You can find stormtroopers, Disney princesses and ghostbusters in the flesh almost any weekend in Kalamazoo — without going to a movie theater. Try a birthday party, a children’s hospital or a comic book convention.
These are just a few of the places you can glimpse enthusiasts of cosplay, a term that is short for “costume play” and refers to the hobby of dressing up as characters from movies, TV shows, video games and more. Cosplay most often refers to dressing like comic book and screen characters — a specific character like Star Wars’ Darth Vader or a generic character like an elf from The Lord of the Rings. Cosplay can be a broad tent, however. The folks who dress in animal costumes (nicknamed “furries”), Elvis impersonators and even Civil War re-enactors are all taking part in cosplay.
Some of us may be familiar with cosplay as something that is endemic to national comic book conventions like the annual Comic Con events in San Diego and New York. But cosplay is spilling over into the mainstream. According to the website Hypebeast, the number of cosplayers and fans is now at an all-time high, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of cosplayers that attend the national conventions. Cosplay has been featured in popular television shows such as The Big Bang Theory and in the reality series Heroes of Cosplay, which aired on the SyFy network.
Cosplay has a growing legion of local fans as well. Dokidokon (dokidokon.org), a convention focused on Japanese animation and comic books held for the first time in July 2017 in Kalamazoo, drew 1,000 attendees, nearly all of whom were cosplayers, according to event founder Rebekah Clark. Kalamazoo Comic Con 2017, held in October at Kalamazoo College, featured nearly 40 vendors and hundreds of attendees.
Why do people find it so appealing to dress up and take on the persona of a fictional character?
Maybe it’s because cosplay is a little bit Hollywood, a little bit craftsmanship and a lot of creativity. Cosplayers say that they’re motivated by a love of their favorite characters and the creativity that it takes to be as much like the character as possible.
Thirteen-year-old Carrie Jacobson of Portage attended the 2017 Kalamazoo Comic Con dressed as Harley Quinn, a villain found in Batman comics. “I really like her story,” she says. Jacobson says the character is a silly, not-very-threatening enemy and that she herself has the same kind of personality, which makes her want to not only watch Harley on TV, but cosplay her too.
Scott Rozema’s motivation is a bit different. “I’m a toy collector. I’ve just moved on to life-size toys,” the 49-year old Grand Rapids resident says of his interest in cosplay. A member of the 501st Legion, a national organization for Star Wars cosplayers, Rozema has nine costumes of different villains from the Star Wars movie series, including the robes of the evil emperor and the white armor of a stormtrooper. Most often, though, Rozema dresses as Darth Vader, one of his favorite characters from the movie series.
Bringing characters to life
For participants, cosplay is more than just dress-up for grown-ups.
“I grew up watching Cinderella and Belle (from Beauty and the Beast),” says Laura Schubkegel, 25, of Kalamazoo, who turned her penchant for dressing as Cinderella into a viable business. Schubkegel owns Pretty Princess HQ, which brings princess cosplayers to children’s parties. Like Rozema, Schubkegel says she always liked dressing up. Several of the other Pretty Princess HQ performers are former theater students who view it as a type of acting.
Other cosplayers say they just enjoy the opportunity to inhabit the roles of their favorite characters. Watching movies, playing games and collecting toys featuring the characters simply aren’t enough for them.
“Cosplay makes (the experience) more tangible,” says Tom Birkenbach, 47, of Paw Paw, who dresses in a Ghostbusters-themed costume, complete with a “proton pack” that has sound and light effects. He is a member of the Kalamazoo Ghostbusters, a group of fans of the Ghostbusters movies who like the challenge of recreating the film’s costumes and props and wear their costumes at special events.
The Ghostbusters group members are different from other cosplayers. They don’t dress as specific Ghostbusters characters such as Peter Venkman (Bill Murray’s character). Instead, they portray themselves as ghostbusters. Birkenbach and other group members emphasize that the outfits they wear are not costumes like someone might wear on Halloween, but uniforms. Online stores sell name tags that are designed to look like the ones in the films but customized with the cosplayer’s own name. Birkenbach has one on his uniform. And he has a white PT Cruiser car, decorated like Ecto-1, the car in the movie, complete with “no ghost” symbols and caution tape.
Members of the Kalamazoo Ghostbusters appear at charity events and movie openings as well as comic-book-related events. For example, they appeared outside Kalamazoo comic book shop Fanfare in May 2017 for Free Comic Book Day and at the local theatrical release of the 2016 Ghostbusters movie, posing for pictures and answering questions about how they assembled their costumes.
Zach Balakas, 35, of Allendale, also makes special appearances while cosplaying. Balakas wears the costumes of several superheroes, including Green Arrow and the Red Hood, but tends to dress as Spider-Man when he visits hospitals as part of the Cosplay Crusaders, a Grand Rapids-based cosplay group that visits hospitalized children.
“(Spider-Man) has been my favorite since I was a kid,” Balakas says. “It’s important on hospital visits to have a relatable character. We give hugs, give high-fives and play games. Kids like to beat Spider-Man at Mario video games.”
Birkenbach says while it’s no surprise that children think he and the other Kalamazoo Ghostbusters group members are “real,” even adults will sometimes suspend their disbelief. “You can hear them say, ‘It’s a Ghostbuster,’ not ‘It’s someone in a costume,’” he says.
