Tuesday, 21 August 2018

TFNation 2018 Round-up & Haul

And so, another TFNation has been and gone. This year, for the first time, my girlfriend Courtney accompanied me (and will be writing a little bit about her own experiences of TFNation, as an 'outsider' to the fandom), and a lot more pre-planning went into the weekend, based on my experiences over the last couple of years: not only did I book travel and accommodation, we also booked tables for dinner on both the Saturday and the Sunday, and agreed to take advantage of the comparatively sparse schedule to potentially go out and have proper lunches rather than just make do with the 'street food' on sale within the venue, the Hilton Birmingham Metropole.

Since I booked most of the necessaries long in advance - while I was still working full-time - we were travelling out after working hours on Friday... but I ended up heading to Euston from home, while Courtney generally finishes work around 4pm, so she went down the pub with colleagues to pass the time before the journey started. I reserved seats for the outward journey only the day before - the option wasn't available when I booked - but actually needn't have bothered. As it turned out, the frontmost two carriages were fully booked (though not physically full on the day), and the rest of the train was quite sparsely populated, so we would have been better off simply jumping onto the first standard carriage we came to rather than traipsing all the way down to coach D. Still, we were very close to the door, and the journey itself was very smooth.

When we actually got to Birmingham International, navigating to the hotel was much quicker this year as I remembered the route out of the station itself. It turned out, though, that I'd booked into the Ibis Budget - the same building as my accommodation last year, but we were in a smaller, cell-like room, without a kettle. Curiously, it did have a hairdryer, but tea-making required a visit to the communal facilities on the first floor. Now, I say the room was cell-like, but it wasn't bad - just that the toilet was in a tiny (literally, cupboard-sized) room right by the door, while the shower and sink were rather more 'en suite' than usual. The bed was huge and comfortable, though, and there was ample room for our suitcase. There was also a desk with a plastic stool and a decent-sized telly which we used all of once. We weren't planning to do much more than sleep and shower in the hotel, so it ticked all the necessary boxes.

We were warned upon checking in that traversing the NEC would wipe our keycards, so we'd have to return to Reception to get it fixed each and every time. I hoped that it might be avoided by storing our card in my RF-shielded wallet but, sadly, this was not the case. I also found that, like last year, the key didn't work first time, so I had to dodge back to Reception, confirm that I'd tried inserting it in every conceivable orientation, and get it re-done before we could settle in for the night.

Our arrival was early enough that, even after checking into the hotel and divesting ourselves of our luggage, we could have made it to the Hilton just about in time for DC Douglas' "The Notorious (Zombie) Erotic FanFic Show", but decided against attending... which is good, because we would have been disappointed: registration had closed for the day about four hours earlier, so we wouldn't have been admitted anyway!

The first day went fairly well - no hard decisions had to be made about which panels I/we wanted to attend, as there was only one option for the most part. Despite the comparative lack of guests and panels this year (and the number of fan panels that only occurred during the day on the Friday!), there was enough going on that we couldn't get to The Forge, and so resolved to make that our first port of call on the Sunday. The retail area was incredibly crowded, so it was difficult to get to a lot of the stands during the early part of the day. In Demand, in particular, were really living up to their name, so I couldn't fully investigate their stock until the afternoon. Courtney picked up some Lego Simpsons figures at one of the smaller stands, and I kicked off my spending with a Studio Series Ironhide from the Nottingham Robot Company, and took part in their raffle. This was followed swiftly (and serendipitously) by Perfect Effect's PC-18, the final upgrade set for Legends Super Ginrai/Godbomber/God Ginrai. Didn't make a note of the name of the stand I bought that from, but it was the only set the guy had, so I felt quite fortunate to have found it.

Later on in the day, I headed back to the TFNation merchandise desk to pick up my preordered 'Ladybug' book and this year's convention t-shirt, styled after a music festival t-shirt, with Stan Bush taking pride of place on the lineup printed on the back. After checking a number of stands, I ended up buying PotP Rodimus Unicronus (aka Shattered Glass Rodimus Prime and, most amusingly, Rodimus Motörhead) for £45 (at least £5 cheaper than most other stands) to round off the day, but. I saw PotP Nemesis Prime on Kapow's stand, and possibly one other... but I have the damned thing on 'preorder' via Amazon, and I'm keeping it there on principle even though it should, theoretically, have been available on Prime Day this year. I'm nothing if not stubborn, after all.

