At this weekend's Anime Midwest convention in Rosemont, Lisle resident Kamal Khan towers above the grade-school boys dressed in Pokemon costumes, the sword-wielding tough women, guys with horns growing out of their heads, little girls sporting fairy wings, any of the characters from "Attack on Titan," and the gaggles of "Lolita" women and men dressed as young school girls.
Standing on stilts and covered with a bright red reinforced-paper costume, Khan transforms into the 10-foot-tall robot Unit 02 from the 1990s animated series "Neon Genesis Evangelion."
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"It took me the better part of a year to build this," says Khan, a 21-year-old physics and computer science student at Purdue University. He printed the paper patterns from a complex computer program, folded the shapes, reinforced it with automotive resin and painted it red.
"This took me three months of folding," Khan says as he shows off a helmet that is more art than costume.
"He's really proud of it. It's like his baby," says Liz Daley, 21, a former high school classmate of Khan and current theology student at Xavier University. "It was fun to fit that all in my car. I drive a compact."
Daley, dressed in the form-fitting red costume of Unit 02's companion, Asuka, says she sewed together a couple of $40 wigs to make the long red hair that matches her costume. Since Khan has trouble seeing out of his helmet and walking in the stilts, Daley supports him during Saturday's cosplay (costume play) contest that combines costumes with performance art.
The audience cheers for Khan and Daley, who win the Best of Show top prize. But the crowd cheers for every contestant.
"I wouldn't do this for Halloween. This is for other people's enjoyment," says Ronald Panek, 36, whose long blond tresses fall on his $2,000 pink gown specially made for his transformation into Princess Peach from the Mario Brothers video games. The Lansing, Indiana, resident says he appreciates the freedom offered by the way the convention brings together TV shows, movies, video games and other aspects of Japanese culture.
"It's a great equalizer. It doesn't matter how old you are or whether you are male or female," Panek says, as he hikes his dress to show off his high heels. "Monday, I'll go back to work filling vending machines for a living."
Working on her doctoral degree in foreign language literature and linguistics, 20-year-old Annie Zappia runs the "Maid Cafe," where women in French maid outfits and men in butler suits cater to clients' fantasies of being royalty.
"You all feel like family here because you don't have to worry about being judged," says Zappia, as she gives way to Miyu, who serves up cake and tea while stressing her desire to please her customer. A Japanese native who is studying at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Miyu draws a kitty face in frosting, offers sugar for tea while signing a musical plea to "Please, become sweeter," and dances onstage in a choreographed number designed to be "cute."
Opting for a more old-school look, Abbi Witt, 15, of Cary dresses as Harley Quinn, wife of the Joker in Batman comics. Her friend Tanner Longfellow, 16, of Lake in the Hills dresses as Umbreon, a Pokemon character.
"I like seeing people and buying costumes," Witt says to explain why she comes to the convention. "I like dressing up."
"It's for anybody who wants to have fun with it," Longfellow adds.
Some men go shirtless for their costumes. A few women wear attire that shows as much skin as you'd find during a day at the beach. A few of the late-night sessions require participants to be 18. But young couples and parents with children seem at home as people snap photos of costumes and start conversations. For more information on the convention, which started Friday and runs through this afternoon at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Rosemont, visit AnimeCon.org.
"It you took all the nerds and geeks in the world, that is what you'll find here," says Ryan Kopf, CEO of Anime Midwest. He says the convention brings out fans who exhibit qualities such as brains, kindness and curiosity that they see in the characters they portray.
"That's something we'd like to see a lot more of in this world," Kopf says.
Sessions include information on voice acting, a discussion with comic book author Russell Lissau (who's also a Daily Herald staff writer), musical performances by nerdcore rapper Dr. Awkward and the robotic band called Steam Powered Giraffe, a demonstration of how to make fantasy armor, and a "history of sharp, shiny, pointy things."
"We don't have a lot of people who are close-minded," Kopf says. "They might think some things are cool and others aren't. But at an anime convention, everyone is into the genre, the stories, the depths of the characters."
The appeal is simple, fans say. "We're a bunch of twentysomethings dressing up in costumes," Khan says, noting the event goes far beyond Japanese animation.
"There are Disney princesses here," Daley says, adding that she welcomes all comers. "You can't be elitist when you are a nerd wearing a costume."