Columbia geeks provide glimpse into vibrant local nerd subculture


Three “geeks” — avid fans of comic books, anime and other pop culture genres — reveal the nerdy alter-egos they assume after they leave work or school.

By Micaela Wendell
Dec. 7, 2016

The Columbia area’s tight-knit “geek” crowd moves around unnoticed most days out of the year. But when local anime or comic book conventions — or “cons,” as they are called — set up shop downtown, the attendees they draw transform the Vista into a sidewalk parade of costumes and clothing representing many pop culture genres.

Four events currently make up the Columbia convention season: Nashicon in the spring, Valhallacon and Soda City Comic Con in the summer and Banzaicon in the fall. Each convention draws fans of video games, comic books, Japanese anime and much more to celebrate their interests for one weekend. The festivities often include discussion panels, costume contests, artist tables, gaming tournaments and rooms to buy collectibles and other nerdy wares.

Con weekends can generate a lot of money for businesses in and around Columbia, especially the hotels near the convention and shops and restaurants in the Vista. More importantly, the conventions serve as magnets for people who share a love of fantasy and costuming and want to connect and celebrate with others of similar interests, or “fandoms.”

After the con weekend festivities conclude, Columbia-area geeks return to work and school life until they can burst into their true geek selves once more. Regular con-goer Sarah El-Khabbaz enjoys this community because of how accepting everyone is of different fandoms and walks of life.

“Everyone’s really just open and friendly, and I feel really safe and comfortable around everyone,” El-Khabbaz said. “And everyone feels safe and comfortable around me.”

Sam Fraley in his Target uniform
Sam Fraley, who works at Target, enjoys attending anime and comic book conventions in Columbia during his free time.

Sam Fraley, a 31-year-old Target employee and long-time Pokemon fan from Lexington, has attended cons since Nashicon in 2009, when it was held in Gambrell Hall on the University of South Carolina campus. The event attracted several hundred people.

Now, Fraley runs a craft booth called “The Otaku Outpost” at local conventions, where he sells geeky wares he creates, such as character pillows, themed scarves and costume pieces. Although Fraley discovered the convention scene seven years ago, his interest in all things nerdy started during childhood.

“Early Saturday mornings, sometimes if you moved the antenna on the TV right, I could pick up ‘Dragon Ball Z,’” he said. “I didn’t even know it was anime. I just thought it was a really good cartoon.”

Around the same time, a friend gave Fraley “Pokemon Blue,” one of the first Pokemon games made for the original Game Boy in the late 1990s. The world of Japanese pocket monsters still means everything to him.

Sam Fraley dresses up as Hagrid from "Harry Potter"
Sam Fraley cosplays as Hagrid in preparation for seeing “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

“In the past 20 years, I have never been disappointed in that franchise. It’s been there for me,” Fraley said. “I’ve met so many friends over Pokemon.”

Fraley takes his Nintendo DS with him to work every day so he can play the newer Pokemon games during breaks. Recently, he’s seen the geek world pop up in regular conversation at his job.

As Fraley was learning inventory skills for the upcoming holiday season, a co-worker wondered aloud why Target was selling reindeer zip-up pajamas for adults.

Another employee guessed that they were catering to “furries,” or people who dress up in anthropomorphic animal costumes. Although the average “furry” probably would not wear one-piece pajamas to assume their character, Fraley was still interested in how much the average person now knows about geeky topics.

“Nerd culture really spread out, and I love it, but it means that everyone has a say in something even if they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Fraley said.

Malaysia Williams wears a Classic Lolita dress
Malaysia Williams models a Classic Lolita dress titled “Midnight at Orchestra.”

Columbia native Malaysia Williams, 25, has attracted strange looks because of her love for Lolita, a Japanese fashion subculture that involves dressing in doll-like, Victorian-style tea dresses, petticoats, bows and other accessories. Williams says some people have stared at her on the street or wondered why she was dressing the way she did despite her age, but she says she doesn’t let it bother her.

