HASCON 2017 – the Real American Book! convention report

Continuing my trend of blog posts 6 months late, let’s look back at that last major con before heading off, today, to the next one!

I will admit I was not optimistic when HASCON was first announced. Hasbro had not renewed the license for BotCon, the annual Transformers convention, while the license for JoeCon, the annual G.I. Joe convention, runs out this year. It’s a more complex equation than “Hasbro ended BotCon and JoeCon in favor of its-own-con,” but that’s what it looked like. I thought that the brands should be kept separate. But I’m happy to report that I was proven wrong and had a great time at HASCON. In fact, the show exceeded my expectations in every way.

 

HASCON 2017 – The A Real American Book! Report

I’m going to break this up into sections since it’s so long. So you can read it in chunks, or scroll down to the part you care about:

-INTRO
-FRIDAY TOUR
-FRIDAY CON
-FRIDAY PANELS
-FRIDAY WANDERING AROUND
-FRIDAY DINNER
-SATURDAY CON
-SATURDAY: MORE G.I. JOE ARTIFACTS
-SATURDAY AT BOSS FIGHT
-WRAP UP THOUGHTS

 

———-INTRO

Let’s go back to my negative reaction and spend a paragraph or two on that. Seemingly the advent of HASCON meant the end of BotCon (the official Transformers convention, which ended in 2016) and JoeCon (the official G.I. Joe convention, ending this week). And HASCON was expensive. The most expensive convention I’ve ever attended, actually. (I don’t mean travel and lodging, I mean tickets and such.) Plus the slogan was odd – “The Premiere Hasbro FANmily Event.” (What’s a FANmily?) And a lot of non-Hasbro programming was popping up – a Flo Rida concert, an NFL player or two, some pop stars who probably didn’t have songs in the upcoming My Little Pony movie. At least James Gunn sort of made sense. Hasbro has the Marvel license, so there are Guardians of the Galaxy action figures. And Gunn directed those films.

 

And I wasn’t the only Transformers or G.I. Joe fan, used to a particular con catering to my specific fandom, to note that perhaps mixing every Hasbro brand together would be confusing. I mean, Nerf is fine, I had some guns (uh, “blasters”) and balls in the ‘80s, but what does that have to do with Transformers? Similarly, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is its own thing. Won’t certain brands get squeezed out? How do you even have a convention for Monopoly and Candyland? The G.I. Joe brand’s in a weak position right now, with two under-performing movies meaning potential doom for a third, the Hasbro Cinematic Universe stalling, and — importantly — the toy line canceled last year. (But a healthy monthly comic, so it’s not all doom and gloom.) The subtext for us worried Joe fans was that this would be a weekend to celebrate everything but G.I. Joe, or that Joe would be such an afterthought that Hasbro would be tacitly admitting that it had no plans for Real American Hero.

 

But HASCON was also remarkably close. I can drive to Providence in an hour, which of course means no airports. For that alone I was likely to sample it. More particularly, I could attend the show Friday, sleep at home, and also attend the show Saturday, and sleep at home. (It’s a three-day show, but September is busy so I knew I wouldn’t attend Sunday.) My decision was made on three separate occasions: First, at JoeCon in Disney World last June. Two pals, Chris Murray and Dan Moore, said I should go to HASCON so that I could report out what it was like to people like them that weren’t attending. Sure, Chris and Dan, appeal to my inner journalist. Two, when another fan, Diana Davis, said “There’s no right way to be a fan. If this show isn’t great the first year, it will get better.” There was some fan sentiment, that if HASCON failed, Hasbro would revert to annual, Joe-specific cons, whether run by the company that’s long handled them or someone new. But business is business, and if HASCON only runs once, BotCon isn’t magically coming back and JoeCon isn’t getting a permanent reprieve. Companies are consolidating, and from a business and PR perspective, it makes sense for Hasbro to try this. Former Hasbro VP of Marketing Kirk Bozigian kindly pointed out that this is just the kind of outside-of-the-box kind of thing he’s wanted Hasbro to do.

 

Again, it makes sense. Marvel Studios has its presentations of “phases,” and Disney has D23, and the toy industry has Toy Fair, and Apple has Mac World. If Hasbro makes TV cartoons and partners with YouTube stars and sells toys of the hottest characters in the world, and licenses out these characters to publishers, then absolutely Hasbro should set all of them up under one roof and have a party. Online a few fans even expressed doubt that Hasbro could run a decent convention, that it doesn’t have the experience. On its face, that is true. But Hasbro has been pitching brands to Hollywood for fifteen years now, and annually sets up at Toy Fair (and used to own its own building in New York because its Toy Fair presence was so big), and there are those licensing expos. And Hasbro could have been quietly hiring consultants that do run comics or toy shows, for all we know. It’s a safe bet that Hasbro was either going to run a good show or an excellent show, but not a poor one and certainly not a disaster.

 

The third occasion which made up my mind was when the schedule was unveiled. Friday would have two G.I. Joe panels (or three?) with former Hasbro designers, engineers, and marketers, plus a dinner with 24 of such Joe alums. A fan named Dan Klingensmith, who’s been tracking down these folks and researching the development of every 1980s and ‘90s G.I. Joe toy, would surely put on a good show. And that would be in conjunction with Derryl DePriest, Hasbro’s VP of Global Brand Management. DePriest is Hasbro’s keeper of the G.I. Joe flame, and this is worth pointing out: Hasbro cancelled the Joe toy line last year. There were/are no G.I. Joe toys coming out in 2017 or 2018 at retail, and there are no plans for 2019. There will only be G.I. Joe toys when next Paramount releases a G.I. Joe movie. So here are two people, a high-up-at-Hasbro mega fan and a not-in-Hasbro mega fan, planning on behalf of fans like me. In whatever way DePriest and Klingensmith could, I would be catered to. If you’re Hasbro and the fifth live-action Transformers film just made half a billion dollars worldwide in theatres, of course you focus on Transformers content at your show. (And Star Wars! Don’t forget that.) But there’d be two hard-working kindred spirits putting on some kind of Joe show for Joe fans.

 

———-FRIDAY

 

My first impression of the actual convention, at the actual site, was this, as I pulled into the Convention Center parking garage:

This meant we were off to a good start. This is the kind of detail I didn’t expect, and were I running a con, wouldn’t think of. It made me smile, and put me in the right mood. Somewhere across the street from here were toy designers and voice actors and an Optimus Prime movie truck ready for me. (As I’ve already seen the Optimus Prime truck three times, and one of those times hugged him — uh, it — I was happy for everyone else that that truck was at HASCON but I wouldn’t be taking any time to get photos.)

