Pilgrims and Partiers: Removing the Sting of Class Differences Between Comic Con Cosplayers

Did security have to break up fistfights between battling Batmen?

Did mean-girl manners rule the day amongst the dozens of Wonder Women at Salt Lake’s first annual, record-breaking Comic Con?

Not that I heard much about or personally witnessed. Civilized good spirits largely prevailed all three days during this pantheistic, quasi-religious convention, one that has quickly overshadowed the Mecca-force pull of Salt Lake City’s LDS General Conference.


A Time to Set Aside Snobbery


Pilgrimages and Carnivale, as anthropologists and literary theorists have noted, create a special sense of “communitas” amongst the pilgrims who travel, worship or celebrate together. During pilgrimage (whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim or otherwise), the social playing field is temporarily leveled. Farmers can enjoy eating and worshiping alongside nobility, socially taboo at other times of the year.  At Comic Con, not only do the the geeks get to hang with the jocks, but the aesthetically challenged with their large girth, body odor, bad breath or bad costuming get to enjoy photo-ops with scantily-clad, professional cosplayers, plus may pose alongside true artisans who spare no expense or imaginative detail on their garb.


Medieval Carnival as well as modern Mardi-Gras are a time and place of sanctioned, permitted revelry. The usual strictness and division of social classes are shoved aside. Inverted power relationships are temporarily celebrated. Roles are reversed. Peasants dressed up as kings, and kings would dress up as peasants in ribald play (and often bawdy humor).


A couple of seminal books (the sort you get assigned to read in college and don’t think about on a daily basis until you’re staring straight down the barrel of Comic Con) are Victor Turner’s Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895-1975) 1968 book Rabelais and His World. Within Turner’s tome is a great essay I felt compelled to revisit, “Pilgrimages as Social Processes.” Turner discusses pilgrims’ acute awareness of class and caste differences, but how these are are set aside during pilgrimage, how pilgrimage is, in fact, actually a “solution” to the normal class distinctions perceived and exuded daily during “normal” life.


Pilgrims: Not Just an American Thang at Thanksgiving


While this could be hard for much of mainstream multicultural America to grasp, divisions in social rank prevailed in both America and Europe’s past, and continue to in plenty of subcultural pockets, plus in places where a caste system still defines and controls social conduct. Contemporary India as well as much of the middle east fall within this definition. Turner describes how

the Pandharpur pilgrimage, like the Muslim hadj, remains within an established religious system. It does not lower defenses between castes, just as Islam does not allow those beyond the Umma (the comity of Islam) to visit the holy places of Mecca and Medina.  Nevertheless, it may be said that, while the pilgrimage situation does not eliminate structural divisions, it attenuates them, removes their sting. Moreover, pilgrimage liberates the individual from the obligatory everyday constraints of status and role, defines him as an integral human being with a capacity for free choice, and within the limits of his religious orthodoxy presents for him a living model of human brotherhood and sisterhood. 207


Arguably, Salt Lake’s first Comic Con stands as a textbook model of this kind of “brotherhood,” even if pilgrims and partiers did receive some preliminary, mandatory reminding. Founder Dan Farr, as well as the local conservative commentators on the Comic Con website urged all attendees to dress and conduct themselves in a “family-friendly” manner. I neither saw nor heard about public incidences of drunken lunacy, fighting or sexual harassment, the sort so well described by Bryan Young in his outrageously funny Lost at the Con (which I heartily recommend).  Even the Salt Lake Comic Con’s “Cosplay Rules” section laid out strict weapons restrictions and also warned readers regarding their costume “modesty,” that “If you’re not within guidelines, you will be asked to cover up. We’ll have burlap bags available to help you comply.”


But There Will Still Be Snub


Nevertheless, perceptions of difference at Comic Con’s human zoo still educated the eye of every person who attended.  Participant observers quickly learn to discern the well-articulated costume or cosplayer from those in the amateur ranks. If you’ve ever survived a Renaissance art class, you’ll recall how many dozens of Mary and Baby Jesus paintings you had to remember.


In most cases of Cosplay, the iconic holy characters of fandom are also just as identifiable – just like every Wonder Woman, Superman or Sailor Moon is easy to spot, however, the aesthetic devil lives in the details, and it was these you had to somehow remember in order to pass the your test when asked about painter and year. The painterly devices of stroke, color, composition, symbols, props and articulation became your visual cues for parsing out differences.

