JACKSON, Miss.—Jenna Onion crawled out of bed earlier than usual on Saturday, March 9. Making her way to a mirror, she carefully began applying body paint. Over the course of two hours, her usually porcelain-like skin took on an ashy, gray color. Once the makeup dried, she slipped into a form-fitting red shirt with a black collar and accents that she sewed herself, a black skirt, navy lace stockings and long-fingered gloves that rested at her elbow. The colors of the outfit popped in contrast to the cosplayer’s painted skin.

A long, white wig and a bright red X fixed over her eye completed Onion’s transformation ino Vaggie, one of the main characters of “Hazbin Hotel,” an adult-rated animated musical comedy television series that had its full-season debut in January. After a final fit-check, the 26-year-old grabbed a replica of her character’s signature spear and drove to the Mississippi Trade Mart in Jackson, Miss., for Mississippi Anime Fest, one of two major annual conventions that give Mississippian cosplayers an outlet to showcase their talents, alongside Mississippi Comic Con in June.

“It was a long process, but it’s really rewarding when you actually get to that point where you can put (your costume) on and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I made this,” Onion told the Crirec.

Jenna Onion spent the three months prior to Mississippi Anime Fest in March working on her cosplay costume for Vaggie, a character from “Hazbin Hotel,” which had a full-season debut in January 2024. She used her grandmother’s old sewing machine to piece it together herself. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Onion’s cosplay journey began at 14 years old, when she would browse YouTube to watch cosplayers dress as their favorite fictional characters for different conventions. Her voyeurism slowly shifted into personal interest, and she decided to dabble into cosplay as well. During her sophomore year of high school, she cosplayed as Kagamine Rin, a teenage virtual singer that Crypton Future Media developed.

Attending conventions like Anime Fest and Comic Con has become an outlet for Onion and others who share in the hobby to connect.

“(I look forward to) meeting new people, meeting other cosplayers and talking about it because the best thing about these (events) are the people,” she said.

Dragon Ball: ‘The Great Unifier’

Jaycee and Jackson, two children dressed in matching orange-and-navy gis, approached the booth set up for voice actor Ian James Corlett to pose for a photo. The boys were cosplaying as Goku, the central character from the “Dragon Ball” franchise whom Corlett voiced for 67 episodes from 1996 to 1997.

“I saw (Goku) as a bit of a paradox because he was goofy and he was a little goofy-looking, too, but clearly, he was, like, Mr. Superhero, so I tried to balance those two things,” Corlett told the Crirec on March 10. “From what I hear, I think it was successful, but that was my very first impression of him.”

Sean Schemmel later became the primary voice actor for Goku in Funimation’s alternate and continued English dubbing of the series, but Corlett’s work on “Dragon Ball Z” helped cement it as a pillar within the western anime fandom. The series has gone on to have multiple spinoffs, 21 animated films and more than 40 video games. It’s regarded as one of the most successful franchises in anime history, all starting with one man, Akira Toriyama, who passed away on March 1 from an acute subdural hematoma.

Toriyama’s entrance into manga came purely on a lark, after a listless few years working at an ad company. He found early success in gags and parodies, making his name with 1980’s “Dr. Slump,” showcasing the slapstick humor and wordplay that he would remain enchanted with even through his international fame.

But it would be 1984’s “Dragon Ball” that would enshrine him as one of the most influential mangaka in history, starting as a lighthearted parody of classic Chinese cinema and literature, drawing from the choreography of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and the mythology of Journey to the West.

Only a year later, Toriyama would join the production of Enix’s Dragon Quest, providing his iconic style to the title that would essentially define the role-playing game for future generations. Before long, Toriyama’s design influence would become foundational for audiences across the world—in gaming, in manga and comics.

Two children dressed in bright orange outfits from Dragon Ball stand on the other side of the table from the voice actor for Goku
Jaycee and Jackson (left) approached the table of Ian James Corlett (right), the first voice actor to play Goku in English during the original western release of the popular anime “Dragon Ball Z,” during Mississippi Anime Fest on March 10, 2024. The children are cosplaying as Goku, a heroic martial artist, in his signature orange and navy gi. Photo by Malcolm Morrow

World leaders, fellow mangaka and millions of fans celebrated Toriyama’s life and artistic fluence as they mourned his death. Corlett never had the opportunity to meet or work with Toriyama, though he had the honor of helping to translate scripts for “Dragon Ball Z” along with his partner, Terry Klassen, as they worked on the series’ 1990s run. The voice actor described recording traditional animation as more like recording a radio show or podcast with everyone in the room, reading line for line.

