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Pop Cultured

Costumes and camaraderie at Eugene Comic Con
Nathan Johns as Miles Morales Spiderman. All photos by Trask Bedortha.

Attention, comic book fans et al. — here are my credentials to write this nerdy story. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I’ve shed more tears than I’d like to admit over the deaths of Harry Potter characters and I’m engaged to a physicist.

I’ll never forgive Joss Whedon for killing Penny from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce from Angel and Wash from Firefly (I know, I know, he wasn’t actually killed until Serenity). I have a Lord of the Rings quote for nearly every occasion.

I believe this is enough to land me in solid nerd territory. I’m OK with that. 

So imagine my joy when I heard earlier this year that, after a dry spell of nearly a decade, Eugene would host its very own comic convention, a celebration of all things fantasy, science fiction and beyond. Eugene Comic Con, also known as EUCON, hits Lane Events Center Nov. 14-15, and more than 5,000 people have RSVPed via Facebook. 

San Diego held its first comic con in 1970. The "con” phenomenon has spread throughout the world, bringing in thousands of people, and comic cons have grown over the years to include not just comic books but movies, television, video games, internet shows and other icons of pop culture. It’s not just about comic books anymore, and that's not such a bad thing. 

In talking with those locally involved in the comic and pop culture scene, I’ve come to understand that comic cons are difficult to explain. When I ask for a definition, most people scrunch up their faces and make a noise somewhere between a squeak of excitement and a put-out groan. 

Comic cons are places to dress up like a video game character and hang out with friends. They’re venues to sell comic books or works of art. Some go there to take classes, attend discussion panels or meet their favorite celebrities. Some think comic cons are primarily commercial endeavors and prefer to avoid them altogether.

Sure, there’s money to be made — last year San Diego Comic-Con raked in $177.8 million for California’s economy, according to the L.A. Times

But there’s also a buoyant enthusiasm surrounding these fictional worlds and the people who make them. Comics and fantasy realms matter to people — the X-Men fanfiction I wrote as a teenager (did I really just admit to that?) was god-awful, but it did help build my confidence as a writer because I joined a group of fans who shared my interests. 

The Eugene-Springfield area has an entire community, quiet but active, ready to celebrate its particular pop-culture fascinations. EUCON will be a convergence of Hollywood actors, artists and writers for Marvel comics, YouTube personalities, local comic and anime shops as well as all the fans from our community who love them, not to mention the cosplayers — people who create and wear costumes that replicate the look of a favorite character. 

So I’m not completely sure what to expect, but I’m pretty excited. Here’s what I learned:

 

Corydon S. Cailteux as Deadpool

THE LONG CON

The local story begins with Royce Myers, the lead organizer for Eugene Comic Con, who started planning the event about a year ago. A lifelong comic fan and longtime Eugenean, Myers says he first encountered comic books when his mother brought them home for him when he was a child. Now, he says, his children carry on that legacy with their love of comic books.

Myers says the comic community in Oregon is huge. “There are a lot of artists and writers that live in this area that are comic book professionals,” he says, listing off a handful of names I don’t recognize, but Google tells me of their greatness in the comic book world.

Myers has attended comic cons for years, including Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle and the one that started it all, San Diego Comic-Con. He says a convention in the Eugene-Springfield area was long overdue. 

The process has been a little rocky — local fans (including myself) swooned when they heard actor John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli and Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, had signed on to attend Eugene Comic Con, but a filming conflict meant that Rhys-Davies had to cancel within weeks of his scheduled appearance. 

Still, 16 celebrity guests and a sizeable group of artists and writers, some local and some visiting, will attend Eugene Comic Con, along with Oregon performance groups including the Portland Superheroes Coalition, Trek Theatre and Star Wars Oregon. 

“I intend to put on a fantastic show for everybody,” Myers says.

 

Erica Smith as Kurako

ROLE PLAY

Perhaps the most visible aspect of comic cons is cosplay, short for “costume play.” According to the cosplayers, cosplay provides an opportunity to personally connect with the characters fans know and love.

Erica Smith, an apparel design major at Oregon State University, says she’s loved to dress up in costume ever since she was a kid, and when she joined the University of Oregon’s anime club while attending high school in Eugene, cosplay seemed like a natural fit.

Smith’s first introduction to cosplay happened when the anime club planned to attend a convention in Seattle. “My friend goes, ‘What are you going to cosplay?’” Smith says. “And I said, ‘What am I going to what?’”

