As Dippy Catt accepted the First Place award for her original rendering of Bowser, a domineering Nintendo character, her eyes popped wide and her mouth gaped for a genuine but uncomfortable minute. Catt, who will only give her first name, Abi, didn’t expect recognition but, then again, she should know there are always surprises at a con.

The Elm Street Center’s lavish ballrooms, typically reserved for weddings and corporate events, hosted the first annual Greensboro Comicon last weekend. These festivals feature massive arrays of comic books for sale, video-game competitions and panels on everything from zombie makeup to why black and queer heroes matter. At least half of attendees cosplayed, meaning that at any given time they dressed as a character from a video game, comic or anime title.

As attendees scuttled through winding hallways, one cosplayer lit the way — literally.

Kristen Chong, an electrical engineer, isn’t new to cosplay, but over the last eight months she succeeded in her first custom build for competition— Arcade Ahri from League of Legends.

The enchanting structure she crafted secures to her belt and shoulder harnesses in order to support the weight of luminous threaded rods enveloped in an impossibly soft, white material that allows color-shifting lights to radiate from the nine-pronged tail.

“She’s one of my favorites,” Chong said. “I was really enthralled with the tails because I’ve seen a lot of cosplayers do the tails either with a great structure and okay lights or really awesome lights with an okay structure; I was like, ‘I could do this better.’”

Judges tend to reward cosplayers who put in significant handiwork or who can at least explain the stitching and materials utilized in the making of their costume. Sapphire Nova, dressed as Starfire, and Rocky Melvin, as Optimus Prime, presided over the judges’ table upon a raised black podium front and center, facing tightly packed rows of audience members.

Derrick Nova of Superheroes Unlimited — the organization that planned the cosplay contest — emceed the mid-afternoon contest, inviting cosplayers to pose in several locations with a stop at the judges’ table.

A UNCG student and seasoned con-goer named Sarah — who declined to give her last name — took second place. She effortlessly described the technical elements of her outfit, but the real story of her Asuna Yuuki cosplay lies in its origin story.

Sarah’s grandmother is a seamstress who specializes in historical costumes and often participated in Civil War reenactments alongside her son, Sarah’s father, while raising her family in Virginia. When her dad fell in love with cosplay, Sarah’s grandmother sewed his Battlestar Galactica costumes and, eventually he took his daughter along for the ride where she, too, fell in love.

“Growing up, my whole family would go hard for Halloween and dress up for Renaissance fairs… and she’s been dressing me in costume since I was born,” Sarah said.

Naturally, this year’s cosplay was a team effort.

Her grandmother, who now lives in Connecticut, sewed the clothing with only Sarah’s measurements and a photo of the Sword Art Online character’s outfit while her father — a machinist who typically manufactures paintball guns — molded a sword and sheath from a mix of metals, plastics and 3D printing. Sarah created her armor and boot covers with craft foam and Mod Podge and embellished everything with paint and gemstones.

The craftsmanship certainly swayed the judges, but Sarah said the most meaningful part of the experience was collaborating with her biological family as part of a tradition of working with textiles and the new, chosen family she makes at every con she attends.

“People like to say Disney World is the happiest place on Earth,” Sarah said. “I like to say DragonCon is because it’s the most accepting place on Earth. You can be anything, do anything, dress as anything — whatever; be whoever you want and nobody’s going to judge you as long as you don’t hurt anyone. If there’s a part of you that you like to suppress, you can bring it out.”

Cosplay is about more than dressing up, she said — it’s a chance to live in a character’s skin or more fully express yourself.

“Cosplay can really bring out different parts of you, Sarah said. “My Black Canary was my first real cosplay and that was fun because she’s so confident and sexy — she kicks ass. The second I put that cosplay on, I become her. I’m so much more confident and you can bring that into your real life. Cosplay helps you be who you want to be.”

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