Assembly Required 2022 – The Real American Book! Convention Report / Part 2 of 3

In Part One, Tim flies to Des Moines, arrives the day before the convention starts, and just after 4pm, when the Early Showroom Access Begins, is about to enter the exhibition space for Assembly Required 2022. [Jump ahead to Part Three]


I went in and immediately bumped into Chris McLeod. Host of The Full Force podcast and livestream, and past co-host of the very podcast that I now co-host, McLeod is a convention buddy from even before that. And while we have talked online in the pandemic as he rejoined Talking Joe for a few guest spots, it’s funny and sad that this is the first time we’d seen each other in person in three or four years since we live an hour apart. Chris lamented “why is it we have to travel all the way to Iowa to see each other?” Here’s a photo of Chris McLeod from later that evening, click any photo to enlarge!

Still only two feet inside the con hall, Chris showed me a small sticker that Brian Sauer had made, and gave me one.

This requires a little explanation. McLeod has cosplayed as Lightfoot before, and on a recent episode of his show, he quoted some advertising announcer who had said “Stay Fresh Cheese Bag.” I’m not sure if there’s decidedly no comma there, like the ad is promoting a cheese bag that stays fresh, or if there is decidedly a comma there and this is an instance of direct address, that the cheese bag needs to stay fresh, but you can ask the two men involved all about it. McLeod was delighted that Sauer had taken it upon himself to turn this into a sticker — and a well designed one at that! — and was giving them out for free. That’s a con organizer I’d like to meet!

And since he was standing a few feet away, I did.

I suggested color alterations to McLeod so this could be a Night Force Lightfoot Stay Fresh Cheese Bag sticker next year. And the copy could change to “Stay Dark Cheese Bag,” or “Glow Bright Cheese Bag,” and be printed in that neon red we know from 1988.

Now a full five stops into the showroom, I said hello to Tristan Rudat, who I had bumped into in Providence this past June, and whom I know from the Boston nightlife scene. We talked about owning too much stuff like equipment and books, and decluttering and moving. Here’s Tristan Rudat!

The younger Rudat was helping the older one sell his wares, great prints of painted and drawn Joes and Cobras. I asked Ron Rudat a few follow-up questions from our interview-for-my-book from many years ago. Here’s Ron Rudat!

Then I showed both Tristan and Ron a chapter of my book.

One of the advantages of Assembly Required having such great design, is that all the t-shirts and merch look great. I don’t have any open six-inch G.I. Joe Classified figures, so I didn’t buy Breaker’s bubble gum, but the regular-scaled shirts were gorgeous and I was tempted by this Nth Man figure, still available from the 2021 AR show:

I hadn’t met Travis Webber, who does the logistics half of Assembly Required, but here he is manning the merch booth:

Perpendicular to the left was the Callsign: Longbow table. I didn’t get a photo of Troy McKie, but I did get his partner, John Kukovich:

This pair had a successful Kickstarter a few months back. Here’s a test shot of their wonderfully 1980s-G.I. Joe-esque figure.

Behind him was the new Doug Hart original artwork for the toy packaging. Gosh, you could be forgiven for thinking this is some lost 1988 Joe figure!

And a prototype of a villain, again, with a Doug Hart original behind him, but no rack focus this time:

I said hello to Ron Wagner, who had made his faster/less/more expensive notion a reality with a sign displaying his new con sketch prices. I joked that this photo was of “the artist in his natural habitat,” him drawing for real, since we’d been at a restaurant the night before. Ron corrected me, joking that this was actually “the artist in captivity.”

After a quick walk through the con rooms — a few images of that in the Saturday section below/later this week — I saw something wonderful. Two round tables with black tablecloths, each with five seats. On one, Renegade Game Studios’ G.I. Joe Role Playing Game, all set up for four players and a, erm, Dungeon Master. (Arena of Sport Master?) On the other, Renegade’s G.I. Joe Deck Building Game, all set up for four players. Standing there were two people, waiting, but they weren’t con attendees. (There was a third table I didn’t see, in fact, also set up for the DBG.) I was stunned. Let’s back up a few months. It’s February. We receive the G.I. Joe Deck Building Game at my shop. I’d committed to carrying it because I’m such a Joe fan, even though we don’t sell games. I’d brought one home and eagerly yet cautiously opened it up. I even wrote half a blog post here at A Real American Book! (I sure should finish that) of my first impressions. In a few words, I have not played the game. But I’ve certainly wanted to!

