Anime and Cosplay

Back to School for Colorado Cosplayers

Clarke Cosplay as Monster Hunter Altera.
Clarke Cosplay as Monster Hunter Altera. Katia Schiele

One of the newer words in the ever-growing English language is "cosplay." It’s a portmanteau – a word built from both the concepts and the sounds of two different words — and probably something you’ve heard about. Cosplay is simple, in theory: It’s play having to do with costumes (thus, cosplay)…but it’s a hobby that’s more than just dressing up. It’s an art form unto itself, and it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

So how does this international interest evidence itself on a Mile High scale? Pretty thoroughly, as it turns out, as will be on wide and varied display at this weekend’s Nan Desu Kan, the premier anime convention of the Rockies, hosted right here in Denver August 31 to September 2.

sat down with Clarke Cosplay, one of the founders of the Colorado Academy of Cosplay, to talk about his passion for the medium, and the role costumes can play in the wide world of fandom.

Westword: You're one of the major players here in Denver in terms of the cosplay community. So define the term for us: What does cosplay mean to you? What aspects and varieties does it include?

Clarke Cosplay: Cosplay to us means community. It’s taking your interests and passions and making them come to life and expressing them in a physical manner through different mediums. It’s about meeting other people who have the same interests, inspiring others and being inspired by others. It gives meaning and purpose, a way for people to express themselves; an artistic outlet using a huge variety of materials from fabric and foam to casting and 3-D printing. It brings friendship and, in some cases, love. Cosplay is a means to bring joy to children and adults of all ages and to provide charity to local hospitals and nonprofit organizations. It is a way of life for thousands of Coloradans and a passion that for some means buying fabric instead of a meal, and to others, it has become their livelihood and source of income. Cosplay is so much more than just dressing up in costumes; it’s everything.

click to enlarge Silver Lined Cosplay as Bandit Sivir. - IONA BRUCE
Silver Lined Cosplay as Bandit Sivir.
Iona Bruce
How did the Colorado Academy of Cosplay come to be?  What were the circumstances of its inception, who started it, and what are its goals?

The Colorado Academy of Cosplay was originally founded by me, Suvi Couture and Silver Lined Cosplay [all pseudonyms] in response to the modelling, inequality, elitism and body shaming which was becoming prevalent in the Colorado cosplay communities. Our group was founded in order to provide an opportunity for real cosplayers to compete in a statewide competition while providing a supportive community [where] cosplayers can seek advice, resources, and show off their mastery of materials.

Your website contains a number of rules for cosplay, including the line "Cosplay is not consent." This is a common reminder on the convention circuit these days, and should be, especially in this era of #MeToo. Can you talk a little bit about what this rule is all about?  How has the hobby changed in this aspect over the years?

“Cosplay is not consent” has sadly become a necessary rule at conventions and for all parts of the cosplay community. We are made up of not only cosplayers, but photographers, people interested in cosplay, and mostly many other nerds. The main issue with cosplaying is that oftentimes many of the cosplayers show a lot of skin, simply because of the character they’re cosplaying, and that has led to many issues with non-consensual photos, groping and other unacceptable acts. Just because a cosplayer is showing skin doesn’t mean he/she is giving the right to others to disregard their wishes. The CAC firmly stands with the saying that cosplay is not consent and supports all victims of these tragedies.

click to enlarge Suvi Couture as Ms. Marvel. - GARMSTRO DESIGNS
Suvi Couture as Ms. Marvel.
Garmstro Designs
Another rule has to do with banning nudity or boudoir photos — which dovetails with the Denver Comic Con rule about the same thing. Their line "The illusion of nudity is still nudity" comes to mind. Can you talk about why this is important for the hobby, and why it needs to be stressed in the rules?

The main reason that nudity, boudoir, lingerie and swimwear is banned within our community and contests boils down to the fact that cosplay has slowly been taking a turn from creating your own costumes and attending conventions to modeling. So many cosplayers now are relying on their bodies, rather than their skills, to gain followers; many are working on monetizing their bodily assets rather than their craftsmanship, which starts to ruin the cosplay communities. This change from cosplay into modeling, specifically NSFW or risqué modeling, supports the idea that “cosplayers are nothing more than people showing off their body.” This also creates problems with the “cosplay is not consent” rule because of the purposeful sexualization. These are absolutely not ideals that the CAC supports, and we don’t want our competitions to be about how someone’s body looks but rather how much work they put in, level of craftsmanship, and other aspects of cosplay.

The upcoming Nan Desu Kan is a great place for cosplayers to show off their talents and their love for the medium. What does Colorado Academy of Cosplay have planned for that specific convention?

Since the CAC is growing at the moment, our main concern is having people find out about the group and hopefully to have a good turnout for our first statewide cosplay competition. We are hosting a panel, “Beginner’s Guide to Cosplay,” at Nan Desu Kan on August 31st in order to introduce people to the art of cosplay and promote our group by handing out info on our group. We are also announcing our first official Online Colorado Cosplay Contest. We will have at least five winners, one for each skill category (beginner, intermediate, master, and props) and one best in show, which we’ve called the “Best of Colorado.” The admins may also give out awards similar to judges' awards in cosplay competitions at conventions. The winners will be interviewed on a podcast, [and] photos of the winner’s costumes will be displayed on our website and the group page, with more prizes to be announced. As the Academy is also about education, our panel will also cover how anyone can get into cosplay and some tutorials on materials you can use to make a costume.

