I went to TFNation 2017. It was a Transformers fan convention at the Hilton Metropole, Birmingham, from 11-13 August, 2017. Here are my thoughts.
Although TFNation 2017 was officially a 3-day event (Friday to Sunday), I made sure to get there on the Thursday afternoon. Like last year’s event, there was a relaxed feeling to Thursday. Everyone had time to warm up to the convention itself and, for me, it was really nice to catch up with old friends who were anticipating the event as much as I was.
As soon as I stepped into the Hilton Metropole hotel I was hit with memories of TFNation 2016. It really hadn’t felt like an entire year between last year’s convention and this one. When I arrived at the bar I was literally welcomed open-armed by old friends and it felt wonderful.
As the evening drew on, more and more people arrived and the atmosphere in the bar was one of excitement and anticipation but also one of reconnecting and catching up. It was like carrying on where last year left off.
Now I don’t want to state that the highlight of the first evening was cake, but, yes, there was cake. And it was the highlight of the first evening.
The other nice thing about arriving on the Thursday was spending time with people who I knew would be unimaginably busy for the rest of the weekend. It was the calm before the storm, so to speak.
Because I was staying in a different hotel than the Hilton for the first night I had to peel myself away from everyone at around midnight. Listen, you gotta pace yourself!
Friday was a quiet start. I had a fantastic breakfast at the Crowne Plaza. I may have been surrounded by Quilters (off to the quilting convention later, I cleverly deduced), and very excited to get back to the Hilton for TFNation Day One but, hey, I wasn’t going to rush a good breakfast!
The bar area at the Hilton was already busy by the time I arrived. The atmosphere was electric with excited chatter and expectation! Again, there was much time spent catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Oh, and handing out Inky Bauds postcards!
Though the main hall for the convention didn’t open until Saturday, there were several panels. I managed to squeeze into Josh Perez’s and John-Paul Bove’s “Colour Commentary” panel. It was actually a fascinating panel and both Josh and JP were great on stage and provided a real insight into their processes and all the hard work they put into their comic book pages. Funny guys, too!
You have to remember that I have something of a comic book bent when it comes to Transformers.
I pretty much spent the rest of the Friday afternoon and evening in the bar area. In fact, I was so engrossed in conversation with various people, and squeezed in a quick marriage ceremony, that I forget to even eat! I know, right.
(I also missed out on the showing of “Transformers (2007)”. Utterly regretful.)
Now, listen. I’m not going to begin to try to name names or give shout outs. This is mainly because I am terrible with names (and even worse with usernames) and I would be mortified if I left anyone out.
(If you and I chatted at all at any point during the weekend, then already you know who you are!)
Needless to say, Friday night was spent with friends. Old friends, new friends, friends who I’ve known for years, and friends who I’m still getting to know. As much as I enjoy my interactions on social media, to have that chance to speak to someone in person really is something special and, however brief, to be cherished.
I had some really lovely conversations with some really lovely people.
This aspect of TFNation is really important to me. My hobby is really a physically solitary one and I don’t have many people local to me to discuss it with on a regular basis. So, aside from the odd meet-up here and there, the social side of TFNation is an amazing opportunity to forge and strengthen real bonds with the people you chat to online.
Utterly exhausted, I left the bar at around 1 a.m. and staggered into what I hoped was my own hotel room for the night.
Saturday morning rolled around and, boy, was I ready for breakfast! If there’s one thing the Hilton Metropole excels at, it’s breakfast. You want a waffle station? A pancake machine? A friendly young man who directs you to the packets of camomile tea? The Hilton has that and then some!
Breakfast was lovely. We were a group of 5 and it was just a wonderful (and surreal) experience to be starting the day chatting about Transformers over scrambled eggs. I almost didn’t want to leave. One more sausage before, what was I here for again? Oh, that Transformers convention or something.
Saturday is the big day for TFNation. It’s the main day. It’s the day everyone is there for whether they’re a weekender or a day-er. It’s the day we are all here for! And, my word, the queue to get into the main hall was throbbing. I’ve never seen the like! If you want to experience that queue for yourself, I Periscope’d it!
