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Unconventional Conventionalists
by Inflatable Dalek

Well, this is an interesting sight, yeesss.

One recurring thing that has been mentioned several times over this series of articles is how fans react to things, whether it be Pat Lee, the Bay films, the Beast era or which sock you should put on first there's very few things we don't have an opinion on, an opinion we will often share loudly, especially if there's someone else giving a contrary opinion equally loudly. Now that's just over the internet, imagine what happens if you put these crazy people in the same room at the same time. You're probably looking at something akin to the sort of social gathering you got when Fortress Maximus walked into Swerve's bar with a deep rooted dislike of anyone a bit purple looking.

Unsurprisingly -- because we've all made it to adult age without repeatedly being punched in the face so we must be more than capable of normal human interaction -- this is not the case. The convention scene (or at least my experience of it, I won't be speaking much about the American and Canadian experiences unless someone wants to pay for me to do a research trip) is actually generally a friendly relaxed experience where the combination of alcohol and the love of toys brings people together. If only someone could bung a crate of Stella and some Masterpiece Grimlocks at Korea we'd probably sort out half the world's problems.

It's been ten years since I first became aware of conventions, though they've been going for a surprisingly longer time than might seem likely (the first Botcon was in 1994 whilst Generation 2 was still a going concern, no doubt smaller meetings of groups like TMUK started around the same time as well). As 2003 was the point where both Dreamwave and the Titan reprints had started to bring the franchise back into my present day life (plus the arrival of the Robots in Disguise cartoon to a lesser extent), so the discovery of a flyer in my local Forbidden Planet promoting a convention, Auto Assembly, being held virtually on my doorstep was a nice happy piece of serendipity.

Art from MTMTE #6, from Auto Assembly 2013.
(click image for full size)

Though I'd been to a couple of Memorabilia events before this was my first time going to something entirely dedicated to one franchise and so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. It was a small cheerful one day event (an experiment was made in 2004 with a two day convention but it wound up being regarded as a bit of a failure due to the size of fandom in the UK at the time not being large enough to sustain a full weekend. By the end of the decade the Bay films would change that). Despite there having been two prior conventions this was clearly the first for most of the attendees and most were walking about in a state of mild awe.

A large part of the awe, of course, was down to the guests. The man himself tends to poke fun at his ubiquity at such events, but it's still fair to say that for an audience of British fans of that age meeting Simon Furman is rather like the reaction of Catholics seeing the Pope do mass in St Paul's square. Both he and Andrew Wildman were (and continue to be) friendly, approachable people and I'm sure I'm not the only one who found it slightly amazing to meet and chat to someone who had such a large influence on my childhood (I've told this story many times, but the British Transformers comic is responsible for my literacy, and I think it's fair to say Furman is to ‘80's children what Terrance Dicks and his Doctor Who novelizations were to those of the ‘70's in that regard).

So I bought a couple of toys, had some comics signed and chatted with a couple of nice people. And then left at the end of the day never expecting to ever attend another convention or meet another Transformers fan face to face ever again.

Come a year later, and the chance to actually stay over for the night was too tempting, and led to me formally becoming a fan as I signed up to TFArchive around the same time I decided to go. Yes, the 9 years of insane comic reviews, random ranting and complete bizarre attempts to mention Bromsgrove as often as possible are all the fault of Auto Assembly. It was also the year I made my first really extravagant purchase in a piece of Lee Sullivan art from Space Pirates.

So despite the convention itself not going as well as hoped (as well as the difficulty of getting enough fans to fill both days, the never used again Britannia hotel was somewhat unhelpful doing things such as ensuring the dealers made no money by putting them in a cupboard ten floors higher than the main show room) it was a seminal moment for me, and one I've not looked back from since.

Clogs, Dalek, Summerhayes and Optimus Skids (photo by Eleanor Malcolm) / impromptu cosplay contest in 2009.

So the subsequent years have seen it move location three times; go from being run by two people to having a full committee and the number and range of guests and attendees increase exponentially. What was a one day event has now become a long weekend, with stuff even starting to seep into the Thursday night in 2013. It's gone from being a small convention to being a (albeit no Botcon sized) large one with the best part of a 1000 people attending. I've also gone from paying by cheque to doing it by Paypal. Welcome to the future.

