Apr. 21st, 2013

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The origin story.

Most anime characters have one.

It is the story of what happened before, before the hero became who she is now, before she was known, respected, recognizable. It is the story that answers the “how.” How did she acquire that signature weapon? How did she learn that special move? How did she get to be so, you know, awesomely epic? For anime fans, that is usually enough. Just seeing their character living a normal life is endearing, adorable, and memorable in its simplicity.

Sometimes, the really good origin stories also answer the “why.” Why does this character continue to strive for her goal, despite all the obstacles? Why did this character choose a life of danger and disaster over a peaceful, normal life? Why do they choose to be so -- let’s just say it -- different?

Cosplayers, much like the characters they adore, also have origin stories. How did they get introduced to anime and manjga? How did they get hooked? How did they first learn about cosplay? And more interestingly, why do they choose to wear costumes in public?

Christine “Cat” Thompson has given careful thought to the answers to these questions, not just in relation to others, but herself. As a quasi-famous podcaster and blogger in her nerd circles, she has been asked to speak and write about the culture of cosplay multiple times. (Namedrop, for the uberly nerdly and curious among us: She is a host at thatguywiththeglasses.com, owned by Channel Awesome.) Every time, she forces herself to answer the question many cosplayers would rather brush off: Why am I dressed like this?

Her answer is a complex one, rooted in shame and a quest for self-identity.

Not the kind of shame that drew most of us to anime and cosplay. We were losers in middle school or high school; we found other like-minded losers; we bought anime boxes at the now-defunct geek heaven Suncoast; we refined our tastes; we grew obsessed; we bought or made costumes. Some parts of this common, community-wide origin story are also Cat’s story, but her shame is not as one-dimensional. Hers is the kind of shame rooted in the questions that have puzzled many characters and their human creators and fans forever. What is home? Who am I? Where do I fit in?

She knows these answers now, but it took her many, many years and many, many cosplays to find them.
It is a hot June day. St. Louis summers are notorious: from late May to early September, area residents are held in a tight grip, and that grip is sweltering, smelling, and swimming in its own sweat. Typically, there is a progression to this misery, in which the peak is typically not felt until mid-August. However, there are exceptions, always exceptions. Like this June day, and Carmen Sandiego is getting out of my car.

We are standing at the tip-top of Art Hill next to the St. Louis Art Museum, and Carmen is not dressed for the weather. Her wide-brimmed, felt hat is tight against her head. Pleather combat boots reach her knees. Her black gloves are lined with white fleece. A belted trench coat reaches her calves. The sun is directly overhead, and the only shade is being cast by the proud, looming statue of Crusader King Louis IX and his mount. Young families, solitary art students, and hipster couples are milling about on their way into the museum, and their reactions range to peeks over the shoulder to blank stares. I can’t blame them. Carmen stands out. She is a cartoon character, with blacks too black, reds too red, and yellows too yellow compared to the dying, dusty grass and brown dirt covering Art Hill.

It only makes sense that Carmen Sandiego, despite her ill-preparedness, would be lurking at the St. Louis Art Museum. Among the 30,000 works of art housed in the museum are masterpieces by the greats: Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, and Matisse. And even though the museum draws nearly half a million visitors per year, it is relatively quiet on this day. Besides, Carmen has stolen the entire Eifel Tower before. Making off with a painting or two in broad daylight should be simple to her, hipster couples or no hipster couples.

Carmen Sandiego, for those of you too young or too old to remember (essentially, those who are not late Gen-X’ers like us), is a globetrotting, thieving supervillain. She is the subtly sexy protagonist of a series of educational television shows and video games that were an essential ingredient to the childhood of any ’90s kid, right up there with Goosebumps, Pogs, and Ring Pops. Child players of her products had to answer questions that would, hopefully, lead to Carmen’s capture. Much to the glee of parents, Carmen’s scattered clues taught their children lessons in all of their core subjects. Most parents, I’m sure, thought the products were sneaky, convincing children they were detectives while subtlety teaching geography and history lessons, akin to squiring liquid vitamin on their cookies. I remember knowing exactly what the games were: trivia contests. That didn’t stop me from wanting to see that sultry scoundrel behind bars.

And here I am, a (nearly) grown woman, watching as Carmen Sandiego poses for photos with mummies, paintings, and sculptures. The museum art attendants, especially, welcome our presence: “You’re Carmen Sandiego, aren’t you?” they ask, unable to contain their smiles. It is in this moment of shared recognition that Cat most deeply gives into her Carmen character, pouting slightly with her cheap, exaggerated lipstick and peering at her fans from under her hat’s brim. She is striking. “Why yes!” she coos. And the employees laugh, in on the joke, a part of our fun, remembering their own adventures with Carmen, who is now standing in front of them, in the flesh, sort of.

