Checking into hotels is great. The promise of a freshly-made bed waiting for you at the end of a long journey, staff tending to your every whim, Optimus Prime queuing up behind you to check in. Wait, what was that? Okay, admittedly, most visits to a hotel don’t include running into the Autobot’s stoic leader, or for that matter a man in a fluffy black Ravage onesie with a deftly-sewn Decepticon sign on the back. But if you’d happened to book a room at Birmingham’s Hilton Metropole hotel around the 4th of August, this is exactly what you would have found.
Celebrating their 11th year, Auto Assembly arrived with a bang as Transformers fans from around the world congregated to enjoy all that a fan convention of this magnitude had to offer. Having outgrown the local Holiday Inn, AA2012 relocated to the Metropole and managed to fill it out quite nicely. Throughout the three-day event there would be plenty of mini events to occupy the Transfans, including workshops covering kit-bashing, colouring, creating comic artwork and meetings for the Full Metal Hero Forum. But the main hall was where you wanted to be.
If there is a Transformers toy heaven, for three days it relocated to Birmingham. Aisle upon aisle of classic '80s toys, mixed with everything else leading up to the latest treats were there in all their colourful eye-popping glory. It wasn’t just the tabletops you wanted to look at though. Take a peek below and there were hidden treasures to be found. Boxes of broken cons and bots dwelled, ready to provide that one bit from your favourite Transformer that was lost when your parents relocated your toys to the loft in celebration of you finally moving out.
But it’s not all about the toys. If you could pry your eyes away from the dealers tables for a moment, you’d notice a long line of people sitting sketching and talking to the attendees. A closer look revealed them to be no less than Transformers comic book royalty. Names such as John-Paul Bove, Stephen Baskerville, Jason Cardy, Kat Nicholson, Andrew Wildman and TF deity Simon Furman were in attendance.
“Back in the day when there weren’t things like this you operate in a kind of splendid isolation,” Furman recalled when quizzed about his inclusion in the weekend’s Transformers frivolity. “You had readers letters but that was about it in terms of feedback and there was no internet so we were in a bubble and in fact when we went to our first Transformers convention in 1997 it was a real revelation, you know, the fact that this has carried on kind of in our absence. People remembered this stuff, it was a big surprise. So I really like it, it’s great to meet the people who are reading the thing, talk to them, field their questions and all that kind of thing. And generally, they’re just good social events.”
He’s not alone in his love for the event. Although, TF artist supremo Andrew Wildman admits it took a while for him to warm to them.
“I didn’t use to enjoy it very much, I hated people watching me drawing, it was just really difficult. I know I had a period of time when I was on the other side of the table, I was a reader and it was really nice to meet the people who wrote the stuff and you’ve always got questions for them, so I make myself available to answer some questions. I think the more you do it, the more you get used to it and then it becomes fun.”
And fun it was. While episodes played and the guests popped up onto the stage as the attendees casually shopped around the stalls, the best was yet to come. With a burger and a beer hastily shoved down, the evening’s festivities soon began, and everyone was in for a treat.
Since the very beginning, fan conventions have walked hand in hand with Cosplay and Auto Assembly is no different. Insanely good costumes were paraded in front of the guest panel, along with some seriously suspect ones. All were incredibly entertaining though, including the stand up star, Erector. As it turned out, it would be the most inventive costume which won – a swarm of Scraplets made from 95 silver Christmas baubles with foil-covered pipe-cleaners stuck on, all attached to a man in a black body-stocking (below, right).
Following swiftly on, was the live script reading which included voice actors Michael Bell (G1’s Swoop and Prowl), Townsend Coleman (TF: Animated’s Sentinel Prime) and Paul Eiding (G1’s Perceptor) reprising their characters along with other guests filling in the gaps (TF artist Nick Roche almost stole the show with his Bobcat Goldthwait interpretation of Dirtbag).
