Why have I chosen to study English? Because I like the smell of books? Yeah, that’s part of it. Because I’m afraid of the real world? Mostly, but it’s also because I get to write. About things I **like.**
What follows is an essay, a criticism I wrote on the cultural atmosphere of the Wizard World Comic Convention. If those last four words excited you, prepare to be amazed, and perhaps seduced into pursuing a degree in English. If they didn’t, well, you can feel free to read ahead anyway. I tried to make the essay approachable. Just remember, people: I got to do this for class. My life’s pretty great.
The picture on the left is of my fellow-cosplaying friends: Eric, Ryan, Aaron, and Jerome. The picture on the right is of me and…a girl with purple hair. I don’t know who that is.
Hundreds sat in expectation on that warm Virginia night as Jesse Pinkman, garbed in yellow hazmat and goggles, took his rightful place on center stage to extend his greeting to the audience:
“It’s the Cosplay Contest, biiiitch!”
Of course, this wasn’t really Jesse Pinkman. It wasn’t even Aaron Paul, the actor who played him on AMC’s Breaking Bad. No, our host was one in the crowd of hundreds of competing cosplayers, meeting together this weekend for Richmond’s first annual Comics Convention.
Cosplay (short for “costume play”), finds its most basic definition as the practice of dressing up as a fictional character. You likely did it as a child every Halloween, using whatever resources you had–a seamstress mother, an army jacket from Dad, or the local Walmart– to try and emulate the spirit of someone or something you were not. And yet, calling someone a cosplayer communicates something deeper than the word’s mere denotative sense. The word cosplayer is almost always preceded by the word professional; it is not a world of childish dress-up, but of adults. Enthusiasts put hundreds of hours into their outfits, ensuring a final product looking exactly like the source material.
“I put twelve hundred hours into this thing,” Charles Keefe told me, gesturing to his outfit based on the upcoming video game Arkham Knight. “Then (Eidos Interactive) finally sent me some reference shots, and I had to start over and spend like, four hundred more hours on it.”
But why? Why do grown men and women care so much about these costumes? Answers vary. Enthusiasts such as Charles enter competitions as a kind of advertising for their craft, in hopes that other cosplayers, lacking the skills required to make their own, will pay him to help with their next project. Hundreds of dollars exchange hands in order to ensure an authentic-looking product, yet Charles assured me that his goal was not to make money.
“People will want like, a plexiglass battle-axe,” he told me, “and other guys will do the job for say, eleven hundred dollars. I tell them, ‘I’ll do it for five.’ Because I don’t need this. I have a job. I do it because I love the shit!”
So, cosplay cannot be just about the money, or even the contest. Hardly any participants came solely to compete; most were spotted earlier that day at the convention, happily shopping for comics and merchandise while dressed head to toe in outfits of various fandoms, various detail…and various coverage. It didn’t take long to realize that few at the Con concerned themselves with modesty, or with gawking at one another. On the contrary, people generally wanted you to look at them, and the outfit they had created. One young girl dressed as super-villainess Poison Ivy, though “dressed” may be too loose a term; most underwear would have provided more fabric than her leafy, minimalist bikini. I spotted her more than once at the convention, strutting calmly and confidently between the merchandise stands.
“There’s someone who’s confident in her body image,” I remarked to my friend Aaron.
“Yeah,” he said, “that or insecure.”
Regardless of her sense of self-worth, our skimpy friend failed to make it even to the honorable mentions of the Contest. This surprised none of us, not due to her lack of clothing, but lack of effort. The status of “professional cosplayer” requires more than donning risque foliage. Cosplay demands commitment. One had only to look at the winners that night. A Superman whose physique would have had you believing he had walked off the set of Man of Steel, every inch of his suit hand-painted in waves of navy blue. A comics-style Wolverine, looking every inch the part from his silver claws to the points on his yellow-and-blue mask. And the winning costume, in terms of effort, landed as far from leaf bikinis as possible. We watched him, slack-jawed, as he walked to center stage, each step majestic. A Space Marine, eight feet tall on internal stilts, encased in painted foam and wood. The suit flashed red and gold, with insignias sky blue.
Was this the reason people dressed up? To be worshipped as gods and walk above mortals? Though it may be tempting to think so, and is probably for some, this view cannot encompass all of cosplay. Take, for example, the group of young men who came dressed in an assortment of cheap skirts, Wal-Mart t-shirts, and green duct tape, who entered the competition under the self-deprecating name The Crappy Justice League. No one could say that their scrawny, bearded Wonder Woman expected victory that night.
Or take Ryan. A friend who had come to the Con with me that weekend, Ryan cosplayed for the first time that night, employing hair dye, a tank top, army tags, claws, and a cheap, half-smoked cigar to pull off a rugged, Hugh Jackman Wolverine. Ryan had come not for fame, but to have a good time with us, his friends. He had decided to join the competition after arriving, at the suggestion of impressed strangers. Ryan told me that as he stood in the impossibly long line to stage, a strange camaraderie pulsated through the line’s serpentine curves.
“We were like, ‘We don’t care who wins! We want to see each other do well!’” Ryan described the atmosphere to me after the contest, an electrifying sort of post-Con buzz shooting through him despite having no trophy to his name. In fact, since Ryan had been the only one in my friend group to enter, none of us walked home winners. Yet in retrospect, my friends and I remember the Cosplay Contest and the Comic Convention as a whole with a fondness. And thought it may seem silly, I think both the convention and its costumes have value. Common interests brought us together, both with one another and with people we never would have met otherwise. And because the people there shared the bond of nerdiness, that secret and exciting shame of being a little too interested in something, we were all the more willing to listen to one another’s stories. I talked about sanctification theology with seamstresses who specialized in working with comic fabric (which wouldn’t be worth the space to explain). An independent comics author talked with me about how he crafted his stories. And Arkham Knight Charles Keefe, amidst the swearing and shop-talk, opened up to me about his convoluted family life.
I ascribe great value to the Richmond Comic Con, and its related nerd-fests, if for no other reason, then for this: they give us the opportunity not only to marvel at masks, but understand the people behind them.