It starts by tying a bath towel around your neck and rushing toward your opponent with a wrapping paper tube.
For some kids, the impulse to don a cape and kick cosmic butt takes root and grows in a procession of elaborate Halloween costumes. By high school, those same kids are either locked into a no-nonsense academic track or trolling the Internet for glow-in-the-dark unicorn horns. While members of the fall-off group generally come to dismiss costuming as nerd drag, many devotees go on to embrace the true, fierce, nerd drag world of cosplay and celebrate it at an annual round of comic cons and costume parties.
"I like taking really iconic costumes with bold colors and symbols that you can recognize even when you take them out of the context of the original character and seeing how far I can push that," says Tea Berry-Blue (her fandom name), a submissions editor with a New York comics publisher who's rocking a greaser Batgirl costume as we comb through thrift shop racks in Greenwich Village searching for a few choice pieces to complete a Hannibal-themed costume. In a flash, she zeroes in on a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.
"You might find a jacket that's pretty OK for a character but a detail like this would push it over the edge," she says, pointing out the smart brown mendings. "I think this would be a really good jacket for Will Graham, but it's also a really good jacket for maybe an Indiana Jones in his professor suit."
You don't make a splash at three or four comic conventions and a dozen costume parties each year by being unimaginative and predictable. As someone who's been cosplaying at a level she calls "serious" for the last five years, Tea Berry-Blue is an inventive, quick-change artist at the top of her game. She looks upon the cosplay characters she creates the way a painter views a portrait. Her favorite costume is always the one that she's working on or that she's just finished.
"Sometimes I spend weeks just trying to find the right fabric for a specific part of a costume and sewing," she says. "I just made this ridiculous leather vest with a big collar for a Namor costume (a Marvel Comics character) and that took a lot of time because it was a lot of pieces of fake leather that had to be sewn in the exact right place."
Berry-Blue subsequently accesorized the costume with a giant Namor trident which she made with papier-mâché and foam core according to New York Comic Con's rules for what could and could not be brought into the Jacob Javits Center.
True, fierce, nerd drag. Whether you're cosplaying a Saturday morning cartoon villain or Samantha from Sex In The City, cosplay is grounded in exactitude.
"Somebody who's cosplaying is picking a specific character and dressing like that character," says Berry-Blue. "So if you wanted to be a princess or a mermaid then you'd be in a costume, but if you were to be Ariel the princess from The Little Mermaid, then you would be cosplaying."
Like Japanese kabuki, or dance theater, cosplay is costume performance. And like drag, it demands a larger-than-life personality. Unlike either of the two, however, cosplay affords the practitioner little opportunity for employment or profit. A successful cosplayer must therefore be as committed as a samurai and peaceful as a monk with simply absorbing what is awesome about a character and projecting it.
For those willing to slather on full body paint and walk the walk, here are a few tips from master cosplayer Tea Berry-Blue.
"As a woman you walk into a Halloween store and everything is like Sexy Baked Potato, and Sexy Hamburger, and Sexy Nikolai Tesla, which I have actually been for Halloween, but they cost a lot of money. Go to thrift stores and find clothing that you can reuse during the year at cheaper prices than you would buy a Halloween costume for."
"If you're going to buy a nice wig it's going to cost you about $30, but if it's a costume that you're planning on doing or a hairstyle that might work for multiple costumes, I think it's very much worth having. In the past few years there's been a kind of rise in small businesses selling wigs specifically for cosplayers online and those wigs come in styles that are more suitable to cartoon characters and anime characters and superheroes. For a long time, costume wigs weren't heat-ready so you couldn't take a wig and blow-dry it or iron it with a flat iron or a curling iron and now you can get a wig that's pink with purple stripes that you can curl the way you want it to curl."
"You might look good without makeup but one of the things that happens is that you're under different lighting, people have flashes on their cameras and if you want pictures that look really good, I highly recommend wearing a lot of makeup. I know a lot of men sometimes feel uncomfortable wearing it, but when you're dressing up, remember—actors wear makeup in movies all the time. It just makes you look better on-screen and keeps your face from getting washed out or from appearing too dark depending on what kind of skin tone you have and it just helps a lot in making all the photos and videos you take have a very finished appearance."
"Rigid collodion. It's magic. You buy this in a bottle at a costume shop and it will make you look like you have a scar."