“We’re drawing attention,” Cat gushes as we round a corner. “It’s awesome.”

This is why we cosplay. Even if Carmen isn’t an anime character, Cat plays her because she loves the character as well as the reactions she receives when she is in her costume. It’s that shared recognition and that private sense of community, created through the recognition, that gives cosplay its pull.

But aren’t there other ways to attract positive attention, or even fans, similar to those who now hound Cat? Why cosplay?
After the photo shoot, we shove Carmen back into my car and blast the air conditioner. She deftly unties her coat and throws her wig and hat over the passenger’s side chair, gasping for air. As we ensure that she isn’t going to pass out from heat stroke, we aimlessly drive until we end up in the Applebee’s parking lot at Kingshighway and Chippewa. Carmen finishes her transformation to Cat in the restaurant bathroom. She flops in the booth, the red lipstick wiped off, the red trench replaced with a Mario t-shirt, and her hair mussed and matted.

As she rehydrates, Cat nonchalantly tells her origin story, which is, in my humble opinion, the greatest cosplayer origin story ever.

It begins before she was even conceived. Her parents were U.S. Naval cryptologists.

“It’s a code breaker,” she bluntly states, ignoring my incredulous stares. Her parents were both stationed at a base in Scotland, but Cat knows few details. “I don’t really know what they did because it was all classified,” she said.
I tell her I find this slightly arousing as well as badass. This could be the beginning of a good anime. Right?

“It’s really not all that exciting,” she deadpans. The excitement, according to her, ends at the badass title of Naval cryptologist. The day-to-day work involves a lot of math and staring at machines. (I still refuse to believe this.)
Love blossomed between the codebreakers, and they were united in marriage May 2, 1980, by their superior officer. Her older brother, John, arrived in their lives Dec. 2, 1982.

Their next station was in Japan, and Cat was born July 11, 1985. She has no memory of the family’s time in Japan because they stayed for less than two years. This marked the beginning of Cat’s globetrotting childhood. After Japan, the family hopped to West Virginia, Germany, Puerto Rico, and Maryland. Cat said much of the “beauty and the danger” of living in these locations was lost to her because she was too young to remember them. Her family was in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. While in Puerto Rico, the locals would start fires and set loose wild dogs in an attempt to scare off the people at the base. At the time, she saw these events as fun interruptions to the daily routine, if they even registered at all.

Although there is no one place that she calls home, Maryland comes the closest for Cat. She spent 10 of her formative years in the state, so she was granted something that resembled a normal childhood. It helped that she was surrounded by a similar species: the “military kid.”

“Fort Meade, which is the big base up there, is home to a lot of people who went to my school,” she explained. This resulted in her school being jam-packed with military kids. Cat said children of military families share many traits. Most of them are comfortable with multiple languages. Cat, for example, attended American schools, but she still absorbed the languages that surrounded her as a child. (She attributes much of this acquisition to her father, who would use other languages with his children during daily household goings-on.) She speaks “a couple of words” in German, used to be fluent in Spanish, and remains fluent in Japanese.

“I also speak fluent sarcasm,” she quips at me. “You should know about that.”

Military kids also value friendships to an unusual degree. Friends are something to be treasured, not tossed aside casually. These kids know they have to stick together, so they are quick to make amends when conflicts arise. They don’t want to break this fragile thing for the few years or even months that it will last, until one of their families is transferred yet again. They need each other because they share a common experience that few “normal” children would understand. For example, non-military children had to teach Cat about Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. She had grown up in a world where “normal” was having parents who not able to, ever, answer this age-old family dinner conversation staple: How was your day?

In addition, military kids are never taught about world cultures: they are inundated with them beginning at birth. This results in the type of tolerance that can only be learned through experience. Stereotypes are nearly nonexistent.
However, she was still teased for her background. This teasing didn’t come from other schoolchildren. It was from her older brother.

“My brother was very big into war stories and history. And he would always tease me for being from an Axis country,” she said. “Normal” older brothers tease little sisters by telling them they’re a superhero villain; military kid big brothers tease their little sisters by labeling them as a group of countries that opposed the Allied powers during World War II.

This stuck with Cat in a powerful way. “My whole life I think he did it,” she said. “He teased me, and I didn’t have anything to respond. He was born in Scotland.”

