I watched in admiration as our technical cosplay judges at this year’s Salt Lake Comic Con actually got up out of their chairs and walked around to the front of their table to touch and get a closer look at the costume details of Hiccup and Astrid, made by Jeremy L. Bird and worn in the competition by her (yep, her name is Jeremy) son Ryan and his girlfriend Janessa. Their costumes were definitely amazing, taking 1st place in the Intermediate category.
Cosplayers Ryan and Janessa as Hiccup and Astrid.
Salt Lake Comic Con, September 2014.
Costumes made by Jeremy L. Bird. First place: Intermediate Category.
Photograph courtesy Robert Hirschi, official cosplay competition photographer.
It had been a long stretch that day, overseeing the preliminary cosplay adjudication, the cosplay first aid station, the stage show and competition, and watching our judges’ polite and helpful interactions with sooo many contestants- most of these interactions made from from behind their table, in seated positions. The materials used in Hiccup’s costume, Jeremy said, only cost $150, but as all the judges agreed, the work featured the use of some expertly cut and assembled bleach bottles, sculpey and an assortment of repurposed fabrics and household materials she’d expertly put together in a faithful, realistic replication of the character.
Salt Lake Comic Con technical judges Kamui Cosplay, Aaron Forrester and Daniel Falconer checking out the details of a contestant’s costume and giving personal feedback. Photograph courtesy Robert Hirschi, official cosplay competition photographer.
Raw materials in our current era of personal cosplay can be costly sometimes, but the cosplay artisanship itself tends to be more rewarded or appreciated than the value of materials used. If someone uses pure gold in a costume’s armor or a skin that’s inexpertly crafted or rendered, who cares? But if someone fashions a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and it has gorgeous workmanship, the item gets great kudos and big attention from admirers and cosplay judges alike. What we’re presently witnessing parallels the historic economy of materials and artisanship plus raises that timeless “art vs. craft” question as well as the question of value. Consider what young Juan says in one of my favorite novels, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, about Mr. Dubois, his high school ethics instructor:
He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.
Dubois had waved his stump at us. “nevertheless – wake up, back there! – nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx, nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value … and this planet might have been saved endless grief.”
I sometimes use that quote above during public presentations when I talk to producers and corporate people about what’s actually involved in designing and building costumes for films and events, but I can’t claim it’s something most people really get, unless they are also skilled- very skilled and accomplished at some sort of trade. They probably didn’t get the same level of indoctrination as I did with Marxism in college. – Yeech.
Anyhow, artisanship didn’t always outweigh the value of raw materials in all trades, though, and the idea of a painting is, historically, a newer one. Arguably, our contemporary idea of a cosplay has evolved on a somewhat parallel path in terms of how a costume is situated in public or private space, as well as the materials, expenses and talents behind these works. M. Anna Fariello details the shift in perception and commodification of art and artisanship during the renaissance in an excellent essay, “Regarding the History of Objects,” in which she reminds us that painting evolved in response to specific economic social forces. In the renaissance, Fariello says, those not born into aristocratic families could now buy class.
The development of a merchant class, combined with a wider acceptance of secular humanism, allowed individual wealthy patrons to commission personal portraits, which, in turn, became tangible symbols of their wealth. To accommodate a patron’s desire for a personalized and portable status symbol, artists adapted methods used to create traditional wood altar-pieces to a smaller format, the painted panel. Thus, the idea of a painting was born. (10)
The expansion of the merchant class changed everything.
The exploding popularity of cosplay in our highly mobile, commodity-hungry population mirrors this now.
The idea of portability is key and one can purchase or make the trappings of class for him/herself. A costumed person is a self-contained, mobile unit, and any painting on a wood panel travels better than a permanent fresco or painted ceiling. A renaissance family who buys that painting on a board can still display its status, even if it moves across town to another villa. Even if it’s a religious triptych of three images hinged together, the message is mobile.
Example of a hinged triptych by Hans Memling. A triptych is mobile propaganda, designed for a community’s learning and moral edification. It could travel to poorer churches way out in the boonies – to churches that maybe couldn’t afford to commisison artwork of their own.
