Sunday, June 22, 2014

Report From the Front: BotCon 2014

For Transformers fans, one major event to look forward to every year is BotCon, a Transformers convention officially endorsed by Hasbro and run in a joint effort with (currently) Fun Publications, who runs the Official Transformers Collectors’ Club. Unlike most conventions such as Comic-Con or WonderCon, BotCon is one that actively travels around the U.S. so as to reach every part of the U.S. fanbase, and so it won’t always be nearby, though it seems to go to Pasadena, CA every so often. Each year under the Fun Publications run has also had a different theme, often tying back into the original Transformers fiction given to Club Members; this year’s theme was Pirates vs. Knights, following a group of Decepticon Pirates as the Autobot Knights try to stop them from plundering the multiverse (the Transformers multiverse is important to the Collectors’ Club fiction).

My first time actually attending BotCon with my family was in 2011 when it was held in Pasadena and the theme was Transformers Animated, with special fiction canonically taking place after the events of the cartoon as an extension of it dubbed “Season 3.5” by the creators. I attended on a day that allowed for General Admission (BotCon lasts for four days, Thursday to Sunday, and getting into the first two days requires exorbitant amounts of cash) and even though I mainly spent my time on the show floor, I still had a good time since I got a taste of what BotCon was like. This year, the show came back to Pasadena, and so we decided to attend, but we did General Admission again on Saturday since we have yet to have the finances needed to attend the first two days. Interestingly, this year’s convention not only celebrated 30 years of Transformers, but also 20 years of BotCon, having started in 1994 in order to celebrate 10 years of the brand’s existence.

Since the convention center opened for General Admission at 10:00, we decided to show up early, getting there at around 9:00. As we waited in line, attendees who were 12 and under were being given a free toy, which seems to be a thing since that also happened during my first BotCon, specifically (for those who are interested) Animated Jackpot, a retool of Animated Jazz that features a different head sculpt and color scheme; comic programs were also being sold for $5 (the program for that year’s BotCon is at the back of a comic containing an original story which features every souvenir toy available at the show), so we bought one and I ended up reading through the whole comic before we got to the ticket booth. Interestingly, it wasn’t until we were in line that we were told that the $20 General Admission fee is cash only (it doesn’t say anything about that on the website), but everyone was told where the nearest ATM was so they could get more cash if they needed it. As we entered the convention, we also got our hands stamped in case we exited and wanted to go back in.

It may have been smaller than WonderCon, but BotCon still drew quite a crowd.

Since there were some exclusives to be found at that convention, mainly consisting of comic covers and prints (many of them My Little Pony-related), we decided that those would be our first priority since we thought they would run out early or might already have (given this was day 3 and the MLP fanbase tends to be rabid about this sort of thing, as we learned from Comic-Con). Surprisingly though, there were still plenty of the MLP-based exclusives available, and there were still a lot of them by the time we left. However, we decided to get these exclusives while we could, including a variant cover left over from the 2013 BotCon (we got the MLP covers and the MLP/Transformers print we were interested in mainly because they were BotCon-related; my enthusiasm for MLP has all but died down at this point). John Barber (a current writer and editor on IDW Publishing’s Transformers comics) also happened to be working at the IDW booth where we got a few of these exclusives, so we took his offer to sign the comics we bought that he wrote.