As I mentioned in Part 1, the night before leaving for Des Moines, I decided to bring my Deck Building Game on the trip, just in case! And here, sitting before me, was that very game, with two… coaches?, ready to teach me and officiate a game with additional players. Thrilling! So much so that the rest of the convention melted away a bit. I asked if these two folks were from Renegade. They, Joe and Mary Roth, explained that they were The Dealt Hand, and they had a branded truck (like a truck with the Dealt Hand logo on it) with a library of hundreds of tabletop games. They hosted games all over Iowa, and had been invited to teach people the RPG and DBG here at Assembly Required.

(It turns out that The Dealt Hand was listed in the Vendors section of the AR website, and while I had skimmed that days earlier, to an extent I wasn’t tracking who was who because I wasn’t in the market for toys, so I wasn’t planning ahead any shopping.) Excitedly, I stated how much I wanted to learn to play, and as proof described how I had my own Deck Building Game box back in the hotel room. This felt a bit selfish, like shouldn’t I wait for more attendees? At the same time, the Thursday preview wasn’t packed and I’d already waited 10 months. Mary and I sat down and she started explaining.

There were two stumbling blocks. One, I was hungry, the almost light-headed kind. This meant I knew I’d have a hard time absorbing information. That just meant I’d definitely be back the next day. And this was going to take an hour or three to actually learn, so returning the next day was already a lock. Two, I had never played a card game before, not even Magic: The Gathering in 11th grade. Mary (and Joe) were enthusiastic about having a guest at their tables, and she was happy to spell out the goals and modes of the game. I couldn’t believe my luck.

We worked through some of the two-player mode. At 7pm, the showroom was to close, and there were some calls from the front that we were to leave so the folks in charge could lock the room, but I kept playing. At 7:15, it was really time to leave. If we’d been allowed to stay, I would’ve kept playing and not quite printed the rules to memory.

I hadn’t pre-registered for the dinner because it was sold out. I had only decided to attend the show two or three weeks before, so this shouldn’t have been surprising. But it had been, as my familiarity was with the scale of a larger Joe (or Transformers) show, where the analogous Friday dinners seated 150 people in a large convention room. This was 50 people taking up the back room at a barbeque place. That dashed my hopes of sitting in a large con hallway just outside the con dinner and chatting with people as they went in and out, which I pulled off at JoeCon a few years back when I hadn’t bought a dinner ticket. Worse, I didn’t get the sense that any of the core of people that I knew were sitting out this dinner, so there wouldn’t be two or six people at some other restaurant. No, either I was going to crash this party, or I was eating alone.

Tristan Rudat had a good idea, to leave the con at 6:45 and just get a table for one at the official Friday dinner restaurant, and then I’d already be there when the 50 or so Joe fans arrived. Also helpful, Buzzard Bill’s was a three-minute walk, one block over. It all worked out, and I was able to both eat and socialize. What I thought were popovers or some kind of scaled-up, baseball-sized couscous grain, were in fact chicken wrapped in peppers wrapped in bacon. There was also alligator meat.

The veggie options weren’t out on display, so I parked myself at the bar, put in a special order, and chatted with Brian Kaufmann, who told me about past Assembly Requireds and his own toymaking, mix and match casts of ARAH and Star Wars and Adventure People. Here’s Brian Kaufmann!

I finally bumped into Jason Murrell, who hosts the Order of Battle podcast. We chatted with Ron Rudat, who doesn’t like scary movies. Here’s Jason Murrell!

As the dinner wrapped up, Brian Sauer and Travis Webber announced the exclusive merch that dinner attendees would get:

This was an art print, a six-pack of cola scaled for the six-inch Classified G.I. Joe figures (five tiny soda cans fused together and one loose), a coozie, and then a real knock-out: A bottle of YoJoe Cola, for which Sauer had designed a gorgeous custom label.

In his reveal, Sauer explained that “YoJoe Cola” wasn’t copyrighted (or trademarked?), implying that this was a real product and a real piece of merchandise and not a bootleg or legal-grey-zone-fan-thing. I appreciated the level of care that went into Sauer and Webber even checking. That’s some commitment when you’ve got guests and exhibitors to wrangle and table and chair quantities to coordinate with a convention center staff. People cheered and oohed. That’s a build-up of crowd noise that I’ve experienced before at other Joe and Transformers cons, when Hasbro or the con announcers start to roll out some surprise product that exceeds fan expectations, leading to a burst of vocal release, like when a ball player drives and scores. It’s not something you can plan for or categorize in the promotions for such a convention, or I’d expect when planning the trip, but it’s one of the best parts. And that this was 50 people in a back room at a restaurant momentarily going crazy over a bit of fantasy branding, and not, say, an instantly ebay-able toy, spoke to the friendly and family atmosphere of Assembly Required. (Maybe the tiny toy six-pack of soda would, but as of this writing, two weeks later, there’s still seven bucks at the Codename: Iowa webstore.) I immediately realized I’d have to drink or open and dump my bottle since I wouldn’t be allowed to take it through airport security, but maybe someone already driving back to New England could take mine with them. This wasn’t about eventually selling some mint, sealed beverage, but of having the proper contents and color in a displayed item at home. But I wondered if people might give me the stink eye for carrying around an unopened bottle, when the thing to do at an eating and drinking establishment was to eat and drink.

