The term “nerd” used to be a cruel, judgmental way of dismissing someone who, in spite of their intelligence, had poor social skills. The word was a means of condemning smart kids with unique, blossoming tastes and deeming them fatally un-cool. Now, with Mark Zuckerberg at the helm of Facebook, Steve Jobs’ inventions in seemingly every American home and guys like J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon the cinematic storytellers of our time, things have changed monumentally. It seems the nerds haven’t merely had their revenge but taken over as well. Yet, even as things once deemed un-hip are now a part of popular culture, some nerds still have a problem fully embracing their identity and have yet to come out of the proverbial closet.
With many nerds out and proud of it, the culture of nerds on Maui is alive and well and growing. In fact, the word “nerd” has become, according to its newest gate-keepers, a badge of honor. At Maui Comics and Collectibles in Kahului, a group of nerds are proud and out in the open. Better still, they see only positive aspects with both the word “nerd” and how it plays into Maui’s mixed plate population.
Alika Seki is the owner of Maui Comics and Collectibles, Maui’s new comic book shop in Kahului’s Akaku center. But he’s nothing like the famed Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Neither portly, crusty nor snooty, Seki is a thin, soft spoken young man with kind eyes and, at the moment, a beard/hairdo that makes him resemble a samurai in training. He’s a family man who received his college degree in Massachusetts.
I ask him what his first comic book was as a child.
“Mad Magazine and all the funny papers,” he says. “That was my first exposure. I was just reading it and having my brain rot. My first physical comic was when I was 11. I still have them: Wolverine #71, Excalibur and another X-Men. I destroyed them and slept with them under my pillow. They’re worthless but I kept them. That’s how I used to keep my comics–I used to sleep with them when I went to bed.”
Prodding Seki to talk about comics leads me on a journey to a sewer, which reeks of pizza.
“For me, the pinnacle is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he says. “There’s something so perfect about the Ninja Turtles. If they’re your subject matter, it works. Those characters are so well crafted, they can’t fail in any form. Four bros with distinct personas–I love it. It speaks for that time period, America in the late ‘80s but it’s still so relevant.”
Seki’s journey to opening Maui Comics and Collectibles began with Bruce Ellsworth, his mentor. Ellsworth owned Tropix comics on the Mainland and was featured on CNN for selling Superman #1 for five figures.
“In the ‘90s, with The Death of Superman, everyone thought they would be a millionaire if they bought it,” Seki says. “After that, I was turned off from comics. The industry had crashed in the ‘90s. In 2010, I met Bruce when he moved out here to spend his last days. He had health problems. I had the last revenants of my collection–he was respectful of my collection and renewed my faith.”
Before Maui Comics, Maui had Compleat Comics, which closed in 2005. “We definitely needed one,” Seki says. “Bruce said it wasn’t worth it, so I waited. Right before he died, he pushed me to open it. He asked me, ‘What happened to that comic book store?’ He died in 2013, I opened in 2015.”
Whether observing Seki’s New Comic Wednesday or just glancing at the shop during the annual Free Comic Day, it’s clear his store has caught on. “It’s been good so far,” he says. “The community is really all there, everybody loves comics. I meet people from all different fandoms. I’m grateful to have the store and create a place people feel comfortable to come and nerd out.”
Regarding Maui’s Nerd Culture, Seki humbly but unintentionally assays the landscape like the sheriff of Nerdom. “The collector culture became a wasteland,” he says. “Mad Max-esque, roving packs of collectors. In comics, it a little more cutthroat: the treasure hunt has a bigger payoff. Any comic can be that thousand dollar-comic, so there’s more cutthroat comic hunting. There’s a lot of collectors who have high-end books. Whoever has the most power can grab the book they need. The store makes it a little more democratic. There’s a lot of collectors here.”
Seki happily appraises comic book collections for free. “I don’t make them feel bad about it,” he says. ‘I like to look at comics, no matter what they are. When people bring their collection here, you treat them with respect and walk them through it. I’ll sit with them, talk story for a while. Comics are for kids–not to demean them, but I want to instill collecting in kids.”
The most valuable items in Seki’s shop are on the coveted top shelf, out of reach but available to gaze at. “My biggest find was New Mutants #98, which has the first appearance of Deadpool. I’ve sold seven or eight copies of that book and they go for hundreds. I found a collection of all ‘90s comics and in it were two Golden Age, each valued at $400.”
