Written by: Ashley Alleluya
Photography by: Salman Moghaddam & Mohammad Bastaki
Amidst the rising temperatures and desert dust, it was sea of pop-culture that engulfed Kuwait in the final days of April 2017. ComFest 2017, a three-day convention powered by the Upshot Company under the careful guidance of Hussain Abbas and Paulo Angelo Alagao (lovingly called Chun-Li), celebrating the very best of art, gaming, movies and music took over Mishref Fairgrounds, and the pop-culture community itself here in Kuwait. Under the Patronage of HRH Sh. Duaij Al Sabah, ComFest rose to the occasion, bringing local, regional and international enthusiasts together. Sh. Duaj shared, “I am absolutely delighted to see Kuwait’s youth so passionate about this event. Its so refreshing to see everyone come together like this and its wonderful to have this in the Middle East and Kuwait. It was amazing to see people of all ages enjoying themselves with what they are passionate about.”
Albeit small, it is a loyal, vocal and passionate community in the country that thrives on everything geeky – music, art, books, gaming and movies. Free time is often spent debating the credibility of the houses in Harry Potter with friends, the themes of empowerment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer with colleagues, the house that will rule Westeros, the plausibility of the worlds of Altair, Ezio, and Lara Croft, and the eventual arrival of the next Final Fantasy edition. To say Kuwait needed an event such as this one is an understatement. And with the incredible efforts put in by Mr. Hussain Abbas, Baraa Abdullah(Comfest’s incredibly energetic Host) and Chun-Li along with the volunteers who worked tirelessly before and during ComFest, this long-awaited experience finally came to fruition.
Days, weeks even months before ComFest, Hussain, Chun-Li and Baraa, with help form Bruno, Monir, Salma,Moe, Crimson, Salt, Stan, Katen, Hussain Jawhari and Ahmad Jaafar worked round the clock to ensure every little detail was in place – from location, to the organization and setting up of the gaming, artist, stage and food areas. Media coverage came from the intensely talented Urban Q8 Films and the team management of iCosplay lent their own blend of expertise and support to an event that would be nothing without their input.
Walking into ComFest 2017, the sweat and tears poured into ComFest 2017 was instantly evident. For those thinking it would be a few gaming enthusiasts, a lot of Game of Thrones fans, probably some Star Wars people thrown in for good measure, just lounging around out of curiosity, they were definitely in for an awakening! From the entrance, people could be found as cosplayed up as they could get, waiting to get in and begin having a good time. Harley Quinn, a Stormtrooper, Zelda, the Joker, Link and Tails could be found lined up at the entrance and waiting to get in. Once the cosplayer and the simply dressed enthusiasts began mingling however, the excitement in the air became almost palpable.
Kingdome Magazine had its urban arts and culture lounge set up at the center of all the activity. Powered by the Monstarium brand, the magazine’s lounge offered a place to sit back and get to know the magazine while indulging in Monstarium merch! Flanked on all sides by the food area, the main stage, the artist village and a novel experience called Let Me In, Kingdome Magazine became a cosplay stop over the next three days. In all honesty, it would’ve been enough just sitting there watching people pass by dressed as their favorite characters, but there was an event to cover and an experience to be lived.
The Gaming village was well represented by Extrava Gaming hosting a series of gaming contests that the gamers present took complete advantage of. Other gaming events throughout the day included a PC Overwatch battle, along with gaming contests for those who play FIFA 17, Mortal Kombat and Gang Beasts. Extrava Gaming backbone, AbdulAziz Al Obaid, made sure his establishment’s achievements at Comfest was played out well and represented in full capacity. Al Obaid and his passionate team were the forces behind the live gaming lounges and competitions. Interactive and full of bustle, the crowd gathered at these gaming points to battle out their skills playing their favorite games. This really tied everything that was happening at Comfest together. “We are steadily developing and harnessing the gaming community to bring more activities to gaming lovers. Extrava Gaming and Comfest will unoudtedly work together again for upcoming events of this nature. Bigger and better.”
