We had some pretty deep conversations with the Iron Patriot and Golden Mochi at Comic Con
Ben has been a security guard at the ExCeL Centre for seven years. He is 6′ 3” and 17 stone, with a tattoo of a fried egg on the back of his neck and some choice four letter words on his knuckles. Comic Con is his favourite event of the year, and the costumes, he explains, are the best bit. “The dedication and tradition of it all is amazing. I see new stuff every year. I don’t know much about video games, so I ask who the characters are and use it to help find stuff for my kids. Everyone likes this stuff – I love that they make it come to life.” Amir, another security guard who’s only been working at the centre for a few months, is totally blown away. “I’ve never seen young people put this much effort into anything. It’s very impressive.”
Those costumes, and the people inside them, are here to cosplay. They will spend the weekend dressed up as characters from films, games and television, imitating their gestures, voices and mannerisms. Some will take part in photoshoots, or compete in MCM’s Cosplay Masquerade, a friendly competition encouraging beginners and younger cosplayers to share their skills. Others will compete at the EuroCosplay qualifier, vying for a chance to represent Britain at one of the largest and most respected cosplay competitions in the world.
Cosplay is growing hobby in the UK and around the world, with hundreds of thousands of people taking part each year in masquerades, competitions, and social events. The MCM London Comic Con is the chief facilitator of the EuroCosplay Championships, which seek to promote competitive craftsmanship-based cosplay across Europe through a series of national qualifiers and an internationally judged final. Joe Black is the Community Manager for MCM events across the UK, and also organises cosplay in a purely voluntary capacity. Joe, it turns out, is more regularly known as Granny Gertrude. It’s a good name. He’s gentle and shuffles around and is probably the nicest person I’ve ever met. When we sit down at Comic Con, he’s had just over eight hours sleep in the last three days, what with all the Comic Con maddness, but his most immediate concern is whether or not I’d be alright without coffee.
Joe loves his job. He explains: “I’m a cosplayer, I’m a gamer, I’m an anime fan, I’m a Western comics fan – I personally love pretty much everything about the shows. The reason why I started volunteering at them was so I could work on the inside to try and make them better for the attendees. I want to be the bridge between those two worlds.” The EuroCosplay Championships, he explains, are really important because they’re “a way for MCM to invest in the cosplay community. It’s a way we can give back.”
“I get that I’m not very good at social stuff, but with cosplay, it’s logical. I understand how to belong.”
That community and its shared values are one of the most important factors pulling people into cosplay these days. Sarah, the winner of this year’s cosplay masquerade, explains: “There’s a social circle around cosplay. I have a lot of friends who do cosplay and you get to know other cosplayers, organisers, photographers. There’s definitely a sense of community and it’s lovely to be a part of it.” John, who has been cosplaying for two years, has moderate Asperger’s syndrome. “I get that I’m not very good at social stuff, but with cosplay, it’s logical. I understand how to belong, and how to make an effort to meet people. Even better is the fact that the community has always let me try with no judgement.”
In contrast to professional costume makers, the EuroCosplay competition is an amateur contest, highlighting the costume building achievements of competitors who slave on evenings and weekends to perfect their outfits. Maintaining a focus on technical skill, Joe explains, is essential. “It’s a construction-based contest – we wanted a competition that wasn’t dominated by people who already have careers in modelling or acting, or have done lots of stage-work. It’s about making a costume – the craftsmanship of it.” That technical aspect, he continues, is an important part of the inclusiveness that cosplay tries to build. “Look,” Joe continues, “all our lives, many cosplayers have been excluded because they weren’t part of that popular crowd. There are plenty of people who were excluded from social groups for lots of different reasons, and if we created a kind of elite tier based on the same kinds of reasons that mainstream media do, that school often did, I think that would be a profound disservice.” Several cosplay competitions around the world have been criticised for taking an overly-sexual approach, rewarding competitors for their physical attractiveness. Joe, who sadly admits he won’t be competing this year, maintains a focus on costume construction is essential to keeping the respect of the cosplay community.
Conquering technical challenges is a draw for competitors. Victoria, who’s been cosplaying for nearly seven years, says: ”It’s just so much fun. When you see a costume in 2D, and think ‘I’m going to try and make that’ as an actual 3D, real-life thing, it’s fun because it’s such a challenge.” David, who is the phenomenal Iron Patriot pictured below, explains his fascination: “I really wanted to make something. I was really into models and props and wanted to make something bigger. Last year I was reading an Ironman comic and it clicked – I wanted that, I wanted to be in that suit.” Roisin, from Cornwall, felt it helped her blend in. “I got dragged to Comic Con by a friend last year, and it actually felt weird not to wear a costume, so I got into it. It escalated quickly. I like the opportunity to be something I could never be, like a Pokémon or a doll. It’s pure fantasy.”
There’s an overwhelming sense that the community will always strive to explore the limitations of what’s physically possible. Lauren, who’s win in the EuroCosplay qualifier guarantees her a place in the international competition in October, worked for five to six hours every week for 11 months to make her costume and is still surprised at her victory. “There are so many other people who I thought deserved to win,” she says rather humbly. Sarah, the masquerade winner tells me: “I never go in expecting to win because so many people do beautiful work”. Her entry – which included wig, costume and puppetry elements – took her six months to complete, working 20 hours a week. EuroCosplay runners-up Angel and Si spent two months making their costumes, and three hours to put them on this morning and ‘Golden Mochi’ had a two kilogram wig on, styled with three and half bottles of wood glue.
Joe explains: “If you have slaved for hours making a costume, you want to go to the best place to show it off and that’s at Comic Con. Maybe you have social anxiety, maybe you have a really boring job where you feel undervalued. [Costumes] are about escapism pure and simple. Some people think of our hobby as attention seeking, and for some it is, but it can also be very therapeutic, very helpful. In a weird way, with 20,000 people here cosplaying over the weekend, you’ll blend in.” He has no patience for people who dismiss cosplay as weird: “Some people get dressed up and go out clubbing. It’s how they let loose and live a little, but that doesn’t work for everyone. If you think about it, you’re surrounded your whole life by people whose way of going out and unwinding just doesn’t work for you, so finding something that does is brilliant.” Conventions, competitions, and social events, he maintains are crucial: “I love my people. I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘Thank you for everything you do’. They thank me, they thank MCM, they tell me they don’t know what they would have done if they hadn’t found us. I’ve had people say ‘I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this opportunity, a few times a year, to get dressed up and go out’.”
There’s an obvious satisfaction, for both competitors and organisers, in being part of a community that makes beloved characters from films, games, and comic books come to life. Imagination, technical realisation, and a sense of community, all combine to help reward people with a love of creation. All of the appeal of cosplay, explains John the Iron Patriot, can be summed up pretty easily: “It’s that feeling when little kids come up to you, totally excited. They know you’re a grown up in a costume, but their whole world is real for two seconds. That feeling, that’s it. It’s great.”
All images: Hannah Cogan