“Are you okay?” the Guy With The Beautiful Eyes asks, sliding into the seat next to me, which, until just moments before, had been occupied by a Steampunk Banana.
Given that so many people roaming this and the surrounding hotels are covered in blood, many of them feigning dismemberment, and some even dragging disembodied limbs behind them, it’s surprising that my bandages would bear mentioning, but at Dragon Con, I guess this is what passes for cocktail chitchat.
Dragon Con is described differently by everyone asked to do so, but it’s usually something to the effect of “the largest fan-run, multimedia, pop-culture convention in the country,” which is another way of saying that it’s a huge celebration of everything that could possibly make you a nerd. Obviously, there are the old standbys of science fiction, fantasy, comic books, horror, anime, gaming and the like. But there are also science panels, solar telescope viewings, days-long strategy exercises developed by the Naval War College, and robot battles. When I explained to my five year-old that I enjoyed watching robots in gladiatorial combat, but it was okay because they were robots, I immediately realized that it’s entirely possible we live in the techno-dystopic hellscape that science fiction always warned us about.
But for the moment, I am at the Hilton’s very non-futuristic Trader Vic’s, drinking in the nostalgia. And also fruity cocktails. I had met the Guy With The Beautiful Eyes a few days earlier at the Dragon Con media party when Jason, Scene Missing’s editor, said to him, “I’m not hitting on you or anything, but you have very pretty eyes.” He seemed like a nice guy, and we had a friendly chat with him. But whatever good will we had established vanished when, less than half an hour later in the hotel restaurant, Jason gave him the universal sign language for, “What the fuck are you looking at?” To be fair, he had given Jason the “Hey, I know you” finger-point from a few tables over, which probably looked like an aggressive gesture to someone who evidently has the eyesight of a mole.
Jason and I were concerned that we had offended the Guy With The Beautiful Eyes, but his concern over my welfare here at Trader Vic’s is reassuring. And possibly also justified, as much of my head, neck and arms are covered in bandages, gauze, and surgical tape.
If one were to make the case that the large-scale frivolity and silliness on display at Dragon Con are akin to the shit going down in Rome just before the fall of the Empire, Exhibit A in their argument would be cosplay. A portmanteau of “costume” and “play,” the definition varies depending on which cosplayer you ask, but for non-cosplayers, it can best be defined as “those ridiculous, Spandex comic-booky getups that people at science-fiction conventions wear.” I certainly wouldn’t be caught describing it that way, though, because even though I’ve never tried cosplaying, for the past few years, it’s kind of been my job to make it respectable.
I recently completed the second public television documentary I’ve directed focusing on the fan culture at Dragon Con. The first centered on the con itself. The most recent spotlights people who have elevated cosplay to a level well beyond hobby, some of them working professionally as costumers, sculptors, fabricators, photographers, and models. The first program won an Emmy and was picked up for national distribution. I don’t want to oversell the second, but it will probably end hunger, bring about peace, and change the world.
To be honest, I’ve built my recent career upon leaching the entertainment value out of these cosplayers like a vampire with a jones for enthusiastic nerds. I’ve heard more stories than most about how creatively fulfilling and enjoyable cosplay can be, yet I’ve never felt the need to do it myself. I’m cosplaying at Dragon Con because, karmically speaking, I now had to.
I point at my bandages, as if that would serve as an adequate explanation to the Guy With The Beautiful Eyes. “I’m Hawkeye.”
“From M*A*S*H?” one of the people at our table asks, not the first to do so.
Although I’ve never previously had any significant affection for the character, word of mouth convinced me to give Marvel Comics’ recent issues of Hawkeye a try. Living in Brooklyn with neighbors who refer to him as “Hawkguy,” Clint Barton spends his time between Avengers assignments beating up neighborhood thugs, taking beatings from the same, crashing 70s muscle cars, and making a similar wreck of his personal life. With a retro action flick vibe complete with Lalo Schifrin soundtrack recommendations and an often innovative and always hip visual aesthetic, it’s way too cool for school*. It’s pretty great, and I’d like to say I chose to cosplay Hawkeye out of my love for the comic.
But it’s really because the costume would be a breeze; Hawkguy’s de rigueur getup is a purple t-shirt, jeans, Chuck Taylors, and a covering of bandages that grows with each issue. Easy enough. He carries a coffee mug as often as his more iconic bow and quiver. I could make a mug with a purple “H” on it; I could put booze in it! It all seemed really simple, yet so brilliant. Well, maybe, “brilliant” is a bit strong, but I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with the idea. If you think that sounds lazy, wait until you read this awkward segue.
