In Part 1, Tim arrives in Des Moines, has dinner with Ron Wagner, and explores the convention hall.
In Part 2, Tim enjoys the Friday portion of the convention, chats with friends, and starts learning the G.I. Joe Deck Building Game. A bunch of folks get dinner, and then on Saturday Tim does more chatting, game-learning, and he attends a panel.
SATURDAY CONT’D —– —– —–
We walked a few blocks and trickled into Up-Down Arcade Bar. I like that smart, elegant sign! To enter, we went down to the basement level that was an arcade with a bar, and then from within we could go back up to ground level to the second bar-with-a-few-more-games. Click any photo to enlarge:
This isn’t a good shot, and I didn’t want to spend the time compositing it with the alternate where I exposed for just the marquees and the screens. But in the tug of war of live-the-experience vs. photograph-as-you-go, I thought I should get something of the interior:
For the record, I like but don’t love Centipede, will play the 1988 Superman because of the novelty of the weird 2nd player, that red Superman who’s not really anyone, and find Marble Madness too difficult but will spend a quarter on it. And on the topic of single quarters, this arcade gained a lot of points in my book because games only required one token. This wasn’t a Dave and Buster’s with card readers, and it wasn’t filled with modern driving and shooting games or those weird enlarged phone games where each credit is a dollar.
At dinner, several pals kept referring to something called Killer Queen. It turns out it’s a 10-player game, made up of two side-by-side 5-player games. Someone described it like Joust, but bigger and a little more complicated. The graphics looked like and the gameplay was built like it was 1985 on purpose, and indeed, it was fun. Five of us were on one side (the yellow team), while one or two of us were on the other side (the blue team) along with three strangers already in the bar, and we pumped many, many 25-cent tokens into that machine. And I liked the spirit of the game, that at a social con where I was reconnecting with friends, we weren’t all necessarily playing one-player games by ourselves.
But after many rounds, I landed on Karate Champ, playing solo, and then Josh Eggebeen showed up as a friendly challenger. I’d recently seen Enter the Dragon, so it was fun to make that connection, one more 1980s movie/t-shirt/video game/consumer product that came about after the 1970s martial arts craze. Importantly, Up-Down had the 6-player X-Men game, and the 4-player G.I. Joe game. I’ve won both a few times, although not recently, so while I wanted to play them, that I didn’t was okay. But I will readily admit it was strange that I was at a G.I. Joe convention, I happened to be at an arcade, and I hadn’t been in front of Konami’s G.I. Joe cabinet game in seven years, and yet didn’t play it when given the opportunity. But it’s pretty perfect that this uncommon, not popular game was here, in Des Moines, near this convention, right?
I would’ve happily stuck around for another hour, but the group was mostly heading back to the hotel lobby. I handed my half-full cup of tokens to someone, and we left. Here’s a shot from a few hours earlier, just before dinner, my first dry exterior photo of the trip. It’s of HyVee Hall (as some dealers were loading up their cars) and you can see some of the Hilton on the left, and a sliver of skyway, the yellow horizontal connecting the two:
Back in the hotel, Joe fans were gathered in three of the four corners of the lobby/bar. Alone in that fourth corner, I thought I might sit and draw, although drawing tends not to come easily when I’m at a toy convention or a film festival. (Different then if I go to a museum, when drawing tends to flow.) Brian Sauer joined me and I showed him chapter 10 of my book. We talked about design theory, and it made even more sense to me that this guy wasn’t just on one hand a graphic designer and on the other a toy convention organizer, but that and how those fit together. That a designer deals with systems and hierarchies of information, and that getting people in and around a toy show with signage and sign-ups and tickets is much like designing a website or laying out a magazine. Plus Sauer has done some teaching and guest critiquing at the college level, which for the last 17 years has been my day job. And it turns out we’re on the same page about structure, rigor, feedback, and art making, so this was a pleasant chat, and I look forward to more. Sam Damon joined us, and while he sometimes travels to far away places to do interesting and dangerous things, he’s also been teaching military folk in the classroom recently, and he sounded similarly structured and rigorous. While I’m used to chatting with toy collectors about toys at a toy show, this was new and novel, to sit with two other teachers.
