Knoxville's Biggest Nerds

While AdventureCon may be our annual celebration of fandom, these proud warriors live the geek lifestyle 365 days a year

Of all the boring conversations about boring things you're going to experience in your adult life—what you're going to do with your tax refund, commute time and best routes to work, your kids, your friends' kids, the prospect of having kids, how much you hate talking about people's kids, pets—reminiscing about high school is the worst one. It's self-indulgent, nearly always marked by overblown, untrue personal mythology and layer upon layer of denial. Nothing that happened then was as epic or unique or horrible as it seemed at the time. And very few people were interesting in high school, least of all the ones who think they were.

Then there's this all-too-common utterance: "I was such a nerd/geek/dweeb/dork back in high school." Really? Almost everyone feels that way a little, so we always accept it when we hear it. But if this were true of everyone who says it, being a nerd wouldn't mean anything.

So challenge that assertion the next time you hear it. Ask what the largest value on a die is, for example. Almost invariably the answer will come back "six," rather than 32, 64, 128, or "fire spell." The alleged dweeb probably won't be able to name the 14 different types of armies in Warhammer 40K, tell you the only way to kill a Pargo Demon, or be able to identify the infamous costuming error on Data in the "All Good Things" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Odds are, they won't even know something as simple as the significance of the number 1138.

One guy who's definitely not lacking in nerd cred is Marcus Wollack. Wollack is the founder of AdventureCon, which runs Friday through Sunday at the Knoxville Convention Center. Started in 2002, AdventureCon is Knoxville's only sci-fi/fantasy/comics/collectors conference.

"In the late 1990s, me and my brother used to always go to a lot of different flea markets, swap meets. We were always buying figures and comic books, selling them to people and trading them," Wollack says. "We would even go set up at different toy shows. And when eBay started to really get big, those shows just went away. Those shows were just not profitable to put on."

Wollack missed it. He wanted to see a live, large-scale event for collectors and fans in Knoxville. The problem was bringing in the dealers, who were doing just fine on Internet sales, to sell their collectibles. So he says he looked to conference models in other cities—New York, Chicago, San Diego—where sci-fi and comic cons were drawing tens of thousands of attendees every year.

"They were having, you know, people from the Batman TV series, and the Star Wars people. So, we thought, hey, there's something that will generate a mass appeal. Maybe we'll get people who wouldn't normally come out to a toy show, and they can come out and meet these people."

In 2002, Wollack organized the first AdventureCon. It was at the Knoxville Expo Center. He brought in guests like Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in the James Bond movies Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me, and Peter Mayhew, the guy in the Chewbacca costume.

In 2005, AdventureCon grew. It moved into the much larger Knoxville Convention Center, and it became a bigger draw for celebrity guests. That year, former TV Batman Adam West and Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, came.

"Robert Englund, that was a big one," says Wollack. "There was a line out the door for him."

Then, last year, the convention had its first wedding. Wollack's brother Jonathan, decked out in full Boba Fett garb, was married to Rose Coe in front of an audience of Imperial Stormtroopers. This year, the guest list includes Ghostbusters star Ernie Hudson (Ecto-1, the car from the movies, will also be on display), Kevin Sorbo from Hercules, Terminator's Michael Biehn, as well as a host of comic-book artists like Michael Golden, who created the X-Men character Rogue; Tom Nguyen; and Joe Staton.

The convention is expecting more than 10,000 attendees this year, which raises the question: In a town like Knoxville, best known for football, music, and a few very smart but not exactly geeky writers, what are all those comic, sci-fi, and fantasy fans doing with the rest of their time?

Amtgard: Battle of the Mystic Glade

It's nearly 90 degrees outside at Mystic Glade Park when the first battle begins. It's midday, so the sun is inescapable, and the air is so dense with moisture that it feels like you're walking through a sponge. But the weather doesn't faze the warriors of Amtgard. They come from different backgrounds, have attained different classes. Some are barbarians or monsters; others wizards, bards, or healers, but they've all entered the field with a common cause: to do nonstop violence to one another.