Now, no matter how many conventions he attends, Corlett said he feels and sees the legacy that Toriyama and “Dragon Ball” has had across generations.

“One of the things I know is that culturally across races and economic barriers, ‘Dragon Ball’ is huge. I mean it’s kind of like the great unifier,” he said.

Conventions like Anime Fest and Mississippi Comic Con regularly host voice actors from both Japanese anime and western cartoons who often lead panels wherein attendees may ask questions relating to the media projects for which they are known as well as voice acting as an industry, among other topics. The traveling celebrities otherwise typically offer autographs and photos for purchase at their respective booths throughout the weekend-long events.

Ian James Corlett also voices Miroku in the recent “Inuyasha” spinoff, “Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon.” The original voice actor, Kirby Morrow, played the character until his passing in 2020. Corlett knew Kirby, and in picking up the mantle, he wanted to honor him.

“I really didn’t want to make it my own,” he said. “I viewed it as a favor to Kirby, and I wanted to do this as close to the way he did it. Everyone’s got a different take on it, but the bottom line is you’re trying to make it seamless so that people don’t go, ‘Wait a second. That’s a new voice.’”

The Canadian actor said he is fortunate to have a voice that is elastic enough to appeal to both children and adults and that his heart is warmed each time a fan comes up to him and tells him what the roles he played meant to them during their childhoods.

“The way I look at it, it’s like if you go see a play on Broadway and you wait around at the stage door and you can meet the audience; that’s what these (cons) are,” the Canadian voice actor said. “I finally get to meet the audience because we’re in a little box recording stuff, and you never get to meet anyone. So it’s been phenomenal.”

Vendor Showcase: ‘It’s A Party’

Each time the Mississippi Trade Mart hosts either Anime Fest or Comic Con, vendors erect a labyrinth of eye-catching stalls stocked with licensed merchandise, custom products, fan art and more for attendees to wade through and browse. The event space provides Mississippi artists and craftspeople a venue to showcase their talents, network and interact with fans who share their passions for a variety of franchises.

An artist sits at a booth filled with white linework ark on black backgrounds
Holly Hughes (bottom right) first learned about scratchboarding through a high-school art class, and she eventually continued the medium during her free time in the military. She now attends conventions like Mississippi Anime Fest and Mississippi Comic Con as a vendor. Photo by Malcolm Morrow

During one of her first assignments overseas after joining the U.S. military approximately eight years ago, Holly Hughes found some scratchboards in a clearance bin. Recalling a high-school art class that taught her how to use scratchboards as an art medium, she bought every one and used scratchboarding as a way to unwind after a mission or after working a 12-hour shift.

“It’s a white clayboard and then it has black Indian (drawing) ink on top. It’s actually a thick board, and it’s more of a carving process than just drawing. So, I’ll do the drawing first and then transfer it to the board,” the artist told the Crirec at Anime Fest in March, explaining the process.

“It’s basically the opposite of drawing where I use sharp tools like X-Acto knives or whatever I can find to do cool textures,” she continued. “I scratch off that top layer of the black ink, so everything you’re seeing is the white that’s on the bottom.”

Hughes typically puts between 20 to 70 hours into each average-sized scratchboard, she said, though the most time she spent fine-tuning the details on an artwork was more than 120 collective hours. Her vendor stall is a cacophony of characters ranging from anime favorites like “Jujutsu Kaisen”’s Gojo to Marvel Comics’ Venom to Nintendo’s Luigi. She has attended Mississippi Anime Fest for five years and plans to sell her art at Mississippi Comic Con next weekend.

“This show has grown so much,” Hughes said of Anime Fest. “I remember when it was in the old building that got torn down and it was just like two rows of stuff, and they would maybe have four voice actors. Now this place is packed, and they’re having more and more activities for people to come check it out. It’s a party.”

A table display of books with colorful recycled art covers
Shreveport native Neecee Blackwell uses old junk mail and other leftover paper to create journals, incorporating items like envelopes, old calendars and letters. She attaches mechanical pencils or pens to complete the product. Photo by Malcolm Morrow

Shreveport, La., artist Neecee Blackwell takes old envelopes, postcards, old calendars and other junk mail, and she uses the paper to make journals, adding pens and mechanical pencils as extra accessories. Her son, 36, found a box of some of his old drawings and schoolwork from his childhood, which she also employs in her “junk journals.”

