Recently, when I shared that I would be attending New York Comic Con in cosplay, I was met with a mixture of applause and derision. Why would an art critic want to participate in such an activity, let alone write about it? To me the appeal was obvious, since cosplay stems from the same impetus to tell tales, share values and dazzle the spectator that can be found throughout thousands of years of artistic expression.
The first comic book conventions, popularly known as “comic cons” or simply “cons,” began as get-togethers for comic book aficionados to share their love of illustrated popular storytelling. Over time, cons absorbed other genres and forms of entertainment to become major social events and trade fairs. The granddaddy of them all is the New York Comic Con, which, when first held in 1964, drew about 100 participants. It remains the largest such event in North America today, with over 200,000 visitors last year.
The most unique aspect of a con is the presence of individuals engaged in “cosplay,” a portmanteau of “costume play.” For many, dressing up is a critical part of the con experience. It provides an opportunity to demonstrate creativity, while allowing participants, costumed or not, to connect over their appreciation for different characters. It is a shared, participatory exercise, since a cosplayer without a community to engage is merely someone wearing an unusual outfit.
It is important to understand what cosplay is not. It is not heading to your local big box store and purchasing a cheap Halloween costume made in a Red Chinese sweatshop: a fully customized cosplay can cost as much as a Savile Row suit. Cosplayers take the time to think about what they want to achieve, pay attention to minute details and often make or assemble their own costumes.
After seeing an eye-catching photoshoot of superheroes dressed in Renaissance style, I decided to create my own interpretation. Superman has always been my favorite — I can identify with a tall writer hailing from a small town who tends to fly solo, at the same time trying to help those who cannot help themselves. And appropriately enough, 2023 is the eighty-fifth anniversary of the character’s first appearance.
My “Tudor Superman” cosplay concept was a mash-up of Renaissance art with the black and silver Superman suit which was worn by Henry Cavill in the film Justice League. I researched Renaissance portraiture, comic book illustrations and costumes created for Cavill in both the Superman films, as well as for his role as the Duke of Suffolk in the television series The Tudors. The cosplay build took months to achieve; it included such elements as a damask doublet, embossed leather armor, a silver livery collar and a huge velvet cape.
Early in the morning on the day I was set to attend the con, I experienced a major malfunction when the Velcro attaching the Superman emblem to my armor failed: I heard it peel away and fall to the floor while I was shaving. “Don’t panic,” I muttered repeatedly, digging through my emergency repair kit for a tube of polyurethane adhesive brought at the last minute, just in case.
The label on the tube clearly stated, “Allow twenty-four hours to cure”; I had two hours, tops. I applied the glue and used an unplugged hotel iron as a weight to temporarily hold the emblem to the armor. Miraculously, once the weight was removed, the bond held. When I later described the incident to other cosplayers, I was told that this made me a true cosplayer, as they all had similar stories of last-minute costume disasters and fixes.
From the moment I arrived at the sprawling Jacob Javits Convention Center, I became the focus of significant attention. This was something that I had not anticipated, given the rather esoteric nature of my cosplay. At first, people greeted me with, “Hi, Superman!” or “Cool costume!” but as I made my way to the entrance, a lady asked, “I know it’s raining and miserable, but you look amazing: could I take your picture?” I consented, thinking, “Well, that was nice of her,” not realizing that I would be asked that question repeatedly over the next several hours. Similarly, once inside, the gentleman who verified my press credentials handed over my badge and asked, “Would it be all right if I took your picture? You look incredible.”
My photographer Jeremy Coen and I decided to stroll about looking for cosplayers in great costumes to talk to; I was stopped over and over again with compliments, questions and requests for pictures. By now, although I was grateful, I was becoming somewhat embarrassed by the attention. I just wanted to do my job, do it well and then retreat to the Fortress of Solitude.
“Seeing this reaction you’re getting,” Jeremy said, “let’s walk up and down in a loop for a while. We’ll get a bunch of pictures of people taking pictures of you.” I agreed but felt somewhat unnerved.
