I grew up not dressing up in costume much. Perhaps for a few Halloweens sporadically, and more so as an adult, but otherwise, I did not “play dress up” or anything of sorts. This is how it was for the first three decades of my life, being indifferent and ignorant to the notion of donning a disguise, a costume, a mask. I merely wanted to just be me and not present a façade. Or so I though. It was not until last year when by chance, I began questioning whether a costume is really a façade, or is it more indicative of who we truly are within.
Over a year ago in December 2015, I was at the Hyatt Regency near O’Hare covering a Super Youth Circuit and Cadet fencing tournament. That same weekend in the same hotel, the comic convention Con Alt Delete was taking place. Whenever I would escape the fencing venue for a much needed coffee run through the hotel lobby, I would find myself transported to a completely different scene of cosplayers; attendees were wearing . . . everything and anything. I found it just utterly fascinating, and the first thing that came to mind was the first time long ago when I first set foot in a foreign airport. What particularly thrilled my mind at the time was the juxtaposition of the unusual against the backdrop of the usual. Cosplayers were walking and milling about, interacting with non-costumed individuals. I often say that the ordinary bores me. This was anything but ordinary.
I did not have much time to linger about with my camera and explore deeper given that my commission bound me to cover the fencing action instead. So I would shoot whenever passing through for coffee or food. As the weekend progressed, however, I grew quite despondent from the comments I would overhear from the fencers about the cosplayers. Kids—particularly teenagers—can be quite mean and judgmental. I heard remarks of ridicule, sneer, jeering, and disgust. All the meanwhile, I was at a lost as to what have these cosplayers could have done to draw such derision and repulsion. Is participating in an expression of one’s own interest such as dressing up as a favourite fictional character that directly harmful to another? I found it quite ironic and hypocritical that a bunch of kids who actively meet up at hotels and convention halls often on the weekends to wear white uniforms and masks to fight each other with swords were mocking cosplayers—both are one and the same on a fundamental level.
On a more positive note, though, I also began to develop a curiosity for this culture of cosplayers. Their customs, practices, interactions, interests, simply captured my interest. And so, a few months later in March 2016, I found out through a friend of an event in the city called C2E2: Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. Thinking back to Con Alt Delete, I decided last minute to continue exploring this culture. Not certain if it was worth purchasing a ticket, I decided instead to just linger around the lobby and do more of a surveying observation. Of course, the best way really to do any sort of cultural study is to blend in and immerse oneself in said culture. It was rather appropriate then that I recycled my Halloween costume from the previous year: a 1940s photojournalist for Life magazine.
Even being in just the lobby of convention hall at McCormick Place, I found myself in a sea of the extraordinary, the unique, the bizarre--and I loved it. A literal comparison would be the cantina scene from Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, but on a much larger scale. The level of detailing in some of the costumers was utterly unbelievable. It was not difficult to see the passion these individuals have for expressing themselves. The time and effort that would go into such a creation just showed how much the costume’s wearer wanted to be that character, even if just for a day or so. And that’s when it hit me: is a costume really a disguise masking the individual behind, or rather, is it a representation of what the individual really is internally? After all, it is the wearer who chooses the costume, and in many of these cases, creates that costume. That costume is in essence an expression of the wearer’s interest, personality, passion, soul. Is the real façade actually how we present ourselves in everyday life, at work, at a bar, on blind dates, at gatherings with acquaintances?
Since then, I have continued to study this culture whenever I can, from covering a Star Wars lightsaber battle in Grant Park to allocating a little more time to observe the attendees at Con Alt Delete this past December while covering another fencing tournament. My interest in all of this has transcended to a different level, from merely wanting to explore the bizarre and extraordinary to now studying human nature through this facet, and ultimately to study myself. After all, is the study of different cultures really just the study of ourselves?
As of this writing, C2E2 2017 will be taking place this weekend. I have months ago purchased a ticket badge for this Saturday, 22 April. My mission objectives are simple: immerse myself into the culture of fandom and cosplayers, photo-document these cosplayers, interact with and learn from them, learn something about myself, and overall, have a bloody damn good and fun time. It is therefore rather appropriate that as I make this journey into the bizarre and of myself that I will be “disguised” as the strung out and manic hippie photojournalist from Apocalypse Now, portrayed by the great Dennis Hopper.
Of course, there is always the risk that just like the making of Apocalypse Now that my journey becomes too much like the storyline of that film and its source material, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, of starting out with an arrogant sense of omnipotence and optimism and slowly go insane the deeper I venture into the figurative jungle searching for (or becoming) a rogue poet warlord.
. . . the horror . . . the horror . . . .