Have you ever had a good friend whose appearance marked a major turning point in your life? A person you knew to be important to you, but who was ultimately one of the most impactful people in your life? For me, that person was Dan Taraschke, known to many of us as “Big Danny T” or “Big Dan.”
I met Big Dan in the summer 1996 at one of the first Otakon anime conventions. I was 16 and I had just gotten into Japanese animation thanks to Sci-Fi Channel and the old Books Nippon retail catalog. My parents dropped me off at the Hunt Valley Inn and I explored the place like a wide-eyed orphan in a candy factory. I brought with me a red cape and a crappy old Beetlejuice wig in a pretty sad attempt at a Tetsuo (from Akira) costume. Of course, no one recognized me and I had no friends there but this didn’t dampen the joy of being around fellow otaku and being exposed to my new anime-hobby in all its glory. After a while though, a loneliness settled in and I decided to quietly retreat to a video room to sulk for a bit and watch some music videos. That was where I met Big Dan.
He was a giant of a man (especially to a 16 year old kid) with blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a Terry Bogard costume from Fatal Fury (which I recognized from the tape I rented from Blockbuster Video.) In that bright red vest and hat, he was the only other thing I could see in that dark video room, so I sat a few seats down from him. He looked over and then hopped over to the seat next to me and said “Dude! Nice Tetsuo costume!”
I beamed and shot back “Nice Terry Bogard!” He was glad I recognized him as well since he didn’t have a wig for Terry’s signature long blonde locks. After the videos he introduced himself. He was a marine and this was maybe his 2nd or 3rd anime convention. While the staff was trying to find the tapes for the next program, we chatted about Fatal Fury and our shared love for Ranma ½, Dominion Tank Police, and Project A-Ko. There was a music video with an anime I thought looked cool but didn’t recognize. He told me it was Dragonball Z and a couple of his friends were actually going to enter the costume contest as characters from it. He asked me if I was going to enter as well. “In a crappy Tetsuo costume only one person recognized? I’d never win.”, I told him.
He smiled and said “You don’t enter to win. You do it to have fun.” He offered to do a skit where he would heckle me and then I could pretend to strangle him with my crazy Akira powers. I was delighted at the idea and when we went out there, the audience loved it. Of course, we didn’t win anything but, like Dan said, it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, Big Dan gave me his email address and I went home with a fire for anime and conventions my little belly could barely contain.
For weeks afterwards, I told all my family and peers about it and I just couldn’t stop talking about “Dan, my Marine friend.” This was a big deal to me because Dan was not only my first anime convention friend; he was also my first adult friend who treated me like an equal (being friends with a 20-something was very impressive to 16 year old with a very small social circle.)
Keeping in touch with him, Dan told me his next convention was going to be Katsucon 3 in Virginia Beach in a few months. I thought I wouldn’t be able to go, but for Christmas my parents surprised me with a con badge and a promise from my dad that he’d sew me a Ranma Saotome costume. Both of these things were dreams come true for me at the time and, with bright new costume in hand, Dad drove me to VA Beach that March. I got to see Big Dan again and he introduced me to a number of folks who have since become some of my closest friends. He had to go off and prepare for the evening’s events (which it turned out would involve him dressed as Sailor Uranus…good times) leaving me alone to wander the halls and show off my new Ranma costume. I beamed with pride over it, a feeling that was only amplified when another older fellow asked me if I wanted to join in on a big group skit his was doing and for which he needed a good Ranma Saotome cosplayer. He told me where to meet and at the appointed time I rushed over there with youthful anticipation. When I arrived, however, I saw that he had gathered a pretty large group—one that included a “better”, skinnier Ranma. He thanked me for coming out but that they were covered and that I didn’t need to be there. I left; utterly devastated. I began the slow walk back to my hotel room where I was going to tell my Dad that this wasn’t fun any more and that I wanted to go home.
