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Conventional characters

St. Albert cosplayers turn love of comics, anime into costumes at conventions

By: Victoria Paterson

  |  Posted: Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 06:00 am

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  • SUPERHERO POSE – Cosplay enthusiast Malissa Sekela dressed as Marvel character Black Widow.
    SUPERHERO POSE – Cosplay enthusiast Malissa Sekela dressed as Marvel character Black Widow.
    Supplied photo
  • HOMEMADE COSTUME – Vicky Lau dressed as the character Kagura from the series Gintama.
    HOMEMADE COSTUME – Vicky Lau dressed as the character Kagura from the series Gintama.

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Going to a comic and pop culture convention can seem a bit like landing in an alternate dimension.

One moment you’re browsing a booth filled with terrific merchandise. The next moment, Sailor Moon, Optimus Prime and a stormtrooper are trundling down the aisle.

The conventions often bring fans together with creators, not to mention television and movie stars from their favourite programs. They are also magnets for enthusiasts of “cosplay.”

Cosplay, short for costume play, is one way that enthusiastic fans use their creative talents to pay homage to their favourite television show, comic, anime, video game or other characters. Some may favour fabric to represent their chosen character while others may build armour suits so realistic that they could be mistaken for Iron Man.

Some cosplayers pay nearly obsessive attention to detail with each of their outfits, creating near-perfect representations of their chosen characters, from their shoes to their wigs to their eye colour.

Cosplayers like St. Albert’s Vicky Lau and Malissa Sekela will be wandering the aisles at this weekend’s Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, which is one of the biggest comic conventions in Canada.

Lau, 28, started cosplaying when she was in junior high school thanks to her love of anime.

Her mother made her first costume – Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII, but Lau has since tackled the challenging process of making all the rest of her costumes after taking one semester of home economics.

“In class they taught you how to thread your machine and there I was and I went,” she said.

Sekela, 25, is a courthouse worker who got into cosplaying about seven years ago.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Halloween,” she said.

She attended Animethon in Edmonton.

“I went and I saw all these other people were dressing up and I was like … ‘you can dress up on days other than Oct. 31?’”

That was all it took. The next time Sekela went to Animethon, she was in costume as Zatanna, a character from DC Comics. She had a great time, including being stopped for lots of photos, and the experience hooked her on going to conventions dressed in costume.

Choosing your character

Neither Lau or Sekela are content with having one costume that they break out for all conventions.

Lau, who makes costumes for both herself and her sister, checks out what’s popular in the newest anime or video games.

“Usually I cosplay with my sister and a couple of friends, so we try to pick something from the same series,” Lau said.

They try to pick characters they resemble, then contemplate the feasibility of the costume.

“It has to be travel friendly,” Lau said, who makes an annual pilgrimage to Anime Expo in Los Angeles every year with her friends.

Travel-friendly doesn’t just mean that it doesn’t wrinkle. If there are props – like swords or staffs – they need to break down.

The time of year can play a part as well. Lau doesn’t want to be wearing fur or a full ball gown in L.A. in July, but when she went to A Taste of Animethon in January in Edmonton, her costume was Anna from the Disney movie Frozen.

Sekela has a love of bombshells, and has emulated many comic book characters like Black Widow, Black Cat, Rogue and Poison Ivy.

“I basically geek out over something, like a TV show or a book,” she said.

Building the costume

Once the costume has been picked, it’s time to start constructing it.

Since both Lau and Sekela try to stay true to the original character portrayal, the details are important.

So the first step is to get several reference photos, from a variety of angles, to judge what colours and materials are needed.

If they’re making their costumes, the next step is to figure out the pattern, which isn’t as easy as heading to the fabric store to buy one.

“I try to figure out the logic behind them and the patterns because usually you have to redesign patterns or make your own patterns,” Sekela said.

Lau will use previous experience or alter existing patterns.

