Everyone knows Madison is a diverse place, but heads will even turn in this town to watch a hovercraft made of an old washing machine and a wok roaming around town on a Saturday afternoon.
Such was the sight on Day One of the first annual Geek.Kon, a two-day affair for all things geeky being held at the UW Humanities building this weekend. The person inside the dalek (the official name of the machine, based on a model from the classic sci-fi series Dr. Who) was eight-year-old Sean Sponem, whose father, Alan, had built the contraption.
"Don't mind him," Christine Sponem told passersby, as her son pointed a cardboard laser.
If one didn't mind dodging (obviously fake) bullets, it was possible to explore a new dimension and then some through Geek.Kon's well-executed programming. Rooms were set up for board games, Cosplay and Magic the Gathering, as well as film screenings and panel discussions. The opening ceremony took place at 10:30 in the morning, but many of the 600 pre-registered guests, volunteer coordinator Staci Corcoran said, showed up as early as eight.
With the benefit of t-shirts that proudly proclaimed "Get Your Geek On," pre-registered guests may have had a leg up on their gaming competition. But other local anime and fantasy enthusiasts signed up for the free event on the spot after catching wind of it earlier this week.
UW student Nick Bolton and his friends were entrenched in a board game called Arkham Horror in a classroom smelling strongly of pizza and Mountain Dew. "It was free, so we decided to check it out," he said, shrugging. "Why not?"
Most attendees agreed that Saturday's costume masquerade was the highlight of the first day. Arie Peterson, 14, and her younger sister, Sonnet were dressed to the hilt in black and pink lace with stacked platform shoes. With silvery wigs covering the girls' freckled cheeks and cardboard triangles protruding from their ears, the duo explained that they were Freya and Chi from the anime series Chobits.
"Freya was made first," Sonnet said, "but I was dumped into a garbage can and lost my memory."
The girls were pleased with their costumes and told me that it took a whole day for the family to get dressed. "My mom found the conference online," Arie said, "and since we're all anime geeks we decided to go together."
The Petersons weren't the only ones to make Geek.Kon a family affair. Corcoran said that she had seen a wide range of participants at the registration table, from month-old babies to elderly grandparents. Some had traveled as far as Iowa and northern Minnesota to attend.
Illinois Art Institute student Arthur Garcia and friends Alex Shperlmin and Jon Cabello were happy to take a break from classes to make some new friends and swap anime stories for the weekend. While milling around the Japanese pop-fueled mixer in the Humanities courtyard, the three young men opened up about why they liked anime so much and what drove them to attend multiple geek conferences each year.
"It's a good networking experience," Garcia explained. "I have, like, 300 friends on MySpace."
Shperlmin had a more philosophical take. "Everybody's here for the same cause," he reflected. "We're all here to enjoy. You can be yourself here -- you can be whoever you want to be, and nobody is going to judge you."
Looking around at all the geeks -- both young and old, dressed in everything from a silk kimono to a plastic Star Wars storm trooper ensemble -- it seemed that Shperlmin was right. The mixer ended with a troupe of volunteers doing a coordinated dance routine to a famous anime theme song, to the whoops and cheers of family and friends.
And for one night -- perhaps one night only -- the geeks ruled the school.