The bustling aisles of convention centres have become stages for up-and-coming cosplay stars around the world. Find the right spot at the right time with the right amount of traffic, a cosplayer can pose for thousands of photos for professional and amateur photographers who crowd around the costumed models, flashing their cameras for what seems to be hours at a time. But for every minute they spend showcasing their work to thousands, comes hundreds of hours of work behind it.
Cosplaying, the hobby of constructing costumes and modelling as pop-culture and comic book characters, has been making waves in the world of comic conventions for the past few years - even changing the nature of conventions to include cosplaying as a traditional and integral part of the convention experience. On top of that, cosplaying has been bringing attention to international franchises, from blockbuster mega series like Star Wars, to smaller, obscure titles from countries like Japan and France.
Calgary is home to the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo (CCEE), one of the largest comic book conventions in the country among FanExpo in Toronto and Vancouver. CCEE, which is usually held in April of every year, attracts thousands of cosplayers from around the world. But as with any craft, it takes time and dedication to perfect the art form and more than a little talent.
What started as an underground hobby typically reserved for “nerds” has hit the mainstream with no intention of slowing down. Cosplay celebrities like Jessica Nigri have cultivated huge audiences around the world, some of them being part of cosplay television shows like Heroes of Cosplay and Cosplay Melee, both featured on the SyFy Network.
Now, thousands of cosplayers from across the planet are attempting to become cosplay stars.
But what does it take for cosplayers to make the transition from hobby to career? And how much work is there involved to maintain that career? And what effect has it had on the comic book industry?
Hannah Cawsey and Michelle Everett are cosplayers from Calgary who travel to conventions across North America. For them, cosplaying is a passion that they dedicate most of their free time and most of their expendable cash to.
“With travelling? [I spend] $20,000 [a year on cosplaying],” said Everett, who recently in October made a trip with Cawsey to Los Angeles for the L.A. Comic Con, one of the many comic conventions that take place in Los Angeles. The work involved in creating the costumes is demanding, and taking up extra jobs to support it is not uncommon.
Cawsey currently works two jobs, one in real estate and another at a radio station in Calgary, stating “it’s the only way [she] can afford it.” Expenses for cosplayers are various, but most revolve around creating and maintaining costumes and props, which can take up to a few months to design and execute. Outside of that, cosplayers are often putting in their own money to hire photographers, to create prints of the photos, and to travel to other cons, which they feel is absolutely necessary for their work.
“There is no way you can do the networking and the stuff you need to do in order to get your name out without travelling,” said Everett.
“Fans want to meet you, and you can’t do that from home,” said Cawsey.
Generating an interest from the public is what both cosplayers depend on when it comes to making money off their passion, and social media plays an integral role in developing that fan base.
“Instagram right now is my bigger following. I’m working right now trying to build my following but in the last couple months I haven’t had time to, but I know people that are pretty much Instagram famous. They have their entire following on Instagram, and they get paid for stuff like that,” said Cawsey.
Currently she sits at over 4,000 followers on her Instagram account under the avatar @comic_cawsey, and she regularly fills out orders for prints or costume requests.
To put the economic factor into the frame of cosplaying, it should be understood that to make a profit, a cosplayer has to work with their fans directly using any means that they can. That’s where websites like Storeenvy and Patreon start playing a part.
Storeenvy operates like any other online market; you place an order and the company will ship the order to you. However, Patreon works more closely as a subscription service, where subscribers, also known as ‘Patrons’ select different tiers of subscriptions of a certain creator, cosplay or otherwise, and based on the tier, they get regular content. The higher the subscription cost, the more exclusive content you get.
Currently, Cawsey operates a Storeenvy account while Everett, under the name BombChelle Cosplay, operates a Patreon.
“I set up a Patreon,” said Cawsey, “but with working two jobs, I don’t have time to do monthly stuff. So right now, I just do requests. So, if someone wants to pay me for a fan sign, they directly email me or message me and I’ll be able to do that for them.”
Everett is far more active when it comes to Patreon, earning just over $500 a month from her 30+ patrons. “It doesn’t make enough right now to be a full-time job yet and pay the bills, but it definitely helps,” said Everett.
Outside of actual content given to the fans, people can also pay money to spend time with cosplayers, like Everett, online playing video games through streaming services like Twitch.
Twitch, and other streaming services like Mixr and YouTube Gaming allows members to stream themselves playing games and the viewers can tip the player any amount of money they want.
Tim Nguyen, a photographer and founder of Calgary photograph studio Citrus Photography, has taken a unique interest in cosplay and cosplayers.