The back room thinned out and people headed to the hotel. There in the hotel lobby, I showed Chris Murray chapter 10 of my book. Here’s Chris Murray!

He’s read Chapters 1 through 10, most in laid-out form, not just prose, but this was a newer update. I mentioned there was someone in Texas who I needed to reconnect with, who I’d interviewed but with whom I needed to follow up. Chris pointed across the lobby to John Russell of Chicken Fried Toys, and said “he’s from Texas and has done the Dallas toy shows. He probably knows this person, or someone who does. Let me introduce you.”

And that’s why you attend a G.I. Joe convention, folks.

Russell and I chatted about this bit of networking, and he did know this other person, and people who knew this person. Then Russell told me about his Dime Novel Legends action figure line, which I was a tad familiar with from seeing the Kickstarter a few years back. We talked about a bit of the history of western toys. While I didn’t get a photo of John Russell, here’s some of John Russell’s Dime Novel Legends action figures at the Chicken Fried Toys table the next day at the con!

It was late, so I retired.

SATURDAY —– —– ——

Breakfast did not work out as planned. I thought I could stuff my face at the hotel buffet, balancing both oatmeal (carbs) and eggs (protein) for a long day in which I would likely forget to take a break for lunch, much less a snack. But the wait was 20 minutes to be seated, and the 9am Cartoons and Cereal, the first event of the full (and free!) day of the convention, was already in progress. I had decided to skip it, as I imagined a room of toy-buyers only half paying attention to Sunbow episodes poorly projected, and I have all the Sunbow episodes at home. But the tug of wanting to snap a photo of that gathering for this blog, and the curiosity to know which pals were taking part, got the better of me. Plus, the Cereal part would be a) free and b) funny and c) guaranteed — the hotel buffet had question marks, but I could just walk half a mile in the skyway and food would be mine. I grabbed my laptop and jogged over. (It was still raining, and worthwhile to stay dry, but fun fact: Stepping outside and entering HyVee by crossing the parking lot was about one-tenth of the distance.) Somewhere I half remembered the selection would be only sugar cereal. This was bad because I’d prefer grown-up cereals, but this was good because I’m never going to buy myself Lucky Charms, so this setting of friends and toys and all that was the ideal setting to indulge.

Despite the thin-looking crowd here, I’m pleased to report that there was a nice-sized crowd by about 30 minutes in.

I would prefer some overhead lights be dimmed so the projector’s throw isn’t so bleached (I adjusted some Levels in the above pic), and the volume was too low (maybe just the projector’s internal speaker?), but these are my only complaints about the whole weekend, so even calling them “complaints” feels off — did I mention there was free food and four different kinds of milk? (Chris McLeod later commented that Brian Sauer hadn’t this year made any custom Joe-themed cereal boxes for this part of the show. I guess that’s because he’s too busy making your Lightfoot stickers, Chris!)

You may recall this complaint from my review of IDW Publishing’s recent animated-inspired comic book miniseries, but we can all once again agree that G.I. Joe was a weekday, and not a Saturday morning show, right? I give Brian Sauer a pass on this because the food was free and it’s a cute idea to get everyone together early at the con for something fun.) Anyway, here’s a nice photo taken by Ben Conway with his (not my) phone:

Regarding the food, I learned around 2004 that Lucky Charms works best for me if I can cut it by half with something similarly oaty but non marshmellowed, like Cheerios. The best I could do here was half Lucky Charms and half Superman/Supergirl cereal, which was basically Captain Crunch in Krypton’s last son’s primary colors. I had two double bowls.