Speaking of getting into cosplay, how do new fans afford the hobby? Some of these outfits must cost more than a used car. I'm thinking of the Stormtrooper armor from the 501st Legion, for example, but anything with a superstructure to it has to be an investment. What's the most you've seen someone spend on a single costume? How much would it cost for the average hobbyist, if someone was looking to start?

Like many artists, there are very few cosplayers who can support themselves purely on cosplay. Most of us have a part-time or full-time job or even a family. So how much can cosplay cost? Suvi, who specializes in fabric and dresses, will spend anywhere from $200 to almost $1,000 on a costume. For example, the rings for her upcoming Eowyn Dernhelm Armor from Lord of the Rings cost $350 by themselves. Her competition costume for Denver Comic Con this year (a color-changing historically accurate Aurora dress from Sleeping Beauty) was close to $1,000 with all the lights, fifty yards of fabric, boning structure under the dress, etc. The most expensive cosplays that we know of are in the 501st Legion, an international charity organization where its members’ costumes are strictly held to film-accuracy standards. Such costumes can range from a few hundred dollars to over several thousand for a properly chromed Captain Phasma cosplay. But cosplay doesn’t have to be expensive at all. You can purchase a costume for under $40 or go thrift shopping, as many of our members do, and alter the clothing to fit your needs. Some people will even spend literally nothing on a costume because they repurposed materials they had at home. Cosplayers are resourceful; any budget is a budget for cosplay. Cosplay is only as expensive as you want it to be!

click to enlarge Drizzy Designs as Maleficent. - MEGHAN ROSS
Drizzy Designs as Maleficent.
Meghan Ross
Talk about some of the best cosplay examples you've seen in the hobby. There are some incredible examples of workmanship every time I cover a convention like Denver Comic Con. What costumes have made you take a moment and just admire the work and love that's clearly gone into it?

Some of our favorite local cosplays include Snowsong’s Lemon Cake cosplay, where she put the time and effort into preserving and incorporating real lemon slices into her outfit. Who else do you know who uses actual food in their costume? Another is Drizzy Designs, who made an amazing Maleficent costume with fully motorized wings. We had the privilege of watching her build the wings as she learned to cast and create her Serpentor helmet within our group for her Cobra cosplay. We’ve seen amazing use of a 3-D printer by David Perez to create an amazing Tyrael armor from Diablo, and very high-quality Captain America costumes and shields from Vorian Cosplay, founder of the Cap for Kids charity. Some of the absolute best in the hobby that we’ve seen are also found across the country and in other countries, with a full-sized Hulkbuster from Extreme Costumes out of Rhode Island, incredible molding and casting from the Egg Sisters in Chicago, amazing Gundams from Clive Lee in Southeast Asia, or the most beautiful Worbla costumes made by Inaste in Germany. You think you’ve seen cosplay to its fullest potential at Denver Comic Con? That’s scratching the surface.

On a personal note, what do you like to cosplay? And what's the cosplay that you'd like to tackle one of these days? What's the next frontier of cosplay for you — the challenge that you're still trying to figure out how to meet?

My specialty is full-body armor. I use a material called EVA foam, but everybody knows it as anti-fatigue floor mats and craft foam. You can do amazing things with foam. I like to challenge myself in everything I do, constantly pushing my boundaries and growing my skills. I built a full suit of armor from the Monster Hunter video-game franchise. I also built a seven-foot lance out of home insulation foam board, so it’s very light. The armor took me five and a half months to build. I love to wear full armor. It makes me feel strong and powerful when it’s otherwise hard to be. My current build is a challenge over a year in the making so far, mostly because life happens and I had to put it on hold for a while, but also because it’s so huge. It’s ZGMF X-10A Gundam Freedom, a giant Japanese mecha about eight feet tall with ten huge moving wing blades. I currently have the top half of the body built, and I hope to have the rest finished next year so I can begin my next planned project, Sauron from Lord of the Rings. I think the ultimate challenge would be to build a Thunderjaw from the video game Horizon: Zero Dawn, but mostly I’d like to make Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7. My style is simple: handmade and from scratch. No pre-made templates, no laser cutters or fancy equipment. This style means it takes me far longer to complete a costume, but it also gives me great pride in my work.

What role do you feel Denver and Colorado as a whole plays in the art and hobby of cosplay? What unique benefits does the Mile High City offer to cosplay overall?

Denver offers a unique environment for cosplay because of the sheer diversity and the accepting attitude of those around the conventions. When you go to con in costume, some people might stare at you incredulously, but you never feel “unwelcome,” which makes Denver a unique and inclusive cosplay environment. Denver is a major city in the U.S. with a growing population with a wide diversity, so there’s no shortage of businesses and resources that makes cosplaying easy, and it has a very strong community of cosplayers with an enormous range of skills and specialties already established. Though Denver is the epicenter of cosplay in Colorado, it can be found in every corner of the state. Even if you live in a small town like Fairplay or Julesburg, you’re always included. Colorado also has an unlimited range and number of picturesque areas that are perfect for photo shoots, which also affects the community, as it allows us to go outside and enjoy nature, even if we are in cosplay.

Nan Desu Kan, August 31 to September 2, Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, 1550 Court Place.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen