Like a superhero movie come to life, costumed characters flocked to the streets of downtown Tulsa on a recent weekend.
They weren’t responding to a save-the-world emergency.
They were responding to a summons to take part in a photo shoot for a cosplay group.
Some of you out there may be asking this question: What’s cosplay?
Cosplay is a word born in 1984, when Japanese journalist and publisher Takahashi Nobuyuki combined the words “costume” and “play” to describe the costuming hobby.
Cosplay has boomed in the 21st century. And cosplay will be a major part of Tokyo in Tulsa, which will take place Friday through Sunday at Cox Business Center.
Tokyo in Tulsa, an 11th-year convention, focuses on Japanese anime, culture and pop culture. Like other pop-culture conventions, Tokyo in Tulsa is a great spot for people-watching because of the costumes. Which character is going to walk around the corner next?
Tokyo in Tulsa will host multiple cosplay contests (including a “main” contest based on craftsmanship) and cosplay guests from around the globe. Among them are Canadian cosplayer Phil Mizuno and Italian cosplayer NadiaSK.
Once upon a time, guests at pop-culture conventions tended to be authors, comic creators and celebrities.
Because of the surge in cosplay popularity, some cosplayers have graduated to the status of convention guest, and they are often granted their own booths so they can interact with fans. The line to meet a renowned cosplayer like Jessica Nigri can be longer than the line to meet famous guests from the entertainment world.
Nigri is not a Tokyo in Tulsa guest, but she’s being name-dropped here for the sake of helping folks comprehend that cosplayers have become celebrities. Nigri has attracted 4.7 million “likes” on her Facebook page. She has 3 million Instagram followers and 775,000 Twitter followers.
Local cosplayers circle their calendars for events like Tokyo in Tulsa because it’s time to come out and play. Other upcoming major pop-culture conventions include Wizard World Tulsa on Sept. 7-9 at the Cox Business Center and the Tulsa Pop Culture Expo on Nov. 2-4 at the Renaissance Hotel.
The DC Marvel League, a local cosplay group, will have a presence at Tokyo in Tulsa. The costumed characters who congregated for photos June 30 in downtown Tulsa were representatives of the DC Marvel League, which has more than 100 members. A new northeast Oklahoma chapter will soon join Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Joplin chapters, according to Don Alam, who co-founded the DC Marvel League with Andrew and Ashley Parrish three years ago.
Alam said they didn’t intend for the group to get so big.
“We just wanted something where we could go out with a couple of characters, and it ended up growing and growing and growing,” he said.
Welcome to the golden age of cosplay. The hobby isn’t new, but it’s never been hotter.
Journalists have traced the roots of cosplay to the 1930s, when science-fiction fan Forrest J. Ackerman (perhaps best known as editor and writer of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland) attended the inaugural World Science Fiction Convention in costume. Masquerade balls became part of the convention. Nobuyuki crafted the word “cosplay” after attending Worldcon ’84 in Los Angeles. And cosplay became contagious in Japan.
Comic conventions have long had a hint of cosplay — maybe a few folks clad in Star Trek shirts or superhero gear, but costumers were in the minority.
“Through much of my time in the business, people usually wore ‘normal’ street clothes while attending the daily activities of a con: strolling the vendors room, attending panels, etc.,” author and convention veteran R.A. Jones said, adding that costume contests at conventions were usually held in the evenings after other con activities had ended.
“I remember that, at the very first Trek Expo here in town, in 1989, I was one of three judges of such a competition — along with ‘Star Trek’ actors George Takei and John de Lancie. For years before that, such contests were a regular feature at the still-remembered science-fiction convention held here every year called Okon.”
Now, many convention attendees are in costume 100 percent of the time (not just for contests), and they make up a significant part of con populations.
Tokyo in Tulsa founder James Fowler said he has seen a "very noticeable" increase in cosplay at Tokyo in Tulsa over the years. "Most notably, in the age range of cosplayers," he said. " A lot more older attendees are enjoying cosplay as much as their children. Most of what we hear from them is they enjoy the creative outlet that it provides."
Alam said he was introduced to cosplay by way of a brother who attended conventions. “I saw these crazy costumes on a video he sent me at a con he was at in Dallas,” Alam said. “I didn’t know (cosplay) was a thing at all.”
Alam dove in shortly afterward, borrowing a Jedi costume for his first foray into cosplay. Immediately after arriving at a convention, a Trekkie asked to take a photograph with him and a lasting friendship was formed.
“I kind of knew that was my spot, where I needed to be at,” he said.
Alam joined a Star Wars cosplay group to do charitable events and the DC Marvel League came afterward.
“Our main goal is the charities,” he said, referencing hospital visits and charitable events. “A lot of our members don’t enter into the costume contests. They are there specifically for the kids.”
He said DC Marvel League members appear at birthday parties for no charge, but they request a donation be made to Make A Wish Oklahoma.
Someone outside the cosplay circle may not understand why cosplayers do what they do.
“For me, it started out as a creative outlet that also allowed me to meet others that have the same interest. I love meeting new people, and this seemed like a new and fun thing to try,” Tori James said.
“However, as the years have gone by, it has become much more meaningful than that. It has taught me to love my body and appreciate who I am as a person. It has also had its heartwarming moments, like getting to surprise kids with cool superheroes, or other people seeing their favorite superhero come to life. It became a way for me to love and accept myself, as well as bring a little joy and happiness to others. Sure, making and wearing cool outfits and taking fun pictures is appealing in itself, but I think you’ll find that, for most cosplayers, it’s much more meaningful than that.”
Asked about the cosplay boom, Alam told stories to illustrate that cosplay is about acceptance and sharing a passion with others. He suggested he and others have learned that you can make the transition to adulthood and still have fun.
“It pulls people out of depression,” he said. “I’ve seen it over and over with the people.”
Though not a cosplayer, Jones “gets” the appeal. He referenced the quote “The world is too much with us” and said this: “Engaging in fandom and costuming — or sporting events or Fourth of July fireworks displays and any number of other activities — is an easy and fun way to at least temporarily escape that world and enter into another one that is free of the worries of that place we all are forced to live in most of the time.”
Alam said one of his friends never touched costuming until a year ago.
“Now, he’s got like four or five costumes, and he owns a very large company in north Tulsa and he loves it,” he said. “He says, ‘Hey, where’s the next hospital event at?’ His costume has a full mask. No one knows who he is. And he is there for the right reasons. ... That makes it all worth it. When those kids light up, that’s the best right there.”