While Blackwell does not consume the media most commonly represented at these conventions herself, she admires the cosplayers and artists she sees as they patronize her vendor stall.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “Some of them make their own costumes. That’s one of the things about this market of people. They’re so creative. They either make their own clothes, or they draw, or they write, or they journal or whatever.”

Singer and artist Lisa Cossentino traveled from her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to sell her retro-style, pixelated artworks of characters from video games, western cartoons and anime at Mississippi Anime Fest this year. Under her business, Songbird Pixel Art, she focuses on giving characters of today 16-bit designs, even if those characters do not have official sprites from that era.

Represented franchises include Super Mario Bros., Pokémon, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Power Rangers,” “Sword Art Online” and—her favorite—The Legend of Zelda, among others.

“The Legend of Zelda was my first real gaming franchise that I got into, and Ocarina of Time was my favorite, which is kind of my inspiration for this drawing,” Cossentino told the Crirec on March 10, pointing to a large pixelated photo of Link, the franchise’s main character, on the display table.

A colorful table display of art pieces made from popular characters
Fort Worth, Texas, native Lisa Cossentino makes retro-inspired, pixelated artworks of her favorite anime, cartoon and video-game characters under her business, Songbird Pixel Art. She attended Mississippi Anime Fest in March 2024 as a vendor. In addition to portraits, she also sells coasters, acrylic standees, stickers and other merch, and she creates custom artwork on commission. Photo by Malcolm Morrow

Patrons who enjoy Cossentino’s art style but do not see characters from their favorite series on display can commission custom artworks through Songbird’s website. In addition to portrait prints, the artist sells coasters, acrylic standees, stickers and other types of merch.

“I was one of those babies that watched Toonami back in the late ’90s, and ‘Sailor Moon’ was my gateway anime, kind of like how ‘Dragon Ball’ was for a lot of others,” she said, explaining how she came to develop a passion for the medium celebrated at Anime Fest and Comic Con. “Back then, we didn’t have a lot of ways to watch anime, so once Netflix came along, then I started watching ‘Inuyasha,’ ‘Fairy Tail,’ ‘Demon Slayer,’ ‘Ranking of Kings.’”

Bonding, Life Lessons and ‘The Power of Friendship’

Netflix is also how 13-year-old Danielle Bridges discovered anime. After she completed the episodes of “Pokémon” available on the streaming service, Netflix began recommending other shows like “Naruto Shippuden,” which she really likes and credits with sparking her expanded interest in anime. She has gone on to become a fan of games that use similar aesthetics for character models, such as “Genshin Impact” and “Honkai: Star Rail.”

From left: Daphne, Danielle and Brandon Bridges traveled from Meridian, Miss., so that 13-year-old Danielle could enjoy Mississippi Anime Fest. She is dressed as Hu Tao from “Genshin Impact,” a video game that now has an anime series. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Her parents, Brandon and Daphne Bridges, brought Danielle to the festival for the first time in 2023. Danielle, usually more reserved in nature, expressed her excitement in ways that neither parent was accustomed to seeing from her. The Bridges now use the festival as a way to bond, with the family of three purchasing a katana from a replica weapons vendor at the event. The green sword is an ode to Tanjiro, the main character of the anime “Demon Slayer.”

“It’s something my daughter enjoys. It’s an area for her to come and have fun,” Brandon Bridges told the Crirec. “Plus she had got a bunch of her other friends, they had got together and all tricked us to get here, but didn’t tell the parents they were going to be here. So, we all came from Meridian. … It’s something she likes, so we look forward to her coming.”

The family plans to make the almost two-hour trip every year as long as Danielle continues to do well in school and do what she’s supposed to do. “She ain’t gonna have no problem with getting here. We’ll make a weekend of it,” he added.

Jireh Benson, dressed as Muichiro Tokito from “Demon Slayer,” said that anime has taught her a lot of lessons, particularly about camaraderie and friendship. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Fans of “Demon Slayer” like Danielle would immediately recognize fellow attendee Jireh Benson’s cosplay as she roamed around wearing black hakamas, a long black wig with teal-blue tips and a sword hitched to her side: She was dressed as one of her favorite anime characters, Muichiro Tokito, the mist hashira. Teal eyeshadow added a little extra pop to the ensemble.

