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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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Their reactions are complete opposites, like the sides of the moon.

On the bright side of the moon, pure joy. The smaller people, also known as the children, or the innocent, can’t contain their delight. They run up to him, squealing. They embrace him before he even has a chance to put his arms up to return the favor. They stroke his white fur and whisper, “Bye, puppy!” as they are rushed off.

The taller people, also known as the adults, or the parents, are the dark side. They are trying to obscure their emotions, but those who have lived long enough in the Midwest know that expression. The tight lips, the hunched shoulders, the wrinkled brow line. This isn’t the east coast: No one is going to yell at him and go, “Hey, who are you, touching my kid?” Instead, they make that carefully constructed passive aggressive face and stride off, bumping their strollers along at the maximum speed possible without breaking into a run.

This won’t last, I think.

And then, it doesn’t. Two women, both with handheld transceivers and official looking St. Louis Zoo button-up shirts, flank this giant white wolf man. They are less passive, more aggressive.

“Hey, who are you with, guy,” the bigger and buffer one asks.

“We’re writing a book,” I interject, knowing this is a partial fib, knowing that the wolf will not answer while in costume. “We received permission from the parking lot attendant.”

“Well, you can’t be here.”

Of course we can’t, I think. I would be nervous, too, if a man in a wolf costume frolicking around the St. Louis Zoo parking lot hugged my kid, too many weeks away from Halloween to be socially appropriate.

Natale and I apologize about 10 times, no exaggeration, and make a beeline back to our vehicle. We drive a little up the road, to an area of the iconic and historic Forest Park that is slightly more secluded and more welcoming to furry creatures. As soon as we park and the head is on, the wolf man is back in character again.


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He bounds over to a building and sniffs it on all fours. He leaps into the air, and then hides his face and shakes and bobs with delight. Natale is furiously snapping her camera, but she provides no direction to our target. He is so immersed in the character, it is more like trying to photograph a wild animal than a man. Before we can protest, he dashes down a hill, past a pavilion, and around a bend of a trail. As we jog to catch up, an amused runner asks, “What are you guys doing?”

“Writing a book,” I reply, out of breath, as the wolf bounds up another hill, leans up against a fence, and begins waving at cars zipping by on Interstate 64.

“Oh,” he replies, amused, as he lopes off.

As I watch this canine, in complete harmony and joy with the sights and smells around him, I think back to less than an hour ago, when I was interviewing the man that was inside the costume. If the wolf is his light side, his “regular” self is the dark, all quiet and reserved, sipping his caffeine and not meeting me in the eye often as we talk. He explains what it means to be a furry, and why he chooses what many believe to be its own lifestyle.

Darryl Glover says he enjoys wearing the costume because he can “make people smile as well as just be myself,” he says. “I can be something I’m not. I think everyone should stand out and be who they want to be.”

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When Glover first bought the suit, he had no intention of using it at anime conventions. He just wanted a fur costume so he could become a furry. The costume’s low cost as well as the character it featured both convinced him to buy it. The white wolf with the red marks is from Okami, a video game on the Wii that features a wolf goddess as the protagonist. It wasn’t until later that he thought about taking the costume to cons.

He was born Feb. 7, 1994, in Russia, and was adopted when he was 6 months old. He lived in England with his adopted family for about seven years, he says. When he was still young, his adopted parents separated, and he lived alone with his mother for a while. Things then “got out of hand,” he says, when his mother became abusive. As a result, his father received custody of him, and he moved to Wyoming in the United States with his father.

After staying there for two years, his father moved to O’Fallon, Mo., when he was about nine. He attended school in the Fort Zumwalt North School District.
Although Glover didn’t retain many memories of his physical and mental abuse, he knows it played a part of his inability to make many friends.

“I’m grown out of it now, but early in high school, it made me shy,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to socialize with many people. I did, but it was hard for me to.” He had a close-knit group of about three friends that he would hang out with, but he formed few other relationships, including romantic ones.

He first discovered the furry culture on the Internet. He found some furry artwork, and he was fascinated by it, he says. He didn’t know the word for it at first, but he eventually began to identify himself as a furry. This means he gets to put on a costume of what “I wish I could have been in reality,” he explains.

