SKTCHD is based out of the bustling comic book hotspot that is Anchorage, Alaska, and as someone who writes about comics on the regular, I’m often disconnected geographically from the regular happenings of comics. After all, my city only has one real comic shop, most comic creators from here try to get out as soon as possible, and comic conventions? They’re a rare occurrence. Alaska doesn’t have a proper comic con, and to attend one, I have to make quite the trek. When I do, I’m normally wiped by the time I arrive, especially if it’s an east coast con. If you’ve ever been to a con, you know that’s a problem. Conventions are tiring ventures themselves.
And in my 32 years, I’ve only attended one con for “fun.” That was when I was 12. My usual experience is attending with a press pass and doing the things people with press passes do: talking to creators, recording interviews and finding sleep when possible. That means my days are spent running the floors like my life depends on it. Rarely would I walk a show floor without purpose, although to be fair, I’m an objective oriented person overall.
Meanwhile, there are cosplayers. Cosplay has become an increasingly omnipresent staple of the convention world. These fans express their love by dressing up as characters from stories, gallivanting around the floor being photographed and observed by passersby. Cosplayers are part of these events every bit as much as artist alleys and panels at this point. And at larger conventions like New York Comic Con, that can mean extreme traffic issues. That’s where someone like me – someone who is doing press activities, checking out con tables and buying art – comes into direct conflict with cosplayers. I’d gotten used to channeling legendary running back Barry Sanders as I deftly bob and weave through the litany of Deadpools and Sailor Moons that dot the floor, but with great frustration.
There were a number of reasons for that. I’d see cosplayers stopping in the middle of a busy hall to pantomime an activity with another person dressed as a character from the same show/comic/movie and all movement would halt. A legion of photographers would enter the fray and I’d get pinned in. I’ve been hit by more handcrafted weapons by accident than I care to admit. And even worse is I’d never see cosplayers at tables actually buying things, at least from what I saw. In my experience, I viewed some cosplayers as often inconsiderate people whose personal entertainment came at the expense of my enjoyment at times, and presumably many others.
That’s not to say I think cosplayers are without merit. I love the idea of cosplay. Halloween is my jam and I’ve dressed up as Harry Potter in more situations than you can imagine (mostly for book/movie releases, but once for a concert). I’m all about celebrating your fandom in costume. I’m not someone who scoffs at the very idea of cosplay, as I get it. You love something and that passion manifests itself in a tangible, wearable way. And some of the costume work is amazing and it makes convention time possibly the world’s greatest people watching experience. Cosplayers are fantastically inventive people that realize their creativity in ways that entertain.
But I go to cons with a specific intent, and if I’m being honest, cosplayers mostly garnered my attention when their activities came into conflict with mine. My view was jaded through the prism of my experience. I realized something, though: I’d never really made an attempt to pay attention to and understand what their experience is really like. In short, I was basically that old guy who keeps telling people millennials are ruining everything (note: I’m 32). I had my view, but was there any real justification for it? I wanted to find out.
So when my wife and our friend were locking in plans to go to Emerald City ComiCon 2016 and they decided to cosplay, I wanted to join in to get a better and more informed feel for it. To do that, I would become noted comic book journalist J. Jonah Jameson for one day at the con.
I was a bit trepidatious about the experience, though. The closer the con came to being real the more I considered backing out. Did I really want to go through with it? Was my costume idea too lame? Was it going to be too much work? Questions rushed to my brain. Ultimately, I decided to swallow hard and do it, but frankly speaking, the last point is real: the act of cosplaying is a lot of work. Even my meager effort required a haircut, spray coloring my hair, multiple trips to thrift stores, several treks to others, dry cleaning, tireless shoe polishings, buying an all too expensive cigar, working with my wife to create a fake newspaper, test runs and several other things I’m probably forgetting. It was especially complicated by my rule of costumes: if you’re going to dress up, you better make sure it’s legit. When I commit to a costume, I commit to a costume. Success was aided by everyone I involved being so supportive of it, from my wife and her excellent design work to the stylist who became my personal hair guru, even gifting me tools to better pull it off in the process. The costume came together well.
Our day of cosplay was Saturday, and Emerald City was a long con this year. It was four days, which meant I had two full days of observation to precede my experience. And this time I was going to spend my time paying attention to the convention in a different way than I usually do.
It all started with a cosplayer I met in line at a Seattle breakfast joint called Biscuit Bitch. As it was con time, I found myself in line next to a man dressed in nearly full metal battle armor. It was very Ned Stark like, from the pelt at his waist to the sturdiness of the craft. I asked him about his armor and airflow within it – it was a hot week in Seattle for this Alaskan – and he shared that it was designed to have good airflow and that the coolest parts of his body were the ones covered by armor. He said he worked with people in the Ukraine to have it fabricated from a design he worked on, and it had taken him most of the year to do so. You could see it in the craftsmanship. I was spellbound, with the pride I had in my J. Jonah Jameson outfit was shrinking by the moment in the conversation.