There have been thousands of these fights here, and that bloody history is marked in the topography. Lush, thick grass covers most of Mystic Glade. But on the designated battlefield, an area of about 200 square feet in a secluded corner of the park, only a few scrappy blades still poke through the patted-down dirt.

The battle starts off timidly. The 10 people on the field have paired off. In the first few seconds, it's all about self-preservation. The warriors hold their swords and shields close to their bodies, assessing their enemies, waiting for an opening. It's tense. Then someone finally strikes, and all hell breaks loose. Beads of sweat fly into the air as they flail their swords randomly at each other, their limbs swirling around awkwardly. It's chaos. Or at least it looks that way.

What's most notable about an Amtgard battle is the silence. It's absent the attempted psych-out of the battle cry. Screaming at your opponent is just phony machismo anyway. These warriors are concentrating, thinking carefully about their next moves. The only thing you hear is the sound of a weapon as it connects: THWAP. The battle has reached its maximum level of intensity now. Everyone who started is still alive, and they've all lost themselves in the bloodlust.

Flow, an eight-year veteran wizard, is having a good day so far. He's one of the bigger guys here, over six feet tall and about 280 pounds. But he's still light on his feet in a fight. THWAP, he swings and takes out his opponent's right leg. THWAP, the left. Flow remains uninjured. Then, an observant fighter, Flow notices something out of the corner of his eye. About 20 feet away, one of the other fighters, Subway, a bard, has missed his mark and lost his balance. Flow runs toward him in an attempt to stop a potentially tragic fall, right on top of his extra-large, plastic McDonald's beverage cup.

"No! Watch the Coke! Anything but the Coke!"

War is hell.

To the outside observer, Mystic Glade Park is actually Carl Cowan Park, out in West Knoxville; Flow the Wizard is actually Gary Lewis the data entry guy; his "swords" are golf club shafts wrapped in foam noodles (like the kind you use in a swimming pool); and Amtgard is a bunch of weirdos who dress up in "tunics" made of old bed sheets and hit each other with sticks. But there's more to it than that. Amtgard is a Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) game, which is exactly what it sounds like: Dungeons and Dragons taken off the board in the basement and played in the real world, with "real" weapons.

"My parents played D&D," says Steven McGuire, or Beefy, a psychology student at Pellissippi State. "I used to campaign all the time, but I just got tired of rolling dice."

LARP games have been around since the late 1970s, but have only recently started to pick up as much attention as their board-based counterparts.

Amtgard, invented in 1983 in El Paso, Tex., grew out of another battle game called Dagorhir ("Where Tolkien's Middle Earth Meets Dark Age Europe"). Since then, it's grown into 13 "Kingdoms," geographically-based regions that each host their own major tournaments several times a year.

Amtgard borrows a lot of elements from earlier games like Dagorhir. The "boffer" style padded weapons are similar. The battle rules are the same: If you're hit in an arm or leg, that limb is out of play—arms go behind your back, or lie limp at your side; you hop on one leg or kneel. If you're hit in the torso, you're dead.

But Amtgard seems to be quicker, more fighting-oriented than its higher-concept, character-driven predecessors.

That's what Michael Conway, aka Baron Andrew MacAulay, or simply "B," leader of the Mystic Glade group, says drew him in.

"I'm not so into the role-playing aspect," says Conway, a 30-year-old insurance salesman who's been in the game for 15 years. "We're mostly stick jockeys here."

There's also a more DIY aesthetic to the whole thing than, say, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), another, more well-known live-action battle group. The SCA uses unpadded weapons—thereby requiring full armor—and has a focus on total historical accuracy. "That's not for me," says Kady Robbins, who's called Bearsuit. "We can do this all day and we'll still be OK for work on Monday."

