Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anime Overload

 This year was the 3rd annual Anime Overload convention, and our second year going as regular patrons.  Both my daughters are heavily into the anime culture ("anime" refers to Japanese-style cartoons and comic-books)... so much so that this year they each went dressed as some of their favorite anime characters (referred to as "COSplay"), they create their own anime artwork, and at least one is learning Japanese.  Anime has a broad cultural impact, influencing the look of video-games, toys, and even advertising here in the US.  In Japan, "manga" (anime-styled comic-books) is one of the most popular forms of media with stories in every genre and for every age-group.  A few years ago I even read that military manuals in Japan are illustrated in manga or anime style.

 Anime Overload lasts a weekend, beginning on a Friday at 10am and ending the following Sunday at 5pm.  At least for the last 2 years, it has been held at the Crockett Event Center on North Lamar Blvd, and the date has been set for early summer; late June or early July.  Last year, there was some mix-up with their original venue, which is the reason they moved to the Crockett Center.  The Crockett Center may not be the most ideal location; one half of the building houses a Hispanic Flea-Market, and the event center more frequently caters to mixed-martial arts tournaments and gun-shows... but it seems to be the easiest one to book.

 Anime Overload features a variety of vendors and artists selling their wares, including an "artists alley" which seems to include mostly local artists.  Among the vendors are several artists who visit conventions like this one nationally, traveling from convention-to-convention largely on the profits earned from each event.  One of the artists, Ali Morgainne, who markets her work as "Hoshikko Ink", is from Houston, and travels the state at these conventions.  Another artist, Chuck Porcheron, of "Warhound Art Studio" travels the country.  Both artists have got my daughter and I considering participating at future conventions.

 There are two distinct groups of people patronizing in Anime Overload.  One group I would refer to as "deep-geeks".  These are the people who are deeply invested in time, money, and effort into some fringe past-time or hobby.  A deep-geek can be into just about anything, but if it is profitable (like tattooing) or socially well-received (like football), the "geekiness" is less obvious.  The deep-geeks at Anime Overload participate in the seminars, discuss and break down anime plots and characterization, and share tips on creating COSplay costumes and accessories.  The deep-geeks often are deep into the anime scene; they know the people who have been invited as guests, co-ordinate their own activities locally, and probably are involved in some fashion with Anime Overload's production team.

 The other group, which make up the dominant majority of the people you see running around the place, are "fan-boys" (despite appearances, the distinction is gender-neutral).  These people are fans of anime.  They have their favorite manga or anime shows/characters, and are up on the latest series being played on channels like Cartoon Network.  They COSplay, getting their costumes pre-made with little or no personal effort in the creation or design.  Some of them wear costumes totally unrelated to anime or anything going on at the convention.  This is because, unlike the deep-geeks, fan-boys are interested in being recognized by others as a fan of anime.  Their investment is not in an interest in anime itself, but rather in anime as part of their personal means of self-expression. 

 It is there way of being special.

 There are numerous events to participate in.  Sleeping Samurai is a performance group that invites the crowd to participate in mock sword-fights with nerf or padded weapons (many of the patrons showed-up with custom-designed "regulation" weapons).  The rules are simple; each opponent tries to land a strike on one of their enemy's limbs.  Combat is referreed.  If a limb is struck, that round ends, and during the next round the victim cannot make use of that limb; the struck-arm is placed behind the back, a struck-leg requires the victim to go down on one knee.  The fight is over when one of the opponents looses the use of all four limbs (or both arms, whichever comes first).  There are a few people who get deep into this mock-fighting, and are almost acrobatic in their performances.

 COSplay chess involves participants in costume acting as a living chessboard.  Each participant is assigned a piece (pawn, knight, king, etc), with each team selecting one person to be the player.  Each player calls out to the COSplay character and instructs them on wear to move. 

 This year there was also a zombie-hunt.  Video-games are more-often-than-not using the anime style of illustration in their character design, and numerous of the more popular games involve zombies.  COSplayers show up as both the protagonists form their favorite games and as zombies.  There was even a vendor who sold clothes made to looke like the wearer had been a victim of a zombie attack.  Patrons bring Nerf-guns and hunt the zombie COSplayers in a refereed game. 

