Comics Alliance Reviews SyFy’s ‘Heroes of Cosplay’ [Video]
Heroes of Cosplay is a docu-series that follows nine cosplayers (Yaya Han, Riki LeCotey, Monika Lee, Victoria Schmidt, Chloe Dykstra, Jessica Merizan, Holly Conrad, Becky Young, and Jesse Lagers) as they work on intricate, ambitious costumes and travel to compete in costume contests at conventions all around the United States. The show is the cosplay community's most visible representation in the national media so far. Unfortunately, Heroes of Cosplay has garnered a fair amount of criticism from within and outside the fandom, from speculations of "fixed" costume contests to possible copyright infringement of cosplay photography.
As the curator of ComicsAlliance's weekly Best Cosplay Ever feature and a cosplayer myself, I've been approached for my thoughts on the show and its depiction of my community. With three of Heroes of Cosplay's six-episode run now out there for all to see (you can watch them on SyFy's YouTube channel if you missed them), CA Editor and reality TV obsessive Andy Khouri joined me for a discussion about the controversial show, the current state of cosplay fandom, and the nature of geek-centric reality television.
Andy Khouri: From the non-cosplayer's perspective, I think there was a point in history where cosplay was this derisive, undignified thing that people associated with comic book and sci-fi/fantasy conventions. Those cheap cardboard costumes, the infamous "Tron guy" in spandex. And then cosplay seemed to shift into the domain of seriously creative people who looked like models and created professional quality costumes. The biographical content of Heroes of Cosplay puts Yaya Han at the forefront of this shift. What's her deal?
Betty Felon: Yaya Han is one of the biggest names in the cosplay world. She's been cosplaying for over a decade and was one of the first cosplayers to develop a major web presence with her cosplay work. In fact, Yaya Han was one of the first people I looked up to when I started getting involved in the cosplay/convention scene when I was a teenager, so I totally understand if people also look up to her with both awe and pure intimidation.
AK: I think it's cool that one of the best and most popular cosplayers is an Asian woman, considering how few Asian characters there are to cosplay in American comics, film/tv and games.
BF: True. But I think that it's worth noting that the cosplay boom in this generation originated in Japan (note: the term cosplay, or kosupure in Japanese, is short for "costume play"), and that many of Yaya's first costumes were from anime/manga series. Regardless, I do think that did somewhat play a role in why I looked up to her. Aside from fandoms derived from Asian pop culture, you really don't see too many prominent Asian women in our industry or fandom, especially at the time when I was a teen.
AK: The fear and awe with which the other cosplayers talk about Yaya is also really intriguing. In episode two, Monika Lee even talks about becoming Yaya's apprentice and being "discovered" by her.
BF: Yaya is someone who was at the forefront of bringing the cosplay scene more into the public eye. She's someone who has created a lifestyle and a career out of this hobby. She's someone who has clearly worked to perfect every costume that she creates, probably because she is so aware of her role in the cosplay community. To be judged and critiqued by someone like that in the community, whose attention to detail and craftsmanship is admirable and meticulous, I can see why some of these cosplayers were extremely intimidated.
AK: I've been a fan of cosplay for years but it wasn't until I saw Heroes of Cosplay that I was really conscious of the formal competitions. Do they really play as big a role in the scene as this show seems to suggest?
BF: Yes and no. I think that a lot of people in the fandom (whether they cosplay or not) are naturally competitive due to the nature of geek culture, but with cosplay it's a bit skewed and complicated. On the show, they emphasize the competition because all the contestants are entering "weekly" contests at conventions, which of course will naturally lead to pitting the cosplayers against one another. However, I think it's important to note that the majority of cosplayers at conventions aren't entering costume contests or masquerades -- they're just strutting around and taking photos.
As I said, there is an aspect of competitiveness for some (not all) cosplayers, as there would with any nerdy hobby. But there are many facets behind it, from skill level, overall performance/appearance, interpersonal interactions, and traditional pissing contest standards, like equating how much you love the fandom/character to how good your costume is or sizing up your competition by their looks and so on. Of course, under the lens of reality TV, it can be really easy to simplify and reduce the complexities of cosplay competition to a petty shallow ordeal. It's hard to fully capture this and portray it in a way that would matter to people who are outside of the cosplay realm.
Chloe Dykstra for Women of Geekdom
AK: One thing the show touches on briefly but that I was confused by was the business of cosplay. For most cosplayers I know, it's a hobby; a creative expression; an active kind of fandom. Some people write fanfiction or draw fan-art, cosplayers make a costume and perform it. Respect from fans like me and other costume hobbyists like you is the currency of that endeavor. But Yaya and a few others do it as a job, but I'm not sure what they're selling; what they're actually paid for.
