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Geekdom, much like sexuality, has a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is “normal,” in sans serif font, black letters, fixing itself a cup of coffee, a pair of tickets to the St. Louis Cardinals game in its Dockers. On the other end, in a riot of color, dancing to “Caramelldansen,” a furry tail poking out of its pants, is “GEEK.” About 95 percent of humanity’s score lies somewhere within the spectrum, not at either extreme. Some geeks enjoy the Cardinals, and some normal people go to midnight showings of the latest Marvel or DC movie. My best friend owns a three-bedroom ranch, proudly carries a Coach purse, and can pull from her memory a Star Trek quote to fit any situation.

Then … there are Mikhail and Katrina Lynn.

“We are living in a subculture,” Katrina says.

Mikhail adds, “It’s a way of life.”

Every day, they live the life of the GEEK. Specifically, the cosplaying GEEK. They are known for being very, very good at what they do. And they do all of it together. The results are some of the most stunning self-made costuming seen in the Midwest. They have run four St. Louis area cons. (That’s right. Not attended, ran. All of the responsibilities, from recruiting the guest stars to booking the hotel, were theirs.) Their record number of cons attended in one year is 15, but “that was killing us,” Mikhail insists. They have been featured in numerous documentaries and publications. They are, in Midwest geek culture, the closest thing to celebrities as you can get.

In costume, they can be anyone. Anime characters or Dr. Who characters. Historical recreations or fantastical creatures. Lovers or foes. Men or women.

Out of costume, they are a delicate study in contrasts. Her hair is straight and neat; his is a frizzy mess contained in a ponytail. She is always smiling, cracking jokes, blurting out and interrupting; he makes quiet observations over the tops of his glasses, barely granting more than a smirk. She is all curves, but still slim, with round cheeks; he is a gangly twig, to the extent that I want to take him home and feed him, with sharp features set in a long face.

When you give your life over to being GEEK -- not “geek,” like me or my Star Trek friend, but GEEK -- you have to surrender everything. That includes your home.

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I walk into a one-bedroom townhouse in Marlborough, south St. Louis County, and I am immediately over-stimulated. GEEK is on the walls, on the shelves, on the refrigerator magnets. It is stuffed into four closets: from floor to ceiling, literally, forming leaning towers of storage bins and boxes.

“This one actually has regular clothing in it,” Katrina declares as she opens the bedroom closet. It is stuffed with costume parts. She stares inside, dumbfounded. “It used to have regular clothes in it …”

It is piled up in a corner on the stairway landing, an area they have dubbed “The Purgatory” that includes fake weapons, practice swords, real swords, a collection of standees (stand-up displays that were acquired from different promotions), and other random “supplies.” It is in the wig boxes, within their cat’s name, in their basement.

Yes, the basement. I get a quick tour, and I am spinning with the extent of their GEEK credentials. Was that wall really filled with signed photos of geek icons? Did they really undertake a wedding anniversary “project” last year in which they asked their favorite Deviantart and con-circuit artists to re-imagine characters from the video game series Metal Gear in love, and then slightly redesign the costumes and facial structures to look like them? Why did she make a hat with a giant ampersand stuck to the top? Why are GEEKs so obsessed with Dr. Who? Where do they sleep? Where do they eat?

When I round the corner and leave Purgatory behind, I descend the stairs into the basement … and see King DeDeDe’s decapitated head staring directly at me. But I don’t recognize him at first. I just see a plush face with a duckbill wearing a red cap, its giant, black pupils staring at me. The basement that is home to their gigantic costumes, massive projects involving months of research, geometry, supply searching, and sewing, sewing, sewing. DeDeDe’s head is not in a box, but the rest of the pieces of these creations are in containers that take up an entire corner of the basement.

One of their most heavily-honored costume pairs is also stored here: Kabuki Revolution EXTREME. They drew inspiration for the costume from the two sources in the name: Dance Dance Revolution, a dancing video game in which gamers had to follow on-screen commands with their fast-moving feet, which are on dance platforms; and Kabuki, an ancient Japanese drama and dance hybrid, known for its expressive makeup and excessive costumes. They used the obnoxiously bright colors in the game as well as the flashing arrows in the patterns on their kimonos. The hold arrows stretch down the obi, or sash, of the outfits, and flashing directional arrows can be found on the front and back of the costume.

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They have worn the costumes to Archon as well as Costume Con, earning high titles at both. They spent months on the costumes: not in just making them, but in preparation for their skit to display them. They choreographed a dance that combined the dramatic exaggerations characteristic of Kabuki as well as the frantic foot-stamping movements of the DDR player. They teased each other – Mikhail seduced, Katrina blushed and avoided – by flipping their fans at each other, decorated on both sides with the catchphrases of the game. Excellent! Boo! Almost! Perfect!

