Jarod Lee Nandin is sitting at a desk in a crowded hallway inside Long Beach Convention Center. One hand is posed on top of a prop computer keyboard. The other, which is wrapped in a brace, clutches the mouse. There are loose CDs, empty cans of Rockstar Energy Drink, a candy wrapper and a prop knife surrounding him.
Nandin is dressed as a South Park nuisance once referenced as “that which has no life.” In the episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” the character embarks on a World of Warcraft killing spree that upsets both the kids and the Blizzard employees they call upon for help. The episode, which won an Emmy in 2007, remains a point of reference for both South Park fans and gamers. Years after the episode initially aired, people recognize Nandin's costume immediately. “People can relate to it,” says Nandin of the episode. “We know somebody like that or we're like that.”
All of which makes Nandin, 33, a hit at the convention center. People crowd together for a photo. Some approach him to say hi and make small talk. Once in a while, he scoots away from the desk to give someone a hug. Thanks to this costume, in just a few months, he's become a beloved figure at Southern California fan conventions.
Nandin, who lives in Garden Grove, debuted the costume late last year at Blizzcon, the annual gathering of WOW super fans. It was an idea he had in his head for a while.
Nandin himself has been playing World of Warcraft since 2007. He has three accounts. He also believes in not taking himself too seriously. “I thought if I took that character and made him human, meaning if I portrayed him, it would just be hilarious,” says Nandin. He ended up on Kotaku, the video game news site, and Reddit. Then he started hearing from others in the community. People were telling him that they were inspired to don a costume. Nandin heard from people who are overweight or, for some other reason, didn't think that they could dress up for a convention. “This kind of gave them the courage or the understanding that it was okay for them, that there were possibilities,” he says. “It blew me away.”
Since then, Nandin has upgraded his costume – bringing in a new, sturdy desk on wheels as a prop – and has been hitting up more conventions as the WOW guy. He showed up at Long Beach Comic Con, Anime Los Angeles and WonderCon. Last weekend, Long Beach Comic Expo became his fifth appearance as the character. It's become a commitment: On the nights before conventions, he shaves his hair in the middle to achieve the balding look of the South Park character. Then he lets it grow out again. “I wear a lot of baseball caps,” he says.
While Nandin dresses up as a villain behind a computer, he's actually promoting kinder behavior in online circles. With some friends, he started the Facebook group Defenders of the [Cosplay] Faith, where cosplayers of all skill levels and backgrounds can get together for friendly interaction. “I wanted to promote inclusivity,” he says.
In recent years, cosplay has grown in popularity. Attendance at fan conventions has swelled, with many selling out before the event. Even smaller conventions, like Long Beach Comic Expo, have seen this turn. A few years ago, the expo was a one-day offshoot of fall's Long Beach Comic Con. Now, it's two days and it's outgrowing the small corner of the Long Beach Convention Center that it calls home. Next year, the con will be moving to a significantly large space within the same venue. Interest in cosplay has contributed to the growth of these events. This year's expo featured Deadpools and Stormtroopers gathered in the hallways and cameras flashing as people posed near the escalator. It even had a “cosplay room.”
“It's become a huge cottage industry, really,” says Phil Lawrence, co-owner and sales director of the expo, “where people from all over the world are following it.”
At the same time, cosplay is still a subculture where a lot of interaction happens online. Anyone who has ever been part of an online community can tell you that things will get awkward. People get into arguments about what the point of the community should be. Trolls infiltrate groups just to get a rise out of everyone. Some people get mean. Others try to keep the peace.
It's like that with cosplay too. Commenters might judge others for being the right size, or the right ethnicity, to portray a character. They might mock the casual costumes or first efforts of new folks on the scene. Some well-known cosplayers have spoken publicly about the kind of harassment they receive. Many try to promote good will amongst each other. That, however, is not easy. It is, after all, not just a cosplay issue. Check comment sections and you'll find more than enough insults spewed with all the cruelty and desperation of a middle school bully. “It's sad,” says Nandin.
Despite his popularity, Nandin has received very few nasty messages. Once someone called him a “potato head.” He responded with a picture of his own face on a Mr. Potato head toy. “Why do I want to care about people who want to hurt me?” says Nandin. “I only want to care about the people who want to do good.”
Ultimately, Nandin says that he feels “pity” for the people who take cheap shots at cosplayers online.
“You're wasting your life by being vicious,” he says. “You're just a sack of flesh on a gravity rock hurling through space like the rest of us. You're only weighing us down by being like that.”
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