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Surrounded by the Sailor Moon crew, a grinning Harley Quinn flashes a peace sign while the Joker snaps a couple pictures on his phone. And then he passes his phone to Batgirl, so she can take his pic with the crew.
Welcome to Wizard World Philadelphia, our very own Comic-Con. It’s been a tradition at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the past 15 years. As regional conventions go, it’s a popular one — it will draw an estimated 80,000 people over its four-day run. In comparison, New York Comic Con typically sees upward of 120,000 people.
And then there’s the big one, San Diego Comic-Con, the annual March geek rite of passage for more than 130,000 people, lured by previews of a sneak peek or some tidbit of news about the biggest Hollywood movies and TV shows. That jawn is so intense, a guy once got stabbed over his seat in the venue’s Hall H.
Wizard World Philly is a more sedate affair. Yes, there’s a dash of Hollywood here — the opening ceremony featured Mayor Michael Nutter with way-old-school TV hulk Lou Ferrigno, and last night Philly boy M. Night Shyamalan talked to the crowds. Hayley Atwell of “Agent Carter” will be in town, as will Stephen Amell of “Green Arrow” and a surprisingly robust slate of pro wrestlers.
This is my third local Con in recent years — I’ve been to Philly’s twice now and also went down to a convention in Baltimore. Despite my attendance record, I’ve never been that much of a fan. If you get over the initial shock of seeing so many people dressed like your favorite characters, all that’s left are rows upon rows of vendors. That’s what always irked me — a lack of substance.
Then I met Danielle Ruefle.
‘This just worked for me’
Wizard World, believe it or not, started with a magazine.
Founded in 1991,“Wizard” mostly focused on the comic book industry. In it was listing price guides, bits of news, interviews and articles.
In 1997, Wizard World purchased the Chicago Comicon, renaming it Wizard World Chicago. By 2014, Wizard World was hosting conventions in 25 states across the country, including one in China, with plans on adding more cities to the mix.
Outside of Chicago, Philadelphia is one of Wizard World’s largest conventions. Factoring in the attendance and the potential profit, it’s no wonder that a whole retail industry has sprouted within the convention system. It’s not just tables of boxes filled with old comic books — you can purchase action figures, clothes, collectables, posters, cosplay items and even weapons.
That’s no exaggeration — on your way to the bathroom you can pick yourself up a pocketknife.
The vendors who make decent money selling at conventions are easy to spot. They’re the ones who have near-professional models handing out flyers, have extravagant booths or have dozens of products to choose from. Though they typically draw crowds because of how ostentatious they are, sprinkled between them are the small booths that can almost be likened to mom-and-pop stores.
I found Ruefle sitting behind shelves of stuffed cats. Sitting next to a giant bag of toy stuffing, Ruefle was busy padding and sowing a cat to add to her inventory — it was then I noticed the ‘100% Handmade’ sign.
Surrounded by nearly two-dozen of these cats, most of which were dressed as super heroes or villains, Ruefle said that she had been making these stuffed animals for years.
“I’ve always been really, really crafty,” Ruefle said. “I like to work with my hands.”
Years ago, circa 2008, she had attended another convention with her friend and saw the items that people were selling. Ruefle said she figured she could make a lot of the same things.
It was in 2013 that she opted to make her business, Dani Cat Designs, her full-time job.
“I have a couple of physical problems, so I can’t work a lot of other jobs,” Ruefle said. “This just worked for me.”
Ruefle said she travels the convention route, mostly up and down the East Coast. Sometimes she’ll drift out West but hasn’t been farther than Salt Lake City.
Though a lot of these stuffed cats were dressed as trending pop culture characters, Ruefle said she mostly designs the cats based off her own interests. As we spoke, a customer approached Ruefle. The woman, accompanied by her daughter, wanted to purchase a cat dressed as Loki.
“My friend got a cat last year and sent me a text, ‘You need to get me another one,’” the woman said.
Although sales are nice, from what I witnessed most comic con attendees are more interested in browsing tables than actually buying something. It doesn’t seem like particularly thrilling work either — if no one is present at your booth, it’s mostly just sitting and waiting.
Cosplaying is an intricate part to not only comic cons, but also the convention lifestyle. People spend hours recreating outfits of characters they love or identify with — even working on perfecting their mannerisms.
For some, when they play a character they really play a character. There’s nothing more startling than having a normal conversation with a guy that randomly busts out a shrill Joker laugh when asked about who else he dresses as.
For most cosplayers, what they do is a craft. It goes beyond buying a costume from a Halloween store, throwing it on and calling it a day, it’s a borderline art form. There’s a level of pride when cosplayers can point at aspects of their outfits and say, ‘I made this.’
Vincent James, Marissa Carly and Helen Hardiman are three cosplayers from the Albany, N. Y., area who regularly attend conventions. Like most who attend the Philly Comic Con, they generally stay around the East Coast and do the New York–Philly–Baltimore circuit, though they do branch out.
Attending all four days of the convention, the trio said they had brought outfit changes for the rest of the week. Typically James dresses as the Joker with Carly as Harley Quinn. For Hardiman, it’s Poison, though she said she has an affinity for video game characters.
The time it takes to craft their outfits varies; it just depends on how intricate the outfit is.
“When I’m not stressing out about it, I can have everything sewn together in a day,” Carly said. Combining all of her different outfit elements together can take several more days, she added.
Some may be surprised that so much stress is involved. Isn’t dressing up as characters something people do for fun? Opening day of convention, as exciting as it is, can also be a looming deadline. Unfinished costumes are rarely displayed — many cosplayers prefer to showcase a finished product. It’s not so much about impressing other people, most of the time it’s about personal fulfillment.
Then there’s the actual art of cosplaying. A lot of time and money is put into an outfit that’s only worn a couple times a year. The return differs, depending on the person. Hardiman said she does it because she’s creative. She enjoys planning the outfits and creating everything.
“It’s a good way to fit it, stand out,” Carly says, “Be a freak and be accepted all at once.”