“This is something that I wanted to document,” said Nguyen. For the past few years, Nguyen has worked on a photography based art project called “Lumination”, which depict models in high contrast light and dark backgrounds, and he has recently splintered that project off to include cosplayers and their work.
“My background comes from theatre and performance art shooting,” he said, “so that experience has come in handy when shooting cosplayers and their costumes.”
“Shooting cosplay isn’t much different than shooting other models, but you have to take into consideration the character that they are portraying. You want to look up how these characters pose and try to recreate that in the photos.”
Nguyen had also spent some time helping some cosplay models set up their print shops online.
However, the amount of money and time that is needed to put into this endeavour, especially for those who are looking for a serious career in cosplaying, is extraneous. To combat that, a lot of cosplayers work and collaborate together, creating a community around their passion
In a study by Laura Kane, titled Why cosplay? Motivations behind participation and use of social media among cosplayers who maintain Facebook Artist Pages, she found that cosplayers shared love of geek culture, coupled with social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, has given them an avenue to connect like never before.
“Facebook Groups are another networking tool that allows single or multiple users to create a discussion board format page dedicated to a specific topic or activity. These groups share many of the same features as private pages such as photo uploads and text posts, but they allow anyone that is part of the group to post, not just the owner of the page,” the doctoral dissertation states.
Brandon Hillock, a cosplayer and actor based in Los Angeles, California, merged his love of portraying characters and cosplay by working as a character at Disneyland and Universal Studios, as well as performing in costume for events, functions, and parties through his company Character Masters.
“Yes, as soon as you step out there, you can’t break [character] for any reason. But usually for me I find it hard to even break out of character. I was Beetlejuice the other day and I don’t think I was out of character for a second,” said Hillock in a phone interview.
Taken in this light, cosplay can be associated to a form of performance art. Cosplayers, like Hillock, partake in this informal form of performance, as Nicolle Lamerichs said in her article Stranger than fiction: Fan identity in cosplay.
“In cosplay, the performance may be actualized in stage acts and fashion shows, or it may be a more casual practice in which a fan simply wears the costume and socializes in it,” said Lamerichs in her article. Some cosplayers might want to inhabit these characters even further than just wearing the costumes. As Lamerichs states, some of them will want to act out the role in online live streams, blogs, and writing fan-fiction.
Cosplay has had an effect on the comic industry as a whole as well, specifically in developing a female audience.
“Going to the conventions years ago… you would see that the audience was about 90 to 95 per cent male,” said University of Calgary professor Bart Beaty in a phone interview, “but cosplay has given an avenue for a female audience to grow.”
Because of pioneer female characters like Princess Leia and Sailor Moon, cosplaying has offered a way for the female audience to identify further their beloved characters than just watching or reading about them. Beaty has spent years researching comic books and graphic novels as part of his own academic research.
“Cartoonists don’t usually take visual cues from cosplayers when it comes to their work, they usually take their cues from current fashion and styles. But it has helped creators think about creating new characters,” said Beaty, “If you look at characters like The Hulk, and female cosplayers are doing their version of The Hulk, it encourages creators to do a female version of The Hulk or Iron Man.”
Currently, it is not uncommon to see female superheroes take over mainstream comics and characters. Some of these heroes include female versions of Wolverine, Thor, and Hawkeye. Some of these versions have become more popular and successful than their male counterpart (take the current version of Captain Marvel, for example).
However, it should be noted that cosplayers often do not cosplay as North American pop culture figures. In a study called Cosplay culture: the development of interactive and living art through play conducted by Ashley Lotecki at Ryerson University, it was found that 75 per cent of cosplayers usually dress up as Japanese anime or manga characters, despite it being a largely North American phenomenon. By comparison, comic book and graphic novel characters are cosplayed only about 47 per cent of the time.
Because cosplay is becoming such an integral part of the convention experience, convention vendors, like The Magnet Shoppe owner and operator Steve Haines based out of Calgary, has found that it helps out their business.
“Some people are coming to conventions now just to see the cosplay,” said Haines in a phone interview, “and we make our money on the amount of traffic at the convention.”
Haines has also found that other vendors utilize cosplay elements in their booths, like having their employees dress up in costumes, to help generate even more business.
“Professional cosplayers bring in a crowd, who then spend money, which then brings back vendors year after year,” said Haines, “It’s all one big circle.”
Cosplay has developed quite a bit of public interest in the past few years. Because of its growth in popularity, it has had an interesting amount of influence on comic conventions and the comic industry.
Cosplay is starting to make its mark in the entertainment world, and it’s helping to build a community of artists and creators who are all fans of geek culture.
- By Will Cowan