If it was up to Glover, he would be in costume every day. He has to find the time in between going to classes at St. Charles Community College for graphic design as well as working shifts at Dairy Queen. And the reactions are not always positive. For example, he has been banned from the local Wal-Mart.

Much like the encounter at the zoo, Glover and his friends asked permission if they could take a few photos inside the store. He made it about three quarters of the way through the store before he ran into some “high school rednecks” in the hunting and outdoor department, he describes.
“They saw me and started betting money on who could remove my head,” he recalls. He was able to sneak out with his group of friends by snaking through the aisles, but he is never allowed back inside for posing a threat to the public.

One place he is always accepted in his costume is at anime conventions, where most people are in weird costumes and fall outside of society’s definition of “normal” for one reason or another. Con attendees will ask him for hugs, pet his fur, pose for pictures with him, and, of course, glomp him. So far, he has only attended three anime cons.

While he is in costume, he never speaks. His playful puppy mannerisms come naturally, he says; he never practiced them. It takes him about 10 minutes to get into costume. First, he puts on the body, and then the feet and paws. The head, which goes on last, has a plastic ridge that holds it in place. When Glover wears the head for an entire day or more, such as at a con, the ridge starts to chafe and scratches up his nose. The entire costume can feel hot and a little heavy, but these are minor inconveniences.

What isn’t a minor inconvenience, however, is the smell that develops after being a wolf all day. After attending a convention, Glover will put the fur suit in a big plastic bag until he has time to wash it. The cleaning process is simple. He tosses the entire costume into a big, plastic storage tub, fills the tub with hot water, and pours plenty of Herbal Essences coconut-smelling shampoo on it. After swishing it around, he squeezes as much of the fur out as he can and then puts the costume outside to dry. It usually takes an entire day to dry completely.

Currently, Glover resides with his grandmother and her husband. He stayed with his father for about three years, but he didn’t get along with his stepmother. Luckily, his grandmother lived next door, so he moved in with her. He doesn’t think his grandmother could ever understand his furry lifestyle, so he doesn’t bother trying to explain it to her.
“I told her I bought the costume for $50 so she wouldn’t nag at me,” he says, “She doesn’t ask many questions about it, other than what it is. I tell her it’s a costume.”

One place he has found some recognition and acceptance is through his college. He recently took a Photoshop class and entered one of his projects in a show. Of course, he entered something of himself in costume. In the piece, the familiar white wolf is walking trough a dark forest, but his fluffy arms look like feathery wings, flapping frantically. He won the showcase and $100 to boot.
Reactions to the piece have been positive, with many people expressing they have never seen anything like it before. Glover doesn’t care what meaning people take from it. “Whatever they get out of it is what they get out of it,” he said.

Glover is looking to the future in more ways than just going to classes. Some day, Glover hopes to find someone he can share his life with. He wants to find a wife who would be a furry, just like he is, so they can “share a common interest, to be able to do the same thing as me,” he says. He dreams of he and his wife spending time and going out together in costume. He also hopes to find the time and money to attend a furry convention, a gathering just for other people like him.


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“I am an individual.”

So many people say it, especially cosplayers. They view themselves as a subculture, a group of misfits who have been pushed aside by society. However, even isolated subcultures create group norms and rules. It is part of being accepted by others. It is normal to want to be normal. Yes, we are individuals, but most of us cannot be individuals without the affirmation of a group of likeminded peers.

But what would it mean to truly, wholly realize individuality? Could you live your life completely and perfectly free of society’s norms and labels? I would find this task daunting, even frightening, perhaps lonely.

I think Azymth is closer to attaining this type of lifestyle than anyone else I have ever encountered. He never had to tell me he was an individual because he lives it, without remorse. He lets people pick out their labels for him, and isn’t worried when they struggle to find the right one. When they struggle with calling him either “man” or “woman,” for example, he just shrugs and goes on living the way deems best fits him, for him. (And he shrugs with the flippancy of one of his favorite cosplaying inspirations, Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy VIII.)

Even his name is a rejection of norms: He doesn’t go by the “Jayme Smith” on his birth certificate and, instead, chose a name that he feels best reflects who he is: Azmyth Irwin. The “Irwin” is for his No. 1 hero, Steve Irwin. He is an expert outdoorsman and naturalist, as I witnessed first-hand. Azymth is close to azmith, which is a method of displaying directions on a compass. Azmyth is his own compass, after all, ensuring alignment and direction with only himself as the reference point.

