April has once again come and gone, but this final weekend of the month welcomes the hustle and bustle of Zenkaikon, Lancaster County’s premier expo of Japanese culture. Moving to Lancaster’s Marriot Hotel and County Convention Center in 2013, this is officially the 4th year the convention has been held in this quaint city. Consistently growing throughout its time here, Zenkaikon offers a plethora of events to take in throughout the weekend; featuring guests such as voice actors Steve Blum and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as well as Shinto Priestess/Kimono Consultant Kuniko Kanawa. Expecting to see upwards of 6,000 warm bodies (with 13,000+ turnstiles) between April 28th-30th, Zenkaikon has certainly grown since arriving here in Lancaster, PA.
Picking up my badge late Friday morning, the convention was just starting to stretch itself out after a one year slumber. Stationed in the heart of Lancaster City, the Lancaster County Convention Center consists of three floors of space packed with the glorious sights and sounds of Japanese culture. Featuring well-established lecturers and panelists such as Charles Dunbar, The Manly Battleships, and Kuniko Kanawa; 2017’s iteration of Zenkaikon was looking to possess the quality programming typically associated with conventions much larger than itself, and it did not disappoint. My first program of the convention was an introduction to the lore behind popular video game franchise Mortal Kombat; not anime I know, but Zenkaikon has always been unique in that it allows panels not necessarily pertaining to Japanese culture pad its schedule. In my interview with Charles Dunbar, he describes this as a strength, especially considering our shared love of King of the Hill potentially spawning a panel that this humble little convention could host in the future.
Anyway, as the weekend wore on I took full advantage of one of Zenkaikon (and Lancaster’s) biggest advantages, its size. Lancaster is unique in that it possesses the cultural diversity of a larger city while still being small enough to maintain an intimate feel; a strength also expressed within the halls of Zenkaikon. This sentiment was expressed in all my guest interviews, and is truly the con’s strength; every panel, from big draws like Steve and Charles to the smaller fan driven panels felt like conversations rather than university lectures. Anybody could walk right up and speak to the presenters when all was said and done, which isn’t always the case for some of the bigger events out there. This is especially appreciated by the con-goers themselves, as they affirmed to me in numerous conversations throughout the weekend. The production value of the main hall, where the masquerade was held, was the most impressive physical portion of Zenkaikon; having the lighting and seating room of a convention much larger than itself.
While not being a convention heralded for its cosplay, there was, of course, plenty to be found posing all over the 96,000+ square feet of convention space on offer. Amongst the throngs of Mandalorians, Spartans of Halo fame, and characters from this year’s hottest shows was my favorite of the weekend. As pictured above, this simple Uncle Iroh was wandering the halls, passing out warm smiles and photos to all of the Avatar fans out there; this costume represents the type of cosplays that I enjoy more than any other. The character and heart displayed by this old gentleman felt to me what cosplay should be all about, the enjoyment of being a character you enjoy for a few days, regardless of the complexity of its construction. Were there more technically impressive costumes? Sure, a Mercy from Overwatch that had her own cadre of paparazzi comes to mind, but none felt more approachable than this gentleman.
One of the new guests this year and one I visited quite frequently throughout the weekend was the Carolina Manga Library. Stationed on the third floor of the historic Montgomery House which the convention center was built around, the library provides a rare serene environment away from the chaotic energy of the convention below. Taking on the onerous task of curating and transporting an impressive selection of manga and comics around the east coast to different events and schools, this all-volunteer staff has their work cut out for them. I spoke with professional head librarian Lauren Mahaffey, who finds passion and inspiration in encouraging literacy through comics, manga, and graphic novels. “I, and the other volunteers here at the library, always hear from kids that read comics, graphic novels, and manga that they are told to read ‘real books’ and all that does is, in fact, turn them off reading altogether. I wanted to create an environment where what they want to read is encouraged.”
Encouraged it is indeed, as the collection is huge, with a surprisingly large amount of stock being from Lauren’s personal collection. “When we started in 2013, at our local anime convention, we had only about 250 books to select from. One of my fellow librarian students told me we should take this on the road, so we did and began accepting donations and within a year we had over 1,000 books. We now have over 5,000 books either in circulation or storage awaiting circulation,” Lauren said to me between stacks of the inevitable paperwork associated with running a non-profit like the library. Visiting 12-13 conventions a year, you can expect to see the Carolina Manga Library next at Anime Central in Rosemont, IL, continuing their mission of spreading literacy not only through children but for anyone with a passion for graphic novels, manga, and comics. Always accepting donations, feel free to visit their website at https://carolinamagalibrary.com to keep up on their latest news and events! Oh, and if you ask what her favorite piece of the collection is, prepare for an unexpected answer; “My favorite is easily the single comic that started this whole journey, ElfQuest. A comic that has been running since the 1970s, with the authors being one of our very first patrons that donated the entire collection to us.”
With another year and another Zenkaikon fresh in the books, this feels like the most successful iteration to date. Featuring a selection of incredibly friendly and informative guests, a little bit of stretching out with the inclusion of local pub Tellus 360 as programming space, and the ever-present small town/urban culture center feel (ESPECIALLY ISSEI NOODLE) of Lancaster, Zenkaikon is perhaps one of the best little conventions the east coast has to offer.