Con artists

Local comic con attendees depart on heroes' journeys

Joanna Dunlap cosplays as Toothless The Dragon from How To Train Your Dragon in this photo from 2014.

Joanna Dunlap cosplays as Toothless The Dragon from How To Train Your Dragon in this photo from 2014.

photo/eric marks

Wizard World Comic Con is being held from Nov.20-22 at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. For ticket information, go to

“I think it's the greatest cultural event that's going on in the entire world.”

Arthur Suydam is talking about comic conventions. Even over the phone, the artist responsible for The Walking Dead and Marvel Zombies comics is still audibly excited about an event that he attends almost every weekend of the year.

Known as “The Zombie King” for his gruesome portrayal of the undead, Suydam’s involvement in comics started out like anyone else—as a fan.

“I was burned very badly when I was 5 years old—they didn’t expect me to live,” recalled Suydam. “And while I was in the hospital for a year, wrapped up from head-to-toe like a mummy, my parents brought me comic books. As soon as I got out of the hospital … I started to draw.”

Besides sounding like a superhero’s origin saga, Suydam’s story also embodies another key attribute of comic culture—the blurred line between fantasy and reality. It’s a boundary that has always been porous for Con-goers, but it has never been more wiggly than it is now in our age of radical self-identification.

How often is the instinct to question the big boundaries in our lives—race, gender, religion, social norms—preempted by smaller mental passages that we take every day? And for all the downtalk they might get, comics, gaming and cosplay are actually great portals into other points of view. So, in honor of the Wizard World Comic Con, which comes to town starting on Nov. 20, let’s take a hero’s journey into the land of Con with some of Reno’s geek elite.


There is a lot that happens before most comic fans (our heroes) ever arrive at a con, and most of the time it involves a fascination with a world previously unimagined.

Michael Moberly, longtime comic reader and local toy collector, explains the appeal of alt comics. “It’s not all big muscles and saving the world, sometimes it’s these small personal stories that you connect with—like Ghost World for instance. There’s a whole generation of people that read Ghost World and were like, ’That’s me.’ Or Scott Pilgrim where it’s just these outsiders who love music and comics and stuff. It’s just about finding what works for you.”

Before former Marvel editor-in-chief and Wizard World headliner Jim Shooter began creating whole worlds with his writing, he had to catch the bug himself. As a kid in the 1960s, his choices were always between DC and Marvel comics.

“The [Marvel] characters spoke in a more human way,” said Shooter in a phone interview. “There was real emotion. I’d never seen a hero wash his costume before. I never saw a hero get a cold. I never saw a hero lose! It was all new.”

Once a particular world hooks its reader, there is usually a character or two that the hero immediately identifies with—a guide of sorts towards the threshold of personal discovery.

For local cosplayer Brandon Smith, this character was Tamaki from the Manga series Ouran High School Host Club.

“He’s a character that I just relate to, that I personally feel that I am a lot like,” said Smith. “People’s first costumes are characters they really admire and really want to be or people that they feel like they can relate to or really find themselves in.”

Once a fan becomes aware of a larger world, the hero must start to have some adventures of their own.

Trials and tribulations

Smith's cosplay of Tamaki opened doors to real-life friendships and at the same time pushed him deeper into fandom. Taking on the dress and mindset of a character that he was already similar to was an important first step towards cosplaying someone a bit more ambitious. Someone like Batman.

“For me Batman is kind of like the ideal—he’s turning something obsessive-compulsive and destructive into something ultimately good,” said Smith. “I could spend days talking about how much I admire his character. I just really like that he’s unwavering, he has an unwavering code of ethics.”

Years of cosplaying Batman have had a positive impact on Smith, making him “more situationally aware” and “more strategically minded.” Other cosplayers can relate.

For the past 10 years, Joanna Dunlap and Shawna Hefen have been running a two-woman cosplay group called “The Lovelies”—an activity that has given them both a heightened awareness of others’ perspectives and an intimate knowledge of constructs that guide daily life.

“We’ll do genderbent versions and fem versions a lot,” said Dunlap. “Genderbent is when you take a character that is the opposite gender of the cosplayer, and you still go as your own gender. … We’re so conditioned in this society to adhere to a particular role or stereotype. … When you cosplay, you can literally be whoever you want to. So I identify as female, but I still love dressing up like a guy and acting like a guy for a few hours. It’s liberating to act completely different.”

Cosplay is not the only way that con-goers can augment their reality with fantasy role-playing. Real-life challenges are taken on by gamers too.

Genese Davis, author of gaming thriller, Holder’s Dominion, and upcoming Wizard World speaker, is an advocate for facing your demons through gaming.

“I actually really struggled with shyness and speaking with strangers,” said Davis in a recent phone call. “I think we can all relate to those moments in life that get us down, whether it’s bullying or real life villains.”

Some of Davis’ most significant, formative moments in her adult life have come from collaborating with other online gamers to accomplish a common goal, like slaying a dragon or leading a raid.

“It [is] a way to meet new people and talk to new people in the comfort of your own home, but it feels like you’re out,” said Davis. “You all have the same excitement to go on a quest together.”

Return to reality

For Davis and other Con-goers, the final challenge of reconciling their two worlds is where a lot of outside misconceptions tend to creep in. People who have trouble balancing the ordinary and the fantasy do exist and no doubt add fodder to the flame of anti-social, game-addicted stereotypes that are out there. But for the many fans who find games, comics, and cosplaying a life-giving practice, one of the most rewarding parts of their hero's journey is sharing the experience with others.

That’s the intention behind Davis’ book about a female gamer who stands up to an online hacker. It’s the reason Shooter and Suydam have spent their lives writing and drawing new universes for countless fans, and it’s why a bunch of Reno geeks have already bought their tickets to Comic Con.

“It’s definitely something that you take to heart and something that you grab onto,” said Moberly. “I personally think that there’s a comic out there for everybody.”