Following this, we decided to go around and get some more signatures from Transformers artists and writers who were at the convention (whilst dodging some cameras following a group of dedicated Transformers cosplayers). One of the artists, Sarah Stone (artist of the currently-running Windblade mini-series) was also with writer Mairghread Scott (who was also a writer on Transformers: Prime), whom I wasn’t expecting to see, and so I was able to compliment both of them on their work (other creators were complimented as I got their signatures). As I got signatures from colorist Josh Burcham, he was excited when I also got him to sign the latest issue of IDW’s Samurai Jack comic (which I coincidentally had on me on the way to the convention), commenting that it was a fun issue to work on. Another colorist I got signatures from, Thomas Deer, not only helped me get signatures from another Transformers artist, Matt Frank (who was a little occupied at the time, but still sounded excited to see one of the comics I brought for him to sign), but also expressed disappointment with not being able to do coloring work for the Beast Hunters comic (due to personal matters) since he enjoyed doing color work for the Rage of the Dinobots comic so much (this was prompted from Rage of the Dinobots being a comic I brought to get signed). Another interesting comment I got from another Transformers artist, Andrew Griffith, was when I had him sign the first issue of Foundation (a Dark of the Moon tie-in comic from a few years back), he made a comment about it being “a blast from the past” (a statement writer John Barber would repeat when he signed it later).

Colorist Thomas Deer in the foreground and artist Matt Frank in the background.

After getting some signatures (I did not name some of the creators I saw for the sake of space), we went over to the store by the entrance to get some souvenirs. While there are the usual shirts and hats available, the souvenirs also usually include a few packages consisting of two or three toys falling under a particular theme. Three toy packages fell under the Pirates vs. Knights theme, though another set was available, being a small Kre-O set of Kreons (mini-figures) based on previous BotCon exclusives (including the Generation 2 Breakdown toy from the original 1994 BotCon). There was also the opportunity to purchase Timelines Trans-Mutate, based on a character from the Beast Wars cartoon in an alternate universe, which came in a box with extra space intended for that year’s free toy for Collectors’ Club Members (as a Club Member myself, I found this very tempting, since this was done before with another pair of related toys). Ultimately, we ended up getting a couple of shirts and the Kre-O set, since they were the least expensive.

I then stopped by the Hasbro booth to get some pictures of the toys that were on display. Whenever Hasbro is at a convention, I make it a point to stop by their giant glass display so I get a good look at what toys are coming out or are already available. This time, the selection came from a large assortment of Age of Extinction toys, some of which were already out, which come in multiple sub-lines with varying size and degree of complexity, along with some Construct-Bots and Kre-O Transformers tie-in products; there were also a number of Rescue Bots toys on display (most of which leave me to wonder how/if they will make it into the Hub Network cartoon), alongside various other merchandise for Rescue Bots and Age of Extinction. There was also some display space reserved for the Generations toyline, which includes a number of toys that come with and/or are based on the recent IDW comics, one of which was Windblade, the first official toy created by the fanbase (through online votes) and one of the 30 exclusives for the Thrilling 30 celebration; some representation was also given to the Masterpiece toyline, a series of expensive toys aimed at adult collectors that aim to capture the characters as they appeared in the original ‘80s cartoon. One particular section of the display was reserved solely for the toys that will become available at San Diego Comic-Con (such room was required for a reason), both of which will be quite pricey to say the least.

The Autobot Crosshairs from the upcoming Age of Extinction film.
Toy available now!

Once I got enough pictures, we headed outside for lunch. While we were outside, we discussed our next course of action, after which we unloaded some stuff at the car and headed back to the convention. Our hand stamps were nearly faded away (mine was barely visible), and so they were generously re-stamped a few times.

After heading back in, we participated in a toy giveaway at the Hasbro booth, where they were giving small toys to attendees for free. They were giving away small Construct-Bots sets based on characters from the upcoming Age of Extinction film, and we walked away with a few copies of the Bumblebee and Drift toys (the latter written as “Autobot Drift” on the packaging due to trademark). We then decided to take a look around the vendors at the convention as I tried to look for a specific toy that was released only in Japan (plenty of vendors had some Japanese toys for sale, which gave me an idea of what some of the Japanese toys actually looked like along with their packaging). While I didn’t find the toy I was looking for, we did end up with a couple of Generations toys, a Transformers book, and a Deadpool comic (comics didn’t have nearly as much of a presence as the toys, which wasn’t all that surprising).

