Conventions: A gathering of like-minded men and women who unite to reminisce about the passions of their youth… at least that’s the usual summary. The difference (when it comes to Transformers) is that, unlike many celebrations of beloved sci-fi and fantasy, the Autobots are still kicking Decepticon butt almost 30 years on. And that, in turn, means that conventions aren’t always just for men and women… they can be for kids too.
When I returned from AutoAssembly 2012 last year, my two eldest boys greeted me as a God. I regaled them with tales and photos of incredible costumes, fantastic guests and more toys than you could imagine. In just ten minutes I had sealed my fate and agreed to take them with me when the 2013 assembly rolled around. Without realising it, I also inadvertently agreed to help them make costumes.
AutoAssembly 2013 was a talking point for almost a year. Then, with just two months to go, Jacob and Noah began saving their pocket money and decided which characters they wanted to dress up as. We’d not long ago had furniture delivered and so had two massive cardboard boxes under the carport. These would serve as the raw materials needed to transform (sorry) my boys into two pseudo-brothers: Soundwave and Blaster.
For the next seven weeks we devised, chopped, folded, stapled and stuck a series of carefully constructed boxes together. We journeyed to hobby shops and amassed glue, paints, sponge and card and by the time the convention was just one week away we were nearly ready. A final push (including three consecutive nights of zero sleep) saw the finished costumes complete on the Friday night and on the Saturday morning we rolled out to Birmingham to see if conventions can be as much fun for little kids as they can be for big ones.
As we arrived, things were already in full swing. Events had kicked off the night before with Night of the Bumblebee, a celebration of one of the franchise’s most loved characters, presided over by none other than Dan Gilvezan, Bee’s voice actor from the G1 animated series. The conventioneers hadn’t slowed their pace by the time we hit the main hall as it was filled to bursting with people perusing the plethora of stalls and listening to the many arranged on-stage discussions.
Needless to say, once our passes were collected, Jacob and Noah went straight for the jugular – the toy stalls. They were in their element. Almost every toy was met with awe-struck wonder, Japanese imports and rare 80s figures that they’d seen only in books or old photos. It would appear that their hard-earned savings wouldn’t go far. I was wrong about that one.
While I had hoped that my boys (aged 8 and 9) would get as much out of the convention experience as I did, I was wrong on one count: they weren’t interested in the talks. This has no bearing whatsoever on the guests or their on-stage anecdotes. From what I was able to listen to while in the hall, they were as insightful and humorous (if not more so) as they had been the year before. At their young age, the boys simply lacked that desire to know more about the process, caring less about that than they did the finished result. God knows, they could have watched the Gangnam Style Autobot video on repeat for a fortnight.
But it didn’t impede our shared experience, which was already shaping up to be a very memorable one. Once the boys were spent (in both energy and about half of their money) we made use of one of the biggest improvements on last year’s event: Swerve’s Diner. The previous year, attendees had been left to their own devices when it came to food and the result had been an expensive one. Hotel food, after all, is not known for its affordability. The result was a room that offered a small selection of set meals at reasonable prices, meaning that we could crash at a table and eat while trying to untie their new toys from their packaging. And then transform them.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been nervous about the costume parade. Last year I’d watched on from a safe distance as relative strangers had walked towards the stage, showing off their homemade costumes to whoops and cheers from the audience. This year, however, my two often stage-frightened boys would be doing it and I was desperately hoping everything would be okay. Not least because we had worked out a little skit that they wanted to do while upfront. To this end, we went and spoke to the sound engineer prior to the evening’s party and arranged for him to play two tracks when the boys inserted their hand-crafted tapes into their chests. Soundwave would play the old-school 80s theme tune, citing Soundwave as superior while Blaster was inferior. Blaster would come back with a techno rendition after jeering “No way, two can play”. It was a well-rehearsed spat that nobody would get to see.
