NYCC: Cosplay tips and tales from the experts
This weekend, some of the coolest and most inventive creative minds around will descend on Manhattan for the annual fandom extravaganza known as New York Comic Con.
We don't mean the innumerable entertainment industry luminaries who will be on hand Thursday, Oct. 4, through Sunday, Oct. 7, in and around the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center of New York, either.
These innovative artists are members of the thriving cosplay community, folks who attend events in attire inspired by some of their favorite characters from popular culture.
“It’s the opportunity to step outside of yourself and become somebody completely different for a day," actress, sewist and blogger Marcy Harriell told the Asbury Park Press and USA Today Network's "Fan Theory" podcast.
Harriell, who appeared on screen in Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" (2007) and on Broadway in "Rent" and "In the Heights," is the host of "Suit Up!," a new web series teaching fans how to make do-it-yourself Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Superman costumes. The series premieres Thursday, Oct. 4, on the NBCU digital lifestyle subscription service Bluprint and is a partnership with DC Comics.
"When you put on a costume, when you even just sew up a dress or a jacket that is something you wouldn’t normally wear and you put it on, you get to forget about what’s happening at work," Harriell said. "You get to forget about what’s happening in my life that I’d like to maybe change (or) maybe do better at. You just get to step outside of this and be somebody different for a day and celebrate other people doing the same things.
"And at the same time, you know all these other people around you that are in costume, that are doing cosplay, have worked so hard on what they’ve created, and they totally get how hard you worked on what you created, and it’s such a supportive atmosphere. Everybody wants to celebrate what everybody else is doing and that’s sadly rare right now.”
These days, Bergen County twins Alexandra and Juli Abene design creative attire for a living, working as the resident costume designers at Manhattan immersive theater blockbuster "Sleep No More."
But for the sisters, who grew up in Hackensack and Woodcliff Lake, costuming and cosplay have been lifelong passions.
“As little kids, we would dress up for everything," said Alexandra Abene. "I would wear my Catwoman costume like everyday, not just like Halloween. We just wanted to dress up all the time.”
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They attended their first anime convention at the age of 11 or 12, and have been regular fixtures on the convention and cosplay scene since.
“I think it’s so much fun as a form of expression and a really cool way to fully embody something that you really care about, which is cool," said Juli Abene. "Like, (saying), ‘I really love Batman, I’m going to dress up as Catwoman because she was one of my favorite villains/anti-heroes growing up.'
"That’s what kind drew me to doing it. It was this lifelong love of these characters. You really just kind of bring your love for the fandom to the next level when you embody these characters that you’ve loved your whole life.”
The Abenes are now particularly drawn to creating costumes inspired by "The Adventure Zone," the McElroy family's hit fantasy podcast inspired by table-top role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons."
Designing attire based on audio-only storytelling allows for plenty of creative opportunities, they said.
“In my mind, what the character looks like, I can just make it and it’s correct," said Alexandra Abene. "There’s no wrong answer for an 'Adventure Zone' cosplay, and if you say you’re that character everyone’s like, ‘Cool, yeah, you look great.’
"The costuming community for 'The Adventure Zone' is the best I’ve ever been in. I’ve never been treated more wonderfully than from that group of people. They’re all so sweet and everybody’s so enthusiastic to see everybody’s creative interpretations of what they do with the characters.”
"I think it’s really special to not have a reference to go off of because you can really be super-creative," added Juli Abene, "which is what as a designer is important to me because cosplay is really fun but it does get a little boring re-creating something. … I think ‘The Adventure Zone,’ and why the community is so caring and loving, is because it’s not a competition. It’s like we all love the same thing so we should all celebrate it.”
Eric "The Smoke" Moran of Philadelphia also took a lifelong path to his cosplay success, starting in the early '70s when his older brother would bring home classic comic books. His mother, a seamstress, created a tuxedo for his high school senior prom inspired by Howard Chaykin's "Blackhawk" comics.
“I was always fascinated with superheroes, and I wanted to be the embodiment of what superheroes were all about to me: doing something noble, helping others, being respectful," said Moran. "Basically, I carried (that) on with me as I got older.”
Moran served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and then worked as a professional wrestler for companies including Extreme Championship Wrestling. He now appears at conventions as a cosplay advocate and will be part of a panel discussion on diversity in cosplay at 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 5 at NYCC.
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“Introducing cosplay to the forefront, where you’re showing the world different styles of cosplay from different weights, different genders, different sizes, different colors, (people with) disabilities, everything, it’s all under the sun and it’s for everyone," Moran said. "Cosplay’s for everyone. And that’s the thing that for myself, being a part of the cosplay diversity panel is a great honor because I have always been very outspoken as far as speaking on behalf of cosplay and speaking on behalf of a lot of people.
