In a world that often takes itself too seriously, I am walking through downtown San Jose and I see a host of superheroes walking towards me. I stop outside the San Jose Convention Center for a moment to take in the scene. It’s around 11am, and it feels like the entire world of fantasy is gathered in one place. I am standing outside Fanime – one of the largest gatherings of fan culture in Northern California. By the end of Memorial Day Weekend over 34,000 people will have wandered the halls of the expansive convention center.
When I move inside the convention hall, I see two women dressed in white taking photos and chatting to friends. I recognise one of the pair as Cami, from my time at Silicon Valley Comic Con. She is standing with Veronica, aka Feisty Vee, who I ask about why she has come to the convention this year. “Fanime is one of my favorite conventions,” she replies, “…I just love the people; everything about this convention is amazing!”
She does not seem alone in this viewpoint, everyone I speak to shares positive stories about the convention and how much they enjoy it. Rachel Rae traveled from Los Angeles for the convention and explained its appeal. “It’s just the experience of being with people who love the same exact culture, and anime, and fandoms as you,” she gleefully says. “It’s incredible! And to be just here, with this energy, and being able to express your nerdiness it’s [a] one of a kind experience.”
She self-describes herself as a geek and goes on to offer an insight into why the feeling of community is so strong, “I like things that are not exactly the norm of this society. I like to watch anime [and] read manga. I dress up as all these characters, and I am religious about my comic books and my video games. That’s not really what the norm is in society I guess. That’s why you embrace it, and you love the people who also embrace it as much as you do.”
Everywhere you look at Fanime there are people laughing loudly, talking about anime, costumes, comics and video games. Walking around the main convention space, there are rooms for teams to sit down and play computer games. Talks which touch on a variety of very specialized topics such as “Self-Publishing,” a “Q&A with JPOP band X4,” and “Anime to See Before You Die”. With 24 hour screening rooms and panels running through til midnight, every topic you can think of is covered. It is billed as a convention by the fans for the fans and it is clear to see. Any corporate presence is minimal; with any sponsorship and advertising feeling very discrete.
As I walk around speaking to people, I only see a handful of black cosplayers. I spot a towering man with long pristine dreadlocks dressed as Aquaman. His name is Dante, from San Diego, and we speak about why there are so few black cosplayers. “…a lot of the characters are not people of color,” he explains, “reimagining these characters is kinda tough because some people, really hardcore fans, are sticklers for it being perfect.” He demonstrates this by talking about his character, “I’m Aquaman, and Aquaman is traditionally a white guy; he’s blond hair, blue eyes. And [they say] ‘you’re not staying true to the character’… [I] feel like I should be able to do Aquaman and Archangel… because I resonate with the characters.”
Other black cosplayers I speak to retell a similar story. I hear about how in the past, at other conventions, people have been referred to as ‘Blackman’ when playing ‘Batman,’ or how compliments about a costume were followed by comments about how a person does not look like the character.
Kerry, from Bay Point, is dressed as an intricate steampunk incarnation of Catwoman. It is a wonderfully unique take on the character, and it stands out from many of the other ‘catwomen’ at the show.
We speak briefly about how it is to be a cosplayer of color, and Kerry mentions how things have changed. “In the previous years it was a lot more difficult, people would straight up ignore you – they didn’t care what you were wearing,” she shares. “This used to be a really evil, nasty, place.” Kerry has been coming to Fanime for six straight years and confesses that she would “throw away a job” to be there. Despite challenges in earlier years she still celebrates the event as the one time of the year, she can really be herself. “This is like Christmas to me!” she exclaims. “I get to do this once a year, and this is so important to me because I feel like I can be myself here; unbridled and just as wild as I want to be,” she tells me. “At home, I can’t be like that, and here I can be whatever I want and [I’d] be damned if anyone tries to stop me!”
Although she has had some negative experiences in past years, she expresses how much she has seen things change, which has been fostered by younger community members making sure it is evident everyone can be involved and have a more inclusive attitude. “Characters in comic books, and manga, and anime, they’re not real,” she says, “but we can make them real, [so] let everyone make them real.”
Part of this change is being driven by the organizers of the event who take creating an inclusive space very seriously. I speak to Steve Young, the Director of Marketing for Fanime Con, and he explains the importance of inclusion. “For us here it’s all about safety; we want to encourage a very safe and nurturing environment for everyone,” he says. He shares how all the members of staff are members of the community so are always striving to make Fanime the best it can be from inclusion to working more with the location community in Downtown San Jose.
“The community itself has been great!” I’m speaking to Trenton, who is dressed as a casual, almost rebellious, rock version of Cyborg. We are talking about the cosplay/anime community, and he is telling me about how welcome he feels. “Gay, straight, old, young, a little bit bigger, a little bit skinnier… it’s different people from all walks of life,” he says. It’s in talking to him that I see the power and importance of diverse representation as he shares some anecdotes about his time as a cosplayer. “I also cosplay as Batman too. When I do that, lots of black families come to me and say, ‘i never see a black Batman this is so cool.’ That means a lot to me. We never had that growing up,” he shares. And it is that opportunity for a weekend, even if only for a few hours, to be whoever it is you want to be, and explore and celebrate whatever interests you are into that makes Famime such a special event.
I think back to one of the first people I met over the weekend, Orianna, from Redwood City, who dressed as Demon Hunter Tracer (a hybrid from two of her favorite video games; Overwatch and Diablo). She explained to me why she comes to Fanime. “it’s just a really great community and people are allowed to be themselves. I think that it’s really hard to find that, especially in today’s world, where there’s no judgement. People just kind of show up and they do their thing, and people celebrate it, and you’re just allowed to be yourself,” she said. That very simple idea of ‘just being yourself,’ is the thing that makes Memorial Day Weekend in San Jose so special to many people throughout the Bay Area and beyond. While things may not perfect all the time, there appears to be a concerted effort by the organizers, and the community itself, to make it better, and safer, each year for everyone who goes.