"Can I take their picture?" When a passing citizen finds four caped crusaders gathered on a Charlotte sidewalk, he directs his question to the plainclothes entourage standing nearby. Dazzler and Phoenix are deep in conversation; as fellow X-Men, they undoubtedly have much to discuss. The muggy Charlotte air is a far cry from Gotham's steel cold, and Batman discovers his cape can double as a handkerchief to dab the sweat from his scowling cowl. Captain America is stoic, lifting his heavy starred shield as if it were weightless, posing in an effortless graceful sweep. Dazzler gives a shout that it's OK for cameras, and three more people stop on the sidewalk to raise their iPhones. After a moment, I dig out my own camera to grab a shot of the four of them. After all, I doubt I'll ever see a random gathering as famous as this.
It's not a movie set or early Halloween soiree, but a group of local Charlotte cosplayers posing for a professional photo shoot. They are not actors or performers, but regular comic fans expressing their love for the characters they embody. Cosplayers are staples of comic book and anime conventions, unpaid and dedicated fans who express their favorite iconic and obscure characters in painstaking fashion. With Charlotte's own conventions gearing up — HeroesCon happens June 22-24 and Charlotte ComicCon is Aug. 5 — these folks have already gotten in the spirit.
"Literally [cosplay] means, 'Costume Play,' but 'Those geeks who like to play dress-up even when it's not Halloween' is probably what most people will recognize," DJ Spider says. She is dressed as Dazzler, one of the X-Men's lesser-known super heroine friends, towering in sparkling disco boots and radiating energy. She's quick to laugh but quicker still to defend her cosplay passion.
"If you take a closer look, you'll find a very creative group of people who work hard at replicating the costumes of the characters they love," she elaborates. "For some, it's the challenge of making the costume; for others, it's the wearing of it. But for all of them, it's the shared joy of the craft. It's not limited by profession, age, income, race or gender. And besides, if you had the chance to be a superhero for a day, why wouldn't you?"
DAZZLER IS A BLONDE bombshell singer who uses sound to attack foes, a character that made waves in the '80s and occasionally pops up in variations of X-Men comics. In real life, DJ Spider (who spins regularly at Breakfast Club and other Charlotte locales) is more of a charismatic Professor X, the leader of the X-Men. She's been involved in cosplay for 10 years, first catching the bug at DragonCon, an Atlanta convention that she calls "The Red Carpet of Costuming." "I've been a comic book geek since middle school, and [at DragonCon] I was blown away by everyone, even more so because they were doing all of the characters I wanted to, but thought it would be too weird to do. I had found my people!"
As for Dazzler, DJ Spider says she made the costume herself. "It's actually version 2.0; the first one that I made in 2004 finally fell apart, so in 2010 I was urged by a friend to redo her for HeroesCon, as Eisner Award-winning writer Jim McCann would be there and he had just written a one-shot for Marvel featuring her. I upgraded the boots and used better material. Like most cosplayers, I'm still not 100 percent happy with her, but in time I'm sure there will be a version 3.0. Dazzler was my first comic book love, so wearing her just feels like coming full circle."
While Dazzler isn't a blockbuster figure, Captain America certainly is. Straight from the silver screen, Mike Powell's portrayal is an early version of The Avengers' Captain America. A man out of time, Cap has seen a surge in popularity thanks to last year's self-titled film and this summer's shawarma-munching big-screen bonanza. With a chiseled chin that looks hand-drawn, Powell fits the persona perfectly. The reaction he gets when walking the streets? "Cops stop me, wanting to take photos. People clap."
His laid-back personality works for such a complicated costume; the shield is heavy, the helmet is hot, and along with the boots, the whole thing takes some time getting used to. Like most fashion, we suffer for beauty.
With his cape billowing behind him, the other man in the group, Batman, almost needs no introduction. (But for those who need a refresher course, the caped crusader is a billionaire orphan who broods over Gotham to protect its inhabitants.) Bob Kieffer's incarnation of the crime fighter combines the image from the classic 1960s TV show with a darker edge; his Batman is rocking six-pack abs and a permanent, molded furrowed brow.
