Madeline Porter is a self-confessed nerd and while being a nerd has at times left her feeling like an outsider, that was not the case recently. She was among more than 40,000 nerds at the Baltimore Convention Center for Otakon 2013, the 20th annual celebration of Far East Asian popular culture.

For three days, Aug. 9 to 11, participants celebrated anime, Japanese cartoons; manga, Japanese comic books; movies, music and more.

“I can say it’s a bit overwhelming,” said Porter, 23, a graduate student from Wilmington, Del. “I had no idea this many people were into it. There are thousands of us here. It’s nice to come to a place where there are so many people who are into the same things you are into.”

Otakon—a portmanteau for the words otaku (people who are super fans of Japanese anime and manga) and convention—draws fans from around the world. At the Baltimore Convention Center, there was an anime music video contest, screenings of anime and movies, fan parodies, Japanese culture and tradition workshops, concerts and night time dance parties. Dealers came from all over the world to sell their wares, including replica swords, kimonos, video games, clothing, action figures and costumes.

Though there are few Black characters in manga and anime, African Americans have embraced the culture. Organizers said the crowd of participants grows more diverse each year.

“I was surprised that there are so many Black people here,” said Porter, who said she didn’t realize she was watching Japanese television when she tuned into “Sailor Moon” and other anime programs on the Cartoon Network. “But everybody is getting along. Everybody is really welcoming.”

The popular events were the Q&A panels, where the fans had the opportunity to meet their favorite anime voice actors and ask questions about their craft, take pictures and get autographs. This year’s special guest panelists included voice actor Vic Mignogna, who is best known for his work as Edward Elric, the protagonist of “Fullmetal Alchemist,” and the character Broly in the “Dragonball Z” films. Another special panelist was voice actor and script writer Todd Haberkorn, who is best known for his protagonist roles as Death the Kid in “Soul Eater,” Allen Walker in “D.Gray-man,” and Natsu Dragneel in “Fairy Tail.” One of the few female panelists this year was Cristina Vee, who portrays Mio Akiyama in “K-On!,” Alisa Bosconovitch from the “Tekken” video game series and Louise Valliere from “The Familiar of Zero.”

And while some of the enthusiasts showed up in jeans and t-shirts, most donned some sort of costumes to participate in “cosplay,” where otaku dress up as the anime or comic book character of their choice.

“I paid $500, by the time you add up all the pieces of my costume,” said D. R. Richardson, 20, of Philadelphia, of his black suit and purple and yellow vest and blonde wig. “Some of my friends made theirs, but I’m not that creative.”

Friends Alexis Capitello, 19, Gabriel Hicks, 20, and Amber Matthew, 19, who met at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pa., showed off their homemade costumes.

Capitello, of York, Pa., dressed as Envy, a homunculus, or artificial human being and one of the main antagonists of the “Fullmetal Alchemist” anime series. She said she paid $12 for black fabric for her sleeveless midriff top and skirt, which she wore with a homemade black headdress depicting Envy’s signature headband and hair.

Hicks, of Harrisburg, Pa., who dressed as Kaname Tosen from the “Bleach” series, wore an outfit that was based around a black pinstriped three-piece suit he paid $15 for on the Internet. He wore a long orange braided scarf and his locks pulled back with a piece of white gauze that had served as a blindfold “until it got too hot.”

“My mom also helped,” Hicks said. “She’s really creative and she likes doing this stuff.”

Matthew, of Baltimore, dressed as The Eleventh Doctor from “Doctor Who.” She paid $30 on eBay for parts for her outfit: a tan blazer, black shorts, striped stockings and boots, a red bowtie and a fez cap she made from red felt and a Styrofoam cup.

“Nothing beats the homemade cosplay,” said Christopher Daniels, 22, of Hanover, Pa., “Sometimes you can take just one look at someone’s costume and see all the creativity and hard work they put into it and those are always the ones that are the most memorable.”

Like Hicks, many of the cosplayers found the 80-plus temperatures challenging under the weight of complex costumes, but most braved the heat to stay in costume.

“I’m so hot!” said Tanita Waverly, 18, of D.C., who dressed in a long white gown and thigh-high boots. She stood outside the convention center Aug. 10 as one friend fanned her and another held a bottle of cold water behind her neck. “I have sweat just dripping down my back, but I’m not taking it off. It took two hours to put it on. I just have to suffer!”

There were so many activities at Otakon that the Baltimore Convention Center, which has hosted the festivities since 1999, couldn’t hold them all. Several events were held in other nearby venues. Otakon officials announced Aug. 11 that beginning in 2017, the convention will move to Washington, D.C.

“I really enjoyed my experience,” said Amber Barnes, 19, of Hyattsville. “The events I went to were amazing and I really loved seeing all of the cosplayers, especially those who acted like their characters. I can’t wait to go back next year!”


Zachary Lester

AFRO Staff Writer