Despite a false fire alarm that forced an evacuation of the convention center, the 17th annual Otakon convention, held at the Baltimore Convention Center this past weekend, attracted more than 28,000 anime and manga fans along with about 1230 staff and dealer/exhibitors. Dealers reported that sales were strong and the show’s attendance was up from the 26,586 fans that attended last year. Otakon is one of the largest events held each year in the city of Baltimore.

On Saturday around 2:00 pm a fire alarm was pulled, causing over 20,000 fans to be evacuated while the fire marshal investigated. The Center was cleared in about 12 minutes and within a half hour dealers and artists were allowed back inside. Fans were re-admitted about one hour after the incident. Five panels were re-scheduled to accommodate for the lost time, and the Dealer’s Room stayed open an hour longer. Despite rumors of a possible grease fire in a food stand, Otakon Press Relations refused to comment on the cause of the fire alarm and the convention website asserted that the alarm was false.

Although show hours were extended an hour, many fans were unaware of the extra time and left to attend the popular Masquerade held nearby. “We were robbed of an hour,” said Josh Morris, events and conventions manager of anime producer and distributor Funimation. However, Morris was pleased with weekend sales overall, which he said “blew away last year’s figures.” Morris mentioned over $50,000 in sales. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, a re-telling of the popular 2003 anime series, was Morris’s best seller. The DVDs sold out by Saturday morning, as he expected.

Funimation’s booth was a cornerstone of the Dealer’s Room, with few other anime distributors attending (Media Blasters, Bandai Entertainment). It may be the case that only a few other anime distributors are left after the recession.

One of the re-scheduled panels was the Hetalia anime premiere and cast panel. Hetalia is a popular Japanese web comic collected and published in two manga volumes and adapted into web-only anime shorts. The series is a roughly World War II era comedy about countries personified as cute boys. The series has inspired many young American women to don soldier’s uniforms and carry national flags around anime conventions for the last two years. Funimation is currently running the subtitled-only anime series on their website, with dubbed DVDs to follow. Tokyopop is publishing the English –language edition of the manga.

The Hetalia dub cast panel was one of several Hetalia panels at the convention this year. The Funimation booth also featured a table where Hetlia fans could write post cards to the comic’s creator, Hidekaz Himaruya, to encourage him to come to America as a convention guest. Morris explained that Himaruya is surprised by the popularity of his comic, especially overseas. Hetalia is also on the cover of Otaku USA Magazine’s September/October magazine, which was available at the convention at the magazine booth.

Occurring just after the San Diego Comic-Con the previous weekend,Otakon’s timing may have kept many manga publishers away from the event. Morris and his crew had to make a quick turnaround from one event to the next and the travel continues: Funimation will attend Gen Con in Indianapolis next weekend.

This was the first Otakon for Vertical Inc., a New York based publisher focused on Japanese contemporary literature and manga. Vertical Inc. marketing director, Ed Chavez, also attended San Diego Comic Con the previous week showing copies of Chi’s Sweet Home, a color manga series about a kitten, that sold out several times in San Diego. Chavez had his intern make several FedEx runs to get more copies to the show. The first day of Otakon went just as well as a typical day in San Diego, Chavez said. His big hit at Otakon was Peepo Choo, by Felipe Smith, who was a guest at the convention. Smith, who’s first published work MBQ (Tokyopop) has been hailed by PW, moved to Japan to draw manga for Kodansha’s Morning 2.

Very few of the convention attendees purchasing Peepo Choo had read MBQ, but they were excited to meet Smith and hear his story. Smith signed books in the Dealer’s room until they sold out. Vertical had no new license announcements for the con, but went over their recent acquisition of Lychee Light Club by Usamaru Furuya, a one-volume horror series scheduled for a April 19, 2012 release ($19.95).

Netcomics, a publisher of Korean manhwa (or comics), was also attending Otakon for the first time. Soyoung Jung, director of Netcomics editoral/marketing said she was hit hard by the fire alarm. Jung described the 2:00-3:00 pm timeslot as a “golden hour” for the Dealer’s Room. Netcomics did not attend San Diego Comic Con this year, opting instead to go to Anime Expo in Los Angeles and Jung praised Otakon, which she said appeared to have more foot traffic. Although NetComics is based in L.A., she said the house may not return to AX citing the high cost of exhibiting.

Netcomics shared an adjoining table with Aurora’s Deux and Luv Luv imprints. Yaoi titles were best sellers for Netcomics at the con. Many fans bought two copies of the shrink wrapped U Don’t Know Me by popular Korean author Rankun and Totally Captivated also sold well.

Tokyopop did not have a space in the Dealer’s Room, but instead had a large bus parked outside as part of a nationwide bus tour to find “America’s Greatest Otaku.” The tour includes 25 cities and five conventions and they are giving out swag and videotaping local fans and cosplayers. Daryl Surat, an Anime reviewer for Otaku USA magazine, was taking a picture of the bus when he was surprised to be confronted by Stu Levy, Tokyopop CEO and Founder. “What are you doing? That’s my bus!” Levy said before turning the tables on Surat. Levy and a camera crew interviewed Surat for Tokyopop’s reality-TV style web video project. (Surat explained that he disagreed with Tokyopop’s definition of the word “otaku”.) After Otakon, the bus traveled to New York City for a visit to the Bayside Branch of the Queens Public Library on August 2ndand a visit to Alice's Tea Cup and Ninja New York on August 3.

Meanwhile, a new magazine quietly made its debut on the show floor. Super Kawaii, subtitled “Everything cute and cool in cosplay culture,” is a new twice-yearly cosplay-focused magazine ($14.99). PWCW spoke with publisher Jason Park, who said that the magazine is his wife’s business. Park is a convention vendor and a comic publisher at DMF Publishing. Park, who attends over 20 conventions each year, said he saw a hole in the market for an American cosplay magazine. He sold a few hundred copies of the first issue at Otakon, and a photo booth in the back of the Dealer’s Room took photos for an upcoming issue. Super Kawaii is currently distributed on and through Diamond to specialty shops and comic book stores. Park is working on setting up subscriptions and web content.

One growing trend in the Otakon Dealer’s Room is an increase in the number of fan artists switching from the Artist Alley to the Dealer’s Room. The Artist Alley tables sold out in less than one day this year, causing some artists to become dealers. PWCW spoke with Ramy Badie, a fan artist spending his second year in the Dealer’s Room (after two years in Artist Alley). Badie was selling poster prints of popular anime and video game characters. According to Otakon’s website, the convention allows 10 copies of any piece of fan art, buttons, or doujinshi (fan comics often about copyrighted characters) with the total pieces of fan art not to exceed 200 at any given Artist Alley booth.

Badie was happy with the Dealer’s Room, where he could display more of his artwork at a larger booth than in Artist Alley. “The hours are a little shorter, but the foot traffic is better.” Badie said. This year his best selling posters were all videogame characters. Perennial favorite Link from Legend of Zelda was his top seller this year, followed by characters from game franchises with 2010 releases, including Assassin’s Creed and Final Fantasy 13.