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Comic-Con cosplay crisis? These superheroes will save you

The cosplay community is all about giving back. There may be no better example than these unsung costume medics.

Tania González/CNET

Even Black Panther can suffer a wardrobe malfunction.

Filling out the famed vibranium suit wasn't King T'Challa, but Brandon Meister, a 24-year-old video editor who made the trip out from Reno, Nevada, to San Diego Comic-Con. For the last several hours, a broken zipper in the back of his left boot threatened to erase the trademark calm and calculating Black Panther demeanor.

"I was getting pissed," Meister said.

Now playing: Watch this: Cosplay medics are here for your costume emergency
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Fortunately for Meister, there was Caitlin Brown. After a quick phone call for help, Brown races over and begins applying Gorilla Tape to his boot. Meister, who cut a striking figure in his costume, continues to pose with convention attendees even as Brown crouched behind him to finish her repair work.

"Thank you so much," he gushed.

Like field medics in a war zone, volunteers like Brown roam around the halls and surrounding grounds or work in small booths tucked in convention centers, patching up torn uniforms, dented armor or tangled wigs. People can call them or flag them down in person. And as the sophistication of costume interpretations of everything from Star Wars' General Grievous to Overwatch's Reinhardt rises, so do the need for potential repairs.

These "cosplay medics" make up a small but unique sliver of the cosplay community, which showed up in force at this year's San Diego Comic-Con. The event, which draws more than 135,000 people to the annual geek haven, is considered a pop culture touchstone known most for attracting big stars and headlines about upcoming blockbuster movies and television shows. But just as central to the event are the throngs of cosplayers who come to show off, mingle or just temporarily embrace a playful new identity.

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Brandon Meister, dressed as Black Panther, awaits cosplay repair assistance from Caitlin Brown.

John Kim/CNET

Cosplay repair specialists like Brown are there to ensure the experience goes a little smoother.  And they're free of charge.

"Seeing people happy and smiling and being able to go back to enjoy their convention is payment to me," she said.

That may come as a shock to outsiders. But the idea of giving back is at the heart of cosplay culture, which espouses a level of inclusion and support among strangers rarely seen elsewhere. This volunteer work represents one of the purest forms of devotion to the geek community.

"If someone's cosplay malfunctions, no one is enjoying that moment, so by stepping up to help, you are saving the day and at the same time, basically spreading good cosplay karma," said Joan Miller, a doctoral student at USC who wrote her master's thesis on cross-racial cosplay.

These acts of goodwill also run counter to the more prevailing impression of fandom -- one of entitled outrage, subreddit flame wars and endless trolling. Those issues are real, with several panels this week devoted to discussing these problems. But generally, cosplayers don't care if you're dressed as Captain Picard or Obi-Wan Kenobi, as long as you put in the effort to make that costume.

At Comic-Con, there's a real need for these volunteers. The event itself doesn't offer repair services, which are available at smaller cons. The convention doesn't have the real estate to accommodate it, but is discussing the possibility of whether it can expand its facility, according to David Glanzer, chief communications officer for Comic-Con.

'Unsung heroes'

Andrew Lance walks the halls of the San Diego Convention Center topless, but it was his chin that was feeling exposed.

Lance, a 34-year-old business consultant from San Francisco, was dressed as Master Roshi from Dragonball Z, complete with trademark sunglasses and white beard and mustache.

But the tape on his beard lost its stickiness and kept falling off. On the way to his panel, he spots Brown.

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Brown applying new tape to Master Roshi's (Andrew Lance) trademark beard. 

Tania González/CNET

It's hard to miss her, even in the thicket of cosplayers. Known in the cosplay world as Sergeant Swift Stitch, Brown is garbed in a tan shirt and green military pants, with a backpack strap armed with different colors of thread and a matching fanny pack holding her glue gun and scissors (she used to have a holster for the glue gun, but things got complicated). Bobby pins hang everywhere. The more subdued military look stands in stark contrast to her green and teal hair and nose ring.

On her olive-colored backpack hung a flag that read, "Free cosplay repair," which eventually drew Lance.

"They're the unsung heroes of Comic-Con," he said, after reapplying his beard.

Brown dons an army-style outfit because she's part of the International Cosplay Corp, which is a group of likeminded cosplay repair specialists around the world who volunteer at cons. At its peak, the group boasted 300 people in 17 countries, but the numbers have dwindled to around 20 members in just the US, UK and Australia.

This, after all, is a potentially costly and exhausting activity. Brown said she bought a Fitbit to track her steps this year. 

As we walk together, random people come up and thank her. She doles out compliments at a frequent clip to any noteworthy cosplayers. "You want to build them up if you want them to continue doing it," she said. 