The most important event for me was the Aaron Archer panel - since he presided over much of the Unicron Trilogy, but has since left Hasbro. I was quite disappointed by his presentation in the end - nothing like as comprehensive and detailed as Bob Budiansky's, last year. This might almost be amusing, considering Budiansky claims to feel no particular nostalgic connection to TransFormers, yet clearly still has access to most of his work, while Aaron Archer - according to his bio in the show guide - "collaborated on the design of hundreds of toys, and served as the Creative Lead for all Transformers partnerships, shaping stories, character development, and world-building over four live-action feature films, four video games, five animated series, theme park rides, and countless publishing properties" and yet, aside from the Q&A, all we got from him was a slideshow of photos and a handful of sketches, in no discernible order and with little explanation. I'd hoped to ask a question about the direction the brand has taken since he left Hasbro, but someone else got in first with a very similar question, which Archer dodged. One thing we did learn was that he felt that the brand had become saturated with vehicles, so he would have wanted to bring Beast Wars back in some form. I was tempted to ask why he wanted to return to something that's already been done rather than pick a new direction, but thought better of it.

The two voice actor panels - Daniel Riordan and DC Douglas - were as entertaining as these things always are. Douglas' in particular, since he had some anecdotes about the results of publicly taking a political stance (losing some work, gaining more), and spoke on the evolution of Chase's voice during the course of recording the first series of Rescue Bots - starting out very much 'on spec', but slowly loosening up and putting more character into it. I'd not watched any of that series at that point, but the fact that he felt it didn't talk down to its audience, and the general audience impression that it was a decent show, led us to watch an episode, on Netflix, later in the evening. Daniel Riordan's panel was on at the same time as one of the few alternate panels, presented by a couple of well-know TransFormers community photographers and, in retrospect, I think I might have done better to attend that one - not to say Daniel Riordan wasn't interesting, just that there wasn't a whole lot of new or unique content to his talk, and I don't have any particular connection to RID/Car Robots beyond the few toys I picked up from that series.

I honestly don't remember much about the Mairghread Scott panel but, again, I don't have much of a connection to the comics - I read and enjoyed the first batch of Windblade comics, but kind of let it slip after that. One fun fact she mentioned was that, internally, TransFormers Prime was referred to as TransFormers: Canyon Wars because, apparently, they used exactly the same canyon 'set', recoloured and retextured, for the icy and underwater landscapes that appeared in the show.

The final panel of the day was The Reading Bug, all about the making of this year's Ladybird-style book. Having worked in print myself, I was surprised to hear that it was actually quite difficult to get the format right, or to find a Printer able to match it, but the end result is pretty cool and very authentic. I had some of the Ladybird books - the ones packaged with cassettes - back in the day (I was also given one as a Secret Santa gift at work a year or two back), and loved the fact that the artwork was based on the toys rather than the awful Marvel models. The artwork in The Decepticons' Time-Terror is pretty variable, having been put together by about 20 different artists (so, I'd guess, about 2 illustrations per artist... on average, at least). Some of the images are excellent and very true to the original books, while others are more stylised. There is one rather unfortunate glitch, however, in that the illustration on the top of page 20 covers several lines of text, leaving the descenders of a 'p' and a 'y' sticking out below its black frame. Aside from that... The story is a little nonsensical, but I can't say that isn't true to the Ladybird books. It was mentioned that, while they couldn't produce an audio version in time for the show, there are still plans to release it, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that - hopefully it'll be read from the original text rather than the book, so the missing lines will be included. Whether they'll be able to assemble any of the original voice actors, or whether it'll be a cast of volunteers, we'll have to wait and see.