 

Eating is hard during convention weekends. I tend to have breakfast and then at 4pm I’m faint. So I wolfed down food in my car on the top of the parking garage before heading over.

 

At the Providence Civic Center, I picked up my badge. There was no line and the folks in blue HASCON shirts outnumbered attendees two to one. I couldn’t tell if this was good — that Hasbro had planned for hundreds of staff and volunteers, or bad — that attendance was perilously low.

I have warm feelings for the Dunkin Donuts Center (my second concert – Metallica in 1997) —

–and the Civic Center (BotCon ‘07 and JoeCon ‘10 were there)

And the Omni Hotel, too, the pointy building on the right, above. (I stayed there just as college was beginning and ending). Providence, and particularly the river and Kennedy Plaza, feel comfortable and familiar. (Not so much the shopping mall, which is the fourth building in this connecting chain, after the Omni. I don’t like malls, and Providence Place opened a few weeks before graduation, so I have little connection to it.)

 

———-FRIDAY TOUR

Part of my deluxe package netted me a tour at Hasbro. I had done this at BotCon 2007, but hadn’t brought my camera, and I didn’t remember much. Even if the office was going to be empty and we were kept out of sensitive areas (like where they’re designing toys for Star Wars films that won’t be in theatres for two years), I needed to be on this tour. G. Wayne Miller’s book Toy Wars has made that building come alive for me, and it comes up in my own book. The building has history.

I had chosen the Friday noon tour, the very first one of the show. (Insurance in case I was too tired to go back Saturday, what with all the G.I. Joe events happening Friday.) With my badge claimed, there was just enough time to not do anything before lining up by the small bus that would take us to Pawtucket.

I didn’t catch the nice person’s name, pictured above in blue, but it’s worth pointing out that the entire convention was staffed by Hasbro employee volunteers, either swapping a Friday at the office for a day at the Convention Center, or coming in on the weekend. (Or both?) Every single HASCON staffer was courteous and friendly to a fault. (I asked a few what their job was at Hasbro. One was in sales, I think in New England. She traveled half the time. Another was in Marketing. There’s that well-known toy designer who’s worked on Kenner and Hasbro Star Wars vehicles for 40 years. I saw him in that same blue shirt walking around on Day 2, smiling, and giving people directions in the board game and Beyblade areas.) Here at this minibus two people told us we were going to wait a bit for more people to arrive. I think more Hasbro tours were originally scheduled than necessary, so a few were combined? Or that we were the first tour, and people were arriving a little late because they had to pick up their registration materials before finding the minibus.

There were six other people on my tour. I was curious what had brought them to HasCon, and specifically what had brought them to the tour, which was part of the more expensive VIP package. One, like me, was a G.I. Joe fan in his 30s or 40s. One was a Transformers fan who’d already gone shopping even though the con had only opened a few hours earlier. One was cosplaying a bit as Ariel (the Little Mermaid), and collected Funko Pops and was a My Little Pony fan. Another was a voice chaser – a big Frank Welker fan, and a Transformers nut. Yet another was a Transformers fan who aspired to work for Hasbro, thinking the tour was a way to network. And lastly there was a general toy and antique collector. Three men, three women, and myself.

It’s a 15-minute drive. Pawtucket was a mill town, and it’s not particularly built up. (Hasbro, in fact, occupies four buildings here. Two facing each other on Newport Avenue, one across town, and a new one in Providence.) Out the window on Newport Avenue, turning the corner for the parking lot:

Photography wasn’t allowed past the front desk area, which was disappointing. Here’s the last photo I took inside the building, a wall in the reception area:

But as my college roommate has given me two tours of Industrial Light and Magic near San Francisco, the notion of following only main hallways and avoiding sensitive areas was familiar. The Hasbro tour, to my recollection, followed the same pattern as ‘07. The front hallway with a bit of history in too-small glass cases embedded in the wall, some newly added Hasbro Studios posters for TV productions I don’t watch, and on the left, a doorway we couldn’t see into with a security guard standing in the way. Behind him was a small employee art gallery of non-toy art. And a turn down Main Street, a wide, lateral hallway with brick on the sides and wood beams above. On the left, a few tables in an open lounge area where two employees sipped coffee and quietly chatted. We turned to the right, and there stood a dozen and a half original G.I. Joe package paintings by Hector Garrido and Doug Hart, framed and on stands, lined one side of this hallway. I own a few original 1980s Transformers package paintings, and I own one Garrido G.I. Joe package painting, so I understand what it’s like to be able to examine the detail up close, to see the real colors and the actual textures that don’t transmit after being photographed and printed onto film transparency (for a chrome) or paperboard (for a toy package) or coated stock (for a catalog).

Seeing these originals in person took my breath away. First of all, they’re big. They are many times the size of a Joe action figure card. Secondly, there were so many of them, all next to each other. And unlike an opening at a gallery, there was no one around, standing in the way, talking and holding drinks. There were just the six other people, already moving ahead on the tour and not quite as interested in this art as myself, plus our two guides. And a long, tall, empty corridor. Thirdly, I had assumed many original package paintings were in the hands of collectors (some are), lost, or (as you may have just been shocked to learn) painted over. Fourthly, toy art is no longer produced this way, paint on illustration board — no computers, no Photoshop then.

It turns out that Hasbro has more than I thought it did, and I get the sense that Hasbro has more that Hasbro thought it did. Derryl DePriest (who explained this both at JoeCon and here at HasCon) started a project a year and a half earlier to search out every office, storage room, closet, nook, and cranny at Hasbro to find G.I. Joe artwork and prototypes. And fifthly, not just seeing so many, but seeing so many so close together. The effect of being overwhelmed by treasure such as this, well, it’s the difference between being given a single toy or being in an aisle at Toys”R”Us and seeing rows and rows of that one toy plus everything else from that year’s product line.

