New York Comic-Con is this week, which means the Big Apple will soon be flooded with all things geeky (or, as far as we’re concerned, all things awesome).

When it started in 1970, Comic-Con was a small gathering of comic book fans who met in San Diego to celebrate the medium they loved. In the past 35 years it has exploded into a world-wide phenomenon, meeting in over 20 cities and attracting Hollywood stars, directors and legends in the comic book world.

But regardless of how big Comic-Con has become, it still wouldn’t be possible without the dedicated fans who stand in lines for hours to get autographs, meet actors, or simply get a glimpse someone like Joss Whedon, director of Marvel’s the Avengers (2012) and its eagerly awaited sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron (due in May 2015). These fans are so dedicated in fact, that some come dressed in full costume, paying tribute to popular characters from movies, anime, comic books and video games. This phenomenon is called cosplay and the bright, often handmade costumes have become a staple in the Comic-Con community.

People have been cosplaying long before it even had a name. Short for costume play, the term was first coined in 1984 by Japanese film editor Nobuyuki Takahashi after he attended Worldcon in Los Angeles and saw the way so many fans had dressed up as their favorite characters. But cosplaying started as far back as 1908, when fans began dressing as the alien from A.D. Condo’s popular comic strip, Mr. Skygack from Mars. Today, the phenomenon has exploded, spilling out of conventions and influencing everything from street fashion to advertising to popular internet sites such as Deviant Art and Tumblr.

The appeal of cosplay varies, but at the core is a love for certain characters and a feeling of acceptance within the community. We recently chatted with cosplayer Amanda Knightly, aka, Misa on Wheels, who builds her costumes around her wheelchair. She stresses her credo of “cosplay is for everyone,” and currently has more than 20,000 likes on Facebook. “I love the feeling of getting to be myself in my favorite characters’ attire,” Knightly said.

She initially became interested in cosplay because of new friends, but wasn’t quite sure where to start. “How do you decide who you want to be?” she said. “How do you obtain all the needed materials to transform yourself into a certain character?” But the decision ended up being easier than she thought: “Our group was planning to attend a convention about the same time I first started watching the anime Death Note,” she said. “I got to the episode where Misa Amane makes an appearance, and at that moment, I knew she was my girl: the first character I would cosplay. Little did I know that this little spark was the start of a whole new me.”

Dressing as Misa led to Knightly’s cosplay name and identity, and helped her find her footing in the community. Now she regularly attends cons and cosplays as Misa, as well as Daenerys from Game of Thrones or Yuna from Final Fantasy X. “It really is one big, loving community,” she said. “Anyone would find the cosplay community accepting of someone, not only as a cosplayer but as a human being.”

Since she uses a wheelchair, Knightly is used to people staring at her. “With my cosplay, I can give them something awesome to stare at,” she said. “I get to do what I love while showing others that they can as well.”

[giveaway giveaway_id=1704 side=”right”]In their new book, Cosplay World, Brian Ashcraft and Luke Plunkett further explore the world of cosplay – from its historical beginnings to the subgroups and conventions that exist today. It’s not just costuming, they stress, but something different that has taken on an important cultural role. Cosplay, according to Ashcraft and Plunkett, is about self-expression, about embodying a character, and about paying tribute to a story that has profoundly influenced you.

Knightly revels in the camaraderie that cosplay can inspire. “[It] has affected my life in more ways than I could ever imagine,” she said. “I have had people, when I am out in public—not at a convention nor dressed up in any way—ask me if I am Misa on Wheels or ask for a photo. It’s pretty darn awesome, and it makes me absolutely overjoyed that I can make people so happy.” And happiness seems to be the ultimate point – conventions like Comic-Con were created so like-minded fans could have a place to meet, talk and connect. Cosplay is an extension of that connection, bringing fans together from all over the world.