While an SCA battle outfit can run hundreds of dollars, many of the Mystic Glade group wear homemade outfits, stitched together from old bed sheets—a Power Rangers shield, a tunic with scenes from Winnie-the-Pooh—and small pieces of felt for decoration.

The Mystic Glade group focuses primarily on "ditches," short-form fights made up of two teams, wherein the only goal is to kill as many people as you can. A ditch will typically last less than 20 minutes. So between 2 p.m.—when the group meets up each Saturday—and 8 p.m.—when it starts to get too dark to play—they'll do dozens of them.

"Everyone in Amtgard loves the fighting," says Sarah Budai or TyeDye, a member of the Radiant Valley group in Oak Ridge, watching a ditch and looking a bit annoyed and more than a little uncomfortable being off to the side. She's got mono, and she's sitting the day out. Another player teases her from the battlefield, trying to get her to join in anyway.

"If I fight today, my spleen will explode!" she yells back.

They're dedicated to it. The players come out in any type of weather, meeting and fighting even on the coldest weekends of the year.

Lewis even went so far as to get a tattoo of his fighting company's insignia on his shoulder. He belongs to the Eye of Ra, part of the Sons of Ra Household, one of the larger Neverwinter households.

"You know, I might not be in this game forever, but I'll have this forever. And it's always going to remind me of this time in my life, the people that I've met, the friends I've made here," Lewis says.

It's the primary social outlet for a lot of the members of the group, many of whom aren't naturally extroverted.

"Take Bunch here," Lewis says, pointing to Josh Bunch, aka Bunch the Drunk, a recent graduate from Oak Ridge High School. Bunch has been standing nearby, looking eager to take part in the conversation, but he's barely said a word all day. "He's a great guy and everything, don't get me wrong. But if not for this, he'd be in the basement playing Warhammer all the time."

Amtgard's also led to romance for some of the players. Lewis and Robbins met there, and subsequently dated for three years. They've broken up, but they still remain friendly enough to beat each other with golf clubs once a week.

For her part, Robbins says the dedication the game requires helped her to pick a job. She works at a local call center, doing technical support.

"A lot of us do call center work," she says. "And I'll be honest. We do it so we can sit and do Amtgard stuff at work. There's a lot of us that sit there and make chain mail while we're at work. I used to do a lot of embroidery, design garb. A lot of people make their weapons at work. It's definitely a lifestyle. It's not just something you come out on the weekends and do."

Meanwhile, Back at the Mall...

Sci Fi City manager Erik Hess can't decide right away what the coolest thing in his store is. He has to look around for a minute before he can pick out a few items. It's no surprise. The Knoxville Center store is packed with stuff. Whatever your insatiable obsession may be, this place has something to quiet the beast within, at least for a little while. There are gaming pieces—Dire Troll Mauler figures, Dire Warp Wolves, Pureblood Warp Wolves, Titan Cannoneers, Sea Dogs, Satyxis Raiders; board games—Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Cathedral, Tsuro, Shogun (formerly known as Samurai Swords, a game of high adventure); costumes—the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman; thousands of new and used comic books and graphic novels; video games; and a giant statue of a Halo soldier. And that's barely the beginning of it. It's a treasure trove of geekery.

Finally, after considering it for a minute, Hess settles on a couple things that stand out to him.

"Well, the Batman and Joker statue at the front of the store. I think that's really cool," he says. "Oh! And we've got The Incredible Hulk #181, the first appearance of Wolverine."

He points to a comic book mounted on the wall. At $500, it's the most expensive one in the store.

"I've said this many times since we bought that one. If the previous owner hadn't come in the week I had to pay rent, I would have bought it myself," Hess says.

Hess is working, but it looks like he's just hanging out. He and his friend David Adkins, a mechanic, are discussing a recent game. The discussion doesn't make a whole lot of sense to an outsider.

"He first used a boosted damage roll, rocket shot at what's-his-name," Hess says to Adkins. "He still had all his focus at that point."

Both are avid board-based battle and RPG gamers, Hess for about 10 years now, Adkins since 1977.

"I'm just a goon, a self-described geek," says Adkins. "It's not a bad thing. Geeks rule the world."

Before he moved to Knoxville in the late ‘90s, Adkins had been a comic book store owner in Dayton, Ohio. Now, he comes into Sci Fi City a couple times a week ("Pretty much all day on Sunday," he says.) to get his geek fix. Hess, too, hangs out at the store even on his days off and after his shift is over, coming in to play the Xbox 360 consoles up front, play board games, or peruse comics. He estimates that he currently has about 4,000 comic books in his collection.

"I spend probably 40 to 50 bucks a week on comics," Hess says.

The two guys seem pretty close. Their tastes are similar. They both play Warmachine and Hordes, both fantasy battle games, and they hate the same comics, mostly.

"I can't stand anything by [Image Comics co-founder] Rob Liefeld, and most things by [Spawn creator] Todd McFarlane," Adkins says. Hess nods along. "And that Marvel Zombies stuff. I know you like it, but I think it sucks."

Hess says that seeing Sci Fi City as the "nerd store" is a misconception. He, like Adkins, prefers "geek store."

"A geek is just someone who likes collecting. Maybe they're a gamer," he says. "The nerd doesn't have friends. They don't leave the house. Like my brother, for example, who's really into World of Warcraft. And that's all he does, just sits in front of his computer. That's his whole, entire social life. People come in here and say, ‘Oh, that's the nerd store.' And that's just not the case."

Meanwhile, on the second level of the mall, over by the food court, 20 young men are screaming at each other in a dimly-lit back room of hobby shop CM Games. Entering the room, it's somewhat reminiscent of the Russian Roulette scene from Deer Hunter. There's a group of them crowded around a center table, watching something intently, occasionally reacting loudly, hitting the table.

They're playing Magic: The Gathering, a card-based RPG wherein each card represents a spell that the player, the "wizard," casts on another player. CM does three tournaments a week, alternating them with other popular card games like Yugioh.

"I come here about once a week," says Greg Johnson, an 18-year-old who's been playing for about four years. He's only won one of these tournaments since he's been coming here. "I've probably collected about 5,000 cards in that time. I think that's a safe bet."

One of his friends from across the table protests that number.

"Man, you know how many boxes I have?" Johnson says.

The players talk about powerful or rare cards with something that almost resembles lust. They constantly seem to be checking out each other's collections.

"I want that Dust Urchin. I know it's your card, but I want it," says one, coming up to the table and picking up a box of cards. "I'm like the executor of your estate, this being your estate."

Certain cards, like the Black Lotus from the first limited edition of the game, have attained mythic proportion among players. The Black Lotus will sell at auction for as much as $3,000.

"The most I've ever spent, though, for one card, is about $20," Johnson says. Then he rolls his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, and sighs. "$20 on a piece of cardboard."

Episode VII: Vader's Fist

"Who doesn't want to be the bad guy?" says Scott Kirkham, a human resources staffer for Regal Entertainment—or at least that's who he is at the moment, sitting inside a Texas Roadhouse restaurant, having a beer with his wife, Lauren. Sometimes, he's TA 6964, an AT-AT driver for the Galactic Empire.

"This is definitely pretty nerdy," says Jason Bales, who works for Scripps Networks when he's not TB 1620, an Imperial Biker Scout or TC 1620, a Clone Trooper. "I mean, I've spent $10,000 on Star Wars stuff."

And even that, he'll admit, is a conservative estimate. When he starts to think about it, he realizes the real figure could easily be upwards of $25,000. He stops thinking about it.

Bales, who also goes by the name Draxorian (a holdover alias from his D&D days), and Kirkham are members of the 501st Legion: Vader's Fist, a Star Wars fan group whose members dress up as Imperial Stormtroopers, the faceless, nameless, shiny-white-plastic-armored military branch of the Empire.

