In case you are unfamiliar with Gen Con, it is the largest tabletop gaming convention pretty much ever. It's been running since 1967 and has been hosted by Indianapolis since 2003. Last year's attendance topped out above 41,000 people. This year there are over 11,000 events from seminars and panels with experts and creators to concerts and films to events just for spouses, like jewelry making and Star Wars cupcake decorating. And of course, the big draw of Gen Con is the games. Sessions of D&D basically run around the clock and there are countless rooms just running games: board games, arcade games, new games, popular games, yet-to-be -released games. And if officially-run games aren't enough, there are pop-up games happening in every hallway. Honestly, it's a bit overwhelming.
I had some small comfort in knowing I was just there for the art and that narrowed my options to a slightly less ludicrous level. Thursday morning I walked downtown and once I was within three blocks of the Convention Center, I knew Gen Con was in town. I saw a woman with cat ears and a fox tail. There were suddenly large groups of men in geeky t-shirts with large backpacks laughing at obscure references as they walked down the street. Inside the Convention Center, this only multiplied.
I must confess that I am actually something of an introvert and so entering a crush of people heading every which way down a hallway with Storm Troopers and Power Rangers mixed in, not knowing where to go or what to do, almost made me want to turn right around. I was brave though and walked along with the main stream of traffic to stand outside a large bank of closed doors. Gen Con only truly starts when the exhibit hall opens. There are more than 360 exhibitors from game companies to corset makers and miniature sellers to twenty foot high walls of t-shirts. Games are released here. Next year's costumes are sold here. This is where the special guests have lines where you can wait to pay $30 for an autograph. It was quarter to ten and the people were pressing in, waiting.
I sort of ended up stuck in this mass of people and when the door opened at ten (and there was much rejoicing) I was swept inside. The space was instantly packed and somehow the line for Fantasy Flight Games was already winding halfway through the room after the doors had only been open about 30 seconds. Still impressed by that.
I came to Gen Con to report on the arts. There is a large section of the exhibit hall dedicated to an art show hailed as the premiere industry showcase for fantasy, sci-fi and gaming art. There is an author's avenue and hidden in some of the adjoining hotels, there is a huge film fest and anime showcase. So, you'd think the art of Gen Con would be compartmentalized and easy to investigate, but truly art is everywhere. From the promo-posters for games alone you see every variety of styles from playful illustration to high definition fantasy pieces to computer generation. An art enthusiast could really spend their whole time just analyzing the game art and never make it to the official art show. Not to mention the costumes people put together. (more on that after the big costume contest on Saturday)
I, though, pushed my way to the art show basically right off and began exploring booth after booth and chatting up some of the artists. The first piece that really caught my attention was Crunchy, a beautifully sculpted dragon's head with a knight's leg in his mouth, by Mark Helwig. Helwig is an illustrator whose often humorous work had won him awards at other Cons, but this was his first year at Gen Con and sculpture was a new endeavor for him. "I actually started sculpting to make models for illustration," he says pointing to a complex sculpture of Cthulhu in a chef's outfit holding knives and pepper shakers, working manically at a kitchen counter. He then shows me an illustration he made for a cookbook. "I wanted to get the light right, but I couldn't exactly have Cthulhu come in and model for me," he explains. He ended up really enjoying sculpting and Crunchy was his first piece he made without an intention for illustration.
I talked with a few other artists and started to see a theme: these guys just loved what they did. I suppose an artist is an artist because they love what they do, but every time I asked these artists how and why they got into fantasy art, I got slightly varied versions of, "Well, I'd always loved fantasy since I was a kid and have been fascinated by monsters and the like. I've been drawing since I was a kid and decided to make a career out of it." Not all of them have spent their life on it. Hegwig, for example, was a musician and his art is mostly self-taught. And I stopped by Bill Stolpin's booth, which is completely filled with dragons and basically only dragons, and he has only really been doing this since he retired from Mechanical Engineering. He started as the art director for a local renaissance fair and then just kept drawing more and more. This is his seventh year at Gen Con with his dragons.
Some of the artists have been classically trained, but they didn't learn to do this kind of art in art school. "My art professors would look at my work and tell me that my monsters weren't art," says Christopher Burdett. So he "smeared some paint on canvases" and got his degree by their rules, but kept practicing the art he loved. "Now I have a job making art and a lot of my classmates from art school don't," he says. Jason Engle was another guy sketching fantasy art in the back of his art school classes without much appreciation from his teachers. Today his captivating work is commissioned by big names in the industry like Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. While I stood at his booth, three different people came up and asked him to sign trading cards that he had designed the art for.
Outside the visual arts, I sat in on a delightful performance by the el33ts, a newly formed a cappella group that sang classic video game themes. They even brought a felt board and had audience members play some live felt TETRIS while they sang out the theme. I hope they stay together because it was really a treat to hear their creativity. After a cappella gaming songs, I was entertained by Dan the Bard. His specialty is songs about D&D so you need a decent knowledge of the game and the culture to enjoy his work, but his playing is entertaining even if you don't get what he is singing about. My final even for the night was to see Zero Charisma, an independent film about a passionate geek trying to lead his gamer group while dealing with all sorts of issues at home, from a grandmother recovering from a stroke to mother abandonment issues to a new hipster guy in town that seems to succeed in everything. The cinematography and the acting was all excellent and humor was high. I was laughing, but not near so much as all the true geeks in the theatre. I personally would have like to see some more character resolution at the end of the long build-up over the course of the film, but it was a good movie all around with a happy ending.
And that is all I have to say about Day 1! I am shortly off for Day 2 where I am looking forward to hearing a full Klingon Band and seeing the purported hilarious improve group Dorks in Dungeons. I might be brave and venture to the Anime corner of the Con today, too. Remember to follow me on Twitter to get live updates and the occasional outrageous photo.
Note: There are a few words in this trailer that make it not SFW.