Conventions & EventsCosplay

Otakon 2016: Dispatches from Geekdom East Part 2


[All photos copyright Allison Isberg.]

Saturday morning dawned sunny, muggy, and hot. Very hot. Heat index of 109˚F hot. So I quickly decided to continue my brilliant “don’t set foot outside of the hotel/convention center complex” plan. Mostly because I was concerned about melting into an actual puddle of sizzling human-flavored goo onto the sidewalk.

Accurate Depiction of Marylanders in the Summer

But also because I was wearing a dress made of two layers of polyester and two giant buns of fake hair. That’s right, your intrepid reporter was cosplaying!

Left, Cameraman Han Solo and Right, Reporter Allison.
Left, Cameraman Han Solo and Right, Reporter Leia Organa.

Once Cameraman Ian and I were fully kitted up, we headed across the (completely indoor) skywalk to the convention center, where programming was in full swing. To give you a sense of scale: the Baltimore Convention Center has just over 2.2 million square feet of space. And Otakon takes up every inch of it. In addition to a floor of the neighboring Hilton. I’ve gone to this event for several years and I still need to refer to the con map multiple times throughout the weekend. It’s big, is what I’m saying.

The place was bustling with con-goers, most of them decked out in colorful cosplays from a thousand different anime and manga series, not to mention the Vulcans, the Jokers, the Lara Crofts, etc. One particularly popular guy dressed up as “that one guy in Jurassic World who grabs his drinks when he’s running away from the pterodactyls.”

Of course I got a picture for you. A man with paper pterodactyls wired to his back. He is carrying two Marguerita glasses.
Of course I got a picture for you.

Our first stop was the Dealer’s Room, a never ending labyrinth of merchandise; everything from vintage kimono to shelf upon shelf of imported manga books to TARDIS-themed…everything. There was a cacophony of sound from the Crunchyroll and Funimation stands, which had multiple screens playing different anime shows, and the piles of people pressing through the rows of vendors. Winding through the crowd involves dodging tails, ducking under foam-and-wire wings, and keeping an eye out for papier-mâché weapons.

The same can be said for Artist’s Alley. Housed in a hall just as big as the Dealer’s Room, the Alley is home to dozens of people, sharing their original creations. Attendees can find unique paintings and prints, pins and t-shirts with snarky quotes, or commission someone to make a figurine of their pet out of needlefelt. One corner housed the silent auction, where people could bid for truly one-of-a-kind pieces. This included large prints of the amazing Star Wars art designed by Danielle Sylvan Dernoga (regular size prints are available on her website and they are beautiful).

Between the two halls, it almost felt like I was walking around a marketplace on the Republic capital of Coruscant, perusing wares from all over the galaxy alongside a hundred different species. And you’d be hard pressed to find such variety outside an event such as this.

A view of the Charles Street entrance to the convention center, with plenty of cosplayers and one giant Pikachu,
Also there’s giant Pikachus sometimes.

If you’ve been to a con before, you’ll know that it’s quite common for cosplayers to get stopped for pictures. One cosplayer, in particular, was attracting quite a lot of attention in a corner of Artists’ Alley. Once I got close enough to take a look, it was easy to see why: not only did she have an elaborate gown and horns on her head, she was also carrying around a small tree bedecked in sparkly lights.

Her name is Meghan Scassero and she was the Spirit of the Forest, basically an archetypal goddess who embodies the soul of wooded environments. Her costume was elaborate, detailed, and seriously impressive. That tree she was carrying around? Yeah, it was a real sapling that she found in her yard and dressed up to match her costume, including adding two legs to the bottom to make it stand upright. Like I said, seriously impressive.

She was kind enough to step aside with me for an interview, which you can check out below:

You can find Meghan on Instagram and Tumblr.

After speaking with Meghan, I had just enough time to scarf down some lunch before heading off to the “Make your Own Dress Form” workshop, hosted by Bethany Marriott of Kurenai Kiba Cosplay and Julia Klag of Doomtastic.

