There is a place where superheroes mingle with professional wrestlers, Star Wars characters take selfies with Star Trek characters and Disney Princesses chat with spiky-haired anime characters about makeup application and foam weapon fabrication techniques.
Perhaps even more interesting is that underneath the multicolored wigs, the dramatic makeup, the sometimes-sexy costumes and the enormous props, is that there are people of all different sizes, shapes, skin colors, gender identities and backgrounds hiding beneath. And, as members of the cosplay (a portmanteau of "costume" and "play" that refers to dressing up as a character from a movie, TV show, book or video game, especially a Japanese anime or manga) community, they all get along just fine.
"I think literally everyone is welcomed into the cosplay community, and, to me, that's the nicest thing," said Kat Densetsu, a Phoenix-based artist who will be cosplaying and selling art at Tucson Comic-Con.
The next big gathering of Arizona cosplayers is happening this weekend at Tucson Comic-Con, a three-day extravaganza which will feature comic industry guests like Adam Yeater, the comic book artist behind One Last Day and The Lottery; celebrity guests like professional wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts; author guests like Marsheila Rockwell of Mafia III: Plain of Jars and 7 SYKOS; and cosplay guests like designer Alexis Noriega.
The real magic of Comic-Con, however, is something less tangible. Even if you don't cosplay, or aren't in any fandoms, you'll feel it in the air—a sort of buzzing excitement, that, for some, comes from looking forward to a panel; for others, comes from having bought a new piece of art in the Artist Alley; and, for still others, comes from being in a place they feel like they belong.
Originally from Tucson, Densetsu got her start as a cosplayer when she was just 6 or 7 and dressed as Xena the Warrior Princess. She went to Phoenix Fan Fusion, formerly known as Phoenix Comic-Con, with her parents, placed second in a costume contest and never looked back. This year, the 22-year-old is attending Tucson Comic-Con for the first time with plans to cosplay Sirius Black from Harry Potter, Ivor from Minecraft: Story Mode, and, if she can get it together in time, a character named Kedamono from the anime Popee the Performer. If she doesn't finish it in time, she has 30 or so already-completed cosplays to pull from as backup.
A self-proclaimed introvert, Densetsu has made friends all over the world and from all walks of life, from transgender to autistic, through attending conventions. She says the time leading up to a con can be stressful like nobody's business, but walking around decked out at the event makes every bit of worry and self-consciousness melt away.
"As people recognize your costume, it's the nicest, warmest feeling, especially when they compliment you on it, because they're complimenting a part of you—almost like complimenting your child," she says. "As an artist, you put your heart and soul into what you make, and to see people appreciate that is really nice."
Paige Carlson, 26, is a writer, former English teacher in Japan (she just returned home to Tucson this summer after several years abroad), equestrian and cosplayer. At Tucson Comic-Con, she'll be Princess Bubblegum from the TV show Adventure Time and Kate Bishop, aka Hawkeye from the Young Avengers.
She has a background in theatre, and there's something about inhabiting a character she loves that makes her feel more confident—especially because, in her view, Japanese mangas and animes are much more character-driven than many American shows geared toward adults.
"I cosplay characters I admire something about. Like Princess Bubblegum, she's a scientist, and she's really smart, and she's pretty tough, and l like that. I like that she's a princess," Carlson says. "And getting into the practice of being someone else kind of gives you a little bit of confidence you need when you don't feel you have any confidence."
Carlson started cosplaying with a group of friends in high school. The joy of dressing up with her friends (their first group cosplay was as the characters of South Park), making new friends at conventions (she and her sister once used a pair of flip flops to forge a friendship with two young women dressed as anime characters named Panty and Stocking outside the Los Angeles Convention Center) and designing and sewing her own costumes (usually finishing just in time for the convention during a period infamous among cosplayers known as "con crunch") saw her through some tough times—whether it was dealing with severe anxiety, going away to Texas for college or dealing with troubles at home.
"Things were really rough at certain points, but I got to find this group where I got to go away for the weekend and, where, if I didn't want to be who I was, I could be the character I was dressed up as, and nobody thought differently about that," she says.
The most magical part of all? Some of that con-confidence has begun to leak into her everyday life.
"I have no shame in who I am," Carlson smiles. "I really like who I am—especially now; that was not always the case. I appreciate who I am, but I also appreciate the character. Who wouldn't want to be someone with superpowers?"
Tucson Comic-Con is at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 N. Church Ave., on Friday, Nov. 2, through Sunday, Nov. 4. The Con is open from 3 to 8 p.m. on Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, with registration starting an hour before the hall opens and ending two hours before it closes. A weekend pass is $45 for adults (14+) with tickets for individual days and youth available for lower prices. To see Kat Densetsu's art, follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @katdensetsu. Carlson's writing can be found at paigecarlson.com or at @500apaige on Instagram or Twitter.