Secret identities revealed as cosplayer community gathers at Anaheim’s WonderCon
Outside the Anaheim Convention Center on March 26, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy strolled past the water fountain, where Boba Fett and other characters from the Star Wars franchise stood chatting in a semicircle. Nearby, Doctor Octopus, complete with mechanical arms, posed for a picture while a gaggle of Disney princesses flounced by. Although it was the final day of this year’s WonderCon, there was no shortage of cosplayers.
WonderCon, the annual comic book, science fiction and film convention, celebrated its 35th anniversary and 10th year in Southern California as WonderCon Anaheim over the weekend of March 24 through 26. Put on by Comic-Con International, the same event organizers of Comic-Con, the convention attracts fans from around the country. More than 900 exhibitors filled the 412,000-square-foot exhibit hall with comic books, original art and collectible toys and merchandise.
The convention sponsored panels and presentations for every sort of interest and offered activities like autograph signings from comic artists and actors to game demonstrations and tournaments for popular games like Magic: the Gathering.
WonderCon is a place where those with rare interests can find others who share the same obsessions with anime or Dungeons & Dragons. It’s also a place where walking around dressed like the Hulk seems perfectly ordinary.
Cosplayers, and the people who love and support them, swarmed the convention floor and the outdoor areas surrounding it.
“Cosplay is broken up into two words,” said Jay Holliday, founder of Kids Can Cosplay, a nonprofit he started in 2013. “You have ‘cos,’ which is short for costumes and ‘play’ which means you play or act as the character.”
Cosplaying is more than just wearing a costume. Cosplayers recognize that when they put on a mask, makeup or outfit that emulate their favorite fictional character, they get a little bit of that power.
“Kids get to be Superman when they put on a cape, they can be Batman when they put on a mask, and they get to embrace those characters and be somebody they normally aren’t,” said Holliday.
Holliday’s organization, which had a booth on the convention floor, began with his own kids enjoying cosplay. His children came up with the idea of using cosplay to help kids less fortunate, and Holliday tapped into the cosplay community to organize volunteer cosplayers to visit hospitals and homeless shelters.
Kids Can Cosplay often hands out art supplies, toys, comics and super hero masks, and Holliday said when kids put on the mask of their favorite hero, it can change them.
“A lot of kids find, especially those that struggle with being introverts or maybe are on the spectrum, the minute they put on that mask and that cape and we teach them that you can be that hero that you want to be, they just start having so much fun being Batman or Harley Quinn,” said Holliday.
Cosplaying isn’t just for kids. In fact, a majority of those involved in the community are adults. Some even dress up as family, like Joanna Santillan from Santa Ana, who dressed as the Scarlet Witch and joined her son, Sergio Alverez, dressed as Dr. Strange, and her daughter, Jocelyn Alverez, dressed as America Chavez.
“We are united and we are a family,” Santillan said. “So why not dress up together?”
Santillan said she made Sergio’s costume, and her brother made Jocelyn’s denim jacket, with America’s signature stars and stripes along with detailed props, like a Plexiglas light-up star as a stand-in for America’s star portal and a Plexiglas representation of Dr. Strange’s spell-making complete with etched details.
The demand for specific costumes has spawned cosplay businesses like FirstStop Cosplay, who also had a booth at WonderCon.
“FirstStop Cosplay is a cosplay sewing pattern company,” said Kit Pierce. “We try to make them as user friendly as possible.”
Based in Irvine, the company features a couple licensed patterns but also basic patterns to make garments like a cropped tank top or safety shorts that can be used as a canvas to create multiple characters. The patterns are easy to read, printed on a parchment-like paper rather than the usual delicate tissue paper and come in multiple sizes, rather than nested.
“A lot of what we work on doing is making cosplay more accessible for the majority of people,” said Kelly Willie. “With cosplay, there is so much to know that you can’t know straight off the bat.”
Costumes are often intricate because they are handmade by fans who know the particular features of their favorite character down to the tiniest detail.
Lillian Becker of Murieta, who dressed as Draculaura, the Romanian vampire daughter of Dracula from “Monster High,” said her costume was a combination of thrift store finds and handmade items.
“The majority of this was thrifted,” said Becker. “I made the boots myself. It is kind of hard to find some of this stuff, so a lot of it you just have to make yourself.”
Becker said she spent about 40 hours working on the costume that included pink lace-up boots, a white pleated miniskirt, pink vest and a black lace parasol.
“A lot of it was hand sewing,” she said, pointing to the white contrast stitching on her vest.
The hair and makeup are easy, as are the fake fangs.
“They are just a pain to talk with,” Becker said.
Andrew Butler’s Mandolorian costume took considerably longer.
“I 3D-printed most of it,” said the Santa Clarita resident. “It took about two years.”
Butler wore his creation both Saturday and Sunday, and the armor held up well.
If any costumes do start to fall apart, cosplay repair people like Brian Mero are fully prepared to help.
“I am doing cosplay repair, I have a full backpack of supplies for anybody who needs repair for cosplay,” said Mero. “It is just a way for me to give back to the cosplay community.”
Appropriately dressed as Fix-it Felix from “Wreck-it Ralph,” Mero said he carries safety pins, duct tape and super glue.
Mero has been cosplaying for 14 years and helped his own kids with costumes when they were young. When they got older, Mero was looking for a way to remain active in the cosplay community when he read about cosplay repair people attending conventions in New York.
Although he doesn’t charge for his services, he has a business card with a QR code to his Venmo for donations or tips that help offset the cost of supplies, like the superglue he ran out of on Friday.
“It feels great being able to help somebody, especially some newbie cosplayers who come in, and things are falling off before they even get in the door, a bit of superglue can go a long way,” said Mero. “It is just great when people trust me.”
“Cosplay is not consent” is a phrase you will hear in the community, meaning costumes are not an invitation to flirt with or touch a cosplayer, an idea Mero understands as cosplayer himself.
“As a cosplayer, you don’t want people touching you because things will fall off,” Mero said.
Mero said the trust and respect between cosplayers and cosplay repairers like him was evident on Saturday, when he worked as a volunteer with the Masquerade, a cosplay competition that awards WonderCon trophies, cash and other prizes to cosplayers. A young woman needed help with an intimate portion of her costume, and she enlisted the help of Mero, whom said she said saw as a father figure.
“She goes, ‘You are like my Dad,’” Mero recalled. “She said, ‘Except my Dad doesn’t go to Cons. So I totally trust you.’”
Not all heroes wear capes, as they say.
As the convention drew to a close on Sunday afternoon, cosplayers surrounded the outdoor fountain, taking pictures of one another and getting in a bit more time in character until the next convention.
“I just love seeing all the costumes,” said Butler. “I love taking pictures with people. It has been so fun.”
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