Dwarf+Giant went to Stan Lee’s Comikaze last weekend, looking for a story. What we found was less a story and more an epiphany.
Cosplayers are more nekkid than if they were actually physically stripped of clothing. It may be as much fun as being in the ol’ birthday suit, but it also takes courage. They’re heroes, and here’s why…
I’ll roughly define cosplay as the wearing of, even interpretation of, the look or style of a character, usually from a book, movie, game or other IP (Intellectual Property). On the surface, it’s just the wearing of costumes for fun, as opposed to because you’ve been cast in some kind of show. On a deeper level, cosplay is costuming that exposes the identity, rather than hides it. To go out in public, not just w/ an ironic Star Wars lunchbox, but with a hard-earned Wolverine physique, cowboy boots, jeans, tank, dog tags, that Wolvie hair, a cigar and f*cking claws that everyone knows you’re actually just holding in your palm – huevos, Bub. In a play, you get cast in a part, and you are more or less forced to wear whatever costume they give you (playing a French lord in Henry V, I was costumed like the Li’l Dutch Boy cleaning products guy because I was unlucky enough to be last in the costume line). But you’re doing a job and wearing what you’re told, just like our friends at Hot Dog on a Stick, so any mockery you endure cannot go very deep. In cosplay, you choose and choosing is exposing. You’re saying: I am or I wish I was or I aspire to be or I believe in this character. You’re standing at a press conference, saying “I am Iron Man.” It’s both extremely personal and extremely public. You turn your insides out: integrous and vulnerable. Nekkid.
I’ll use myself as the negative example. I am a commonplace nerd from way back. I’ve read comic books off and on since the 80s, own both a Captain Kirk shirt and a Han Solo vest and have read The Silmarillion 4 times. So what, right? The word “nerd” has gone from being a dismissive epithet to a way of bragging “I have always liked the stuff which used to be uncool but which is now extremely cool (or at least very lucrative)”. I like what I like. On the other hand, when I go to a comic convention I am profoundly and soundly out-nerded. I don’t mean that my authenticity as a nerd is somehow invalidated, just my courage as a human being, my willingness to stand up and give account for who I really am. I am Captain Kirk every year for Halloween (if you were at the Last Spookstore opening night, you may have seen me flinging my body from side to side as the store was rocked by phaser fire), but I have never dressed up for a convention, where I can choose not to wear a costume. If I am honest, I suppose I am afraid. Afraid of what? Considering that these are “my people”, I should fit right in. And outside a convention, considering that comic books, Star Wars, sci-fi of every ilk – from Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek and all points in between – are perhaps the biggest film/TV properties, considering that Tolkien is taught at university and considering that the game industry is bigger than the entire film industry – what the hell is the problem with wearing a Star Trek uniform? You can walk around in a sports jersey and no one bats an eye, but a Spock jersey? That might cost you. Too bad, because when I think of Spock, I think of extreme competence, a wry sense of humor and friendship based on commitment, rather than fleeting emotion. It’s Spock, man. Surely all that has more value than the shout-it-from-the-rooftops gospel message that you happen to be from Cleveland or you enjoy basketball. (And don’t get me started about fashion labels.) But like most people, I hide behind what is blandly acceptable. The big choices when selecting my wardrobe are color and the utility of my footwear. My big message to the world is “I am generally fond of green.” Quel courage. Look: I know the Jedi code. I know that Aragorn and Arwen are (very distant) cousins. I have had dreams that took place on the maps of Halo 2. But all this is secret knowledge, and other than my Halloween-time Kirk and my Punisher t-shirt (which is kinda cheating, cuz any skull-on-black sort of transcends genre) I do not “wear” my nerdom, but in the most timid, plausibly-deniable fashion. Which is to say, I do not “wear” who I really am, and instead hide behind a polo from Target and some dumb slacks – even at a convention. I am full of malarky, because I really do value and/or identify with, you know, Samwise Gamgee and Jedis and a stack of other characters and stories that I get way more value out of than Tommy Hilfiger or the Dallas Cowboys. Indiana Jones got me out of my hometown to the Great Wall of China and the Dead Sea and Tokyo and Nairobi; Hilfiger ain’t done sh*t for me. Is wearing a brown leather jacket and fedora so strange, considering the deep personal connection?
So, my outsides do not accurately reflect my insides. That’s a lack of integrity and accurately implies a lack of courage. Now let’s think about our heroes: the nekkid cosplayers.
Cosplayers are the berzerkers of not only nerdom, but identity itself, launching themselves into the public eye without pretense, smashing through the lines of They Who Lack Conviction with a bloodsick fury, while the rest of us civilian-clad nerd grunts – if not trampled by their initial thrust – mince forward, sheltered in their giant Pokemon-shaped shadows. We think our cowardice will keep us safe, like the villagers in Seven Samurai. These soulful leaders say to the rest of us – with their actions: be who you are, be who you want to be, public opinion be damned. They are cultural action heroes – in some ways more so than the original creators, because they do not do it for a paycheck, they do it for love of the goodness, truth and beauty they have found.
And what are the fruits of this boldness? I’ve never seen any cosplayer ridiculed in this environment where everyone is putting it on the chopping block. No one says “You’re too fat to be Elsa!” or “Red Hulk? – do you even lift, bro?” or “How can you be Han Solo – you’re a girl!” Any body shape, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or questionable interpretation of an IP has a seat at the roundtable. It does not have to be an aspirational costume, by any means. Witness the four categories: straight-up character, conceptual character (including mash-ups), steampunk or zombie. I’m not 100% sure anyone wants to be a zombie. There might be tension between a person’s aspirations, values and identity when they choose their modus cosplayus. It’s not all “I wish I was Katniss”, but could also be “I feel like Squirrel Girl” or “I got an Asajj Ventress in me that no one knows about.” But it’s all entirely welcome. In fact, the bottom caste in this social order (if there even is a hierarchy) are those who appear to have deliberately half-assed it, keeping one foot in the “acceptable” realm. Even they seem to be treated gently. Irony is plausible deniability and will be met with patience.
You can sometimes see fear in the cosplayer’s eyes, it’s true. I’ve seen a few that I thought were secretly asking the question, “Too much? Did I go too far?” To these I want to say, You bow to no one. The degree to which you perfect your look might be the degree to which you identify with the character. To put your heart and mind – your spirit – on your body, and walk it around in public requires the courage of Ahsoka Tano and the integrity of Captain America. Maybe we can’t reasonably be expected to wear Stormtrooper armor to our barista job, (“kzzt Room for cream? kzzt”), but I bet there’s a lot more space yet to be conquered with these characters and stories that mean more to us than mere entertainment. Cosplayers, lead the way. Nekkid.