After her friend explained cosplay to her, Smith couldn’t believe it. “I said, ‘Oh, you mean that’s socially acceptable to do all weekend? Great!’”

Smith and fellow cosplayer Kelsey Dethlefs are members of Talking Teacups of Doom Cosplay, a Eugene-based group in which members create costumes and act out skits dressed as characters from anime, Western comics, kids’ movies, TV shows and video games. Smith cosplays as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, as well as a handful of characters from popular anime, including something called Princess Jellyfish. It’s a Japanese manga series about shy, jellyfish-loving Tsukimi and fashionable Kurako. 

Smith and Dethlefs are huge fans of Kurako, so when they met me for our interview, they both dressed as him, which I found delightful.

“In order to piss off his political father, Kurako dresses like a girl a lot,” Smith explains. “And so together they start a fashion line based on jellyfish.”

This whimsical attitude seems to permeate cosplay. Smith and Dethlefs say the joys of the work are multifold: Smith’s Kurako costume is handmade, complete with a hand-sewn white corset that took hours to create. Dethlefs says she loves the challenge of making a difficult costume and creating something with visible results.

Beyond the costume-making itself, Smith says she loves to embody the character she chooses to personify. “Kurako is my favorite character from the show,” Smith says. “I love him. But I also really like being able to bring what I call magical realism experiences to people. It’s like when you go to Disneyland and you get to hug the princess, that kind of experience of interaction.”

For Kelly Eriksen, a clothing designer in Eugene, cosplay is her career. She works on custom commissions for local cosplayers, everything from props and masks to sewn costumes, and runs the Etsy shop Kanani Designs. 

Full costumes can take up to six months to put together, depending on the complexity of the design, Eriksen says. “I watch as much as I can of the character it’s based on, then do drawings and sketches to figure out the best way to build it and what materials it would be made of if it was a real-life character.”

Nathan Johns works for UPS in Eugene and does cosplay in his spare time. He says he likes the good cosplay can do, mentioning his work with the Portland Superheroes Coalition, a group of costumed volunteers who visit hospitals and help out at fundraisers. A few of Johns’ favorite cosplays include Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek and Mace Windu from Star Wars.

Johns says he also likes the community he builds from cosplaying. “You get to meet amazing people who you can be yourself with,” he says.

Cosplayers agree that their pursuit is an art form. “That’s what art does — elicits reactions and emotions from people,” Smith explains. “And that’s what we try to do.”

 

Kelsey Dethlefs as Kurako

A COMIC SHIFT

To further understand the origins of comic mania, I planned a visit to the oldest comic book store in Oregon, Emerald City Comics on 13th Avenue near campus. As the manager helped a customer, my eyes roamed the store.

As expected, I observed rows of comic books in protective plastic coverings. To my surprise, though, I also saw merchandise that delved beyond the realm of classic superhero comics. It was a bit of a nerd wonderland, with Lego-like Doctor Who figurines, Dungeons and Dragons manuals, VHS tapes of anime and My Little Pony collector cards. 

The comic business has changed a lot since 1972, when the shop first opened. The recent boom of superhero movies has lent popularity and mainstream acceptance to the comic book world, but Emerald City Comics doesn’t see a monetary gain to rival the millions of dollars raked in by The Avengers

“A company like [Time] Warner, which owns DC Comics, makes more money on superhero underwear than on comics,” says Stuart Bracken, manager of Emerald City Comics. “Nowadays we’re purveyors of pop culture and entertainment. There aren’t any shops that can make it just on comic books.”

Part of that, Bracken says, is due to the shifting tastes of fans. With the arrival of role-playing games, card games like Magic the Gathering and the realm of fantasy video games, comic books have lost a portion of their audience. 

As a “millennial” with geeky inclinations, this makes sense to me. I’m more likely to stream an episode of Doctor Who than read its graphic novel equivalent.

Castle of Games, a game and comic shop in downtown Springfield, falls into that category of straddling interests. “We treat our store a bit like a community center,” says Kim Buckmaster, co-owner of the shop. “High school kids from across the street eat lunch here to hang out with like-minded kids. That’s why we have gaming tables — people are welcome to come in and play games.”

Buckmaster says Castle of Games will table at EUCON, where he and co-owner Chris Knapp plan to sell games, statues and $1 comic books. “This con will be fun,” he says. “It’ll be crowded, but it won’t be overwhelming, like some of the bigger cons. I think it’s poised to be fantastic.”