Paul Eiding, Michael Bell, and Townsend Coleman
Messages from other TF alumni were played, followed by news of next year’s guests (including Generation 1’s Bumblebee, Dan Gilvezan) before attention was turned to another stage where Karaoke awaited. Yes, Karaoke. It wasn’t until some immensely talented guy took to the stage and sung Honō no Overdrive: Car Robot Cybertron the theme to Transformers: RoD in perfect Japanese that the association of this medium and Transformers really struck home. But while the tenuous link prevailed, it did sadly clear the Hall of most of the attendees, leaving only the hard-core fans to enjoy the immense deck skills of artist Jason Cardy who provided a superb set, giving the many Transformer’s tunes a dubstep edge.
As with all fan conventions, celebrations went on into the night, leading us swiftly into another day of Transformers revelry. For some, on very little sleep.
“I love them,” grins voice actor Townsend Coleman, a man who holds the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Michelangelo and The Tick in his incredible CV. “The fans are always so appreciative. They’re fun, they’re friendly, they’re real interested and asking questions and stuff so it’s a blast for me.”
“Really the first time that it ever occurred to me that we were having some kind of impact on people was long before the internet,” Coleman continues on the subject of coming out of the recording booth to meet his fans. “It was in the early ‘90s and I remember us doing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and my son – who is a musician – had won a national song-writing contest (sponsored by Pepsi) back in the States and the prize was to be flown back to Cleveland to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and perform there while their tune was recorded for a Pepsi commercial. Well, we’re from Cleveland so it was ironic that we all got to go back and watch this whole thing happen. But this was maybe in 1994 or so and I’d been doing Turtles for six or seven years and when you’re confined in your little box and you don’t really get out – you know, we go in, we read a script and then months, maybe years later it actually airs – you don’t have any contact with the fans really. And so going to Cleveland for that was the first time that all of a sudden, people were coming up to me, parents with their kids, friends of Chris’s and stuff, coming up to me and just saying how much they loved the Turtles. So this crowd started to gather and it was like, really weird. All of a sudden it dawned on me, ‘Crap! There are people out there who actually watch this thing and dig it!’ So that was really the first indication to me that we were having some kind of impact beyond Southern California.”
He’s not alone in his appreciation of the support of the fans who come to events like Auto Assembly. Legendary voice talent Paul Eiding (known to Transformers fans as Perceptor and now younger fans as Grandpa Max on cartoon sensation Ben 10) is similarly appreciative of the fan reaction.
“I already posted on my Facebook page this morning when I got up,” Eiding smiles, “I said, ‘Auto Assembly you are everything I’ve heard and more and a million thank yous.’ It’s been, really beyond my wildest dreams. It’s been just fabulous.”
“You do what you do because you love it,” Eiding sums it up, “you do what you do because it’s your job. You do what you do because any actor is happy to work. So when you get the response that you get sometimes, you don’t feel worthy. At least I don’t feel worthy. I’m not one of those that feels like everything that’s coming my way I truly deserve. A lot of times I’m thinking, ‘Why are they saying these things?’ And it also opens your eyes. Gordon Hunt, who was an acting coach of mine (who is Helen Hunt’s Dad), he said something at one point in class about 30 years ago. He said, ‘Never over-estimate or under-estimate what we do, because we can either get a tendency to believe our own press and believe that all the accolades that are coming your way are richly deserved and that you should be getting more. The other is to poo-poo what we do. I used to say, ‘What we’re doing isn’t brain surgery, we’re not saving lives, we’re not rescuing people, we’re not doing really, really important things. You can, at some point just say we’re filler between the commercials. We’re selling bread, we’re selling eggs, we’re selling automobiles, that kind of thing. It’s humbling, when people come and tell you stories of how they’ve identified with the show, of how they’ve identified with the character that you do. It slaps you in the face. We’re incredibly lucky, we do affect people.”
As things drew to a close on quite possibly the biggest and best Transformer convention seen on this side of the Atlantic, you couldn’t help but feel like you’d just relived your childhood (all the good bits anyway). Frankly, Auto Assembly 2013 can’t roll out quick enough.
For more information on Auto Assembly, visit their official site HERE.