 

I wanted to mark down for posterity that I was here and seeing this, so I pulled out my pen and sketchbook. Here’s some chicken scratch I did of a Tomahawk concept painting by T. Giavis. It was quite different from the toy we got at retail in 1986, slimmer and more angular:

And for completists, I made a list in my sketchbook of what G.I. Joe work was on display:

’83 Doc
’84 Machine Gun Defense Unit
’85 Ammo Dump Unit
’86 Terror Drome
’86 Cobra Hydro Sled
’86 Night Raven
’87 Battle Force 2000 Maverick
’87 Battle Force 2000 Blocker
’87 Battle Force 2000 Vector Jet
’87 Battle Force 2000 Sky Sweeper
’87 Battle Force 2000 Vindicator
’87 Battle Force 2000 Marauder
’87 Battle Force 2000 [ONE MORE VEHICLE]
’88 Tiger Force Bazooka
’88 Tiger Force Duke
’88 Hardball
’89 Python Crimson Patrol
’90 Hammerhead
Scuba Pack unused (I recall to what this refers, I’m just transcribing my notes)

Again, photos weren’t allowed (here’s another view from 2008), and I wasn’t going to risk getting tossed, but someone I know on a later tour did sneak a photo, which I’m printing here with permission:

Please note, that is both the 1986 Tiger Force Duke original art, as well as the 1982/’83 “regular” Duke original art, since the Tiger Force color scheme change was done right on top of the original 1982 paint.

A little further down Main Street was a small office. It was by itself, and windows granted a view into it, so I think this was actually a small conference room for meetings of, say, five people, with AV hookup to a giant monitor on the wall. It seemed like Dave Vennemeyer, the head of sculpture, had set up in this space just for the Friday and Saturday tours. At the desk was a Cintiq running ZBbrush, plus dozens and dozens of sculpted Star Wars heads at production size, and a few finished toys on a white shelf. The computer was patched to the wall monitor, so we could see his digital sculpting demo.

The building dates from 1899 and used to be a cotton gin, so it’s all exposed brick, with light from above and much air. It was oddly empty and quiet. I asked our guide, whose day job is HR, if this was unusual. She said it was, that on a normal day the building would be packed, all hustle and bustle.

Between my own research and my friends who worked at Hasbro, I’m familiar with the sculpting process, so I asked our tour guide if I could run back over the twenty steps to the original art and look at it for another minute. She said yes.

Next, on our left was the employee toy store. I’ve heard of this! It’s configured like a section in a department store, like an office coffee shop or cafe stand, with half walls you can see over. It’s not an encased storefront with windows like in a mall. In vain I looked for some G.I. Joe toys on sale inside, but of course, there weren’t any. (Also, the store was closed today, and we wouldn’t have been allowed in had it been open. We’re not employees!)

Then it was time to head down Electric Avenue to the designers’ room. This was a huge room divided into cubicles, with prototypes in various states of completion on display for us. We didn’t weave in and out of the cubicles, but rather took a distinct path through the room. Our guide handed us off to two other employees who described the development of a toy after the sculpting stage, and then the painting and printing/decorative stage. From there we stepped into a small, more industrial room to see several 3D printers chugging — a few small ones, and three big, fancy ones. This was a big difference from the last tour — no 3D printers eleven years ago!

Hasbro also brought some 3D printers in giant glass cases into HASCON, all the way in the RI Convention Center, so to give you a taste of what we saw in Pawtucket, here’s what everyone saw in Providence:

Back to the tour, from the 3D room we stepped into a small room with a machine that can print on golf balls (by way of example) and fabric, such as patterns for plush toys.

Our tour was running a few minutes late, by now, and our main guide was occasionally checking texts – I suspect after our first tour she was to lead the third tour. We headed back to Main Street, I think having made a loop away from it, passed a coffee shop cart kiosk, and the cafeteria seating room (where I think we looked at foamcore displays with Transformers development art at the BotCon ‘07 tour), and then we were at an exit back to the parking lot.

We weren’t where we started, but our minibus was waiting for us, so we were given a HASCON Hasbro tour cloisonne pin (insert ebay joke here!), said our thank yous and goodbyes and drove back to Providence.

Two of the people on the bus talked Transformers. I tuned out to text some thoughts to friends, but I was having cell trouble. The tour was great. I felt a little awkward paying for it, since I think of myself as a journalist as well as a fan. It’s an abstract thought, but some day I’d like to be able to walk into the Hasbro building as some kind of professional, like they’re showing me around and it’s not as an enthusiastic fan, but a guest. By that metric, the tour made me feel melancholy. But it was fascinating, and again, I’ve given much thought to this building and the history made there, so to be able to be inside it, under any circumstances, was special.

 

———-FRIDAY CON

Got back to downtown Providence. The con was in two connecting buildings: the Dunkin Donuts Center (a small arena for musical acts or hockey games) and the Convention Center itself. There wasn’t much time to look around before the first panels, but I did want to get a sense of the big, fancy guests, so I sat in on a minute of the Stan Lee panel. Again, I’m not sure what Stan Lee has to do with Hasbro, but if we’re going to accept that HASCON is not just a Hasbro show, but a pop culture show, then it’s fine. Lee was regaling the audience with his oft-told tale of his wife encouraging him to tell the stories he really wanted to tell on his way out from Marvel in 1960 or ’61. Here’s a bad photo showing how far away I was, but also how many good seats were available.

I’ve never met Lee, nor have I ever stood in line to get an autograph. If I had grown up 20 years earlier and he had written my favorite comics, then certainly! I do like reading and hearing his recollections, though. Lee’s appearance schedule these last few years has been amazing, so big Hasbro connection or not, it was nice he was here.

Entering the Convention Center, I was pleased to see this giant banner just past security:

Any appearance by G.I. Joe characters in HASCON signage or displays was a small win. Still entering, you had to pass this to get into the main hallway area:

This is a detail I appreciate. Yes, they’re just oversize, cardboard letters, but you really know you’ve arrived when you have to walk past the name of the event and it’s almost as tall as you. Also, Bumblebee (who I’ve seen before at other shows).

Next to that familiar yellow Camaro were posters for five movies. I try to keep this blog positive, so all I’ll state here concerning these movies is that I saw three of them.

Up the escalator, and was happy to see G.I. Joe get a big part of this giant three-section wall banner. Left:

Center:

Right:

Upstairs I took in the Transformers brand area. It was great that no one was there so my photos weren’t crowded out by people. But it was worrisome that there were so few attendees.