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Brown keeps doing this to preserve the art of sewing. 

Tania González/CNET

For Brown, a 30-year-old customer service representative for a cable company native to this city, this is where her crafting skills can be of the most use. She's been a regular at San Diego Comic-Con since 2003, and began offering cosplay repair services four years ago, and now typically works four conventions a year.

She needed all of her experience in one emergency two years ago at Comic-Con. A woman dressed as Mystique from the X-Men had contacted her about a massive tear in her costume. When Brown found her, she was pressed against a wall with a Comic-Con bag hiding her midsection.

After a quick shuffle into the women's bathroom, Brown had to Google how to fix a latex cat suit (certain glues can melt the rubber). In the end, she wove a palm-sized patch of black electrical tape to close up the tear.

"She was in tears when I got there, but she was smiling and hugging us when we were done," Brown said.

The Wig Doctor

At "The Experience" area across the street from Petco Park, a little girl walks up to an unassuming tent in between flashier and louder booths devoted to Razer laptops and Nongshim Shin Black Ramen. What drew her was a wig perfectly crafted to look like the hair of Elsa from Frozen.

"Do you want to try it on?" Lizzie Duty asks with a smile.

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Elizabeth Duty, known as the Wig Doctor, works on a friend's wig as she waits for customers. 

John Kim/CNET

The girl's shy and walks back over to her mother, who offers a thank you and walks away.

Duty, a 28-year-old care coordinator for an insurance company, is known in some convention circles as the Wig Doctor, having spent the last several years volunteering to fix wig tangles at various conventions, from FanimeCon in San Jose to Anime Expo in Los Angeles.

While Duty is a San Diego local and longtime attendee of this Comic-Con, this year marks the first time she's come as "The Wig Doctor" -- complete with a table set up with various wigs on display. Due to her work at other cons, the organizers gave her a tent and let her set up a station at a lot near the convention center.

As she waits for potential "patients," Duty, who wears a white lab coat and a pink wig with an orange flower in, works on untangling a wig given to her by a friend. A boy recognizes the hair pattern and says it resembles that of a character in his favorite video game. Duty lets the boy tries it on and flashes a huge grin when he sees his reflection. She offers to let him keep it, but he ultimately declines since it's a little uncomfortable.

"My friend wouldn't have minded," she said. "I lent her my nice $80 wig."

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The Elsa wig made for a popular draw among children. 

John Kim/CNET

Duty got her start by happenstance. She walked into another convention's costume repair room and offered to help. With few resources, the employees at the show put her to work immediately.

"That pretty much set off this spark," she said. Duty earned her nickname about three years ago.

She often sees a lot of tangled messes from cosplayers. She'll take the wig and set it on her stand. While she fixes the wig, she'll offer tips on hair management.

"Wigs are a gray area," she said. "Everyone gets the costume together, but they throw the wig on their head and don't realize what to do with it."

This is really free?

The willingness of volunteers like Brown and Duty to do this for the sake of doing it represents one of the brighter aspects of fandom. The culture at these conventions holds a pragmatic view of how you contribute.

"Fandom has long been a space where you brought what skill you had and did what you did regardless of what you were in the outside world," said Henry Jenkins, a professor of communications, journalism, cinematic arts and education at USC.   

And it's not just these volunteers.

"Mostly, everybody is really nice in the cosplay community, and if you ever cosplay and meet another cosplayer, you will know what I mean," said Johnny Chen, a 36-year-old martial arts teacher from Pico Rivera, California.

Logistically, it would be hard to charge for the service. After all, are you really going to ask for money for a strip of tape or a bobby pin? More difficult repairs could potentially fetch money, but everyone I talked to said they prefer to do it for free. 

"I absolutely love being able to say, 'Yes, I can help you,' to people in distress and not have to charge them money," said Brooke Williams, a 42-year-old attorney-turned-costumer in Salt Lake City.     

But what do they really get out of it?

Duty said she's won some commission for outside wig work thanks to her reputation as the Wig Doctor. But more importantly, she said that the gratitude she gets often helps drive her confidence to continue in this field.

While she doesn't accept cash, she will volunteer a Venmo account if you're feeling especially generous.

Brown also helps out because she wants to encourage people to embrace the creativity that comes with cosplay. She also hopes it will keep the art of sewing alive. "It's a life skill that shouldn't be lost," she said.

Brown, fortunately, didn't need her sewing skills when it came to Black Panther's boots. "You are amazing," Meister said to Brown after the zipper was patched up.

Not a bad compliment from the King of Wakanda, but it's all in a day's work for Sergeant Swift Stitch. 

The story originally published on July 22 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update July 23 at 5 a.m. PT: To include additional background and comment.

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