I spent a beautiful fall afternoon with Azymth, photographing him in his favorite costume and listening to his stories.

The Journey, The Destination

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Just finding Azmyth is part of the adventure. Before our interview, he tries to give me directions that lead directly to his home, but he finally gives up and tells me to meet him about 30 minutes away, in the town of Piedmont, the closest noticeable mark on the map. The drive is long and boring, but it reminds me of where I grew up: mile after mile of snaking, slim highways, barbed wire, and cows, staring blankly, wondering where I am going. I desperately have to pee by the time I reach Piedmont. Most of the downtown businesses appeal to the locals with signs like, “Show deer tag, get free coffee!” There is a small tourist stop, a Space Station store: Piedmont’s one claim to fame is a string of UFO sightings in the 1970s. I, however, am the only outsider here. As I wait in a gas station, the agreed upon rendezvous point, my car and I are examined with equal scrutiny. It’s mostly older white men in camouflage jackets.

I walk inside in search of snacks and lip balm. “Where are you from?” the cashier girl asks me as I check out. She is also donning camo (of the pink variety) under her smock, and her voice is carefully neutral. I tell her St. Louis, and I’m here for an interview and story. “For a newspaper?” she asks me. I say “yes,” not really feeling like going into a long explanation of our “project” and its purpose. I hustle out, feeling rude, but also shy.

I sit and wait, and I finally see Azmyth. There isn’t much of a greeting, just a series of early morning grunts before I jump back into my car and follow him away from civilization. As I struggle to follow his zippy little car through the twists and turns, the area of the state gives me a new understanding of “rural Missouri.” This is not my home of Franklin County, where generational farm families are equally balanced by status-seeking suburbanites. These people are living a life completely outside of my experience; this is my first glance at rural poverty.

The scenery is dominated by shells of rotting barns, rusted out vehicles, and mounds of lumber and brush, and the locals themselves can be seen sitting on porches or taking easy, measured steps along the road, in no hurry at all. I observe them as they spend just as much time observing me. I realize we have reached Azmyth’s home when I see a few of them wave as he drives past. The only difference from the highway is that the road is now narrower, and the homes are closer together. But this is the town of Mill Spring, and there is much to see. I’m staring, even though I’m irritated when they stare back. I can’t help it: the locals have pieced their homes together themselves, out of bits of materials and wood found through the years. They reflect the personality of the owner in their color, shape, and accessories. It looks nothing like the red brick, mandated monotony of St. Louis.

We turn into a driveway belonging to Azmyth’s grandmother and find his own mobile home off to the side of the main house. The trailer is sheltered by a copse so perfectly it could be mistaken for part of the scenery. As we approach, we are greeted by the enthusiastic barks of a pack of happy canines. I also spot a few cats stalking along the roof. Other than the sheer number of critters and some clutter, nothing about the outside of the mobile home bears the unique marks of the other homes I have seen.

He leads me inside, and my eyes can’t stop in one place long enough to absorb any information. It’s no wonder that the outside is plain because everything that is important to Azmyth has been piled somewhere inside these four metal walls. Animal fur, pieces of cosplay costumes, sealed containers, dream catchers, spider webs, a painting of a mask from a Legend of Zelda game, antlers, coffee mugs: it’s all scattered around, lying on counters, hanging out of cabinets, pasted on the walls. It all surrounds a meticulously clean and expensive looking entertainment center.

Before we begin, he gets comfy in his computer chair, and I sprawl out on the floor next to a noisy space heater. The November chill is starting to leak its exploratory fingers through the mobile home’s thin walls, but the heater does its job. It’s relaxing, in the same way a bonfire in the forest at dusk is relaxing. It feels normal, even though it’s outside of your daily experience.

Living for His Past


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Azmyth was born Feb. 27, 1986. His entire life, from birth to present, has been lived in the area surrounding as well as in Mill Spring, population 189 during the 2010 census.

“I usually round it up to 200 because people are having babies all the time,” he says with a warm smirk. He can’t really make fun of his home, not really, considering how long his family’s history has been tied to this place. His father’s side of the family has been in the area since it was first settled. He can trace his Native-American ancestry back to the Trail of Tears.