The “cartoons” portion involved the wonderful 1985 two-parter “Worlds Without End,” and I think the 2009 one-off Resolute. I chatted with Ben Conway’s son Cash, explaining why the G.I. Joe cartoon is historically worthwhile and curious about if he had wanted to attend this show or was dragged along. (The former.) At 10am the show floor opened. I rushed back to The Dealt Hand’s tables and asked if we could start again. Two other people, Aaron and Noah, and then a third, Bogus (not pictured), showed up and we made it a four-player game.

Fun details from the above photo: A second dealer selling comics, and a lot of them! And someone cosplaying as Chuckles.

I wanted to attend the 10:30am Ron Rudat/Dan Klingensmith panel, but as Klingensmith’s research and mine overlap, in broad strokes it was okay to skip. Certainly there were some new tidbits or dates to learn, so I’m sure it was a great panel for the audience. But I knew I’d need an hour or more to get into the Deck Building Game, so I made the call to stay where I was.

We didn’t finish, but we got to a good stopping point and my teammates (they aren’t opponents) wanted to step away, so after an hour and a half, I looked around the con room some more. As I hadn’t cemented the game rules, I figured I might be back.

Here’s Mikey Kukovich of Grindstone Toys. We hadn’t met, but I thought I should get a shot or two of people and their wares, and I did like these wares:

At a Joe con, I’m most interested in Joe toys, second-most interested in Transformers, and third-most interested in almost-Joe toys.

For the length of this paragraph I’ll set aside my personal belief against coloring books, that I came to when I was in school to be a teacher, and point out that this table — not for an exhibitor or dealer — was fun, and I did see kids at this show!

At 1pm it was time for the Joe Declassified panel.

I always learn something from this group, and appreciate the work they do not just in presenting a panel at every G.I. Joe convention, but in setting up a table and displaying different art and physical objects at each one, like a traveling museum. This panel was on the unproduced 1994 and 1995 A Real American Hero toys. Here’s Chris Murray and Patrick Stewart, two pals who have been and will be again important additional sets of eyes on my book:

After the panel, I realized I was starving. I turned around to leave, and saw that all the cereal and milk were still out from breakfast. At a bigger con with more staff or volunteers, this stuff would’ve been carted off after the 9am to 10am meal block ended. And for the briefest of moments I started to scowl, like “How terrible, that food is just sitting there!” But this in fact presented an opportunity. Rather than spend any time leaving the con to find food, I could just have two more bowls of sugar cereal!

One Charlie Sherpa, a soldier-poet-memoirist who I hadn’t met before, also thought this was a good idea, and joined me. I’m not even sure he had been at the breakfast. And for a moment, it felt like we were breaking the rules, like breakfast had ended and this was somehow off-limits. But breakfast had been free, and this would all likely get tossed anyway, so we were actually providing a service. We stood around and chuckled at this, in a now-empty panel room, and chatted about our respective jobs and connections to G.I. Joe. Sherpa explained he got into ARAH after 12-inch in (if I recall) the late ’70s, and (I also recall) this was his first Joe convention.

James Kavanaugh, Jr. walked in early for his panel. I helped out a tiny bit on one of his Rank & File guide campaigns, and as with everyone else here, I hadn’t seen him in three or four years, and I’d never actually shown him any of my book. So I showed both Kavanaugh and Sherpa chapter 10. Here’s James Kavanaugh, Jr.!

Kavanaugh’s panel was a repeat of something he’d done previously at a different Joe show. I think he was a last-minute fill-in for someone who had the Panel #3 slot but had to cancel. I stayed for a few minutes, but when it got into territory that I knew pretty well, or was beyond the timeline of my book, I stepped out. I hadn’t really explored the other vendors’ tables, having split my time with the DBG and the Declassified panel.

This is a good opportunity to point out some decorating that Sauer’s small crew had done in the hallway:

Certainly that first one’s going to get rolled up and used again. These other ones — and they were nice and big — were for sale, a limited run of one only at that size.

That green Post It note denotes that the Flash print had sold. Over the next few hours, all or almost all the others got similarly tagged.

Back in the exhibit room, there were more toys to look at. I was nominally shopping for Christmas for my nephew. Ideally I was going to find (I know this is awfully specific) a Transformer, specifically a Decepticon, that changed into a plane or a car, but not a Cybertronian form, that was under $50, and was a character my nephew doesn’t already have. (Sorry, WFC Road Rage, red repaint of Tracks, you are technically an Autobot; and sorry, Legacy Soundwave, you’re a great looking robot, but you change into a boring base.) I know that a small, regional Joe show is not the best place for this, and soon I’ll give in and order from an online retailer (my two local Targets are picked over), but if something presented itself in person, it would be more fun to not pay shipping and deal with one more cardboard box.