Eventually, the teasing led to Cat feeling “a small margin of shame” for being from this place, this Japan, she said. This resulted in a reluctant, hesitant curiosity about the country and its culture that she couldn’t ignore. She wanted to know if her brother was correct, or if she should, instead, be proud of the part that Japan plays in her life story.

Although she had no recollection of Japan, Cat didn’t have to look far to begin her search for her birthplace. Her parents had acquired a variety of Japanese items and relics during their time there, and she started asking questions about them.
Close to the same time, Cat fell in love with a TV show that she knew she was probably too old for: Sailor Moon. The 13-year-old Cat couldn’t resist the show’s pull, even though she would quickly click it off whenever another family member walked into the room.

“I didn’t want people to know I was a grown girl, watching cartoons like a little kid,” she said. “It took quite a while for me to realize that it was OK. I had to understand what these cartoons were.”

Soon after, her brother gave his little sister an assignment: Check out this Dragon Ball Z and tell him what it was all about. Cat fell even deeper into her growing obsession. Anime series were like no other cartoon she had watched in the past: ongoing story, intense action, awesome superpowers, and strong characterization set them apart.

She went to her first convention, Otakon, at age 15. She and some friends all dressed in high school uniforms they threw together with spare parts laying around the house. They drew attention and loved it. Cat had managed to build herself an anime nerd clique, and the friends began hitting area cons as a group. She started slow, only going to one convention a year.

Cosplaying has always been a part of the con experience for Cat. When she attended Otakon in 2002, she cosplayed for the first time as Kamatari from Rurouni Kenshin, Gradually, she attended cons more and more frequently, and her cosplaying also became more sophisticated. Now, she volunteers at about three anime cons and attends five cons, most of them in the Midwest. And that doesn’t include the sci fi and other nerd cons. She has cosplayed so many different characters that she has lost count.

After Cat earned an associate of arts degree at Anne Arundel Community College, her family moved to the St. Louis area because her mother is originally from here. Her parents had retired from the military, but her (badass) father still does (badass) classified work in the private sector, she said.

“For a little while, he was writing defense reports of ‘things’ going on the Middle East,” she said. “And that is all I will never know about it.”
(Badass.)

She began to explore colleges, but with two objectives: stay close to her family and go to Japan. Webster University in Webster Groves was a perfect fit due to its study abroad program. She majored in international studies, naturally, and studied in Japan from September 2006 to July 2007. While there, she attended Kansai University in Osaka.

And just like her high school years, she also managed to find a nerd contingent: the Webster Anime Society, a club devoted to the love and consumption of all things anime. However, this nerd contingent was special. They are credited with starting the St. Louis Anime Convention and then nurturing it into maturity. During the con’s third year in existence, Cat was asked to serve on the con staff, and some challenging duties were dumped into her lap after another staff member quit.

“I was suddenly, like, a marketing director, out of nowhere. I don’t think that was my title, but that’s what I called it,” Cat said. “It was very strange, and it was pretty stressful.” She was the newest person on staff and felt she didn’t have the expertise necessary for the position. She also was running seven con panels and was picking up other tasks along the way. The stress was matched by the intrinsic rewards she received from the experience.

Gradually, she continued her climb up the nerd ladder. Her fame with thatguywiththeglasses.com began through a connection in college. A friend had been picked up by the Web site, and she quickly followed suit and was named to the staff. Although the written portion of the Web site is currently shut down, the podcasting team of Nerd to the Third is going strong. She is looking to the future when the podcast can branch out on its own website.

There may be one other reason Cat chooses to be a part of the geek culture. There are few fans as loyal as geek fans. Before the interview began, Cat cryptically warned us that if we mess up this story, she will put the word on the Internet and will send her fanboys after us. Just what that means, I’m not sure, but it’s intimidating all the same.

Her fans flock to her and follow her. Around the country, so it seems. Recently, Cat had casually mentioned in an Internet post that she would be attending a con in Louisiana.

“A guy ended up showing up just because I was there. Just to meet me,” she said. “He was nervous and shaking, and it was just the sweetest thing.”

Fan encounters are still very surreal for Cat, who said her entire Internet presence is based on her being herself, geeking out over the things she has always geeked out over, being silly, and having fun.

“And then, to know that people follow that and really love it and appreciate the work I do,” she mulls, “it’s very strange. But it’s also very flattering.”

Cat currently resides in Fenton with her badass parents and two cats.


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