(Cos)Playing the Hero

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As I walked onto the New Jersey PATH train headed for 33rd Street, I couldn’t escape the feeling that everyone was watching me. The German tourists had quickly made way too much room for me on the train car and a small child stood agape looking in my direction. At first I was a bit confused by these reactions since I ride this train almost every day and people usually are glued to their phones or their morning papers. It wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window and saw my mask that I realized these people saw me as a spectacle rather than a regular commuter. But hey, I was in cosplay for New York Comic Con and Batgirl had to get to the Javits Convention Center somehow.

I don’t believe people just one day wake up and decide to take part in cosplay, spending their money to create the most authentic looking super suit they can; it’s something you have to be more or less raised with. I grew up in a family that cared more about if I knew all of the Spider-Man villains than if I did my math homework. To this day my comic knowledge has helped me more than geometry, so I think my parents might have been onto something. Comic conventions were always a must for me. I thought they were called “cons” because my step dad used to somewhat scam people out of their overpriced Silver Age Marvel comics. He’d give me 60 bucks for a vintage Thor issue priced at $75 and have me spin a sob story about how much I loved Valhalla but couldn’t afford it. Who would deny a 10-year-old girl her first Silver Age collector’s item? I’d walk away with a score for my step dad and the hope of the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream he had promised me on the horizon. Eventually, though, this would instill the true love of comics that I have today, along with the adoration for the characters within their paneled pages.

I’ve now been into cosplay for several years, finally realizing that October 31 didn’t have to come only once a year. Though, there is a difference between Halloween and cosplay. Cosplay is not just a costume. It’s a gateway to a performance. For the majority of Halloween you are yourself dressed as something else. You don’t walk around and meow just because you are in a cat suit. That would be weird. In cosplay however, once you don the outfit, you are that character. You take on a comic’s personalities and traits, and can even decide which story line and characteristics to follow based on your own personal nerd preferences. I like to be villains strictly from the DC Universe. It’s not that I have anything against Marvel or Dark Horse or Zenescope, I just prefer the overall DC aesthetic of their multi-layered villains like The Joker, Harley Quinn and Deathstroke. This year, however, I figured I’d switch it up for a bit and be a hero for the first time, thus my day as Batgirl began.

 Cosplays of The Ghostbusters hunting Beetlejuice at New York Comic Con 2014.

Cosplays of The Ghostbusters hunting Beetlejuice at New York Comic Con 2014.

To be honest, I was only Batgirl because I had been Poison Ivy for Baltimore Comic Con and still had red hair. If you’re going to cosplay, you better go all out—hair dye and all. I had picked up a costume from a local NYC Halloween store; though I typically prefer to make my own cosplay ensemble, I was so impressed with the look of this outfit that I decided it was worthy of the the caped crusader’s best known female side kick. Let me clarify, that’s Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, not Batwoman and not Oracle.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Comic Con is actually getting there. Changing into a cosplay is exceptionally difficult to do at a convention and requires you to carry bags around, so I usually end up on public transit in full ass-kicking gear. As amusing as it is to see people’s semi-concerned reactions, it is also a bit weird realizing that not everyone is in on the fun. Saying that you’re riding the train to “keep justice in order” will probably make you look more like a loon than just saying “it’s Comic Con” to the outsiders.

Once you finally get to the convention center, however, all of that changes. Suddenly, everyone knows your name. For a couple hours you get to really be “Batgirl” or “Carnage” or even “Groot” if you are skilled enough to make a believable space Ent costume. (Lucky for me, I was able to meet three Groots.) Entering Comic Con is like entering the minds of all of your favorite comic book writers while collaborating on the greatest crossover series of all time. You want the Ghostbusters to go after Beetlejuice? Walk towards Artist Alley and you can see Slimer directing the vacuum-carrying gang towards Tim Burton’s now life-like ghoul. Wonder how a female Nightwing would look fighting a zombie Mario? No problem, just check out aisle 700 on the show floor. It’s all there just waiting to be enacted upon and photographed.

 Cosplay of Groot at New York Comic Con 2014.

Cosplay of Groot at New York Comic Con 2014.

There’s something significant about being someone you’re not for a day. It’s like having 15 minutes of fame, except the paparazzi is a group of people you actually relate to and you can choose whatever figure you want to be. The other thing about cosplay is that sometimes you really do forget that you’re someone else for the day. I know that’s probably not the best thing to admit, but it’s true. I’m always so used to the day in and day out sentiment of being invisible in the public eye that when suddenly every five minutes someone else is asking to take my picture and have me pose in a selfie with them, it’s almost alarming. Of course, after a few momentary surprises, I really began to go with the flow and brought my character to life with picture after picture. After asking to take a photo of Moon Knight and his Elektra companion, I faced a brief moment of shock when Moon Knight returned to see if he could take a picture of me with Elektra. Startled, I agreed and eventually would get more and more into my significant Batgirl poses.

