“My parents thought it was really weird. They thought I would turn into a total geek and just fail at life. They don’t think that anymore. Now they think it’s adorable when I dress up.”
The first time Shannon cosplayed was at Comic-Con 2010. She was 16. During the first few days, she didn’t dress up. She felt too uncomfortable.
“Finally, I just decided that I would jump in and try it. I was kind of nervous about going around dressed up. But once people started coming up to me and joking around, it became a lot of fun. I took a bunch of pictures with people dressed up from the same anime as me. I think cosplay opens people up; because you’re in costume, it’s easier to let go and enjoy yourself.”
Forty-five minutes after my arrival, Shannon and Marina have transformed themselves. Shannon’s outfit is a cross between circus freak and a marching-band member: high-waisted red polyester shorts and a matching double-breasted blazer with gold piping. Underneath is a black button-down shirt with elaborate flowing cuffs. Knee socks peek out from clunky platform boots. She holds a staff with a skull on top. Her gray wig looks like an elderly version of Justin Bieber’s famous haircut.
Marina wears a black trench coat with a silver belly bracelet that features coin-shaped charms. Across her chest, a gray sash looks like a baby sling. She has on a waist-length gray wig that falls over her eyes — just like the undertaker she is emulating. She has attached a piece of plastic to her face that looks like a broken part of a Thomas the Tank Engine train track.
“The undertaker has a scar,” she says. “I painted this last night and attached it with spirit gum.” Marina’s boots lace up past her knees, reaching mid-thigh. “I’m not going to bother wearing pants under the coat. It’s hot out.”
On the drive to Balboa Park, I sit in the backseat of Marina’s car, wedged between two wooden stakes that have Japanese characters handwritten on them (props for Marina’s costume), a large make-up case for touch-ups, and a picnic lunch of cold-cut sandwiches. Shannon and Marina listen to pop music. Marina sings along to a Maroon 5 song.
On the 94, Marina tells me she isn’t a huge fan of Comic-Con. “It’s more about pop culture,” she says.
“A lot of people I know aren’t big Comic-Con fans,” Shannon says. “Most people there don’t respect the [anime] communities that attend the convention. At Comic-Con 2011, they wouldn’t let the cosplayers gather in their regular spot, even though they’ve been gathering there for years. When we tried to sit around and talk, they kept telling us to clear out. That’s another thing: there’s nowhere to sit. After a long day of walking and standing in uncomfortable shoes and heavy costume, pretty much all of the benches are taken, and they won’t let you sit on the floor. It’s very expensive. In the end, it doesn’t seem worth going because they’re so strict.”
In three weeks, Shannon and Marina will attend Yaoi-Con, an anime convention in Long Beach.
“Today is a practice round,” Marina says. “These events at Balboa Park are casual. We don’t usually wear things this elaborate. We can mess up today. Our outfits don’t have to be perfect, but everything does need to be perfect when we go to Long Beach for Yaoi-Con. At that convention, there are artists and panels to go to.”
Marina tells me about their costumes.
“Most cosplayers have just one main costume. They’re very expensive. We’re wearing our main ones today. Mine cost $175. Shannon’s was $250. I bought Shannon’s because she can’t really afford it.”
Marina tweaks the purchases using her sewing machine to transform outfits so that they more closely resemble what their favorite comic-book heroes wear. She has a knack for designing costumes, though she decided against a degree in fashion. (“I’m a nursing student. I want to do something that will sustain me.”)
The girls attend a handful of conventions each year. Their favorite is a three-day event called Anime Conji, held each spring at the Town and Country Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Mission Valley. Once a month, and sometimes more frequently, they meet with other cosplayers at the big fountain in Balboa Park. Most members of their cosplay group are in their teens and early 20s.
“We communicate and plan events mostly through Facebook,” Shannon says.
“Our oldest member is 23,” Marina says. “There is one girl that comes who is 14. I think that’s our youngest.”
“We’re not going to be doing this when we’re 30,” Shannon says. “That would be weird.”
When asked how they feel about being gawked at, both girls agree that it’s no big deal as long as they’re in a big group.
“Can you blame them for staring?” Marina asks. “We’re very stareable. I avoid going out alone dressed like this.”
Shannon adds that it doesn’t really matter what non-cosplayers think. “The cosplay community is very inviting, eager to accept new people, even if your cosplay isn’t top quality. It’s about having fun and meeting people. When you have an extravagant cosplay, more people will want to take pictures and talk to you. That’s what motivates us to try our hardest when making costumes. At conventions, I’ve met many people just because they see my character and want to talk to me about the anime.”
When we pull into an empty parking lot adjacent to Balboa Park’s Spanish Village Art Center, we are over two hours early for the event. While Shannon and Marina gather their items from the car, a little girl points at us. I overhear her say to her mom, “Mommy, look, show people!”
I follow Shannon and Marina past the Balboa Park fountain and down a set of stone steps to the butterfly pavilion.
“Sometimes,” Marina says, “we have to fight over this spot with a group of parkour guys. They can be real assholes. We always meet at the fountain because it makes it easier for new people. We usually end up here, though.”