For those of you outside the costuming world, allow me a brief explanation for what you’re about to see. A dress form is a torso model, usually made of something stiff, wrapped in soft material. It’s used by sewers and crafters to drape and alter garments. But to make a garment fit correctly, you have to have a dress form with the right measurements. Adjustable models can only go so far and having a custom form made can be pretty pricey. And since costuming budgets are often just the money you saved when you decided that yes, I can survive for six months on Ramen noodles, most people need a cheaper option.

(Please note: do not eat nothing but Ramen noodles for six months straight. You will get scurvy. We at SciFi4Me refuse to be responsible for what will happen to your teeth if you do this thing.)

Enter Bethany, Julia, and a metric crap ton of paper and duct tape. While there’s plenty of tutorials for Duct Tape Dress Forms online, nothing beats having experienced costumers walk you through the process.

And that’s how I ended up wearing a t-shirt over a Princess Leia dress, covered in duct tape armor. And honestly, feeling pretty badass.

Your reporter wrapped in duct tape and feeling very proud of herself indeed.

As you can see from the photographic evidence, making a dress form involves someone wrapping your torso in duct tape (over a t-shirt that you don’t care about) and then stuffing said shirt with a lot of paper. Like, so much paper. Reams and reams of paper.

The workshop took well over two hours, but Bethany and Julia and their helpers stayed until everyone was done. And now, I have a stuffed version of 25% of me. I call her Doris.

“Make Your Own Dress Dummy” is a good example of how great the Otakon workshops are. They’re all informative and interactive and many, like this one, allow participants to “make and take” their own craft, without charging any extra for materials. (And I’m pretty sure the length of paper I stuffed into that fake torso would go from here to the Mississippi River.)

You also get help making things that might be tough for you to make on your own. In this case, the dummies required a person who could deal with the awkwardness of wrapping duct tape under someone else’s boobs. For me, this was Heather from Shoestring Scientists.

The Shoestring Scientists are a group of nerds dedicated to helping other nerds learn how to make the costumes of their dreams on a tight budget. By the time I was done stuffing Doris, there was a line of people one hundred strong waiting to get in the room for the Scientists’ panel, “Make Your Own Steampunk Goggles.”

Even with the crowd of people waiting to bust down the door, the Scientists took a few moments out of their preparations to sit down for an interview:

Shoestring Scientists: Doing the Lord’s work, one windshield wiper at a time. Check out their Facebook for more on these Saints of Soldering Irons.

At this point, my stomach was about to crawl out of my body and devour a Benedictine nun, so Ian and I headed to our room, where I inhaled the largest sandwich Jimmy John’s could provide and briefly contemplated never walking ever, ever again.

But my feet were forced back into commission around midnight. Because it was Saturday night. And that meant the Saturday night rave.

Back in my undergrad days, Otakon raves were held in what is essentially a giant hallway on the side of the Convention Center, where people bounced up and down to remixes of anime theme songs and such. There was also the “small room” rave, which was exactly what it sounds like: a small room off of the main event. This room was always packed with people and played much more of the “drop the bass wubwubWUBWUBWuuuuuub” type music than could be heard in the hallway.

A picture of the west side of the Baltimore convention center. All the way in the back there. That's where we danced, back in the olden days.
All the way in the back there in the back corner. That’s where we danced, back in the olden days.

The “small room” was always where the super cool people* (i.e. my friends and I) tried to get in and it has given rise to many stories over the years. Like the time that the air conditioning turned on and the collective moisture of a hundred or so thrashing youths condensed and made it actually pour sweat-rain. Or so they say.

(*Any descriptions of the writer and her friends as “super cool people” shall be taken as personal opinion only and in no way confirmed fact. We are lame nerds and perfectly fine with that.)

Alas, those heady days are done. As Otakon grew, the con-runners eventually moved the rave into an actual hall, with a lot more space and probably a lot fewer fire safety hazards. Otakon security staff stand on a platform above the dancers, making sure that any nonsense is kept to a minimum. The rave is still fun, though, and it’s now much easier to get to and from the all important water coolers scattered along the walls.