This is the point where, right before my eyes, the very heart of the convention itself and all the hard work and preparation of the whole TFNation team and volunteers was revealed! Every single member of the TFNation team has earned my utmost respect, gratitude, and admiration. They made sure everyone got into that hall quickly, smoothly, and safely. I cannot even begin to imagine the preparation needed for an event like this and the way the team handled the weekend itself and all of us attendees was nothing short of phenomenal.
The main hall on Saturday was amazing. It was busy but manageable, with plenty of space for the dealers, the guests, the stage, the seating area, and all of us. I heard talk of maybe 1,000 attendees this year. The shag on the main hall carpet took us all hard without complaining, that’s for sure.
The Opening Ceremony was a real goosebumps highlight for me last year, and this year was the same. I Periscope’d that, too, if you’d like to watch it.
I’m not as toy-oriented at Transformers conventions as I used to be. So after a cursory browse of the toy dealers I headed to the other side of the main hall to start queuing for some of the comic creator guests.
I naively thought I could queue to see James Roberts (writer of More than Meets the Eye/Lost Light) for about ten minutes before the Bob Budiansky panel started. I queued for about 45 minutes! That guy likes to take his time with his fans. But I am in no way complaining because, as I queued, I got chatting to some lovely people both in James’s queue and the adjacent ones for Nick Roche and Jack Lawrence.
From James I got a handful of More than Meets the Eye scripts and from Jack, his Lost Light character study bible and his original artwork to the at-that-point-unseen cover for Lost Light issue 10.
Sadly I missed the first part of Bob Budiansky’s panel but, based on what I did see, he was a legend on the stage! Bob came fully armed with an on-screen presentation of his typed and hand-written notes from when he literally invented Transformers. He was also keen to show us all the covers he both sketched out for other artists and pencilled himself. Bob was very personable on stage and fielded even the stupid questions with aplomb and great wit.
I’ll be honest. I had a real fear that he would have been struck dumb on stage, considering that his Transformers work for Hasbro and Marvel happened so long ago. But, happily, I was wrong. As a guest at a Transformers convention he was legendary.
After Bob’s panel I retired to the bar area for a brief recharge.
Just like last year, this part of the weekend is my absolute favourite. Here’s why: The initial craziness of the Saturday morning is over and everyone is floating back down from the intensity of spending their money and the bar area is a relaxed and friendly afterglow of people chatting about their new purchases.
I spent a good hour or so spending time with people I’d only really known through social media. I like doing that on a Saturday afternoon. It’s daylight. Everyone is (presumably) more sober and the bar is a lot quieter so there’s less shouting. Also, there are toys everywhere, and that’s always a good topic for discussion!
Second wind achieved, I breached the main hall once more! Things were a lot calmer compared to this morning and I saw my opportunity to finally introduce myself to Bob Budiansky. As you’re no doubt aware, I grew up on Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comics and Bob was responsible for (in addition other things) writing around about half of what I read in the first 200 or so issues.
When I was 9, Bob taught me many, many new words, inspired me to be a writer, and (along with Simon Furman) has been half-responsible for my continuing love for Transformers that carries on to this day. I mean, really, the guy has a great deal to answer for! So, yeah. What the hell to say to a person like that?
I simply said this: Thank you.
I’m really not much of a signature collector but I did ask Bob for his. I had a print of Transformers (US) issue 1 (which he was the editor of) to sign, along with a print of issue 80 for Simon to sign. I was thinking diptych. The man was a star. He made sure he was spelling my name correctly and deliberated whether gold or black ink would be best to contrast against the background of the print’s artwork. It’s attention to detail like this that we all owe 33-and-counting years’ of Transformers for!
I then worked my way down the length of tables: After Bob Budiansky, Simon Furman, then Geoff Senior, then Stephen Baskerville. I picked up a script of Transformers (US) issue 80 from Simon.
