Assembly Required 2022 – The Real American Book! Convention Report / Part 1 of 3

—– Jump to [Part 2] or [Part 3] —–

With the demise of the official JoeCon, and HasCon not returning after its initial outing, I knew I needed to shift gears in my convention-going. I had heard good things about a trio of smaller shows for years, Joelanta, JoeFest, and Assembly Required. It can take some sorting through to differentiate them, especially as there’s some naming similarities. You could be forgiven for conflating Joelanta and JoeFest, as they sound alike. They’re also both held in Georgia. But Joelanta spun off into Toylanta, so that’s now two separate shows, and Assembly Required is run by Codename: Iowa, which sounds like it might be another con, but is the organizing body. And then the pandemic hit, and in-person events were canceled, and Codename: Iowa ran an online substitute called SNAKE Armor. Lots of names and shows! And when they started up again in 2021, I wasn’t quite ready to head back out. Until now.

Assembly Required is in its 11th year. The show has several factors in its favor. One, all signage and branding, both in person and online, is gorgeous. That’s because, it turns out, that showrunner Brian Sauer is a graphic designer. Just look at this webpage.

And just look at that logotype, the bold and clean “Assembly Required” in white with red and black outlines, above. Isn’t that a show you wish to attend?

Two, I’ve seen a few people online say “Assembly Required is a good show.” Certainly it’s a small show, just one day (up until this year), and certainly something in Des Moines isn’t going to pull in the attendance of a Pasadena or a Providence, but if you know you’re attending a small show going in, you don’t look for the volume and thrills of a big show. And big shows can be stressful. My pal in New York could easily convince me to hop an Amtrak and wade through the Javitz Center with him for New York Comic Con fifteen years ago, but with the crowds, I’m less interested.

Three, Assembly Required has no admission charge. That sure makes for a friendly atmosphere. Some shows are expensive, and others have a reputation for finding a way to charge for everything. And certainly there are some add-ons at AR that cost money — the customizing class, the dinner, and some prints/stickers/toy accessories — but there is no ticket to get into to the showroom floor.

Four, Ron Wagner lives in Des Moines. I don’t know that he’s attended every Assembly Required, but let’s assume most, and there’s a little “hometown hero” feeling in having him as a guest at this show. More on Wagner below. That he attends makes this toy show that much more a comic book show. I’m a little puzzled when Joe conventions appear to be 80% toys, 10% collectibles, and 10% comics. I guess that’s what we get when the current monthly G.I. Joe comic book sells at one-fiftieth the amount of its 1980s peak. (And to be fair to the AR organizers, some of the imagery around the show, banners or signs or prints for sale, allude to the G.I. Joe animated series, so there is some parity.) Meeting Wagner (again) in person would be great.

Five, people I know would be attending. We had Jason Murrell on our Talking Joe podcast a few weeks ago. Co-host Mark asked if I would attend Assembly Required, and I was uncertain. Murrell explained what a great show it was, with a family feeling of hanging out with friends, without long queues, and that no-admission-charge bit. He’d be in Des Moines, and we all thought it would be funny to get a photo of Murrell and I to send to Mark, like “here’s two-thirds of that Talking Joe episode we just did.” (That photo does appear in this Report.)

Then Chris Murray of Joe Declassified asked to use an image from here at A Real American Book! in his and Patrick Stewart’s panel. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but Murray and Stewart would be at AR? And presenting at a panel? Well, that makes it more attractive! While I have been down the East Coast and across the states to the West Coast to visit family in the pandemic, after two-plus years of interacting with Joe fans only online, it was settled. I would go back to my first convention.

THURSDAY —– —– —–

Airports are wonderful. Airports are also weird. Sometimes you’re greeted with something unexpected. I didn’t fly this carrier, but I did pass this on my way out of Des Moines International Airport, click to enlarge photos:

There’s a lot going on here. Well, maybe just two things: Thanksgiving and Mickey Mouse. It’s not like this is the airport in Anaheim, Burbank, or Orlando. And it’s not promotional, like signing up for the Southwest credit card gets you a free month of Disney+. No, I think this is just a Southwest employee who likes decorating, and who likes Disney. I was also pleasantly surprised that this employee hadn’t jumped ahead to Christmas, like how my grocery store has Halloween candy out on August 28th.

Downtown Des Moines is a 15 minute drive from the Des Moines airport, so I guess you win, Des Moines, over every other city I live in and/or regularly visit. The Hilton is new, which is nice. My view wasn’t nice, but I’ll call it “interesting.”