“When I first watched the series, I liked the effects. I liked the backstory and the way they connect their backstory with the characters. You can kind of relate it to real life,” Benson told the Crirec. “In Demon Slayer, they really show, ‘You do not give up at all.’ It’s just the perfect example for all of anime.”

Introduced to anime through her brother, Benson believes that anime teaches valuable lessons that other mediums may not express as effectively, saying that it has reached her during some of her darkest times.

“As a kid, I dealt with a lot of bullying,” she said. “I dealt with a lot of people picking on me. … I felt like when I would push against my boundaries, it would make people be like, ‘Oh, you're just trying to be better than us.’ It's like, ‘No, I’m just trying to define who I am.’”

A man takes a fighting pose, one leg in the air and one fist raised
Amari Jordan, 19, repurposed a seldom-used suit in his closet to cosplay as Sanji from “One Piece,” one of the longest-running anime to date, at Mississippi Anime Fest in March 2024. Photo by Malcolm Morrow

Benson credited “Dragon Ball Z” for encouraging her to push beyond her limits, and the announcement of the series’ creator Akira Toriyama’s death just prior to Anime Fest devastated her.

“When I saw that he passed away, it’s just like, ‘No, you taught me so much about loyalty, strength and discipline,’” she said. “And it’s just, the only thing that lives now is the legacy.”

Both Benson and Amari Jordan, another attendee of Mississippi Anime Fest 2024, cited anime as teaching them about forming bonds with others and creating a found family. Sometimes, people come into one’s life and teach them lessons or vice versa, but anyone that enters her life will “shine like gold” in her memories, Benson said. Jordan, dressed in a black suit and tie similar to the one Sanji from “One Piece” wears, explained that the series that inspired his cosplay taught him “the power of friendship” as he watched the main characters develop and grow together.

Mississippi Comic Con: What You Need to Know

This year’s Mississippi Comic Con will take place at the Mississippi Trade Mart (1200 Mississippi St., Jackson) from June 22 to June 23. The convention will feature costume contests with prizes, Q&As with guests, fan panels, workshops, video-game tournaments, tabletop-game tournaments and more.

General admission on advance tickets are $30 for a single-day ticket or $50 for two-day pass. Military members may purchase weekend passes for $40 or individual day tickets for $25. Tickets will be available for purchase during the event at a higher charge.

Cosplaying as Hello Kitty, Reagan Portis said that she has been watching anime since she was 10 years old, with romance being her favorite genre. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Sign-ups for the costume contests will be from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, at the Cosplay Central booth. Each category—Masquerade, Kids and Craftsmanship—has a maximum number of entrants; once that limit is reached, the convention will no longer accept submissions. Participants must be in costume to enter. Briumbra Photography will take participants’ photos for the judges to use as reference. Entry in the contests is free, though participants may purchase the photo taken for the competitions from Briumbra. Participants may only enter in one contest category.

Celebrity guests include Tom Kenny, Keith David, Alan Tudyk, Jamie Kennedy, Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Tom Wilson, John Schneider, Booboo Stewart, Steve Downes, Johnny Yong Bosch, Nolan North, Vicki Lawrence, Charles “The Godfather” Wright, Rob Van Dam, Kevin Nash, Matt Riddle, Matt Hardy, Reby and Ever Moore Hardy, Amir Talai, Erika Henningsen, Blake Roman, Paul Schrier and Jason Narvy, Femi Taylor, Michelle Ruff, Michael Golden, Steven Butler, Lily Butler, Renee Witterstaetter, and Jeremy Clark. Cosplay panelists include Taycosplayy, Kitty Bitty Cosplay and Little MS Cosplay.

Mississippi Anime Fest takes place in Jackson every March. Learn more at msanimefest.com. Doors open for Mississippi Comic Con at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 22, and at 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 23. To view the panel schedule, to read the rules for cosplays or to purchase tickets, visit mississippicomiccon.com.

Jackson, Miss., native Aliyah Veal is a proud alumna of Spelman College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 2017. Afterward, she attended the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York, gaining a master’s degree in journalism in 2018. After moving back home in 2019, she interned at the Jackson Free Press, covering city council and Jackson neighborhoods before moving up to culture writer. Her interests include tattoos, music and food, really, really good food. She now writes about culture, music and the arts for the Crirec.