Seki’s taste in comic books and art is synergistic and wide ranging. “I love the books that made the breakthroughs: Watchmen because it won literary prizes, anyone from mid-late ‘80s with Frank Miller or Alan Moore. There’s a lot of earlier examples but these are mainstream examples. In the Atomic Age, which is the 1950s, you have Beat writers and artists like William Burroughs who became involved in underground comics. I read a lot of Beat writers who were so articulate in their speech. Charles Bukowski, in Ham and Rye, said there was going to be a new Americana, a new way of speaking. American euphemisms will be popular speech. That inspired me.”
When I ask Seki about the relationship between comic books and their film adaptations, he once again waxes poetic. He also quickly reverts the conversation back to the Ninja Turtles.
“Comics are storyboards,” he says. “You’re watching that movie already. People should submit comics instead of scripts. The past two years, every other day, a new comic becomes a movie. The current Nickelodeon Ninja Turtles is awesome and faithful to the comic. Right now, the complaints come from trying to bring in new fans. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was framed like a comic, mindful of the source. The initial story is exciting but after you’ve read it, comics become sentimental. Raimi’s take, with its tone and lighting, was sentimental. It felt comfortable for Spidey fans. I thought it was well done. For me, the number one comic book movie of all time is the 1990 Ninja Turtles–it was faithful to the comic, stayed within its budget restraints. That movie will never happen again. It was crazy fun. It was just what it was supposed to be. You can’t take the Ninja Turtles and make it a think piece.”
Seki shows me the most valuable comic book he currently sells at his shop: a misprint of Space Adventures from the ‘50s. “It was printed without color and stuffed with the wrong cover–Masked Raider on the inside,” he says. “Goes for $2,500. My highest valued issue was Ninja Turtles #1. They only printed 3,000 and I sold it for $3,300. I have The Incredible Hulk #181, which goes for $1,800. It features the first appearance of Wolverine.”
The topic of Nerdom makes Seki reflective, if no less passionate. “I wore my nerdiness with pride,” he says. “Comics teach you, if you’re really paying attention, how to deal with situations and that your enemies aren’t really your enemies. There’s always a chance to make peace along the line. You can become more empathetic down the line.
“There’s strength in numbers but nerdom has become more assertive in its own,” he continues. “It’s cool to be a nerd. The one thing I try to fight against is gate-keeper fans, those who don’t allow others into their fandom because of how they discovered the property. It’s good to be open to other people’s fandom. You might discover something you like about them.”
Maui Comics and Collectibles is like a mythical creature in the way it changes its shape throughout the day. After hours, when the last issue of Spider-Man is sold and the cash register goes to sleep, the shop becomes a hub for role playing gamers. On a warm Thursday night, I meet four Dungeons & Dragons players and they are, to say the least, not what I expect. The generalization of game players as squeaky-voiced, scrawny Caucasian kids wearing glasses melts away immediately. The four men are in their mid-20s to early-30s. They’re burly and, until you see them crack a smile, a bit intimidating. They requested that I identify them as their D&D characters: Onwin, Moxie, Alberik and The Dungeon Master.
With the Kahului sky now a dark purple and the comic shop’s aisles pushed aside to accommodate a game table, I take a seat. “As a kid,” Onwin says, “I felt ostracized because I was a gamer.” The Dungeon Master, or The DM, counters this. “If you’re comfortable in your own skin, you can do anything,” he says. “With D&D, my friends were skeptical at first, but I drew them in eventually.”
This particular game of D&D has developed a small but devoted online following: Onwin’s novelization of the game has received plenty of hits (he says its readership is now in the “double digits”). The name of this particular adventure, “The Curse of Strahd” is updated as the game playing progresses.
As the game begins, the players announce what they’d like to do (example: “Storm the tower!”), while the result of the dice rolls establish what will actually happen (example: actually, you will walk to the foot of the tower and wait). The dice rolls are humbling, as grand ideas are humorously cut short. The DM gives an example of overly anxious game playing with a Crouching Tiger anecdote: he explains that a player once declared his character wished to do some mid-air flips, bounce off a sword and kill the bad guy. Instead, the player rolled too small a number and could only bounce off a wall, then tumble to the ground. Alberik explains to me how the game playing is determined by a “20-sided die, with a five-percent chance it will hit where you want. The die is fickle.”
The DM is reading the text but explaining the scene to his players with the panache of a young Steven Spielberg. “Every doorway you see has the blades, swinging back and forth,” he says. “Everybody has to make it through. You’re in the hallway, blades in front of you, same deal.”
