Taken out of context, I look ridiculous. I am standing in front of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center among a group of costumed anime fans, and I am wearing Mary Janes paired with a powder-blue dress in an old-fashioned bicycle print. A large bow decorates the neckline — I am going for an Alice in Wonderland look. Last night, I scoured my closet, the goal being an outfit that may or may not be read as a costume.
When I asked my husband what he thought, he said, “If you’re trying to look like a kindergarten teacher, or one of those freaky twins from The Shining, it works.”
“Close enough,” I said.
Of course, I should be dressed as an obscure Japanese comic-book character, like everyone else at the Balboa Park cosplay meeting.
Five days earlier, I’d emailed 19-year-old Shannon Downer, a diehard cosplayer (“cosplay” is short for “costume play”) who agreed to allow me to tag along with her at Saturday’s event. I asked to borrow an outfit.
“So I can be part of the experience,” I explained.
From the tone of Shannon’s written response, it was clear she was not pleased with my request. As a result, on Friday night, with less than 12 hours until the cosplay event, she called off our interview. I had crossed a line. According to Shannon’s cosplaying friend, Marina MacDonald, “That is just not how cosplay works.” She said this with a heavy sigh, making it clear that I just don’t get it. Anime fans dress the way they do because they are passionate about it. Loaning out costumes is not something they do.
Nevertheless, I managed to talk Shannon into following through with the interview.
“You can come,” she said, “but you need to be at my house at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.”
I have a hard time finding the Downers’ home. Everything looks identical in Shannon’s Spring Valley subdivision, all beiges and stuccos, with the types of yards that gardeners maintain.
Mrs. Downer, Shannon’s mother (who does not offer her first name), answers the door after one knock and ushers me inside. Mrs. Downer wears a full-length denim skirt and a plaid blouse buttoned all the way up. Two shiny crucifixes hang around her neck. She introduces me to a housecat stretched out on the carpet. She talks to the cat in a high-pitched baby voice.
Mrs. Downer shouts up the stairs to Shannon, “That reporter is here!” There is heavy emphasis on the word that.
Nineteen-year-old Marina emerges from a nearby bathroom.
“You’ll have to excuse us,” she says. “We’re still getting our undergarments on.” Marina is wearing fishnet tights, a T-shirt, and no pants.
Mrs. Downer lowers her gaze. “It’s okay,” she mumbles in the voice she’d used to speak to her cats. “It’s just us girls and the kitty cats here today.”
Mrs. Downer goes into the kitchen and shuffles around. Moments later, she is standing near the front door with car keys in hand. She turns to me. “I’m going to have to ask you to move your car. I’m on my way to a Bible meeting, and you’re blocking me in.”
When her mother leaves, Shannon finally makes her way down the stairs. It’s hard to believe this is the same girl I ran into three weeks earlier in Balboa Park. Her dishwater hair has dusty blond roots, and her skin is so pale she’s nearly translucent. The last time I saw Shannon, she had on a long black wig and was toting a fake rifle — she looked like an Amish girl gone rogue. That day, her friend Marina was a steampunk version of the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland in platinum wig, a monocle, and an extremely short skirt. Today, Marina’s hair is long, a mousy brown.
Both Shannon and Marina are full-time students. Shannon attends Grossmont College. Marina goes to SDSU and shares an apartment near campus with her dad. Neither girl works.
They rush around Shannon’s house. The cut-off heels of pantyhose hug their heads, a trick to make their wigs fit better.
“Anime characters are perfect,” Shannon says as she layers on foundation. “They are tiny and have big eyes and creamy skin. We have to wear a lot of concealer.”
Marina again emerges from the bathroom. She’s now wearing an emerald-green corset. “Shannon is made for anime,” she says. “She’s tiny and pale. It’s hard for plus-sized girls like me to do cosplay…we’re both dressing as men today. Shannon is Ciel Phantomhive and I’m Undertaker from the Kuroshitsuji series, also known as Black Butler.”
“This turns my C-cup into a man’s chest,” Marina motions to her corset. “Anime characters are usually thin. I always wear a corset. It gives me an edge. I buy a lot of our stuff on eBay, and I make the rest. If I were really dedicated to cosplay, I would cut all my hair off to make it easier to wear wigs, but I like to be pretty in real life.”