But the most serious cosplaying group? That would be the 501st Legion, a Star Wars group that is formally organized and officially recognized by Disney, which owns the Star Wars movies and characters. Members have to adhere to guidelines for building their costumes to make sure the outfits are movie-accurate, and the costumes must be approved before being worn at a public event. Darth Vader’s costume, for example, has to be made of leather and plastic and feature the same buttons and switches as the on-screen costume.
Rozema says he wears his Darth Vader costume nearly every weekend for a two- to three-hour stint as the character. Like the Cosplay Crusaders, members of the 501st Legion’s Great Lakes Garrison visit hospitals and libraries. Members were also present in costume from Grand Rapids to the Detroit suburbs on Dec. 14 and 15 for the theatrical release of the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi.
Rozema says he has noticed when visiting theaters or hospitals to take pictures with fans that wearing a Darth Vader costume has certain advantages. “We try to stay in groups, but I like to wander,” he says. “I go wherever I want, and people don’t stop me.”
The cost of cosplay
Creating an accurate cosplay look that is as close to the actual character as possible can be an arduous process and doesn’t always come cheaply, even for do-it-yourselfers.
Rozema’s Darth Vader suit cost $4,000 and was assembled over several years. It includes leather pants and a shirt purchased from a manufacturer in Argentina. He’s the third person to own his Vader helmet, which another cosplayer made from the molds used to create the helmets the Star Wars movies. A $600 voice-changing device that lets him recreate Darth Vader’s classic menacing bass voice, including the asthmatic breathing, is attached to the inside of the helmet, along with a small fan to keep him cool.
Natalie Olinger, 15, of Kalamazoo, has been cosplaying since 2014, but for more than a year she has focused on one character: the Miraculous Ladybug, a superhero star of a French animated series. Olinger’s costume includes a sleek red latex body suit with black dots, a wig and a small mask that covers her eyes. According to Olinger’s mother, Christina Olinger, the body suit was made by a Los Angeles costumer who creates costumes for pop stars such as Lady Gaga, and cost $700, not counting the slippery silicone lubricant Natalie needs to be covered with to put on the costume. Christina says it took a “lot of emails and a lot of calls” before the customized costume was ready to wear. It takes Natalie about 15 to 20 minutes, with her mom’s help, to put on her form-fitting costume.
Jasmine Contreras, 23, of Coldwater, spent about $250 on the black armor, bow and purple makeup she uses to portray a night elf warrior from the video game World of Warcraft. The armor is made from a thick foam floormat that had to be cut and painted. Contreras says it took her nearly three months to put together the costume and she is still perfecting the quality of her body paint to be more authentic to the character.
Clark, 29, of St. Joseph, who often portrays women warriors of video games like Black Rock Shooter and Overwatch, makes most of her own costumes. Clark says the cost and time to create a costume varies depending on its complexity. Her most elaborate costume is Warrior Mega Charizard X, a blue and black dragon from the Pokemon cartoon series. It cost about $300, and it took more than 100 hours just to create the costume’s foam armor and wings.
On the other end of the spectrum is Breanne Birdsong’s costume for her Game of Thrones character Khaleesi. Birdsong, of Kalamazoo, paid $50 for it from an online Halloween shop and added a simple necklace purchased at Hobby Lobby.
Anthony Snyder’s Ghostbusters uniform was also fairly inexpensive to create. He says his jumpsuit cost $40 from an online store and his black boots were purchased at a local thrift shop. His proton pack backpack is a wood replica of the movie prop, complete with functioning lights that he built for $100. Snyder says he’s found that being a Ghostbusters cosplayer means you can save a little money on repairs to the uniform and props.
“Tears and cuts can be ‘battle damage,’” Snyder says, “and paint covers so much.”
But before someone debuts a costume in public, Clark says, it needs to be “pretested.”
“Usually you need to do pre-con testing” to make sure the costume can be worn all day inside a hotel or convention area, she says. “Sometimes I can’t go up stairs in the costume, or the costume doesn’t allow me to sit down — you don’t think of that when you’re making the costume.”
‘Nobody judges you’
The goal for most cosplayers is to have a costume that’s accurate in terms of their chosen character. But that’s not everyone’s plan. Birkenbach says a friend in a regular business suit sometimes appears with the Kalamazoo Ghostbusters as their “project manager.”
Balakas came to the Kalamazoo Comic Con wearing a “mashup” costume of two superheroes, combining Spider-Man with the robes and boots of Ezio, the main character of the Assassin’s Creed video game.
That a “mashup” cosplayer doesn’t match up accurately with a character’s form isn’t a problem, says Clark. “Most of the time people are just curious” about the costumes, she says.
“It’s a great hobby and a creative outlet,” Clark says, summing up her feelings about cosplay. “It’s just a way to say, ‘Let’s get together and have a lot of fun.’ When people want to take pictures (with cosplayers), it means the world to them. Nobody judges you.”
Christina Olinger says she fully supports her daughter’s interest in cosplay. She calls it a “good family activity” that has helped relieve some of Natalie’s social anxiety.
“Everybody is so friendly when you’re in an outfit,” she says.