I imagine my own husband and me working for months and months on a project of this magnitude. Our efforts would involve a lot more boo’s and almost’s than excellent’s and perfect’s. We don’t have the perfect mix of characteristics that set Katrina and Mikhail apart.

Katrina is a loud and proud Type A. She gets a thrill out of writing on and scratching out calendars, checklists, and to-do lists. She has trouble spending months and months on a project; it’s more fun to get it finished. Mikhail, however, is more easy-going. In addition, he works with a quiet intensity, and his attention to detail pays off on their costumes. When I visited them, Mikhail had Photoshop open and was meticulously recreating the hatband pattern of the Fifth Doctor from Dr. Who. On the screen, it just looks like a few colored blocks. But when he zooms in on the Fifth Doctor’s head, I can see the same pattern surrounding his Panama hat. It is a minor detail, something most cosplayers would just get “close enough,” but they are having the hatband specially printed.

They each bring unique skills to the table. Katrina labels herself as a “jack of all trades, master at none.” There are few things she can do “pretty well” the first time she tries it, but it then takes her months to get beyond that level. There is only one exception to this rule: sewing. When her grandmother first tried to teach her the craft, she was awful at it. She had to work very hard and had to learn patience to improve. She had to overcome her issues with Attention Deficit Disorder to reach her goals.

“If I didn’t focus on it, it wasn’t going to happen,” she explains.

Mikhail can sew, as well, thanks to Katrina’s tutelage. Mikhail claims to be a terrible artist. He shows me a sketch of a costume he designed – a re-imagining of Setzer from Final Fantasy VI as a Yakuza gambler – and it is eons beyond my stick figures. He insists his designs only make sense to himself and Katrina, but I let it drop. Both of them can eyeball the tiniest of measurements – to a 32nd of an inch – because they work with them every day.

If there is one time they have to come together as a couple, it is when they put on a costume for the first time. They try on each piece, holding their collective breath. Is it going to fit? Is it going to fall apart? They each notice every tiny flaw, every little thing that needs a stitch, or a new color, always something. They go back and make corrections. Sometimes, it’s something minor. Sometimes, they scrap everything and try all over again, like Katrina’s costume of The Boss from Metal Gear. While they are on display at cons, the errors in their work are always hideously obvious.

“We can see things that are not right, even if other people can’t,” Mikhail said.

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While they are in costume at cons, they both get hit on by men and women, they said, which is only exacerbated when they cross-play. Mikhail has tried it once, but Katrina does it frequently for a couple of reasons. Firstly, she finds gender-bending freeing and fun. Secondly, it is hard for her to find female characters that she likes enough to inspire her. When she is trying to choose a character to cosplay, she has to like the character as a person as much as she likes that character’s outfit. Few female characters have provided her with both, and she made a plea to female geeks and gamers. She wants them to push developers and designers to give them the strong, fascinating female characters they deserve.

Through their teamwork, they run four cons: Kawa Kon, an anime convention; Bishie Con, a yaoi and slash convention (and if you don’t know what those are, Google with caution); Escape From Outer Heaven, a Metal Gear convention; and Ecto Con, a Ghostbusters convention. However, to “maintain their sanity,” they plan to make Kawa Kon their big annual conference, and then only run one other specialty con on a rotating basis each year, Mikhail said.

It’s a relationship that began the way you would most expect: through cosplay. It was September 2004, and Katrina and Mikhail were both film majors at Webster University. (Yes, the same Webster that was attended by Christine Thompson. Katrina and Mikhail were also part of the Webster Anime Society team credited with starting Anime St. Louis.) As a sucker for long hair, Katrina had been admiring Mikhail from afar, but she thought he was stuck up. He thought he was better than the other film majors because he had watched all of these obscure movies.

Mikhail has grown since then. “Everyone who enters college is stuck up,” he says dismissively. Katrina chuckles.

They enrolled in the same class, “Narrating Pathology,” and the professor was discussing the classic cult film Clockwork Orange. To make a point, he said he would give extra credit to any student who dressed as Alex, the main character. He wasn’t expecting anyone to take up the challenge. Katrina did. She spent the entire weekend gathering together the pieces.

When she wore it to class, Mikhail cornered her and immediately started pointing out the errors in the costume. Some parts were the wrong color. She wasn’t wearing a codpiece. And those aren’t paratrooper boots.

“I thought he was being an ass,” she said. However, Katrina needed a ride to an upcoming con, so she asked for one. Mikhail didn’t have a car, but it was still the icebreaker that led to a deep friendship. They were experimenting with romance; Katrina was the first to try to kiss him. However, he had never been kissed before and didn’t know how to react. He wasn’t interested in a relationship, he told her, and said he just wanted to be friends. Katrina didn’t want him out of her life, so she stuck around.