So, I’m not at the tiki bar anymore. It was clear no one was going to recognize me there, and I had cosplay to, um, play? Do? Experience? Anyway, I didn’t put this costume together so I could sit under a taxidermied blowfish all night.
Crossing the Habitrail-like enclosed bridge between hotels, I pass an acquaintance who teaches karate for a living. “Are you okay?” he asks, looking slightly amused.
This is a guy who has, presumably, seen any number of people who have taken a beating, possibly even at his hands (and feet), so I guess I look reasonably convincing. “Hawkeye,” I explain, and raise my mug. He smiles and nods in pretend understanding.
When I bring the mug back down, I discover that part of the “H” that I brushed on with special ceramic paint and fired in my oven and was now, theoretically, dishwasher safe has peeled off at the first touch of a damp finger. I switch the mug to my right hand so the remaining, undamaged “H” is facing out, it being perhaps the only detail that takes the costume from “beat-up guy in purple shirt” to “Hawkeye.”
The questions I want to explore with my cosplay experiment are as follows: 1) Will anyone recognize who I’m supposed to be? and if so, then 2) Will they give enough of a shit to take a picture? It’s become apparent that a more Alan Aldaesque costume would have been the way to go if I wanted to answer either question, especially the second, with a “yes.”
Cosplayers have spoken to me of how they feel like celebrities beset upon by paparazzi when they get into costume, so relentless is the onslaught of admirers seeking photos. So far, only three people, all of them friends and/or affiliated with Scene Missing have taken my picture this evening. I’ve dropped hints to at least three noted cosplay photographers I know, one of whom even has photos in my documentaries. No one even offered me a pity-pic.
“Don’t get your hopes up; you’re a dude,” a friend told me. Is this why no one wants my photo? Nearly every female cosplayer has stories about “creepers,” guys who clandestinely take bust, crotch or ass photos. Given that nearly no one has asked me to pose or smile, finding creepy shots of my groin on the internet is the best I can hope for at this point. (You guys forward them to me if you see any!)
I lurk amid a scrum of somewhat less-pervy photographers as I wait to talk to BelleChere, a costumer of some internet fame, inasmuch as having significant fan enthusiasm for your cosplay photos makes you famous. (Or, “cosfamous.” No, I did not make that term up.) She said some nice things about my documentary online, so I want to introduce myself and tell her I like her costume.
I’m not really familiar with the videogame Borderlands, but a character named Mad Moxxi, whose look can best be described as “foxy ringmaster,” seems to be a popular choice at Dragon Con this year. BelleChere’s version is the best I’ve seen today, and eager shutterbugs continue to accumulate as we chat, so I wish her the best and get out of their way. “I have to ask,” she says, just before I leave. “Are you okay? Or are you Hawkeye?”
A number of cosplayers have told me that what they love about the hobby is that costumes easily telegraph a common interest and a shared affinity, whether it be for a genre, a show, a comic, or a character; “You dig Polaris from the X-Men? I dig Polaris!” You may not have much else in common, but you’ll always have Polaris.
It’s absolutely true. I get several “Hey, I know you,” points accompanied by raised eyebrows of recognition. I get a few “Hey, Hawkguy!” shouts. I receive more than one Fonzie-like “Aaaaayyyy!” when people see me. A very butch looking woman dressed in the same costume gives me a fist-bump. And, I have conversations with total strangers, international visitors, and Blues Brothers cosplayers about Hawkeye.
Of course, not everyone wants to talk about Hawkeye. After disentangling myself from a guy who says he’s on MDMA and who really, really wants to talk about the future of marketing, I catch up with Jason and the rest of the Scene Missing team on their way into the Star Wars-themed Last Party on Alderaan. I’m watching a man attempting to breakdance in full Stormtrooper armor when a woman taps me on the shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
It’s really late at this point and pretty loud in here, so I fail to catch this frequently-tossed ball on the first bounce. “What?”
She asks again and points at my face. Oh, right. I think I shrug and say something like “oh, yeah” and accompany it with a sheepish laugh and maybe a joke about how it’s a half-assed costume. Clearly, this is not what comes across in translation, because she responds with, “Yeah, I don’t actually really care if you’re okay or not,” and then gives me a coldly malevolent smile.
I’m not sure how to respond to this woman’s sudden malice toward me. I opt for another goofy laugh, so perhaps her takeaway from this will not be that I am an asshole, which is what she has clearly surmised, but that I am also quite possibly mentally handicapped.
In retrospect, I should have complimented her eyes.
*Actually, it’s not. If you brought it to school you’d get made fun of because it’s a comic book and people would ask you if you’re one of those weirdoes who dress up as comic characters at sci-fi conventions and you’d say no but you’d be lying.