It is a gathering of geeks that could be made into a Hollywood blockbuster; an eight-year-old Thor struggles to carry a hammer the size of her head; Pokémon’s Misty throws a Poké Ball for her dog painted as Pikachu; and a deadly life-size Blood Raven Space Marine poses patiently as he towers over a fan.
This is the scene as 5,000 geeks queue on a warm winter Saturday morning for what is called GeekFest, at Huddle Park Golf Course, Johannesburg.
“This is the era of the geek. We will inherit the earth,” says Anré van Rooyen, one of the hundreds dressed as villains and heroes from comic books to computer games.
A year ago, it would have been unheard of. For some, it came through eyes glued to the television, others from cramped hands over the keyboard. It’s born out of the urge to identify with characters that don’t exist in real life. But hey, who cares about real life?
They call it cosplay. If the cape fits or a suit of armor swaggers, then so be it. It is an idea born in Japan and took off in America at comic book conventions. In Malaysia, at a recent conference, the queues stretched for miles as fans waited to get into a convention. In Africa, it’s growing in the south.
“We’re between the golden age and silver age of cosplay. In the rest of the world, the silver age of cosplay has died out; people are very rarely wowed by what they see. However, in South Africa, we’re all still learning and experimenting, trying to find local solutions for international problems. We’re still getting called freaks; we’re still being called weird. But most of all, we are still growing,” says Van Rooyen.
Dressed as one of the characters from the Japanese anime Attack on Titan, Van Rooyen is more than your average cosplayer on the greens of Huddle Park. On this day, the woman who has been dressing for six years is one of the judges at the Cosplay Competition. Van Rooyen’s tough task is deciding which of the 70 entrants is the best dressed on the day. They are judged according to accuracy to character, craftsmanship skill and their performance.
“There was a general hike in attention to detail and crafting. The winners, Tayla Barter, Christopher Griesel and Chantélle Cridland, they absolutely blew us out of the water. For Tayla it was her crafting and amazing paint job; with Christopher it was the fact that he built his entire Blood Raven armor without a pattern and it just… wow; Chantélle had a bald cap on so good, that I freaked out for a second that she shaved her head. Her detail in her outfit was astounding, as well as impeccable sewing, (so good I hid my war-crime-sewing under the table). I’ve attended all three years of GeekFest now, and every year it just keeps getting better. I can’t wait to see what next year has to offer.”
The South African gaming characters rarely fail to turn heads. The only problem is getting hold of your own wigs and colored contact lenses in the post. Unsurprisingly, because of this they make their outfits instead – at least their armor gives better protection than postal tracking codes.
So, cosplayers band together, from Johannesburg to Cape Town, to help make their dream outfits with nothing but thread, needle and drills, PVC piping, and industrial glue.
“Have you seen any other international cosplay picnic where the cosplayers hiked in full cosplay halfway up a mountain in boiling temperatures to get photos by a waterfall? Our community is special and amazing and growing by the minute,” says Van Rooyen.
“If you look at South Africa’s biggest cosplay group, Cosplay SA, they have 2,004 members, but we’re quite sure there are more than that. Its growth over the past 10 years has skyrocketed. We used to see all of 10 people at most events, and the same people at that, but now there are hundreds in each city,” says Ray Whitcher, a lecturer in multimedia design by day and Legion Ink Cosplay organizer by night.
It is a hobby for young and old, according to Van Rooyen.
“I am so excited to be part of this; to be part of what will soon be our silver age in cosplay. This is how we express ourselves; this is how we have fun. We’re all part of one family. Sure we got drama, sure we have the occasional bullying, but we have freedom to become someone we can’t be in everyday life. I can be Wonder Woman for a day and I can be Harley Quinn for a day. I can be a hero, a criminal, a crazy person, a boy, a girl. For one day, I can make the impossible a possibility. Oh, and I have way cooler profile pictures than muggles (non-geeks),” says Van Rooyen.
The defining factor is celebrating the love of your favorite character – they say imitation is the sincerest and sweetest form of flattery.