 

I started to realize, at this point, how and why Hasbro was organizing HASCON. This was like Toy Fair, the annual trade show in New York, except instead of wooing the press and various buyers, Hasbro was now directly sharing, celebrating, and showing off to us, the end consumers. I’ve not attended Toy Fair, but I have seen Hasbro’s displays at the annual Official Transformers Convention get more and more fancy over the years, so that was the vibe I was getting here. “We’ve got movie partners, we’ve got ubiquitous, evergreen brands, and we’ve got an entire convention hall to fill.” This was an important reminder that Hasbro is not just a toy company, it’s a dream factory, it’s an IP heaven. (And this is a year before Hasbro bought Power Rangers, so I think I’ve just answered my own question about what a next HASCON will emphasize.)

I know I was there for G.I. Joe, but I’m still a big TF fan, so I couldn’t help but soak in some of the robot vibes. Glass case with this and next year’s toy product:

Three designers from Japan signing autographs:

(Little known fact! Before I was writing a G.I. Joe history book, I was also researching a Transformers history book! That’s partly why I attended BotCon for 12 years. I know a little about the gents pictured above, but again, I was here with my metaphorical G.I. Joe “Press” hat on, so Transformers would need to be an afterthought.) Contiguous to the Transformers area was the Star Wars area (photos below), and then the HASCON Boutique. This was where fans who are used to brand-specific shows like BotCon and JoeCon might feel put out, that HASCON was not about dealers selling old toys to collectors. In this retail area, Hasbro was selling new product to us. The prices were a little high, and (once again) there really wasn’t anything G.I. Joe to speak of, so I wasn’t interested. Please note, while the Friday photo here looks deserted, this space was full of people buying toys on Saturday!

It was almost time for the Joe panels. I bumped into Chris and Kate McLeod and Diana Davis. We quickly checked out the VIP room, where pre-registrants could sit away from the crowds, play games, and eat snacks. Here are people playing Magic:

Here are snacks:

There were also some big, soft seats for just getting away from it all, or checking email or blogging.

Then we headed to a small area at the other end of building with perhaps 150 seats where the three Joe panels would take place:

 

———-FRIDAY PANELS

 

PANEL 1: The Art of G.I. Joe: Packaging an American Icon

From my sketchbook:

Derryl DePriest moderated this panel featuring Doug Hart and Bob Lavoie.

This was great. I’d briefly spoken to Hart by phone many years ago, and this weekend I recommitted myself to interviewing him for my book. Lavoie hadn’t been on my radar, so to be able to put one more name to a few G.I. Joe package paintings was great. Lavoie did some other promotional Joe art and package design, but the package paintings are of the most interest to me:

The gist of the panel was that Hart was in-house, and was to match Hector Garrido’s style as the line expanded and Hasbro needed more and more Joe paintings. DePriest and Hart lauded Garrido, who is elderly and not available to travel. Their musings made me realize what a rare thing it is for one artist to be the visual face of a brand.

With something like the Pepsi logo or the Facebook logo, yes, a designer invented (or adapted from an earlier version) that red-and-blue circle, and that offset lowercase “f.” But G.I. Joe was different. Every year meant 20 or 40 new paintings portraying these wonderful characters and vehicles. It all had to look excellent, and of a piece.

 

PANEL 2: Creating the World of G.I. Joe Vehicles & Playsets

From my sketchbook:

 

Left to right, a photo composite:

Vinnie D’Alleva, Greg Berndtson, Guy Cassaday, Frank Coroneous, Dave Kunitz, Bill Young, Bill Araujo, Dan Klingensmith.

A few slides:

 

To be honest, this and the next panel were fun, but not revelatory. I’ve interviewed most of these gents, and I’m pretty familiar with how vehicles and playsets and figures were brainstormed, categorized, pitched, designed, approved, engineered, and manufactured. I don’t begrudge these panels at all, though, and it’s wonderful to see this many Joe alums all sitting together. A few details were explained and a few anecdotes that got tossed out were new to me, and even if it had all been stuff I did know it would still have been fun. We fans were watching a reunion of coworkers and friends. Bill Young and his wife had flown in from the West Coast, for example, and while we’re used to some of these guys meeting up at JoeCon, many hadn’t seen each other in 10, 15, 20 years.

 

PANEL 3: Creating the World of G.I. Joe Characters

Left to right, below: Vinnie D’Alleva, Greg Berndtson, Ron Rudat, Kurt Groen (not “Mark Pennington,” as the nameplate says — weather kept Pennington in Florida) Kirk Hindman, Bill Araujo, and moderator Dan Klingensmith.

Just a few highlight slides:

 

Again, these were great panels. But 3 hours of concentrated fun and information is a lot!

 

———-FRIDAY WANDERING AROUND

In a bit of a daze from three excellent panels in a row, I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. Food? Restroom? Spend money at a merch booth?

Let’s zoom out a little:

This was fortuitous. I’d been dreaming that someone would release Nick Roche and Josh Burcham’s fun cover for Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye issue #57 as a poster for a year. But IDW doesn’t sell posters, and this was that series’ final issue — no one makes a cover out of the final issue of a series. Such a poster, at my store, could help me sell the 10 (13, if you count crossovers) graphic novel collections of this, the finest run of Transformers comics ever made by human beings. But you know what? Hasbro took that image and made its own poster! And even better — this is a small, silly thing — it was only 4 bucks! (Retail at a comic shop would be 8.) If there was one image I could pick from the last ten years of Transformers storytelling to represent what is best about these robot characters with their war, and their tragedy, and their humor, heart, and mythology, it would be this. I don’t have a picture of the poster, so here’s the image when it was a comic book cover:

(Eagle-eyed readers will note it’s an expansion of Roche’s cover to issue #1 of that same series, which is itself an homage to Kevin Maguire’s 1987 Justice League issue #1.)

Did I just spend four paragraphs on Transformers and not G.I. Joe? Sorry, Joe fans. That’s what happens at HASCON. You realize how much so many of Hasbro’s brands mean to you.

At the IDW booth I chatted with Chris Ryall and Michael Kelly. Ryall was once top editor at the publisher, and more recently became CCO. (And after HASCON but before this writing, left the company after many successful years.) Ryall and I chatted about how IDW has both a main line Ninja Turtles monthly, as well as constant, monthly miniseries that fill in the world (like The Secret History of the Foot Clan, which you can read around volume 4 of the current series). I showed him some book progress — I once pitched my book to IDW, and Ryall and others there were supportive, although it ended not working out in the end (for the best!).

Michael Kelly was Senior Director of Global Publishing at Hasbro, and as of this writing has been promoted (congrats, sir!) and is now VP of Global Publishing. Kelly is in charge of all of Hasbro’s licensed partnerships for its characters, whether that means prose books, guide books, childrens books, coloring books, or comic books. He’s quietly helped steer IDW’s G.I. Joe and Transformers (and Pony and D&D) comics for years. I admitted to Kelly my skepticism about HASCON, and showed him a project that runs parallel to my book but is not my book. It’s always nice to see these two gentlemen at cons (Boston ComicCon, New York ComicCon, BotCon, etc). It’s old news since the monthly Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye ended a year and a half ago (and turned into Transformers: Lost Light), but I like to tell Ryall and Kelly how much I like MTMTE (and Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, and IDW’s Turtles, and so much more) whenever I see them. They know about my comic book store, so we can casually trade notes on sales and customer behavior.

 

Speaking of D&D, my brother and I read a bunch of novels about this guy in middle school and high school (and college and after), so I was thrilled to see him, and to send a snapshot to my brother.

 

On the top floor on the con was the giant Magic room.

I’ve heard of Magic tournaments, and HeroClix tournaments, and D&D ones as well, but I’ve never seen one. Or if this wasn’t a tournament, but just hundreds of people in individual duels all in one giant con hall, I’ve never seen that either.

Next to the Magic area was a modestly sized dealer area for the buying and selling of games and gaming accessories. This was a contrast with the rest of HASCON, third party exhibitors selling dice and Magic and starter kits. This is what traditional JoeCon attendees were looking for, but in the variety that would have sold G.I. Joe, mint and loose, old and recent.

(To be fair, there were other third party vendors selling Hasbro-branded merch, but I didn’t get any photos. I think it was t-shirts and vinyl Soundwave figurines and such.)

I was also envious of all of the Magic fans in attendance because they could redeem their tournament winnings for prizes. Nothing of the sort for Transformers or Joe fans, but I do understand that a Magic “convention” (read: tournament) is naturally different than a TF or Joe con.

Also, good on you, Hasbro, for encouraging people to recycle. One of these at the end of every row of tables.

 

It was getting to be time to leave the con and make my way to the Legends Dinner. I like that the former Hasbro employees who’d worked on G.I. Joe in the 1980s and ’90s were called something less clunky than “Former Hasbro Employees,” but I do find that word “legend” a tad overused. And I’m also glad it wasn’t the “VIP Fan Experience G.I. Joe Dinner” or whatever.

Walked up the hill from the Convention Center. There on the right was the Capitol. Steven Spielberg filmed some of Amistad there.

And there in front of me was the Renaissance Hotel.

 

———-FRIDAY DINNER

We were in a moderate-sized basement ballroom. Here’s a composite panorama of it. On the left is a table of art and a glass case of 2-ups. In the center was a small stage and the projection screen. On the far right was the bar. I still have my drink tickets, insert ebay joke here.

I looked at the flat art, but not (yet) the three-dimensional stuff. Two highlights from the art display, Mark Pennington’s presentation artwork for Big Boa:

And Pennington’s presentation marker comp for Muskrat:

Alan Hassenfeld was a surprise guest. We all expected a dozen or so former Hasbro designers, engineers, and marketers, but we weren’t expecting the current chairman of the board, the former CEO of the company, to show up, much less make a speech! Derryl DePriest gave a warm introduction–

–and then Hassenfeld got up and riffed for a lovely 30+ minutes. He talked about working in Asia in the ’70s, his brother leading the company in the ’80s, and how he, Alan, now wanted the brand to come back bigger than ever. That last bit was wonderful, and the crowd applauded and cheered, but I found it bittersweet. Here’s a man in charge of — by one metric — the company, but not in a position to make that happen. I don’t mean that as a swipe. Hassenfeld stepped down as Executive Officer and the company has gone on to even greater highs. It’s an oversimplification to hope that the guy for whom the company is named (or at least, his grandfather and great uncle) can snap his fingers and make G.I. Joe relevant again.

Bittersweet or not, I’ve always wanted to meet him, or at least sit three people from him.

Hassenfeld’s love for G.I. Joe was evident in what he said and how he spoke. And even if he dealt with Wall Street and wore a tie to work in the ’90s, he was clearly a toy guy through and through. One funny moment came when Hassenfeld revealed what was under his fleece vest.

Hassenfeld even took a question or two. Here, collector/podcaster/hip hop artist Chris McLeod asks a question while simultaneously recording the answer and everything else that happened at the Renaissance. I forget what the question was, probably something about the Union Jack or soccer.

Hassenfeld made a swift, quiet exit. Dinner was served. Chris Mowrer, who was kind to me at BotCon ’09 when I was first circulating my book, got up to say a few words about the portfolio of Garrido package paintings that us special VIP pre-registrants had gotten. Mowrer works for IDW, which had actually packaged and published the prints and the envelope. This was in line with DePriest cataloging all those paintings.

But there were another two panels scheduled during dinner! What a packed day! Here G.I. Joe fans again may have felt Hasbro was pushing them into a corner, with all the G.I. Joe programming squeezed into Friday. But that may have had more to do with Derryl DePriest and Dan Klingensmith having and finding so much stuff and so many people to trot out.

This is a hunch, but I wonder if DePriest and Klingensmith decided that since there’d be only one more JoeCon and that HASCON was perhaps only going to happen this one time, they would pull out all the stops for the Joe fans who made the trip. Or that DePriest asked Klingensmith how many panels he wanted to plan and how many people he wanted to invite and Klingensmith did not provide a modest number.

The two dinner panels were called Walk Down Memory Lane” and In The Beginning…1982,” and, my apologies, they blend together a bit. The first played on a loop over dinner, with photos from the 1980s and ’90s along with quotations Dan had gathered during his research and/or for this very dinner slideshow. The second tried to put the first year in chronological order — who started at the company when, what items were first as the nascent Real American Hero was coming together. Several designers sat on the small stage and made comments on the slides.

