Dressed to Express: Cosplaying in Birmingham

By Reginald Allen

For The Birmingham Times

Elizabeth Channing, or Mama Liza, cosplays as her interpretation of the angel of the death at the Kami-Con convention on Jan 27. Reginald Allen, For the Birmingham Times.

For people like Elizabeth Channing, cosplaying is one of the few ways she can truly express herself.  Events like Kami-Con allow her the freedom to be whoever she wants to be, even if that means being the angel of death.

“A cosplay is something that I can use to let my inner self show.” Channing said with a crimson-colored skull cupped between her hands “Because most of the time I have to dress ‘normal’. I use quotation marks for that because I don’t really believe in normal. I get a chance to dress crazy and wild, the way I feel inside.”

Billed as Alabama’s largest anime and gaming convention, Kami-Con is a three-day celebration of Japanese art, gaming and pop culture. Boasting approximately 7,000 attendees, the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) temporarily becomes a mecca for cosplayers, or enthusiasts that enjoy masquerading as their favorite film, television or cartoon characters.

Dressing Outside of the Box

Attendee Nadia Johnson agreed that there is a double standard in the cosplay community when it comes down to race.

“Most people that do cosplay are white and they’re dressing up as Japanese characters,” said Johnson, who opted to dress as Lumpy Space Princess, a popular character from the Cartoon Network series “Adventure Time.” “If they can do it, why can’t I?

The costume, made from a thrift store dress and frilly purple fabric, took three months to make. As a hobbyist, she commits to one costume a year, and even that can be a challenge. As a person of color with a fuller figure, Johnson said it isn’t always easy finding characters that match her appearance. She isn’t alone.

A Second Family

Nadia Johnson cosplays as Lumpy Space Princess from the cartoon ” Adventure Time” at the Kami-Con anime convention on Jan. 27. Reginald Allen, For the Birmingham Times.

Throughout her cosplay career, Channing, an African American, said she’s been victim to cyber-bulling, where she was bashed by online naysayers for not only her size, but cosplaying outside of her race. Though discouraging, the cruelty only bolstered her love of the craft.

Channing, who also goes by Mama Liza, said she’s become something of maternal figure to aspiring cosplayers, claiming them as her own. The nickname dates to high school, where she was known for her nurturing tendencies.

“They call me mom because I help take care of them. I help them start off with cosplay and they’re terrified because they don’t look like the people in the pictures and the people on T.V,” Channing said. “I’m like ‘that’s exactly why you should do it, because you have to be yourself.’”

Cosplaying Budgets

Looking like a fictional character can be costly. Most professional cosplays are homemade or customized, which can cost upwards of a thousand dollars. However, authenticity is key.

For Fi Jellicorse, some of her past cosplays include characters from “Attack on Titan”, “Blue Exorcist” and “Big Hero Six”. An engineer by day, the Huntsville native attends anywhere from 4-6 conventions a year. A costume can take anywhere from an hour to twenty hours to complete with budgets ranging from $120-300. And, “the work doesn’t stop there,”Jellicorse shared.

“Completing the outfit is just the beginning”, she said. Wig styling and cutting usually takes around two to three hours and makeup could take up to one to two hours to get it right each time.”

Jellicorse said she does it for the transformation and the smiles. Its seeing the faces of astonished children seeing their favorite characters for the first time is priceless.

“I want to make others go ‘wow’,” Jellicorse said. “Who doesn’t like transforming something impossible for a change?”

While some are financially able to invest in jaw-dropping ensembles, other chose to keep it simple with a hot glue gun and whatever they can scavenge from their house. Sue Ellen Mohney said she considers herself a closet cosplayer, a novice that relies on household products and personal clothes for outfits. Though she’s donned numerous costumes, Mohney admitted that she has a soft spot for one character: Ms. Frizzle.

“I relate to Ms. Frizzle. I’m always surrounded by all of these kids [and] I’ve worked as a preschool teacher, and… a bus driver at my church”, and the children keep her inner child and dress-up alive.

While her “Frizzle” getups have never caused any commotion, the Vestavia Hills native added that there are instances in which “Mundanes”, or non-cosplayers, can react negatively to the characters people are portraying.

“When you have someone dressing a little more goth or maybe showing a little bit more skin, people who are not part of the community don’t know how to react and it makes them feel uncomfortable,” Mohney said. “When they don’t feel comfortable, they lash out on people and you get that when you’re walking on the street.”

Community Relationships

It isn’t uncommon for a cosplayer to photographed. If anything, it’s encouraged. As a visual art, the main goal is exhibition.

 On April 15, Affliction Cosplay Photography will have their annual “Iron City Cosplay Day”, a special meet-up for photographers and aspiring cosplayers at the Sloss Furnaces Historic Landmark. For $7, attendees can roam the grounds and create stellar images. The cosplay-themed photo studio initially came up with the idea to help raise money for Sloss, but it quickly morphed into a hub for creatives to work together.

“Collaboration between cosplayers are a very common thing,” Affliction owner and lead photographer Chase Lawrence said. “In the cosplay community, we work together to create and show appreciation to each other’s artwork. We want to be able to support everyone that is involved this community.”

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