Marina and Shannon are now seated on the Downers’ 1980s style couch, applying more make-up. The coffee table is cluttered with powders, lotions, and creams. On the far wall hang family photos — awkward Christmas studio shots of Shannon and her sister. There is one of Shannon as a toddler in an angel costume, a fluffy halo perched on her head. On the back wall, a clunky bookshelf holds books; most are religious — dozens of Bibles, audio books on Jesus, and texts with titles such as Christ in the Home, The Rapture Trap, and Catholic Prophecy. A smaller section of the bookcase is reserved for sci-fi, Stephen King novels, and comic books.
Cosplay enthusiasts share stories about their experiences doing cosplay in public.
“My mom is a super-Catholic,” Shannon says. “I don’t tell her when I dress up as demons. I had a pentacle on my head once, and she freaked out. But most of the demons in comic books are adorable. She never knows.”
Shannon tells me that her parents have come to terms with her cosplay hobby. But in the beginning, they weren’t so accepting.
“My parents thought it was really weird. They thought I would turn into a total geek and just fail at life. They don’t think that anymore. Now they think it’s adorable when I dress up.”
The first time Shannon cosplayed was at Comic-Con 2010. She was 16. During the first few days, she didn’t dress up. She felt too uncomfortable.
“Finally, I just decided that I would jump in and try it. I was kind of nervous about going around dressed up. But once people started coming up to me and joking around, it became a lot of fun. I took a bunch of pictures with people dressed up from the same anime as me. I think cosplay opens people up; because you’re in costume, it’s easier to let go and enjoy yourself.”
Forty-five minutes after my arrival, Shannon and Marina have transformed themselves. Shannon’s outfit is a cross between circus freak and a marching-band member: high-waisted red polyester shorts and a matching double-breasted blazer with gold piping. Underneath is a black button-down shirt with elaborate flowing cuffs. Knee socks peek out from clunky platform boots. She holds a staff with a skull on top. Her gray wig looks like an elderly version of Justin Bieber’s famous haircut.
Marina wears a black trench coat with a silver belly bracelet that features coin-shaped charms. Across her chest, a gray sash looks like a baby sling. She has on a waist-length gray wig that falls over her eyes — just like the undertaker she is emulating. She has attached a piece of plastic to her face that looks like a broken part of a Thomas the Tank Engine train track.
“The undertaker has a scar,” she says. “I painted this last night and attached it with spirit gum.” Marina’s boots lace up past her knees, reaching mid-thigh. “I’m not going to bother wearing pants under the coat. It’s hot out.”
On the drive to Balboa Park, I sit in the backseat of Marina’s car, wedged between two wooden stakes that have Japanese characters handwritten on them (props for Marina’s costume), a large make-up case for touch-ups, and a picnic lunch of cold-cut sandwiches. Shannon and Marina listen to pop music. Marina sings along to a Maroon 5 song.
On the 94, Marina tells me she isn’t a huge fan of Comic-Con. “It’s more about pop culture,” she says.
“A lot of people I know aren’t big Comic-Con fans,” Shannon says. “Most people there don’t respect the [anime] communities that attend the convention. At Comic-Con 2011, they wouldn’t let the cosplayers gather in their regular spot, even though they’ve been gathering there for years. When we tried to sit around and talk, they kept telling us to clear out. That’s another thing: there’s nowhere to sit. After a long day of walking and standing in uncomfortable shoes and heavy costume, pretty much all of the benches are taken, and they won’t let you sit on the floor. It’s very expensive. In the end, it doesn’t seem worth going because they’re so strict.”
In three weeks, Shannon and Marina will attend Yaoi-Con, an anime convention in Long Beach.
“Today is a practice round,” Marina says. “These events at Balboa Park are casual. We don’t usually wear things this elaborate. We can mess up today. Our outfits don’t have to be perfect, but everything does need to be perfect when we go to Long Beach for Yaoi-Con. At that convention, there are artists and panels to go to.”
Marina tells me about their costumes.
Image by Howie Rosen
“Most cosplayers have just one main costume. They’re very expensive. We’re wearing our main ones today. Mine cost $175. Shannon’s was $250. I bought Shannon’s because she can’t really afford it.”
Marina tweaks the purchases using her sewing machine to transform outfits so that they more closely resemble what their favorite comic-book heroes wear. She has a knack for designing costumes, though she decided against a degree in fashion. (“I’m a nursing student. I want to do something that will sustain me.”)
