Alter Egos is a column that highlights talented geeks in the Chattanooga area, tracing the origins of their favorite pop culture obsessions to their present-day hobbies.
Richard Kephart knew he was a geek from the very beginning—and comics and literature shaped his interests.
"When I was growing up, there were only books and comics," the 62-year-old capacity planner and performance analyst said. "Gaming, costuming and anime hadn’t been invented yet. I read books and comics constantly. I was lucky enough to read ‘Spider-Man’ from the very first issue and kept it up for a long time."
Kephart counts Mr. Spock as his favorite sci-fi character and has fond memories of "Star Trek" from his childhood.
"It was totally different from anything else that had been on television, and I looked forward to it every week," he said. "I was probably the perfect age at 12 to grasp onto it when it was brand-new."
His favorite fandom—"Star Wars"—followed shortly after, and he’s been witness to how the fandom has changed since the first movie quietly premiered to now, when "Star Wars" nostalgia is high and merchandise is in even greater demand.
"I was 23 when the first ‘Star Wars’ movie came out, which wasn’t greatly popular at first," he said. "But then, by the time the second movie came out, it was the first time people stood in lines for hours with any movie. I believe that was attributable to the merchandise, which was also a new thing."
Kephart has also seen how geek fandom overall has changed throughout the years and feels positive about the changes, but thinks it goes back to the comics of his childhood.
"Right now, it’s a great time, with the comic-related movies being the thing that has pushed it forward," he said. "You could follow the changes by watching the popularity of comic book stores. They seem to change every 10 years or so."
A disturbance in The Force
Kephart’s love of "Star Wars" morphed into his current hobby of cosplay, where he decided to don the Jedi robes of one of the series’ most iconic characters, Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi. It was a chance encounter at a local fan event that introduced him to the cosplay fan group Chattooine, which he has been a long-standing member of.
"It was three years ago that I was at McKay’s being Obi-Wan for a free comic book day at the request of Dawnia Powers, the manager there," he said. "Some people came in from Chattooine dressed in costume, and I joined them on the spot."
Kephart has been cosplaying for nearly 30 years now and has seen many changes in the hobby since he started. With stores like Hot Topic and Think Geek offering ready-to-wear cosplay pieces, he thinks many costumes that were once out of reach are now accessible to all.
Quality is also a big change, with many retailers moving away from flimsy Halloween-quality-type costumes to higher-quality designs, fabrics and accents.
"Cosplay is much easier than it used to be," he said. "In the '80s, we would have to get together and make the costumes from scratch. Now you have patterns to follow, foam to build armor and prosthetics, and premade pieces you can buy from the internet. The costumes now are so much better and professional-looking than when I started."
Kephart is a regular attendee at Chattooine events and meet-ups, and his two top costumes couldn’t be more different in terms of style and personality.
"My favorites are ... polar opposites, [with] reserved Obi-Wan and over-the-top Beetlejuice," he said. "I can have more fun doing Beetlejuice, though, because I can take it in any direction and do a lot of improv when interacting with people."
While part of Chattooine’s mission is connecting cosplayers and geeks throughout the Chattanooga area, Kephart pointed out that its heart is helping others and bringing attention to important causes, which goes beyond getting a quick selfie with your favorite character.
"The most important part of groups like Chattooine is bringing attention to any charity," he said. "With their participation, they can increase the donations and participation of the general public. My favorite part of doing things with Chattooine is seeing the smiles on [their] faces. It’s a great group to be part of with wonderful people."
Rachel Stewart grew up in the '80s on a healthy diet of pop culture. In 2005, she discovered "Doctor Who" and never looked back. Since then, she co-founded the Tennessee Who Authority—a "Doctor Who" fan group—and has served as a panelist at fan conventions across the Southeast, including Con Nooga, Wholanta, Hurricane Who and ConGT. She also reviews "Doctor Who" novels and "Big Finish" audios at "The Oncoming Storm" podcast. Want to show off your alter ego? Email Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org.