Jacob Runnels and his friends portray fictional characters and learn more about themselves along the way.
Words by Jacob Runnels
Photos by Jana Life
I’m sitting on a bed in a hotel room that’s not mine. Behind me are six strangers who are too drunk and rowdy to have a conversation with. On the other hand, Batman—in his formal wear with a Christian Bale-styled cowl—is sitting across from me on another bed with his girlfriend next to him.
“Nice cufflinks,” I say, admiring his bat symbol accessories and the attention to detail this stranger put into such a ridiculous costume.
“Thanks,” he says back, making sure his cufflinks are on correctly while holding his girlfriend’s hand. “I messed up the costume, though. I didn’t have the time to finish the full armor, so I had to go with this instead.”
I can still hear him, despite the softness of his voice and the ruckus from fellow cosplayers behind me. They were done putting on their cosplays for the day and decided to get trashed on Kraken Rum and Crabbie’s Ginger Beer.
Just like that, Batman was off to the rave downstairs with his girlfriend, along with the six other rowdy drunks ready to grind on the dance floor. They waited for the long line that stretched well over a hundred people to disperse. It was now their time to dance with other sweaty strangers.
That’s just the Saturday night after day two of Ohayocon.
I roomed with six people I met at Colosalcon 2015. They were friendly enough to share their liquor with me. All of this encompassed what I’ve been doing for three years now: going to conventions, drinking and meeting strangers while cosplaying as my favorite “League of Legends” characters.
What is cosplay?
Cosplay, short for “costume play,” is how people can express their ability to create while portraying their favorite characters. Where the character comes from can be anything in pop culture or subcultures, and is commonly expressed with video game and anime characters.
The typical communities a cosplayer will interact with range from those involved with the same source material from which the cosplayer’s costume originates to anyone else who thinks someone’s outfit just looks cool. I’ve met plenty of people who have appreciated my costumes while not knowing where my outfit was from, and I’ve caught myself in envy over the amount of care and creativity some cosplayers can put into their appearance.
Cosplay can be something as simple as putting on a blazer and sunglasses and calling yourself Agent Scully from “The X-Files.” It can also be as complex as designing a suit of armor, complete with weapons and details that involve a painstaking amount of work and trial-and-error to perfect.
What ultimately motivates me to become a character is usually dictated by that character’s “coolness” factor: Does this character have some cool armor or weapons I can make myself? What have I never seen or not seen much in the cosplay community that I could replicate?
I usually pick costumes somewhere in the middle of simple and complex. I don’t have expensive materials or the skills of a professional costume designer, but I can cut EVA foam and form it to my body using heat. I can make it look like detailed armor with other materials. My garage is littered with things like rolls of screen door mesh, refrigerator insulation and sheets of craft foam one can find for a dollar a sheet at any craft store.
For cosplayer Macklin Legan, cosplay means putting hard work toward creating beautiful costumes, something she’s loved doing for many years.. “It was so cool to see what kind of materials you could push and use,” Legan says. “There are such a variety of ways to make something.”
Legan is one of those cosplay friends who I found out was secretly into cosplay when she posted about her costume ideas on Facebook several years ago. Since then, we’ve been exchanging tips and tricks with each other and starting a Facebook group to (hopefully) get local cosplayers to meet up and share their crafting secrets. She says she got into cosplaying from her artsy parents, who helped her make costumes for Halloween every year rather than buying them from the store.
“I know we’re adults, and we’re not supposed to be in pretend-land the entire time, but I’m walking around feeling like ‘man, I feel like this character,’ ” she says.
For her, cosplay can be simple or complex, and there shouldn’t be a threshold one should cross to have a “good” cosplay. Since she doesn’t have such a strong sewing background, she pushes herself to learn more about making clothing to complement her confidence in armor making. Her cosplay challenge this year is to make Princess Yue’s dress from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and she already has a plan, such as “hand-stamping texture” on her fabric to add, “those small unique things [to] help her costumes be unique.”
