by: Austin Welch
This will be a week long remembered.
I must warn you, dear reader, before you begin, that this is not your average convention review. As someone who’s been a a harder-than-hardcore TransFan since ’84, never having given up the gospel, and maintaining a footing in the fan community lo these 27 years, I like to think I have a unique and personal perspective on the annual official Transformers con, known as BotCon. If you want a more mechanical, detail-by-detail rundown of the show, look elsewhere. If you want to come along for a ride, the likes of which you surely won’t find in other channels, then pull up a chair to hear an intimate take on the last week of my life.
I have been attending BotCon more often than not since its second year, in 1995. While my attendance in the aughts has been spotty, owing alternately to a lack of funds or other personal obstacles, I have kept a finger on the pulse of the show through some good friends that still attend, and of course our ol’ friend, the interwebz. After missing last year, I was pleased to see that the show would once again take place in its 2004 and 2009 home: Pasadena, California, which is about a half-hour’s drive from my home. So of course, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be attending once again. Additionally, my girlfriend Tamiko – who was a close platonic friend for years before we became romantically involved about a year and a half ago – had begun to take a deeper interest in my longtime obsession. Namely, to collect Transformer toys, comics, and other related media and merchandise. So she wanted to tag along with me to BotCon to see what it was all about.
With my good friends Tony and Rose (aka Screamer of Screamer’s Retro Flashbacks) coming over to California from their hometown in Pennsylvania, we were already planning a full week of activities, about half of which would be taken up by BotCon. So upon their arrival Tuesday, afternoon, we killed time after getting back from the airport with toy hunting at local retailers, until Tamiko got home from work around 8:30. We had dinner at Vince’s, our favorite local spaghetti eatery, then got to bed to begin our collective vacation.
Many of our regular readers know that we here at The RealmCast like to sit down to interview some of our favorite talent, and I myself have managed to catch up with Transformers voice actors, including Michael Bell and Gregg Berger. My work pales in comparison to Rose, who has corralled many a voice actor from 80s toy/action animation, including Bell & Berger, along with Frank Welker, Dan Gilvezan, Jack Angel, Neil Ross, and voice director Wally Burr. Rose was in contact with many of the actors due to appear at BotCon, and was planning on spending quality time with Arlene Banas (Spike’s girlfriend Carly) and Morgan Lofting (The Baroness from G.I. Joe and incidental voices on Transformers). So on Wednesday, we set out for Hollywood to meet up with Arlene, who actually lives in Chicago most of the time, but maintains residence in Los Angeles as well. On the way to her place, we were distracted by a replica of the rally race car that Alternators Smokescreen is based on. This random occurrence really set the tone for the week to come.
Arlene hasn’t worked as a voice actor much in recent years, and understandably doesn’t recall much about her work on Transformers. But the cool thing about spending time with her is that she’s just a really nice, normal, maybe a little crazy (in a good way!) person who made our day interesting to say the least. Tony and Rose wanted to check out local Hollywood sites, so with Arlene, Tamiko, and I acting as guides, we hopped the subway (yes, LA has a subway) over to Hollywood Boulevard, and scoured shops along the strip. We checked out souvenir traps, went into a lingerie shop or two (hey, it was the ladies’ idea!), and even ate at Hooters. Of all the people I thought I would be explaining the origins of Ronnie James Dio’s “devil horns” hand gesture, Carly from Transformers would probably be at the bottom of the list, but there I was, in the Hollywood Hooters, doing just that. As the day wore on, we decided to head back to Arlene’s apartment, where we regrouped to head over to the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences facility to see a Q&A with Jimmy Fallon, which Arlene had booked earlier in the day. It pays to know a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild. Finally, we had to say goodbye until Saturday, when Arlene was due to appear at the convention.
