Friday, September 20, 2013

Heroes of Cosplay ~ Part 1: Heroes of Broken Dreams

Tuesday ended the first (and hopefully only) season of the SyFy Channel show, Heroes of Cosplay. After slogging through six weeks of disappointment after disappointment, I felt I had to share a little bit of the heartbreak, rage, and hope here where it could do some good, rather than fume on it over and over again until my brain starts to crisp.

But first, a little background for those who have no clue what I'm talking about. If you've never heard of cosplay at all, you might want to check out the Wiki article on it for a good rundown of the bigger points. Some of the information definitely varies by area, but it's a good starting place for those not in the know.

Cosplay, or costume-play is essentially people wearing costumes and accessories to represent a character from a work of fiction. Characters from manga, anime, comic books, video games, TV-shows, movies, literature — you name it, someone has dressed up as it. But don't think characters are all you'll see in a convention, even inanimate objects are sometimes anthropomorphized. Crossplays (girls dressing as males and visa versa) and genderbents (creating a female version of a male character, or visa versa) are also fairly common, expanding the waters and confusing passersby everywhere.

While larger cities may have random get-togethers or photoshoots throughout the year, you'll mainly find cosplayers at conventions. Many video game, comic book, and general fandom conventions these days include a costume contest of some sort. Even LeakyCon had one, albeit a fairly low-key one with no (or very small) prizes. But in the spirit of competition, some cosplay contests have become the battlefield where professionals, hobbyists and anyone in-between strut their stuff on stage for prizes and notoriety. Cosplay has become a bit of a business lately, with individuals now being commissioned for props, pictures, and even jobs on commercials and TV/movie sets for skilled craftsmen.

My own history with cosplay is thus: I've never done it. My sister (let's call her Xanadu) has been cosplaying for a few years now, even before she was out of high school. She's done a little bit of everything, from dressing as anime girls and guys, to fabricating human versions of fantasy creatures, to creating original whimsical and horrific characters. She shops the thrift stores, turns jury rigged patterns into outfits, paints, dyes, glues, molds, pins, and sometimes tapes what she needs into place, and uses her body and face as a canvas to bring a character to life. Lately she's been working as both cast member and makeup artist at a local haunted house, and hopes to put her passion into a career someday.

This spring, Xanadu and a friend (we'll call him Sherlock) attended the Portland Wizard World Comic Con just for the fun of it. Both had limited funds, so Sherlock only had a day pass for the 2nd day of the convention, mainly in hopes of entering the costume contest. As they were milling about the first day, done up in full makeup and costume, they were approached by the contest staff, and Xanadu was actually given a full pass for the convention JUST so they could enter the contest together. They were also noticed and complimented on their costumes by Bruce Campbell (Sam Axe on Burn Notice and Evil Dead star).

On day two, Xanadu (left) and Sherlock (below) entered the contest together. Not only were they judged on appearance, but also on how well they acted the part. Even though both were dressed as original characters (members of a monochrome demon circus), they still had to play their characters on stage. They went up, did their routine, and waited nervously. Even though it was mainly for fun, they still were there to show off their skills and hoped for a favorable judging. They ended up being called back on stage as a part of the honorable mentions, placing in the Top 25 for the competition.

And if that weren't thrilling enough, they were also approached by a documentary team. After a good 45 minute interview between the two of them, they came home ecstatic and excited for the fall premiere of this new show highlighting cosplayers.

Apparently, with the recent boom of cosplay rampaging across conventions and the internet, the SyFy Channel, home to the hit show Face Off, decided to demystify the phenomenon for the casual viewing audience by creating a short series that focused on Cosplay and Cosplayers. The official website describes it thus:
Cosplayers and cosplay contests are a fixture and highlight at the many comic book and genre fan conventions around the world. These conventions provide an international stage for fans to showcase often spectacular handcrafted costumes and portray their favorite characters from sci-fi movies, video games, anime and more. In Heroes of Cosplay, nine passionate fans put their imagination and skills to the test to make a name for themselves in the competitive world of cosplay.

The series follows cosplayers of all levels, from legend Yaya Han, to rising stars and newbies, as they make a splash at comic book conventions around the country. The series will dive deep into their lives, following their process as they create extravagant and visually arresting costumes each week. These nine constantly defy odds and race against the clock to transform themselves into amazing fictional characters that push the boundaries between fantasy and reality, all in hopes of impressing the convention judges to win cash prizes and take their cosplay stardom to new heights.
You can imagine the excitement in our house when the August 13th premiere was about to air. Not only was this show going to display and promote cosplay, but the first episode was also focused on the Portland Wizard World Comic Con! The very one Xanadu and Sherlock had attended and been interviewed at.

