The whole argument over whether cosplay is a nuisance of modern fandom or an integral evolution of how fans interact with their areas of interest has been going on for a while now. It recently got a new examination with the kerfuffle over Elite Con, a self branded collectibles market that explicitly banned cosplayers with denigrating language and many arguments were set forth.
To me all of the anti-cosplay complaints have a “get off my lawn!” quality to them. As I’ve been writing for years here, comic con culture is immensely popular and still on the rise. And cosplay is an essential part of that culture.
I was reminded of this again when I went to the Big Apple Con last Saturday. I’ve been going to these shows on and off for many years. The location, the Penn Plaza Pavilion, is crumbling; the hotel itself, the Penn Plaza, is crammed with tourists traveling on a budget, sort of an annex of the train station across the street. The con’s guests lists are…eclectic. But people still go and have a good time. They’re throwback cons, but they’re also easy going, relaxed and filled with the unexpected…as in you never know who you will see there. Or what will happen.
Before I continue, one of the odd things about the show was that the night before the showrunner, Michael Carbonaro, got married to model Nina Martinez. Stan Lee was originally to officiate but he was unable to attend due to illness. Then Jim Steranko was supposed to do it, but he was late. But there was a wedding. I kept asking people if it was a real marriage and…no one knew!
At any rate, as soon as I arrived, I ran into Brian Heater, who I hadn’t seen much of since he moved over to TechCrunch, and so we wandered the floor a bit together. Big Apple is set up on four different floors, and there are escalators and an 18th floor that’s in a different part of the building and…you really have to know your way around. We wandered upstairs to catch a glimpse of Barbara Eden, as who wouldn’t? 80 years old, she looks amazing, and is said to be as gracious and charming as ever. After scoping out the main “celebrity” floor, we had to exit through a panel room where the cosplay contest was taking place. I suggested watching it for a while as I needed to fiddle with my phone and upload some photos.
There were maybe 40 people lined up for the contest. They were not professional cosplayers. It was pretty clear they were people who had just decided to make costumes. One guy even said it was his first costume ever. (I think he was some kind of Power Ranger.) There was some talk of bondo, and an approving murmur from the crowd.
There was a Lady Death who had probably been at it for years. There was an amazing Misty Knight. There was a guy dressed as Ezekiel from The Walking Dead who was in a wheelchair and had a little stuffed tiger. There was a Captain America Boba Fett and a Joker of course (from the 1989 movie.) As I watched them come on stage and say a few words I realized that this was the essence of true fandom. There were brown people, white people, different ages, different shapes, all aspiring to represent a hero or heroine who inspires that kind of respect. All expressing themselves with creativity and enthusiasm.
People often defend the superhero genre by saying it offers role models and heroes. I don’t think there’s any truer proof of that than cosplay. Superheroes are larger than life; fandom is aspirational, and cosplay is taking that identification from a (relatively) passive to an active role.
The contest came to a close and the winners were announced (not before Barbara Eden had strolled through were her entourage on her way to the break room.) There were many prizes, sponsored by different companies, and many winners. The grand prize went to Ezekiel, who found some friends at the con.
Sadly, he couldn’t get up on stage to have his picture taken with the rest of the winners, because the stage wasn’t wheelchair accessible. But I’m sure he enjoyed his win. I don’t hang out much with the cosplay end of cons, but seeing so many different kinds of people try to emulate their heroes reminded me that fandom is for EVERYONE. It’s inclusive and diverse and its freeing. It’s often a pursuit that helps people through rough times and helps them express themselves in ways that transcend rules.
Look, I know it’s a pain in the ass when someone blocks a crowded aisle at a con to take a picture of a cosplayer. And I know that it can be hard to take when people dress in a way that seems inappropriate. (Why do so many masked superheroes wear tights with their junk showing? Why are nude beaches filled mostly with older men?) Every good thing has its downside. But so does every other aspect of comic cons, from boring panels to rude celebrities to people with carts full of comics to get signed so they can flip them.
For better or worse, we’ve come to an era that celebrates self expression above all else. The participatory, aspirational and promotional side of cosplay is part of that, and it’s why it’s been on the rise so much in the social media era. It’s been said that cosplayers aren’t part of the con economy, but this is a fallacy on two levels. First, a lot of cosplayers are fans and they do buy stuff.
Second, if you read any mainstream story about comic cons, they always, always, always mention the cosplay. It’s one of the reasons people pay to come to comic cons. Normcore fans come to gawk at cosplayers even if they aren’t dressed up themselves.
Comic cons have come a long way from the long box era, but costuming has always been a part of fan culture. It’s just a bigger part now, and if you took it out of cons, you’d take away a lot of what makes them so exciting for so many people. As I’m fond of saying, kids used to threaten to run away and join the circus when they wanted to protest a boring home life. Now, there are no more circuses, and parents drop off the kids at the comic cons where they spend the day expressing themselves.
So yep, cosplay is here to stay and I’m fine with that.
AND NOW, more photos from the Big Apple Con. The lighting in the exhibit hall was so bad (low ceiling and fluorescent lights) that had to digitally grade every photo! Them’s the breaks!
Cartoonist Frank Stack (Jesus Comics, Our Cancer Year) about to be grilled by Brian Heater. Check out the results on Brian’s podcast!
Elaine Lee poses in front of the droolworthy Artist’s Edition of Starstruck. I know all artists editions are gorgeous, but Wm. Michael Kaluta’s linework in this is revelatory. And It was so great to see Elaine again! Starstruck is one of my all time favorite comics, and I’m glad it’s finding a new audience.
I also met Kristen Gudsnuk of Henchgirl fame.
Roy Thomas had a big line. YOU can see the low ceilings and fluorescent lighting I was complaining about.
People come to this show to spend money!
Big Apple Con is very state of the art!
But some things never change.
Here’s the cosplay contest I was talking about.
I caught up with art dealers Albert Ching and Micah Spivak. The original art market is still going strong, it seems.
And some more elaborate cosplay.
I always say hi to Rodney Ramos at cons so we can talk about the Mets.
Danny Fingeroth and Jim Salicrup were having a fine time! it was just announced that Danny is writing a biography of Stan Lee.
I als caught up with Frank Patz of Eternal Con, which is moving to the Nassau Coliseum this year. The quirky little museum where it was held was charming but not big enough.
And a display of Frank Miller art from Metropolis Galleries.
Shelton Drum who runs HeroesCon and Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find. Shelton told me a bit about the upcoming move for the store, but it’s his seventh location, so no big deal, really. The new store will be in a trendy neighborhood and he’s very excited about it.
So that was my Big Apple Con. I had some deadlines to try to hit on Sunday or I would probably have gone back for a second day just to hang out and chat some more.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.