Historically, costumes, too, have stepped off the traditionally more stationary, pious, elevated stages of church steps and naves into secular theater spaces, public arenas and streets. We may be enjoying a renaissance now of 1960’s “happenings,” given the spontaneous performances you witness at any convention. Dramas communicated through costume, though, are still largely propagandistic from the top-down but they also work from the bottom-up, meant for the social programming and moral conditioning of whole populations. Now costumes are out there on secular occasions and convention floors and the individual cosplayer or costumed performer has become the buyer as well as the salesman. Cosplay artisans purchase their own class and status while simultaneously pitching the intellectual property belonging to corporations ranging from DC to Disney.
Fariello describes how prior to the 15th century, materials were typically more expensive than the artist’s time, talent, or the painting process itself. Substances such as gold, lapis, rare pigments and chemicals could be hard to come by, plus they were expensive and difficult to process. Guilds heavily guarded their secret formulas and manufacturing processes for making things like pigments and glazes (8). In the 14th or 15th century, a patron commissioning a new painting might indeed pay by the square foot, much like we’d pay for expensive slate flooring at the Home Depot today. The selection of which tile-layer should do the job might sometimes be a secondary consideration. Thus, many paintings created prior to increased availability of materials were typically commissioned only for permanent structures, churches, civic buildings, and public places. Places– that had most often held significant religious and cultural value.
Hiccup & Astrid, Salt Lake Comic Con 2014.
Photo courtesy Robert Hirschi
Similarly, value placed on theatrical costume by guilds who staged elaborate mystery plays, religious in nature, followed these trends. The fierce nature of guilds’ competition with other guilds fostered a keen artisan eye and rigor related to dramatic staging and accouterments. One could say we’re seeing history repeat itself in the form of group cosplay, skits and multiple characters who compete together. Robert Huntington Fletcher’s account of medieval theater contains some interesting reflection about how simple, symbolic and suggestive most of the set pieces were compared to the costumes that were given great details, elevated priority, and they were even stored from year to year in expensive caches. He provides some bookeeping evidence:
“In partial compensation the costumes were often elaborate, with all the finery of the church wardrobe and much of those of the wealthy citizens. The expense accounts of the guilds, sometimes luckily preserved, furnish many picturesque and amusing items, such as these: ‘Four pair of angels’ wings, 2 shillings and 8 pence.’ ‘For mending of hell head, 6 pence.’ ‘Item, link for setting the world on fire.’ (110).
Here’s a great example of a group or “Mini Guild” entry: Galaxy Quest group.
Salt Lake Comic Con, 2014.
Photo courtesy Robert Hirschi
In performance parlance, we could say that the idea of a cosplay has fully evolved along with our current era of democratized technology, availability of inexpensive materials, but the message of the dramas are no longer super relegated to Christian themes or characters. We do publicly celebrate ingenuity and frugality- those great American values. An awesome Iron Man costume made from cardboard is impressive, but it’s even more impressive when the maker has skillfully used time-consuming techniques with bondo or woodfiller putty plus endless hours of sanding and expert painting to create seamless, reflective beauty so that the cardboard resembles shining chrome.
No longer in service to only religious dramas or even Hollywood icons, costumes have now and forever entered public space and now everyone can participate, purchasing or fashioning their own, even if what is usually being sold (the branded character) merely feeds back into the larger economic food chain. Guilds still form, compete and re-enact a new set of stories designed to teach our communities valuable moral lessons. But we are still being conditioned to display our status or talents while actively consuming and selling each other messages that during medieval theater used to come to us from scripture (and still come up in student essays about Spiderman’s big challenge to reconcile “great power with great responsibility”). And so it goes.
Adjudicating cosplay. Salt Lake Comic Con cosplay technical judges Melissa Spencer, Aaron Forrester and Tia Dworshak, with administrative help from Lynsey Marie Mitchell. Technical Cosplay Adjudicators, hard at work and taking their job very seriously. Photo, courtesy Robert Hirschi
Fariello, M. Anna and Paula Owen, ed. “Regarding the History of Objects” Objects and Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft. Ed. Anna M. Fariello and Paula Owen. Rowman & Littlefield. Plymouth, UK 2004. books.google.com http://tinyurl.com/l6bfsqf
Fletcher, Robert Huntington. A History of English Literature. Boston, Richard G. Badger/The Gorham Press, 1913. books.google.com, http://tinyurl.com/kuqfsbo
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.