That was when Big Dan found me again. He asked me what was wrong and after I relayed the whole story, he told me he knew a few other Ranma 1/2 cosplayers who could use me and some skit ideas. I reluctantly agreed. That faithful meeting completely saved the convention experience for me. We put on a fun little Ranma skit I wrote and I even got to show off my Color Guard skills. And when all was said and done, that event turned out to be ten times more fun and amazing than the first. The rest of the weekend was spent partying with my new friends, especially Big Dan. From then on, I was utterly hooked on the con scene and over the next couple years I introduced a number of my school friends to the hobby and we formed our own cosplay group “The Ranma Troop.” We had a lot of fond memories going to conventions, costuming, and performing skits, many of which Big Dan was involved with in one way or another. Being in that scene, I made a lot of great friends and connections that have stuck with me to this day. Even though I eventually transitioned to art and comics instead of cosplay, I still make a significant portion of my living these days at conventions. None of this would have been possible without Dan lighting the way when I was younger.
Through those years, Big Dan came out for just about every single one of my birthday parties. He took me along on a road trip to Texas for Project A-Kon as my high school graduation present. We did skits together, worked on costumes together, MC’ed con events together, made stupid videos together, all sorts of stuff. He was always so excited to be involved in new projects with his friends and his enthusiasm was infectious. When I turned 21, we toasted my first legal drink at a for-realz hotel bar. He even introduced me to some of my favorite media: Giant Robo (my all-time favorite anime), and Patton Oswalt (my all-time favorite comedian), just to name a few.
In the days before I would step back from the cosplay scene, I wrote a sketch-comedy movie called “Otaku in Space.” At a New Years party I was hosting, I read the finished script to my friends in attendance, including Big Dan. I think I heard that goofy high pitched giggle of his more times that night then I had the entire time I’d known him (and that was A LOT.) We filmed a couple of scenes for it (including Dan as “Michael Fuller: Demon Exterminator”) but the movie was never actually finished.
A year or two later, I visited Dan’s area to play Laser Tag with his local friends. When I pulled up, he hadn’t arrived yet but I saw a group of people waiting in front of the building. I didn’t recognize any of their faces, but what I DID recognize was that they were quoting lines from the “Otaku in Space” script like it was their favorite Monty Python sketch. I was floored. It turned out Big Dan had just about memorized the entire thing and had been quoting it to the locals for years. When he finally showed up, he beamed with pride as he introduced me as the person who wrote that stuff. Like I said, his enthusiasm was infectious.
Even when our paths weren’t directly linked, Big Dan was still incredibly supportive. He continued to be so after I gave up cosplay almost entirely to focus on my art career. One of his favorite pieces I did was a shirt based on one of my webcomics, Punker Darren, that read “Violence is A-OK!” He would often wear it on video projects he was involved in and he always sent me pictures when he did. This continued as I began to make a name for myself. Dan picked up just about every book I published and he’d often send me notes when a particular comic really tickled his fancy. As I reached my thirties, I didn’t see Big Dan as much, but every con where we were both in attendance, he always made time to share a drink and catch up. On occasion when was in my area, he’d crash at my place and we’d talk about what “the next big thing” we were working on respectively. If we couldn’t actually hang out, we’d exchange notes on deviantArt or facebook. This was something that continued for as long as I knew him.
On November 1st 2014, I was actually doing a guest appearance at a Detroit anime convention (a place my life would have never taken me if not for Dan) when I received a text from a mutual friend. I stepped back from my table in the dealer’s area and collapsed into a chair behind it. My assistant asked what was wrong. Wide-eyed and almost breathless, I whimpered “Big Danny T died in his sleep last night.” I sat dumbfounded for a minute and then, like the whole universe punched me in the gut, I buckled over and bawled my eyes out. My heart had been shattered and, of all the places to be when the news dropped, I was an ANIME CONVENTION. I felt like Dorothy on another adventure in the Magical Land of OZ and I just found out a brain aneurism killed the Scarecrow.