 Throughout the day, there are a variety of seminars and classes, a video-game arcade (featuring the latest or most popular home-system games), opportunities to speak with professional anime artists, writers, and character actors, kareoke, and of course viewings of anime cartoons.  Friday and Saturday nights end with a rave, starting around 10pm and lasting until midnight. 

 In preparing for and participating in Anime Overload, I have a few recommendations.

 -Buy your tickets early.  Buying your tickets on-line, a few months in advance, gives you a big savings compared to buying at the door. 

 -Buy a three-day pass.  The cost of a one day ticket at the door is almost as expensive as a three-day pass purchased on-line, especially if purchased early.

 -Buy the VIP pass.  The VIP pass gives you more access and a gift-package.  When purchased early, it is the best bargain offered.

 -The convention begins at 10am, Friday.  The line for pre-registered ticket holders was over 2 hours long, and despite their intentions to the contrary, the event coordinators where not able to get people there passes at 9am.  You are better off showing up after noon on the first day.  The convention doesn't officially open until 4pm.  Unless there is an event that you wish to participate in that morning, your not missing anything but a wait in line by showing-up late.

 -Plan your visit ahead of time.  The events scheduled are listed on the website.  There really is nowhere to sit, wait, or lounge (all though plenty of fan-boys camp-out on the floor near the bathrooms).  You could take about an hour to walk around and check-out all the vendors, but afterwards without something to do the convention can be fairly boring.  Knowing what is scheduled and having a plan will either fill the void between events or allow you to leave and return for your events.

 -Bring your own beverages.  Food options are limited in the convention; there is a stand selling Japanese snacks (including sushi) and the event-centers hotdog and nacho vendor... both ridiculously over-priced.  At this time, there is no prohibition on outside beverages (no alcohol), and as far as I know outside food is also allowed (I have not tested this).  If you get hungry, there is Chuy's Tex-Mex right across the street from the Crocket Center, and McDonald's, Taco Bell, What-a-Burger, Popeye's, Wendy's, Burger King, Sonic, and Subway all about three blocks south on Lamar.  There is also a Shell station across the street and a 7-11 about two blocks south.

 -Bring your laptop, Magic the Gathering cards, hand-held game systems, etc.  The event center is wifi-capable, and it will give you something to do.

 -Bring your camera, and a backpack.  There will be things and people you want to take pictures of, and you will need a place to store your loot.

 Anime Overload seems to play second-fiddle to Ikkicon, the anime convention held during New Year's weekend.  Everyone I spoke with said the Ikkicon was better, which may have more to do with the weather in Texas (HOT in the summer, mild in the winter) than anything else.  If you're local, and want a free ticket, see about volunteering... although the event manager I spoke with said they actually had more volunteers than needed this year. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monkey See Monkey Do!

 A long time ago, in a decade that us old-folks like to call "the 80's", there was one store at virtually every mall in America that was a guaranteed stop for the majority of us.  That was Spencer's Gifts, which sold an eclectic selection of weird and humorous oddities (as well as some erotic novelties).  People shopped there, but far more often than not you went in just to look at all the odd items.  Spencer's catered to every taste; pop-culture hipsters, metal-heads, class-clowns, perverts, and freaks. Spencer's had a dark-edge that wasn't well received by everyone (especially parents).  With the emergence of stores like Hot Topic, Spencer's focused on maintaining its hold on that part of its market... and lost.  Today, Spencer's is still in a few malls, but they do not have nearly the presence they had in the 1980's.
 I bring up Spencer's because Monkey See Monkey Do on South Congress is a lot like that kitchy and wacky store of my youth... sans the dark edge.  Monkey See Monkey Do caters to all that is fun in the lowbrow seen; weird toys, quirky art, odd household items... with everything relatively safe for the majority of the public, young and old alike.

 And, of course, they have monkeys... lots and lots of monkeys.

 Monkey See Monkey Do is a perfect example of Austin weirdness, situated right in the heart of South Congress along with the other strange and funky shop on the strip.  Monkey See Monkey Do also fills in the void left behind by the Lowbrow Emporium that used to be on South Lamar, retailing many of the same items and art works that are featured in magazines like High Fructose and Juxtapose.  You will find classic kitch items like magic 8-balls and "x-ray" glasses, tiki-culture nick-knacks, nostalgic novelties, strange toys and action-figures, unusual  books and magazines, "Keep Austin Weird" merchandise, and monkeys.