The many noncommittal Comic Con attendees clad in shorts and t-shirts stood out as wide-eyed tourists this year, though I predict we will see at least a 70% increase in costumed self-adornment among attendees next year (wagers, anyone?) plus an even larger increase in years to come. An easy increase, given that the Con will expand to all three exhibition floors and the tourists (like that grumpy non-costumed guy who’s always at every Halloween party you’ve ever been to) catch the bug and are encouraged to get with the program.


Holier than Thou


Thinking lately about Cosplay, what strikes me as business person who engineers costumes for clients, at a quick pace and for a fee, is the almost holy devotion I see exhibited by cosplayers creating their own costumes, which can take many months. Reports of their 8-9 months of labor, huge expenses for fabric and accessories plus the analogies of gestation and birth are not lost on me. Nor is the etymology of the word “enthusiasm,” which defines an inordinate number of cosplayers devoted to their particular icons. In Greek, theos=god, enthous= possessed or inspired by a god.


The Mormon Mecca of Salt Lake’s downtown LDS Temple Square and its General Conference now has an equally devoted, if zealously pantheistic competitor in town. While the LDS Church Conference has its own stated as well as tacit dress guidelines, where infractions or deviations which are easily recognized by that community, the Comic Con pilgrims have a predominantly looser standard of measurement, usually an aesthetic one. If you’re a conservative person who’s able to see beyond any given nudity, you can then almost always tell who’s following the “rules” and who isn’t.  Why Comic Con is a great counterpart (or antidote?) to LDS General Conference rests in what Bakhtin describes as Carnivale’s “many” prevailing “dialogic voices” versus the single monologic voice of the king (or church leaders). The Carnival celebrates many voices at once.


Caste and Class Amongst Cosplayers?


Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matthew Piper sums up cosplay rules for the lay reader. “If there is a basic tenet that governs the broad spectrum of cosplay, it’s that you should be more serious about detail than, say, trick-or-treaters.”


Serious cosplayers, like the serious Renaissance art history students I remember, will wholly devote themselves to the autodidactic task of viewing and critiquing as many examples as possible in a sacred mission to educate their own eye.  Scrutinizing as many examples as possible in the broad spectrum of well-articulated to poorly-conceived and built costumes, they craft and assemble their own, either in an attempt to identically replicate original comic, anime or film artwork, or they may decide to mash it up.


The sacredness (or profanity) in terms of identical mimetic replication or derivation are paramount and fully considered, but things sometimes get thrown-together at the eleventh hour in cases where time and planning simply fail. Sometimes, youth and naked skin rule the day. Common detractors, including Chris Niznik (on my facebook thread about a cosplay panel I presented on) lamented about “professional cosplayers” such as Jessica Nigri. He writes, “I’m personally not a fan…they cosplay but they don’t really try to hold true to the character (typically) as far as professional (sic) goes i feel if you want that much fame you should put effort to make it more accurate instead of just trying to show off your body…”


Fundamentalism, Orthodoxy, Liberalism and Compromise in Cosplay


How Devout is Your Cosplay?


By many, faithfulness or adherence to the doxa or literal ‘text’ is viewed as most “honorable”. Like many religious people you know, literal rules are sometimes broken, with varying feelings of “guilt” or “shame” or neither, if we’re talking postmodern irony.  A code may be broken on a holy day if it’s inconvenient. A vegetarian might eat meat while a guest in someone else’s house so as not to show disrespect or create waves.


Such became apparent while working lately on both a “Vegeta” costume from Dragon Ball Z as well as a “Space Ghost” costume for two young male clients who had opted not to “make their own” in a notably do-it-yourself community. I was struck by the conversation of these two who met each other one day in my studio and they naturally began discussing the evolution of their characters’ artwork and their changes through time, opting for particular costume details over others based on what I can only assume is an instinct towards orthodoxy in both cases.  As for our Space Ghost client, his inclination was firmly fixed in the current DC Comics version, a recontextualization of the classic 1960s character though with a brand-new backstory, and he asked for costume details to match, even though the character’s silhouette, line and color hadn’t really changed at all.