After a break of an hour, during which time I deposited my first day's haul back at the hotel, and Courtney got herself a drink at the NEC's Starbucks (just as they were closing!), we headed back to the Hilton for the evening's entertainment at Club Con, featuring the Pretenders Cosplay Contest (I was a little disappointed that the humanised Tarantulas cosplayer didn't win her category but, to be fair, all the costumes were amazing) and the live script reading, featuring RID/Car Robots Megatron, RID2015 Clawtrap, Rescue Bots Chase, and movieverse Sideswipe in a short, dimension-hopping adventure full of puns and in-jokes. These tend to be better with a bigger cast, but it was a fun little story, and neatly written to make good use of the cast in a limited time. After that, we had to clear out pretty quickly, so the TFNation staff could re-set the room for the Stan Bush gig... Which we weren't attending. We sloped off to Resorts World for dinner, then returned to the hotel for some kip.
Day 1 Haul: TFNation 2018 G2 'Hot Pink' tote bag (which contained my preordered T-shirt
and Ladybug book), Studio Series Ironhide, PotP Rodimus Unicronus (I prefer Rodimus
Motörhead as a name), Perfect Effect's final upgrade set for Legends Super Ginrai,
the Ladybug book "The Decepticons' Time-Terror", the show guide and my wristband
We started Day 2 a little later, and a little more relaxed, heading straight into The Forge. Courtney - not expecting to buy much of anything at a TransFormers convention - hadn't brought much cash, but almost instantly found sets of stickers and washi tape on Coralus/Umi Miyao's stand that she fancied, requiring a quick diversion to the hotel's cash machine. Nate Phoenix was back, this time sharing a stand with James Marsh, from whom I bought a cool poster showing Optimus Primal riding atop G1 Optimus Prime, inspired by a similar panel in the Marvel Comics story Target 2006, featuring Galvatron hitching a ride on Ultra Magnus. A little further on, we found a table run by Herzspalter and Anna Malkova/larry_draws from which I bought a couple of Anna's amazing postcards and Courtney bought some of Herz's cool stickers. There was loads of other awesome stuff on sale in the room - not to mention the display cabinets of customs and upcoming Third Party figures - and we spent quite a bit of time in the Forge in the end, but the only other thing I bought was a set of four cute bookmarks... and, unfortunately, I didn't catch the name of the artist who was selling them (she'd stepped out of The Forge at the time).

At 11am, we returned to the main hall for André Sogliuzzo's panel, though I have little experience of his roles (Clawtrap in RID2015, and maybe a couple of lines of dialogue as Sideswipe in Revenge of the Fallen - the role was recast for Dark of the Moon) so, again, I wasn't particularly invested. He also did an awful lot of swearing considering the number of kids in the audience, let alone the rest of the main hall. On the upside, he did have some intriguing anecdotes from the times he'd worked with/for Al Pacino and, as with all the guests, he was entertaining... though he did overrun just a little, with a bit of a rambling monologue.

Immediately after this, we headed to the panel room for the Pretenders Cosplay panel, featuring a cosplaying TFNation staffer chairing a talk with three of the cosplayers from the Saturday night's competition. Courtney has expressed a desire to do some cosplay at some point - not TransFormers, though - but I got the impression what came up in the panel may have been largely a little too specific to TransFormers cosplay to be much use. Nevertheless, it was an interesting talk... albeit a little stilted when it came to the two non-native English speakers on the stage.

After an extended lunch, we returned to the main hall during the Stan Bush panel, but I spent the time leading up to Nick Roche's Wrecktrospective simply scanning through the retail area for anything interesting. I ended up adding a few new items to my haul, including Keith's Fantasy Club/Big Tin Robot & Sid's Toys exclusive Sting Thing - a repaint of the Scorpinator cassetticon I picked up last year. I wasn't going to bother, because Scorpinator wasn't exactly mind-blowingly good... But I kind of had to once I read the bio on the back of the box... because Sting Thing is a Femme-Bot! While rooting through the plastic tubs full of second hand TransFormers on The Space-Bridge's stand, I found three lots of Armada Overload, all missing their missiles but otherwise complete and in good condition... Two of them were £30, but the one I bought was only £25. I've no idea where the discrepancy came from, but I was happy to take advantage of it. I'd started to waver in my conviction to keep my Amazon preorder for PotP Nemesis Prime, and was considering paying the £20 extra just to own him now rather than at some indefinite point in the future, but the decision was made for me: he'd evidently sold out on the Saturday. My final purchase for the day was Masterpiece Road Rage, the Femme-Bot repaint of MP Tracks, after which we sat down for Nick Roche's panel.