Of course, sometimes costumes in the cosplay world are more than just fabric. Some people build armour or use other materials to achieve their looks.

Sekela will also piece together costumes by buying items that are needed. For instance, for her Zatanna costume, she needed a corset and a tuxedo jacket, so she bought those.

For the Calgary Expo, she’s planning to go as a female Indiana Jones, a costume with components that were mostly easy to purchase instead of make.

Cosplay goes beyond strict representations of the characters – for instance, a gender-swapped Indiana Jones, or a medieval interpretation of Darth Vader might be spotted.

And when it comes to trying to make armour, a dress or even just a belt, fellow cosplayers can be a great resource either in person or through tutorials online. You might not know how to make a handmade resin belt – but somebody in the cosplay world probably does.

“If someone’s already done it, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Sekela said.

Lau said it usually takes her about a month to sew eight costumes for her and her sister to take to L.A. each year, allowing them each a daily wardrobe switch.

Sekela said it can take her a month to half a year to put together a costume.

Costumes can occasionally go wrong. Sekela had a memorable incident involving technical problems with a tail that was required for one costume.

“The tail was too heavy so I had to hot glue it to myself the day of the con,” she said. “It was the worst idea I ever had.”

More than just the outfit

Cosplaying is about more than just having the right clothes and props.

“I think a major aspect beside the costume itself is to have the proper makeup and a very good wig,” said Lau.

Don’t go cheap on the wigs, she emphasized. But even good ones can be slightly uncomfortable after a while.

“The best feeling in the world after cosplaying for eight hours a day is taking your wig off,” she said.

Contact lenses can be purchased to give the correct eye colour. Ones to make your eyes appear larger to get an “anime eyes” effect are available.

Regular makeup can often be used, unless there’s a call for specialty materials … body paint, for instance.

Sekela has gone so far as to spend four hours painting much of her body green to portray the Batman character Poison Ivy.

She advises doing trial runs that include makeup and hair.

Dealing with the attention

A good cosplay can mean you spend much of your time at a convention getting attention from strangers.

“It makes me very happy because it means my costume has been successful,” Lau said of people wanting photos of her. “It’s just like a really big compliment.”

“If you’re in costume, you’re going to get pictures taken of you,” Sekela said. “It’s good. It shows that people appreciate what you’ve done.”

A major issue in the cosplay community is the liberties some occasionally take with costumed people, especially if they’re women.

This has given rise to the slogan, “cosplay is not consent.” Sekela reminded con-goers to avoid touching cosplayers without asking first.

Lau said cosplaying can be a good ice breaker.

“It’s such a great way to meet fellow community members,” she said.

Sekela encouraged those who might be curious to approach and ask about the costumes.

“Don’t be afraid to talk to us,” she said.

Why cosplay?

It’s an expensive and time-consuming hobby, so why do people bother?

For Sekela, who’s also an illustrator, she likes making things.

“It’s zen. It helps me relax,” she said.

Lau, who by day is a registered dietician and a photographer by night, sees cosplay as its own art.

“I really want to make it so people start appreciating cosplay as an art form,” she said.

That art can include acting in character, which Lau said some opt to do.

Both women have gotten some travel experience as part of their love of cosplay. Lau makes an annual trip to L.A., not to mention cons in Western Canada.

Sekela has travelled to conventions across Canada, and some popular ones in the U.S. She even once made it to San Diego Comic Con, the granddaddy of comic cons.

Not everyone is universally complimentary of cosplayers, but Sekela said that shouldn’t stop anyone from dressing up.

“I’ve had people rip on me before,” she said.

She cited an incident in which she was dressed in a costume that looked simple, but had actually taken her months to put together.

“There was these two guys who walked by and they were like ‘Oh, well that takes a lot of talent.’ And that made me feel really crummy,” Sekela said.

Lau said it can be daunting to head out in costume.

“Have the courage to actually wear the costume,” she said. “Be open to having new experiences because you’ll be meeting new people.”


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