Kw.esports was another gaming entity that elevated the gaming experience at ComFest. And hearing Hussain from Kw.esports speak about their work was evidence of the commitment and passion the upcoming company has for the gaming family in Kuwait. “We are so happy to be here at ComFest”, he enthuses. “ Kw.esports has been working hard to put the spotlight on the gaming community here in Kuwait and when ComFest offered us a spot at the event, and we jumped at the opportunity.”
A walk around their gaming arena felt like stepping into a corner that echoes the spirit of ComFest, yet is its own separate world. “We were lucky to get a large space and we wanted to use it as well as possible – design it like a proper gaming arena.” And it does look like a zone of its own – a gaming kingdom enclosed within a tent, little blocks of computers forming mini gaming villages within the enclosure, with the gamers hard at play. “We had people competing for about 10,000 dollars’ worth of cash prizes, but apart from that, gamers have been coming and competing more for the experience than anything else”, he recounts proudly. And Kw.esports should be proud – it is no small feat, getting the gaming community together and
bringing their talent into focus. “For something that began mainly from a passion and understanding for the gaming community, we’re speechless at the turnout here at ComFest”, he continues. “Many people don’t know that we have a very strong gaming foundation here in Kuwait. And our focus lies more on PC gaming, which we believe in many ways is more hardcore than console gaming. We have so many players from Kuwait who have reached international gaming tournaments, but haven’t been given their due within the country yet. We want to give these guys a place to shine and bring own their talents.” When asked about the impact that ComFest has had in its maiden venture, Hussain is nothing but supportive. “ComFest has honestly ushered in a new era of events in Kuwait the way I see it”, he opines. “We had several expos and conventions around the country before but none of these truly celebrated art, movies, comics and gaming the way ComFest has done, and this is a sentiment shared around the world. They have brought something that is truly magical here to Kuwait and have raised the bar for all other events that will come up in the future”.
The local cosplayers found their kindred spirits in three professional cosplayers who graced ComFest 2017 in all their cosplay glory. Yeliz Akyildiz from Australia, Leon Chiro from Italy and Rian Cyd from Indonesia took the local dressing game to new levels of perfection with a different getup each day. But more than their costumes, it was the generosity and warmth that they showed the local crowd at ComFest that was heartening to watch. Taking turns to pose for pictures, exchange dressing ideas and speak about their experiences as cosplayers, all three were at their charming best.
Day 1 also included a Q and A session with two people integral to the world of pop-culture. Patricia Summersett, one of the voices of Zelda from the Legend of Zelda series and Reuben Langdon who voiced Dante in the Devil May Cry game were graceful, funny and eloquent as they took questions from the crowd present. From what Reuben Langdon told me, one of his best moments from the night came from encountering another Dante in the restroom and sharing an almost surreal experience with him. Another almost surreal experience. A quick chat with Patricia Summersett, who left us feeling inspired and enchanted by the power that is Zelda. “Voicing Zelda has been an amazing experience since it gave me the opportunity to be part of something that is much bigger than me and is an inspiration to so many young girls”, she shared. “To have the privilege to voice somebody with such strong attributes as courage and endurance is something that has definitely carried into myself personally. The frog scene when she’s starting out, as well charting her growth in the game, and especially the point when she accesses her power through her journals and her mother was an emotional moment for me”.
The evening rounded up with an On the Spot dancing contest and people of all ages and degrees of dance expertise took to the main stage, showing each other their best moves. It would be remiss of me not to mention the Artists village nestled in its own corner of ComFest, churning out amazing work tied in to the world of gaming, comics and film. From original manga and a graphic novel called Shinigami Sensei that captured my imagination completely, to T-shirts, prints, digital painting, canvases and accessories from the world of gaming, the artists brought their A-game to the event, and this corner was never without its share of visitors.
In the center of all this madness rested the artist Mousashi with his superbly realistic rendition of the Iron Throne. “I made this from an old chair my mother wanted to discard”, he revealed. Those who wanted a picture made a minimal fee of 1 KD to sit on the Iron Throne and feel like a badass ruler for a minute or two.