Above: Otakon staff during the rave.

I’ll confess, I’m not much of a “night on the town” kinda gal. I’m much more of a “stay at home where I can wear PJs, drink wine, and yell at the TV in peace” kinda gal. But I find con raves absolutely fascinating. There’s something primeval about crowding into a dark space, pierced with flashing lights and permeated by a deep bass that shakes your bones, pressing into a solid mass of humanity, and letting the outside world drift away. I’m sure non-convention raves are like this, too, but, sadly, I’ve ever been to one. (See the “I’m too lazy to leave the house after 7pm” description above.)

While the rave pounded on till 2:15am, I had to bail somewhere around 1:30…I think?…I don’t know, I lasted until my feet and knees reminded me that you are twenty-six and thus too old for these shenanigans and THIS IS NOT OUR USUAL NETFLIX AND NAP EVENING. And so that was that.

Sunday only gave me enough time for one last pass around the Dealer’s Room and Artist’s Alley before leaving. The con was still going strong, with plenty of panels, workshops, and cosplayers. Sunday afternoon in the Dealer’s Room is often busy, with vendors offering cut-rate deals. Ian and I set out on a mission to find a bootlegged DVD of The Star Wars Holiday Special, since there are no legal versions (what are you afraid of, George Lucas?).

Oh. Right. This was one of your main characters.

But even though we circled the room twice, there were no Holiday Specials to be found. Still, we got to see the last waves of people walking around as Princess Peaches and Reys and Pokemon Masters, so all was not lost.

And then it was time to cram all of our things + Doris the Dress Form into the car and head back to that “real life” thing that all the grown-ups talk about. While leaving a con is always a bit sad, this year was particularly poignant. 2016 is the last year that Otakon will call Baltimore home.

A view of the Baltimore Convention Center, with a giant Otakon banner hung from the roof. Farewell, Baltimore Convention Center.
Farewell, Baltimore Convention Center.

2017 will see it take up residence a little ways south, in Washington D.C. Word on the street is that con organizers made the decision to leave when the Baltimore Convention Center consistently failed to provide renovations it had promised to make.

In many ways, it’s a move that makes sense for the East Coast’s largest anime convention. The DC Convention Center offers larger spaces and the city itself has a much more comprehensive public transportation system than Baltimore (when it isn’t catching on fire). There will be more hotels and restaurants within walking distance of the con location. And DC is home to the Smithsonian, which is basically the best thing that America has done for the world, hands down, no contest, don’t even try it, I will fight you on this.

There will certainly be an adjustment period and quite a bit of mourning for Otakon-that-was. After almost two decades, most Otakon veterans have their preferred hotels and favorite restaurants. Con-goers know the local streetside water vendors by sight and sometimes by name. And there’s a unique pleasure in watching the familiar area of the Inner Harbour transform into Cosplayer Central for three days out of the year.

But even as we say goodbye to the past, we must keep our eyes on the future. Otakon isn’t just an event, it’s a gathering of a unique tribe of people, people like Meghan Scassero and the Shoestring Scientists and that one guy dressed up as a Stormtrooper who yelled at me about where those Imperial plans were. And if Otakon brings that same tribe to D.C. next year, I have no doubt that it will continue growing strong for many years to come.

Your reporter looking out over an expanse of cosplayers in the convention center for the last time.

And now for some links:

Danielle Sylvan Dernoga’s website.

Meghan Scassero’s Tumblr and Instagram.

Kurenai Kiba Cosplay websiteFacebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.

Doomtastic’s website, Facebook, and Instagram.

Shoestring Scientists’ Facebook. Scientist Brad Ray’s Braxus Cosplay on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.

If you haven’t, be sure to check out Part One of my Otakon 2016 coverage.  Or check out the amazing SciFi4Me coverage of Worldcon 74!


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