much about dads and sons, but the ’80s Joe has never struck me that way. To see it here was great. My favorite moment of the entire weekend came on Sunday afternoon when I was winding down. There was a table against the back wall of the dealer room, next to a few dealers but in an out of the way space. There were three boys playing, playing, with G.I. Joe action figures they had purchased that day. Aged 5 through 8, probably, and at least two were brothers. They calmly sat in chairs, each with a figure or two, hopping their toys along the edge of the table, attacking and interacting with each others’ characters, doing those sound effects, completely unaware of their surroundings. It brought me back to similar couch-and-floor games my brother and I had. It also stopped me in my tracks, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Amidst all the haggling and collecting and scouring and commerce of 20- and 30- and 40- and 50-year olds buying valuable collectibles, there was this. It was perfect.
JoeCon needs to be annual for me. (And it will be, now.) That it took so long to realize that is puzzling, but my fandoms haven’t always traveled in a straight line. (Like that MacGyver movie I made in high school.) Thanks to Fun Publications for organizing a fun show and inviting great guests, and again congrats to Boss Fight Studio for the reveals of their awesome, upcoming line of Greek mythology-inspired 4-inch action figures, Kickstarter coming in May!
This guy met me at home, and while he wasn’t communicating any particular love of the G.I. Joe brand (or whoever manufactured my suitcase), I’d like to think he approved of the modest amount I paid for those neon-colored ’90s G.I. Joe action figures.
Thanks for reading. Tell me how your con was in the comments. Or tell me how sad you are you missed it. Or how cute my cat is.
Next: That time my comic book store gave away G.I. Joe #200.