"And as a person of color, basically I’ve broken a lot of ground in basically showing a lot of people, not just of color but of all different backgrounds (can cosplay), and (as) someone who is a big guy on top of that and showing all the different sides. And being able to do that on the stage, and showing the world that you can do anything, I’ve shown it, I can dress up as Superman one minute or Captain America and still be recognized and people (are) wanting to take pictures with me and everything else.”
Kristin Lewis, a Manalapan native, first learned about cosplay in 2002 after a friend attended the Otakon convention celebrating Asian pop culture in Baltimore the year before.
“She had actual Polaroids and photos of people who had dressed up, and we were all in high school, we were all really into anime and 'Sailor Moon' and seeing that people actually did this when it wasn’t Halloween was really interesting to me," Lewis said. "And I just really didn’t know how people (did this)."
Over the next year, Lewis met more people who went to conventions and create costumes, then decided to try her hand at it herself. Most of her early creations, she said, were "just things that I took out my closet and hand-sewed and didn’t really know what I was doing. I kind of taught myself as I went along.”
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First, she pieced together a costume of Julia from the classic anime series "Cowboy Bebop," then attended 2003's Otakon as Hitomi from the series "The Vision of Escaflowne."
“You think you’re walking in a street with a weird costume and somebody’s going to think you’re strange, but then you actually go into the convention itself and you’re welcomed with open arms," Lewis said. "And everyone wants to talk about your costume and they want to talk about the thing that you’re wearing and (are asking), ‘When did you watch that show? When did you play that video game? Oh my God, that’s my favorite character.'
"It’s kind of a sense of community that you get when you walk into that building, and that was really what did it for me.”
Over the 15 years Lewis has been in the cosplay community, the scene has drastically evolved.
"People don’t find it strange anymore," she said. "At least it doesn’t feel as strange. It doesn’t feel as foreign. It feels like everyone's more curious about it and it’s not this weird thing.”
For those thinking of entering the world of cosplay, our experts have plenty of advice. Both Lewis and the Abene twins recommend Chicago-based Arda Wigs.
Locally in New Jersey, Lewis said Joann Fabric and Crafts is a reliable resource, with locations in Shrewsbury, Toms River and Cherry Hill, while in Manhattan she advised visiting the garment district, particularly Spandex House on West 38th Street and Spandex World on West 35th Street. The Abenes suggested Manhattan Wardrobe Supply on West 29th Street.
Our expert sources also stressed practicality, especially for beginners.
If you're attending New York Comic Con and planning to bring a costume, make sure you have a nearby hotel room you can walk to or quickly grab a taxi from, and don't plan on changing into your costume at the Javits Center.
"Try to change somewhere relatively nearby and bring comfortable shoes during your walk," Lewis said. "And then when you’re there have like a little duffel bag or a little go bag that you can put your other shoes back in and your cosplay shoes back on and go with a friend so your friend can help you out.
"It is a very tricky Con to cosplay at comfortably. … But it’s something that with a little bit of planning you’ll have a good time and it’ll be a lot easier to get there and have a good time comfortably in your costume.”
“Simple is always good if it’s your first costume," said Alexandra Abene. "Honestly, if you’re not great at sewing just modify things you can buy if it’s that simple. I’ve cut up sweatshirts before to use parts of them, put a zipper in the front of it, I put a sailor collar on top of that. I always say unless you’re competing do whatever you want, whatever you need to do to make it look like the thing you want it to look like. If you’re buying something that already exists and modifying it go crazy.
“And also, half of it’s just having the right wig and make-up. Like, that will get your character across more than almost anything. You can just be wearing a hoodie almost and if you have a Cloud (from 'Final Fantasy VII') wig on you look like Cloud, you know?”
“Do it because you have a true love for that fandom, of cosplay," said Moran. "In other words, if you’re a fan of ‘Doctor Who,’ if you’re a fan of ‘American Horror Story,’ if you’re a fan of ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ anime, of comic books at all, especially with Comic Cons, go to have fun. Put on that costume, become that character, have fun. That’s the most important thing with cosplay.
"People sometimes get caught up in the cliques and they worry about, ‘Oh my God, is my costume accurate? It’s store-bought, are people going to like it?’ People are going to like you because of what you bring to that costume. It doesn’t matter if you have a high-end costume (or) store-bought costume as long as the most important thing is that you’re having fun and everyone around you is having fun because they embrace you because of the fact that you’re on the floor and you’re giving that energy back to the fans.”