ComicCons have grown from a niche "nerdy" hobby to a full-blown industry--San Diego's famous ComicCon has an estimated three-year impact of $488.4 million on the local economy--and with it, the world of "cosplay" (short for costume play) has grown as well.
It's a world that can seem intimidating to an outsider--I mean, I'm pretty nerdy, and I can't even name half the costumes in this story--so I got the inside scoop from some of ComicCon's most active members.
Victor Gamez, a sort of street-style photographer for the ComicCon set, assures me that cosplay is becoming more inclusive. "Now its not just limited to comic book or anime characters," he says, "plenty of people this year dressed up as Jesse Pinkman and Walter White from Breaking Bad, a show I feel few people would call nerdy."
Gamez has been shooting at San Diego's ComicCon for a few years now, and he never fails to find something interesting. This year's favorites were people whose costumes crossed fandoms. "One cosplayer dressed as Tony Stark, but within the world of Game of Thrones," he tells me. "He wore Tony's trademark Iron Man helmet, but rounded out the rest of the ensemble with a broadsword and a House Stark fur cloak." ("Winter is coming," even for multi-millionaire superheroes.)
It is possible to attend a Con without dressing up--though you probably won't have as much fun. Alexandra Sutton, who has been attending various Cons since 2007, says that dressing up enhances the overall experience. "Dressing up as one of your favorite characters is a great conversation starter with people who are into the same things that you are into," she explains.
She has a series of costumes she uses, from those she puts together from things in her closet to elaborate costumes her grandmother sews for her. There are two common threads: one, they must be blonde like Sutton (she hates wearing wigs); and two, they're all women she considers role models.
Sutton definitely prefers the more complicated costumes. "A large part of the cosplay-ing experience for me is designing and making the costume with my grandmother," she says, "so throwing on jeans and a leather jacket and calling myself Buffy wouldn't be nearly as fun as figuring out how to make the perfectly flowing, off-the-shoulder, white silk, pleated cape that Emma Frost wears." (And it is pretty damn perfect.)
Women can also dress as male characters. Called "crossplaying," Emily of The Stylish Geek says it's her preferred style of choice lately. "I swear it's not intentional," she insists. "I guess there is more room for interpretation when you translate a male costumes to a female figure and I find that cool and challenging." Her simpler costumes take her a couple of weeks; more complex ones, like her female Darth Vader, can take five to six weeks to put together.
But despite the attention she garners, Emily doesn't make her costumes to stand out. "I make them because number one, I'm a fan," she tells me, adding that it's a great creative outlet and technical challenge. "I've always loved art, and studied computer science and math in college, so it's kind of like those two parts of my brain coming together," she says.
Still, cosplayers can become famous with the right costume.
Anthony Misiano, more commonly known as Harley's Joker, has a cult following and is even regarded as something of a sex symbol among the Con set. I asked if he agrees with that sentiment. "Dear god no, people are nuts," he tells me with a self-effacing sense of humor. "I'm a funny-looking, nimble noodley, fuzzy scruffy man, borderline antithesis of sexy." (Tell that to his 76,000 plus Facebook followers!)
It took Misiano over a year to put together his costume, born from a love of the Joker and a creative itch to work on a new project. He claims it takes three to four hours to go "from naked to Joker," which includes not only a three-piece suit, but elaborate hair and makeup. He originally only intended to go to the San Diego con--he's a native--but his popularity has taken him to six in the past year.
He's still not used to his new-found fame, though. "It's very strange and largely undeserved in my opinion," he says. "It's nice to have a platform from which to showcase my work and actually get an audience's reaction, but it never stops being strange, amusing, and humbling."
Still, cosplay can be tricky to navigate, especially for women; it can very much be a "man's world," and many women characters have tight fitting or revealing costumes that open the cosplayer up to sexual attention, wanted or otherwise. "I have had a few men make inappropriate comments or cat calls, or creep around a corner and try to sneak pictures without asking first, which isn't cool," Sutton admits--though she chooses to believe those instances are "in the minority."
And it's not just men doing the creeping--Sutton has seen women harass half-naked men just as fiercely (sometimes moreso) as their male counterparts. Then there was this incident: "I had a woman once ask my husband if she could kiss me mouth to mouth because she has always fantasized about making out with Emma Frost," she tells me. "We had to explain to her that we were married, and that I was not really Emma Frost."
Conversely, female cosplayers can steal the show from their male counterparts. (I mean, hello, boobs.) "I think male cosplayers actually don't get the credit they deserve," Emily tells me, "which is kind of unfortunate since some of their work is really amazing!"
At the end of the day, though, cosplay is a rewarding means of self-expression and a way to be part of a community of like-minded people. "It's a very unique art form that permits one as much creative freedom as they wish, yet also as many strict guidelines as one wishes to follow," Misiano explains.
"It's a beautiful thing to see a woman dressed as Buffy and a man dressed as Cookie Monster laughing and talking about how much they love Doctor Who," Sutton agrees. "Everyone that attends cons is there to participate in the 'nerd' community, and fans from across the board are welcome and accepted."
What's not to love about that? Now if I could just find someone to make me a Daenerys costume...
Check out some of Victor Gamez shots from San Diego ComicCon: