Costume and play

With Halloween and a big comic convention both approaching, we check in with cosplayers in Northern Nevada

Joanna Dunlap cos plays as Toothless The Dragon from “How To Train Your Dragon”

Joanna Dunlap cos plays as Toothless The Dragon from “How To Train Your Dragon”

Photo/Eric Marks

For more information about Wizard World's Reno Comic-Con,

Captain America, Daenerys Targaryen and Sailor Moon are all hanging around the drink table. Either you’re waiting for a punchline, or you’ve just found a room full of cosplayers.

Cosplay participants dress as their favorite characters, in either homemade or purchased costumes, with the option of adopting their mannerisms and life story to enhance the role.

It’s more than a year-round bout of Halloween tomfoolery. Cosplay is a performance art form, with the best portrayals fashioned with a delicate balance of dramatic interpretation, an exhaustive knowledge of the character’s idiosyncrasies, and frequently, a strong acquaintance with the “DIY & Crafts” section on Pinterest.

Some cosplayers spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars to create their dream costume (or commission someone to do it for them). Yet others spend more time than money, armed with sewing machines, glue guns or papier-mâché.

While anime, comic book, and video game icons like Naruto and Zelda are always popular choices, there’s also a broad array of movie, television and book idols like Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones, and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy to select from.

For many cosplayers, the immersion aspect is equally as important as the fashion.

“I remember I went to a [convention] in Sacramento, and I found a girl dressed as one of my favorite characters,” said Shaolin Gates, a Reno cosplayer. “I asked her about herself, but she wouldn’t break character. It was startling to not make a human connection, but it was also incredibly engaging.”

The term cosplay is a hybrid of the words costume and play, coined in 1984 in a Japanese anime magazine. Cosplay is most prevalent in Asia, where it has sparked trends, like themed cafés and street fashion in Japan. It’s also become a global phenomenon. Cosplay has spread to the far corners of the Earth, providing ample opportunities to connect with other participants and display one’s work in competitions, reality television and game shows.

But the biggest confluence of cosplayers most often appears in conventions. Some conventions, or cons for short, are geared toward cosplayers specifically, like Cosplay Mania held in the Phillipines or Italy’s Ravenna Cosplay festival. Other cons, like Australia’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo and Animecon in Finland, advertise for broader audiences, but still pull in a strong group of costume fanatics.

While the culture of cosplay may not be as pervasive on the Western Hemisphere, that’s not to say it doesn’t exist in the U.S.. There are over 200 recognized comic, pop culture, anime and other conventions of various sizes taking place throughout the year, that draw in hundreds of thousands of people.

The largest convention in the U.S. is Comic-Con International, held annually in San Diego, which combines over 100,000 actors, authors, artists, and fans alike. With such an influx of attendees, many of whom donned in the outfits of beloved heroes and villains, San Diego hosts cosplayers beyond the bounds of the event. Gabrielle Batista, a San Diego native, attributes the lack of this phenomena in Reno as the reason for the modest cosplay community in the Northern Nevada area.

“I definitely think cosplay is not as popular here because there’s a lot less exposure to it,” said Batista. “In San Diego during Comic-Con, cosplay is really prevalent, especially in the downtown area. There, you’ll see people taking a break from the convention, or grabbing a bite to eat.”

Cosplay with fire

Nonetheless, cosplay in Reno is growing. Even though the size of the community is still relatively small in comparison to cities like San Diego, the Reno cosplay culture is a rich microcosm of the progressive social campaigns that the broad community of cosplayers is perceptively championing.

Although there will always be naysayers, cosplay locally has fostered some relatively forward-thinking attitudes. With the necessity of conforming to racial, physical or gender standards of a character gradually diminishing, cosplayers in Reno can find an environment more open to racial equality, diverse body images and fluidity of gender roles.

Along with these triumphs comes Reno’s cosplayers with a fierce attitude against the objectification of its participants.

As to be expected, there is a subset of cosplay that focuses on the sex appeal of characters and the representation of that. But many cosplayers, especially female ones, have recognized a hyper-sexualized rendering of themselves by others, even while depicting protagonists who aren’t known for being inherently erotic, like a Na’vi from James Cameron’s film Avatar, or Zelda from The Legend of Zelda video games or Hermione from the Harry Potter series

“There’s always a risk of someone groping you,” said Batista. “I was wearing a pretty conservative cosplay costume and an older guy just grabbed my butt. I was like, ’Whoa!’ It was definitely not OK.”

In Reno however, the broad consensus is that no matter how scantily you are or aren’t clad, unwarranted advances are just that—unwarranted.

“Cosplay does not ever equal consent,” says Joanna Dunlap, a Reno local who’s been cosplaying for upwards of 10 years.

It’s this kind of positive approach that allows cosplayers to feel safe and secure as the community develops and expends.

Many of the conventions in Reno that bring cosplayers out of the woodworks in Reno are homegrown initiatives organized by local groups, like the Games, Arts, and Music Entertainment Expo that’s held in the summer and hosted by the Reno Video Game Symphony, and the Reno Comic-Con put on by the Sands Regency Casino earlier this fall. Sierra Nevada Anime Fans Unite, or S.N.A.F.U. will be held at the Grand Sierra Resort on the last weekend of October.

Along with the events created locally, Reno will host one of its biggest national conventions yet. For the weekend of Nov. 21-23, Wizard World’s Reno Comic-Con will hit the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. It marks the first time that Wizard World, a company whose productions unite pop culture icons and enthusiasts, has reached Nevada.

For some like Elliot Wu, who has been cosplaying for two years now, the Wizard World convention gives an opportunity to flaunt his hard work and meet the people behind the heroes that inspired him.

“I’m going as Ash, the leading role from Sam Raimi’s cult-classic The Evil Dead franchise,” said Wu. “The actor who played him, Bruce Campbell will be there. I am on the edge of losing my mind over that, but not before I perfect my chainsaw.”

Outside of conventions, Reno offers a multitude of opportunities for cosplayers to meet, perform and share DIY war stories.

Clubs like Otaku UNR at the University of Nevada, Reno and the Reno Video Game Orchestra aren’t tailored to cosplay. But with several members of each being cosplayers themselves, both groups offer experiences to glimpse into the art form from different ends of the spectrum, from anime to video games.

There are also local Facebook groups, like Reno Cosplay, Cosplay Family, and Reno Cosplay Crafts and Sewing that let you converge with others on a broader scale.

Needless to say, cosplay in Reno offers the chance to explore a theatrical artistry in a tolerant, enthusiastic enclave.