In 1910, a man named Otto James was arrested for parading down a busy street in Tacoma, Washington, wearing fancy dress. The charge of “public masquerading” — so quaint to modern ears — was itself nothing new, but the choice of costume was notable: James had gone for a stroll dressed as the main character from A.D. Condo’s newspaper comic strip, “Mr. Skygack, from Mars.”
Indeed, there had already been multiple sightings of amateur Skygacks over the previous two years. For authors Brian Ashcraft and Luke Plunkett, this was a pivotal moment in the history of costuming. “Unlike the heroes of books or legend,” they write, “the advent of modern media — comic books, print newspapers, film, TV and, later, video games — let fans actually see the characters they idolized, and in doing so, copy their appearance.”
Nowadays, there is a name for this kind of thing: “cosplay,” a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play.” Writer Nobuyuki Takahashi coined the term in an article published in the June 1983 issue of “My Anime,” which noted that increasing numbers of fans were arriving at Tokyo’s Comiket manga and anime summit dressed as their favorite characters. (In a juicy aside, Cospa store founder Yoshiyuki Matsunaga notes in a subsequent interview that the term “costume play” was originally used within the Japanese sex industry.)
Yet even though Japan gave a name to the trend, it wasn’t solely responsible for creating it. As Ashcraft and Plunkett make clear in the opening sections of “Cosplay World,” there was already a healthy appetite for dressing-up amongst the sci-fi fan community in the U.S.
Hardcore fans Myrtle R. Douglas and Forrest J. Ackerman attended the inaugural World Science Fiction Convention in New York in costume way back in 1939, and the practice later became widespread. Photographer Ron Miller recalls a free-spirited costuming culture during the 1970s, when nudity and risque outfits were the norm (one man turned up at a masquerade party dressed as excrement, only for his peanut-butter coating to melt and turn rancid).
Today’s cosplay scene is slick and lucrative in comparison with the biggest names paid to attend international conventions and afforded the same celebrity status as the creators whose work they replicate. Some, like Chinese-born American Yaya Han, have managed to turn their hobby into a full-time occupation; others, notably Filipina Alodia Gosiengfiao, are now bona fide media stars in their native countries.
“Cosplay World” introduces many of these key players, across a series of short interviews and acres of glossy photos documenting some of their choicest outfits.
Not surprisingly, there’s some impressive stuff on display here, even if a few of the participants would seem to have an unfair advantage. Julian Checkley’s professional-quality recreations of “Star Wars” and “Batman” villains are the product of a background in making monster suits and special effects for TV; Leon Chiro’s enviable abs and biceps — used effectively in many of his outfits — are a holdover from his days as a Calvin Klein Underwear model; and if Rana McAnear looks an awful lot like the characters from the “Mass Effect” video-game series that she portrays, it’s because she was the original model for them.
But what motivates a grown adult to spend weeks transforming herself into a perfect recreation of a “Final Fantasy” character, or, as Peter Kokis does, to don a hulking “Transformers” costume that weighs in at 60 kg? Is it, as the authors blandly suggest, really just “an expression of creativity and love” for the characters they portray, or is there more to it?
At times, the interviewees hint at something deeper. Laura Sanchez (aka Nebulaluben) speaks of how cosplay helped rescue her from depression. Then there’s M. Doc Geressy, a burly North Carolina native who decided to build his own “Ghostbusters” car after getting laid off and divorced in the space of a single week.
“People dress like their favorite characters for a variety of different reasons,” he says, “but I think they all point back to a single reason: people want to be better.” In addition to appearing at birthday parties and charity events, Geressy and his Carolina Ghostbusters squad now also work as paranormal investigators. What would a writer with a finer eye for human eccentricity — Jon Ronson, perhaps — have made of this guy? More than Ashcraft and Plunkett do, that’s for sure.
The book’s format makes it possible to include a wide range of voices in the mix, not just cosplayers, but also the photographers and prop makers who help them realize their vision, but leaves little room to say much about any of them. When a genuinely interesting figure does pop up — someone like plus-size cosplayer Thea Teufel-Hall or Chaka Cumberbatch, an Afro-American woman who pointedly portrays characters who were originally white — it’s hard not to wish they’d been afforded more space.
By virtue of its breadth, breeziness and abundant eye candy, “Cosplay World” would make a handsome Christmas gift for established fans, or anyone looking to bolster their library of toilet reading. As a survey of a vibrant and complex subculture, though, it’s all surface.