“It took me about a month to conceive and work on the chair and I intend on using the money I make from this as donations towards cancer foundations here in Kuwait”. Who would’ve thought that the Iron Throne would result in such noble deeds! A perch on the Iron Throne and a picture (or five) later, it was curtains on Day 1 with some rest needed for another round of activity.
A night of sleeping did little to diminish the excitement of the ComFest and on Day 2, we found ourselves at Mishref Fairgrounds once again ready to be swept away by the many pop-culture fandoms. As we walked around the venue, two things became certain – first, that the second day had a bigger turnout than the first, and two, today was the day that the dedicated Game of Thrones community in Kuwait showed itself.
Though hearts in Kuwait beat strongly for Westeros, Day 2 also witnessed another important celebrity moment in the form of Paolo Pantolena. A freelance illustrator who has worked with both DC and Marvel comics, Paolo caught everyone’s attention with his work that was sharp, crisp and bursting with color and strongly defined pencil strokes – and also with his Batman T-shirt clearly one of his favorites from his wardrobe. “It’s not just comic books, but also video games that I provide artwork for”, he elaborated. “What I love about the work is that I am free to add my own thoughts, my own perception, almost my own story into the characters. I use my imagination and put a lot of my personal self into the characters I end up sketching”. That feels almost like a superpower in itself to me, this ability to shape and create your own character – “it’s like you play director yourself”, he laughs. And Paolo is very supportive of this superpower. “Art is special and personal and usually as we grow up, we tend to lose this connection, which comes from the ability to dream, imagine and lose yourself in your own world. It’s important not to lose touch with this side of yourself, with this innocence and become trapped in everyday life as an adult”. He couldn’t have picked better words to describe the emotion around ComFest 2017 that weekend – everywhere I looked, the beautiful escapism of imagination and innocence was celebrated in all its glory.
One of the professional cosplayers, Rian, was the perfect embodiment of this escapist fantasy. Dressed that day as Cain Knightlord from Trinity Blood, Rian was every cosplayer’s dream come true – immaculately turned out, channeling Cain down to his very fingertips. “It took me one whole year to work on this costume, from makeup to styling and execution”, he said. “And I love dressing up as Cain, since he is a cool Dracula-like character who detests the sun – much like me”, he laughs. And despite his aversion to heat, he makes a happy picture in the heated surroundings here in Kuwait. “I love how excited people are, this event is bigger than I thought, and I cannot wait for the Cosplay contest later tonight”, he confides. “I’ve been to conventions all around the world, from my home country to Malaysia, to Spain and now here”, he says. “Each time, the experience is amazing, and the people always surprise me with their enthusiasm”.
This feeling of love for the cosplay community was shared by Yeliz, dressed the first day as Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, and the next day as Catwoman. “It is so overwhelming to be surrounding by all these beautiful, friendly people, and it makes me so emotional to be faced with this much passion”, she gushed. As someone whose work includes being an unlockable character in the crypt in the Mortal Kombat X game, Yeliz definitely has an idea of the work that is involved in taking on a character completely. “This is my first convention internationally”, she confides, “but it’s been a mind-blowing experience to see so many people turn up. And this is why I look forward to judging the cosplay later, because it is a lot of hard work putting together the look, the styling and the actual dressing up in terms of makeup. The local community here has risen to the challenge so beautifully, it is amazing to witness”.
The earlier half of Day 2 was solely dominated by the Q and A session with the very popular Jaqen H’ghar played by Tom Wlaschiha from the show. The main stage area turned into a collective chaos of excited fans, each happy to be within breathing distance of a character from a show that is less a show and more a phenomenon. Moderated by everybody’s favorite Game of Thrones Snapchatter Ahmed AlAjeel, this session turned into an amusing, insightful hour with us discovering many interesting facts surrounding the show, Jaqen and Tom himself.