The crying wouldn’t stop. I could barely hold it together and I had to do a workshop in less than 2 hours in which I had to talk about drawing adorable happy things. I couldn’t do it. I felt like was going to throw up. It was widely agreed that it would be understandable if I canceled the workshop. But as I dried my eyes and caught my breath, I knew deep down that Dan would be really sad if I backed out on a chance to make others happy because of him. Shaking and damming up rivers of tears, I went on and did that workshop. When I got there, I told the audience I had some bad allergies and started the presentation. It hurt at first, but then a strange thing happened. Feeling all that positive energy and making a room full of people smile dulled the pain and suddenly I felt like that 16-year-old kid again. That same feeling I had when I got a laugh on that cosplay stage for the first time washed over me; all because a wonderful human being inspired me to get out there and shine. Dan, my Marine friend, had done it again.
More strangeness after I had gone back to the table: a number of my young artist and convention friends came by for some advice and/or encouragement. In spite of a heavy heart, I did my best to support them the same way Big Dan always did for me. Doing so felt like he was standing right there next to me, a comfort and a big brother. I’m still struggling with things, but that comfort keeps returning and I am holding onto it fondly even as I write this.
After his passing, a lot of folks shared their stories about Big Dan that weren’t all that different from my own. That was one of the amazing things about him. He had so many friends he cared deeply about and he was involved with a lot of people, but when he was with you he always made you feel like you were the most important person in his life. It’s an amazing feeling to experience; and one that I’d love to pass along. In fact, that’s how I believe we should honor his memory. The world doesn’t have to get darker because Big Dan is no longer with us in body. He left a little bit of fire, his enthusiasm, and his lust for life with each and every one of the people he cared about. And those thousand little lights could make the world a better and brighter place. That is, if we simply tended them by interacting with the world around us the same way he did. Laugh a little louder. Rock a little harder. Drink deeply from the cup of life and then joyfully pass it around to everyone you meet.
But most importantly, be a “Big Dan” for someone else. If possible, be a “Big Dan” to as many people as you can. If there’s one thing the response to his passing has shown me, it’s that the most beloved and fondly remembered folks aren’t the ones who are simply great heroes in their own stories, but those who go out of their way to be amazing supporting characters in other people’s stories as well. Big Dan changed my life and I know deep down to the essence of my being that if I can be half the friend to at least one other person that Big Dan was to everyone around him, I could leave this world content. I only wish I had a chance to tell him that.
Yet it’s also important to remember another of Big Dan’s defining traits: he did not linger in sorrow for very long. If there was anything that he was more excited about than whatever he was doing right at that moment, it was whatever he was going to do next. His memory is alive and well in all of us and I look forward to taking it with me on our next big adventure.
Thank you for everything you did for us, Big Dan, and for what you will continue to do in spirit. We all love you so very much and we can’t wait to see you once we’re through the pre-reg line of that big anime convention in the sky. Keep on calling, old friend. Keep on calling.
The day Danny was found dead, my mother was also found dead that very same morning. She died a day or two before Halloween 2014. But we all say it was November 1. I can't help but think humorously that they bumped into each other on the way over to the other side and I can hear Dan say is "Hey, aren't you Adrian's mom ?"
So Dan, Mom, yall hang loose and we will all see ya when we see ya ! Love yall !
I'm very sorry for your loss, And everything you wrote and drew about him and for him is the perfect way to commemorate him
RIP Daniel Taraschke.
It is certainly sad times now. Hopefully things will get better within time. It sounds like the memories are amazing and he (as almost an older brother) helped contribute to make you who you are today (who we all adore on deviantart) and for that I applaud him and I applaud you for being amazing people
You my friend deserve a hug
But, thank you for the inspirational message. Too often, people treat each other with apathy or indifference. Perhaps if I could be a little more like Big Dan, I could make things better, y'know?
Thank you for sharing this.
What an amazing person you've known, and I'm sure he will stay next to you even if you don't see him. He will still present in your memories, laughs and emotions. He might not be physically anymore, but he had touched your heart and life, and anything will ever erase that. Beautiful drawing, so meaningful and everything you wrote is so touching that I even felt like I wish I had known him.
It makes me happy knowing about good people like Dan.
While I am dreadfully sorry for yours and everyone's loss, I hope he is happier now, entertaining all he befriends in the afterlife