Unlike the more competitive Magic the Gathering, this is a collaboration, not a match of one-upmanship. “D&D is like sitting around a fire, telling a tale, passing it down,” says the DM. “Magic The Gathering is like a poker game. D&D is more inclusive with heavier storytelling. Magic is player versus player. It’s, ‘Hey, you’re in my way, here’s some spells, deal with it.’ Doesn’t lend itself well to storytelling.”
Except for the DM, who wears a shirt honoring Muhammad Ali, the players all wear either Maui Pride or Maui Built shirts. The game play is like watching actors in improv class as they throw out lines, laughing as they playfully create the scenario. In the background, Jurassic Park III is playing on Alika’s elevated flat screen, but everyone ignores it.
The DM proudly explains to me how the game is going, where the story is. The tale has a fantasy/horror kick, as our heroes investigate a scary, gothic house where cries were heard. We’re waiting as they go through each door. It’s called a “dungeon crawl,” but the DM also describes it as “very Theater of the Mind.”
Considering how D&D game playing in my youth was once compared to Satanism, it strikes me that what I’m witnessing is less like a black mass and more like a Game of Thrones writers conference. Even with the maps, books with spells and descriptions, the evening is never filled with gobble-de-gook terminology. Instead, it’s merry and fun to observe.
The tone is jovial from the very start. Each player’s turn consists of an action, then a co-player says something like, “let’s do a strength check to see if you can do it.” Two of the players, Alberik and the DM, have been playing since they were 12.
The players all take their cue from the DM, who’s a strict rule-keeper but as enthusiastically youthful as the others. Clearly, the DM abides, or as he puts it, “DM discretion.” As the storytelling gets wilder, the descriptions become positively Indiana Jones-like:
The DM: “A swarm of rats floods the staircase.”
Alberik: “I move 25 feet down the stairs.”
Onwin: “Aren’t we still on the staircase?”
The DM: “Your strength is six, bro–not likely.”
Moxie: “Can we get some holy weapons, in case we run into some unholy people?”
Later, after a character dies, Onwin and Moxie have a humorous but sincere discussion on what to do with the body.
Onwin: “Are we leaving Dargo’s lifeless body? Can I summon an invisible servant?”
Moxie: “Can we just leave him in the house? It’s old, it’ll just cave in on him.”
The DM: “No laughing, this is a serious matter.”
Onwin: “I’m the crying on the inside. Couldn’t we just bury him in the basement?”
Later, after the story and game playing began to pick up speed, the DM declares it time to pack up and end for the night. It was early in the evening and a few of the men present had parental duties to return to.
I asked if women ever play with them. “Yes, women are into the storytelling,” the DM says. “The emotions of it. More women are into it than before.”
Before they leave, the DM and Alberik explain how D&D encouraged interactions with friends of theirs who, for varying reasons, had become shut-ins. Then, as we’re leaving, the DM casually tells me that when he’s not playing D&D he’s an officer with the Maui Police Department.
Every Tuesday night at Maui Comics and Collectibles, a motley crew of nerds with versatile backgrounds ascend into the shop after it closes. While some of those present play D&D and Magic The Gathering at the shop during game nights, they’re here for an entirely different purpose. Swan Kaho‘okele Sr., who works at the shop, sets up a tripod with a digital camera. Then the group sets up a large table and everyone is mic’d. It looks like it could be a political panel or the nerdier variation on “The Last Supper.” In fact, it’s another night of filming and recording for NERDWatch, the podcast featured on MAUIWatch, iTunes and YouTube.
While the lineup of panelists sometimes change, the core group is mostly the same: Seki, comic book artist Todd Bernardy, The Minorities musician, horror movie expert and former MauiTime contributor Gannon Gilmore, writer and gamer Jason David (who goes by “Phormat”) and business owner Bruce Hennesy (who, in a funny touch, spends most of the episodes reading quietly).
At the helm of the podcast and the leader of the group is Greg Turner, who goes by “G-Money.” Anyone who listens to the radio knows Turner, whose voice graces various ads. Turner was one half of “The Big Phat Morning Show” (the other half, Neldon “AZD’ Mamuad, is the founder of MAUIWatch). Now, playing host of a show with varying viewpoints, crammed with jokes and infotainment on all things nerdy in pop culture, Turner is in his element.
The show continues to gain listeners and is sponsored by Maui Comics and Collectibles. The two recently teamed up with Tugg Events to host a screening of Big Trouble in Little China. The event sold out, and more retro screenings are on the way. The NERDWatch also hosts screenings of nerd-friendly comic book and event films, such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Batman v Superman–Dawn of Justice.
“Nerd for me is more or less a term that defines someone intelligent in science, math or movies,” says Turner. “For me, it’s not a negative word, but an endearing term on something you are knowledgeable about. Someone who is passionate about their subject.”
Turner’s attempts to change the image of Maui Nerd Culture around has proven successful so far and his thoughts on the matter go far beyond his podcast. “The Maui nerd community has always been fairly consistent,” he says. “One of the reasons why I started NERDWatch was to bring nerd culture closer together on Maui. There are people who live in Kihei, Lahaina, so close together but worlds away. The podcast was designed to bring them together and let them know there are more of us out there. The things that you love, there are others who want to talk about it. They love movies, cosplaying, gaming. We don’t have to like the same thing, but there are those that do. I want to bring them together and make a nerd family of like-minded folks.”
Turner cites his father as the driving force of his personal growth. “My father is solely responsible for my nerdom, as it were,” he says. “He had a passion for the arts, was born in the ‘50s and grew up in ‘60s and ‘70s. His love rubbed off on me. My love for movies and this culture and video games comes from my dad. He bought me my first comic book.”
Turner’s intent with NERDWatch is earnest and ambitious. “My mission with NERDWatch podcast and Akaku TV show and YouTube show is to make the nerd culture stronger on Maui,” he says. “I want to make the word ‘nerd’ a fun word, I don’t want it to have a negative connotation. My mission is to bring us closer, make us a stronger unit, my mission with the podcast, to put a face to the nerd cult on Maui, to humanize it.”
While Turner is the show’s driving force and keeps his panel in check, he’s generous in pointing out how the NERDWatch ensemble is the reason for its success. “It’s our show, not mine alone,” he says. “Without NERDWatch, I never would have met a guy like Todd. He’s a smart individual with immense talent at drawing or crafting stories. Gannon is an amazing talent. He is not only a punk rock star but one of the smartest guys about horror movies I’ve ever met. Alika, the owner, is also a comic book historian and great motivator. He loves the nerd culture, to bring people together. Phormat is an amazing writer of fantasy. He’s a D&D player, a gamer and he’s amazing. The other guy, Hennesy, has his own business that revolves around nerd culture. Without these guys, the show wouldn’t run. Swan is the man who edits our Akaku show–I don’t ask him to do this, he’s been so gung ho to do it.”
After a long recording session (which is scheduled to begin at 7:30pm but doesn’t actually start until 9pm and finally finishes after midnight), Turner refIects once more on the topic of being a nerd on Maui. “I don’t think being a nerd was ever un-cool,” he says. “I believe everybody is a nerd. It doesn’t matter if you love comics, movies video games…those guys who are nerds about cars, books, reading, sewing, sports. Same thing. If that’s what you love, consider yourself a nerd. Nerd is more culture than it is cool. It’s ingrained in us.”
COLLECTING AND COSPLAY
Among the more intriguing former panelists on NERDWatch (who no longer participates because of personal obligations and general busy-ness) is James Welch. A show personality from its early days, Welch used to go by the name “Collector J” and is the owner of Geek Design Firm. Welch’s nickname comes from his astonishing collection of Batman paraphernalia and Legos.
I asked Welch to describe his large office for me: “It’s wall-to-wall Legos, comic books, statues, figures, 110-plus Lego sets, about 1,500 comic books,” he says. “It’s a Mecca for any kid in general. Somewhere in the middle is a computer I work on.”
Welch’s office looks more like a toy store or, perhaps, an offshoot of Maui Comics and Collectibles. Not surprisingly, all who enter find their jaws on the floor. “When kids come in, they are usually in awe, though the adults are like that, too. The first question I get is, ‘Can I look around?’ When you’ve got 10 shelves of stuff, they want to look around.”
Welch, a frequent customer of Seki’s store, only started his massive Legos collection four years ago. “I began with Legos, because it was a childhood thing,” he says. “I really got into it because of the stress of work. It was an escape. I started with a superhero and Star Wars set. “
For Welch, collecting isn’t merely the mission of a completist but a way to find an inner calm. “Collecting is a means for me to be more like me, a break from the day to day stresses of life. With Legos, you have an instruction book, you created it, you’re done. It’s nice to have someone tell you what to do and you finish it. There are some expensive, odd aspects to it.”