I've been lucky enough to sit in on a lot of fun panels and to also meet some fantastically fun people, including many who I knew beforehand from this site. Oh, the tales of debauchery I could share with you, especially the time Denyer this year behaved in a perfectly normal and polite way for the entire day he was there. Though as he's editing this series I suspect he'll alter the end of that last sentence.

The biggest change over the decade though, has been the demographic of people attending. Originally it was virtually exclusively men in their early to mid-20's, possibly with a bored girlfriend or relative in tow. Or in other words the target age of the original cartoon and comic. Whilst such events are always going to be more inclined to attract those who have started working but don't yet have to worry about children of mortgages, there's still been a significant shift beyond us all just having gotten older and fatter.

There's been a massive increase in the number of children who attend, and I'm not just talking about the reluctant kids dragged along by father's who wish they'd worn a condom because now they can't afford that Fort Max, but actual child fans who have had their slightly baffled parents bring them along for the day.

There's also been a considerable increase in the number of female fans, again not just because more of the male ones now have partners to drag along (though there are a lot of couples in attendance where both are super geeky even if only the one is specifically into Transformers) and not just because Steve Blum seems to have a large female following of his own due to his seeming ability to make them orgasm by doing his Cowboy Bebop voice.

The evolution is largely down to three things. First, though Transformers has been in fairly continuous production for the entire decade it's fair to say the likes of RID and the Unicron trilogy (whatever their relative merits) never achieved the heights of G1's popularity. The movies have changed that and though a large part of the audience is still young males they've managed to reach a much wider worldwide demographic of all ages. The films have reminded older people of what they liked as a kid, entranced children who weren't more than casually interested in the cartoons aimed at them and reached groups that would normally be outside the target range of the franchise. It might seem strange that the film series that gave us Megan Fox's bum is appealing to women, but as much as we and professional critics moan the popularity of those films is surprisingly wide.

As well as the usual fan publications, Auto Assembly recently made Swerve beer mats. It's all downhill from here.

Now, it's true that only the smallest percentage of the people who've seen and enjoyed the Bay films will ever actually become Fans with a big F. Though of course, only the smallest percentage of the millions all over the world who had a fondness for Generation One as a child have become part of fandom either, so you only need a small number to start having a noticeable effect on the look of a convention hall.

The second is something I mentioned in the introduction to this series of articles: The diversity in current Transformers fiction. Again, the success of the films was a catalyst there but over the last six or seven years we've seen the franchise reach a point where there really is something for everyone, from the light kid friendly fun of Rescue Bots to the dark psychological look at the abusive relationship between Megatron and Starscream in Spotlight: Megatron (and true, that's intended to be packed in with a kids toy but I think most of the subtext will whizz over the younger reader's head) and everything in-between. That in and of itself attracts a broader spectrum of fans as well.

The third is simply the fact the fiction is generally much much better than it was back in 2003 as well. Prime and Animated were both better received than any of the UT stuff and we're in the middle of a comic renaissance where even the issues and stories that don't work at least don't work in interesting ways. As opposed to the Mike Costa era which failed in lots of really obvious and stupid ways. I'll take the odd stumble because they're trying new things over that any day.

That means people are more enthused, and more inclined to make the effort to go molest Alex Milne or get a photo with Steve Blum. This year I met one respectable looking woman who had come just to meet James Roberts and was literally quaking with joy at the fact he had touched her (the secret, people, is to give him some peanut M&M's. The bigger the bag the bigger the hug you'll get in return).

Left-to-right: Knightdramon, Inflatable Dalek, Denyer. Photo by Mort -- and you can see many more on Flickr!

So right now the fan scene is more energetic and vibrant and varied than it's been for at least as long as I've been involved with fandom. With a big anniversary coming up that's likely to only increase in the short term. Long term of course, there's bound to be a come down, all long running franchises go through their fallow periods and every party has its hangover. But come August 2014 I'll be back propping up the bar, chatting and soaking up the relaxed atmosphere once more.

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