The “play” in cosplay is for performance
After months of preparation, performance is another step I deeply consider. Putting on a self-made helmet comprised of foam and screen door mesh, covered in several different kinds of paints and glues with limited range of sight, has multiple effects on me.
I have three constant convention floor fears: claustrophobia from the helmet and my breath gathering on my face in a light sprinkle of condensation; the strain of my muscles as I lug around heavy props made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and foams; and the constant fear I’ll run into someone by accident and fall over. I drop all of my insecurities, ready to greet new people.
I met my friend Ryan Ohlin, a junior integrated language arts major, through conversation at Colossalcon 2014. Even with surgical gauze on my face and makeup on his face, we could tell each other apart from the crowd of equally, crazily costumed people.
Ohlin likes to sew and usually cosplays as people with clothing, such as Goku from “Dragon Ball” or Beetlejuice. He says he loves to act out the characters; his favorite cosplay creation is Waluigi from “Super Mario Bros.”
“I transcended and became Waluigi, and people loved it,” Ohlin says with enthusiasm, as he describes how he sets himself apart from the other Waluigi cosplayers he sees.
This year, he will challenge himself with Papyrus, as he wants to set himself apart from the sea of other “Undertale” cosplayers. He plans to go as in-depth as possible with the character by acting like Papyrus. He plans to buy boxes of wire puzzles and Rubik’s Cubes for people to solve, all while having a plate of spaghetti under his hat to reward them.
“What inspires me to get out there and portray characters is the sense of community that comes from the experience. I meet people along the way who either show me how to better my craft or want to tag along for future cosplay experiences.”
The culture is deeper than you think
For some, Cosplay is a display of creative prowess or desire to get in character. These are aspects I put into my cosplays. What inspires me to get out there and portray characters is the sense of community that comes from the experience. I meet people along the way who either show me how to better my craft or want to tag along for future cosplay experiences.
However, there is an aspect to the community I believe every other culture experiences, and it involves hecklers. Hecklers are people who intentionally put people down because they didn’t do such a good job on their cosplays or have to point out little problems they see in cosplays in such a derogatory manner that goes beyond constructive criticism.
Cosplayers are teased by hecklers for portraying characters of different genders, races and body shapes.
Legan thinks there will always be different viewpoints on cosplays so acceptance of certain costumes can be difficult to achieve.
“Cosplay is for fun; it’s meant to portray a character you really like, and I don’t understand why people are so critical about it,” she says. “Even though there’s a set acceptance, there are still people going to be assholes who make a big deal out of someone not fitting the character physically.”
Ohlin thinks there are just a small amount of people who are set in their ways of being jerks. He and his sister have been given dirty looks and derisive comments by other cosplayers because they were dressed as the same character, but Ohlin and his sister didn’t necessarily have the same skill level as the other cosplayer.
“Most of any cosplayer you talk to will tell you they can’t stand [hecklers] like that,” he says. “I think people like that are unavoidable and will always pop up. The best thing you can do is, when you find out they’re a shitty person, don’t give them the attention they crave. Just move on.”
Legan and Ohlin agree the community itself isn’t elitist or derisive, but there are some bad members in the community. Despite any negative comments that might come their way, both cosplayers say the people who praise someone for their work should outweigh the comments a heckler can make.
It is still important to sell a cosplay well though, even if you’re in familiar territory, like a specific community. You have to be able to both construct a good costume—which means you’re at least recognizable to some people—and capture the personality of the character.
But when the convention weekend is over, and we’re all back home in our normal lives, nursing sore limbs and hangovers, the cosplay scene is something we can appreciate as being a great getaway from the responsibilities of life. Sure, I have to go to work the day after the convention weekend, double-check my finances and, eventually, mope about all the money I spent on alcohol and tacos, but the good parts of the convention will stick more than the negative parts.
I would rather think about the nearly 100 photos taken of various cosplays and the great people I met along the way. It’s something that makes the convention more nostalgic in a sense and something to definitely look forward to for next year, or perhaps more if you decide to go to other conventions in the meantime.