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Michelle Tessier, Deseret News
Zailee Zufelt, left, and Carley Zufelt, center, admire older princesses as they wait to get into Salt Lake Comic Con at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.

Four-year-old Hailiee Davis disappears behind her father Brady's leg when Wonder Woman asks to see her costume.

"Call her Robin," Davis, dressed as Batman, advises the onlookers who are gathered to admire the father-daughter get-up.

"Hey, Robin," Wonder Woman coos, to which Hailiee leaps into the open, flapping her cape behind her, her shyness a distant memory.

Davis and his daughter visited Salt Lake Comic Con last week from Boise. A lifelong Batman fan, Davis said that by getting his daughter involved in cosplay (or emulating a favorite fictional character by dressing up) early, he's hoping to form a bond with her that will stick as she grows up. This weekend, he says, is his first foray into dressing up as the Caped Crusader.

"This is a way for me as a dad to share something with her and I hope to teach her something," Davis said. "I didn't want to force Batgirl on her. There's plenty of time for tutus later on if she wants them."

Since the first cosplay convention in 1983 in San Diego, cosplay (or costuming) has gone from a Halloween or convention-only practice to a mainstream, year-round source of family fun and a vehicle for self-expression and philanthropy. With nearly 40 regional conventions held across the U.S. in September alone, it's also easier than ever for cosplay newcomers to try their hand at emulating their favorite character.

It may also be good parenting. In a geek parenting panel during Comic Con in Salt Lake, parent Jenny Krompel said sharing geeky pastimes like cosplay is just another example of parents tuning into their children's interests.

"It goes along with how involved you are as a parent," Krompel said. "Taking their interests outside the home and doing it as a family unit is very important."

For a generation of geeks that might have been bullied for their pursuits — like cosplay or comic books — parenthood is an opportunity to enjoy a new mainstreaming of the things they love while offering support, panel moderator Sandra Tayler said.

"I've noticed that for my son, being here (at Comic Con) opens his world wider," Tayler said in the panel designed to help geek parents share their pastimes with a new generation. "You don't have to 'grow up' to have kids."

Culture change

With more people excited about comic stories and superheroes that dominate at the movie theaters, it's possible more people are giving cosplay a try. Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" has topped the box office for a solid month, earning more than $295 million in the U.S. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported, few movies have such staying power and the ability to draw such numbers in the late-summer Hollywood lull before fall launches holiday and award-season contenders.

"A lot of the new superhero movies are family friendly, so when the whole family is seeing these popular movies together, it kind of pulls it all together," cosplayer James Carlson said. "Cosplay seems like the next progressive step of being involved with the culture."

Attendance at Comic-Con International in San Diego — the U.S.'s first and largest con since its inception in 1970 — has topped 130,000 people in recent years, according to its website, many of whom don costumes. Cosplay is also huge in Japan, as Mizuko Ito wrote in his book, "Fandom Unbound," where cosplay skyrocketed in the 1980s with the popularity of anime TV shows like "Mobile Suit Gundam." Soon, as the Japan Times reported, Tokyo will be the home of Manga Fest, which hopes to be Japan's answer to Comic-Con International.

California-based clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg said it isn't just pop culture's attention to comics and fantasy, but also the news media's attention to it and a generation of geeks that are growing up and having children of their own.

"(Cosplayers) are typically on the news when there's a convention in town and in San Diego, it's international news," Rosenberg said of the U.S.'s longest-running and largest convention. "People look at it and get intrigued. It gives them the idea they might not have had otherwise. So it’s more becoming a thing that went from the really far-out margins of Trekkies to something becoming more mainstream."

Even people who are only enthusiastic about one TV show or movie can feel at home behind a costume. Amber and Erik Nielsen are new to both Comic Con and cosplay. The Nielsens and their 1-year-old son Skylar chose characters from Joss Whedon's "Firefly" for their first cosplay experience — Amber went as Saffron, Erik as Malcolm Reynolds and Skylar as a baby version of Jayne Cobb.

"Anytime we dress up, we do group costumes," Amber said. "I think they add so much to the experience."

The pop-culture focus on comic books and superheroes has also changed the way people think about cosplay, Carlson said, using it for other pursuits like the common good. As a member of Utah-based nonprofit Heroes Engaging Real Organizations in Charity (H.E.R.O.I.C.), Carlson uses his suit almost every week to help businesses, nonprofits and other causes raise money or just bring smiles to children's faces through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"When I first started, I was just excited to have a cool costume for Halloween," Carlson said. "But when you see those kids' eyes light up when they see Batman, it'll melt your heart every time."

In the family

The renewed interest in cosplay has also given new life to some family businesses, like PVC Armory, run by Andreas Arroyo and his cousin.

What began as an effort to raise archery into the recreational spotlight has taken off, thanks to cosplay, Arroyo said. Each bow is handmade out of PVC pipe that is molded and painted to look exactly like wood and is made to be used just as much as for looks. His "Hunger Games" Katniss bow is a big seller at conventions, and he says the "Arrow" superhero bow will likely do well this year to finish off costumes. He expects to make $10,000 from cosplayers and fans at Salt Lake Comic Con alone.

Arroyo could barely finish setting up his booth before onlookers descended on him with questions about his bows from "Lord of the Rings" and assorted video games. One woman prowled Arroyo's shelves with enthusiasm, but confessed she doesn't know exactly what she was looking for. She tentatively picked up Connor's bow from "Assassin's Creed 3."

"Do you play?" Arroyo asked.

"No," she said. "But my son does."

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Twitter: ChandraMJohnson