Emerald City Comics isn’t tabling at EUCON. The shop tabled at Emerald Valley Comic Fest in October, and Bracken says the turnout wasn’t great and he didn’t sell many comics, although he did enjoy watching the people who came as they milled around in Star Wars costumes. 

 “Why are they calling them comic conventions any more?” Bracken asks. “Mostly nostalgia.”

 

Corydon S. Cailteux as Mandalorian Mercenary and Bounty Hunter, Parallax. 

MINGLING WITH THE STARS

It’s true — aspects of Eugene Comic Con don’t have much to do with comic books themselves. There’s still plenty to charm the comic book fan, with guests including Ron Randall, a professional illustrator who’s worked for Marvel Comics and DC Comics, Randy Emberlin, an inker for The Amazing Spider-Man, and Chris Roberson, co-creator of comic book series iZombie, which is based in Eugene.

But part of the fun of comic cons is that fans get to meet their favorite actors and artists. 

My personal dream is to meet Patrick Stewart, and that could basically never happen anywhere except at a con. Sir Patrick isn’t making a visit to Eugene this year, but the list of guests is still pretty great: EUCON will feature appearances by Jason David Frank, who plays Green Ranger from Power Rangers, Ernie Hudson, who plays Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters, and Naomi Grossman, the lovable Pepper from American Horror Story.

During a phone conversation from her home in Los Angeles, Grossman tells me that meeting fans is her favorite part of conventions. “It’s an awesome time for me to be able to meet these folks,” she says. “Having an audience is critical. It’s a dialogue, and without anyone on the receiving end, what’s the point?” 

Grossman has traveled the world attending conventions, from HorrorHound Weekend in Cincinnati to Monster-Mania Con in New Jersey and the Film and Comic Con in London. “If you’re in that world, these names actually mean something, but if you’re not, they just sound like really weird, cult-y parties on the weekend,” she laughs.

Despite the differences in cultures and languages, cons have striking similarities all over the world, Grossman says. “I say this as a term of endearment, but a nerd is a nerd is a nerd,” she jokes. “It’s a pretty trippy little world that I didn’t even know existed, and now I’m the ringleader.”

Grossman’s character on American Horror Story, Pepper, is a beloved fan favorite who appeared for two seasons. The character Grossman plays is microcephalic, and though impaired, she proves to be one of the most admirable characters in the show.

“Especially in this show, but in the world in general, we’re so inundated with hate and drama,” Grossman says. “With Pepper, there’s this little bit of innocence in this little person who’s really just a ball of love. She’s displaced and shunned everywhere she goes, and yet she still manages to have a smile on her face. That pure love, in spite of everything, is what is so appealing.”

 

Jesse Eriksen as the psycho from Borderlands. Costume and makeup by Kanani Designs.

THE CON FAMILY

It seems to me that comic cons are more about community than comics. Most people I talked to mentioned how much they enjoyed interacting with a like-minded assemblage of peers.

Dethlefs says that comic cons bring a sense of immediate camaraderie. “You can see someone dress in a costume that you recognize and you have an instant connection with them,” she says. “It’s like they’re wearing this giant sign that says, ‘Come talk to me!’”

It’s all part of the con culture. “I can’t say everybody’s nice to each other all the time, but the whole experience is kind of chill,” Smith says. “It’s OK to give people hugs or compliment people in the hall. You feel like you’re around your peers who understand you, and you’re not being judged.”

That’s really the heart of it. Conventions are places to interact, to bond, to feel accepted into a group of people who share so much in common with you. Let’s just say I don’t make a habit of spouting Jean-Luc Picard quotes in everyday life, but at least at EUCON, I’ll get knowing nods instead of blank stares.

In any case, I’m planning to check it out. If you go, make sure to say hi. I’ll be the girl with the geeky look of wonder on her face.

EUCON is at the Lane Events Center 10 am to 7 pm Saturday, Nov. 14, and 10 am to 6 pm Sunday, Nov. 15. Also on Saturday: a cosplay contest at 8 pm and an after party at Level Up, 1290 Oak Street. Tickets start at $12 and are available at eugenecomiccon.com, along with a full schedule of events.

 

Char Houweling as Nurse from Silent Hill. Costume and makeup by Kanani Designs.
Kelly Eriksen as Izumo. Costume and makeup by Kanani Designs.