I’ve never been to anything like Anime NebrasKon. My friends have talked about this annual three-day event for years, but I still had no idea what to expect when I arrived.
NebKon is the largest anime and cosplay convention in state. Founded in 2004 by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, the convention has gone from a small gathering of approximately 200 attendants held in the Nebraska Union to a 6,000 person Ramada Inn event. The increased attendance was a major point of discussion; this marked the first year that event organizers had to push overflow attendance to a second hotel. The convention is getting so large they might find a larger venue for next year.
When I walked into the event center on November 6, I didn’t really have a context for anime conventions. Most attendees I talked to were veterans of other similar gatherings, like the Nan Desu Kan in Denver and Anime Central in Chicago. I talked to Randy, dressed as Immortan Joe from “Mad Max: Fury Road” who said that while other conventions are much larger, NebKon has earned a reputation as “the party con.” This was a common thread among every attendee I spoke with. NebKon is simply the most fun anime meetup they attend each year.
This reputation stems not only from the hotel parties on Friday and Saturday nights, but also from the sense of community. I didn’t come across a single rude patron at the convention. Everyone involved was happy to be at the event, reconnecting with old friends or making new ones.
There were a small number of rooms filled at the hotel by non-convention attendees, so when I saw a woman sitting on a lobby chair in plainclothes I assumed she was one of these befuddled hotel guest. As it turned out, Linda was attending the convention with her husband and grandson Ben. The family had driven three hours from their hometown to take Ben to his first convention. Both Linda and I used the word “overwhelming” to describe our first reaction to the event but she was amazed by the intricacies of the different hand-constructed outfits and was glad that after years of missing the event, Ben was finally able to attend.
I talked to Ben next and we commiserated over a shared truth. I was jealous I hadn’t attended Anime NebrasKon when I was younger. To my high school self, these conventions were a distant, coastal phenomena and not something a Nebraska high schooler could easily attend. Even though I didn’t have any interest in Japanese animation, the chance to discuss video games or movies with a group of similarly minded nerds is too good to pass up.
There’s two different traps one can fall into while covering an event like NebKon if you aren’t familiar with the event. The first is treating cosplayers as a spectacle to snicker at. The second is to use a patronising “oh it’s sooooo nice these people found a place where they can be themselves” tone. Seeds wants to portray the convention as what it is, a place where Nebraskans and other Midwesterners can be sincere about something they really value.
The only difference between me obsessively pouring over the new Stormtrooper designs online and a NebKon attendee dressed as Kylo Ren is the amount of talent and energy the cosplayer put into their outfit. Acting like my reservation at showing off my love of Star Wars somehow makes me cooler than them is stupid.
It’s for this reason that I regret not dressing up on Friday or Saturday. I was going back and forth on recycling my Samwise Gamgee Halloween costume for the convention. After feeling out of place all day Friday, I decided to dress up for Saturday but couldn’t because I accidentally left it at my apartment in Lincoln. I won’t be making this same mistake next year.
I don’t want to completely whitewash the event, though. There were aspects that I was less than comfortable with, like hyper-sexualized costumes and somewhat misogynistic overtones. These tropes are common in many anime and video games. Thankfully, these were a small portion of the event and most of the convention was designed to maximize a feeling of safety. Security guards, volunteers and a restriction that all those younger than 18 must be accompanied by a parent keeps the event friendly to novices.
The convention taught me some of the basics behind anime and although I can’t rightfully call myself an anime fan today, the guest speakers did give me a better understanding of the art form and culture. However, my greatest memory of the convention is unrelated to anime and entirely related to the spectre that haunts my life, Husker football.
When I found out the convention would be taking place during a game day, I debated whether it’d be worth skipping a Husker home game for. The Purdue loss made the choice easier, so I abandoned my seat and headed to Omaha. I half-heartedly followed the play-by-play on my phone until I realized that there was a possibility Nebraska might actually win. I wasn’t alone in this feeling and by the fourth quarter there was a sizable delegation of NebKon attendees gathered around a giant screen. Cheering on a Husker game while delegates from almost every major movie franchise was an intensely bizarre experience. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t be in Lincoln for the historic win, but if you can’t be at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, I wholeheartedly recommend NebKon as a substitute.