We then went around for a few final signatures. One of the creators I came across was writer James Roberts, who writes the More than Meets the Eye comic, one of my favorite Transformers comics from IDW. Alongside free signatures, he was also selling copies of two of his comic scripts (More than Meets the Eye #6 and #22 if you’re curious), which, while I didn’t get either, were rather tempting to buy. There was also a surprise set-up for voice actor Steve Blum, since he only expected to do an earlier, planned signing that day (that I didn’t end up lining up for), and so I had him sign my copy of the Fall of Cybertron game (which I had on me in preparation). After one final stop at the Hasbro booth for a few more pictures, we went home early and thought out how to prepare for a future Pasadena BotCon.

James Roberts, writer of the More than Meets the Eye comic, in the flesh.

I didn’t end up going to any panels scheduled that day (one of which, about upcoming Transformers products, will likely be at Comic-Con as well), but I still think I had a good time there. If I were to describe BotCon in a nutshell, I would say it’s like fan heaven and wallet nightmare at the same time. Some items for sale can be pretty tempting, but also pretty expensive, which may come down to a hard decision or two depending on how much you happen to have on you or how much you are willing to spend on toys and stuff. However, it’s also a good chance to meet some of the creators behind your favorite Transformers comics as well as an opportunity to get some unique exclusives and swag that you might not be able to get elsewhere.

Cosplayers are a given at any convention, and often it’s amazing to see how much effort people can put into their Transformers cosplay. There were plenty of people dressed up as Transformers: Prime or Generation 1 characters, and often they will have put a lot of effort into capturing painstaking detail from the character models, particularly the Prime cosplayers, as the character designs get very complex. Other parts of the franchise also had their share of cosplayers with varying obscurity, including a Windblade cosplayer and one dressed as the human character Mega from the Japanese Super-God Masterforce anime. Needless to say, even non-U.S. Transformers series are celebrated at this convention.

A rather impressive Prime Starscream cosplay.

The Hasbro booth also advertised a few Transformers games coming out, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark, Transformers: Age of Extinction – The Mobile Game, and Transformers Universe. However, Rise of the Dark Spark didn’t have much of a presence aside from advertising (perhaps Hasbro is really trying to avoid major Age of Extinction spoilers). I didn’t explore either of the other games any further, but of all these games, I am definitely looking forward to playing Rise of the Dark Spark in the future.

If you are a Transformers fan and wish to attend BotCon when it drops by your state, there are a couple of things you should be aware of. General Admission days cost $10-20 per person (age 4 and under is free), but the official website doesn’t tell you it has to be in cash, so be prepared with this fee in cash beforehand. Souvenirs can get pretty expensive as well, but you won’t know how expensive they can get until you’re there, so be prepared to also spend maybe at least around $100 on souvenir toys if they strike your fancy (apparel is always cheaper). The website will also not tell you what vendors you can expect to find (though you can definitely expect Hasbro, IDW Publishing, Shout! Factory, and Big Bad Toy Store to show up); usually the vendors are there selling Transformers toys and a few other things (that are not Transformers), but if you’re looking to peruse any of the vendors you’re pretty much going in blind unless you find any information from other sources. If you want anything signed, be sure to also look at the official website so you have an idea of who to prepare for.

I have yet to be able to attend either of the first two days, but from my experience, if you are a big Transformers fan, then BotCon is definitely a place to attend if you happen to be nearby one year as it travels around. It’s a great place not only to see more fellow Transformers fans, but also to meet some Transformers creators and get a peek at upcoming toys. You may even be convinced to become a member of the Official Transformers Collectors’ Club while you’re there, as there are plenty of opportunities to do so, as Club Members receive special benefits, including a free toy (when you sign up by a certain date) and discounts on the Club Store. Just make sure you don’t burn a hole through your wallet while you’re there; your bank account might regret it later.

You won't be able to afford something like this at Comic-Con otherwise.

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