The MCM London Expo is huge and there's a hell of a lot crammed into the hall, but it is primarily a shopping experience.  Strip away the stalls and retailers and there's not a great deal else apart from a smattering of guest signings, a few gaming areas and some movie previews.  This said, there is still plenty to sustain you for a day, but if you're there both days then you may find yourself covering old ground once again.

With some of the ground on offer, covering it more than once was not an issue.  It was great to get the opportunity to play brand new - and as yet unreleased - games such as Street Fighter IV and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe completely free.  The DDR:UK and Artist Alley sections were fun, and once again were free, whilst the Cosplay Masquerade - probably the biggest at any UK event - ate up a huge chunk of the afternoon...provided you could get in.  The problem with having thousands of attendees is that there's not enough room by the main stage for everyone.  In order to combat this issue attendees have to pick up tickets to get in, which is understandable but a bit frustrating as you could end up queuing for ages and still miss out.  To be fair there's little the organisers could really do about this, short of making the stage area even bigger or showing the event on a big screen as well.  There were other mini-activities and specialist areas to enjoy, such as the Dead Space cube and the guest signings, which were admittedly diverse, although you had to pay for many of the autographs.  However, from an anime and manga point of view the other focal point was the secondary stage, where the handful of anime events and panels took place.

  Over the two days the bigger stage area hosted sci-fi panels and the masquerade whilst the secondary stage hosted more specialised panels.  Amongst those on offer this time were talks by artists from the Sweatdrop group and even a Shakespeare performance to tie in with Self-Made Hero's Manga Shakespeare titles.  Most of the focus of the stage was on artists and groups inspired by anime and manga rather than anime and manga itself, but there was some interesting stuff on offer.  However, the lack of dedicated anime and manga panels and an anime screening area was a real shame.  At past Expos the big anime companies had screenings of forthcoming titles in a special

anime screening area, and usually had their own panels and Q&A sessions in which they could announce licenses and speak to fans.  It not only provided a glimpse of the anime titles coming to the UK but an opportunity to bring the kind of panels you get at anime conventions to a much larger audience.  They offered a real insight into the anime industry and considering the huge number of anime fans in attendance their removal of these fan-focused events seems all the more perplexing.

Anime and Manga-wise the Expo has lost something, and tries to plug the gap with the huge number of retailers and dealers.  The downside of all of the retailers - apart from the colossal dent they made in your wallet - was the proliferation of stalls selling bootlegged goods.  Whilst many stalls were legitimate, there were more than ever before that were selling poor-quality bootleg merchandise, ranging from figures and plushies to wallets and accessories.  It must be incredibly frustrating for the legitimate retailers to have to try and compete with companies that are undercutting them with pirated material, and to be honest we're surprised they get away with it.  However, provided you're a bit canny and look out for the holographic stickers that denote the real merchandise you can avoid the worst.  You can often spot fakes as the colours aren't right, or the quality doesn't look high enough, don't be tempted by the lower price as it turns out to be a false economy when it falls apart a week later!

 Ok, so we'll admit that what we've said above sounds like doom and gloom, but to be honest it's not.  The Expo is MASSIVE.  Saying that doesn't really get across the real scale of it, the crowds that attend are of the size you usually find at football matches.  There are legions of cosplayers, and the expo itself took up three warehouse-sized event halls.  It's not a dedicated anime and manga event, but there are more fans here than you'd get at all of the other UK anime events put together.  There's more specialised anime and manga retailers here than you'd find anywhere else, and it's the only event that all of the UK anime and manga distribution companies attend.  Not

even the largest anime conventions can boast such comprehensive support from distributors, dealers and fans, and the fact that you don't have to pre-register or pay months in advance if you want to go makes it more accessible as well.  The Expo is held in a venue designed for hosting large events, and the facilities are excellent, but what really makes it work are the people.

  Nowhere else can you meet more anime fans than at the Expo, and many fan groups arrange meets and activities to run alongside the main event.  Whether Forum meetups, impromptu mass cosplay photos, evening meals and parties or even ball-jointed doll meets, the people attending the Expo make up their own activities to fill the gaps in the schedule.  This year there was even a successful World Record attempt for the most people dressed as computer game characters!  For all its faults it's the atmosphere and the ability to bring fans together that makes the Expo the most important event in many fans' calendar.  Apart from the issues mentioned above the only real problem this year was mostly beyond the Expo's control.  The biggest problem was the expansion work being done to the ExCel Centre, which caused the rear entrance to the building to be closed off.  This was massively inconvenient for many attendees (including us!) that were staying in hotels behind the building, and there were no obvious pedestrian diversions in place.  It was a shame that the Expo didn't take a lead on this and have a sign up suggesting an alternative route.  However, logistically this was probably the best Expo we've been to, with a queuing system that worked and more space within the hall itself for both attendees and dealers.

At the end of the day we know what to expect from the Expo now, and the fact that we have been to every one since 2005 says something in itself.  We love the general atmosphere at the event, as well as its accessibility.  There's no limit on attendees, there's no need to pre-register and there's no age restriction.  Thousands of anime fans attend, and there's more merchandise, special offers and freebies on offer than anywhere else in the country.  It is disappointing that the anime industry panels and company panels don't happen any more, but at least the companies are there and you can always just go up and talk to them.  The main thing with the Expo is to go with no illusions.  If you're going for the whole weekend, be aware that there's not a huge amount to do other than shopping, and be prepared to spend a LOT of money.  Find out in advance about forum meetups by keeping an eye on anime forums such as Anime League and on the Expo's forum itself.  The Expo is the biggest anime shopping experience you can get in the UK, but what else you make it is largely up to you.