Dressed to Thrill
Ikkicon features Japanese anime, pop culture, and cosplay
When Lorelei Hutchings was in 12th grade, she wanted to dress as a character from a Japanese cartoon series. She says, "My mother was a seamstress; she knew I was into anime and she made my first costume." Just over a decade later, Hutchings is one of Austin's most seasoned and experienced cosplayers, designing and fabricating her own costumes. She's picked up some pretty unusual skills along the way. "Last year I made cold-forged metal armor. I never thought I'd be in my garage beating steel to make a breastplate."
Cosplay – the hobby of dressing up as a fictional character – has always been part of science-fiction and fantasy fandom. It's been most strongly associated with Japan, where it has gone from pastime to competitive sport. Now costume contests are a fixture at American anime and comic-book conventions, and they have become serious business. Along with her creative partner Joseph Ginnings, Hutchings is half of Colony Drop Cosplay, and the pair have been on a role-playing roll, winning a straight run of eight local cosplay competitions. Now they are aiming for a bigger stage: At Ikkicon, Austin's annual anime convention, they'll compete in the regional qualifiers of the World Cosplay Summit. "They're the Olympics of cosplay," says Hutchings. If they make it through this round and go on to win a slot on Team USA, they'll travel to Nagoya, Japan, to face cosplayers from 27 other nations. "We're competing because we really want to go to Japan."
For Ikkicon founder Michael Loredo, the competition is as key to the weekend as the trade-show floor where fans can pick up newly-translated books of manga, or the screening rooms where obscure films and series find a fresh audience. He says, "I can tell you right now, without a shadow of a doubt, that our cosplay event is the most crowded of the convention." He argues that the experience of seeing so many elaborate and intensely designed costumes is vital to the weekend. "Otherwise you just attend these events and do your things and you leave. Cosplay adds another feel."
Not everyone is thrilled about fans emulating their favorite characters. Denise Dorman, wife of Star Wars artist Dave Dorman, recently wrote a scathing critique of the convention circuit, blaming cosplayers for declining revenues for "real" artists. Her blog went viral, and was followed by a vicious Facebook blast from Batman artist Pat Broderick, telling promoters building shows around cosplay that "you're not helping the industry or comics market."
For Hutchings, that's backwards thinking. "They should love us," she declares. "If you think about it as a business prospect, a cosplayer is a living, breathing advertisement for you." It's also a sign of how engaged cosplayers are with the story and the characters. Take that first costume she wore: Utena Tenjou, from the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. She says, "That series was about the power of femininity, and as a woman choosing to be the princess in the story, or the prince. You can be the hero or the victim, and as a tomboy that spoke to me." She sees the backlash against cosplayers as another symptom of the "fake geek girl" phenomenon, where self-selected gatekeepers think they get to decide who's allowed in the clubhouse. "I spend $500 to $600 on every costume," she says. "Why wouldn't I own every one of your comics?"
Ikkicon runs Jan. 2-4 at the Hilton Austin, 500 E. Fourth. www.ikkicon.com.