While many of his current relatives don’t spend much time thinking about their family history, Azymth tries to live his life in a way that would make his forefathers proud. Instead of explaining what he means by this, he plucks a piece of what looks like dried jerky off of the kitchen counter. It is a piece of tendon from a deer’s leg, he tells me. He has been pounding on it in hopes of making it into thread or string, just like the Native-Americans did for their clothing and bows.

“It’s my first successful harvest,” he tells me, beaming with pride at this little red piece of flesh. He explains that he found the leg as well as about 10 more legs just like it in a spot where other hunters had dumped parts of their kills they thought were useless. “I try to use the pieces of the animals that the hunters don’t use,” he says. Heads and legs lying around are marvelous finds with a myriad of uses, when placed in the hands of someone who knows what to do with them.

Azmyth does have some formal schooling in forestry and his related passions. He holds two Associate of Science degrees (in agriculture and forestry) from Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff as well as nearly all required coursework for a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Southeast Missouri State University. He also worked with for the Missouri Department of Conservation for a time. However, he stresses he is not out to snitch on his brothers in hunting. The wildlife hunters in the area respect Azymth and his skills. Many of them have even asked him for some tips on what else they can do with their dead deer other than eat the best parts and mount the trophies. Maintaining this positive relationship with his neighbors means letting them know he is not going to demand that they produce any type of official paperwork or tags. As you can imagine, the people in Mill Spring are distrustful of authority. It’s engrained in the culture.

And so are guns. Knowing how to clean a deer and shoot a gun are considered rights of passage and parts of everyone’s life here. Everyone is armed, Azymth explains. Despite this fact, he never feels unsafe walking up to local hunters, friend or stranger, and asking them if they have any spare animal parts he can take off their hands.

“As a rule, nobody you walk up to is going to shoot you,” he explains. “Everybody has guns and knows how to use them.”

And gun people are not mean violent people, he stresses. Even though he has seen and enjoys life outside Mill Spring, he always returns home to his trailer because of the town’s sense of community and family. His neighbors are nice, and he wouldn’t stay if it were otherwise.

Cosplay and Challenging Gender Boundaries


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Most of Azymth’s recent travels have been to anime conventions. He is a 10-year veteran of cons and tries to make six to seven cons per year, driving or carpooling with friends. His personal favorite con, although it isn’t anime-focused, is a science fiction and fantasy convention, Dragoncon, held annually in Atlanta. He also enjoys ACen (Anime Central) in Chicago because the dealer room is so big “you could fit a 747 in there!” he exclaims. On the other hand, he isn’t a fan of the local residents.

“I enjoy the city, but I hate the people,” he says. “Chicago is mean, but all of Illinois is mean!”

For all his years of cosplaying, he has never entered a contest, calling it a “waste of a Saturday.” He believes the competitors in the master-level classes can be elitist and critical. He prefers to distance himself from the negativity and, instead, enjoy cosplaying for what it is: a chance to explore a new identity and to mess with people’s perceptions.

The greatest compliment anyone can give his cosplaying doesn’t involve an award. It doesn’t involve any words at all. “Most people don’t even recognize me, even if they know me,” he says proudly.

His efforts have been noticed. He has recently been asked to present workshops on various aspects of cosplaying, such as perfecting the art of styling and wearing wigs. This may seem minor, but anime characters are famous for their crazy hairdos. He has learned this skill just through practice. He also has been featured in the Cosplay Coalition Network’s calendars, usually as nerd girl heartthrobs like Cloud from Final Fantasy VII or Link from Legend of Zelda.

This, of course, is where the cosplaying culture gets interesting as well as slightly confusing. It is a common sight at a con: A nerd girl squeals and hugs another girl because that girl is wearing a male’s costume. For instance, about 10 years ago I hugged a female cosplayer dressed as Vampire Hunter D. It’s not that I wasn’t aware she was a girl. I just loved the character so much, I allowed myself to forget for those few seconds my arms were wrapped around a “her.” (It was D, after all.) Girls cosplay as men all the time, sometimes entering cosplaying contests as these characters and graciously accepting the squeals of entire ballrooms of female fan girls. Some of these girls, of course, could be lesbian or bisexual, but the squeals are deafening, unifying, overpowering. They all squeal, lesbian or not, because it’s part of the culture.