Josh Eggebeen, not sore from the karate whomping I handed him at the arcade, wanted to pick my brain about a project he was considering. (Congrats to Eggebeen and Roger Taft on another successful Kickstarter campaign for After Action Report vol 2 and a cool cover reveal for volume 3.) At around 1am, it was time to retire.
Checking my phone, the report was that back at home, my cat had gotten his nightly chair ride.
SUNDAY —– —– —–
The final day was pretty straightforward. Thirty or so people were heading back to Buzzard Billy’s, the restaurant from Friday, for breakfast.
But first, I want to muse on the hotel. Partly because it had enough conference space to, had pricing and availability worked out, host Assembly Required itself. And partly because hotels, like airports and convention centers and skyways, are wonderful and weird. Why, yes, that is far more than one or two water fountains on the second floor of the Downtown Hilton, near its conference rooms:
Why, yes, that is a circuit board pattern on the hotel’s second floor carpeting. Cool, but weird.
Does that have something to do with these weird room names?
I mean, this is the art that greeted me on the fourth floor as I exited the elevator and headed to my room:
And here’s the carpeting:
I would certainly rather this than something plan, like a single color, or something old or ugly, but we can all agree that the conversation where the Hilton construction manager talks with an interior design firm and asks for “The Matrix-falling type thing, but with yellow and off-white” as a carpeting choice is weird, right?
This reaction to the hotel decor was part of my ever-so-slight feeling of disorientation on Thursday, what with the skywalk and falling into an alternate dimension where I never leave those rectangular tubes, and the Holiday Boutique shoppers outnumbering the AR attendees.
Back in the real world, we were all still a little relieved that it wasn’t raining. On the walk over to breakfast, I chatted with Ben Conway. We’d only met for the first time this weekend, although we’ve been connected on Facebook for awhile, but I hadn’t properly cemented him in my mind. (Certainly we’ve been at other Joe cons at the same time.) It turns out he’s half of Skeletron Secret Labs, but since I tend not to buy new toys, I only knew of Conway as a general toy presence on Facebook. But Chris McLeod’s glowing anecdotes about concepting the Skeletron Roboskull with him had solidified this. Conway’s team is remaking that crazy British Action Force vehicle — think if a TIE Fighter were a metal skull — from the ’80s. And his day job, not at all G.I. Joe or toy related, had him traveling to New York and to Germany the week before the show. I appreciate that, that Conway runs a company and had just flown halfway around the world, but still grabbed his son and drove three hours to exhibit (the Roboskull, what else?) at this little Joe con.
The restaurant had a different feel since we weren’t in the dinner rush and desperately hungry, but we were in the breakfast rush, so things moved slowly even after we were seated. I wasn’t sure I could order and wait and eat and still make it to the airport in time, but Sauer assured me of the short drive time to Des Moines International Airport and how for purposes of security, it wouldn’t be crowded. Most of us sat around a long rectangular table. I chatted with David Allen about buying, reading, and collecting comics, and the monthly and weekly grind of Marvel/DC/etc at local shops. David’s collection is 40 times the size of mine, and he’s worked in a shop before, and he nodded when I stated what a big deal Bone was, so I could triangulate he knew something broader about comics.
I wolfed down my eggs and pancakes, took this out of focus photo aiming to my right–
–Ritz Murphy gave me a CD of his music, and I scampered back to the hotel and the airport. The same driver who’d brought me to the Hilton took me back, but rather than talking about Space Jam, as we had on Thursday, we chatted about an autobiography he might write. That he played professional “ball” came up late, but he pointed to my Air Force Ones (“That’s what I played in”), so I’m going to guess he’d been in the NBA. I put on my teacher hat and described a few different choices I had made in writing my book, and how he might approach his own history. On the flight back I read more of Don Bluth’s new autobiography, which is good, but not quite great.
