There’s nothing quite like a comic convention. The nearly constant buzz of conversation, occasional shouts and frequent squeaks as people recognize their favorite characters walking around outside of their stories. I’ve just gotten back from Nan Desu Kan, one of the Midwest’s biggest anime conventions, and as usual, it was an adventure.
I have lots of fond memories of NDK. My sister, a good friend, and I attended for the first time during my freshman year of college. I had never been to anything like it, except a Renaissance festival, and even that couldn’t prepare me for entering the entirely new world that is a comic convention. Like a sweatshop, we slaved over costumes from our favorite anime at the time so that we’d be properly attired. And starting then, I became a costumer.
The second year, I jumped into cosplay contests, which was truly a terrifying experience. But as horrible as my first attempt was, I didn’t stop making costumes. Last year, my friends and I won Best in Show at Denver’s Comic Con, and I would have never believed it when I started. Winning the award was thrilling, but even that honor paled in comparison to the interaction we had with other attendees. While we waited for the judges to choose, many people approached us to compliment us on the performance, the quality of the costumes. And to say thank you.
That took me by surprise, as I stammered out an awkward “thank you” to their thanks. There was a feeling that we had performed a service for them, and suddenly there was a bond between perfect strangers. That’s a small part of the magic of cosplay.
This year was different in many ways. The biggest difference was that instead of being attendees, my sister and I were part of the artist alley, the place where artisans of all mediums sell their original crafts and art. We’d spent months making tsumami zaiku, Japanese ribbon and fabric flowers. The grown-up versions of the hair accessories we made can be seen in the hair of geisha and summer festival goers in bright yukata. While we were rooted in one place, the rest of the convention swirled on around us. We watched cosplayers pass by and talked with several that stopped by. We commiserated about how cosplay is often held together with tears and helped several find pieces that matched their costume.
But the greatest treat of all happened later in the weekend, as several of our customers came back by our booth to show us how their flowers looked with the complete outfit. One lady gushed about how the colors made her think of real flowers and made her feel absolutely elegant. Another told us that she had been receiving compliments on her flowers all day. Several people told us that their friends had told them to come and take a look after they had bought one. Sometimes when I would be walking through the crowd in the hotel, I’d catch sight of someone wearing something I had made. And let me tell you, that is a profound kind of satisfaction. More than one came back to say “thanks.” I hadn’t expected such a response from the people who incorporated our art into their costumes, but it was gratifying to help them find a piece that reflected themselves in some way.
Now, I don’t share all of this to toot my own horn. Of course it is wonderful to win awards and to be praised for your work. And I don’t share this to say that I enjoy every aspect of fan culture. But what I find irresistible about this strange, colorful world of costuming is how, with a little thought and kindness, you can easily meet another person in a way that is nearly impossible in other contexts. I don’t mean that in the sense of making friends or even exchanging names, necessarily. I mean in the sense of catching a glimpse of their true self. I will never forget the beautiful smile of a girl who came to our booth. One of my friends recognized her cosplay, and such a sunrise glow came over her as she told us that no one so far had known who she was dressed as. It was a magical moment. I knew exactly how she felt, because I have often felt that sparkle of recognition and the warmth of a common interest. Sometimes, there is camaraderie. Sometimes, there are inside jokes. Sometimes, admiration. Sometimes, inspiration. And when these meetings happen, however brief and rare, we can’t help but say “thanks.”