Archon 38: Impressions from a First Time Attendee

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Archon 38 is a science fiction convention that ran from October 3 through 5, 2014 at the Gateway Center in Collinsville, Illinois. I had intended on attending for at least two days, but unfortunately some personal matters prevented me from meeting that goal and I was only able to attend until mid-evening on October 3rd.  I was able; however, to draw some good impressions from the show and am excited to return for next year’s event, assuming my luck is a little more cooperative.

I’ll start with the layout of the show. Beginning at the registration area there were several small rooms for discussion groups, workshops, and panels. Then there were two larger rooms which housed the gaming area and art auction. From there the central hall begins to shrink as vendor tables lined either side, selling everything from novels to original role-playing game systems to crafty geek kitsch and all sorts of things in between. At a junction where a large foyer grants access to the parking lot, the local 70th Explorers Garrison of the 501st Legion of the Galactic Empire had set up shop.  If you’re scratching your head about that one, think of them as the Star Wars equivalent of a Renaissance Faire actors troop. Not to be outdone, the KAG, or the Klingon Assault Group, were also present at the convention, ensuring that the two biggest science fiction universes of all time were well-represented. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any Battlestar Galactica or Firefly guilds in St. Louis…yet. From that junction a number of novelists were set up at tables on either side of the hall to discuss and hopefully sell their novels to convention attendees. There was a room not far past the junction where more vendors were set up, offering board games, toys, clothes, jewelry, books, and even 3-D printing services!

EF Innovations, based out of Washington, MO, were set up to scan just about anything, including convention attendees themselves, and create 3-D printout “figurines” at various sizes for various prices. If you had an original cosplay costume, such as the young lady who had a somewhat Steampink-ish outfit with a modified version of the ceiling fan I have in my bedroom as wings, you could get a “little green army man” sized figurine of yourself in all of your creative glory for around $20. They had samples of 3-D business cards, promotional items and other interesting objects created via 3-D printing. The technology isn’t that far away from becoming Star Trek replicators, and as it was my first time seeing a 3 –D printer or anything created by one in person it was fascinating to behold and exhilarating to think of the possibilities.

Among the notable novelists, artists and media guests this year was Tamora Pierce, Archon 38 Guest of honor and author of several four-part novel series including The Song of the Lioness, The Immortals, The Circle of Magic, and most recently the novel Battle Magic, released in 2013. Sadly I didn’t get the opportunity to chat with her before I had to depart.

The Artist Guest of Honor was Paul Daly, a tremendously gifted artist who was nominated for an Eisner Award (Eisners are to comics what Oscars are to movies) for writing the pulp adventure comic Athena Voltaire. His illustrator credits include art for The Phantom, from Moonstone Publishing, various role-playing game illustrations for “Indiana Jones” and “Star Trek,” and many other classic TSR, AEG and West End role-playing games, and a variety of covers for novels over his career.

Special Guest of Honor R. A. Salvatore was a big reason I wanted to attend, so I am very disappointed that my circumstances got in the way of actually meeting him. Perhaps best known for creating Drizzit the dark elf, one of the most beloved and enduring characters in the wide spectrum of novel and comics set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, he has also penned books in the Star Wars universe, contributed to the Tarzan mythos and crafted the story and dialogue for the terrific videogame Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which was released on XBOX 360, PlayStation 3 and PC before the state of Rhode Island yanked the rug—and funding—out from under former MLB pitcher Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios, prematurely ending what could have been a classic series of fantasy gaming. I would have dearly loved to chat with him about the differences in the disciplines of novel writing versus videogame writing, and what have been had 38 Studios not been forced to shut down so soon after the release of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Hopefully I’ll get another chance to do so someday.

Tony Todd was the Media Guest of Honor, and when I heard his deep, commanding voice I knew immediately who it was without having to look for him. He’s been in everything from “Platoon” to “The “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” though I remember him best for the horror film “Candyman,” the dark superhero film, “The Crow,” and the Nic Cage action flick “The Rock,” as well as his recurring role on television as the Klingon Kurn, Lt. Worf’s brother, in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I was leaving the convention just as he was arriving, and I’m not an autograph hound, but I do enjoy meeting actors and actresses and thanking them for entertaining me.

Janny Wurts served as Toastmistress and had a table full of her fantasy novels including the beloved Empire trilogy co-authored with fantasy stalwart Raymond E. Feist as well as her own numerous novels, of which her War of Light and Shadow series sounds like something I need to read. She also paints her own covers, which is something very few writers ever get a say in much less actually handle themselves. As usual, I didn’t bring nearly enough money to the convention to purchase all of the books I was interested in, and I could have happily spent a small fortune on Janny Wurts’ substantial library of work alone.

Among the perhaps lesser known but no less talented authors attending the convention were C.S. Marks, author of the Elfhunter Trilogy and the companion Alterra Histories series; Capri S. Bard, writer of the meticulously researched For One Nen epic; and G. P. Ching, author of The Soulkeepers series which has been optioned for the silver screen, and her Grateful Knight adult paranormal romance series written under the penname Genevieve Jack is comparable to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The folks at Rudderhaven Publishing were on hand to talk about their Rudderhaven anthologies and Tales with a Twist, which includes stories from C. K. Deatherage, B. David Spicer and Larry D. Rudder, as well as a primer on the works that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien called Tolkien: Roncevaux, Ethandune and Middle-Earth by Rudderhaven’s Managing Editor, Douglas Rudder. The prolific Van Allen Plexico was on hand showcasing his Sentinels series of pulp superhero novels, The Shattering space opera, his comprehensive guides to Marvel Comics’ The Avengers comic series, and much more. I could have dropped a ton of money at his table alone, and am planning to get in touch with him to review The Shattering and The Sentinels anthologies soon.