Playing the "good guy" is new for me. I’m a big fan of villains. They’re fun and much more whimsical than most heroes. My last two cosplays were Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, both characters that were inspired by the pin-up girl versions I have tattooed on my legs. With Harley, I got to run around and be maliciously playful, whereas with Ivy, I was able to do really fun and enchantingly wicked poses against my foes, like the many Robins I encountered. At New York Comic Con, however, I had to take into account the fact that Batgirl stands for a different mindset. As more photos were taken of me, I began to focus more and more on the idea of a hero, which consisted of a lot of “confident-I-can-kick-your-ass” fighter faces with ready to spring into action hand gestures.

Now in my full hero persona, I quickly determined I had to find a pretty legitimate Batman to get a DC Team Up shot with. The level of believability in a costume is important, so I wanted to find someone who’s costume was at my Batgirl’s level, or better, in order to make the photo look as true to the comics as possible. I didn’t want to get a picture with any old Batman; it had to be THE Batman. After a couple of hours of searching, I found one pretty good one, but like the Dark Knight himself, he disappeared into the crowd ahead of me without a trace. It was time to track him down. About an hour later I came across the Bat adjusting his utility belt in the main hall. I already knew we had to do a total fighting stance pose to make it look legit. No one wants a pic of Batso just hanging around. Bruce Wayne would be appalled. Yet, after a quick tap on the shoulder I was faced the most irritated grimace I have ever seen telling me to go away. I had just been snubbed by the Bat; it was a true defeat to any die-hard cosplayer. Perhaps my costume wasn't good enough for him; maybe he had grown tired of the constant demand for fan photos. I'm not sure, all I know is I had been denied my dynamic duo moment and temporarily crushed.

Eventually, though, I would find a 1960s style Adam West Batman who was more than ready to do team up poses with me. We had a solid successful five-minute photo op for the passersby and my costume confidence was back in business.

 Van Duser as Batgirl alongside an Elektra cosplay at New York Comic Con 2014.

Van Duser as Batgirl alongside an Elektra cosplay at New York Comic Con 2014.

One of the hardest things that can happen when cosplaying is to actually find the best cosplay. You wouldn’t believe how many people I mistook for Logan (that’s Wolverine). Just because you are drinking a beer in a leather jacket doesn’t mean you are suddenly going to be popping adamantium spikes out of your knuckles. It’s truly difficult to find the best version of a cosplay since there could be so many versions. Perhaps the best part of New York Comic Con was what I like to call “The Gathering of the Deadpools.” The second day of the convention I found myself in a sea of, you guessed it, Deadpools. But these weren’t your ordinary Deadpools, these were epic variant Deadpools. Doctor Who Deadpool? Check. Indiana Jones Deadpool? Check. Wedding “Wed-Pool” Deadpool? You got it, complete with a bride-and-groom-pool duo. Hell, there was even D. Pooly, aka hip-hop Deadpool, walking around with a glorified red and black boom box. And every single version was acceptable. Why? Well, because these are all things the character would most likely be caught doing in the comics. You can’t be a Marvel prankster without pulling a bunch of pranks of your own.

After a while of running around looking for cool costumes, among the plethora of repeats I started to compare the cosplayers and figure out my favorites. D. Pooly was clearly the most creative Deadpool and Bruce “Snubbs-A-Lot” Wayne was a great costume with a sour personality. Figuring out who embodied their role best as well as put the most amount of time and care into the outfit became extremely noticeable as the day went on. Eventually I even began to question whether or not I had lived up to the standards of my own character.

Though I thought that my Batgirl was pretty bitchin’, it was one of the few costumes I purchased instead of custom made, which meant two things: one there was a risk of repeat costumes, and two there was definitely going to be someone who put more effort into their suit than I did. Hands down, the winner went to the girl who dressed up as ‘90s Animated Series Batgirl. She literally looked like the spitting image of the cartoon come to life, and definitely didn’t buy her outfit in a store. This kind of made me wish that I had worn my Poison Ivy costume. It’s my baby and took longer than any other costume I’ve had to make because of all the little leaves I had to glue on, so many little leaves. But overall, I loved my experience as Batgirl and don’t think I could have chosen a better hero to emulate for my one time fighting the forces of evil.

 Two cosplayers from "The Gathering of the Deadpools" at New York Comic Con 2014.

Two cosplayers from "The Gathering of the Deadpools" at New York Comic Con 2014.

Walking around in cosplay, though, you get a chance to interact with characters you normally wouldn’t get to talk to in real life. You may chat with one Captain America who donned a costume from Hot Topic while talking to another who spent three months making a true-to-life vibranium shield. Nonetheless, it sparks really cool fake conversations about whether Nick Fury and Commissioner Gordon have teamed up cross-universally and creates an amazing gateway to play along as your own comic book writer. In the end, when you finally take off the cape and mask, you don’t become the secret identities of your idols; you go back to being you and planning out what the next costume and adventure is going to be. I think I might go back to my villainous side next time and try my luck as a cool female Riddler. What an enigma that could be.