 Monkey See Monkey Do is a must-stop shop on South Congress.  Tell them Sorrell sent you when you pay them a visit.

 1712 S. Congress Ave
 Austin, TX 78704
 512 443 4999

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Spider House

  Spider House is THE coffee house to check out in Austin.  The atmosphere is eclectic and laid-back, the coffee and beer selections are excellent, and the food is fair.  Spider House connects patrons with the local music and art scene; it is a venue for a variety of bands and solo-acts and supports a number of art shows throughout the year.  Located near the northern-most point on the UT "Drag" and situated within a college residential area, Spider House feels like Austin.

 Its best feature is the outdoor dining area, a big back-yard full of metal yard-furniture situated both close to the stage as well as well away from the stage.  Tables are situated so that people can be seated alone, as couples, or as groups.  The wait-staff is friendly and attentive.  The prices are better than Starbucks for arguably a better coffee-drink.  The food is a little pricey, and other than the frito-pie and frito-burrito tends to favor the health-conscious.

 Because the best seats in the house are outdoors, the best times to go are during the mild Autumn, Winter, and Springs seasons, although if you like a little skin and can take the heat the Summer is never too bad.  Happy hour is from 7am to 7pm with a dollar off all draft beers.  Check it out for the shows, the brews, or just a chill-location to hang-out.

 Spider House Cafe
 2908 Fruth St
 Austin, Texas

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ken's Donuts

  My uncle owned or managed several donut shops, and some of my fondest childhood memories involved being at one of his shops early (like 1 or 2 am) on Christmas or New Year's night and having donuts freshly made.  My dad, during the really hard economy in the 1980's, used to work for my uncle at the shop and bring home donuts literally by the garbage-bag full.  You could say I know donuts.  The mockery of pastries that Krispy Kremes tries to pass-off as a donut just does not cut it.  How they can legally call them donuts is beyond me.  Ken's Donuts makes donuts... and as close to the donuts my uncle used to make that I have had in a while.  Best of all, Ken's Donuts is open 24 hours a day and is right off the Drag.

 The down-side is that Ken's Donuts is not exactly the most inviting donut shop to sit-down and enjoy a pastry in.  I am certain the place is clean enough, but the word that comes to mind to describe the look of the place is "grimy".  It is almost like the idea of people actually sitting down for some donuts and coffee in the place was an after-thought.

 I have to admit that this is the only donut-shop I have visited since being in Austin, and being diabetic means that I probably will not have the occasion to visit too many others.  While I am sure that some of the other donut shops may be better than Ken's, this place is conveniently located and open 24 hours a day.  That alone rocks.

 I might get the kids up at 2am and make a donut run.

 Ken's Donuts
 2820 Guadalupe St
 Austin, TX 78705
 512 320-8484

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fran's Burgers

  Fran's Hamburgers has been an Austin Institution and a part of the South Congress scene since 1973.  It is a purely American Diner, not a sports-bar and not big on kitch.  At Fran's, it is all about the food.  The prices are comparative to other burger-joints (not to be confused with fast-food-joints) as is the menu.  They make a fair milk-shake and offer-up a huge, 100% real beef hamburger.  The locals often rave about Fran's, and the place is always busy.  Service is fast and friendly, and the portions are well-worth the price.

 However, the one thing they are known for, their burgers, did not really impress me.  I don't know if it was the cook that day or what, but my burger was almost over-seasoned, like I wasn't tasting the beef anymore.  The onion-rings are a must, probably some of the best in town.  While I understand that the place is considered a part of the fabric of Austin, nothing struck me as peculiar to Austin in anyway.  Fran's could be any burger-place anywhere; a truck-stop diner that had the good-fortune to be located in close proximity to one of the city's tourist attractions.

 Honestly, with nothing really outstanding going for it, my money is better spent at the McDonald's a few blocks down the road on Oltorf. 

 Fran's is another Austin venue that is out of business.  Missed for the nostalgia, but probably not for the food.

 6214 Cameron Rd
 Austin, TX 78723
 512 458 6007