BF: This has actually been a heated discussion amongst the community lately, the act of turning your cosplay hobby into a cosplay career. While many cosplayers take commissions to create custom costumes for specific clients or build ready-to-wear accessories and costumes for sale, many more cosplayers have discovered the lucrative gains of selling pin-up-style prints of their cosplay work, which has brought up some criticism. Along those lines, many popular cosplayers have their own booths at conventions where they sell merchandise. Some even get invited to be convention guests/judges, which often includes subsidized expenses (such as badge/flight/hotel) that often kill most of our bank accounts, considering all the money that can be invested into creating or purchasing your costume.
Yaya Han was one of the first people to create a career and lifestyle out of this hobby, but there has been a sudden boom in cosplayers following in her footsteps. I've spoken with many of my cosplaying friends about whether or not they would ever consider selling prints or merchandise. I understand the criticism of this act of commodifying our talents into popularity and monetary worth. However, I also totally get those who see Yaya Han and want to follow her path. Riki and some of the other cosplayers on the show have expressed interest in getting into professional costuming for movies. If you can make money doing something that you love, why not?
AK: I don't understand the objection to selling photos or merch. Artist’s Alley is full of people selling their work. Some of it's good, some of it's bad, and a lot of it is essentially fan-art. What's the difference?
BF: Again, it's really complex and weird. I think a lot of people get weirded out by fellow cosplayers making money off of pin-up shots of themselves. Which, I get it -- I'd be weirded out if most of my non-cosplaying friends just started selling glamour shots of themselves in civvies, but I would probably write my own scrutiny as jealousy and/or that I think that my friends are just being egotistical. But from an artistic point of view, I really have no objection to selling photo prints of your costume work (or your photography work, if you're a cosplay photographer). Ultimately cosplay is a tangible, living form of fan-art.
Yaya Han shot by Martin Wong
BF: A lot of the show has felt very scripted, like it’s deliberately creating drama between certain cosplayers. There has been some criticism of the editing of the show in terms of truncating quotes out of context. As both a fan of cosplay and as someone who has a major fascination with reality television and some insight into that business, how do you feel about the show in relation to the fandom?
AK: Well, the primary function of a reality show is to create conflict and make people look like a--holes. 51 Minds, the company that makes this show, is one of the all-time bests at this. They did all the great VH1 “celebreality” shows like The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, Charm School and I Love Money. The whole point is to take people from certain lifestyles or scenes -- in the case of those shows, Z-list celebrities, groupies, strippers, juiceheads -- and throw them in a Thunderdome and make them fight for fame and/or money. That is essentially what's gone on in Heroes of Cosplay, but with cosplayers.
BF: Yeah, over the past couple of years I've been aware of reality television's growing interest in tapping into the cosplay market, especially with the success of Project Runway and Face Off and the growing popularity of nerd culture and cosplay in the broader popular culture.
AK: The crucial difference between Heroes of Cosplay and other reality series is that cosplay is a creative pursuit. The talents of these people are manifest and the focus necessarily remains on the costumes -- much more than I would have expected based on 51 Minds’ track record. The competition format makes it more of a reality show/game show hybrid.
That said, 51 Minds is playing some of their same old tricks. For example, Victoria is getting what some reality TV fans call “the psycho edit.” We only see her freaking out, doing things at the last minute and nagging her boyfriend -- whom of course is depicted as being the real talent behind her fierce, frenzied ambition. Now, that may indeed be their situation, but reality show producers are masters of suggestion and whether it's true or not, that's the impression they want you to get from Victoria. They can choose to express truth or choose to express a version of it. That's really important to remember: You see only what they want you to see, nothing "just happens," at least not like it does in real life.
AK: Cosplay itself is not well defined by the show, either. Nobody's really discussed it in the terms we already have in this conversation. We're only told that cosplay is this kind of compulsive, obsessive devotion to an expensive hobby and fueled only by external validation. With the notable exception of Jessica and her Tank Girl cosplay, I don’t think anyone has talked about how much they love a character or how they're inspired by a character. That's not to say they haven't, but we're not shown that footage. We’re shown only what we need to see in order to get the impression they want us to get for the purpose of a narrative. And that narrative is more entertaining if these "heroes" are really a bunch of weirdos.
Not everybody comes off badly, though. They're giving Chloe “the hero edit,” at least in the episodes we've seen so far. She's the underdog, a plucky amateur who wants to prove she's got what it takes despite what we're told is no previous cosplay experience even though they briefly mention that she's been cosplaying for years -- the "competition" distinction is very tenuous. Anyway, they’re basically applying the Disney structure to her narrative. We see her face seemingly insurmountable adversities like supposedly not knowing what she’s doing and having no friends to help her do it (even though she certainly has loads of friends at that convention or who could have gone with her). Most dramatically, Chloe gets into a philosophical debate about cosplay with Riki and Yaya, who in that scene are positioned as the wicked, superficial stepsisters to Chloe’s serene, talk-to-the-birds-and-mice Cinderella.
