The North Carolina Comicon was held this past weekend at the Durham Convention Center. Now in its seventh year, the event had become so large that it took over adjacent buildings and blocked downtown traffic. And yet, few at Duke noticed: despite being a fifteen-minute walk from East Campus, it could have been worlds away.

However, sophomore Alexus Wells had good reason to be excited. This was her first time at a convention, and she would be cosplaying.

Cosplay, a portmanteau of “costume” and “roleplay,” is a visual/performance art that draws heavily from pop culture. By designing, creating and eventually wearing their own costumes, cosplayers portray anyone (or anything) they choose. Cosplaying groups thrive online, and conventions—such as NC Comicon, DragonCon and more—also provide spaces where the community can come together.

“Cosplaying, walking the convention floor, meeting people, going to the artists’ alley with the figurines and posters and books: that’s what the con experience is to me—getting to be a full-out nerd with other nerds," Wells said.

At Duke there is a small cosplayer community, but no formal club exists. Many consider cosplay to be niche, which is the polite word for weird; but then again, if that were true, Wells would argue they were no weirder than anyone else.

“What about people who are really into sports?” she said. “You wear their jerseys, you paint your face, you wear the wigs, you clear your schedule for the entire weekend just to watch the Superbowl. It’s the same thing.”

Learning cosplay, as it turned out, may not be that different. Sophie Alman, a senior, spoke of her experiences of trial and error before becoming a seasoned cosplayer. She started when her mother gave her a Magneto helmet for birthday, and soon it was all heat guns and sewing machines. By now she has a reliable method:

“First I have to narrow down my list of characters, because I want to cosplay everything. I look for characters that are admirable or inspirational, who also have designs I like. Then I usually sketch out the characters, and that helps me put the costumes into my mind as separate pieces, with different layers and techniques. And then I just dive right into it,” she said.

The process could take weeks, but the results are worth it. For Alman, making costumes is about immersion, and the long process makes it all the more rewarding when the costumes are finally worn. Her favorite costume so far is Nami, a mermaid warrior from League of Legends, which she wore to last year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

Going to conventions requires some suspension of disbelief, but it may come more easily than one expects. One moment it’s the familiar sights of Bull City, and then one notices the unusual hair color of certain pedestrians or is greeted by a lightsaber-wielding man in broad daylight and one realizes, oh, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Inside the convention halls, one can observe more close encounters of the nerd kind: a booth sold broadswords hand-crafted from solid wood, and the booth next door, steampunk ray guns. Another booth offered to make one’s ears pointy like an elf’s. There were libraries upon libraries, and prized comic books were sold in transparent plastic capsules which came with grades from a third-party certification agency (“0.5 Poor” to “10.0 Gem Mint”).

And of course, cosplayers galore. There were the usual suspects: superheroes of all stripes and franchises, anime characters and video-game protagonists. And even more were dressed as characters as fantastic as they were obscure.

All this was familiar territory for sophomore Reilly Johnson, who has seemingly built much of her life around cosplay. With more than 8000 Tumblr followers, she is a bona fide internet celebrity and spends much of her time going to conventions around the country. On the side, she makes costumes by commission, both domestically and internationally.

Johnson likes using the word “outlandish” when describing her cosplay. Her recent inspiration was the anime series "JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure," which she called a “crazy series that hardly anybody in the US has heard of.” And while her work put aesthetics first, there were also bigger ideas at play.

“'JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure' plays around a lot with the idea of performance of gender, and breaking loose of stereotypes,” Johnson said. “It’s a very critical for myself and other people to build that confidence to break free of constraining societal norms.”

Unlike other Duke cosplayers, Johnson does not only cosplay for fun; she sees herself being a designer for Disney or Cirque du Soleil one day, and conventions like NC Comicon are platforms to showcase her skills. But she is adamant that this subculture is about more than just craft and careers.

“Cosplay is a segue to making good, close, lifelong friends,” she said. “It started as ‘ooh, we are cosplaying as the same character,’ and then we just bonded from there. At first they see you as that character, and your interactions are kind of shallow. But it almost always evolves into something much deeper.”