With Rose booked to attend the BotCon customizing class (in which 25 attendees are invited to customize a unique Transformer toy under the tutelage of experts) on Thursday, we debated whether to do our usual con vacation filler of an amusement park. With Tamiko having made friends with Tony and Rose via Facebook over the last year or so, it was very clear upon meeting in person that Rose and Tamiko were bonding like sisters. Rose talked Tamiko into joining her at the class; as an unofficial staffer at the show – she often helps them book voice talent – Rose was able to pull some strings to allow this. So Tony and I sort of winged it on Thursday, choosing to hunt down various collectible toy shop in Southern California. We hit Phat Collectibles in Anaheim (where I scored the rare Lego mini-set Knight Bus, from Harry Potter), and Big Kid Collectibles in Sherman Oaks. We met back up with the girls in Pasadena in the evening, where Tony & Rose checked into the hotel room, and took care of their early check-in for the show. Tamiko and I decided to forgo the first night at the hotel, and spend one last night at home getting a good night’s sleep. I hadn’t finished packing or writing my interview questions anyway.
We got up as early as possible Friday, then headed to Pasadena to check-in and dump our stuff at the room. The con was more or less started already, but I had committed to picking up my friends Sarah and Jeff from the airport, so off I was. I hadn’t seen them since 2004′s BotCon, so it was great to finally spend some quality time with them as well. I’ve often told people, half the fun of BotCon isn’t even about the show itself, but getting to spend time with friends from across the country, who I regard as highly as any of my local friends. Back at the show, I took in the dealer’s room – and was instantly impressed. You have to understand, I’ve been going to BotCon since way back when pre-registrants totaled less than 500, and total attendees after walk in came in under 1,000. These days, pre-registrants in the 3,000 range, and as many as 5,000 additional walk-ins, is a conservative estimate.
The room this year was huge, easily double the size of the last show I attended in 2009. Hasbro and its various licensees had erected booths that covered the entire outside wall of the hall. Everything from the BotCon store (where I picked up the balance of the show exclusives and some OTFCC exclusives), to Hasbro’s own display cases containing new and soon-to-be released product, a Hall Of Fame area, a Hub corner, and booths for upcoming related products such as the Dark Of The Moon video game, and Transformers Universe, the first MMO based on Robots In Disguise. What really has me pumped, as both a fan of Transformers and Lego (see one of my creations here), is Kre-o, the company’s second attempt at a Lego-compatible construction system. Some of you might recall Built To Rule, a mostly forgettable line from a few years ago, but Kre-o is much-improved, with many more Lego-like pieces, and this time, each set comes with Kreons, Transformer versions of Lego mini-figures. The Kre-o booth at BotCon was handing out an exclusive Kreon of “Optimus Prime with Matrix” to all attendees.
What really struck me was the spaciousness of the hall; plenty of room to move around, unlike some past shows, where the crowds were left to navigate a cramped space. I didn’t even make it into the room on the show’s busiest day, Saturday, but I can’t imagine that it was as crowded as in years past. Several of the movie vehicles were there, which took up significant room, but it was still just a small fraction of the hall. Another welcome addition this year was an artists’ alley, featuring many talent fan artists displaying their work, as well as professionals like Livio Ramondelli, who has been a friend of this site’s for several years now (his Darth Vader on Hoth just might be my favorite Star Wars image of all time). After spending a few years working behind the scenes on the DC Universe Online MMO, Livio was recently hired by IDW after reps of theirs spied the Transformers-related work in his portfolio at past shows, including San Diego Comic-Con. We couldn’t be happier for him, and I took the opportunity to talk him up during the Q&A section of the IDW panel the following day.
Friday’s big panel was the Stunti-Con-Job script reading, which featured this year’s toys – Animated toys redecoed as the classic Decepticon group the Stunticons - in an original adventure story taken from this year’s comic, and read aloud in the panel room by many of the guest voice actors, including David Kaye reprising his Animated role of Optimus Prime, Gregg Berger, Neil Ross, Morgan Lofting, Marty Eisenberg, Chris Ho (aka Chris Vangelis), and even the late Chris Latta’s daughter Abby Collins, who apparently has aspirations to get into dad’s line of work. She portrayed the customizing class exclusive figure, Minerva – a redeco of Animated Arcee. These script readings are difficult to do justice in text, you just sort of had to be there. G1 Grimlock (Gregg Berger) and Animated Grimlock (David Kaye) singing a duet of “Anything You Can Do” was almost worth the price of admission alone!