BF: Oh, definitely. I also noticed that they were carving out a rivalry between Yaya and guest star Jessica Nigri (not to be confused with series regular Jessica Merizan), which I thought was interesting. I'm well aware of the massive popularity of both cosplayers, of course, but I'm not sure if this rivalry is something that existed prior to the show or emphasized/created for the show.
AK: Fake or not, the rivalry rings true with what they've established about Yaya's narrative; her dedication to authenticity and character. Jessica Nigri -- who's most famous around the ComicsAlliance watercooler for her offensive "Nigri Please" convention banner — seems to appear mainly in costumes that are virtually identical to those you see at electronic music festivals here in downtown Los Angeles; basically store-bought bikinis or exotic dancer gear the attendees wear because they sweat so much while on ecstasy, but with some cute cat ears on top. Based on Yaya’s remarks and judging standards, she would not be down with that stuff at all, regardless of whether she and Nigri are truly beefing or not.
But the reason this rivalry is in the show at all is for the purposes of a conflict. For dramatic reasons, Yaya can't be the unchallenged matriarch, even if she actually is. We see her protégé Monika corrupted by the dark sexy side! The truth is, based on what we're shown, Monika's Poison Ivy cosplay wasn’t really that scandalous at all, it just wasn't a winner. But Monika is nevertheless depicted as being punished for being too sexual and loses the contest and becomes despondent and ashamed. That’s the feeling all reality shows want you to have about sex.
BF: I think to an outsider (and even to some people within the cosplay fandom), it'd be really easy to lump Yaya and Jessica Nigri into the same category of “Sexy Girls In Costumes,” but they both have very different approaches to cosplay. Jessica Nigri has done some really great cosplay that isn't similar to her infamous “sexy PIkachu” costume, although she has been accused of not making her own props or costumes. I think it's interesting that she's scrutinized for her popularity and making money on her prints, because if the criticism is based on the assumption that she's just a cosplay model or that she's "reducing" the hobby, then that brings in the awkward grey area of cosplayers who don't really seem to make most of their own costumes, like we see with Victoria and Jinyo.
AK: Let's talk about the credit issue, because it seems to be a major thing with Yaya. Why is it so important that a cosplayer create his or her own costume from scratch? There are many brilliant singers who don't write their own songs.
BF: I think that it's more of a matter of honesty and giving credit where it's due. Many masquerades and contests do not allow commissioned or store-bought costumes or props unless the items were majorly altered. And depending on the judging process, the contestants will have to disclose how they assembled the costume while the judges inspect the detailing. There have been cases where contestants have entered contests with costumes that they did not make themselves, but since a lot of these costumes are judged on craftsmanship, many cosplayers in homemade outfits think it’s unfair to be weighed against a cosplayer wearing something that they didn't even make. As such, San Diego Comic-Con's masquerade allows commissioned costumes to compete for the "performance" prizes, rather than for the craftsmanship prizes.
In the case of Victoria, the controversy over the credit of her costume work is a bit tricky. She didn't necessarily commission it, since she and her boyfriend worked on it together. However, Jinyo appears to have done a lot of work. When she was confronted by Yaya about her personal contributions to the costume, Victoria did not give credit to her boyfriend's craftsmanship.
AK: Or maybe she did and they just cut it out to make her look like a villain.
BF: Right! But it's tough. Holly and Jessica regularly assist each other with their costumes, and they helped Chloe with creating her sand worm puppet, but the show didn't include footage of her explicitly giving them credit when questioned about it in the competition. Whatever happened, I suspect Victoria was definitely put on the spot because she knew that Yaya knew that Jinyo was instrumental to her Tron costume.
As a cosplayer, I take pride in creating my own costumes, as I'm sure many other people do. However, I've also had help creating certain costumes from friends, whom I've always credited. Likewise, I don't think there's anything wrong with wearing a commissioned costume. I think that it just gets messy when you're competing and there's no outlined/definite rubric of grading costumes for the audience to follow along with.
AK: We mentioned this part before with the Chloe "hero edit," but we should get into the big, bloggable WTF moment of the whole show so far: the discussion about body types and how cosplayers should be conscious of how they will be judged online. The editing here is very obviously manipulative because nobody really says a complete thought. Here's how the conversation was cut together, including the one-on-one setups that are intercut as it happens:
Riki: People often say, like, "Well, I'm really big, what can I do?" It's like, you're a big muscular dude? Go be Superman!
Chloe: I think anybody should be whatever they want to be whenever.
Riki: But the thing is, if a 300lbs person wears Superman and they put themselves out there, and then it gets on the 'net, how is that going to help you?
Chloe: I guess, but do you think because of that they shouldn't dress up as Superman?
Monika: A lot of people can't, you know, handle that that criticism.
