Two Anime NebrasKon attendees are dressed up in costume as characters from video game Genshin Impact
Beau Staab and Megan Hartleroad cosplaying as characters from video game Genshin Impact. Staab said he spent three weeks before NebrasKon making both prop weapons. “It takes a lot of work depending on what you’re doing,” Staab said. Photo by Ramey Vachal/NNS.

By David Berman and Ramey Vachal

Around every corner of Anime NebrasKon, patrons can find a wide range of panelists, exhibitions, booths and cosplayers to interact with. Wander into the arena and you will see rows and rows of art to admire and purchase. Take the escalator upstairs and play board, card and dice games at countless tables.

The diversity of activities at the convention is intentional, said assistant director of promotions Mark Meelhuysen, as organizers want to create an event that people of all interests can attend. The 17th annual convention dedicated to all things anime — a style of Japanese animation — took place from Oct. 22-24 at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, bringing in thousands of patrons.

“There’s something for everybody, whether it’s board games, [Dungeons and Dragons] video games, cosplay, meeting celebrities, any of that kind of stuff,” Meelhuysen said. “If you just want to buy stuff or see stuff or just hang out, it’s definitely got something for everybody.”

While it may seem like a niche interest, Meelhuysen said he has observed an increase in anime interest in Nebraska that has coincided with more attendees.

“There just seems to be a very rapid growth of interest among middle schoolers and high schoolers especially, [and] we’ve just seen a huge uptick in interest in general,” he said. “I definitely need to look into a few more studies about it, but there’s definitely a growing interest across the U S for anime, mangas (Japanese comics and graphic novels) , things like that — a lot more consumption of Japanese media in general.”

Anime NebrasKon got its start from a club at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln dedicated to anime, Meelhuysen said. The club started the convention as a small charity event in 2004, and it has eventually grown into the festival it’s known as today. Meelhuysen said the organization has retained its nonprofit roots, with NebrasKon raising $10,000 for the Autism Society of Nebraska this year.

NebrasKon featured nine guests ranging from popular voice actors such as Chris Hackney — who has over 100 acting credits on titles such as “Pokemon” and “One Punch Man” — to internet stars like SungWon Cho, better known by his YouTube channel name ProZD, an account with over 3.6 million subscribers. The event also included cosplay contests and dozens of panels.

Last year, NebrasKon was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, masks were required to attend, and children under 12 were not permitted as they are unable to be vaccinated.

“We were so darn excited just to have the event, to be able to [say], ‘Hey, we got it,’” Meelhuysen said. “We can do it safely. We can do it carefully, but still all come together and have a great time.”

While the event naturally revolves around anime, a quick walk around the convention revealed a wide array of interests covered, especially in the cosplayers who traversed the halls.

“It’s not just for people who like anime,” Meelhuysen said. “We’ve got ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Star Trek,’ you’ve got a bit of everything. That’s what we kind of like to say that, yeah, we’re an anime convention, but we’re also a pop culture convention and the largest in the area.”

Here are a few stories of the passionate fans who attended this year’s convention:

Wyatt Denna, 20, Anchorage, Alaska

AnimeNebraskon2 300x225 - Weebs, manga and community: Stories from Anime NebrasKon
Wyatt Denna poses with a lightsaber on the first floor of the Mid-America Center. Denna said he worked on his Mandalorian cosplay for a year. Photo by David Berman/NNS.

Though hailing from Anchorage, Denna did not need to trek too far, as he is a student at Midland University in Fremont. He came to the convention dressed as a Mandalorian — but not the titular one in the popular Disney+ series.

“I kind of did it with the idea of being, you could possibly be in the background because there’s a bunch of people that have their own artistic style that they put on their Mandalorian outfits,” Denna said. “I really enjoyed them, they’re all really good. But my entire idea was that he could have just been in the background of the episode where there were like 18 of them.”

Denna said he’s on the lighter side of anime fandom, as he’s only seen a handful of shows. Where he really finds common ground with uber-fans of anime is cosplay. Denna posts his cosplays on TikTok under the username @dualspadedace, his top videos garnering almost 2000 views.

At conventions like Anime Nebraskon, cosplayers like Denna can admire each other’s work and swap notes on how to craft their costumes.

“It’s just nice to see people that have similar interests, because I think three of my friends actually seriously do cosplay and it’s cool to see other people [and] what they do,” he said. And it was just interesting ideas that I’m absolutely going to replicate in my future cosplays. It’s like an artist walking through an art gallery.”

Mitchell Schinstock, 27, Omaha

AnimeNebraskon1 300x225 - Weebs, manga and community: Stories from Anime NebrasKon
Mitchell Schinstock cosplaying as Joseph Joestar from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. “I feel like a star sometimes when I come here and people recognize my cosplay and they say they enjoy it,” Schinstock said. Photo by David Berman/NNS.