“We were best friends bordering on I don’t even know what,” Katrina says. They were a constant comfort to each other, and they were happy with what they had, even if they couldn’t put a label on it. They moved in together during their second year of college. Nothing happened back then, she insists, and candidly blurts that the couple “waited” until after they were married.

Mikhail shifts, and his pale cheeks flare. He tries to change the subject. “Let’s talk about how the kitty came into our lives!”

I laugh, and I oblige, although we never did talk about the cat.

As graduation neared, Katrina began to fear that she was about to lose Mikhail. “I didn’t want him to move out of town,” she said. In December 2006, during a road trip to visit family, Katrina and Mikhail came to a mutual decision to get married. There was nothing formal about it; it just seemed logical.

Only when they had arrived did Katrina realize that no one had really proposed. She mentioned this to Mikhail. “He pulled the ring tab off a carton of orange juice and put it on my finger. We didn't say anything until that summer when we'd worked out we were definitely going to get married,” she said.

They were united in marriage in July 2008. Of course, it was a cosplay “costume formal” wedding. Katrina made most of the costumes herself, and she got her “teenage dream”: She dressed as Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings, and Mikhail and the groomsmen dressed as the Shinsengumi, a police force in Japan's Tokugawa Period. While many of their family members got into the cosplay aspect of the wedding, some just wore jeans, which the bride still finds annoying.

“I guess if you have costumes, all sense of wedding propriety goes out the window,” she said.

When I talked with them, the couple was preparing to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary. “Now we’re relatively normal, right?” Katrina asks. Mikhail just smiles and shrugs.

Of course, “normal” to most people is not “normal” to Katrina and Mikhail. When “normal” life and “geek” life intersect, the results range from awkward to amused. Katrina’s boss, for example, read an article about his young employee in The Riverfront Times. It described, in cartoonishly graphic details, Katrina and Mikhail’s Bishie Con. He informed her that he didn’t care what she did in her spare time. Katrina is employed at a video editing company that primarily makes training videos for corporations, and Mikhail works at Sam’s Club in the marketing department. Both of them use the resources from their jobs to help with their GEEK projects. They get many of their promotional materials for their cons printed at Sam’s Club. And Katrina’s boss served as the voice of the announcer on the Kabuki Revolution music. “It’s time for Kabuki Revolution!” he shouted before the performance began.

Katrina described her boss as very straight-laced, but he understands this lifestyle is not for everyone.

In another cross-world mishap, a neighbor walked up to Katrina and nearly introduced himself. Katrina, embarrassed, told the friendly man that she had lived in the apartment complex for six years. The man said she had seen Mikhail and Katrina unloading their vehicle a few days earlier.

“When we get back from a con, it’s like we’re moving in all over again,” Katrina says. In fact, Katrina’s car, a Toyota Matrix, was chosen specifically for its storage, making it the perfect cosplaying geekmobile.

Reaching out and meeting new “regular” people is hard for the couple. Katrina is better at, as she puts it, “normalizing,” than Mikhail, but they both prefer the company of other geeks.

“I don’t feel comfortable talking to people who don’t know what I’m talking about,” Mikhail says.

Despite this, their social calendars are very full, but with geek-related outings. Recently, they have enjoyed attending and volunteering for events at the St. Louis Science Center in costume. In addition, Mikhail sets up a Ghostbusters table at the ToyMan Toy Show once every two months. Katrina serves on three committees and is in choir at church. They are proud members of the St. Louis CIA (a Doctor Who club) and the St. Louis Costumers Guild, as well.

As far as really cutting loose, they consider cons the only party they ever need to attend because cons are, to them, a big, expensive GEEK party that lasts all weekend. And what else could a GEEK ask for?

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It's a mild early autumn afternoon. The trees are just beginning to turn, leaves catching the golden glow of the sun. All in all, it's a perfect day to be outside.

A perfect day to cosplay.

I am joined by Sheila Netteler (known primarily as Shelandry Studios) of Richwoods, Missouri, a mother of three girls: Lilith, April, and not present today, her oldest daughter Chelsie. Her boyfriend, Danny, is also along for the ride. They've agreed to meet with me at Laumeier Sculpture Park on this lovely Saturday to tell their cosplay story. Since Sheila’s hometown is off the map, so to speak, meeting up in places that are easy to find is a must. (Her home can’t even be found on a GPS!)

We meet amidst handshakes and cordial "how-do-you-dos", the girls bright-eyed with eagerness at the prospect of a romp on the many nature trails that twist their way through the park. They're already rattling out the names of the sculptures they'd like to visit. "I want to go to the maze thing! Can we go to the maze, mom?" Sheila, with a practiced ease, immediately takes charge directing the girls to get changed into their costumes while I interview her. You can tell she's done this many times before. And that she has.