“I do what I want to do,” Williams said. “Are you paying my bills? Are you helping me buy these $200 dresses?”

She has loved Japanese culture since middle school, when she would read manga (Japanese comics), watch anime and follow Japanese fashion trends such as Visual Kei, and she had not met or seen many people sharing her interests and fashion passion.

Once, when she worked at McDonalds, Williams says she saw a girl enter the restaurant in Sweet Lolita — a subgenre of Lolita fashion characterized by bright pastel colors, ruffles and “cute” themes such as candy, pastries and stuffed animals.

Williams says she was thrilled to see Lolita fashion in real life and meet someone else interested in Japanese culture, especially with how few people knew about it.

“I feel like, with me personally in a state that I live in, if you’re not into rock, rap, country — it’s like you’re non-existent,” she said.

Williams officially started dressing in Lolita fashion in 2015, and she almost exclusively wears the Gothic and Classic styles.

She hopes to do an experiment soon where she walks around Columbia in Lolita fashion and records how many people stare, snap pictures or make comments about her to help illustrate how the local population reacts to people who look different or dress differently.

Although the Lolita community around Columbia is growing, there have been large gatherings for Lolita fashion in Myrtle Beach and North Carolina, which attract fans from both states.

“Lolita makes me feel like I can be myself,” Williams said.

Sarah El-Khabbaz curls hair
Sarah El-Khabbaz practices curling hair on fellow student Jessica Garrison.

El-Khabbaz, a 21-year-old cosmetology student and Columbia native, expresses her own interests through cosplay, or the art of creating and wearing a costume that is accurate to a specific character.

Under her cosplay alias of Sarahndipity, she is well-known especially within the fan community of “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” — also known as the “Brony” fandom. While some people might casually cosplay to hang out with friends and dress up, El-Khabbaz takes it very seriously.

“It’s all or nothing,” she said. “Every detail has to be perfect.”

El-Khabbaz has almost 3,000 followers on her cosplay Facebook page, and she has performed numerous times as the “My Little Pony” character Pinkie Pie at BronyCon, the largest pony convention in the world. She also will be an official cosplay guest at San Diego’s Pacific PonyCon in January 2017.

El-Khabbaz started small, cosplaying at Columbia anime convention Banzaicon in October 2012, where she wore her first cosplay ever. She has enjoyed the family-like dynamic of the small Columbia convention scene, where attendees often know each other well and use cons as an opportunity to hang out and celebrate their friendship as well as their fandoms. The current go-to food spot for anime fans is the Menkoi Ramen House on Gervais Street, where con attendees slurp down the favorite meal of Naruto Uzumaki, a young ninja from the anime sensation “Naruto.”

At larger conventions in other cities and states, where there is a much larger crowd of attendees, personal safety can become a more prominent issue. Safety is especially important for El-Khabbaz, since it is unknown how many and what kind of people come to see her at conventions. All of the attention from fans does have a downside, though.

Sarah El-Khabbaz cosplays as Pinkie Pie from "My Little Pony"
Sarah El-Khabbaz sewed her entire Pinkie Pie cosplay from scratch, which cost about $300 in materials.

“It gets a little overwhelming. I had an issue while I was at BronyCon with someone legitimately following me around the entire con,” El-Khabbaz said. “I would post a picture on one of my social media websites, and two seconds later after I took the picture, the person pops out of nowhere.”

El-Khabbaz sticks near friends to keep herself more comfortable when approached by strangers.

When not working on self-promotions or cosplays, El-Khabbaz can be found at Paul Mitchell The School Columbia as she works toward her cosmetology license. She wants to apply to makeup schools after graduation to begin learning special effects and movie makeup, which she hopes will help with job prospects and her cosplays in the future.

“I know it all ties in together, but I don’t have the bow yet,” El-Khabbaz said. “I don’t have the ribbon. I’m like, ‘Ha! Yes! Give me this ribbon, and I will tie it all together.’ I don’t have that yet, so I’m working on it!”

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