I'll admit, we were all super stoked watching that episode. But not for the storylines or the drama of the featured characters. No, we had much more fun trying to pick out Xanadu and Sherlock or other people we knew in the background. We finally caught better glimpses of the circus demons when they pulled the top looks up to the stage at the end, but none of the interviews from any of the competitors ever made it to air. No, instead you can see flashes of them, as well as 3 short interviews from the winners in this online-only video.

But besides the disappointment with unused footage, what did we think?

Heroes of Broken Dreams

Well...for a show that seems to paint itself like a documentary, it is 'documenting' the wrong things. Firstly, and my biggest peeve, is the repeated line about people "spending thousands of dollars creating their costume(s)." That maybe true for some people/costumes, especially some of the competitors, but they have no right labeling all cosplayers in that light. Some go out in costume simply to show off their talents, have fun with friends, and mingle with other like-minded people. The Xanadu and Sherlock's two monochrome circus demon outfits & makeup cost maybe $100 between the two of them. Most of their pieces were either self-sewn, self-dyed, or Goodwill finds. I'm not saying this is the case for most cosplayers, far from it, but to say that all cosplayers are well-off individuals who can spend as much time and money as they want on making and wearing costumes is a gross and disingenuous portrayal of most of the cosplay community.

Secondly, the "Heroes" they chose to highlight weren't all that interesting. Episode one focused on 6 people: Yaya Han, competition judge and self-appointed "Ambassador of Cosplay"; Jessica and Holly, a sometimes catty duo who go to numerous cons to compete and promote their costume fabrication business; Jesse, a steampunk enthusiast and armor creator who hopes to go into business creating elaborate suits for others; Becky, an all-or-nothing cosplayer who likes to completely become the characters she portrays; and Victoria (and her boyfriend/fabricator Jinyo) who likes to go all-out in her costumes, but tends to be a little last-minute about things. A cattier, more drama-filled cast you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Yaya, while impressive in her costumes and eye for detail, came off as extremely vain and snooty. Jesse, the battle armor creator, is looking to start his own business and wants a win at a competition to be his shooting-off point, thus is extremely disappointed at his loss and seems a sore loser. Jessica and Holly, in a bit of the same situation as Jesse, had so much 'last minute' drama and cattiness between them, they were annoying to watch, even when they did win.

And Victoria was even worse in the drama department. First she decides to start on a new, intricate cosplay a week before the contest (though there have been murmurings that she had already debuted this costume at an earlier con...). In the process of creating the costume, her machine breaks, so she must fly to Portland with a half-completed costume, and attempt to complete it with mailed components the day of the contest. Long story short, she gets drunk, oversleeps, and doesn't finish the costume. So we devoted at least 15 minutes of air time to someone who didn't even compete?!?!?!

And then there was the actual hero of the week, Becky. Becky wore a Merida (Disney/Pixar's Brave) costume and has a heartwarming clip where she talks to a very young Belle completely in-character. She also earns an honorable mention in the competition, "crediting her confidence onstage" and character presence. She was the most upbeat about the experience, with her aim being more about sharing her talents with other fans than actually winning a medal. Sure everybody who enters would love to win, but there's a satisfaction in simply showing off what you love.

Thirdly, the production was more disingenuous to the cosplay community by adding false atmosphere. Showing people staring (or CLAPPING) at the 'stars' when they enter a room/hallway/stairway is downright lying to the audience. If someone likes your outfit they run up and ask for pictures, strike up a conversation, or walk over and compliment you. Cosplay may have stars who are at another level (Yaya) who sell pictures and props, but 99.9% of cosplayers are just huge fans. Whether it's shared love of a character, a fandom, or even gushing about craftsmanship or makeup, it's a community experience, not a red carpet event.

Lastly, the show did a poor job of highlighting the non-cast contestants. It would have been great if they included some of the footage of the winners or honorable mentions, instead of merely flashing through them every 2 seconds. Even if it was only online content, it would be nice to see more of the cosplay world in general, not just these six-to-nine people (especially Yaya, who I'm sure didn't need any more attention). It's not like they don't have the footage, or the air-time. Cut out people who don't even compete (seriously), or don't show them bowling, drinking, checking into their hotel, etc. Focus on costume creation, competitions, convention floors, and maybe a little bit of backstage or backstories.

Ultimately, episode one left a bad taste in our mouths. Between having been there and shared the same experiences, and then being given what seemed like background information early on, we felt dejected, but still hopeful that things might turn around. The 'Heroes' were a bust, and much of the 'reality' felt way too scripted or doctored, but there was still more people and more costumes to see. Little did we know that the rage would continue...

Next time, it's off to Emerald City for some great, and some even more horrible moments from our 'Heroes'. But in the meantime, what about the rest of you? Have you seen it? What are your own convention experiences? What do you think of the show format, cast, message? Like? Dislike? Indifferent? Sound off below!

All cosplay images were used with permission from those pictured. You can see more of "Xanadu"'s work at or