The ultimate avenue into nerd culture

Calgary cosplayers gear up for the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo

It’s Wednesday night and members of Club N3Rd are furiously putting the finishing touches on their costumes. The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo is days away and there’s still a lot to do.

The club’s founder and ex-president Dara DeFreitas is trying on armour newly made from a bendy thermoplastic called Worbla. She and fellow cosplayer Caitlin Bennett are both dressing up as Planeswalkers from the card game Magic: The Gathering while fellow cosplayer Alana Noble is busy in the background making adjustments to her Alice (from Alice in Wonderland ) costume complete with accompanying Cheshire Cat. When asked what kind of characters she likes to create DeFreitas says “Badass bitches; women that are feisty and tough.” Noble concurs with Bennett adding that character design is a key factor in choosing a character — hero or villain doesn’t matter.

DeFreitas founded Club N3Rd in September 2011 at Mount Royal University (although anyone can join) to bring together “N3Rds” who are into video gaming tabletop gaming trading card games books anime cosplaying and more. For cosplayers the Calgary Expo which runs April 24 to 27 is highly anticipated event. Most of the club members finishing their costumes say they were first exposed to cosplaying at conventions and it hit them like a drug. Noble says she saw someone dressed up like Sonic the Hedgehog and that was it; she had found her calling.

Cosplay is the ultimate avenue into nerd culture. You can play the games and read the books but becoming a character is a different story — a level of depth and devotion most people don’t want to explore. (Particularly if you take it one step further and act like the character which some people do.) For most cosplayers it’s an artistic pursuit akin to fashion design — functionality can be important but takes a backseat to the degree of skill involved in the costume and the popularity of designs and characters comes and goes. While there are professional companies that make elaborate costumes the culture mainly exists in DIY online editorials and groups like Club N3Rd where people can trade and share ideas concepts and materials.

Like all subcultural pursuits cosplayers have a deep level of camaraderie and pride in what they do — not only hanging out at conventions in costume but also having a chance to show each other their work at events like the Calgary Expo’s POW! Parade. Conventions act like a fashion show; the costumes often take countless hours and lots of cash so big event act both a place to hang out and make-believe and a trade show where cosplayers can swap ideas trade secrets and designs.

Cosplay has climbed the ranks of nerd culture as comic film and TV conventions have exploded across North America. Comic books anime and video games just don’t carry the same pejorative connotations they once did and with the Marvel movies and shows like The Walking Dead drawing in millions of fans (and dollars) it seems everyone is embracing their inner nerd.

Still for many casual fanboys and girls seeing gangs of adults dressed in elaborate costumes often performing in character is a form of fan devotion they can’t understand. The Club N3Rd crew says they’ve gotten their fair share of offensive and hateful put-downs from people but that the Calgary cosplay community is generally supportive and tight.

Most of the costumes are hand-made by cosplayers themselves. “It’s definitely not a case of going to the corner store and buying a pre-made sexy nurse costume” says Lindsay Thomas author of the Calgary Expo’s “Ask Emily” column. For many cosplayers achieving perfect accuracy is the goal creating hand-made costumes that can take countless hours and hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars. DeFreitas says her Demon Hunter costume (from the video game Diablo III ) cost her close to $700.

Weapons are also an important part of the cosplay ensemble ranging from swords and staffs to knives and gigantic machine guns. Thomas says the Calgary Expo’s weapons policy is basically “If it looks like it’s real and could hurt people please don’t bring it.” This means no knives made out of metal or realistic-looking guns. “As much as we love cosplay our biggest concern is health and safety” she says. “The last thing I’d want is people to bring a real weapon and not get into the Expo.”

The Club N3Rd crew says the weapon rules are more problematic however. “The prop rules are crazy” says DeFreitas. “They say if you have a large prop you need a handler like you’re a dog or something.” The Calgary Expo policies (and there are a lot of ’em) stipulate that if your costume is greater than seven feet in height or four feet in diameter you’ll need a guide.

With so many people jostling around in close quarters personal boundaries can become a bit of a problem regardless of the size of costume. Thomas says there have always been issues around appropriate behaviour but that people have only recently been speaking out. “There’s lots of shame around sexual harassment” she says. “No person coming to the show should ever feel unsafe ever. I want to make it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”

Calgary Expo cosplay guest Lindsay Elyse says that more fans have started to ask her if they can put their arm around her or get a hug while taking a photo. “I don’t mind at all but it’s really cool that people think enough of all of this to ask permission now” she says.

The Club N3Rd crew says that they’ve found most people to be respectful. “You gotta be okay and be prepared for the attention” says DeFreitas. Some creepy onlookers however take things too far. Noble looks seriously grossed out as she remembers one “fan” unhealthily enamoured with her Pink Ranger ( Mighty Morphin Power Rangers ) costume. “He put his arm around my waist took a picture and said ‘You’re the first girl character I ever masturbated to’” she says shuddering.

There are also rules around appropriate cosplay wear. Considering how many characters are um exposed this can prove to be challenging. “For women keep breasts contained; for men keep things wrangled” says Thomas. She says it’s a delicate subject — you don’t want to approach someone and have them accuse you of sexual discrimination or censorship but the Expo is also a family-friendly event full of parents and kids.

Elyse says she agrees that there should be rules at conventions due to family attendance but when it comes to the Internet the policing bothers her. “There are so many characters in comics games and anime that have revealing clothing” she says. “That’s just the way they’re drawn. So when cosplayers mimic that we get reprimanded for it and that irritates me.” She mentions a popular form of cosplay called “genderbends” — gender switching between characters. “Many people feel that an over-sexualized costume of a male character is inappropriate. Honestly someone will always be offended by something.”

Cosplay’s increasing popularity means that the announcement of a famous cosplayer appearing at a convention draws as much attention as film and TV stars. Arizona-based Elyse one of this year’s Calgary Expo guests has more than 136000 followers on her Facebook page with regular appearances at conventions across the country. She says with the right blend of promotion and publicity cosplayers can be in high demand at conventions where there can be “pretty insane monetary prizes” for contests. She adds the caveat that you can also end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars creating an elaborate costume and make none of that back.

Elyse says she’s a huge gamer and that most of her costumes come from games. “All I do in my free time is shoot aliens and cast spells” she says. She has a list of more than 50 characters she’d like to create and her current favourite is the female version of Jecht from Final Fantasy X . (“Who doesn’t love carrying around a five-foot wooden sword?”) She adds that the only characters she won’t cosplay are ones she’s unfamiliar with. “If I haven’t played the game watched the anime or read the comic I won’t even touch the costume” she says. “I like to really know the character before I represent them.”

The Club N3Rd crew doesn’t have any “off limits” characters though they say certain ones can become overexposed. “Last year there were Adventure Time costumes everywhere there were so many of them” says Bennett. (They all agree that the overexposed award this year will go to Disney’s Frozen .) More importantly are the many characters they haven’t gotten to — for Bennett it’s Demona from Gargoyles ; DeFreitas mentions Scorpion from Mortal Kombat ; Noble has her eyes set on femme versions of Batman and Robin from the ’90s cartoon. “Those have to be exact” says Noble. “I gotta bring my A-game to that one.”

For more Calgary Expo cosplay info and events check out calgaryexpo.com .