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A moment in Durham: ‘I feel confident in cosplay’

Wolfgang Stanek brandishes a sword and wears a blindfold. In any other setting, no one would approach him.

But on a recent Saturday inside the Durham Armory, he fields compliments and polite questions as he waits to enter the cosplay contest at the Durham Mini Comic Con. The event brings together vendors, artists, and those interested in the worlds of comics and cosplay.

Cosplay, a mash-up of “costume” and “play,” is a form of performance art that involves dressing and role-playing as a specific character, such as one from a Japanese comic or cartoon. The event’s organizer, NCComicon, hosts several other events throughout the year, including another MiniCon in the summer.

Two young kids dart up to Stanek, who wears a white wig and a black blindfold stretched tautly over his eyes. They’re eager to know whether he is dressed as the character on their sticker: Gojo Satoru from the Japanese animated series, “Jujutsu Kaisen.”

Stanek actually portrays an android from the video game, “NieR:Automata.” To the untrained eye, these characters are identical.   

“It’s another guy that has white hair and a blindfold,” Stanek says. His own character’s hair is less “spikey.”

The question he gets asked the most: Can he see?

“I spent probably an hour at the fabric store stretching fabric over my face,” he says. “I had to find one that’s just thin enough to see, but thick enough that it doesn’t look that weird.”

Stanek’s favorite part of cosplay is the creative process of designing props for his characters. His passion is evident in the meticulous detailing on his sword, which looks like the stock of a rifle that slowly morphs into a blade.

The prop he holds in his other hand is homemade, too. His fingers, clad in chunky silver rings and black nail polish, toy with a black plastic box. Patterns on each side of the box, illuminated by white LED string lights, resemble the innards of a computer system.

“It’s 3D-printed,” he explains. “They’re just flat panels, and then I glued them at the seams inside.”

Not far away, Shane Matkowsky can be seen above the crowd in black bunny ears and a cotton-candy-blue wig. She’s dressed as Rem, a “maid … who is also a demon,” she explains, from the Japanese animated series, “Re:Zero.”

“I feel confident in cosplay. I dress up and I feel good about myself,” she says. “And it’s fun.”

For Diana Hernandez, cosplay lets her inhabit characters she admires. Today, she has on a black hat with red cherry blossoms on the side: a tribute to Hu Tao, a character from the Chinese video game, “Genshin Impact.”

Compared to the characters she usually portrays, Hu Tao is more girly. “[She’s] more cutesy, and more cringe,” Hernandez explains.

Yellow flower-shaped pupils bloom in the middle of her bright red contact lenses. 

Can she see out of these? Barely.

“I can see you guys, but it has a yellow tint,” she says.

On the grass outside of the armory, Hunter Bishop inspects the inside of his helmet. Bishop creates not only his costumes from scratch, but also the characters themselves, inspired partly by his doodles from high school and partly by video games.

“That way, I can express myself a lot more easier,” he says.

Bishop makes every part of his costume by hand. The costume is, definitively, homemade. Hot glue gun marks and irregular etchings are evidence of his devoted handiwork, all the way down to the craggy, gold-painted toes attached to his boots.

His character, the Grand Slayer, looks like the child of a knight and a gladiator — in outer space. The Grand Slayer may have claws jutting out of his shoulders, bedazzled lizard skin dangling from his belt, and beige fur atop his shoulders — but he still celebrates human holidays.

“This is, technically, a second, … more Halloween-themed armor for him.”

Although his costume is vibrant, Bishop himself prefers to stay mysterious behind his helmet.

“I put chrome mirror stuff on the very back of the visor, so no one can actually see my face,” he says.

His current costume took ­­­around a year to create and assemble. He debuted it at Raleigh’s GalaxyCon in 2023, where he won a medal for “original costume,” he says.

“I didn’t know that was a category. So, I lucked out!”

Back inside the armory, the android and other fantastical characters brighten the dimly lit hall. Vendors line the middle of the room, selling colorful stickers and figurines, original comic books, and custom cosplay props.

Tyler Llewellyn sits behind a table stacked high with colorful boxes of character memorabilia.

In years past, he’s cosplayed “an awful lot,” he says. Today, he’s selling stickers and figurines.

“I have a lot of fun being a merchant,” he says, “I pretty much run up breaking even.”

Llewellyn won some of these figurines by playing claw machines, and bought the others for himself. Now he thinks it’s time to start selling his collection.

“As you get older, you realize: You’re a grown man with a ‘My Little Pony’ statue.”

Above: Getting in character at Durham Mini Comic Con. Photos by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal