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UNDERCOVER CHARACTER | Diving deep into the world of cosplay

A host of Batman villians at X Con, from left to right, Catwoman (Nicole Hughes), Joker (Rivers O'Donahue), Poison Ivy (Alexsa Grant), Penguin (Ashley Newitt) and Bane (Jeremy Fields). Photo by Derrick Bracey for The Surge.
A host of Batman villians at X Con, from left to right, Catwoman (Nicole Hughes), Joker (Rivers O'Donahue), Poison Ivy (Alexsa Grant), Penguin (Ashley Newitt) and Bane (Jeremy Fields). Photo by Derrick Bracey for The Surge.

We park across the street from the convention center, close to another SUV. Climbing out, we leave the driver’s door open and open the back door to maximize privacy. Then we strip down to our boxers and a T-shirt in the parking lot.

We pull out the first layer of our costume – a maroon unitard lined in shiny silver that stretches from our neck to our feet, complete with booties to hide our ordinary shoes. Next comes the brown duster, a long coat which makes us look like a space-age cowboy. Finally, the pièce de résistance, we top it all off with a wigged headpiece complete with out of control brown locks. In an Office Depot parking lot, we’ve transformed into one of the X-Men. …We’ve become Gambit.

This is the world of cosplay – a performance art designed for fans or participants to wear costumes or accessories in order to represent their favorite or iconic characters from popular or underground cultures.

In other words, it’s a way to play dress-up in public.

We wanted to find out more about this phenomena, to test our own character by becoming someone else and going undercover. So we became a superhero for a day at the XCON 8 comic convention in Myrtle Beach to see what all the cosplaying fuss was about.

How did this strange trend start? Who does it? Why do they do it?

The answers might surprise you.

“Do or do not. There is no try.” (“Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”)

Training to be someone fake

Let us start by saying we didn’t have a closet full of cosplay gear. As a matter of fact, we didn’t have any cosplay gear. If we were going undercover, we’d need someone on the inside to hook us up. We found our insider in Matt Hayward.

Hayward graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a degree in tTheatre. He’s worked as a stunt man, a puppeteer, a special effects coordinator and a professional wrestler. He spent two years as the drama director at Socastee High School.

Recently, he turned his passion for cosplay into a full-time gig. With his partner, Aaron Feight, he now runs Heroes 4 Hire – a company of cosplayers who perform at special events that range in size from comic book conventions to birthday parties.

We ran into Hayward at Myrtle Beach Comic Con, and when we pitched the idea about going undercover he cut right to the chase: “Hero or villain?”

To that we shrugged, and he says, “That’s the most important thing. Heroes are great, but villains are more fun.”

Over the next month, we go around and around about decisions on character. Most of these choices balance on body dimensions and selecting something that best fits and not something that is most fitting.

But we also needed advice from veterans, so we talked to local cosplayers about cosplaying. When we spoke to them about how they chose their costumes, we got some very different answers.

“I like to experiment with different types of cosplay,” said Lindsey Holt, a graduate assistant at CCU. “I have friends that make these elaborate costumes from scratch. Their creativity astounds me. Once, I cosplayed as a gender-bender Thor. I had a hard time making the costume. I went to a local costume shop, bought a child’s Thor costume, cut off the upper torso and wore it as the top. People actually liked it. There are also times when I just make up a character and have to explain who I am. Those are fun because I get to share how I developed the costume.”

“Even though I identify as female, I actually enjoy cosplaying as male anime characters. Many young Japanese males have feminine features, and the costumes are often very comfortable as opposed to the short skirts of the female outfits,” said Summersill Tarabek, a recent CCU grad and graduate student at Savannah College of Art and Design. “I’m not very crafty, so I usually buy my costumes pre-made overseas. Many anime costumes are iconic, and if they’re not worn in exactly the right way, people may not recognize you. I’m a huge fan of authenticity and getting notoriety from my peers at conventions for it.”

Loc Nguyen is a bank protection officer by day, but at night, he’s Batman. He doesn’t believe in just throwing on any old cape and mask.

“I do a combination of buying and making my own costumes. I’m currently working on my third generation of Batsuit,” he said. “As my concept for my perfect Batsuit changed it was easier and cheaper to make things myself. On my current Batsuit build, the only thing I won’t be making myself is the under shell for my cowl, which I helped design with a friend and then had 3D printed.”

Don’t worry if you’re a bit lost. Novices aren’t supposed to know what cowls are. That’s what Google was designed for. What you should know is cosplaying can be a small pastime or a life’s work. It depends on your passion and the amount of money you want to put into it.

At Comic Con, we sat in on pair of cosplay panels hosted by Hayward. He isn’t scared to give insider secrets on how to transform simple items into cosplay grandeur. The audience of the crowded conference space listens intently as he dishes.