About half the time when I travel I get a view of city buildings or manicured greenery, and the other half it’s this bleak, geometric no man’s land. While it’s not depressing per se, I do use it as an incentive to not linger in the room too long.

Wait, is that a framed print in my hotel bathroom?

Neat, I don’t think I’ve stayed in a hotel before with artwork in the bathroom. Let’s get lost in this for a moment.

In the elevator I saw a late 30- or early 40-something who was certainly here for reasons related to G.I. Joe. He mentioned some people were going to a video arcade later. This was music to my ears, but since dinner lasted awhile, Google told me the arcade closed for the night. Dinner was on the ground floor here:

I met Ron Wagner fleetingly briefly at NYCC around 2010 when Larry Hama let him and Bob Camp crash at his table in Artist’s Alley. Wagner probably wouldn’t remember that, but he does recall the G.I. Joe drawing I commissioned from him just before that. And he definitely doesn’t remember the nifty phone interview we did for my book in 2005. But I know a thing or two about his comics career these past few years after he was not-quite-slumming it on DC’s Scooby Apocalypse series, and wanted to chat in person. We arranged to meet for dinner. It was great.

Ron is a lively guy, honest in his appraisal of his comics work, and full of interesting stories about being Gray Morrow’s neighbor, or asking Bill Sienkiewicz for a critique after they collaborated on Marvel’s Blaze. Over the summer I found and re-read Wagner’s 1997 DC event miniseries Genesis, a tie-in to John Bryne’s then-running Fourth World saga. While I liked the art, I found all four issues to be boring, with a lot of super-heroes standing around talking. I asked Wagner what he remembered of drawing it, and he lamented that it was a lot of super-heroes standing around talking. And he explained that he’s never been all that interested in drawing super-heroes. (But sorry, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be drawing G.I. Joe comics anytime soon.) But that does makes me that much more interested to look up his Book of Fate collaboration with Keith Giffen, and those assorted Punisher issues I don’t own anymore. We also traded a few Larry Hama stories, and in the spirit of Hama’s social media presence, I took a photo of my dinner. I don’t have the greatest camera, so please trust me that this was delicious.

I asked about Wagner’s convention sketch expectations for Assembly Required. Noting that in the past he talks too much, draws too slowly, and charges too little, he had committed to draw less, faster, and for more money. I have some sympathy for that position, having both sat around and sketched at cons, and asked my friends who do cons about this. Sure, the money can be great, but this is your weekend, and it’s a bummer to go back to your Monday drawing routine with a big list of convention sketches to still finish and mail out. Oh, I forgot to ask if Wagner had any comment on the Morbius film, since he drew that book.

After dinner Wagner gave me a brief driving tour of downtown Des Moines, pointing out condos and office buildings that had gone up over the years – Wagner is from Des Moines, then lived in New Jersey while drawing for Marvel and DC, but moved back a decade or so ago. Near the restaurant were the Courthouse, with its neat grotesques:

And the new Des Moines Museum of Contemporary Art:

Wait, that’s not a museum, that’s the new jail. I guess I appreciate the modern take, that it doesn’t look like a jail.

Our tour culminated at Zombie Burger, where four of Wagner’s murals (of zombies, what else?) adorn the walls. (The place was closed for the night, so this photo dates from a day later.)

According to my phone, the arcade was closed for the night, which was just as well, because I was fatigued, and maybe retiring to my room after an early morning and a lot of airline travel was warranted. But I should know better, because you can’t cross a hotel lobby at a G.I. Joe convention without seeing people you know or a gaggle of it’s-probably-some-G.I. Joe-fans. And not even inside, because sitting outside, I spied Ron Rudat. We caught up a little regarding his landscapes, (Rudat’s interview for my book and my visit to his home to look for art go back some years), and I was reminded I had a follow-up question for him concerning my book. Inside, friends from the internet and Joe-con-goers I recognized were hanging out in the lobby, which doubled as the bar. Sam Damon and I caught up. Geez, I don’t think we’ve spoken since JoeCon ‘17. This was his first AR as well, and while he wouldn’t be manning the Joe Declassified booth much, he did start that group.

Somehow I managed to not get a photo of the two of us, so this will have to do.

But this isn’t going to a be a blog post with drawings, just photos.

I also chatted about Star Wars with Josh Eggebeen and Patrick Stewart and Hawk Sanders and a few other folks, and then called it a night. This photo is from later in the con, but can stand in — here’s Hawk Sanders in front of a winter wonderland scene!

But getting in the day before the show was the right call. There was extra time to socialize, and I wouldn’t be concerned about missing anything on Day 1. Back in the hotel room, I took some notes on the day’s so far, and felt a little silly about Renegade Game Studio’s new G.I. Joe Deck Building Game.

I got this three months ago, excited to play a game using my favorite characters, something old-fashioned (as opposed to a video game) and tactile (I like the feel of rolling dice). But it hadn’t worked out (and I have a half-written blog article here in my Draft folder all about it), so in the vague hope that a friend would attend Assembly Required, who’d happened to have also purchased the game, and also happened to have taught it to themselves, and maybe-just-maybe we’d play in the hotel lobby or in the hallway next to the con floor, I had brought my brand new boxed G.I. Joe Deck Building Game. It wasn’t mocking me, sitting there on the desk in my hotel room, but it did feel like that space in my suitcase might be more valuable for bringing home whatever I might buy at the show.

FRIDAY —– —– —–

The hotel buffet was about what you’d expect. But it was fast and it had what I always want for breakfast. Importantly, it was likely I would skip lunch, so a reliable and big starting meal was key. I imagined I’d suddenly be light-headed and famished at 4pm, and made a mental note of the snacks that the Hilton sold next to the front desk. I’ve gotten better about not skipping lunch at home. If I’m at my shop, there are cafés and takeout places next door. But convention-time runs differently. You lose track it.

I wanted to get the lay of the land, and explore downtown by foot a bit. The previous night Wagner had pointed out a cool sculpture garden and also the library (I like buildings filled with books), but it was raining hard with a 100% chance of precipitation, so I’d be staying in the hotel, the convention space, and anything that connected them.

On that topic, there were skyways that connected a few buildings. Wagner explained that the city constructed them after he grew up in Des Moines and left town but before he moved back. And while they kept all the office workers warm in the winter, not needing to step outside to get lunch during the workday, this also killed a lot of street-level business.

How the hotel connected to the exhibition space wasn’t readily apparent, and I had hours to kill, so I explored the convention hall. Technically, it’s more than one convention hall. Here it is about 60 years ago:

A few years ago, a $40-plus million dollar renovation reconfigured the original Veterans Memorial Auditorium, so there are now an upper and lower level, with another building or two added, so I was a little fuzzy on how the Iowa Events Center was divided, what with the Community Choice Convention Center, the old Veterans hall, the new HyVee Hall. Importantly was that last one, where the Joe show was:

A helpful and gorgeous sign pointed me the long, dry, interior way:

Assembly Required dealers were setting up in a few contiguous rooms in the lower hall, so what was happening in the upper one? From a giant hallway, through giant interior windows, I found my answer:

This mass of humanity and capitalism stunned me. So many products for hair, your pets, for your home, to eat; and so many different kinds of displays and signage and so many exhibitors and demonstrators. It was mostly an older crowd, and mostly women. And then I realized why I found this funny, that it looked so different from my own world of a toy convention or a comics convention, and if I’d rounded that corner and peered through that window to see thousands of toy- or comics-buyers looking around, I would’ve nodded my head and agreed. It’s only in every other category that such an event feels out of place. And if roles were reversed, and a Holiday Boutique shopper saw a Joe convention here, they would’ve thought the same.

It’s also a little bit of a joke, like “I’ll show these holiday shoppers shopping their holiday shopping when I go buy a bunch of G.I. Joe toys and my show is better than theirs anyway!!!!”

But to clarify, I was on the third level looking down into the second level, and below that at ground level was Joe central. Almost there, and I spied the entrance (and not pictured, the box office windows) to the main exhibit hall, with the Holiday Boutique:

If I had been in the market for sweaters or chocolate or cleaning supplies or a thing for your seat that massages your lumbar, or if admission had been $3 (it was $12), I would have gladly killed a few hours there. This reminded me of the juxtaposition I encounter at cons, like the bar mitzvah happening next to SPX that one year, or the Wu Tang Clan concert next to BotCon that other one year. If I saw a white male in his 30s or 40s or 50s, he was probably here for Assembly Required. If I saw a white female in her 50s or 60s or 70s, she was probably here for the holiday boutique. (There were also some young Marines in dress uniforms and their partners at our hotel for a wedding.)

