One Glorious Day at London’s Summer of Sonic Fan Convention
You go in thinking: this is all a bit silly, isn't it? But, quickly, it's clear that this isn't something you can take the piss about.
All photographs by Alex Davis
Hundreds of people are singing together. It's a song from Sonic Adventure 2, the one that accompanies the titular Sonic the Hedgehog snowboarding down busy city streets with total disinterest in any motorist's safety. Lyrics are projected behind a performance from composer and guitar-shredder Jun Senoue, but nobody needs to reference them. I remember way more of the tune than I'd have thought.
Summer of Sonic is a nearly-yearly day-long convention celebrating a community who have popped up around Sega's blue mascot. People are dressed up as all your favourite characters: Sonic, Tails, Girl Sonic, Mr Eggs. I'm eager to understand why this is even happening. I've played a Sonic. I'm not sure what there is to Sonic to warrant the gathering. Rings, certainly. Chili dogs: check. He's... got... shoes?
In 2008 Summer of Sonic was a few friends from fansites who intended to meet up in a pub and were accidentally joined by a fire safety defying number of unannounced participants. The event grew to more suitable venues, peaking in 2011 with 1,200 attendees. This year's is the result of a successful Kickstarter backed by nearly 700 people. I didn't know any of this until I arrived; I expected a handful of Mega Drive lifers in a dreary hotel lobby comparing details on each of their Green Hill Zone scale replica tattoos.
Instead, Summer of Sonic is a brightly lit, spacious, all-ages day of variety fun and smiling faces. "Oh no," I think, instantly; "It's going to be hard to take the piss."
I ask people if they're having fun and most tell me this isn't their first time attending. They're here to get signatures from Sonic the Comic staff, designers from the old and new games, and the aforementioned musical performer (despite many being told they may not get a chance due to high demand). Sega have also brought along the 2017-due Sonic Mania for its UK debut and the line for it reaches C'mon I've Got Other Shit To Do Today levels of interest.
A few of the celebrity guests are brought out to the main stage. For fun, Sonic characters are placed on the faces of the assembled stars and each has to guess which is impeding their vision. Someone standing behind me shouts out who the characters are as they're being attached, rendering the exercise pointless. I get the impression he's done this out of reflex and excitement, rather than intentional malice. The guests play along, guessing anyway.
Two lads wander around dressed as Mario and Luigi. It's a good gag. They get a laugh any time someone new spots them. "Where is the Mario convention?" I'm forced to wonder. There should surely be a convention dedicated to all of the important mascot characters. Why only Sonic? I posit a theory: it's the Sonic games' disparity in quality that breeds this kind of community. I'd argue that because Mario games are consistently good, there's nothing to champion, to root for, to see as the underdog spurred on only by some support. There's no inter-species romance in Mario, or at least only implicitly. During a panel later in the day, one of the organisers jokes that people come to Summer of Sonic so that they can have people to argue with about which Sonic game is the worst. Another tells a story about a kid who showed up to his first event with no friends at all, but left it with ten new best ones.
Three lads are at a urinal, and independent of each other they've come dressed as Sonic, Tails and Knuckles. They're all standing next to each other doing a piss. It's beautiful. They're laughing and having a fantastic time. I'll forever regret being too kind to take picture.
At 5pm on what feels to me like a full workday a DJ occupies a booth on the side of the main stage and busts out club remixes of Sonic 2 tracks. I begin to earnestly appreciate the Sonic R theme on a completely new level, now that I know it's possible to fucking rave to it.
Before another performance by Jun Senoue, joined by Crush 40 bandmate Johnny Gioeli, a group of lads near me make jokes about Trigger Warnings and describe a fantasy person who identifies themselves as a "Demisexual Fox-Kin". I want them to fuck off out of this beautiful day I'm having. I'd later Google the phrase and see it's not even their own joke, which is all the more disappointing.
That moment is the sole sour note. Until that point I'd completely stopped seeing Sonic the Hedgehog as being owned by his corporate dads, instead seeing the avatar as very much an icon of and informed by its community. Sonic's official Twitter account now capitalises more on a tone set by weird content created by fans than it does anything related to a still ongoing Sonic cartoon series or any other available narrative products. I like to think that Sega themselves have realised that the image of Sonic that many people recognise is not the result of genre-defining games from 25 years ago, but the result of idiosyncratic DeviantArt content. (Please play the fantastic Sonic Dreams Collection for more dissection of this idea.)
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One of the organisers in a panel talks about how a parent attendee's life has been made easier because Summer of Sonic means their autistic child has something social that they're passionate about to look forward to for months and think about for ages after. I'm told another story about a young girl at the first meet who asked if she was going to meet Sonic in real life. She's since come along every year, now a teenager, this time cosplaying as a pink Boba Fett.
The part of me that wanted to take the piss has gone. Fast.
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