For one, Tom’s personal theory (no spoilers here) is that nobody will sit on the Iron Throne and if someone must, why shouldn’t it be Jaqen? (Although yours truly has many questions about a character with such shifting physicality taking on this mantle). We were also teased with what could have been as Tom revealed Margaery Tyrell as his choice of companion should Jaqen have had a romantic plot on the show (this I would have loved to see happen).
Regardless of the stoic nature of the Faceless Man on the show and in the books, Tom’s loyalties seemed pretty firm as he named Arya Stark as his prime choice for several positions of power on the show, while also showing a special fondness for Cersei Lannister (can’t blame him here, she makes the show in so many ways for this writer). Other crumbs of trivia that Tom threw our way? That he is personally very good friends with the actor who plays Ramsay Bolton, that he is unaware of how the series ends so there was no point trying to badger him, that he’s only met George R R Martin once, and that of all the foods he tried in Kuwait so far Tabbouleh was his absolute favorite.
But my favorite moment of the Q and A session came towards the end, when Tom began throwing souvenirs out to the crowd. There I was, all 5 foot 3 inches of me seated amidst jumping fanboys, with my notebook, jotting down notes and letting the others fight over his gifts. And suddenly, soaring through the air, his first souvenir lands exactly where I was seated, sailing neatly through all the outstretched hands and jumping bodies. As I looked up with a surprised yet victorious grin and waved my gift to all the incredulous and openly envious faces of the boys around me, I knew this for me would be the highlight of the event.
We stepped out for a short break to get some air and get the hysteria of the Q and A session out of our heads, while back inside the main stage was prepped for the Cosplay contest. And it brings us great pride to report that, days later, that celebrity sightings, giveaways, photo signing and tons of food aside, it was this Cosplay competition – judged by Yeliz, Leon and Rian – which brought out talent and enthusiasts from Kuwait and the region that truly emerged as the heart of ComFest 2017.
No area from the world of pop-culture was left unexplored as contestants battled it out on stage in getups ranging from Snow White and Elsa engaged in an Epic Rap Battle, to Hanzo and Genji being their aggressive best. Overwatch was well represented with a number of acts emerging from the game, while Resident Evil, and the always popular Legend of Zelda made an appearance. Everybody’s favorite feisty princess Merida also made an appearance, but the show stealer, in my opinion was a thoroughly hilarious and accurate representation of Ursula from the Little Mermaid from Sami Al Bronzy all the way from Saudi Arabia – he had the audience in splits the entire time he was on stage and added his own touch of sparkle to the proceedings.
With the end of this Cosplay contest came the end of the festivities of Day 2, and it came at a good time. Slightly overwhelmed with the headiness and fun the people been having, a quick scan of the room revealed that we were going to need to recharge before we returned for Day 3. So off we went, with me dreaming of Ursula lost in Westeros but eventually ascending the Iron Throne that night.
There’s something about the final day of an event that causes people to pull out all the stops. Today, we were surrounded by people channeling their inner assassins and Khaleesis, all warrior-like and primed for showdowns. It was, however, Yeliz and Leon with their take on the assassins from the Assassin’s Creed franchise that took the cake. This was also a day for the Final Fantasy characters to make an appearance, and the gamer in me let out a yelp of delight at the effort that went into the wardrobe styling, the hair and the aura that each cosplayer carried with them.
It was an effort tracking down Leon since he was so popular, but when we finally got to track him down, it made the wait worth it. “I’m glad I’m popular, because it is for these people’s happiness that I do what I do”, he enthuses. “I am so far from home right now, and yet I feel at home since I am part of a community and people who are warm, creative and almost on fire”. When asked about his experience at ComFest he credits the level of expertise in Kuwait that surprised him the most. “They are all so professional in their work here, and I am happy I get to share what I have with them. I would love to come back here if I am invited because these three days have been almost magical – every single smile has made the event special for me”. Before I let him be swamped by the legion of fans he’s found here at ComFest, I ask him what message he has for the cosplay community here in Kuwait. “Be yourself, don’t forget to love and be positive even in the face of negativity. Don’t lose your imagination, and continue to dream, follow your heart”, he signs off, leaving me thinking how perfect these words are for anyone trying to further their talent.
