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The Mike Toole Show
Cosplay Complex

by Michael Toole,

Two weeks later, I'm still coming off the contact high of Otakon. It's not that it's the absolute best anime convention, it's simply that it takes so many aspects of conventions and scales them up, almost to the point of hilarity.  Otakon is so outsized that it engulfs an entire neighborhood. Baltimore's mayor is quick to cite its importance to the region. It's a place where lines for world-famous directors and bashed-together fan panels each stretch off into the distance, where crowd control for costumed attendees is a contentious issue, and where those annoying shout memes are so prevalent that one of the neighborhood's water hawkers has shot to internet fame. It's the second-largest event of its type in the country. Japan's Comiket, which is wrapping as this column hits the site, is several times larger - but it's just not the same kind of event. Each event draws thousands of fans, but while Otakon is an omnivorous fan's delight, Comiket focuses specifically on dojinshi and other fan-published content. The biggest thing that the two have in common is, of course, the cosplay.

For an easily-distracted doofus like me, cosplay is just another part of the riotous collection of fun you see at anime cons; I know I'm getting close to Otakon when I start noticing kids in black Bleach hakama and Naruto headbands on the city's inbound light rail. But for thousands and thousands of fans, cosplay is the reason to go to conventions, their ultimate and favorite way to express their affection for the stupid cartoons and comics we all love. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars are spent acquiring materials, tweaking patterns, fabricating props, and applying makeup for that perfect look. (Well, that's the best-case scenario. For the lazy nerd, there's always Cardboard Gundam.) Even more time might be invested in collaborations with friends, particularly if the group decides to throw down at the convention's masquerade, the Saturday night tentpole of most anime cons. Then you have a skit to worry about, musical cues, lighting... The pressure is magnified even more at a con like Otakon, which hosts its masquerade at the cavernous First Mariner Arena, where thousands flock to see kids in meticulously detailed costumes perform dance numbers and reproduce hit YouTube videos. But you know, I don't see what the big deal is. After all, I won the Otakon masquerade in 1998.

What, did you think this column was going to be about that crummy Wonder Farm OVA from 2002? Please. Heh, hey guys, remember Wonder Farm? They made a bundle on that Hand Maid May rubbish, then pretty much killed their company with Hand Maid Mai, which was so awful it got cancel-- OK, you know what? That's a column for another day. In this column, I'm weirding you out by telling you that me, a fat doofus with the most tenuous grasp of fashion, actually won the big prize at a major anime convention. Of course, this was a pretty long time ago. Otakon 1998 was a big deal at the time, but it drew 2,500 fans, a small enough number to fit inside a single hotel, as opposed to this year's fire code-shattering 31,000. The competition back then was real, but it just wasn't as fierce. But why did I do it, and who the hell was I dressed as, anyway?

To answer that, let's go back to the absolute dawn of cosplaying: the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention. Yeah, they actually had conventions in 1939. I struggle to think of what the attendees did without video rooms, video gaming areas, or some sort of "rave," but it was enough of an event to spark some hilarious con drama! Anyway, at this inaugural WorldCon, a kid named Forrest Ackerman had this crazy idea: he'd actually dress up as a futuristic space guy. And so he did, and the result was this:

I'm not really sure about what, specifically is futuristic about flared pants and shoulder pads, but there you have it, the very first known example of nerds in costumes. Ackerman, a giant of science fiction fandom who died in 2008, wasn't making some sort of biting critique of uptight SF fans, he just wanted to have fun. And costuming would stick around, too-- it wasn't a driving force of early conventions, but the emergence of broadly popular visual media like Star Trek and Star Wars in the west and Space Battleship Yamato in the east would help turn a sideshow into one of the biggest convention draws. Here's a video that shows what a convention masquerade was like just before all that, in 1972. Be warned: it's mildly non-worksafe, as it contains examples that led to the "guys, no costume is not a costume!" rule that many conventions and masquerades still have today.

Anime costuming would start to boom in Japan as fans got organized in the 70s; Comiket kicked off in '75, and Gundam was the first big post-Yamato hit that had kids dressing up in droves. Otaku no Video's depiction of the portly Tanaka dressing up as Char Aznable was neither exaggeration nor fabrication, as similarly-tubby Gainax cofounder Toshio Okada wore a costume very similar to it in real life. But what about America? Yeah, we were doing it in the 80s, too. I'll go ahead and hook you up with Dave Merrill's fantastic look at American cosplay in the 80s because I can't source those damned Animage photos anywhere else, even though I know for a fact that there's more of them. Just as with today, the range of reproduction ranged from amusingly awkward to stunningly true-to-life. As the 80s became the 90s and our nation ended its love affair with Bang Tango in favor of My Sister's Machine, anime fandom and cosplay become ever more widespread, and actual anime-specific conventions started to dot the land. I went to my first one in 1995, and still remember the first two cosplayers I saw: a pleasingly accurate Battle Angel, clad in silver and black leather, portrayed by a properly diminutive, raven-haired girl. She was followed quickly by Cyborg 009 himself, who looked a bit more worn around the edges; maybe he'd been up late watching unsubtitled Sailor Moon episodes the previous night.