Sheila has always had a hand in the creation and construction of costumes; she's worked in haunted houses since the early 90's transforming actors into the ghouls and goblins of our nightmares, not to mention helping to build the sets on which they perform. She gleefully recounts a time when she did make-up for a zombie themed event, describing the rather gruesome effects she was able to achieve. However, while she enjoyed the work tremendously, she admitted to eventually getting stuck in that much dreaded "creative rut."

"There's only so much you can do," she says, hands busy with unloading her own gear from her backpack; a bow and a quiver of arrows are stacked against the stone wall behind us. "Every year it's the same theme, you know?"

Luckily for her, however, a chance to reinvigorate her craft came by way of a friend on DeviantArt; a popular website for artists to gather and show off their skills as well as give each other helpful critiques. The friend saw what Sheila was capable of and told her that she should branch out of the standard witches, vampires, and zombies of Halloween and start to make anime costumes. Having only been introduced a few years prior to anime and not knowing what anime or cosplay was, Sheila began to do her own research and attended her first convention, Anime St. Louis, in 2009.

"I just fell in love with it," she gushes with a bright grin.

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Taking her art in a new direction, she began doing cosplay commissions and constructing her own costumes. To date she's made over twenty-five. In an attempt to find people with similar interests, she also founded the Cosplay Coalition Network in 2009. The membership has exploded from a few close friends to over nine hundred members worldwide thanks in large part to Facebook and is of this year celebrating its 4th anniversary. It was a way for people who share the same passions to come together outside of conventions to do photoshoots, make new friends, go on picnics, and chat about their favorite anime and manga series.

"It really took off. I was so surprised by that," Sheila says with a tone of amazement in her voice. "But it just spread by word of mouth and we keep getting more people."

Any dream costume she wants to tackle?

"Impa from Legend of Zelda,"she replies. "It's so hard to find good reference photos of her, and when you do, they're these odd angles from video game clips. Also I'd have to figure out how to get her armor to fit and stay on. And she has these weird ears. They're not super long, but they're hard for me to find."

Has she won any awards for her costumes?

"Only one. It was for best stage performace,"she says. "I don't want to waste my time in masquerades anymore. There tends to be too much favoritism with the judges and I don't think that's right. I also don’t see the point in wasting almost the entire main day of con waiting in a “green room” just to walk on a stage for a few short minutes just to show off my cosplay when I can spend the entire day enjoying the convention."

There is an unfortunate part of the cosplay community, she concedes. Some fans do tend to be hypercritical of each other, both with costume accuracy and whether or not said person is deemed attractive enough to pull the character off. But Sheila doesn't put up with any of it. Like any of us, she’s had her own struggles with body image. Through most of her adult life she has dealt with anorexia and had become thin to the point where it was no longer healthy. She was fortunate enough to find the support she needed in overcoming her obstacles, and has since put on weight. However, she admits to having gained more than she expected to. Nevertheless, it has not deterred her from cosplaying. Sheila is dedicated to fighting for the equality and the right for all people to cosplay whomever they wish. The coalition in particular embraces its members as full equals. She delights in welcoming people of all colors, sizes, and skill levels into her group.

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"I like using all kinds of people for my photoshoots," she says proudly. "I don't just use the 'good' ones. It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like. Fun is what it's all about. If anyone tries to get negative on my webpage, they're deleted without a second thought."

Indeed, fun is what it's all about, as her daughters can attest to. When I asked how she got April and Lilith to join her in her cosplay hobby the answer was simple enough:

"They wanted to do it. They saw us adults doing it and they wanted to do it too. They’re constantly adding to their list of characters of who they really want to cosplay.”

By this time the girls have scampered back, decked out in their costumes and completely oblivious to the stares of both the wedding party and the homecoming group that are sharing the park with us today. April is Yachiru, the pint-sized lieutenant from Bleach, while Lilith is an Umbreon, a creature from the wildly successful Pokemon franchise. Both are enjoying themselves to the full, hamming it up in every photo and scurrying about ahead of us on the trails. Danny and Sheila are dressed up as a Glaceon, another Pokemon, and Kikyou from Rumiko Takahashi's Inu Yasha. They follow more sedately, but are nevertheless having just as much of a good time.

So, what is it about cosplay that drives Sheila? She says it's the challenge, of finding new materials to work with and to make everything all by hand. She also says it's rewarding in that it offers her more ways to express herself creatively given the near limitless amount of video game, manga, and anime characters to choose from. Every costume is unique.

Sheila goes on to add that being apart of the subculture has allowed her to become more confident.

"I used to be very shy and didn't feel comfortable around other people. But, by doing this, and having people come up to me to ask for pictures, it's given me more self-esteem."

Cosplay then, is more than just a casual hobby. It's a passion and a living, thriving community in which she feels recognized and appreciated. It may also turn into a livelihood down the road. Sheila has plans to turn her cosplay commissions into a full-time business.

Whatever her goals are, we're sure the cosplay community wishes her the best of luck in all of her endeavors.

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July 2013

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