I had only planned to quickly say thank-you to Geoff for the two commissions he illustrated for me earlier this year. (One of which I turned into that postcard I was busy handing out.) While chatting, I was idly flicking through his portfolio folder only half paying attention to it. And then I saw his original painted artwork for the cover of Transformers issue 72.
And my jaw dropped and my heart leapt.
I’m not a violent person but had anyone else been in the periphery of my vision at that point I would have gently (but assertively) elbowed them away. I couldn’t go home without that artwork, that thought-lost gem of the golden age of Transformers that I personally andÂ reverently hold so dear.
I paid cash, of course; thumbing note after note out of my wad like an utter gangster. I asked Geoff to sign and dedicate the painting (for it is a painting) to me because, let’s be honest, I’m gonna die with that artwork.
I briefly chatted to Stephen Baskerville and finally thanked him in person for a commission he illustrated for me in 2009. I also got the cover he and Andrew Wildman did for Regeneration One issue 100.
All in all it was shaping up to be a Best Day Ever! for this particular Transformers comic book fan!
Now this is where I feel that the overall busyness and jam-packedness of TFNation is a blessing and a curse. I spent so long with the guests I did spend time with that I missed out on a few panels and speaking to other guests. But that’s my fault. I did try my best to stay organised, even to the point of putting the weekend’s schedule into my phone and watch so I wouldn’t miss anything. I’m sorry about all the great panels I missed, to everyone who put so much hard work into them (I heard great things about them!); I got caught up in it all!
The main hall closed at 5 p.m. or thereabouts and the little voice from under my diaphragm that I had ignored the previous day begged pathetically for food. This time I listened and we went for a hamburger.
“Club Con” is another TFNation highlight for me.
Like last year, the entire room was set out like a dinner theatre: a sea of round tables with chairs, lined up along the shore of the main stage. Each table was adorned with an Energon Cube that effused a flattering retro neon glow. The tables filled up quickly but there was additional seating around the back and side edges of the room. There was a bar in the corner and TFNation-branded drinks mats were supplied. It was like the main dining room of the SS Poseidon but, you know, the right way up.
The cosplay competition started in earnest and the parade of entrants marched across the stage to much applause from us all.
I Periscope’d the cosplay procession as best I could. You have to understand, holding a phone up like a periscope above everyone’s heads can get painful. Periscope. I just got that.
To me, the cosplay competition epitomises the creative spirit and diversity of my fellow TFNation attendees. People travel from all over the globe to be here and share in the fun with their peers. The cosplay competition feels to me like a distillation of our colourful and diverse Transformers community and, going by the crowd’s cheers and applause, we happily accept and celebrate all comers.
(I’m afraid I missed the proceeding quiz and live script reading.)
Eventually back in the bar area I found myself in full conversation mode just like Friday, but harder, faster, louder.
Imagine a party that you’ve been dragged along to where you don’t know anyone and the topics of conversation you find yourself in are boring you to the point where brain death is hoped for. Saturday night at TFNation is the complete opposite of that.
I was surrounded by friends, new and old (I keep saying that) and every conversation I was part of was compelling and interesting. Even peripheral conversations that I kept hearing snippets of above the ambient chatter were compelling and interesting.
To paraphrase a well known Furmanism, I had sown the seeds of friendship and was now reaping a whirlwind of delightful and sparkling conversation.
The bar became so flooded with awesome and interesting people I was ready to instigate a speed dating type system of strictly timed conversations so we could all get a turn with everyone we wanted to chat to! That’s the thing when you interact with a large number of people on social media… actual conversations are not a rolling timeline of quick replies and clicking “likes”.
Again, I can’t bear to name names but it was just so fantastic to catch up with the people I regularly chat to online, to put faces to names/usernames, and to generally be in the moment with my peers. And still there were many people I couldn’t get around to chatting with. (Hopefully next year!)
1 a.m. rolled around far too quickly again and, before I slipped into a state of semi-consciousness while cuddling up to the nearest fellow attendee, I headed up back up to my hotel room.