 

Then, after dinner, a sort of third panel happened. This could be called “What Were You Thinking?” It was organized by artist/designer, with toy development images Klingensmith has unearthed during his research. (I’ve uncovered some of these as well, as naturally our projects have much overlap.) Dan’s prompt was “What were you thinking?”, as in “Why did you decide to pitch this figure, accessory, or vehicle?” Some of them were goofy and fun, others were straightforward. The Hasbro Legends hadn’t seen these in advance, so the proceeding had a fun energy to it, like we were all interviewing the Hasbro folks together, them seeing some of this stuff for the first time in years. I don’t recall any revelations on the commentary. Unfortunately, the opening speech had gone long (not that I minded!), so this was a little rushed, and I at least was a little burnt out from so many panels already. Here are three slides:

With dinner and dessert over, the house lights came up and everyone moved around to chat. I got some photos inside the glass case, mostly 2-ups:

Seeing a 2-up of a character I don’t care for makes me kinda love the character. Like this guy!

I got to show several people some book progress, which was great — a few Hasbro alums who I’d interviewed 5 or 10 years ago! With the caterers clearing plates and the clock running down, all the G.I. Joe Hasbro alums got together for a big reunion photo.

I think a bunch then went to a bar to catch up. What I wouldn’t have given to have overbearingly invited myself to that, or just plain been a fly on the wall! But it was late and I still had my hour drive back to Boston.

 

———-SATURDAY CON

 

PANEL: PETER AND FRANK SOUND OFF: The Voices of Optimus Prime & Megatron!

As packed and tiring as Friday was, one of the advantages of having all of the must-attend panels already done meant that Saturday would be relaxed, just a day for walking around and taking in the show. I’ve seen Peter Cullen at a few shows (including his first, at BotCon ’97, which was extraordinary), so this wasn’t a must-go. But it’s still fun to hear those dulcet tones, and I particularly like it when Cullen riffs live in a cartoony voice. Everyone assumes he can only do gruff or beefy because of Optimus Prime and Ironhide and the Voltron stuff, but Cullen’s got a great Brooklyn-y sidekick voice, too, and much in between. I’ve seen Cullen and Frank Welker chat together on video, and I’ve never seen Welker live, and I’d intended to see arrive for all of this, but got to the show a little late, so I only caught the end. From the same point of view as the Stan Lee panel from the day before, I doodled these two from the jumbotron:

In the main floor, there was a display with a few U.S. Marines and a Toys For Tots drive.

Here’s the Saturday crowd that was missing from the empty Friday:

Ran into Diana Davis and Rich Uncle Pennybags. And he responded to that name, which I appreciated. I don’t know quite when Hasbro changed the mascot’s name to “Mr. Monopoly,” but it’s perpetually 1987 (or 1930-something) when I play Monopoly.

I can no longer recall what was across the street from the Convention Center, seen here from the escalator. Downtown Providence has seen much development in the last twenty years.

 

 

Heading back down to the ground floor — say, is that Rom? I don’t have any connection to him, but nice for fans that IDW Publishing is giving him a try–

Why, yes, that is Rom! A gorgeous Rom cosplay! I wish this gent could speak so I could ask how he wanted to be credited.

Hey, Generation 1 Transformers cosplay as seen from the escalator!

I went back upstairs to see how busy the main hall was now that it was Saturday. Answer: Very busy! Did you know kids love Transformers? Kids love Transformers!

Part of me thinks “I am sad” because this kind of love isn’t being showered upon G.I. Joe, and this isn’t a crowd of kids playing with G.I. Joe. But then again, I also love Transformers, and in 1984 we were all more bananas about TF than Joe, so this just feels like an echo of that. And my nephew loves Transformers, so I could imagine him here as one of these kids.

On the topic of Transformers having more of a presence than G.I. Joe, gosh, did Transformers have more of a presence than G.I. Joe! Games and apps, licensed apparel, Movie 5, Prime Wars this and that, a little wall of history, and on and on.

At the end of a wall of Transformers history was this face painter set up in front of a marquee:

On the one hand, the Transformers Hall of Fame is silly, like all awards and award shows. Particularly when most of the awards go to fictional characters. (Generation 1 Megatron was feted the first year, but Beast Wars Megatron didn’t garner this honor for two more years, for example.) What really interests me is the real-world humans who are inducted, the toy designers, writers, and actors. I don’t think any humans have been added for two years now, so again, this all seems silly. But having been to one of the Hall of Fame unveilings, it’s also undeniably fun. If I’d been able to get into the Transformers special dinner event to see the Hall of Fame event, that would have been great. But the VIP Experience was limited to one brand per person. I don’t think I could have registered for the G.I. Joe dinner on Friday and also the Transformers event on Saturday. (Or you could, but they were both originally scheduled for Friday, which is why I didn’t try?)

 

I’ve been reading Black Panther off and on since 1999. Action figures (and movies!) have long leaned towards white males, so seeing this caught my attention.

I also chuckled because it’s incredibly toyetic. Certainly a society that worships the Panther God might make Panther Gloves, but I thought that if Shuri actually uses these in the movie I would be a little distracted. (She did. I was!)

Movie costume!

There was a huge Marvel Legends toy diorama. I didn’t even try to shoot it all. But I did like Doctor Strange here taking a moment out from a battle to send his astral projection to attack someone:

There was a live something happening in the My Little Pony area. I think it was the Memory game, but with large cards and a stage and an MC talking over a speaker. The kids looked really happy.

Also–

–an entire wall of 1980s My Little Pony art!

MLP is not my thing, and while I hear good things about Friendship is Magic, I don’t follow it. But this museum wall was a great touch. I hope the parents appreciated all these originals, as I’m sure the little kids skipped over them.

What I see as charming design and deft old-school art techniques (airbrush, colored pencil) kids probably see as stodgy and old-fashioned.

My Little Pony: The Movie was soon to hit theatres, so much of the toys and merch on display was for that. I wasn’t planning on seeing the film, but I do have a soft spot for TV cartoons that graduate to the big screen, a la Transformers in 1986. I think this is Equestria Girls, which I don’t understand, and which aren’t in the movie, but it was a cool, weird display, and felt like Pony crossed with Jem.

As previously mentioned, a small section of the con floor was given over to 3D printing. Nice touch, demoing some of the tech that goes into toymaking. This first photo is a repeat:

But I hope attendees didn’t walk away thinking that toys are all made by computers and machines, and not by people!

Next door in the Star Wars area was Jedi training. Fun! I kind of wished I was 6 so I could do this and believe in it.