Azmyth challenges even this bizarre “norm,” sort of. He is not, technically, a “he.” He prefers the male pronoun because the English language demands that he picks one: male or female, no in between.

“I wish there was a ‘neither,’ ” he laments. “But I pick the confusing one because I’m mean.” At birth, Azmyth was diagnosed with Klinefelter syndrome, a mutation of the sex chromosomes. As anyone who passed high school biology knows, a woman is XX, and a man is XY. It’s just that simple, unless you have Klinefelter. Azmyth’s chromosomes are XXY, making him primarily female, but also partially male.

Growing up in America, with its culture of wanting to put everyone in one of two gender-labeled buckets, was challenging. His family life alone was a struggle, with some drugs, drinking, and other instability. He stresses that his parents were wonderful to him, but they had flaws, like anyone. While struggling with these home issues, he was being raised as a girl, which always felt awkward. As he’s grown up and matured, he’s tried to move away from any one gender role. He will freely go into the men’s or women’s restroom, for instance.

In terms of his sexuality, he defines himself as “technically” bisexual because gender is meaningless to him. However, he hasn’t had any traditional, romantic relationships. He forms close friendships, but he shies away from long-term commitments with labels and obligations.

Although the cosplaying culture has its flaws (such as the “elitist pricks” in the master classes, according to Azmyth), he says everyone is accepting of his life choices.

“People honestly into the culture (of cosplay) don’t care about gender,” he explains. He’s tried to scare other cosplayers who have asked him about it. “I have terrifying genitals,” he tells them. They shrug, much like Squall, and say “OK” like it’s not a big deal. Because to them, it’s not.

Normal, According to Azmyth

As we continue our conversation, he begins trying to put his Squall costume together. He opens more bins and cabinets than I thought could fit in the trailer before he finally gives up, lamenting that not all of the parts can be located. After a quick change in the bathroom, he reemerges in the basic outfit and wig of Squall, one of my own first fan girl crushes.

He keeps talking about wig maintenance and the importance of mascara in making those anime eyes pop, but I’m not listening. Azmyth, without being aware of it at all, has challenged my own ideas about gender and sexuality. Because he looks very cute right now. What does this mean about me, I wonder to myself, if I find him cute? Am I still straight? I immediately feel silly for asking it, and then recant. It’s not silly. It shouldn’t be silly. I should be asking this question. I attack it, in my mind, like an algebraic equation.

All of this internal debate is happening as he is gluing his sideburns on and arranging his costume’s many belts. “Do they cross in the back? No, they don’t. I did this wrong. How did I do this wrong? What did I do?” He chews on his lip and consults a picture on his computer, as I try to revise my own definitions of straight, gay, male, female, and attraction.

But he’s completely unaware, and before I know it, he’s satisfied enough with his work to say he is “done.”

And he’s Squall, my teen girl crush. I follow Azmyth, now Squall, out of the mobile home. He has even changed his walk to match Squall’s pensive shuffle. I can’t make sense of any of it. He babbles about the perfect natural settings for our photos, the recent hunting season, the story of one of the abandoned buildings. I, meanwhile, am growing more and more frustrated with my inability to solve this puzzle when I suddenly remember we are now in public, by which I am generously referring to the main road traveling through Mill Spring. Azmyth’s neighbors are outside, seemingly with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and Azmyth is walking down the road in full costume.

I wait for some sort of reaction, some epic culture clash that will be the climax of my story on Azmyth Irwin. But there is nothing, just a few waves and chuckles.

“Taking her to the spring?” a middle-aged woman calls out.

“Yeah, we’re doing photos!” he calls back enthusiastically.

With that one, brief interaction, I realize I have to give up trying to find the answer. The people of this tiny hamlet have accepted Azmyth for who he is, even in his crazy costume of fake white fur and black leather. They don’t all know that he prefers to go by Azmyth, or that he thinks of himself in the male pronoun. What they do know, however, is that he/she is a good neighbor, and sometimes he/she takes visitors to the spring so they can take photos of each other in crazy costumes.

If they can make that leap of faith and step outside of their comfort zones like that, then I can make one allowance, too. Azmyth looks cute as Squall. Really cute.

Now go ahead. Judge me, Internet. I don’t think Azymth will.


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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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