That’s the end of the trip, chronologically, but I have three more general thoughts:
TOYS AND EXPECTATIONS —– —– —–
My favorite part of attending a Joe con is socializing. Several times on Thursday night and Friday, when I first connected or reconnected with someone, as if to wave away any concern that I might scamper off to some panel or meeting, I said “I’m primarily here to socialize.” It was true. I mostly wanted to see my friends and make new ones. Secondarily, I was lightly networking. Agents or publishers weren’t going to be tripping over themselves there, or there at all, so it’s not quite that kind of networking, but it’s helpful to show my book to other Joe-folk, and to recharge my own sense of purpose and urgency. It’s been a long pandemic. And lastly, I like to window shop. It’s fun to see toys I have, toys I had, other versions of toys I know, and toys I’ve never known. It feels a little weird to just take photos of things that dealers have out for sale, so I don’t do much of that. But custom toys are calling out to be photographed. Here’s some of the Joe Customs table:
KID-FRIENDLY —– —– —–
Third, an important aspect of G.I. Joe and Joe fandom is introducing the next generation to these stories and characters. It’s mostly Hasbro’s job to do that. This is a kids’ toy, after all. (But if the toys are expensive or aimed at adults, is it a kids’ toy?) And we frown when one of Hasbro’s partners doesn’t do a good job. For example, I know people who skip the current IDW G.I. Joe comics, and I’m guessing all of us were disappointed by last summer’s live-action Joe movie. On an individual level, we fans do our small part. While I do gift a Transformer to my nephew twice a year, I’ve also started him on the 1982 Marvel issues of G.I. Joe. And I see some dealers and attendees bring their kids. Assembly Required has a component that I found invisible, but that I’m deeply impressed by. Dealers were given “flag point” stickers:
I’ll let Chris Murray, who pointed all this out to me, explain:
“[This] is a great feature of the show that they have done since the beginning. It is an activity booklet given to kids… all G.I. Joe- based. There is a cross word and other activities. Another part required the kids to go up to 8 vendors of their choice and ask a G.I. Joe question. Then they get a flag point sticker to attach to the booklet. Typically the kids ask me what is my favorite G.I. Joe. So I tell them and then I ask them what is their favorite. I try to engage the kids. Anyway, once all the activities have been completed in the booklet [and they turn it in], the kids get a prize box. It always has a few G.I. Joe comics, a new mint-in-card figure, stickers, and a few other items.”
Murray is right, what a delightful feature! This is interactive, and it involves covering the full space of the con room. It’s not, for example, just a raffle. And there’s extra value in it, because that prize box belongs to the kid, and is earned independently of the parent-or-grown-up’s own collection. (I mean, I’m not giving my nephew my issues of G.I. Joe, I’m giving him spares!) Brian Sauer and Travis Webber are doing their part, besides running a whole, free, G.I. Joe convention, to get a little bit of the next generation of kids into Joe.
WRAP-UP —– —– —–
At a convention like this, beyond socializing and book networking, I’m looking out for that one surprise toy or piece of art that makes some difference in my collection. These appear less and less, partly because I’ve found a few grails along the way, and in book-writing I’m more interested in acquiring information than objects. And also, again, I haven’t been to a Joe con in four years, so ideas over toys or comics or art might be key here. And it turns out that The Dealt Hand was the surprise I didn’t know I was looking for. I loved all the catching up with friends, but there’s a hole in my Joe fandom. I don’t much collect the new toys (they’re great! no space!) and I’m retired from collecting old ones (my modest collection is just fine, thanks), and Assembly Required wasn’t likely to have a crazy art find. Somehow, I want to play G.I. Joe. But I’m not a gamer. I don’t own a gaming system, and while my wife and I enjoy looking at tabletop games at stores, and lots of Kickstarters cross my path, nothing that has broken through my time limitations has surfaced. But I’m already predisposed to G.I. Joe, and along comes this game that even has a one-player mode! I’m so glad The Dealt Hand was in attendance at Assembly Required. And I’m so glad that The Dealt Hand was so friendly and willing to teach both the Deck Building Game and the RPG. Thanks to Brian Sauer and Travis Webber for having them. I don’t know what my November 2023 looks like, but assuming no scheduling challenges, I would like to attend Assembly Required again, and I recommend it should an excursion to Iowa be possible for you. Let me know in the comments if you’ve been in the past, or were there this year.