More of the Star Wars area:

Each display or section was for something different: kids getting trained as Jedi, Forces of Destiny, Episode VIII toys, some bean bag chairs with Episode VII just playing on a big TV, a 40 years of Mark Boudreaux marquee with a photo of him for each decade, a person-sized movie poster for The Last Jedi you could stand in, and more.

The big dioramas in giant plexiglas cases were fun to look at. So many people were photographing them and taping them with their camera phones it was sometimes hard to spend a relaxed minute taking in all the scenes and marveling at the fun construction. What with the glare, I knew I wasn’t going to get great shots, so I didn’t try. But I did like this bit of exaggerated depth from A New Hope in the Star Wars display.

 

I’m not a gamer. I loved AD&D many, many years ago, but there’s only so much time in the week, you know? The same goes for most tabletop gaming. But I love the social aspect of it, and the tactile quality of pieces and cards and dice. While the top floor was that huge, ongoing Magic tournament space, there was a smaller one (but still pretty big!) here on the main con floor where HASCON volunteers were teaching parents and helping kids with the rules. Again, another reminder that HASCON was for families and kids as much as 39-year old nostalgics.

While I can imagine my mom taking me to something like this in 1985, I can’t imagine the analogous part where she’d be taught Magic! Although, come to think of it, she did play Uno with us. Huh.

 

On the topic of me not into the hot thing as “kids these days” are, I don’t get Beyblade. I just don’t. They’re overdesigned, overpriced tops, right? Like tops from the 1950s, except crossed with Pokemon? And there’s a show, and an app for your phone? I was chuckling to myself, in a knowing, grumpy old man way, at this packed play area, that all these nice folks, young and old —

–were nuts to be into Beyblade at all. But a HASCON volunteer in the Beyblade section called over from a counter “Do you know about Beyblade?” and since I had time to kill and was open to being pitched, I mildly replied “I do not.” He showed me a bunch of different items, and the arena, and described the strategy–

–and I thought “You know, if this had been around in 1987, my brother and I would have thought this was neat, and would have gotten a few, and had fun with them.” They wouldn’t have competed with our deep and wide-ranging G.I. Joe collecting, but at least now I “got” it, and I looked back at all those parents and kids and didn’t begrudge them.

The rest of Saturday was the kind of leisurely window shopping I didn’t get to do Friday.

Mostly the boardgame area. Remember earlier in this blog post when I said I didn’t know how Hasbro would even have a convention for board games? This is how:

Say, I didn’t realize that weird game from the ’60s is back!

This next piece was fun, but from an art-crtique point of view, I don’t know what Rubik’s Cube pieces have to do with Monopoly. A Monopoly mosaic made out of Monopoly houses and hotels, or Monopoly money, or the top bits of the property cards wouldn’t been a better fit. Hard to take off my art school hat.

Oh, on the topic of Monopoly money–

–when did Hasbro invent its own currency symbol and stop using the American dollar sign? I suppose it’s smart, like Sci-Fi becoming Syfy, but still. First “Rich Uncle Pennybags,” now this! Then I saw actual Mr. Monopoly.

That name still doesn’t sit right with me.

Some cute Frozen figures:

 

In the HASCON Boutique, I bought a few toys and put them in one of many collection baskets for recent hurricane victims. I noted that some of the convention-exclusive toys were sold out:

 

———-SATURDAY: MORE G.I. JOE ARTIFACTS

Back on the first floor, finally took a look at the G.I. Joe section. The placement of the G.I. Joe brand area was, at first glance, a telling and damning statement. Rather than inside the main con hall where Transformers and Star Wars and the HASCON boutique (among others) got huge floor displays, G.I. Joe had a modest patch out on the entry atrium. It consisted of five or so glass cases with art, artifacts, and costumes. Later, a friend would suggest that this was actually advantageous, in that everyone — I mean everyone — would have to walk by it to get to the escalators and certain restrooms and snack carts, so you couldn’t miss it. Whereas, by comparison, the phone app and electronic gaming section of HASCON was in a back corner — plenty of space, but not front and center. This is what it looked like (from Friday, sans crowds, so you can actually see it).

A dozen original package paintings were on display. There’s nothing quite like seeing a Hector Garrido G.I. Joe original. There’s especially nothing like seeing 9 of them all at once. One was by another artist (Doug Hart, probably?), and one was by another-another artist (not Hart or Lavoie). Sorry for the glare. Had someone stood behind me holding up a big, black coat, this would be minimized.

This first one was a puzzle. On the left you can kind of see ’85 Snake-Eyes as well. I thought that painting was in the hands of a private collector. Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe Hasbro had a really nice reproduction of it to sit next to the Storm Shadow. Anyhoo, everything in these photos is original art.


This next one is presentation art, not package art:

Whoo! Unreleased 1995 Star Brigade Duke!

Not photographed:

-’82 Rock ‘n Roll
-’82 Breaker
-’82 JUMP [Jet Mobile Propulsion Unit]

 

And a glass case of mostly 2-ups and some presentation art. (What had been on display at the dinner was exclusive to the dinner.)

I’m not a huge 2-up guy. There are some collectors for whom 2-ups are a grail. I appreciate them, and I do own one. (I always forget about it since it’s in a bag behind some stuff on a high shelf. Also, if you’re curious, it’s unpainted urethane, in pieces, not a paint master. So, yes, a coveted 2-up, but not the most coveted kind.)

There was also Firefly’s motorcycle, his costume, and Storm Shadow’s costume from G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I didn’t take photos of these, sorry. That film is a tough one for me. It’s so superior to The Rise of Cobra that I can’t help but like it, but it’s still not quite G.I. Joe. Lots of details I disagree with, too, like Firefly’s costume being heavily overdetailed and overdone. This film, and any props or costumes from it, symbolize to me the failure of all stakeholders involved in keeping G.I. Joe in the public eye with something as big and important as an expensive Hollywood film, so while in general I’m excited to see movie stuff, this stuff is bittersweet. Also, the movie was four years old by the time HASCON rolled around, another representation of the Joe brand’s nosedive from the popular consciousness. (If Movie 2 had been a hit in ’13, presumably Movie 3 would have just happened in ’16 or so and would be a major subtext of HASCON.) I’d rather these than nothing, but they don’t represent the biggest bragging rights.