On the second escalator down–

–across the street, I saw this little brick building.

Let’s zoom in.

This made me smile for two reasons. One, I love the idea that such professionals have a building. Two, there’s that favorite episode of Transformers.

(That’s a typo, by the way, the title is plural.)

While I hadn’t signed up for the customizing class, I did peek my head in. One of the challenges of an event like this is splitting my attention between living in the moment and seeing wonderful things and chatting with interesting people, but also reporting what I see. Was I paying less attention because I knew I could just take a photo? Alternately, was I missing taking an important photo because I was talking with someone? The eternal struggle. It would be a different weekend if I left my camera in my pocket, but I kept thinking “I should blog about this,” so here we are.

While I do like, and still have many G.I. Joe toys, the customizing class isn’t quite up my alley. But it’s cool that these happen at Joe conventions and I’m glad for attendees to get the opportunity to sharpen their skills.

The Customs class was running from 9am to 2pm.

My customizing days began and ended in 1992. If only to take photos, I felt like I was breaking a rule for entering without a pass.

I was greeted by the sound of an electric drill, and the table at the front of the room had extra lights on it. This isn’t just unscrewing the back of a G.I. Joe figure and swapping arms and legs, this is serious stuff:

Here’s AVAC’s Lab leading the event:

If you were in the customizing class and want to tell us about it, leave a comment below!

Heading out of HyVee Hall back to the hotel, I caught several wall displays detailing the history of the old Veteran’s Hall. One focused on concerts:

Oh, hey, it’s recreations of tickets, that’s neat:

And photos of performances that happened in this very venue! Hey, there’s Metallica in 1991:

Cool, I saw them a few years later in Providence (where HasCon took place many years later).

Oh, I see, it’s a timeline listing all the big concerts. Lots of names I recognize, like Elvis Presley, and some bands that have appeared more than once, like Def Leppard. Wait, what’s over there, to the right?

Closer…

Closer…

Closer…

Ha! It’s the Coming Out of Their Shells Tour! Des Moines did not miss out on this cultural musical event!

SKYWALK —– —– —–

These skyways are strange. I’m walking through downtown, past parking garages and hotels and commercial buildings, but I’m one flight up, in a carpeted tube with windows. It’s a little like having never left the airport.

How long did this go on? Some of the walls had art:

Others peered into parking garages:

While the ones that passed over streets and weren’t up against buildings were made of glass. We’re in one here, looking at another in the distance on the right, and there’s an apartment building on the left:

I mean, how many people walk through these rectangular tubes every day? Oh.

I mentioned this to a friend, who thought it sounded like Logan’s Run.

And it gets more strange. Here’s a building directory like you’d see in a lobby, right?

But we’re not in the lobby, we’re up in the skyway.

And it gets even weirder. Here you are looking at me looking at you looking at me in an air conditioned vestibule:

“Good day for skywalking,” said an old lady in sneakers as she passed a man, also in sneakers, headed in the opposite direction, holding a Powerade.

While I wasn’t losing my barrings, I was slightly losing grip on reality. (And this was after walking across the giant HyVee Hall and seeing the enormous Holiday Boutique.) A man looked sympathetically at me: “It’s a pretty extensive system. It goes on for like four miles,” as he circled his finger in the air. And he was right. All the orange lines are the skywalk system:

Scroll back up to the top of that photo. See the three buildings on the top left? That’s my hotel, the two halves of the convention center, and the new concert venue.

As amazing as this was, it was time to return to reality. I made my way back into the convention center, still avoiding the rain and taking the long way, down to the ground floor, past another great sign —

–because at 4pm, the main con rooms opened for those who’d paid the extra $15 for “Early Scouting Showfloor Access.” Note that logo, the spread-wings with a lock, the symbol that appeared on your lanyard-and-badge if you’d pre-paid for this. Neat design!

Fifteen dollars might sound like a lot, but remember, the whole of Saturday, the main, full day, had free admission.

And here on the registration/ticketing table were various attractive name tags for walk-ins, pick your fave:

I grabbed one, wrote my name in Sharpie, stuck it on my shirt, and turned to the doorway.

To be continued in Part 2 and concluded in Part 3!

1 Comment

Filed under Convention Reviews

One response to “Assembly Required 2022 – The Real American Book! Convention Report / Part 1 of 3

  1. talkingjoecomics

    Great write up. I’m soaking in the detail. Those walkways sound amazing. Like a world of the future idea from Epcot centre or some such.

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