But are Stormtroopers really bad guys? They're certainly on the wrong side, but they aren't pulling the strings. Darth Vader is demonstrably evil, of course. Same goes for Emperor Palpatine. Both are Sith Lords who worship the Dark Side.

"We're the legitimate military of the government," says Bales. "Besides, the rebels killed untold thousands when they destroyed the Death Star."

There are about 12 501st members in the Knoxville area, which is part of the 100-plus member Mid-South Garrison, says Bales, but the 501st is an international phenomenon.

It was started in 1997 by Albin Johnson, a Star Wars fan from Columbia, S.C. He put together a Stormtrooper outfit to attend the local premiere of the Episode IV special edition.

"When he got to the theater, he ran into another guy wearing armor, and they started a club," says Bales.

Johnson decided to call it the 501st Legion because he "wanted something that sounded military, had a big number, and ended in a ‘one' to give it a little authenticity," he writes on the group's website. The 501st started making appearances at fan shows, and word got around. Now the group has "garrisons" on every continent and thousands of members. The group's grown so popular that it's even been incorporated into Lucasfilm's tightly regulated mythology with inclusion into the 2004 Timothy Zahn Star Wars novel, Survivor's Quest.

The 501st is well-known around town. They're hard to miss. They march in parades, make frequent appearances at store openings and charity events, and, of course, run a booth at AdventureCon—where, Bales says, they are one of the most popular fan groups.

"The kids run up to you. They think you're a life-sized action figure," Bales says.

Out in the Texas Roadhouse parking lot, Bales pulls out his armor. He keeps it in a large Stanley tool chest, the standard "armor bin" of the 501st.

There are many different types of troopers. There's the "classic" Imperial Stormtrooper, characterized by highly-polished white plastic. Then there's the Snowtrooper, who wears looser-fitting, cloth-like garb seen at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back on the ice planet Hoth. There's also the Bike Trooper, and, more recently introduced, the Clone Trooper, from Episodes II and III. The uniform is similar to the classic look, except the armor has blue trim.

He puts on the helmet, which is outfitted with a microphone and speaker with vocal distortion effects.

"Unfortunately, my hair is sticking out everywhere," he says in the slightly staticky voice of a "real" Imperial Stormtrooper. Then, all of a sudden, he's in character, reciting lines from the movies.

"Move along."

"There's been an incident."

Of course, they weren't terribly loquacious characters.

There are about 45 pieces to a Stormtrooper outfit, says Bales. Serious costumers, like 501st members, make their own armor. Bales and Kirkham do it by ordering kits on the Internet, which they then paint and piece together at home. It can be a pretty involved process, and doing it by yourself can take as much as 20 hours. Often the 501st members will have building parties, where they all get together to help with the process. That can cut it down to less than six hours.

The kits typically cost anywhere from $450 to $650 apiece, Bales says. Some other costumers make everything from scratch. The outfits are made primarily from PVC. After painting and accessorizing them, a complete costume costs about $1,200, says Bales. He's got three of them. The blaster costs about another $100.

"I know guys nerdier than me who have more than a dozen outfits," he says.

Bales can't say where, exactly, he buys his costume kits. They are not produced or officially condoned by Lucasfilm, so the whole thing is technically copyright infringement. To stay out of Lucas' litigious sites, the group does a lot of charity work. The Knoxville members do collections for Toys for Tots and the East Tennessee Children's Hospital.

"We're proud of it, but I don't want it to seem like it's really about the charity work," Bales says. No, it's about feeling like an active part of a living mythology, and having cool costumes.

But what happens to that stuff—thousands of dollars worth of costumes, toys, books, and every version of the movies ever released—once someone like Bales dies?

"By that time I might be so eccentric that I'll be burned in it like at the end of Jedi," he says.