To be honest, most of it - and the Lost Light panel, immediately afterward, in the Panel room - was essentially meaningless. I've read Last Stand... and Sins of the Wreckers, and kind of enjoyed them, but I suspect I'm missing out on something without having read any of the other IDW comics they tie into. The impression I got on the later panel was that the current creative team are parting ways with the TransFormers frachise once they've tied up as many loose ends as they can within their now-truncated timeline. Personally, I just hope Hasbro allow IDW to create something that will be even half so well-regarded, and that actually ties in with the toys to some degree - my biggest objection to the comics was that they didn't reflect much of the toyline... but, equally, the toyline only occasionally chose to acknowledge the comics in any meaningful way.

The round table and closing ceremony were pretty interesting, and gave a few hints about the complexities of running an event like TFNation. I knew from my own experience, in my last job, that planning for next year's event usually starts the day after this year's ends, if not sooner - my former employers would take stand bookings for the following year at each event, and things got even more fun when they started running two events (one in London, the other in Manchester) - and it was certainly interesting to hear how helpful Stan Bush had been in using his own connections to assist the team in organising his appearance. It was curious to hear one of the audience ask about non-attendee packages for the show, considering it doesn't really seem big enough to warrant such an option just yet (and, as Courtney asked, why would one want a t-shirt, baseball cap, mug, etc. from a show one didn't attend?). I can't remember the final reported attendance tally, but it was about double what Courtney had guessed. There was some discussion about TFNation getting to the point where it would have to be non-residential - the show itself occuring in the NEC, for example - but their hope is to keep it within a hotel for the forseeable future, since they can organise mutually beneficial deals with regards to room rates, etc.

Just before we were ushered out, at the very end, there was a sneak preview at the theme (visual, at least) of TFNation 2019... and it's Beast Machines. If this means that any of the guests are from that show, I'm definitely in again. Be they voice actors or production team, I'd really look forward to learning more.
Day 2 Haul: Art prints from James Marsh ('Trukk Not Munky', aping (ahem) a panel from
the Marvel Comics story Target 2006) and Anna Malkova (Windblade and Elita-1),
Masterpiece Road Rage, Armada Overload (minus missiles), a set of super-cute bookmarks
(didn't catch the artist's name, unfortunately!) and KFC's repaint of Scorpinator as Sting Thing
Aside from the paucity of panels generally and the lack of real information in Aaron Archer's panel, the big disappointments for me was that I neglected to pack my 'TransFormers Classics UK' book and the first batch of Windblade comics - the idea being to get them signed by Mike Collins and Mairghread Scott, respectively... But I'm actually not massively fussed about autographs (witness my avoidance of all the guests' signing tables, year after year, event after event) so I'm not too disappointed by this. Given the number of artist/writer guests, I was a little surprised that they didn't do more panels... then again, most of them were in attendance last year, and the likes of Mike Collins and Lew Stringer used to appear at AutoAssembly, so perhaps they felt they had nothing new to add?

I really do think that the retail section needs to be fully separated from the main panel venue - both have been in the main hall since the first year and, as attendance increases, actually navigating the retail section becomes increasingly difficult... Though, as another attendee observed, the majority of purchasing does seem to happen within the first couple of hours after doors open. Wait till later - if you dare - and it does become substantially easier, though there's always the chance that you've missed out on something that was in short supply. Sunday is even quieter, with many attendees simply occupying the bar and playing with their new aquisitions. Even so, the noise from the retail section can make it difficult to hear what's being said on the main stage, even when the microphones are working.

Nevertheless, overall, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by this year's event - I wasn't expecting much, going in, because we're pretty much between waves in Power of the Primes, Studio Series is essentially done until the Bumblebee movie toys start coming through (next month? Smyths have the Energon Igniters and Power Charge Bumblebee listed as coming along mid- to late-September), and the show itself had no exclusive toys this year. In spite of this, I came away with five new figures, and upgrade set, and some more art, and am very happy with my haul... even if I did manage to go a little over budget (probably a good thing I wasn't able to get PotP Nemesis Prime on Sunday, then).

Courtney asked me how attending with her compared to attending without her, and it honestly wasn't much different for me... just that we weren't apart for the weekend this time round. One interesting difference I noted later was that, when I attended alone in 2016 and 2017, a few random strangers struck up conversations with me in and around the halls being used... This year, they always spoke to Courtney instead. Given that she was previously worried about attending because she's not a fan herself, I'm not sure if this has allayed her fears (they're a friendly bunch) or not (it took her a while to realise that one guy was making in-jokes, so she had to guess at the appropriate moment to laugh)... But she has said she'll consider attending next year if any of the guests are interesting enough.

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