Local group gives “geeks” a home

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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Amanda Athur-Struss brandished a sword in front of five children and their parents.

The dull weapon was made of wood and putty, which was not much of a threat to the members of Iowa City Geeks meeting in the Iowa City Public Library on April 2. Yet the blue-and-silver broadsword still drew rapt gazes as Arthur-Struss explained its use in her costume of Saber, a knight from the animé “8/Stay Night.”

The Iowa City Geeks had invited the 38-year-old to give a workshop on “cosplaying,” the art of dressing up as fictional characters — usually from works of fantasy or science fiction — for display at comic and gaming conventions nationwide.

“[In cosplaying], you push your boundaries,” she said. “Coming up with an idea and becoming someone else.”

Noel Burns, a 38-year-old father, said he founded the group in January after his 11-year-old son Conner described being bullied and called a geek in school.

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“I asked him, ‘If you had a place to go where you could be yourself without people calling you names, would you?’ ” Burns recalled. “He said yes. As a general rule, most of the geeks tend to feel like outsiders. Everything we’re doing is an attempt to give people an opportunity to feel like they belong.”

But other group members said they were just looking for an organized group for niche activities.

“There wasn’t specifically a formal group such as this with similar programs — it was basically me and my friends,” said Alex Johnson, who said 90 percent of her friends are into geeky activities.

The 16-year-old said neither she nor her friends had experienced bullying but conceded it was possible she just hadn’t heard about it. She left the meeting with a felt cloth with an ironed-on skull and crossbones.

First on Arthur-Struss’s costume list was a billowing black cloak and felt cowboy hat based on the animé “Vampire Hunter D.” Burns eagerly modeled the creation, though he admitted he’s usually interested in the non-costume side of conventions, such as meeting with comic-book creators and fans.

However, he said, he understands why other adults and children are drawn to cosplaying.

“Part of the thrill of it is being able to step out of person and dress up as your favorite character,” he said.

Burns said he founded the Geeks to unite people seeking thrills of fantasy and escapism, who often don’t know where to express their interests.

The biggest difficulty in assembling “geek groups” such as this, he said, is youth who are interested in such activities as comics and costuming are able to form small friend groups but have trouble getting organized.

“There’s generally a lot of interests within small pockets and groups doing these things,” he said. “But a lot of people into comics or computers don’t know how to go about doing it,” he said. “[They need] mentorship.”

Mitch Thompson, Alex’s father, estimated 60 percent of the group’s 150 members are youth. The 49-year-old said adults in this group help organize activities, but also serve a broader purpose — passing on the geek legacy to a younger generation.

“In a lot of instances, our crowd gets a lot older,” Thompson said. “Our old interests start fading out. We’re trying to attract young people back into it, [with activities like] writing, costuming, and astronomy.”

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