“It’s okay, honey,” the mother says, stifling a laugh. “It’s make-believe. They’re just playing dress-up, like you do with your princess dresses.”
A young woman in what can best be described as a deranged-dino costume takes her mask off and smiles down at the little girl. In return, the child screams louder.
Another kid approaches. She poses with the cosplayers while her mother takes photos.
When the group has grown to about 25, they head to the Organ Pavilion. They plan to merge with the Hetalia group’s meet-up. Marina isn’t keen on the idea and attempts to persuade everyone to go to the Butterfly Pavilion instead, but someone has invited a professional photographer, and he thinks the Organ Pavilion will serve as a nice backdrop. So everyone heads in that direction.
As the group walks through the park, I feel as if I’m part of a bizarre parade. People pause and turn their heads. Many stop to snap photos.
“It would be a lot less annoying if people would just ask to take our photo,” says a girl in a jester mask. “We wouldn’t mind. We’d say ‘yes.’”
At the Organ Pavilion, everyone heads up onto the stage. The costumed adults and teens loiter. At one point, someone plays “Gangnam Style” on an iPod and they break into dance. A guy in a heavy black trench coat has the moves down perfectly.
In a cartoon voice, a girl dressed as a sailor shouts, “Whoever wants free lollipops and cookies, come get ’em.” She holds up a Tupperware container filled with goodies.
High-school students and some junior-high schoolers arrive — they’re all part of the Hetalia group. They join the other costumed fans on the Organ Pavilion stage.
David, the 47-year-old, has been joined by two men who appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s. One is dressed as Sonic the Hedgehog. Another looks like Neo from The Matrix. When I comment on that, he is deeply offended.
“People always think I’m Neo,” he mumbles.
“Who are you supposed to be?” I ask.
“You wouldn’t get it,” he says and walks away.
Two teenage girls sit at the edge of the stage. Both wear baby-doll dresses.
“What characters are you?” I ask.
“We aren’t really characters. We’re dressed in Lolita style.”
“Oh. You’re Nabokov fans?”
“Huh?” says the one wearing clunky black glasses.
“The author of Lolita,” I explain.
They stare blankly. The girl in the glasses turns her head and begins a conversation with someone else.
The photographer invites groups of people dressed as characters from the same comic books to pose together. He snaps away.
A man in a suit and a woman in a frilly dress are visibly irritated. With them is another photographer. “How long will you all be here?” the woman asks a costumed teen. “My fiancé and I are supposed to take our engagement photos here.”
The teen’s response: “All day.”
The woman walks away in a huff.
I sit on bleachers, facing the stage. Alana Maddox plops down next to me. She’s the 14-year-old I met earlier.
“Who are you dressed as?” I ask.
“I’m Italy from Hetalia.”
Hetalia is a comic-book series based on WWII and other historical events. Each character represents a country, and each has a negative and positive “stereotype.”
“I’m really into history, so I love Hetalia,” Alana says. She was 12 when a friend introduced her to the anime. She became wrapped up in it. “When I started dressing up as the characters from Hetalia, some people found it different. I am different. They think I’m obsessed with it. It isn’t true.” She shrugs. “I just like pretending to be someone I’m not.”
She explains what they do at a regular Hetalia meet-up.
“We hang out, we have food, we play games, and we role-play. We try to keep it clean. We don’t allow drinking or smoking. There was a guy who showed up a couple of weeks ago. He started getting into people’s personal space and hugging people without their consent. We had a group discussion and decided to kick him out. We do temporary bans, too. Those are for people that make fun of other people’s costumes.”
Alana tells me that, today they will role-play Hetalia scenes on the Organ Pavilion stage.
I spot Marina nearby. She’s standing with a girl in a blond wig wearing an elaborate princess dress. I ask Marina if she’ll take part in the role-playing with the Hetalia group.
“We don’t do that,” she says with exasperation. “That’s a little too extreme for me.”
Aimee’s boyfriend, Joshua Rodriguez (the young man wearing ballet flats), is sitting in one of the only spots of shade on the stage. He motions for me to join him.
He rattles off the reasons he loves cosplay. “What got me interested in cosplaying was anime itself. Seeing fictional characters and how cool they look had me excited to dress up in a totally different way.” Joshua works at the Animal Protection and Rescue League thrift store in Clairemont, a few shops away from Comickaze, a local comic-book store. “I’ve never been made fun of for doing this,” he says. “I’ve always been a cool guy. People just figured that, if I was into anime, it must be cool.”
Joshua wants to start his own cosplay group.
“It’s going to be a Teen Titans one. Like the cartoon. I’m going to be Robin. My group is going to be more organized than this one. We aren’t just going to stand around. We might do some larping [live-action role playing] and a few stunts. I’m hoping to get a cameraman to film reenactments.”
I look over to see Sabrina, Shannon, and Marina posing for more photos. The photographer instructs them to use their weapons. Marina draws her wooden stakes. Sabrina points her chainsaw at Marina. Meanwhile, other cosplayers stand around in small clusters, as if gathered in a high-school cafeteria. A few people are acting out comic-book scenes. On the seats that face the stage, random park visitors sit and watch everything unfold. They seem amused. I join the spectators and wait for something to happen. Nothing does.
It’s late afternoon when I decide to head home. While I’m gathering up my things, an elderly woman and her two granddaughters sit down beside me.
“What are you guys?” the woman wants to know.
“Cosplayers” I say.
“What do you do?” she asks.
“They dress up as their favorite comic-book, cartoon, and video-game characters,” I explain.
“I can see that,” the woman says patiently. “What I meant was, what do they do — besides wear costumes?”
I think a moment, then say, “I’m still trying to figure that out.”