The girls attend a handful of conventions each year. Their favorite is a three-day event called Anime Conji, held each spring at the Town and Country Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Mission Valley. Once a month, and sometimes more frequently, they meet with other cosplayers at the big fountain in Balboa Park. Most members of their cosplay group are in their teens and early 20s.
“We communicate and plan events mostly through Facebook,” Shannon says.
“Our oldest member is 23,” Marina says. “There is one girl that comes who is 14. I think that’s our youngest.”
“We’re not going to be doing this when we’re 30,” Shannon says. “That would be weird.”
When asked how they feel about being gawked at, both girls agree that it’s no big deal as long as they’re in a big group.
“Can you blame them for staring?” Marina asks. “We’re very stareable. I avoid going out alone dressed like this.”
Shannon adds that it doesn’t really matter what non-cosplayers think. “The cosplay community is very inviting, eager to accept new people, even if your cosplay isn’t top quality. It’s about having fun and meeting people. When you have an extravagant cosplay, more people will want to take pictures and talk to you. That’s what motivates us to try our hardest when making costumes. At conventions, I’ve met many people just because they see my character and want to talk to me about the anime.”
Shannon and Marina....
Image by Howie Rosen
When we pull into an empty parking lot adjacent to Balboa Park’s Spanish Village Art Center, we are over two hours early for the event. While Shannon and Marina gather their items from the car, a little girl points at us. I overhear her say to her mom, “Mommy, look, show people!”
I follow Shannon and Marina past the Balboa Park fountain and down a set of stone steps to the butterfly pavilion.
“Sometimes,” Marina says, “we have to fight over this spot with a group of parkour guys. They can be real assholes. We always meet at the fountain because it makes it easier for new people. We usually end up here, though.”
The girls fish their wigs and hats out of a large paper bag and begin putting the finishing touches on their costumes. Shannon places a small red hat on her head and realizes it doesn’t fit right. Meanwhile, Marina is upset because her wig doesn’t look like her character’s.
She turns to me in frustration. “Cosplay is rough on perfectionists. This is what we call a complete disaster. My wig is frizzing! The spirit gum I used to apply my scar is peeling off, and my hat won’t fit on my head because my ponytail is too high!”
Shannon shoots Marina a helpless look.
Marina’s voice rises. “When [cosplay] goes right, it’s really fun. When it doesn’t, it can be really depressing.”
Shannon apologizes to Marina, taking full responsibility for the wardrobe malfunctions. “I sent Sabrina a text,” she says. “She should be here any second with scissors to fix your wig.”
Thirty minutes pass with no sign of Sabrina. Both girls are seconds away from tears. They sit on a stone wall in the Butterfly Pavilion while groups of women speed-walk past, pushing strollers. A little girl in a bright blue tutu and leopard-print leotard strolls by with her family. She takes one look at Marina and Shannon and erupts into a fit of giggles. Neither Shannon nor Marina bats an eye.
After a lengthy silence, Marina announces, “I think I might just go wigless.”
“Really?” Shannon says.
“I don’t know how we’re going to fix this before the Long Beach convention,” Marina says.
From the top of the stone steps, someone shouts, “Hey, sluts!”
A pretty blonde in short-shorts, a black T-shirt with an anime print, and five-inch stilettos decorated with silver studs approaches. She’s accompanied by Sabrina, the one with the scissors, supposedly a whiz with wigs.
Sabrina’s costume can best be described as “deranged blackjack dealer.” She’s wearing a pantsuit, a white button-down shirt with a bow tied around her neck, and a red trench coat. Orange contacts make her eyes glow. Her vivid red wig is waist length and ratty, more of a nightmare than Marina’s. She holds a handmade wooden chainsaw. Her teeth are jagged. At first glance, she appears to have a dental issue, but upon closer inspection, I realize that she has blacked out a few teeth.
“I used waterproof eyeliner,” she later tells me. “As long as I don’t eat or drink anything, my teeth will stay like this all day.”
Immediately, Marina apologizes for the state of her costume. “You’ll have to forgive my Undertaker. This is the first time I’ve brought him out. And, I don’t know why, but the spirit gum I used on the scar isn’t sticking to my face.”
“No offense, but at first I thought you were Oskara,” says the pretty blonde whose name is Aimee.
Marina grimaces. Clearly, that’s a put-down.