I slept in on Sunday morning and ended up breakfasting alone. Well, kind of. Bob Budiansky was at a nearby table and he, not that I was counting, kept revisiting the waffle station more times than was healthy for someone about to be on a panel in the main hall.
The main hall on Sunday was a far more relaxed and quieter affair compared to Saturday. How the dealers still had the energy to be still standing was beyond me.
I sat in on the Bob Budiansky and Simon Furman panel. It gave an incredible insight into the “change-over” between the two writers and both dispelled and confirmed many of my own thoughts and assumptions about what had gone on behind the scenes back in 1989! (Note to self: Get a Blue Plaque for the pub in Covent Garden where Bob unofficially passed the reins to Simon and organise a meet-up/pilgrimage.)
It was apparent that there was a lot of chemistry between Bob and Simon, like old friends catching up. I was glad to be there and to be party to it. It was at times like this where I felt that TFNation had been put on just for me, an old nostalgic fool.
After the panel I was struck by a sudden thought: The Forge! I hadn’t visited the Forge yet! Much like the cosplay aspect of TFNation, the Forge itself was a vibrant, diverse and incredibly creative community-within-a-community. By the time I got to the Forge I had already checked out of my room at the Hilton and my luggage was in a specially allocated storage room. All I had with me was an A3 envelope, already stuffed with the artwork I’d bought the previous day. Luckily there was still space for a few more artwork prints and postcards!
I actually spent the last of my cash reserves in the Forge. I had to resort to PayPal by the time I got to the last table. I’ve always loved being a part of the more creative side of the Transformers fandom. (I started my first fanzine in 1995, after all.) It was a joy to meet and briefly chat to all the talented artists in the Forge, many of whom had travelled from all over the world to showcase their work. And I was happy to support their work, too. These guys are going to be the future of Transformers comics!
I hadn’t planned on buying any toys at TFNation but I bumped into James Roberts at one table and he offhandedly mentioned that a dealer “back there” had a few of “the Nautica boxsets”. One swift PayPal transaction later, I had the Chaos on Velocitron gift set under my arm. I didn’t buy a single toy at last year’s TFNation but was very glad to find this particular set as I’d been trying to source it from the USA/Canada for much of this year. If James hadn’t mentioned he’d seen I’d have missed out again!
The Lost Light panel with James Roberts and Jack Lawrence was the final panel I sat in on. (I only caught the last bit of Mark Ryan’s panel on my return from the Forge.) I’ve been reading More than Meets the Eye/Lost Light since it started and it was a genuine treat to glean some behind-the-scenes information on it. I was amazed at how many of James’s longterm plans for his storylines had to be changed, tweaked and re-ordered at the whims of the publisher’s ever-evolding plans.
And then TFNation 2017 officially came to an end. The closing ceremony was emotional and as we filled the main hall with thunderous applause for one last time it dawned on me just how quickly the weekend had come and gone. The last moments of the convention were bittersweet to say the least.
I had forty minutes until my train home and, not wishing to repeat how rushed my good-byes were last year, I spent my last last half hour trying to bid fond farewell to as many of my friends as I could. I think I missed more people than I hit, but, you know, that’s the way it goes. A farewell hug says more than an online message ever can.
On the train home I was already on social media on my phone, desperately trying to keep the weekend going. I was exhausted and emotional and when the train attendant offered me a complimentary orange juice I tried to use all the strength I had left to hold back my tears. I failed of course, but I assured her and myself that they were good tears!
Transformers is so much more than collecting toys. It’s a community, to me. It’s a network of dearly cherished friendships (some new, some old; all treasured) and an event like TFNation is the hub. I am grateful it exists.
The team and volunteers do an amazing job of organising and running TFNation. The guests and attendees do an amazing job of elevating TFNation into something genuinely wondrous. I can only try to put into words how lucky I feel to have been part of TFNation this year, last year and, hopefully, for many years to come.
To everyone involved with TFNation I simply say this: Thank you.
May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross!