Six years ago, Jared Presler met Matt Weston in the yaoi aisle at a manga shop off Highway 40 and Noland Road. That store no longer exists, but the two 20-somethings have been partners ever since — romantic partners and, as of last weekend, business partners. From Friday through Sunday, Presler and Weston chaired the first annual Ahn!Con, a gathering of yaoi enthusiasts held at the Ramada Inn Convention Center at Interstate 435 and Front Street. I attended. Everybody was really nice. It was super fucking weird.
If somebody asked me last Friday morning to define manga, I might have muttered something vague about Japanese entertainment. If asked to define yaoi (generally pronounced yowee in this country), I couldn't have supplied much more than a dull squint. But having logged roughly 12 hours at Ahn!Con over the weekend, I've returned armed with a few facts. Here goes:
Manga refers to Japanese graphic novels. Anime refers to Japanese animated productions. Yaoi is erotic manga or anime stories about teenage boys; it translates roughly as "boy love." "Ahn!" — are you ready to get nasty? We are about to get nasty — is the sound a uke (a "receiver," or submissive sexual partner) makes when he is penetrated by a seme (an "attacker," or dominant sexual partner) in yaoi manga. Oh, we are just getting started.
Because the characters are gay males, one might assume that the target audience for yaoi would be gay males. One would be wrong. Yaoi is made largely by straight women, for straight women (and sometimes lesbians). "Women like to look at pretty boys," Weston told me. "And lesbian women like pretty boys who look like girls."
E.K. Weaver, a yaoi artist and author from Austin, Texas, was one of Ahn!Con's guests of honor. She explained yaoi to me this way: "The most common rationalization is that it's really no different than straight guys being into lesbian porn."
Weaver, who is married — she looked to be in her late 30s and wore jeans, a nice blouse and smart glasses — was, like me, not a perfect fit at Ahn!Con. Many yaoi productions have about as much plot as, say, Cum Craving Teens 3. Weaver's book, The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, is more about friendship than fornication.
"A lot of yaoi is just boy meets boy, they have sex, end of story," Weaver said. "I try and put real humanity and humor in my stories. There's sex in them, but it's only about 2 percent of it. The sex has to fit with the story."
But from what I observed, sex was the main draw of Ahn!Con. (It was a 17-and-older event, and most guests were in their late teens and 20s.) Nearly every panel discussion (sample titles: "Fetish Fuel," "The Art of Good Smut." "Bondage Checkers") dripped with sexual innuendoes, and most conventioneers were dressed in either a suggestive outfit or some kind of fantasy costume: RenFest garb, comic-book characters, furries. One of the first things I saw upon entering was a plump woman in her early 20s wearing pigtails, a tiny yellow skirt and a midriff-exposing cheerleader top. A man in a trench coat was leading her around the lobby on a leash. They were both smiling. The leash was set at a comfortable slack.
There were a few smaller conference rooms, staffed by bored-looking girls with laptops in front of them, where yaoi anime episodes ran around the clock. I took in a few. One was called The Basketball Which Kuroko Plays. After about 15 minutes of tone-deaf dialogue and basketball sequences, I started getting antsy: When are these pert teenage boys going to start fucking each other? The sex never came. Later, I learned that due to Japan's increasingly strict censorship laws, down-and-dirty yaoi porn has become harder to find. "Most sex scenes never show that much," Weston said.
Then again, I also attended a panel called "Futanari, Shemale, and Traps! Oh My," which was nothing but some dude showing off his online collection of manga drawings of hermaphroditic Asian women. They all had massive, throbbing cocks. Here, I learned that a trap is when manga artists draw a feminine-looking character who turns out to have a penis, which is sometimes not obvious at first glance. Gotcha! "Geez, even if you shoot so much inside, it's not like I'll get pregnant," went a particularly memorable quote bubble.
"Hand check!" the moderator barked. Everybody raised their hands. I squinted.
"You, in the back, you didn't raise your hands," the moderator said, and threw a lollipop at me. I tried to catch it, but it was too high. Everybody laughed and looked back at me. Then I realized — duh — that the hand check was a joke about verifying that nobody in the room was masturbating.
There is, mercifully, also a bar attached to the Ramada Inn. It is called Andrew's Alley, and as the night wore on, I opened a tab in there and sneaked in for beers every 45 minutes or so. At the bar, I met Mark, a middle-aged veteran who works at a Game Stop in Overland Park. He used to run the anime club at Johnson County Community College and is now getting a degree at DeVry. He helpfully explained and contextualized many of the confusing sights I had witnessed during my time at Ahn!Con. He said he was straight — I believe him, though it's not easy to build a case for your own heterosexuality when you've shelled out $35 to attend a convention celebrating cartoon teenagers engaging in male-on-male sex.
"I just try to support anything anime-related," Mark told me. "The more anime out there, the better."
A young woman with neon-blue hair and black-and-white checkered paint across her mouth sidled up and ordered a water.
"You're not here for the convention, are you?" she asked.
I flashed the badge dangling around my neck. "Am so."
"Huh," she said. "You look like a total normie."
"You do," Mark agreed. He had changed out of his Vocaloid costume and into his Saturday-night outfit: black button-up shirt, slicked hair, lots of shiny rings on his fingers. "You look like an ordinary man doing business, chasing the American dream."
"I suppose there's some truth to that," I said.