The three girls converge on Marina to fix her costume concerns.
“You can’t do it,” Marina says. “Build-A-Bear is magical. Hey, do you think you can make a bear that screams bloody murder?” They all crack up. The tense moment has passed.
An overweight woman approaches. With panic in her voice, the woman asks if they have seen a young girl dressed up as Italy from the manga series Hetalia. “She’s only 12, and she got in the car to come here with someone she doesn’t even know. She’s going to the Hetalia meet-up at the Organ Pavilion.”
Marina scrunches up her nose “We are not a Hetalia group,” she says. “Sorry.”
When the woman walks away, Marina turns to me and says, “Hetalia groups are weird. They’re obsessed with [cosplay]. They’re diehards and they freak me out!”
At 11:30, after two hours of sitting around at the Butterfly Pavilion, I follow the four girls to the fountain to join the rest of their cosplay group. As we make the short walk, all eyes are on us.
A man in a Hawaiian shirt snaps a photo.
“Yay, we’re a freak show!” Aimee shouts to the gawkers.
At the fountain, Aimee straddles a guy on a bench. He’s dressed in all black and wearing women’s ballet flats. The two make out in front of a 14-year-old girl (at first, I think she’s a boy, but then she introduces herself as Alana Maddox). Alana wears a canary-yellow top with a red ribbon tied around the neck, skinny jeans, and Vans tennis shoes. She holds a camcorder.
I stand next to a guy named Ryan. He’s over six feet tall and has a beard and mustache. He appears to be dressed as a bunny...or maybe a yeti.
More characters arrive. A friend brings Aimee her costume, a bright red dress that makes her look like a parlormaid. She’s wearing a matching red chin-length wig.
A tall, round man shows up. He looks to be in his 40s, maybe 50s. He stands out in this group of teens and early-20-somethings. He has on blue pants that hit just above his ankles. The pants are pulled up above his waist, paired with a red-and-white-striped shirt and an unbuttoned forest-green trench coat. His hair is slicked back. Three black dots have been drawn on either side of his scalp. With eyeliner, he’s made himself a monobrow.
For the most part, everyone ignores him.
“Who is that guy?” I ask Marina.
She gives a disgusted shrug. “I don’t know. Randoms show up.”
The man introduces himself as David Kenan. He’s 47 and dressed as a popular cartoon character from the late ’90s. He pushes his chest out and throws his arms back in a strange pose.
“Recognize me now?” he asks with a smile.
I shake my head.
He’s disappointed. “I’m Ed,” he says, “from Ed, Edd n Eddy.”
A group of mimes has set up near the entrance to the Reuben H. Fleet. They eyeball us.
“Freaks,” says a cosplayer in a puffy tutu. “Mimes freak me out.”
A woman sitting a few feet away on a picnic blanket watches the anime fans’ activities as if it’s a movie. She looks thoroughly perplexed. A toddler walks past hand-in-hand with her mother. When she sees us, she begins to cry.
“It’s okay, honey,” the mother says, stifling a laugh. “It’s make-believe. They’re just playing dress-up, like you do with your princess dresses.”
A young woman in what can best be described as a deranged-dino costume takes her mask off and smiles down at the little girl. In return, the child screams louder.
Another kid approaches. She poses with the cosplayers while her mother takes photos.
When the group has grown to about 25, they head to the Organ Pavilion. They plan to merge with the Hetalia group’s meet-up. Marina isn’t keen on the idea and attempts to persuade everyone to go to the Butterfly Pavilion instead, but someone has invited a professional photographer, and he thinks the Organ Pavilion will serve as a nice backdrop. So everyone heads in that direction.
As the group walks through the park, I feel as if I’m part of a bizarre parade. People pause and turn their heads. Many stop to snap photos.
“It would be a lot less annoying if people would just ask to take our photo,” says a girl in a jester mask. “We wouldn’t mind. We’d say ‘yes.’”
At the Organ Pavilion, everyone heads up onto the stage. The costumed adults and teens loiter. At one point, someone plays “Gangnam Style” on an iPod and they break into dance. A guy in a heavy black trench coat has the moves down perfectly.
In a cartoon voice, a girl dressed as a sailor shouts, “Whoever wants free lollipops and cookies, come get ’em.” She holds up a Tupperware container filled with goodies.
