Cosplay: It's effort, not bare skin, that matters most

Jawa cosplay outfit in Los Angeles
Image caption This character - a Jawa, from Star Wars - was one of the prize winners

Arriving at the Hyatt Century City Plaza hotel, or rather the massive tent that had been erected just outside it, all that could be heard was the tell-tale thump-thump-thump of the biggest viral hit the internet has ever known - Gangnam Style.

Inside the venue, row after row of empty seats which had been laid out to line a catwalk and small stage.

Empty because right there, on the catwalk, was the strangest mix of dancers you're ever likely to see - Super Mario. Wonder Woman, The Doctor and dozens more. All up there. Gangnam Styling. Thump-thump-thump.

It was the climactic point of LA Cosplay Con, the first of what the organisers hope will be an annual gathering of "cosplayers" - people who dress up like characters from, mostly, video games and comics.

Los Angeles is a fitting place to hold an event like this, as it was in this city where the term cosplay - a portmanteau of costume and play - was apparently coined back in the 80s.

Image caption Becky Young, dressed as a Doctor Who character, hosted the LA event

It's a hobby known to some as one of those typically eccentric Japanese pastimes that "normal" people just can't fathom, but in reality, its popularity is sweeping the world. For one day in sunny California, a slice of that diversity had come together.

"This is basically where a bunch of kids, who never outgrew the dressing-up phase of our lives, now spend a lot more time and money than we probably should into these costumes," explained Kevin, who'd come as a cosplay classic, Super Mario - a get-up slightly spoiled, if we're to be picky, by his thick beard - he'd opted not to shave into Mario's trademark 'tache. So close.

"It's about embodying the character that you love so dearly," he said, through the beard.

"This is a chance to come and see other people who do the same thing and not be judged - in fact, you get praised."

Praised indeed. As part of the event, prizes were given out for the best costumes.

The winner this year was a man who had come dressed as Black Panther. To be clear, that's Black Panther from Marvel Comics - not to be confused with the Black Panther movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Image caption Kevin's committment to his Super Mario cosplay didn't extend to shaving off his beard

On its website, Marvel Comics explained that Black Panther - widely regarded as the first mainstream black comic-book hero - is a "brilliant tactician, strategist, scientist, tracker and a master of all forms of unarmed combat whose unique hybrid fighting style incorporates acrobatics and aspects of animal mimicry".

Impressive. Here, Black Panther is being ably represented by Shawn - a bus driver.

"In the future I can see cosplay becoming really big," he said.

"It will be something you see a lot more - people enjoying themselves like this."

It's hard to disagree when surrounded by people of the same mind as Shawn. To an outsider, cosplaying sits at the very edge of the nerd spectrum, the most public display of geekiness imaginable. But here, it does look fun.

Less fun, at least some of the people here would argue, was what was happening just down the road during that very same week: E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

It's the Western world's biggest video games show. And while there are lots of dressed-up people at E3, the two groups could not be more different.

"The booth babes," said Shawn, who has been to E3, but doesn't make a habit of it.

"Some of them may be really interested in the character they dress up as... but my experience is that they're there just to get paid.

"The big difference is the heart. The heart you get into that character versus someone who is just there getting paid.

Image caption This Black Panther effort won the main prize - its wearer is Shawn, an LA bus driver

"It takes a lot of heart, a lot of courage."

The criticism of booth babes - on these pages and elsewhere - is that it's an exercise in skin-flashing to pull in businessmen. If the quality of a product doesn't sell it, maybe the tightness of the hotpants will.

But it isn't the bare flesh that cosplayers disapprove of, according to Becky Young, one of the organisers of LA Cosplay Con, and a prolific and well-known cosplayer (if you're into that sort of thing).

"A lot of people criticise the tiny clothes in our culture as well," she said, while dressed as Osgood, a character who has appeared in just one episode of Doctor Who.

"That's because the artists make characters that don't have many clothes," she reasoned.

So what's the difference?

"There's a little more artistry and passion in cosplay which is kind of what makes it so exciting. The people here make their clothing from scratch, or they go out and modify clothing that's out there."

Image caption The cosplayers here say violent games should not be held accountable for real-world violence

For a competition that is, in one form or other, about looks - the atmosphere is overwhelmingly welcoming.

These are nice people, keen to demonstrate to an outsider that cosplaying is a hobby worth having, but that no, "baffled British journalist" was not a passable cosplay attempt.

It goes beyond dressing up. The people here feel their community - cosplayers and gamers - sometimes come in for the wrong kind of attention.

It's not just the perception of cosplayers, they argued, but gamers as a whole. Blaming violent games for mass shootings is a safer political bet, one attendee suggested, than blaming US gun laws.

Image caption The best cosplay takes serious effort - and a lot of creativity

"They had a time when they targeted film, then they targeted music, now it's video games," said Heather Ellertson, LA Cosplay Con's organiser, and vice-president of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA),

Her group was set up to represent what they say are the rights of gamers - principally, a right to not be misunderstood and used as a scapegoat.

"We wanted to give our members, this group, an opportunity to have their voice heard."

And it's a voice worth hearing, because despite the fierce weaponry on show here - a home-made axe, for instance - you'd be hard-pushed to find an event in this city that came close to being as welcoming and inclusive as this. So Gangnam on, fearless cosplayers. Gangnam on.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

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