I did manage to have enough dough on me for a couple of books each from a couple of authors that really intrigued me. I connected with David J. Pedersen almost from hello. He was happy to discuss his novels Angst and Buried in Angst which tell the story of a fantasy hero having a midlife crisis. The books would seem to be in the tradition of Robert Asprin, Terry Pratchett and the collaborations of Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley, with tongue planted firmly in cheek and yet earnest in the handling of the genre. I look forward to reading them very soon and will post reviews of them here at CrticialBlast.com.

I also met Geoffrey Mandragora, who enticed me with the tagline “steampunk espionage.” His novels, The Thunderbolt Affair and The Eidlerland Incident follow the daring adventures of Ian Rollins, a British agent desperately battling the ever-dangerous forces of the Kaiser Reich in an alternate history where the Germans won long before the rise of the Nazis. He pretty much had me at “espionage” but I have been eager to explore the steampunk genre and his books seemed as good a place as any to start. I also had to give him points for creating an alternate history that wasn’t predicated on World War II—that’s been done again and again and again. I will be reviewing his books on our site as well.

The Gateway Center in Collinsville is a decent-sized convention hall though my first impression from this year’s Archon event was that the space seemed a bit underutilized. I didn’t go exploring outside of the confines of the convention itself, but the con seemed to be relegated to a long central hallway in the complex rather than in the exhibition hall itself. I don’t know if there was another event utiliizing that space on the same day or if the vendors room was in fact the main exhibition hall (in which case it was smaller than I’d have guessed) but at times navigating your way through the throngs of sci-fi fans, cosplayers, vendors, artists and authors was a bit of a challenge. I don’t recall seeing a map in the program or press kit, which isn’t to say there wasn’t one, but if it was loose rather than bound I likely lost it pretty early on.

I saw references to an “Artists Alley” in the program but never seemed to really come across any artists accept for the talented John. E. Kaufmann, stationed near the entrance to the Art Auction room. I may have simply overlooked it, not realizing they were in one of the side rooms off of the main hall, or perhaps they didn’t get completely set up until Saturday—as with any convention there are some folks who can’t get away from their day jobs early enough to get set up when a convention starts midday on a Friday. I plan to do a much more thorough job of tracking down the artists next year, as I enjoy commissioning sketches at comic conventions and expected similar possibilities here. I was able to secure a really cool print of Boba Fett, the celebrated Star Wars bounty hunter, by artist Michelle Benz, after the convention. I discovered her art while perusing the convention program (a very nicely done program at that, featuring the art of Paul Daly on the wraparound cover) and plan to commission another piece from her very soon.

There is a lot to do at Archon--almost too much for a show this size! On Friday, October 3, from approximately 11 am to Midnight (seriously, this is one long convention—when do these people get to eat?!?) I counted over 80 autograph sessions, workshops, cosplay exhibitions and discussion panels, including several hosted by CriticalBlast.com’s own R.J. Carter. I don’t think there were that many panels for all three days of the monstrously huge C2E2 comic and pop culture convention held at the massive McCormick Place in Chicago when I last attended a couple of years ago. Archon opened its doors even earlier on Saturday, October 4, and there were another 80-plus panels and sessions on various topics and activities. I think it’s great that this convention draws such a diverse range of interests, from gaming to writing, horror to space opera, cosplay to hard science, but that ambitious schedule of discussion panels felt a bit overwhelming. I didn’t have to concentrate on my schedule that hard in college, or at much bigger conventions!

I ended up attending only one panel since my circumstances tossed my planning out the window early on. It was hosted by R.J. Carter and Van Allen Plexico, and discussed the reality of being a superhero—that is to say being a superhero in real life. There are “superheroes” in the real world today, but very few of them are properly trained, equipped or condoned by local law enforcement. The moderators discussed the economics of outfitting a proper superhero in terms of available or developmental technology for maximum protection, the sort of skills a real superhero would need to survive longer than two minutes when confronting crime as it happens, and the psychological nature of the hero—or antihero—him/herself. It was an interesting discussion and a nice break from wandering the main hall, but I don’t have the patience to sit through a lot of panels where certain attendees try to take over the discussion or constantly correct the moderators for not knowing everything like they do. I can put up with it a couple of times a day, but with more than 80 panels a day my prospects of not being arrested by Stormtroopers, Klingons or the Collinsville Police Department for losing my patience and bludgeoning a blabbermouth with a chair seemed rather poor. The heavy scheduling of discussion panels also pulled authors and artists away from their tables frequently, further hindering opportunities to interact with folks like R.A. Salvatore or Paul Daly. This might be a case where the old adage “less is more” holds true.

Books, art, gaming, discussion panels, and cosplay—lots and lots of cosplay—ensured that there was something for almost everyone at Archon 38. I hope to return next year without the person matters that prevented me from fully exploring the convention, particularly Artists Alley, and of course I’ll know better how much money to bring for novels, art, gaming supplies, those seriously cool custom Hawaiian shirts by Curious Cat Clothing and hopefully, if they’re back again next year, a 3-D figurine of myself printed by EF Innovations. Archon is obviously a labor of love for the many volunteers who orchestrate the show every year, and it shows. I don’t think I encountered a single grouchy person, from the registration staff at the front of the hall to the café staff at the far end and every vendor and creator in between. If you have any interest in science fiction or fantasy and the many products and activities associated with those genres, you really should plan to attend Archon 39 next year.

Until then, live long and prosper, and may the Force be with you.