March 16, 2010

Geeks drawn to anime, and each other, at PortCon

— I find it funny -- if not fitting -- that on the weekend America celebrates its independence, a costumed mob of geeks, freaks and misfits will also be raising its flag high over Casco Bay.

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Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Costume maker Jekka Cormier shows off a Sakura wearing a dress similar to the one she made.

''One nation, under giant robots, with fairies, ninjas and giant-eyed children for all.''

Of course, for them, that nation might be Japan.

I'm talking about PortConMaine, the annual anime (shorthand for Japanese-style animation) and gaming convention that is taking place this year at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland.

Just as America separated itself from the British and embraced its own destiny and emerging culture, so have these geeks, who struck an identity of their own based on their passion for Japanese culture.

Even as America quietly lets more geekiness slip into its personality -- through comic book movies, Wii-devotion and nerd-chic sitcoms -- this group continues to flock to its own.

At PortCon, fans get together for three days to watch anime, play card games -- the kind that don't involve jacks and aces -- and generally learn more about their favorite TV shows, movies and characters.

The convention's roots go back to 2002 when organizers drew about 200 people to the University of Southern Maine campus. Each year, the crowd has steadily swelled and outgrown each location.

''It's not like people go to cons to become geeks,'' said Julie York, founder of PortCon. ''I think it's more people go to cons to celebrate being a geek.''

''I equate it to being in a sports bar during a Sox game,'' she said.

While the convention has grown, York said the event will never be so large that it becomes impersonal.

That's probably a good thing, because one of the best part of conventions (be it video games, comics, sci-fi or maybe interior design) is making people feel comfortable being themselves.

''It probably lets people show passion and enthusiasm because you're surrounded by others who accept and embrace the same hobbies,'' York said.

Really into collecting tiny stuffed animals? Like creating your own comics? The odds are more than good that you'll find others who are into it too.

The odds are also good you'll see someone dressed up as their favorite character. Cosplay (short for ''costume play'') is the convention equivalent of wearing a Manny Ramirez or Paul Pierce jersey to a game.

Of course it gets a little more complicated when you include all the intricacies of a character, such as makeup, props and mannerisms.

Jekka Cormier says she learned to sew from her aunt just so she could create cosplay costumes.

''It's a way of expressing something you really like and connecting yourself with a show or character you really like,'' she said.

She's created costumes of characters from popular anime such as ''Full Metal Alchemist,'' ''Cardcaptors'' and ''Chrono Crusade.''

While cosplay costumes can draw attention from others, who might even take pictures, Cormier says the costumes have a way of bringing together people who are interested in similar shows and characters.

''To be surrounded by others who you know are into it -- it's a release,'' she said.

Cormier will be leading a workshop at PortCon on fixing and improving costumes. She'll also be hosting the Cosplay Masquerade, one of the highlights of the weekend.

''I'll be bringing a few costumes this year,'' she said. ''If you're gonna host a masquerade, you're gonna have to wear them.''

Though the names of some of the more recently popular Japanese exports -- ''Naruto,'' ''Bleach,'' ''Death Note'' -- may be obscure to some, it's likely many would know the predecessors.

''Speed Racer''? ''Transformers''?

Andrew Johnson, who is in charge of security at PortCon, thinks anime and manga -- Japanese comics -- have become part of the larger geekening of America. That's a sign of progress.

''Occasionally, I remember watching a few anime movies on the Independent Film Channel, and I watched a theater release of ''Ghost in the Shell'' in (the Movies on Exchange) around 1996,'' he said. ''Today we have several popular anime series that are televised cartoon shows on network TV.''

Johnson said conventions like PortCon help fans who feel isolated find a community. But now that those things they love are part of broader culture, they can step out of the shadows.

At the same time America has been developing a newfound love of geeks, as evidenced by TV shows such as ''Chuck'' and businesses such as Best Buy's Geek Squad.

''Becoming mainstream eliminates part of the socially awkward stigma that follows the word 'geek,' '' he said. ''So just as anime is changing with the times, geeks probably will too.''

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380. See his blog at:

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