Otakon: How The ‘Beast Of The East’ Was Born

Otakon’s top execs talk origins, challenges and triumphs
Otakon logo
Official Otakon logo. (c) Otakorp Inc

Otakon has been around for over twenty years now and there was a time when the "Beast of the East" wasn't so huge. Still, Otakon always found an enthusiastic audience. We spoke to Sue Monroe, co-department head of Gofer Operations, and John Nadzam, Hotel and Venue Manager, to talk about how Otakon has grown, what Otakon means and what it's like to herd a bunch of cats.

Nadzam has been a staff member since Otakon was founded in 1994. At his state college, he found a science fiction club and made a group of friends within that club. Together, they’d watch anime and read along with printed out scripts.

"We were sitting around, overeducated and underemployed," Nadzam remembers fondly. "A couple of guys, four – we call them the Four Fathers – got in a car and went to this convention that said they were going to have anime. And they're like, 'Awesome, let's go!' And they went out there, paid their money, and it was apparently horrible.

“And the whole drive home, they complained, 'This was bad. That was bad.' Came back to us sitting around on the couches. 'Oh, we could do that. We could do that better. That was horrible.' Bill [Johnson] got tired of hearing us say that and went out and got us a contract at the Day's Inn at state college, and that was Otakon 1994. We planned for a hundred and got 323 people. And we were like, ‘Wow. This could work.’"

That was how Otakon began. "We want to do a fan-based convention – Otaku Con, Fan Convention. We can do better. By fans for fans," Nadzam said.

Monroe's cousin Matt was roommates with the Four Fathers. "When I was 8, in 1968, I was watching Speed Racer and Ultraman and Astro Boy and Marine Boy, and I knew they were Japanese, but I didn't know they were anime. That term didn't come til later," Monroe explained. She often visited her cousin, who spoke about the convention he and his friends had created, and in 1995, she finally went. It was her first convention.

Married and with two small children in diapers at the time, Monroe found herself in the unenviable position of being a volunteer who also had to watch her children at the con.

"The guys found me a job I could do... So I was a door ward. I watched the door. That was the year we had 24-hour video rooms, streaming. Four days. And the staff have never recovered from it."

"That's why we say 'never again," said Nadzam, referring to Otakon’s insistence on remaining a three-day convention.

"Never again," Monroe echoed solemnly.

The next year, Monroe was a gofer once again. This time, Monroe wanted the cool staff T-shirt, so she joined up as staff along with her husband.

"Eventually, John became con Chair and President of the corporation, and in 2002 I became president and con Chair of the convention, and we've been doing it ever since. We have our 20 year badges."

Monroe's children have grown up with the convention and become staff as well, on their own initiative. Nadzam's three children grew up in the con as well.

"We've both done everything at the con. It started out really hands-on, and now it's a lot of stuff that other people do for us. It's a little odd," said Monroe. Accustomed to making and executing decisions on the fly, Monroe and Nadzam can no longer simply pick up chairs and move them from one place to another.

"We have to let other people be involved," Monroe said. The all-volunteer staff makes Otakon feel authentic, but managing volunteers comes with its own problems.

"It's like herding cats," said Nadzam. "It's wonderful, 'cause you're working with your friends that are passionate. It's horrible, 'cause you're working with your friends and they're passionate."

"Everybody's passionate about their own thing," said Monroe. "So you have to keep in mind that we are so many different flavors of people. We have everybody here, and sometimes those rough edges really beat against each other. And sometimes we need to take a step back and go, 'I want to remain friends with you. So we've got to find a compromise here and we've got to find a way to work together because we're not agreeing on this subject.'

"None of us do this as our day job," Nadzam added. "We're very practical people. 'Why can't I pick up that chair and move it? Why can't I have a crock pot in my room? That seems like a simple thing.' And it's not. Not when you get this big and you have this much visibility."

"On the other hand, some of the friendships that I've made have been so enriching," Monroe said. "We've had a number of people who have met their significant others at the con. We've had kids grow up here and we've had our real failures with people that did not fit in and that left the con. But we've also had people who came and we all are doers. Some of us are worker bees and some of us sparkle, but we all fit together to work to fill this."

For Nadzam, one of Otakon's biggest challenges that faced Otakon was its growth."I ended up gravitating a lot towards the business end of it. We're all volunteers," he said. If they needed a stereo back in the day, he'd rig up surround sound with the head unit from his own home. "But now, it's like, I need 2 million dollars worth of A/V equipment. Okay, we're in this hotel, we'll go to this hotel. Well no, it takes about 3 to 5 years of planning, and we're looking at multi-year contracts with convention centers and hotels, and other agencies."

"And relationships with a lot of these contractors," Monroe added. Some of the contractors have had relationships with Otakon for nearly as long as the con's been active. "It's a family affair."

But Nadzam points with pride to Otakon's fan-based credo. "We're still all volunteer," he said. "The fact that we're gonna show something new, we're gonna get thousands of people, and we want to feel at home and friendly."

Monroe finds that Otakon's greatest triumph is the effect it’s had on those who attend.

"I have people who say that Otakon changed their lives. By becoming staff, by coming into a place where they feel accepted, by learning how to do things their own way that are bigger than themselves."

As for creating Otakon's schedule, for example by partnering with famous companies like Sunrise to bring over producers and scriptwriters for huge series like Gundam, Nadzam admits that he is not immune from fanboying.

"It's fun," Nadzam said simply. "It still can be that 'pinch me' moment. This is my hobby and I get to talk to someone from Sunrise? I got to meet, back in Baltimore, the Japanese ambassador. These are the 'pinch me' moments. You gotta put the inner fanboy down just a little bit to make it worthwhile for them too, 'cause this is a great opportunity and it's a memory and something you're always gonna have."

Otakon's a big deal, but it's not the only convention on the East Coast. What are your experiences with other anime conventions? Is there something special about Otakon? What did you think of Otakon 2017? Feel free to let us know in the comments section.


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