When Keith Kelley attended Anime Weekend Atlanta for the first time, he felt left out. It seemed like he was the only one there who wasn’t dressed up!
So he began planning for next year. At Dragon Con 2014, he and his brother arrived as Tom and Jerry.
“It was a great experience,” Kelley said, “and that was the start of my cosplay career.”
Last year, Dragon Con, an annual sci-fi and fantasy convention, boasted a record attendance of more than 80,000 members. People have come from all over the United States and other parts of the world to attend Dragon Con, which takes place on Labor Day weekend. Other conventions in Atlanta like MomoCon and Anime Weekend Atlanta have attracted tens of thousands, too.
Kelley and his friend, Keenen Baker, attend multiple conventions a year and have tried to capture Atlanta’s cosplay culture through a Facebook page called “Atlanta Cosplayers,” which has gained more than 700 followers.
“It was our way of showing that there are plenty of nerds that exist down here, too,” Baker said.
Baker got into cosplay the same way that Kelley did. He attended his first convention in 2014 and saw everyone dressed up around him.
“Seeing people around my age range and older, that was just an inspiration for me,” Baker said. “I felt like I found like a second home, and this is what I wanna do possibly for the rest of my life.”
Atlanta’s cosplay culture is made up of a diverse group of people. Many of them share a passion for the same pastime, although they cosplay for different reasons. For some, it’s a hobby, but for others, it’s a lifestyle. Some try to make a career out of it, and others use it for volunteer work.
In late August, Dragon Con begins and will flood downtown Atlanta with superheroes, zombies, villains and wizards. People will dress up as their favorite characters from popular films, comics, books and video games. Some characters will be recognizable; others are lesser known.
When it comes to cosplay, you can be any character you want — even real-life TV characters like art instructor and television host Bob Ross. He’s been a popular cosplay in the past.
Creating The Costume
How do you even begin creating your costume?
“Do not be afraid to buy your costume,” Kelley said. “That is a big problem in the community. People think they can’t cosplay because they feel like they have to build the costume, and that is not true.”
But many who have been cosplaying for a long time take pride in building their own costumes. Both Kelley and Baker have done so. They have also had pieces commissioned.
Miro Jefferis-Nendick is another local cosplayer. She enlists her mother from New Zealand to create her “Resident Evil” ensemble.
“I’m like, ‘Please make this for me,’ and I send her a picture,” she said. “And she, like I said, she huffs and sighs and then makes it.”
“I’m very, very lucky.”
Jefferis-Nendick said she is missing some pieces from her character’s costume, but she tries to be as realistic as possible.
The character she portrays — Jill — is one of the main characters from the “Resident Evil” video game who fights an evil corporation responsible for releasing a zombie-like virus into the world.
“I don’t know, I sort of connect with her a little bit,” she said. “I don’t know why. I mean, I’m not a police officer or anything — or a brunette, much less blonde. I don’t know, I just liked her. She seemed like a really nice character, like she was just well-rounded and just seemed nice. So I was like, ‘I’ll cosplay her.'”
Baker says you don’t have to be 100 percent accurate when cosplaying. All that matters is that you do the character justice.
“There’s some people out there that feel like they have to be 100 percent accurate, and I can’t stand — like I understand — but I can’t stand it,” he said. “And it’s because I feel like that it puts some limitations on your creativity.”
Trying to be 100 percent accurate has also led to a major issue in the cosplay community, he later mentioned.
“I always see how black cosplayers, and they might cosplay a character who is originally Asian or is originally white, and they always get flak for it,” Baker said, “and I don’t understand that. Like, at the end of the day, it’s all imagination, like, it’s make-believe. It’s not real.”
Between that and cosplayers who paint their skin to match their character’s race, Baker says those things need to end.
“I feel like (those are the) things that are killing the fun and the cosplay community,” he said.
Both Baker and Kelley agree that it’s OK for anyone of any race to cosplay any character of any race, but you shouldn’t paint your skin unless it’s a nonhuman color like purple, red, blue or green.
“If everyone came with an accurate cosplay, where’s the creativity at?” Baker said.
Connecting With The Community
Like Baker and Kelley, Jefferis-Nendick — the “Resident Evil” cosplayer — uses a Facebook page to connect with other fans and cosplayers. Her page as more than 1,700 followers.
She created the page in 2012 with her boyfriend at the time.
“Really, this should have been a group and not a page, but it was 2012, and we didn’t know what the heck we were doing,” she said. “So we accidentally made a page instead of a group. But it worked out. We can still make events, and everybody seems to follow it and everything. And it’s OK.”
She and other admins use the page to create meetups with other “Resident Evil” cosplayers. They have one scheduled for Dragon Con this year.
“We always expect no one to show up, and then they always do,” Jefferis-Nendick said. “So, if we have one person to show up, that’s great.”
One year, Jefferis-Nendick invited one of the video game’s voice actors to a Dragon Con meetup.
“And he actually showed up,” she said. “And he keeps coming to them every year, which is really, really cool.”
It’s through these cosplay connections that Jefferis-Nendick met her current boyfriend of five years. He used to be an admin on the page, and he lives in Tennessee.
Cosplay opens doors for some people, and, yes, it’s possible to make a career out of it.
That’s what Baker and Kelley are trying to do, but they say it’s very difficult. On top of that, convention memberships cost money, and costume-building can be expensive and time-consuming, depending on the methods you use.
Nonetheless, the two friends who met through cosplay are committed to their careers. They’ve found a way to incorporate cosplay into filmmaking.
Baker is a student at Clayton State University. Kelley helped him work on a video assignment together, and, on another occasion, the two were asked to work on a video that was part of the “Marvel Becoming” series, which features cosplayers.
Their partnership exemplifies how cosplay can be used to make connections and find work.
“So, if you can find a way to open up another outlet for cosplay to make money off of it, then, I think you’re golden,” Kelley said.
“(Cosplay) has opened up a lot of doors,” Baker added, “whether it’s film, magazine covers, interviews and such. Like, it’s been a wild, interesting ride.”
Labor Of Love
There are some cosplayers in Atlanta who also build costumes and attend conventions, and they’ve found another way to turn their passion into work. Except, they don’t get paid for what they do.
“We try to bring Disney to kids who can’t go to Disney,” explained Rob Brayton, who is known as the group’s “Cosplay Dad.”
Brayton has been volunteering with the group for at least three years, and he finds it “super addictive.”
“Most of us got our start from Dragon Con,” Brayton said. “So, it comes from a place of love.”
“We started off with probably about two or three events a year,” said volunteer Mo Vermenton. “We actually exponentially increased to about, I would say, four or five events a month. Almost every weekend we are doing an event, maybe two, maybe even three events.”
“And it’s a great way for us to pivot cosplay because, you know, it’s obviously a fandom that we love — something that we, you know, hold dear,” Vermenton said.
So, just like career-focused and just-for-fun cosplayers, these volunteers share the same passion that has connected others in the community.
After all, as Brayton mentioned, Atlanta has become a “Cosplay Mecca.”