This convention (AnimEast 1995, natch) was also where I saw the spectacle of a convention masquerade for the first time. Two things stick with me: the first one is the sight of Animerica editor-in-chief and Viz Video producer Trish Ledoux, dressed to the nines as minor Ranma 1/2 player Azusa Shiratori (the classic Ranma 1/2 was still kind of new at the time, of course). The second is the costume contest's eventual winning entry, a noisy yet barely-audible skit involving several Dragon Ball Z characters having an argument and then a fight, featuring future midlist science fiction author Ryk E. Spoor as Goku.  There was even a part where he clumsily approximated the character going all super saiyan, swapping a spiky yellow wig for the black one. The affair was MC'd by Hetalia history buff, Legend of the Galactic Heroes authority, and recent ANNcast guest Walter Amos, who stayed rigidly and hilariously in character as an officious imperial officer. The whole thing was an absurd, clumsy, and oddly endearing spectacle, and I knew then that I'd have to try it myself.

Okay internet, what I need you to do now is dig up all of your issues of Animerica from, like, 1996 to 1997. Look in the back, where you'll find generally awful fan art and blurry cosplay photos. I'm in there somewhere, dressed as Black Jack, Tezuka's dark doctor. Would you do me a favor and scan that in? I've rummaged all week and can't find my own copy. Thanks, internet. Anyway, Black Jack was my first attempt at cosplay. It was easy - all I had to do was go to the fashion store and find the right Whitney Houston wig, dye half of it white, dress in a nice black suit with ribbon tie, and apply some makeup. Voila! Instant costume. When Dr. Tezuka came up with his famous doctor, he wasn't thinking of the costume angle, but have a look at the headliners in the latest issue of Shonen Jump - most of these characters, from the likes of One Piece and Toriko, are wearing stuff that's either easily mimicked via thrift store shopping or actually available for sale at places like the Right Stuf and Cospa. Don't think for a minute that this is a happy accident - cosplaying is fun for fans, but it's also useful exposure for the anime and manga itself. Is that inventive marketing or crass commercialism? I say both. I'd get some more mileage out of that Black Jack costume, entering it in the Anime Central 1998 masquerade to no great effect.

I drove down to Otakon 1998 with translator extraordinaire Neil Nadelman, where we shared a hotel room with longtime Animerica contributor and AniMaybe blogger Geoff Tebbetts and future ANN news editor Egan Loo. It was a fun event - Macross mecha maven Shōji Kawamori was the guest of honor, and I'll always remember the loud chorus of boos that rose after the premiere screening of the weirdly awful dub of Tokyopop's Spring & Chaos. I'm sure Stu Levy remembers that, too. But I had a secret weapon in my suitcase - a blue jumpsuit that my girlfriend (now wife) had appropriated from a mascot costume pattern, along with a gigantic round paper mache headpiece painted up to look like a cat. A blue cat. A blue robot cat. From the future.

Yes, I was Doraemon. I didn't really have a skit or monologue, either - I just marched up to the microphone, cleared my throat, and deeply intoned "MEOW," which the audience responded to with a bark of surprised laughter. I spent the rest of the presentation wandering around the back of the hall, passing out candy that I'd kept in the costume's belly pouch, because that's what these things are for. There were tons of much better costumes at that contest - I specifically remember an amazing Evangelion mass-production unit with working wings - but my awkward but recognizable recreation of the famous kids' character hit the nostalgia button squarely for the entire panel of judges. After the contest was over, I spoke to one of the them-- Jeff Thompson (peace be upon him), who smiled as he recounted the decision. "As soon as the doors were closed," he said with a grin, "We just looked at each other and knew."

So there you have it: jerky old Mike, in cosplay. I'd costume up a couple more times, courtesy of the craftmanship of my amazing wife, Prairie Rose Clayton, who makes even more awesome stuff now-- once as Daiei Films' famous stone golem Daimajin, and once as the Five Star Stories' haughty, imposing Leopard Chrysalis. (Most veteran cosplayers have a Five Star Stories outfit under their belt.) As for why I did it? Well, that's easy; it's the same reason Fory Ackerman did it in 1939. I did it because it was fun, and because I could. Costuming, ultimately, is just like creating fan art or fan fiction or AMVs or funny YouTube videos or criticism or blogging or any other of the many ways we interact with anime and manga - it's a unique and tangible expression of our fandom. I poke fun at cosplayers sometimes - usually, it's the ones with massive props who stand obliviously in front of packed escalators or choked hallways, posing for photos - but the hobby is absolutely integral to what anime fandom is. Remember, "cosplay" is in the dictionary now! (But only the Oxford one - I guess Merrian-Webster is still too cool for school.)

Nowadays, of course, the bar for masquerades at even small conventions is way higher than it was in '98. Accomplished cosplayers are in-demand models, start businesses, and can become convention celebrities in their own right, even if it's not always for the right reasons-- just ask Boner Robin or Fat Optimus Prime. There's also an interesting little thread that connects cosplay and many pros in the anime industry - I talked about Trish Ledoux earlier, but Dark Horse editor Carl Horn has been spied dressed as Speed Racer at certain 1990s conventions, and Funimation brand manager Charlene Ingram was a celebrated cosplayer for years before finding her way to the company. There's even outfits like American Cosplay Paradise, who have have made themselves part of the industry, appearing in costume for promotional events sponsored by the publishers. And while it's a big deal at conventions, cosplay has never seemed too big or serious to me - every year I size up the folks wandering the halls and wonder if I could still do it. In 1998, my prize for winning the masquerade was a cache of soundtrack CDs from the red hot Escaflowne. This year, a group of my friends sallied forth at Otakon dressed to the nines... as the cast of Escaflowne.

What about you, internet? When did you decide to start cosplaying? What's the best costume you've seen, or the weirdest? Is there a character that you like but have never seen cosplayed? Sound off in the comments!

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