As Friday wore down for the show, I rounded up my crew, and we all headed across the street for some grub at the outdoor mall across the street from the Pasadena convention center, where several fan-created Transformers vehicles were parked, including a local G1 Ratchet, now sporting a Ravage replica on its roof, and for some reason, a GMC “Ironhide” Topkick, decked out with a message from our brothers in Christ. Maybe Elias was at the show? Rose brought Morgan Lofting along, and it was an honor to share a meal on the patio with the Baroness herself. Before long, we spotted Gregg Berger making his way to the same restaurant, and after he ordered, he joined our table. We chatted casually about many things, including Transformers, the voice-over industry, and more mundane, personal topics. It was one of the strangest, coolest meals I’d had since…well, since Hooters two days prior! The convention organizers also hosted a “Casino Night” Friday evening. About half of my crew participated, while Tamiko, Tony and I just sort of chatted the rest of the evening in the hallway, snacking on the various food presented to us. Eventually, it was time to go to sleep.
On Saturday, as I mentioned a moment ago, I didn’t even have a moment to sneak into the dealers’ room. There were just too many panels to attend, plus I had interviews with various talented folks, set up prior to the show. The first panel of the day was the IDW presentation, featuring Chris Ryall, Andy Schmidt, Mike Costa, the aforementioned Livio Ramondelli, and Flint Dille – G1 cartoon producer and story editor – and Chris Metzen, of World Of Warcraft fame. The crew discussed the upcoming storylines Chaos and The Last Story On Earth, twin arcs that will alternate every two weeks throughout this coming summer. Our man Livio will be doing the art for Chaos, so be sure to check that out. As for Dille and Metzen, friends and colleagues who’ve collaborated on projects before, they will bring us Autocracy, a comic story that will not see print, but will rather be exclusive to digital media such as the iPad, iPhone, and other electronic devices. The storyline features Optimus Prime and Megatron, early in the war. Sounds promising.
Next up was the Hasbro panel, and honestly, there wasn’t much to write about. They just showed off a bunch of the Dark Of The Moon product, teased – but didn’t show much of – the upcoming Kre-o, Rescue Bots, and Prime (finally) toylines. The slideshow ended with a mention of a 25th anniversary The Transformers: The Movie Unicron, which is basically the Armada toy of a few years ago with a resculpted head to more accurately represent the character as he appears in the film. Following this was the Transformers: Prime panel, featuring a live script reading by the voice actors in attendance: Peter Cullen, Jeffrey Combs (Ratchet), Steve Blum (Starscream), Kevin Michael Richardson (Bulkhead), Ernie Hudson (Agent Fowler), Markie Post (Jack’s mom June), Josh Keaton (Jack). Tania Gunadi (Miko), and Andy Pessoa (Raphael). They read the script of a Prime episode, albeit with small changes, including many ad-libs and new jokes, such as several references to Ghostbusters, which Hudson is of course most famous for. It was cool, but as I’m lukewarm on Prime, my enjoyment of it was limited. I must say, though, Gunadi is a ball of energy, and moved a lot during her performance. She looks a lot like Miko (one of my favorite human characters in Transformers history), too, so she could play her in a live-action interpretation. Just sayin’.
Following those panels, I opted to skip the Dark Of The Moon game and OTFCC roundtable panels in favor of catching up with folks I had interviews set up with. First was Flint Dille, a Renaissance man in the geek world if there ever was one. Aside from writing and story editing the original G.I. Joe and Transformers shows and the animated Transformers movie, he has dabbled in any number of media, including video and computer games, RPGs, film and television, graphic novels, and as previously mentioned, digital comics. The conversation ran close to 45 minutes, despite (or perhaps because of) some buttinksis that failed to realize that I was conducting an interview. I didn’t tell them to butt out right away, as Flint was giving me some good material.
After that, I managed to corner Neil Ross, who voiced multiple Transformers, including Springer, Slag, Hook, and Bonecrusher, as well as Shipwreck on G.I. Joe. Neil was cordial and funny, which you will hear for yourself soon enough. Immediately after the interview, Neil had to skate across the hall to take part in The Transformers: The Movie reunion panel, featuring Dille, Ross, Berger, and Paul Eiding (Perceptor) filling in for Jack Angel (Omega Supreme, Smokescreen, Astrotrain, others), who unfortunately was unable to attend the show due to illness. The panel was the usual mix of informative, funny, and touching, which we fans have come to expect from any G1 voice actor panel. For me, the top highlight was, when one fan asked them all to do crank calls in one of their famous voices, Ross bringing down the house with, “Hi, this is Keith from Voltron. What are you wearing?”
By then, the show was wrapping up for the day, and we all went back to the room to dress for the Hall Of Fame Ceremony, but before that event, we went out to have a bite to eat. Arlene joined us once again, as we ended up at a sports bar/sandwich shop shop, due to the various nicer restaurants around downtown Pasadena having waits far too long for our liking. Back at the Hall Of Fame, we were greeted at the door with a gift bag containing water, popcorn, and we were given the choice of either an Optimus Prime or Bumblebee mask 3D glasses (we also had the option of regular glasses). I took a Prime, Tamiko took a Bumblebee, and my friends and I found decent seats for the event. Hilarious musical videos were played for each character being inducted, usually with appropriate lyrics, such as Pasadena’s native Van Halen’s “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” for Ratchet. Waspinator won the fan vote award, thankfully the result of Hasbro realizing that the actual vote winner, the Micromaster Erector, was the result of fan trolling. While Hasbro rep Aaron Archer asked fans to take the event more seriously in the future, he did present a hilarious spoof video, documenting Erector’s fictional life sine the first toy was introduced in 1989. Speaking of farces, the two real-life people inducted this year, Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg, were a part of the presentation – Bay in person, and Spielberg via pre-recorded video. (For my opinion on these inductions, see my story here.) Bay showed us 16 minutes of Dark Of The Moon, including an uncut five minute beginning of the film, and several key action scenes from what I’m guessing are the second half of the film. Some of the 3D was unnecessary (3D shoes walking down a hallway? Really?), but I have to admit, the footage had me fired up to see the finished product, which is saying a lot, considering my general opinion of the Bay series, and my derision of Revenge Of The Fallen. On our way out after the ceremony, we were treated once again to a gift bag, this time containing mini-posters and a commemorative Hall Of Fame cardboard plaque.
On Sunday, Tamiko and I allowed ourselves to sleep in, but Tony and Rose had to get up early and get going, as Rose was a volunteer during the show, acting as an assistant and liason for various voice actor personnel as they made their way to panels or autograph sessions. Once we got going, I went to the dealer’s room to wrap up my shopping, and managed to find some good deals, like Generations Kup and Scourge for just a few dollars over retail, and I haggled with a dealer for five E-hobby exclusive G1 redecos, including the Insecticon clones, Detritus, Overcharge, and the movie-homage black Ironhide and yellow Ratchet. By noon, I had shot my wad, so it was off to the G1 voice actors’ panel. Berger, Ross, and Eiding from the previous day’s TF:TM panel were joined by Michael McConnohie (Tracks, Cosmos) as well as Morgan Lofting and Arlene Banas, upping the chick quotient on stage. Another hour of fun was had by all, and after that I caught portions of the Hasbro brand/story planning panel. A different animal from the previous Hasbro panel, which focused on the toys themselves, this panel revealed some of Hasbro’s plans for the franchise in more general terms. This included revealing some new information about The Thirteen, a new attempt by the company at a unifying origin story for the Transformers, which will (they hope) serve as a jumping-off point for the various subseries and universes. Eventually, longtime comics scribe Simon Furman will be handed the daunting task of taking the concept and converting it into a comic book series, and Hasbro hopes to build off of it for years to come. The biggest bomb dropped? The name of the lone female Thirteener: Solus Prime.