“We’ve been geared to do cosplay since we were kids, making something from nothing. Think about paper mache. I make great Power Ranger helmets out of paper mache,” he said. “Fairy wings can be made from wire hangers, fabric and paint. You just have to think creatively.”

The audience is a mixed demographic – old and young, male and female, heroes and villains. They ask questions about crafting swords and Hayward responds, “Foam is your friend, foam and dowel rods.” But he goes a step further. “Remember, we want to see battle-worn swords so when you paint them, scrape them up. The same goes for your Iron Man suits.”

He gives out advice.

“If you’re allergic to polyester, don’t try to wear polyester. Don’t spend a bunch of money on a zombie costume. Rip up old clothes and use tissue and red Jello for gore. For costumes that light up, I sew in light-up bracelets and battery-powered string lights. I can use a tap light for Iron Man’s arc reactor in his chest. A great Joker costume can be found by shopping old suits and women’s pants at Goodwill.”

He pauses to let those taking notes catch up, then continues.

“The common myth is people go way too far. They over-think it. Use the K.I.S.S. method – Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

He informs people on the right way to paint craft foam so it doesn’t dissolve (quick tip: layer the foam with glue or spray it with Plastigo). He teaches audiences about advanced cosplay crafting tools like barge cement and InstaMorph. He preaches about unity.

“I want you to be the cool cosplayers that go out and take over the world, but I also want this geek community of Myrtle Beach to ban together.”

The cosplayers from Heroes 4 Hire roam Comic Con’s floor, talking to people, taking pictures with kids and adults. They look at ease playing dress-up in public. So we ask them how they chose their characters.

Caroline Pohto, who plays Anna from “Frozen,” said, “She’s awkward, I can just be myself and mess up and be silly.”

Jenna Mize is Supergirl. “She helps me feel more confident,” she said. “It may sound cliché, but as soon as I become Supergirl, I’m not self-conscious anymore.”

Nicole Dunne, who plays Elsa from “Frozen,” thinks the character mirrors her personality. “I feel independent. Elsa is independent. She sings. She’s me. People show their true character when they cosplay.”

“We all research the characters we play,” said Kaita Maria Turner, who plays Black Widow from “The Avengers.” “I don’t look like a princess. Black Widow is a Russian ballerina and an assassin. When I’m Black Widow, I feel powerful. I feel like I can kick some asses.”

The first time we tried on our costume over at Hayward’s house, we came out of the bathroom feeling self-conscious. “We may be a little big for this one.”

Hayward looks at us like we’re about to go on a stage. “You look awesome.”

He fixes our collar and shows us how to adjust the wig. “You just need some gloves and cards.” He brushes out the wig with his fingers as if a spotlight will pop on at any second in his living room, and like any good theater director, he stokes the performer’s ego by saying, “Man, you look kick-ass.”

“Let me suggest that you take a vacation from yourself.” (“Total Recall”)

Going undercover

Walking into X Con dressed as Gambit, the unitard creeps into precarious areas. We adjust and keep moving. It feels like everyone is looking at us like we’re in the wrong place.

Tarabek told us about a time when she was cosplaying in Seattle, and an elderly woman approached on her way back to her hotel.

“Once I explained, she was eager to know more about my character and what the hobby was like,” Tarabek said. “Many people are very curious and accepting.”

Nguyen told us about a time when he was leaving a con dressed as Batman and people started cheering, “Batman…Batman,” Nguyen said. “I stopped to take pictures with them.”

No one is cheering “Gambit” as I make my entrance, but as soon as I hit the floor, geeks and nerds alike give me nods and say things like, “Hey Gambit, badass” and “Nice, no one ever does Gambit.”

Gambit’s powers include the ability to control kinetic energy, but the most important facts to know about the character are he always carries playing cards with him. He uses the cards as projectile weapons, and he kicks people’s asses with a staff.

Back at Hayward’s house, he’d told us, “For a staff, get a cheap shower curtain and spray paint it silver. A couple of bucks and you have a great-looking accessory.” But we thought the staff might be cumbersome at a conference while trying to take notes and snap pictures.

Instead, the night before X Con, we take all the aces and eights from a deck of cards, fan them out and hot glued them together. Aces and eights are called a dead man’s hand – legend has it; Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back at a poker table while holding this hand.

The older nerds notice the aces and eights right away. We keep the excess playing cards handy and occasionally, we fling them at passing villains. So far this is a success. We’ve secured a non-obvious costume. We’ve embedded some historical/pop cultural references into our accessories. Check and check.

I meet April Richardson who’s dressed up like Storm. “We should have a team up,” she said. “Let’s find some more X-Men.”

This is part of the draw – your small community converging with a larger geek community. This is why cosplayers usually head into conventions in teams.