We approached a spot-on Princess Leia, complete with massive side-buns, and I asked, “Your Highness, may I take a picture with you?” “Of course,” she replied. “And wow! I *have* to take a picture with you!”
“Could I have one with you too, Superman?” asked another cosplayer, dressed as Dr. Facilier from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.
“Hey Superman, could I interview you for a videocast?” asked a fellow member of the media, “Your cosplay is DOPE.”
An hour or so later, after saying goodbye to Jeremy and clearing security — where a policeman thanked me (as Superman) for what I do and complimented my cosplay — I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I wanted to take a few minutes to try to process, but there was no time. I had just plunged into utter pandemonium.
Words cannot convey to those who haven’t been there what New York Comic Con is like. Imagine Where’s Waldo? interpreted by Hieronymus Bosch, set in Heathrow on Christmas Eve amid a blizzard and you will still have only the vaguest of impressions. I took an escalator up to a high platform in the atrium to get a Superman’s-eye view of my surroundings, but my brain still couldn’t process what I was seeing.
A pack of Mandalorians marched down a flight of stairs. Gomez and Morticia Addams sauntered elegantly into an exhibition hall, past a group of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A trio of Captains America posed for pictures taken by some sort of unidentifiable fuzzy dinosaur-dragon-lizard thing. The convention’s events and merchandising areas add to the sensory overload. Among the large number of celebrities in attendance — fans attend panels they speak on and take pictures with them afterward — were actors Chris Evans, Tom Hardy, Tom Hiddleston and Ewan McGregor, none of whom I happened to bump into in the hall.
Not that you can move about very easily in the hallways as it is, thanks to the number of commercial transactions taking place. Are you looking for a statue of Godzilla for your office? Are you interested in trying out the latest immersive game technology? Do you need vintage Masters of the Universe action figures, or perhaps a non-lethal Hattori Hanzo sword? Comic Con offers everything from superhero T-shirts and wizardly-looking coffee mugs to, naturally, more comic books than you have ever seen gathered in one place.
I walked through miles of merchandising booths, interactive experiences and food stands, trying to take everything in. And every few minutes, wherever I went, someone asked me to pose for a picture.
I wandered along to “Artist Alley,” referred to in promotional materials as “the heart of Comic Con.” The term “alley” is grossly inaccurate — it’s the size of a concert hall.
Back upstairs I finally found a somewhat quieter area. Here I came across a gentleman in a magnificent Batman costume, who looked as if he had stepped out of a film. He turned out to be Keith Hernandez of Hernandez Sculpture EFX, a sculptor well-known and respected within the cosplay community.
Hernandez is a self-taught clay and digital sculptor, and over the past twenty years he has used complex designs and innovative techniques to create highly detailed masks and cowls. Although he doesn’t know exactly how many, he’s assisted quite a number of people to realize their cosplays. “Some really great costumes have come to life, and I’m always happy to see my work play a small part,” he admitted. “I’m just happy to be able to create and share my art.
“I believe the biggest impact I’ve made is in giving people the confidence to pull off the look they want. Any part added to someone’s look is another step toward achieving that vision they have, and I’m glad to be a part of that.”
Late in the afternoon, after a final look at the utterly bonkers scene, I was stopped for one last photo-op by a young man in a Punisher T-shirt. “So what’s the story?” he asked. As I explained my fusion of Tudor England and the planet Krypton, he grinned. “We really need more Superman stuff like this,” he responded enthusiastically, “because Superman is the best superhero. Even when the story is dark, Superman still stands for something — and we need more good guys like that.” We fist-bumped goodbye and I walked away feeling rather humbled.
As I headed back to my hotel, in need of a hot shower and a cold cocktail, my massive cape billowed out behind me like a great sail. Some onlookers ooh’ed and aah’ed as I descended the steps, and I smiled appreciatively. I also thought of Polonius’s observation that “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” This may well be the case, but the apparel can also serve to remind the man about whom he should strive to be.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2023 World edition.