The first year of a convention’s existence is like watching a sapling sprout from the ground: there’s not much to expect from the young seed, but you want to see it grow into something strong and beautiful. ValhallaCon is one such convention, taking place at the Sheraton hotel in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, July 12 and Sunday, July 13. Valhalla in the convention’s name suggests a Norse or viking theme, but there was a little bit of everything: comics, gaming, cosplay, merchandise, artwork, spanning all age ranges.
Navigating the convention was awkward in the beginning hours, as there were no signs to indicate the names of different rooms or what was scheduled for each one. The early attendance was sparse when the programs began at 10am: a panel titled “Comics Are For Everyone” hosted by comics colorist Christine Brunson had about four people total in attendance. This is not a fault on Brunson’s part, as her casual demeanor, insider discussion, and comics giveaways were worth attending. She introduced the topic of comics as a diverse medium for all kinds of readers, but she also took several questions about her career as a colorist.
The game room, consisting of several televisions hooked up to several gaming consoles including a Super NES, Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii, Xbox 360, Sega Genesis, and a dedicated computer for Dance Dance Revolution with large, solid dance pads. I did not find any tournament schedules or signups, but there was a steady stream of gamers coming through the space, all of them inviting to newcomers. Several seats were taken up with Pokemon players on their own 3DS systems, likely battling for badges. Just as the Pokemon videogames feature “gym leaders” who award badges for defeating them, there were several such characters walking the floor at ValhallaCon for players to challenge, including local artist Thor Thorvaldson as the Pokemon Champion to beat as the ultimate challenge. Seeing as how conventions are often paid spaces for geeking out, I think convention Pokemon leagues bring a fun personal touch to a game that otherwise leans on its online options.
Around noon, the hotel was definitely more bustling than before, with cosplayers streaming through every hall and room, often pausing for impromptu photo ops from attendees.
Ocarina expert Emily Lorick showed off her skills in a special panel, and played different tunes that gently wafted through some of the halls at different times. I nearly went berserk at the sound of Shadow’s theme from Final Fantasy 6 and wondered who was playing the game’s soundtrack on a stereo.
Another panel, about girls and women portrayed in comics, took a casual approach. The presenter pulled out several comics issues and discussed what she likes to see in a female hero and villain and invited feedback from the audience, which took her question and ran with it. Several audience members vented about female superhero designs they didn’t like, crediting the apparent sexism of DC and Marvel to the lack of female creators working for them.
My favorite event to watch was the Paper Cosplay contest. Several teams of designers used paper, tape, and lots of creativity to deck their models in outfits around a specific theme (gaming). Three of the models ended up as Legend of Zelda characters: a little boy as Link, a young woman as Navi, and a guy covered head to toe as Zelda, cartoonish eyes included. A fourth model also took the full-body approach as Spyro the Dragon. As soon as I saw how much fun everyone had as designers, models, and spectators, I immediately wanted to schedule a similar event for my library.
The con was conveniently timed to coincide with Soda City, a regular open-air market for artists and vendors in the area. I watched a Spock do some window shopping while cosplayers with comically large swords stood in line for hot dogs. Every few feet I could hear someone explaining their costume or merchandise to a curious bystander. “What’s with the outfit? Where is this happening? Okay, have fun.”
Later, in the evening, I participated in a Nerds of the Apocalypse trivia game. I arrived late, but the Meme Team adopted me into their fold. We had fun flailing against questions that stretched our knowledge of all things nerdy in television, movies, games, and comics. (Sample question: What was Boba Fett’s screen debut? My team answered The Empire Strikes Back. Nope – it was the Star Wars Christmas Special.) We made up some lost ground with the final question, listing all of the colors and corresponding emotions in the Green Lantern series, and came in last. The biggest reward of the contest was the banter between NOTA and the teams, as gathering nerds for a trivia contest naturally invites jokes leaning on obscure references.
The next panel on my schedule was called Disney’s Downfalls, one sure to generate some vigorous debate, but as far as I could tell, it never happened. The schedule indicated which floor and room, and several people were gathered to see the panel, but the presenter didn’t show up.
With time to spare, I re-toured the artist alley, which was on the brink of closing. One vendor observed that the crowds dried up after lunchtime, which leads me to believe the con’s golden hours were between 11am and 3pm. That night, the game room was emptied out for one of the final panels of the day, Horror Manga, with staff at the door to check that everyone attending was 18 or older. Kelly Shull, who has presented this topic at a few cons before, spotlighted multiple horror titles, gradually showing gorier, stranger, and more gruesome pages that made the audience gasp. She learned at the beginning of her presentation that there would not be a projector, so she turned her laptop toward us and we sat in a semicircle around it. This campfire-like configuration gave her talk the atmosphere of a ghost story, and it was easily my favorite presentation of the con. She also ran a booth of cute, wonky creatures as half of the creative duo behind jellykoe.
I was not at ValhallaCon Sunday, but some of my library’s teen anime club members spoke up in support of the day’s programs. One boy was excited about a demonstration of medieval-style combat using foam swords with a group called Dagorhir, and a girl told me the artist alley and con in general were more crowded on the second day. This does not surprise me, given the ticket prices. A pre-registration weekend pass cost $20, while at the door, a weekend pass cost $35, a Saturday pass cost $25, and a Sunday pass cost $15. All children 5 and younger were allowed in for free. Given that this was a brand new convention at a small venue, those prices were steep.
While ValhallaCon’s first steps were shaky, I hope the organizers take what they’ve learned to make next year’s event that much better.