 

———-SATURDAY AT BOSS FIGHT

This could be its own blog post. Friends Andrew Franks, Erik Arana, Trina Cerise-Arana, and Fred Aczon were all designers and sculptors at Hasbro a bunch of years back. Then they started their own company, Boss Fight Studio, to design, market, and release their own highly detailed action figures. These are fun and beautiful toys, and Boss Fight’s success reflects highly on the efforts of its founders and employees. They broke a Kickstarter record and have been chugging along for a few years now. I’d soaked up as much HASCON as I needed, and while I’ve visited BFS once before, friend Diana Davis (in from the west coast) hadn’t. Two pals from Joe- and Transformers fandom, freelance Hasbro designer Troy McKie and noted G.I. Joe collector and author Justin Bell also hadn’t seen BFS HQ, so the plan was to drive an hour north, see the place, and get dinner.

I didn’t take any photos, but here are two shots from three years ago to give you a sense.

Boss Fight Studio 2015

Boss Fight Studio 2015

In the intervening years, Boss Fight has taken over the basement of its building and filled it with cases and cases of action figures in a storage room/fulfillment center. Troy got there before us, so I missed his agog expressions at all the toys littering everyone’s offices and desks. It was great to see Diana take it all in for the first time, as it reminded me how special Boss Fight’s rise has been. I’ve been friends with the BFS folks for ten or 25 years, and I’d been at the office once, so I take for granted that their action figures are great and that a non-descript building on a non-descript street can figuratively and literally hold so much excitement and treasure.

Justin headed out soon after we arrived, and a few BFS staff were reasonably not at work on a Saturday night, so five of us went for Mexican food. I’m still a little embarrassed of selfies, but sometimes that’s all you’ve got:

Dave Proctor, Diana Davis, Tim Finn, Troy McKie, and Andrew Franks

 

Headed home and clicked back into regular autumn, September life. Made a mental note to start this blog post soon.

 

———-WRAP UP THOUGHTS

It was a wonderful weekend. In fact, it wasn’t even a full weekend! I probably spent Sunday at/prepping for my other two jobs. I didn’t check in with any friends who attended HASCON Sunday, but I assume that attendance was robust and that a good time was still had by all. Kids and grown-ups alike certainly looked like they were having a great time on Friday and Saturday.

While I was there, I kept thinking “I’m not sure I would attend again next year.” Yes, the official JoeCon won’t return after 2018, so I could swap out the annual JoeCon trip for an annual HASCON one. But 1) I need to check out some of the smaller, regional Joe cons, like Joelanta or Roll Out Roll Call. 2) There was so much G.I. Joe material shown to us Joe fans and so many former Hasbro employees in attendance as guests, it could be hard for future editions of HASCON to top this one. But I’ve turned the corner on this one. It’s so heartening that Derryl DePriest’s efforts to catalog and show all that art, all those objects, is not only for us-few-fans, but as a broad work of industrial and cultural archaeology, for the historical record. Here was Hasbro officially inviting us in and allowing us to interface with its history. This isn’t an individual collector doing this, a someone like me, this is the company that owns G.I. Joe and has tended the G.I. Joe garden for five decades. Here was Hasbro teaming with a fan-researcher to augment this experience as the most concentrated celebration possible. I’ve taken the train to New York to see a particular art show at a particular museum, how is it any different driving the hour south to see a batch of original 1980s G.I. Joe paintings all next to each other? At the place where they were made!

As much as I wish to window shop (and actual-shop) for mint-sealed and loose Joes at a traditional convention, I want to soak up G.I. Joe fandom and matériel, and HASCON is an ideal place to do that. And Transformers and Monopoly and so on. I like that it was family-centric, and that it coupled licensing and programming with toys, a trade show not for the trade, but for the public. It may have been a three-day advertisement, but it was also a three-day carnival, and we pay admission to carnivals.

A few months after September, Hasbro announced that HASCON would return, but in September 2019, skipping a year. I thought this was a good idea. (The Star Wars Celebration is every other year, right?) I am optimistic that Hasbro might announce something new with the toy line, or Hasbro Studios might announce something new on the television front, or Paramount might announce something concrete with the film franchise. (As of this writing, Movie 3 has a release date and not much else, at least publicly, which means maybe Movie 3, maybe not.)

Even in the busy month of September, I can make the time since Providence is just an hour south.

 

———-WRAP UP, MORE

I wish to again acknowledge the friendly and enthusiastic volunteers, all those nice Hasbro employees in the blue HASCON t-shirts.

Derryl DePriest once again proves he is the right man for the job at Hasbro. Collector, author, keeper of the flame, and formally, VP of Global Brand Management. He’s great to the brand, even when it’s down, and he’s great to fans.

I would also like to laud Dan Klingensmith. Dan and I have been on a parallel track for some time. We’re both researching G.I. Joe, collecting artwork, and interviewing people. His work is toy-centric, mine includes brand extensions like animation and comics. I started my book first, but Dan got his book(s) to market first. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it was announced that Dan was half the team assembling the G.I. Joe Fan Experience at HASCON. He did a great job. More than a great job, Dan did a spectacular job. Reaching out to so many former Hasbro employees, lining up such a great display of 1980s and ’90s pre-production work for fans to see (two, actually — the one at HASCON and one at the dinner up the street), assembling so many slideshows for the panels and dinners — this was a ton of work. And Dan doesn’t live in Rhode Island or even in the Eastern Time Zone! I would like to think I could put together a great weekend of G.I. Joe stuff for G.I. Joe people, but I want to concretely state that the G.I. Joe Fan Experience at HASCON was as wonderful and informative as it was because of Dan Klingensmith. Kudos to Derryl for all his hustling inside Hasbro, and kudos to him for thinking to bring Dan onboard. If there wasn’t ever going to be another official G.I. Joe convention or HASCON, this would have been quite the weekend to go out on!

 

Ten-thousand words later and I’m almost as exhausted writing about the weekend as I was living it! Even though I didn’t write about Mark Wahlberg or Chewbacca Mom or kids auditioning for Hasbro or the Nerf blaster zone with families shooting each other, I hope you’ve gotten a good sense of HASCON 2017.

 

Did you attend HASCON? What did you think?

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Convention Reviews

2 responses to “HASCON 2017 – the Real American Book! convention report

  1. Rusty Shackleford

    Thanks so much for posting! I was a little bummed that I’d never been to a JoeCon and couldn’t make this years–the detail you provided made me feel like I was there, and hopefully, *maybe* I can take my boys to HASCON in 2019. Thanks!

  2. Great write up, thank you!

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