"It's called a cowl," he says. "The boots and the cowl were custom-made." The blue headpiece fits perfectly, but has its difficulties. The heat can't make it comfortable, but Batman stays positive. "At DragonCon in Atlanta, it was 95 degrees out and I loved it. I have no complaints at all. Maybe because I'm new and unjaded!"
Kieffer started cosplaying last year with his 8-year-old son, Alex. Their first costumes were, of course, Batman and Robin.
It's not every day you get to hang out with Batman, and as Kieffer has discovered, people love the guy. To be frank: Ladies love the Bat. "Thank God my wife is cool with it," Kieffer says. When donning the mantle of the Dark Knight, patrons at comic book conventions clamor for his photo.
But it's hard not to become the heroes, with each cosplayer naturally falling into the patterns of whom they're portraying. Even when not posing for the camera, Batman and Phoenix sit exactly as their characters would; Batman near the ladies, of course, and Phoenix giving the playboy a haughty cold shoulder.
Speaking of which, Deanna Cooper in Phoenix's green ensemble is stunning. The character Phoenix, aka Jean Grey, is from the popular X-Men, reborn from Marvel Girl to the incarnation of the character that Cooper sports. Phoenix, like Batman, has several costumes, but the green spandex with gold belt is the classic.
Cooper started cosplaying nine years ago, at an anime convention. "I was looking through an anime magazine — and I knew about the Trekkies; my dad is a big Star Trek fan — and first saw cosplayers. When I went to my first convention, I thought, well I can do this, I can sew. So I threw together a little Japanese schoolgirl uniform and had the best time of my life. I was hooked after that."
Dressing up as an iconic character and having your photo taken is like playing rock star for the day, but as many a superstar know, those taking the photos don't always have the star's best interest in mind. Brad and Angelina can afford a lawyer to have photos taken down from sites that are not kind, but cosplayers do not have that luxury. While the community as a whole is supportive and its members use their time and costumes for greater purposes than Facebook likes, the Internet isn't always kind. Cooper mentions that her image has been taken out of context, appearing on hate sites.
"You have to have tough skin," she says. "But at the end of the day, these people are not going to take away my joy or happiness by being ignorant."
It's a sad truth that there are few leading characters that are not white and male, and embracing and interpreting the qualities of beloved characters is the essence of cosplay. Gender-bending is a norm, and Cooper expresses the importance of not letting the race of a character limit who can play them.
"Especially me being African-American — there's not a lot of characters who are African-American. Color, race, sex should not matter," she says. When asked if she ever felt pressure to take on a role like X-Men's Storm, played by Halle Berry in the early 2000's X-Men movies, Cooper firmly brushes this idea aside. "I used to think that, but it shouldn't matter."
With that sentiment, Cooper reveals that she and other cosplayers are a part of a creative and energetic community striving to be fighters of ignorance and vindicators of truth, justice, and, why not, the American way. Given the right wardrobe and attitude, anyone can be a hero in the making. Even mild-mannered Charlotteans.
Super Style: Becoming a hero
Finding your style may seem daunting, but four of Charlotte's own cosplayers offer advice for the newbies hoping to dress the part.
DON'T go bankrupt. Work within your budget and be creative. "A good costume can be put together for $20 or for $1,000." — Bob Kieffer, Batman
DO go at your own pace. "For your first time, pick something easy. Even if you have to buy it and fix it up to your liking, just do that. And local wig stores are your friend." — Deanna Cooper, Phoenix
DON'T be rude. When visiting cosplay forums for assistance for your costume, take into account the effort that goes into each outfit. "Don't just pop in and say, 'Hey, can someone make this for me?' Research the board, see what other people are making, get some connections, and then slowly pull your costume together that way." — Mike Powell, Captain America
DO enjoy it. "Have fun! That's the No. 1 rule — if you're not having fun, or it feels like a job, then why are you doing it? Pick a character you have a connection to in some way, because it'll be more of a labor of love. Also, wear the right undergarments; no one wants to know Superman's religion, m'kay?" — DJ Spider, Dazzler