A lifelong fan of anime, Schinstock attended the convention dressed as Joseph Joestar from “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure”, an anime and manga. He has attended the convention for over 10 years, and has ventured to Nevada and Kansas for similar conventions.

Schinstock said his favorite part of attending conventions is connecting with those with similar interests. The interactive nature of conventions makes it easy to strike up a conversation with a cosplayer wearing a recognizable costume or an artist who creates pieces based on your favorite show.

“A lot of the time it can seem like there aren’t very many people who are into the same thing as you, but you go to a convention and you see you share a lot of similarities with other people [and have] common interests and common personalities,” Schinstock said.

Schinstock said the anime community in Nebraska is safe and welcoming to its members.

“Everyone’s pretty friendly and supportive of one another,” he said. “There isn’t very much bullying or harassment. And honestly, when there is, the community hears about it and they tend to let people know.”

Peter Fangman, 28 and Sarah Irons, 21, Omaha

IMG 9777 300x200 - Weebs, manga and community: Stories from Anime NebrasKon
Peter Fangman and Sarah Irons at the Mid-America Center. Fangman and Irons said they planned to attend the dance party on the night of Oct. 23. Irons said the dance and the cosplay contest were among the most anticipated events of the weekend. Photo by Ramey Vachal/NNS.

Irons has been to 10 cosplay conventions and has been attending NebrasKon for eight years. She said she’s seen the convention grow a lot over the years and drawn in more attendees.

“I’d say Nebraska has some of the best cosplay I’ve ever seen,” Irons said. “We just went to a con in Chicago and it was a lot larger and I still feel like I’m seeing just as much quality and quantity in cosplay.”

Irons dressed as Cinnamoroll, a character created by the Japanese company Sanrio. Sanrio is also known for producing the character of Hello Kitty.

Irons spent Saturday night walking around the convention center with Peter Fangman, who was dressed in an oversized blowup costume that depicted a crewmate from the video game Among Us. Irons said the two of them had many requests for pictures with Fangman in costume throughout the night.

“[The community] means a lot,” Fangman said. “It’s a lot of obscure pop culture and mainstream stuff put together.”

Chris Shirk, 32, Kansas City, Missouri

IMG 9803 300x200 - Weebs, manga and community: Stories from Anime NebrasKon
Chris Shirk, Christopher Vu and Amanda Lambert cosplaying as characters from the video game Demon Slayer. Shirk and Vu drove three hours from Kansas City, MO for the convention. They said the drive was worth the experience. “The memories that we make going to conventions like these, that’s what makes it worth it,” Vu said. Photo by Ramey Vachal/NNS.

Shirk traveled from Kansas City for the con and dressed as Obanai Iguro of the video game “Demon Slayer.” Shirk said cons provide an environment where relationships can be built.

“You’re surrounded by like-minded individuals,” Shirk said. “For a lot of people, they don’t know how to start an interaction. At least now you have a foundation.”

Shirk said the connections he makes at cons continue long after the events conclude. Amid shutdowns in early 2020, Shirk took part in many online events to stay connected. This included chatting over Discord, watching movies and playing “Among Us.”

“The network you gain from here is amazing. My connections just keep growing and growing like a massive spider web,” Shirk said.

Amanda Lambert, 23, Omaha

Lambert, an Omaha resident, cosplayed as Tanjiro Kamado of “Demon Slayer”. She said one of the biggest appeals to cosplaying is talking to others about shared interests.

“You’re literally wearing your favorite thing on you. You can’t miss it,” Lambert said. “You’re like, ‘Here I am, here’s the thing I like, come talk to me about it.’”

Lambert said the atmosphere was welcoming at NebrasKon this year. She said having people come up and ask to take pictures with her group was one of the best parts of the weekend.

“It absolutely makes our day when someone wants a picture with us,” Lambert said.

Lambert styled two wigs for the con, spending one and ½ to two hours on each. Even if the costumes are bought, she said it takes a lot of time to add small alterations. Lambert said she likes to change characters day-by-day to have some variety during conventions.

Megan Hartleroad, 20 and Beau Staab, 24, Kansas City

Hartleroad and Staab have both been attending conventions since 2013. This year, they cosplayed as Hu Tao and Chongyun from the video game “Genshin Impact.” Staab said the cosplay community is different in every city.

“I noticed that in smaller towns, there’s a lot more people who don’t really understand what we’re doing,” Staab said. “Still, I haven’t been made fun of or judged.”

Staab said he credits the cosplaying community for connecting him with Hartleroad. The two saw each other at a few cons and eventually decided to do a photo shoot together. They are now engaged.

“If it wasn’t for cosplaying, we probably never even would have ended up together,” Staab said.