Natalie Cummins is standing on the pedestrian bridge over Broadway, between The Square and Festival Market, waiting on a photographer to get his lights squared away, when she’s recognized.
The passerby blurts out an exclamation we can’t print in the paper and asks, “Are you Professor McGonagall?!”
Yes, indeed, the Lexington theater professional is dressed as Minerva McGonagall, the stern and powerful headmistress at Hogwarts in the “Harry Potter” novels, movies and related entities. It’s one of three characters Cummins will play this weekend at the Lexington Comic & Toy Convention as a cosplayer, the costumed attendees who, despite a pretty strong lineup of celebrities in attendance, often turn out to be the stars at the event referred to with the shorthand, ComicCon.
As much as comic cons have become places for entertainment fans to meet the stars and creators of their favorite shows and publications, they have also become venues for fans to let their geek flags fly, dressing up as their favorite characters from screen and page.
While widespread cosplay seems to be a recent phenomenon, the term was actually coined in 1984 by Japanese reporter and anime publisher Nobuyuki Takahashi at World-Con, a Los Angeles science fiction convention. It was at first associated with Japanaese anime films and manga comics, but has since grown to embrace fans of Western science fiction, fantasy, super hero stories and more, particularly through the growth of the annual San Diego Comic-Con that attracts well over 100,000 attendees each July. Cosplayers at last year’s Lexington ComicCon included characters from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and children’s shows.
The Lexington ComicCon list of celebrity guests includes four professional cosplayers, but the vast majority are hobbyists at varying levels of expertise.
On Halloween, we would always go a little bit crazy.
Jillian Krouse, cosplayer with her twin sister, Jessica Krouse
“A lot of people in the cosplay community were big into Halloween as kids,” says Ryan Gastinger of Louisville. “The appeal of dressing up as your favorite character has always been around.”
The 2015 Lexington ComicCon was where Gastinger came up with the idea to launch the Ohio River Valley Cosplayers and Prop Builders, or ORCs, for short.
“The community that I saw was very shut off and cliquish,” Gastinger said, observing that inquiries about costumes on social media were often met with put downs and brush offs. “I thought, we need to bring this community together instead of ripping each other down. After that March, I started collecting cosplayers on Facebook and put them in a big group.”
Since 2015, Gastinger said the ranks of ORCs have grown from about 50 to around 2,000, and the group has a major presence at the Lexington event including a “cosplay ER,” where cosplayers can get their outfits repaired.
The group’s “family photo” from last year’s ComicCon includes dozens of participants dressed as characters from everything from anime and video games to super heroes and villains to characters from “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” to Disney princesses. Among them is Cummins in the outfit that introduced her to ORCs: Agent Dana Scully from “The X-Files.”
“She was spot on,” Gastinger says of Cummins’ Scully, which traded on her natural red hair and a vintage Nokia cell phone.
Cummins describes her “X-Files” outfit as “closet cosplay,” meaning an outfit basically culled by going into your closet and putting together the items that make a costume. But many cosplayers go to great lengths to create their looks, taking on more challenging costumes as they get deeper into it.
Jessica Krouse points to the tunic on her outfit as the Marvel character Loki, as seen in “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” comics, as her latest accomplishment.
“I have never tried quilting before, so this was a challenge,” said Krouse, who was still working to finish her cape for the costume in time for ComicCon. Krouse and her twin sister Jillian have a Facebook page called Plus 2 Cosplay to celebrate their adventures in costuming and creating.
“We are always looking for things to cosplay together,” Jessica says.
Jillian, who was sporting her costume as Bee from the animated online video series “Bee and PuppyCat,” credits her sister with drawing her into the world of cosplay, though she acknowledges she was easily led.
“On Halloween, we would always go a little bit crazy,” Jillian said, adding that she was in theater in high school. “I love crafting. I love the creative effort.”
In fact, while some aspects of their costumes, such as Jillian’s stuffed PuppyCat and Jessica’s Loki horns, are bought from websites such as Etsy, a treasure trove of cosplay gear, the twins say they want to learn to craft more items from scratch.
In the world of cosplay, details in costumes and makeup can get very precise, but Gastinger and Cummins say the ORCs avoid any judgments about people buying outfits or the quality of handcrafted items.
“The point is having fun, not your level of expertise,” Cummins said.
And there can be a service aspect to cosplaying. Cosplayers frequently are asked to participate in charitable events such as visiting children’s hospitals, particularly groups that portray super heroes and “Star Wars” characters.
The 501st Legion — Vader’s First, a global “Star Wars” group with a Lexington chapter, is well known for its charitable work, and giving kids a thrill when they get to meet some of their favorite characters.
And that is the essence of the fun: dressing up as favorite characters and being recognized while seeing what fellow enthusiasts are creating.
“It’s the best thing,” Jessica Krouse said. “When people ask me what I’m doing this weekend, I can say, ‘I’m dressing up as my favorite comic book character and meeting up with a bunch of other nerds.’”
Rich Copley, @copiousnotes
If you go
Lexington Comic & Toy
When: 1-9 p.m. March 9, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. March 10, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. March 11
Where: Lexington Convention Center, 430 W. Vine St.
Tickets: $40 Friday only, $60 Saturday and Sunday, $45 Saturday only, $30 Sunday only. Photo ops and autographs often cost more. See website for more information.