I came across this cosplayer two other days, each time dressed in a different and equally amazing costume. It was incredible. While I was impressed with the more elaborate costume before, thanks to my own experience and that cosplayer, I realized what these people do deserves a ton of respect. It’s an incredible amount of work they go through that requires great craft and likely a fair amount of money. And for the most part, it’s just to show how much they love something. And that can bring great joy to creators, as well, as you can tell in this tweet where cartoonist Jake Wyatt met a Necropolis cosplayer who stopped by his table. That love of the work and characters means something for the cosplayer, but it can for person on the other side as well.
Beyond that, the more I looked, the more I realized cosplayers were stopping to talk with comic creators and vendors and everyone in-between. They were going to panels, including a metric ton of Punishers at Jon Bernthal’s spotlight interview. They were buying things. In short, the myopic view I had of these fans may be correct at times, but it only paints a small part of the picture. Cosplayers could be what I previously viewed them as, but they weren’t exclusively that. Even before my own experience, I had learned a lot about cosplay.
Then, Saturday hit. It was time for our first day of cosplay. My wife dressed as Dr. Girlfriend from the Venture Brothers and I was costumed in full JJJ regalia, complete with my press pass. I was a little nervous, but as I told our friend, cosplayers aren’t strange in the context of a comic convention. At an event like Emerald City, there’s nothing more normal than dressing up to celebrate something you love. That made us all feel a little bit better.
Going into that day, the only shred of distaste for cosplay I had remaining was related to the traffic flow problems they can contribute to. But within minutes of walking into the convention, I realized even that was easily explainable. Shortly after passing the entrance, my wife and I were both asked to be part of photos, and those were the first of many. These opportunities would come at times and places you couldn’t predict. You could say “sorry, I can’t” to not break up the flow of everyone’s movement or you could just lean in and take the photo. The latter is the only option, unless you just want to be a jerk. The traffic flow issue was out of their control. As with most things that frustrate me, there was a simpler solution at its core: I was being kind of dumb.
So with all of my pre-conceived notions laying in a pile of rubble at my feet, I just did what I should have done to begin with when it came to cosplay: I had fun.
And man, it was a blast. I loved the experience. Even better, somehow my meager efforts brought great joy to a whole mess of people’s lives. Whether it was the people walking by discussing whether I got photos of Spider-Man or the others who appeared out of nowhere to excitedly take a picture of me, J. Jonah Jameson was a hit with the Emerald City crowd despite a bizarre dearth of Spider-Man cosplayers. Maybe my favorite part of the photo taking experience was that the two “superhero” menaces that I came across were in front of Superior Foes of Spider-Man artist Steve Lieber’s table, who was very entertained by the confluence of events. I had a bevy of experiences like that all over the convention floor.
Even better was the communal feel of cosplay. As I said before, at a comic convention, being in cosplay is normal. From the inside, though, you realize it’s more than that. Cosplay ties people together. Your love of Fury Road or Preacher or vile editors from Spider-Man comics can form a bridge between each other. Walking around, I’d exchange knowing smiles with other cosplayers, others would talk to me about my costume and theirs, and in a very real way, putting on a costume made me part of a community instantaneously. It was wonderful.
There were a bevy of other things I learned as well. For one, cosplaying is exhausting. You have to be ready in character at any time, and that level of alertness and the constant delivery of in character mannerisms (I was one with that cigar) drain you. Another is you sometimes forget you’re in costume, which can lead to hilarious interactions. My favorite was I introduced myself to Deadly Class artist Wes Craig while in costume, and hours later I came back in normal clothing (sans mustache and gray hair) to record an interview with him and he had no idea who I was. Being Jonah was just like being David, except when you’re speaking with others.
My day as a cosplayer changed my perspective on the subject forever. It helped that it was at a convention as wonderful as Emerald City – they do a fantastic job of making cosplayers feel welcome – but paying attention to how cosplayers behave and getting first hand knowledge as to what the experience is like unlocked my brain to something I had pushed against for a long time.
The point is, I was wrong about cosplay and a whole lot more. Comic conventions are incredible experiences, but one thing I needed to keep in mind is that every person’s experience is different. Whether you’re a cosplayer or an art hound or there for exclusives or a retailer or a creator or a person there only for celebrities, your reason is every bit as justified as mine. In years past, I spent too much time selfishly thinking about how these other con goers were impacting me rather than realizing how they’re just having fun in their own way. And while I know that kind of thing should be obvious, after my Saturday as Jonah, I understand that now.
Going forward, I won’t be thinking about how I can best avoid cosplayers at conventions. I’ll be thinking about what costume I’ll be wearing when I join them.