“What really got me into cosplaying was meeting new people at the cons,” said Holt. “It was so exciting to hear random people walk past you and say ‘Hey, I love your costume.’ It gave me a sense of pride, and I connected with people that enjoyed the same characters as I did.”

“Cosplaying on my own is boring and lonely,” said Tarabek. “I prefer to have a group or a partner to enjoy the experience with. Photo ops also become more fun that way.”

“It’s generally more fun in a group,” said Nguyen. “But if I can’t get one together, I’ll go at it alone.”

“There’s nothing wrong with going to a con alone,” said Holt. “If it’s a local con like X Con, I don’t mind going alone.”

As Gambit, we weave through the crowds. People ask to take photos with us. We oblige. We hang out with other cosplayers, with professional cosplayers. We see characters we recognize. We see characters we don’t recognize. We peruse tables and kiosks devoted exclusively to the art of cosplay. We play around in the Cosplay Corral.

We run into adults we know from the real world. Some are checking out X Con for the first time. Some brought their kids. They don’t recognize us at first. We throw cards at them. After they realize who we are, some laugh us off. Some say they’d like to try it.

“I’ve dragged some of my friends with me, and at the event they had a great time, but then changed out of the costume and haven’t donned one since,” said Nguyen. “I also have some really hardcore friends who spend a lot of time and effort perfecting their costume.”

But Nguyen was sort of born into cosplay. He tells us his mother used to drag him off to Renaissance fairs and re-enactment villages. As he grew up, he tagged along as his sister got into anime cosplay.

“I’ve been dressing up in costumes pretty much my entire life. Two of my earliest costumes were Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon and The Shadow, around first or second grade,” Nguyen said. “I definitely think people think I’m odd. Even though cosplaying has become more mainstream, as well as being a geek and a nerd, it’s still relegated to a corner of the populous psyche.”

But Holt thinks even though it’s a small corner that’s actually coming out of the cosplay closet, that most of the people she comes in contact with show acceptance of the trend.

“Generally, people think it’s cool,” she said. “My family loves it and supports me cosplaying. Even a lot of my co-workers have liked it and thought it was unique.”

In the anime community, Tarabek finds ways to get friends into cosplaying.

“I cajoled a friend of mine who’d never cosplayed to dress as his favorite character. I dressed as the character’s nemesis,” she said. “After the experience, he told me he was going to cosplay more with his girlfriend, because she enjoys it, and he hadn’t realized how fun it could be. It’s a great way to bond with people, either platonically or romantically.”

And bond we do – conversation after conversation – we talk with dragons and Road Warriors and heroes and villains and Indiana Jones and Indiana Jane and Star Wars’ characters and dozens of video games come to life and dreams dreamt up all year and created into costumes just for someone to say, “Hey, can I take a picture with you.”

An estimated 7,200 attended X Con last May. A large number of those people put on some sort of costume at some point during the weekend.

“It’s fun bringing a character I love to life,” said Nguyen. “Plus as I’ve become more involved with the making of my costumes, there’s a sense of accomplishment.”

“To me, cosplay is many things,” said Tarabek. “It’s an opportunity to show admiration and love for characters and television shows or video games I love, but it’s also a way for me to join with other fans and create my own version of the media content.” She also adds that being a female playing a male character has been “very liberating.”

“Who wouldn’t want to dress up and be someone else for a day? You get to express your creativity and share your passion,” said Holt. “Basically, imagine what Tony Stark feels like whenever he puts on his Iron Man gear. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.”

For us, it can be summed up kind of like this. Toward the end of our undercover mission, we run out of cards to play or throw. The camera card is full from taking pictures. Our feet are sore and our notebook is full of scribbles.

We’re adjusting the unitard after it’s crept into our nether regions for the hundredth time when a dad walks by, carrying his little boy. The toddler accidentally drops some superhero stickers over his dad’s shoulder onto the busy convention center floor. We hurry and pick up the stickers.

Rushing through the crowd, we follow the cries of the boy. And there he is with his dad trying to console him about his missing stickers. And there we are – Gambit – a superhero. He quits crying when he sees us. We bend down and put the stickers in his tiny hands.

The dad says, “Thank you.”

And we say, “It was our pleasure.”

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”)

The cosplay mind-set

There’s a mind-set you should have when cosplaying, some key items you should remember before hitting the con floor.

First and foremost, people should be able to wear whatever costume they want regardless of body type of skin tone, so back off, haters.

Not everyone cosplaying has a lot of cash, so be nice to the players on a budget and never insult co-cosplayers.

“Everyone is always so nice, and the people I meet feel like I have known them for years,” said Lindsey Holt, a CCU graduate assistant and cosplay enthusiast.

You’re probably going to be elbow-to-elbow with convention goers and on your feet all day, so wear something comfortable.

Do not assume every person who throws on a costume knows everything about the character they’re representing. Sometimes, people just think the costumes look really cool or really sexy.

That leads us to the not being a creep part of the mind-set. It’s OK to get excited about the costumes. It’s not OK to get over-excited – no stalking or gawking or making inappropriate comments to other cosplayers. Everyone should be free to liberate themselves through their costumes without the fear of con creepers.

“If I’ve had a negative experience at all cosplaying, it’s only been from older men who have approached me while I was alone and tried to ask me questions in a way that made me feel uncomfortable,” said Tarabek. “Those types of come-ons can be common for some girls, especially those who choose to wear outfits with very little cover.”

Most importantly, this is a place where everyone can let their freak or geek or nerd flag fly. In these settings, there are no freaks, there are only people having fun. So go on and have some fun.

“All those moments will be lost in time...like tears in rain” (“Blade Runner”)

The past, present and future of cosplay

Humans have donned fancy getups to represent iconic figures and ideas since the beginning of time – religious ceremonies and ceremonial theater and pagan rituals and blah, blah. There are always Halloween and masquerade balls and the organized celebrations of Mardi Gras and Carnival in Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola and New Orleans in the 18th century. The entire spectacle of cosplay can be found in all these, but the direct line from media source to cosplayer is a bit murky.

So let’s look instead at some of the more modern historical events that made big impacts on how we see cosplay today, both nationally and locally.

In 1910, the Tacoma Times reports, “Mr. Skygack is in jail!” after Otto James is arrested for “violating laws against masquerading in public.” When arrested, James was dressed as the title character of the popular comic strip, “Mr. Skygack from Mars.”

Mr. Skygack reappears in 1912 – this time at a masquerade ball in Monroe, Wash. August Olson wins first prize for his sci-fi get-up.

In 1939, the first Worldcon, or Nycon 1, is held in New York City. Several of the attendees wore costumes based on characters from the periodical “Amazing Stories.” Magazine editor, Forrest J. Ackerman, breaks out with what he calls, “futuristicostume” – an outfit that looks like a flashy superhero.

Time keeps on ticking, other cons are creating. But in 1970, the birth of the biggie occurs – Comic-Con International: San Diego begins. At first, it’s no big deal, about 300 nerds wandering around and dishing about comics. But popular culture rolls on and this thing has blown up into anything and everything a geek could love – animation, anime, card games, comics, fantasy, horror, manga, movies of all sorts, role-playing, sci-fi, toys, video games and of course cosplay. Thousands of people flock to Southern California to be someone else for awhile.

A more specific phenomenon occurs in 1972 when a small gathering of Star Trek fans rent a hotel ballroom and invite Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to speak at the event – Trekkies are formed.

All this costume play has been officially happening for years, all over the world. Finally in 1984, a writer for a Japanese anime magazine named Nobuyuki Takahashi coins the phrase “cosplay.”

In 1987, cosplay goes down south with Dragon Con in Atlanta. The convention blends the fantasy and sci-fi genres with a comic book convention.

By 1996, you know geek culture has started to leak into mainstream culture when a “Friends” episode has Ross sharing with Rachel that most straight men’s fantasies revolve around Princess Leia in a gold bikini. Rachel responds by tying her trademark hair into buns and strapping on the bikini.

1997 is a big turning point. America is saturated with Japanese anime – big hair and schoolgirl miniskirts invade. This is also the year that Albin Johnson creates the 501st Star Wars Stormtrooper cosplay group in South Carolina. It begins with two guys wearing Stormtrooper armor at comic book stores, grows into a Yahoo group, and now has more than 10,000 members. Also in 1997, “Trekkies” premieres, a documentary about overzealous Star Trek fans.

In 1999, Lucas Films holds the Star Wars Celebration in Denver to celebrate the release of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” There are smaller celebrations all over the nation, including movie lines where people attend in cosplay gear. Every “Star Wars” release since has received the same sort of fanfare.

And in 2013, reality TV jumped into the fray, when the SyFy channel unleashed “Heroes of Cosplay.” The show follows cosplayers around as they compete in various competitions at conventions around the world. The show has been criticized for misrepresenting the cosplay community.

To back up and take it locally, in 2008, X Con brings Myrtle Beach its first comic book convention. It starts small but builds bigger crowds year after year. Last March, Myrtle Beach Comic Con launched at Crown Reef, giving the Grand Strand two separate opportunities to let your cosplay freak flag fly in the span of three months.

Looking forward in time, South Carolina alone has four different events where you can play or cosplay or just go and watch others play. Valhallacon comes to Columbia on July 11-12. Down in Mount Pleasant, from Aug. 21-23, the anime convention Kantaicon will be held on and around the deck of the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier. The Florence Comic-Con even highlights a cosplay-expo on Sept. 12-13. Then, it’s back to Columbia for Soda City Comic Con on Oct. 3-4.

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