A vendor next to The Finest dressed as the Baroness and joined them for a photo op:

I’m fairly sure that Major Bludd up there appeared in Part One as Flash. It’s one thing to make a great costume and lug it to a show. It’s another thing entirely to make and lug two!

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Darren Garcia, but he was the first exhibitor I spoke with on Friday out in the hallway at the water fountain. Here are his pipecleaner Joes:

After chatting with Brian Kauffman the evening before and not quite connecting his online presence to his toymaking, I finally spent some time chatting with Kauffman in front of his toys, which are fun and weird. Here’s Brian Kauffman!

Besides whole figures, Kauffman also makes accessories, like this plug-in-like-a-backpack ’82 Scarlett hair extension.

If my wife is reading this, it was a toss-up and this is the toy I didn’t get you:

In the final hour of the con, I went back yet again to The Dealt Hand. Whereas my first attempt the day before was two-player, and this morning’s try was four-player, this time I wanted to learn Solo mode. (I think playing two-player by myself, where I’m player one and player two, is similar and slightly simpler.) Once again we ran out of time. And then the show didn’t quite end, but did falter a bit. Listed closing time was at 6pm. The third and final raffle prize giveaway and I think the announcement of the art contest winner was scheduled for 5pm. While still playing DBG cards and rolling dice at 5pm, I noticed attendees had thinned out and migrated to the halfway line of the two connecting con rooms. “People will be back in a few minutes when the winners are announced,” I thought. But a few exhibitors were starting to pack up, and the raffle took a little while to get through, and shoppers didn’t come back at 5:25 or 5:35, so the shopping portion of the show effectively ended at 5pm. I’m not slighting anyone with a table. It takes a lot of work to cart and walk everything to the parking lot and down the hall from the showroom, and then to break down your table. And if you’re hungry or tired, and the show has slowed down, then why not start early?

Here’s a front view of Brian Sauer and Travis Webber drawing raffle tickets, and a sloppy composite of three photos from the reverse angle, showing you half the con floor and all the people gathered around for free toys and such.

(Later, at dinner, Chris McLeod would tell me that part of why the raffle went on for so long was that a few drawn tickets weren’t claimed, and McLeod in fact won a prize. Noticing a kid standing next to him, he gave the kid the two action figures he’d just won. Then that kid won the next raffle prize. I hadn’t followed the rules, but there was one raffle for everyone who entered the show, and another for prizes donated by dealers, and you could buy as many raffle tickets for this as you wanted. Those proceeds helped pay for the show.)

At 6pm, the show really was over, with everyone now starting to break down their displays. I showed Ron Wagner and Dan Klingensmith chapter 10 of my book. I chatted with Patrick Stewart about his work schedule and a notion for him to read my book in a few months. Here’s Patrick Stewart!

Chris McLeod and I walked back to my hotel room (the short way) and he told me about his job in education back in Ye Olde England before he moved to the States. I inhaled three granola bars, and then a few medium-sized groups planned to converge at Zombie Burger. McLeod continued his story over the 13-minute walk to dinner, and finally I got to see Wagner’s murals up close. Here’s one more:

There are four, and while I got photos of all of it, I’ll leave some out so you have a surprise should you ever find yourself at Zombie Burger in Des Moines, Iowa. Here’s those four members of The Finest!

And here’s a bunch of people who got seated first because they had smartly made a reservation!

A few of us placed orders to sit at the sort-of-bar on the other side of the restaurant, not worrying about waiting for regular booth seating. McLeod explained what a fast thinker and doer Ben Conway was in concepting the Roboskull toy, which then had a successful Kickstarter campaign. I somehow ordered a double meat burger rather than a double veggie burger. (So the Joe fan standing closest to our table got a free double meat burger while I ordered again. This is what I get for running all day on only sugar — not knowing what buttons I’m pushing at the Toast Tab kiosk.) Ritz Murphy somehow got on the highway and drove some miles out of his way rather than walking five blocks, and joined dinner late. Chris Murray, living with a vegetarian back in Texas, enjoyed another meal that was mostly meat. Someone kept mentioning something called Killer Queen, and then the magic words, “video arcade.”

I think some people lingered at the restaurant because the three(?) waves of Joe fans had arrived at different times. Others probably went straight back to the hotel for bar/lobby socializing. (And still others had made other dinner choices — we were in a capital city, after all.) And about ten of us stepped out of Zombie Burger and turned left, away from the hotel…

[Assembly Required Report Part One] [Assembly Required Report Part Two] [Assembly Required Report Part Three]

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