A bit later, we caught our friend Rose’s panel, which covered Transformer cosplay. This is one of the fastest-growing aspect of TransFandom, with more and more folks getting into it these days. Sure, it can be more difficult to execute a robot costume, as opposed to a superhero or other human-like characters, as you see at Comic-Con and the like. But when it’s pulled off, Transformers cosplay can be spectacular. Several additional panellers shared cosplay secrets and tips, many of them specific to Transformers cosplay, and most of them donned their costumes for us, including several Bayformer cosplayers. The Starscream was amazing, being partially a marionette, with the person inside working the head and arms with controls. At this point, I also have to mention my lady’s tastefully done Wheeljack jumpsuit, which she donned on Saturday. One area of cosplay that’s easy for fans to do is to just compile an outfit that evokes a certain character’s color scheme or iconography. Tamiko’s Wheeljack was a hit, particularly with other female fans.
I had to leave this panel early in order to meet up with Michael McConnohie, with whom I’d scheduled an interview. Michael was his usual charming, hilarious self, and was generous with his time and insight. I will forever cherish the outtakes from his attempts at bumpers for our podcast. Our esteemed editor, and my good friend, George “The Moleman” showed up to pass out fliers for our site. I had passed out quite a few myself, as well as fliers for MPS, the mecha-building organization I moonlight with, but George being the good guy that he is, didn’t expect me to miss too much of the show to emphasize on fliering, so he came out to work the crowd and get a general sense of the show. He is, after all, a con slut like the rest of us. Eventually, all good things come to an end, and at 3:30, BotCon was done. But the fun wasn’t over for us!
Before our vacation began, I had discovered that The Transformers: The Movie would be playing at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica on Sunday evening, with several voice actors booked to speak after the film. Of course, I jumped on the opportunity to grab tickets for myself, Tamiko, Tony and Rose. After talking Sarah and Jeff into also buying tickets, the six of us shuttled over to the Aero after a meal at Islands, including George. Joining the crowd for the screening and discussion afterward were Berger, Eiding, Ross, the great Dan Gilvezan (Bumblebee), David Mendenhall (Daniel), and Wally Burr, the incomparable voice director of all those great Marvel/Sunbow shows and of course this film. It was great seeing the flick on the big screen again. I think this makes four times for me now, including once “back in the day”.
Of course, the discussion was the real treat of the evening. More voice actor insanity ensued, particularly from Burr, who alternates between self-absorbed rambling and moments of real insight. Gilvezan – whose first novel, Drowned In The Grenadine, is out now - was hilarious, using Burr as his unintentional straight man most of the night. It was nice to see Mendenhall, as most fans had no idea what he’d been up to since voicing Daniel in the film and the third season of the show. He’s still very much a working actor, and revealed that he will appear in comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait’s next dark opus, God Bless America. Once the discussion was over, the fans of course mobbed the guys for autographs, and eventually the Aero had to flick their lights on and off to give us the hint to move outside. An official pic of the cast with the marquee led to fan recreations, and I managed to squeeze off a few of my own. Eventually, we all had to say goodnight, and make out way back to our respective hotels, as we all had to get up very early to get my out-of-town friends to their flights.
All in all, it was an amazing week, which I will treasure forever. It may have been an average BotCon for those that attend every year, but for me, it will always be the weirdest, most amazing installment out of the ones I’ve attended, and maybe even the best. Infinite thanks to my friends Tony, Rose, Sarah, Jeff, and George, the various Transformers talent that were generous with their time, and last but not least my gorgeous lady Tamiko, for enabling this weird obsession with sentient robots from an alien world. It was a lot of fun, guys. Let’s all do it again real soon.