It was seven o’clock and we needed to be downstairs by 7:15… and I was still trying to apply white face paint to Noah. We were running late and I was starting to panic. We’d had an amazing day and they’d got everything out of it I’d hoped they would. They’d chatted to the men on the stalls (even bartered), discussed the finer points of creating comic books with some of the artists and had bought the action figures they’d been desperate to lay their hands on. But it could still go wrong.
We suited up in record time and began the slow walk down to the King’s Suite. It had been a rush, but we’d just made it… and then we saw everyone filing back towards us. There was a delay… of about an hour.
The boys were great. While Noah regularly had to slip out of his Blaster chest-piece (to be fair, he had red marks of his arms for over a week afterwards), they managed to remain mostly costumed as we waited for the sound issues in the hall to be rectified. And when they were, and everyone was seated, we got ready. Honestly, I think I was more nervous than they were.
They went on third (after the immensely impressive Grimlock – which transformed!) to plenty of cheers. Once at the front, they briefly discussed their costumes and then were about to be ushered off. Jacob (Soundwave) raised his cassette and we were back on track. Unfortunately, a design flaw saw it fall out of the bottom of his chest piece and the resulting reaction masked the music. They were about to be ushered off again. I called out, indicating Blaster’s cassette. The cassette went in and stayed in… and that was it. We’d run out of time and the boys were lead from the stage.
As I had to point out, nobody knew they had a routine worked out and the reactions they’d got (although I don’t think anyone realised just how young my ridiculously tall children were) were fantastic. They seemed happy with that and were even more so when the judges finished their deliberation and awarded them a ‘Group Honorary Mention’, a first for the competition. They were more than happy with that, more so when Grimlock snaffled first place (and rightly so).
With the cosplay competition over, we rushed (as much as two boys in cardboard boxes being asked to pose for photos every five feet can rush) back to our room to change. They’d normally be in bed by now, but this was our weekend and the night was young. They still had what I’d remembered to be the best part to come yet… comic artist Jason Cardy’s Transformers-centric DJ set.
Our (not so) quick change meant that we’d missed the script reading, a bespoke ‘episode’ featuring all three voice artists – Gilvezan joined by Steve Blum (Transformers Prime’s Starscream) and Neil Kaplan (Transformers RiD’s Optimus Prime). In fact we came in to hear thunderous applause, so we knew we’d missed a treat. Next came the big tease for AutoAssembly’s 13th event and Transformers’ 30th anniversary. No less than four voice artists confirmed for the event, including Mike McConnohie (G1 Cosmos and Tracks and RiD’s Hotshot and Ironhide), Peter Spellos (RiD’s Skybyte), David Sobolov (Beast Wars’ Depth Charge and Transformers Prime’s Shockwave) and, returning for a second appearance, Townsend Coleman (Transformers Animated Sentinel Prime and Tracks). Not only that, but Flint Dille, G1 series writer and story consultant for Transformers The Movie would also be coming.
Then it was time for Cardy to hit the decks and finally my boys got to hear why I was so enthused. A seamless mixture of G1 soundbytes, tunes and contemporary drum and bass as well as those now legendary bespoke lines from Gregg Berger as Grimlock professing that “Me, Grimlock, love cowbell...!”.
After some deft moves on the floor (including some robot dancing and even a windmill), my boys were done in. And after three nights up until the early hours honing their costumes, so was I. We missed the karaoke, which I don’t think bothered any of us.
Sunday rolled around and after a slap-up breakfast we carried the costumes down to the car and checked out the main hall one last time. The boys revelled in their new-found celebrity status (even getting a discount on one stall) and while I listened in to Dan Gilvezan’s talk, the boys managed to spend every last bit of their pocket money, even striking a stupendous deal to bag a Unicron, a toy Jacob had wanted for half of his natural life.
As we returned to Swerve’s Diner one last time before the drive home, it was time to consider whether the experience had been as much fun for my kids as it had been for me. It only took one look at their beaming faces to figure out the answer was a resounding yes. And not only that… they want to go back next year, and this time… I’m wearing the costume.