A true and diverse showcase of the talent pool that Kuwait contributed to ComFest, however, came towards its very end, and not just from the cosplayers – a series of performances by some of Kuwait’s local talent had the crowd on their feet, screaming their voices hoarse. The band Sound of March came on first, opening their set with the always-popular Smells like Teen Spirit. Pitch-perfect vocals with tight instrumentals ensured that the band had grabbed the audience’s attention from the get-go.
They followed this up with two originals, Made a Difference and I Don’t Know, both soulful, slower songs than the energetic Nirvana opening, but just as high on musicality and meaning. With that brief showcase, Sound of March then veered back into familiar territory with Creep by Radiohead, and had every person present singing along – Thom Yorke would’ve either been proud or blasé about the perfection with which this song was covered – you can never tell with Thom Yorke. Despite all the cheering and applause, it was heartening to see some of the band’s most ardent fans seated right beside me – the vocalist’s young cousins, girls no older than 7 years old, clapping and screaming their support throughout the set.
The dance crew 4BWY came on next with a performance that was energetic, spunky and filled with sharp movements, creative choreography and excellent music choices. They were matched by beatboxers , who made this writer feel very limited with the way she uses her larynx!
Renowned musician and ukulele player Bader was the next to take the stage with a quirky, funny solo performance that, though short, brought a smile to everyone’s faces and gave them a much-needed break from the adrenaline of the previous acts. That pause didn’t last long, however – next up was Spark, a performer who exhibited not just a dance, but an experience in visual, sound and pop-and-lock styles with her Zelda-themed performance.
The piece de resistance of the evening, for this writer at least, came next, from Tamara Qabazard. Known around the country as one of the best at her game, Tamara was Harley Quinn exemplified as she took to her aerial silk and moved a fluidity and edge that gave a haunting visual to Kehlani’s Gangsta. “I feel most grounded in the air”, her post on Instagram about her performance reads. I couldn’t agree more as I watched her sway, climb, swirl and drop several feet above the ground with the agility and grace of a bird mid-flight.
After a final performance by a dance crew that brought the perfect culmination to a day full of highs, ComFest came to its close with the announcement of the winner of the Cosplay contest. To nobody’s surprise, it was Team Zelda that took top honors with their entertaining and accurate portrayal of the game, with the League of Legends team coming in a close second.
Stand-up comedian Ahmad AlShammari – who attended ComFest with his family in tow – perhaps summed up ComFest 2017 best as an interactive experience. “This convention was a chance for me to spend time with my family and be part of an event here in Kuwait that everybody can enjoy together as one”, he says. “ComFest 2017 is a big deal for the artistic, creative community in Kuwait, and for an event that began as the underdog, we are wrapping up with such a huge turnout, which goes to show that if there is love and passion for anything, the people will come”.
ComFest 2017, in its maiden effort, turned out to be more than just a convention for enthusiasts to converge. It was a period of three days during which people of all ages, genders, nationalities, interests and talents came together, unified in their love for every aspect that the world of entertainment had to offer. Before they left the venue, each person carried with them a bittersweet feeling – pride in the success of the first edition of ComFest Kuwait, sadness that this short burst of escapism from the monotony of everyday life was over for the time being, and the anticipation that ComFest would return next year, bigger and better than ever.
There was also a unanimous feeling of gratitude that swept the room – for Upshot Company who made this event possible, for all the volunteers for giving their all towards making the event an unforgettable experience, to Hussain and Chuni-Li for being the brains, heart soul and backbone of ComFest and becoming almost one with the spirit of the event. And after three whole days of being a part of the cosplay, gaming, cheering, smiles, laughter and new friendships, everyone knew that as a creative experience, ComFest definitely brought people together – and will hopefully continue to do so in the years to come.