The Vegeta client opted for the “original” version of his character, whose armour includes attached faulds, instead of a later version which has none at all. The issue of footwear for “Space Ghost,” interestingly, became a point of decision making. None of the historical versions of the character depict Space Ghost in any real footwear, and the cosplay rules at Comic Con are very strict. I suggested, “what if we got you some high-top white Converse?” His reaction was that it would be an alright, if unorthodox solution, because it might add levity to the costume and still comply with the convention rules.


If Christians are encouraged to “be” like Jesus, cosplayers seem similarly fueled to fully inhabit the persona of their god or icon, at least in terms of garb. Perusing the thousands of posted photos from Comic Con is a testament to full-body performances of favorite characters’ postures, their warrior moves and attitudes. Whether one steps into or out of character may depend on a need for the sense of safety and fantasy that can come from dressing up like someone cooler, braver and better looking than you personally think you are. Yet in a modern populous at a huge urban festival such as Comic Con, unless you personally know or recognized the mayor of Salt Lake City, his social rank or class would be completely invisible to you if you encountered him costumed as Thor. Unless you engaged him in extended conversation, you’d never know about his educational background in law and geography or anything else.


I’m Cooler Than You (Or You Don’t Fan Like I Fan)


On a Cosplay Panel that we both appeared on at this year’s Comic Con, Tanglwyst de Holloway had a pretty memorable line, “You don’t fan like I fan.” And by most accounts of human interaction at the Con this year, there was some pretty substantial social tolerance for deviations from the orthodox costume “texts” and/or forgiveness for the aestheticall-challenged or crudely made item. The dialogic nature of the event itself lends itself to magnificent diversity. It just isn’t life as we live it normally, – – though that might need some definition, because people normally perform themselves every single day simply by choosing what to wear.


I’ve always enjoyed Paul Fussel’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.  In one description of the American class “type” he’s identified what he calls “Category X” as a sort of cultural wildcard.  Simply, Category X individuals are traditionally the bohemians of any culture, mixing and matching their fashions and lifestyles at will, and they often confuse the “identifiables” — the preppies, yuppies and rednecks of any culture. Fussel argues that “when an X person, male or female, meets a member of an identifiable class, the costume, no matter what it is, conveys the message “I am freer and less terrified than you are…” (181).


The reluctant superhero or mainstream attendee at Comic Con, feeling less empowerment in his daily life, may be actually motivated by this urge in reverse.  As Oscar Wilde aptly put it, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” According to Manu Bennet, in Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matthew Piper’s article, “You want to bring out your inner hero,” he said. “You can generate a whole activity, running around as a superhero. Some people go to dress-up parties, but this is the dress-up party for your whole city.”


In toto, it’s hard to determine whether a Performance of Magnitude such as Comic Con shares more in common with Carnivale than it does with pilgrimage, in its loosening of social roles.  On pilgrimage, an individual in an indian subcaste has nothing really to fear or feel shameful about, for the caste system itself has defined that person’s status. There’s no American-style equivalent, really, of the self-consciousness or insecurity about not being brave enough, strong enough or cool enough.


Victor Turner relates the story of a woman, a professor of anthropology and sociology on pilgrimage, herself a member of the Brahmin caste.  Under everyday circumstances, someone of her caste would be forbidden from befriending members of the Maratha, a subcaste.  Pilgrimage relaxes those normal restrictions, however, and this scholar, Irawati Karve, had been befriended by the Maratha women, saying


I felt that they were more friendly. Many of them walked alongside of me, held my hand, and told me many things about their life. Towards the end, they called me “Tai,” meaning “sister.” A few of them said, Mark you, Tai, we shall visit you in Poona.” And then one young girl said, “But will you behave with us then as you are behaving now?” It was a simple question, but it touched me to the quick.  We have been living near each other for thousands of years, but they are still not of us, and we are not of them. (19)


Reading this, the Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” (that song made so famous by The Breakfast Club) rang through my brain. Urban Comic Con attendees would have far fewer caste intercourse restrictions than anyone, anywhere, on any kind of pilgrimage. Decisions to reunite with newly-made friends would be made, probably, according to simple affinity and mutual interests, making it unlikely (yet not completely inconceivable) that a Thor-clad mayor of Salt Lake City might invite a monster-truck-loving construction worker from West Valley City to a dinner party later. We await news of this happening.


rejecting cosplay


Enthusiast of all art forms, systems theories, fantasy and sci-fi, narrative theories, costume and fashion history, monsters, essays, novels, biographies, films, politics and most music.

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