As pop culture fan conventions continued their popularity across the United States in 2014, Southern California has emerged as the center of the phenomenon. In the greater Los Angeles area alone, there are events for everyone from horror movie buffs to anime fans to martial arts enthusiasts and beyond. Want to talk about diversity in genre entertainment? Cal State Los Angeles put together a con for that. Want to hang out with people who think Halloween is the best day of the year? Hit up Scare L.A. Want to go to a con, but need something you can attend on a budget? Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, which has been around for more than 35 years, only charges $10 at the door.
In 2014, there were so many events going on in Southern California that the behemoth San Diego Comic-Con seemed like less of an annual necessity. Though it still may be the best place to spend your days in line trying to score exclusive merchandise.
This year, the convention that earned a mountain of hype had nothing to do with San Diego or movie and television announcements. Instead, it was a four-day event at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary dedicated to a single character. This was the year that Hello Kitty turned 40 and oodles of fans were on hand to celebrate at the sold out event.
Hello Kitty Con stood out for a few reasons. Even though several other Sanrio characters made cameo appearances, this was an event centered around the stationary company's superstar character. In 40 years, Hello Kitty has evolved with the times and, consequently, can bring in multiple generations of fans. From retro toys to new school posters, there was something for everybody. Beyond that, the attention to detail was impeccable. Even the toilet paper was marked with little images of Hello Kitty.
The venue, an art museum, was also an unusual choice for a convention, but one that makes sense to anyone who has seen how Hello Kitty and the culture surrounding company mascots and cute aesthetics have influenced art. Then there was the crowd. Hello Kitty Con attendees were overwhelmingly female. That may strike readers as an obvious observation, but it's also one that matters. When the image of pop culture-obsessed, collector-centric fans is still a male one, seeing a con full of girls and women looking to meet Hello Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi stands against stereotype.
Hello Kitty Con was the only event where female fans ruled. At Anime Expo last July, one of the biggest draws was an old animated series about teenage girls whose fans are now, overwhelmingly, grown women. In a year filled with rekindled interest with now-vintage pop culture — everything from Ghostbusters to Dragon Ball had a moment in 2014 — nothing hit a nerve quite like Sailor Moon.
The franchise, which began life as a manga in 1991 and hit TV sets as an animated show a year later, was ripe for revival. The story of student-turned-magical girl Usagi Tsukino was remarkable popular during its heyday, even though U.S. kids had access to a heavily edited version of the show. It's not just the age of the fans that re-ignited Sailor Moon mania. In a year where the word "feminist" creates enough of a stir to spend a few moments on Time magazine's controversial words-to-ban poll, a show about girls fighting "for love and justice" is one again relevant. As the struggle for equal marriage continues, a show featuring a same-sex couple amongst its heroes is also relevant.
Needless to say, the announcement that the series was would be rebooted as Sailor Moon Crystal piqued fan curiosity. The better news was that this new show would air in the U.S. via Hulu. Moreover, the weekend of the premiere coincided with L.A. mega-convention Anime Expo and there would be a lot of related programming at the Fourth of July weekend event.
Sailor Moon didn't just pack fans into Los Angeles Convention Center. It drew throngs of people decked out in their finest cosplays. Sailor Scout uniforms popped out of every corner of the massive complex. Some folks dressed as villains too. At an event where the focus tends to be on the newest animation to come out of Japan, an old staple was the attention-getter. Fueling the mania was Viz's announcement of the cast for a new dub of the original series that would be closer to the original Japanese version. (Amongst other nuances, this means that Sailors Neptune and Uranus would remain girlfriends, something that was changed in an earlier U.S. dub.)
It's not nostalgia for the sake of it. The resurgence of Sailor Moon is also indicative of a shift in who is making an impact upon pop culture. Take Natasha Allegri as an example. A few years ago, Allegri was making personal web comics. She struck up an Internet friendship with Pendleton Ward and eventually quit school in Arizona to head west and work on his Cartoon Network series, Adventure Time. Now Allegri has ventured out on her own with Bee & PuppyCat. Influenced by works like Sailor Moon, the Frederator-produced animated web series hit big with its pilot episode. When the series itself premiered in November, there was no question that Bee & PuppyCat is a special show. With out-of-this-world art and a fun, occasionally emotional storyline about a woman who takes on inter-planetary temp jobs with her familiar, Bee & PuppyCat is making waves with a crowd of adult fans of cartoons.
As the new generation of entertainment-makers continue to forge their paths, stories will change. Perhaps the way we tell them will change too. By 2014, there have been enough people working with Oculus Rift, a relatively accessible piece of virtual reality technology, to warrant an awards ceremony. Game-makers and other enthusiasts packed into Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel for the inaugural Proto Awards where games like Zombies on the Holodeck and Synthesis Universe earned accolades.
At the event, I met Brett Leonard, who directed The Lawnmower Man, a movie popular amongst the virtual reality crowd. Leonard said that VR is "changing the idea of narrative," and it is. Earlier in the year, at video game event E3, USC grad students Scott Stephan and Alexa Kim showed off their game, Anamnesis. The story-based experience changes when the player wears an Oculus Rift headset. Without it, you're a FEMA agent exploring apartments after a crisis. With it, you can explore the memories of the building's old residents.
As 2014 came to a close, I headed to USC to check out the school's end-of-the-semester Demo Day. Students were working with a variety of different technologies to create new and exciting games. The school's program is top notch and former students have gone on to make big breakthroughs in the video game scene.
While I was at the event, playing an adventure game made for iPads, I thought about all the talent crammed into one tiny gallery in a university building. The generations that grew up with video games and Internet and easier access to media made outside of the U.S., like anime, are coming into their own now. That's already reflective in some of the new works that we've seen, but this shift will only become more pronounced in 2015.
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