High-school students and some junior-high schoolers arrive — they’re all part of the Hetalia group. They join the other costumed fans on the Organ Pavilion stage.
David, the 47-year-old, has been joined by two men who appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s. One is dressed as Sonic the Hedgehog. Another looks like Neo from The Matrix. When I comment on that, he is deeply offended.
“People always think I’m Neo,” he mumbles.
“Who are you supposed to be?” I ask.
“You wouldn’t get it,” he says and walks away.
Two teenage girls sit at the edge of the stage. Both wear baby-doll dresses.
“What characters are you?” I ask.
“We aren’t really characters. We’re dressed in Lolita style.”
“Oh. You’re Nabokov fans?”
“Huh?” says the one wearing clunky black glasses.
“The author of Lolita,” I explain.
They stare blankly. The girl in the glasses turns her head and begins a conversation with someone else.
The photographer invites groups of people dressed as characters from the same comic books to pose together. He snaps away.
A man in a suit and a woman in a frilly dress are visibly irritated. With them is another photographer. “How long will you all be here?” the woman asks a costumed teen. “My fiancé and I are supposed to take our engagement photos here.”
The teen’s response: “All day.”
The woman walks away in a huff.
I sit on bleachers, facing the stage. Alana Maddox plops down next to me. She’s the 14-year-old I met earlier.
“Who are you dressed as?” I ask.
“I’m Italy from Hetalia.”
Hetalia is a comic-book series based on WWII and other historical events. Each character represents a country, and each has a negative and positive “stereotype.”
“I’m really into history, so I love Hetalia,” Alana says. She was 12 when a friend introduced her to the anime. She became wrapped up in it. “When I started dressing up as the characters from Hetalia, some people found it different. I am different. They think I’m obsessed with it. It isn’t true.” She shrugs. “I just like pretending to be someone I’m not.”
She explains what they do at a regular Hetalia meet-up.
“We hang out, we have food, we play games, and we role-play. We try to keep it clean. We don’t allow drinking or smoking. There was a guy who showed up a couple of weeks ago. He started getting into people’s personal space and hugging people without their consent. We had a group discussion and decided to kick him out. We do temporary bans, too. Those are for people that make fun of other people’s costumes.”
Alana tells me that, today they will role-play Hetalia scenes on the Organ Pavilion stage.
I spot Marina nearby. She’s standing with a girl in a blond wig wearing an elaborate princess dress. I ask Marina if she’ll take part in the role-playing with the Hetalia group.
“We don’t do that,” she says with exasperation. “That’s a little too extreme for me.”
Aimee’s boyfriend, Joshua Rodriguez (the young man wearing ballet flats), is sitting in one of the only spots of shade on the stage. He motions for me to join him.
He rattles off the reasons he loves cosplay. “What got me interested in cosplaying was anime itself. Seeing fictional characters and how cool they look had me excited to dress up in a totally different way.” Joshua works at the Animal Protection and Rescue League thrift store in Clairemont, a few shops away from Comickaze, a local comic-book store. “I’ve never been made fun of for doing this,” he says. “I’ve always been a cool guy. People just figured that, if I was into anime, it must be cool.”
Joshua wants to start his own cosplay group.
“It’s going to be a Teen Titans one. Like the cartoon. I’m going to be Robin. My group is going to be more organized than this one. We aren’t just going to stand around. We might do some larping [live-action role playing] and a few stunts. I’m hoping to get a cameraman to film reenactments.”
I look over to see Sabrina, Shannon, and Marina posing for more photos. The photographer instructs them to use their weapons. Marina draws her wooden stakes. Sabrina points her chainsaw at Marina. Meanwhile, other cosplayers stand around in small clusters, as if gathered in a high-school cafeteria. A few people are acting out comic-book scenes. On the seats that face the stage, random park visitors sit and watch everything unfold. They seem amused. I join the spectators and wait for something to happen. Nothing does.
It’s late afternoon when I decide to head home. While I’m gathering up my things, an elderly woman and her two granddaughters sit down beside me.
“What are you guys?” the woman wants to know.
“Cosplayers” I say.
“What do you do?” she asks.
“They dress up as their favorite comic-book, cartoon, and video-game characters,” I explain.
“I can see that,” the woman says patiently. “What I meant was, what do they do — besides wear costumes?”
I think a moment, then say, “I’m still trying to figure that out.”