Yaya (one-on-one intercut): Chloe is very much so a noobie. She's really, like, a little bit naive.
Yaya: I feel that as a cosplayer you need to have the responsibility to know what you look like. You have to really look at yourself in the mirror and know that, "If my boobs are out, I'm going to get [expletive] comments."
Chloe (one-on-one intercut): I don't know who made up these rules. There's like some grand cosplay lord who's like you shall not cosplay something if you are overweight. That's ridiculous. Cosplay is about having fun and being who you are and who want to be.
BF: Yeah, I saw a lot of people who were really upset about what was "said" in regards to cosplay pet peeves and body types, and Yaya and Riki getting a lot of flack for voicing the harsher view. I think that it was clear that that the cosplay pet peeves discussion was artificially prompted and edited to create a rift between cosplay elite and cosplay amateurs.
AK: What do you think about the topic itself?
BF: I pretty much agreed with Chloe, who basically said that if you want to cosplay and you're happy cosplaying, then just do it. I do understand what Yaya and Riki were undoubtedly trying to say, though: this is a hobby that is primarily focused on appearance that is measured up to the often unrealistic body types of the fictional reference. This is apparent in Becky's struggle with her "weight problem" and wanting to choose a cosplay that she could wear "authentically."
AK: Becky got the “self esteem edit."
BF: I think that Riki and Yaya were well-intentioned in their remarks, but it is an incredibly delicate issue to bring up without sounding like you're body-shaming. They were basically warning that cosplay reception can be harsh.
AK: Indeed, cosplayers should never read the comments. In fact, people shouldn't even read the comments on this post!
BF: Let’s close out with a quick rundown of our favorite costumes featured on the show so far.
AK: By a wide margin my favorite is Riki’s Rocketeer. As longtime CA readers know, we are huge Dave Stevens fans and have been really supportive of IDW Publishing’s Rocketeer Adventures anthology, which is the source of Riki’s cosplay. Cartoonist Darwyn Cooke came up with the maddeningly simple yet manifestly brilliant idea of having the Rocketeer’s girlfriend Betty -- modeled by Stevens after Bettie Page -- finds herself in the positioning of wearing the famous jacket and rocket pack herself and rescuing the Rocketeer for a change. Because this is a Rocketeer story it naturally plays out in such a way that she happened to be wearing nothing but vintage lingerie at the time, which Riki bravely made part of her costume along with the custom jacket, buttons and homemade helmet and jetpack. I can just imagine Riki reading that story and getting struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration, and it really shows in her cosplay. It’s one of the best cosplays of any character I’ve ever, ever seen.
BF: I've been a fan of Riki's work for years, and her Rocketeer costume is by far one of my favorites in her cosplay portfolio. It helps that she chose Darwyn Cooke's sexy, retro incarnation of the Rocketeer's digs, which allowed her to showcase her prop work combined with a cute, pin-up look. One of the interesting things about episode 3 was when she was concerned about people mistaking her for a "slutty Rocketeer" (as opposed to an actual character design in the comics) and assuming that she just purchased most of the pieces in her costume. She was really worried about not being able to defend her credibility as a cosplayer and in regards to craftsmanship, and I think that definitely brings it back to the importance that cosplayers put into creating and showcasing their own costumes.
AK: Jessica’s Tank Girl was also fabulous and, as she explained, took Tank Girl cosplay to a new level by stripping out the cute and focusing on the badass qualities of the Jamie Hewlett character. Victoria and Jinyo’s Tron dress was also a favorite of mine. I really like cosplays that are cute twists on a familiar character or look but that still express the essential idiom of the source. In this case, Victoria looked like a woman at a formal event or posh nightclub in the Grid. Great stuff.
BF: The Tron dress that Victoria and Jinyo created was beautiful, fashion-foward, and looked absolutely wearable, plus I loved the heart-shaped identity disk. And as much as I got stressed out about Crabcat splitting up for episode three, I also really loved Holly's Liliari costume and alien prop (from Galaxy Quest) and Jessica's Tank Girl costumes. I think that it was really cool to see that cosplay (especially as a duo or a group) might not only be about having the proper skills to complete the costume, but finding the right balance of work and play; with Holly and Jessica, they're both extremely talented individually, but their relationship as cosplayers really resonated with me (and with my cosplay partner-in-crime, Ali Kay).
I really loved that amazing Galactus cosplayer who won Best In Show in the first episode -- his costume was outstanding! I think one of the downsides of this show is that they don't include any information on the other contestants of the contests. I would love more footage about some of the other cosplayers.
AK: Finally, there was a Doctor Doom cosplayer in the first contest that was the best Doom I’ve ever seen. The costume was spot-on Kirby and he even screamed, “RICHARDS!!!”
Heroes of Cosplay transmits Tuesday nights on SyFy.