Another unusual hobby for Welch is how he integrates his collecting into pop art. He photographs his collection, then posts it to Instagram (his handle is @collector_j).
“I dabble in toy photography, using my toy collection,” he says. “I think a nerd is someone who’s passionate about something specific.” Welch’s work ranges from original pieces to recreations of famous comic book and movie iconography.
Welch’s family is both dazzled and mystified by his hobby. “They wish they could have one just like it,” he says. “My son does, my daughters could care less. My youngest just wants to play with it, my 18-month old just wants to put everything in his mouth.”
Then there’s Anne Nikita (a pseudonym she uses). Her passion is cosplay.
“Cosplay stands for costume playing,” she says. “Some are pure, some have more looser interpretations. The purists want the exact character, from head to toe. Everything has to be exact. The opposite end is me–trying to personify the character if it were real person. Most people are more in between, people put the costume on and act it out. The purists don’t deviate–they put on the costume and they are the character. “
Nikita began her hobby when she 18. “I was never allowed to do Halloween,” she says. “I went to college. I discovered Anime and was introduced to cosplay. The art scene in Southern California was another intro–a place of elaborate costumes and body-painting. A Halloween version of Burning Man; animatronics in the costumes. It’s amazing. In my college days, my pals were pre-med and they though my cosplay was childish. I didn’t stick with it. After college, I thought, ‘This sucks, I will do what I like.’”
While Nikita has cosplayed as Princess Katana from Mortal Kombat, the Penguin, the Joker and Catwoman, her focus of late has been on Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn. “I’ve always loved Harley since she was introduced in the animated series,” she says. “I choose a character to be my life’s rendition of her. Harley’s back story had some psychological issues with controlling people and made her play a certain role. Meeting the Joker made her feel like, ‘I don’t wanna be playing this role’. At this point in my life, I think, I don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not and fit into what someone’s idea of what a good person is. She has resonated with me for the past year.”
Of course, Nikita is far from the only one on Maui who enjoys cosplay. “There’s a contest every year: Maui Matsuri,” she says. “It’s coming up. There’s a crowd of cosplayers at UH Maui College, a great group of kids. [And] at local movie premieres, you’ll see people dressed up and closet cosplayers will come out.”
The topic of bullying resonates with Nikita, who has seen firsthand how some choose to act around her and others in costume. “It sucks for my girlfriends,” she says. “We wear these costumes because we’re playing these characters and paying homage to the creators. I’ve witnessed bullying for this when it was a new thing. We were considered freaks and weirdos. It wasn’t nice to be called names and have assumptions made, but it was OK to dress up for Halloween. I think it didn’t become more accepted until much later. In the ‘90s, we were geeks and freaks because we liked comics. Now that we’re adults–we’re the ones creating comic book stories, we’re calling the shots. Now it’s cool to like comics and dress up.”
Nikita’s young son also takes part in his mother’s passion. “He loves it!” she says. “I let him choose his clothes, his veggies. It’s all about choice. If he chooses it for himself, I’ll support it. His first costume was in 2013. He had all the Disney characters [but] he picked Batman. I dressed up as Harley. That’s how I supported my son, to play with him and be his supporting role. Right now he loves Star Wars, he knows who Yoda is. I’m intrigued that a four-year-old can get the gist of it and likes it, chooses to watch it.”
While Nikita clearly loves to involve her son in cosplay, her take on having children embody dark characters is quite unconventional.
“I’ve always gravitated towards villains,” she says. “When people ask me, ‘Why do you play the bad guys?’ my response is that you need the bad guy. Without them, where would the good guys be? Doing nothing. The bad guys gets the ball rolling. The good guys would be in hammocks drinking margaritas. To be a bad guy, you have to be inventive, smart and motivated. For kids who like bad guys, go for it. Parents always want their kids to play the good guys–no, play the bad guys. Being a bad guy doesn’t mean you’re flawed. They are smart. I sometimes dress up as Wile E. Coyote, because he never quits. You can’t keep him down. How fun is the Road Runner without Wile? Without him, the Road Runner sucks. Parents should let their kids play the bad guys. They’re only bad because… it’s the Tall Poppy syndrome. Anyone who wants to stand up is chopped down. Kids who are Type-A personalities are called know-it-alls and said to ask too many questions. I don’t think we should tell our kids to become sheeples.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photo of Alika Seki courtesy Maui Comics & Collectibles