Oom Up to It : Costumed Charity Work

When it comes to costume work, I generally have two schools of thought. One I take from The Dark Knight, the other I take from Vandross and Jackson.

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

True. Commission work is nice. I also have not turned down paid costumed appearances at movie theaters and special events. Nor have I shirked any free admission to conventions when I know the majority of my time will be spent with the crowds taking photographs and promoting the show prior to it’s launch. But is this why I got into cosplay? Is this what I want for myself in the world of costuming?

No. Because, let’s face it and let’s be totally and utterly cliche: “The best things in life are free.”

Now, I know Mr. Vandross was talking about the moon and sunshine and kittens and love; but I’m talking about something else. No, not the free convention passes. No, not the perks of going behind the scenes of televised baseball games or free admission to some of the most popular museums, parks and events just for swinging a lightsaber. No–something deeper. Something past the perks. Past the free swag.

I’m talking about the costume that’s not a costume, but a uniform. I’m talking about the reason for the long commute, the money invested, the weekends spent, the comfort sacrificed. The perks are nice, but costumed volunteers bust their butts and their wallets. They give and, sometimes, they give while wearing a helmet or a mask–just another faceless character you know only for that they represent.

Is it thankless? Is it worth it?

If you’ve ever been one of those people whose smiled to see their favorite character at an event, you can tell me. If you’ve even been one of those children whose faces drop to see a real life Jedi or Iron Man himself, you can tell me. If you’ve ever been glad to see someone expressing their geekdom without shame, or if you’ve ever admired another costumer for the work that they’ve done, you can tell me. It’s a question that doesn’t need an answer or, rather, it’s a question that doesn’t have an answer. Not really.

It’s not just a yes. It’s not even a resounding yes. It’s an answer that lives only in the heart of the costumer, an answer that lives only in the imagination and admiration of children and adults. It’s something me and you share at events; something that’s between us and between us alone. Something we carry with us later, something we remember. Maybe it provides you with a better mood that day–maybe you pay it forward with a good deed. Maybe you grow up always believing in heros. Or, maybe, I only got you to smile just once. Just that once.

It’s enough. Enough to make an impact. Enough to touch a part of your day, your life; and as the person who wears the costume; it becomes like a virus caught not just at one charity event, but a whole handful. It roots deep into the heart and takes hold, and it spreads from the heart to the mind, and from the mind to the limbs. We believe in ourselves to do good things. We put ourselves out into the world to do good things, and consider people a part of our community who have bad days like us, love like us, and need good in the world–like us.

So we do it. And we do it often.

Specifically, I am part of the Star Wars costuming group known as the Rebel Legion. I bet you thought i was going to say 501st, right? Nah. I’m a Jedi. But I do “troop” with them too. Empire scum or not, they’re a great group of people; but I hang my hat with the Rebel Legion’s Echo Base, which covers New York, New Jersey, and most of the tri-state area. I average about one to two events a month (or, “troops”) and we do everything from raise money for charities at conventions to meet and greets at libraries to major events like Star Wars Day at Citifield Stadium (home of the Mets) to raise money for Stand Up to Cancer. They’re covered in the local news, the newspaper, blogs, forums, facebook–you name it, the Rebel Legion and the 501st are spreading the contagious charity love for both Star-Wars and how to pay it forward in this life. In fact, we have so many members and bases we cover not jut the United States, but the entire globe. I mean, what better way to take over the world?

I’m also a part of the East Coast Avengers, a similar charity organization geared towards Marvel cosplayers. I’ve covered many events that help raise money for Hospice, local lodges and town-functions geared towards the community. We’re local heros making big changes in every community we are honored to be a part of.

While I’m at it, let me quote another song:
“The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

I’d say I’m here to make love, but that’s a subject for someone elses’ blog. (har har har). Let’s face it, our days are full of problems and full of shit and full of worry. I think it’s the duty of a person not just to wake up, go to work, sweat at the gym or sweat over bills and eventually get so sick of it all we’re left with just dusty memories and a list we should have crumpled and thrown into a bucket instead of putting it alongside one. We need to experience it all. But, more importantly, we need to make sure other people experience it, too. It’s not just about charity work, it’s about being the hero. It’s about being the good you want to see in the world. About seeing the hero in not just yourself, but in everyone else.

So get out there. Dress up. Cosplay. Go to a convention. Read a comic. Get lost in yourself. Get lost in a world you believed in as a kid, a world you can still believe in now. But whatever you do, give back .Feed your alter ego, stop denying that you’ve got an inner child that’s been locked away from the world too long. And, hell, if you’re doing it with me already?

Then thank-you, my friend, for making me smile.

Two Steps Back (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Blunder)

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Now I know why Tony Stark builds all those suits…

It’s said to “err is human, to forgive–divine” and, let’s face it, the best things we humans seem to know how to do is err. Alot. Often. And usually on the things we are putting the most of ourselves into. Personified, in this case, by our cosplay costumes and props.

I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating than a mistake during the creative process. It’s far less of a blunder to make one while we are writing–we simply hit the backspace button and go again. In fact, we do it so often we don’t even think about it anymore….yet when we make one while sewing? That’s a half hour of pulling a thread out before we can even reevaluate where we went wrong and start again.

This very afternoon I experienced a blunder, and it came with all the usual symptoms. I panicked. I had some music playing and had to shut it off, as if it would help the situation at all. I felt my cheeks flush a little bit with something that is both embarrassment and rage. Rage at everything. Myself, the fiberglass, the helmet. Then I looked at my mistake probably a hundred times. I sat down with it, stood up with it, twisted it around in my hands; as if trying to convince myself that me thinking I had made a mistake was a mistake.

Nope. It was real.

Then I went through all the other symptoms. Denial was the first. Then anger. Then the old “let me break it apart to fix it” idea before the whole “maybe I should start all over” /rage quit. And, honestly, it looked like I really did have to start all over. The fiberglass had dried and shrunk the helmet in a way that it didn’t fit anymore. At all. I had also become misshapen in some places, so much that doing it over would have caused it to look better. Instead of tackling my problem head on, I was looking for solutions that would bring me away from the project–including doing it again. Because I didn’t think it was good enough the first time, and all because of this (third) big mistake.

I don’t think this is uncommon for any of us to encounter. I see alot of costumers and prop builders quit when they run into a wall, when they are holding a piece of their project they have to go backwards on, instead of moving forward like they anticipated. Like they expected. We place these expectations on ourselves and on our projects to move a certain way and have a certain outcome: but they don’t. Ever. So what do we do? Maybe we should put it down, come back to it another time. Maybe we should start over, because practice makes perfect, right?

I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or a wrong answer for this. To me, all I can do is quote our loving old grandpa Alfred..and consider the question…

Why do we fall?

It may be that you pick yourself–and your project–back up after a time to let the heated embarrassment and frustration of a mistake boil off and cool back down to a temperature that is new to you all over again. It may be that you pick yourself up best when you do start over with a clean slate, built on the rubble of your practiced attempts. Or, like me, perhaps you pick yourself up best when you simply wipe off the fiberglass residue of a really hard, long and complicated sanding process that only could have ended in more failure; but instead ended with a helmet back on your head where there couldn’t be one before.

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The bottom line is that you DO it. Don’t put it down and forget about it. Don’t start over again unless you have too, because its too easy to stand in your own way. It’s too easy to be so critical that you wind up with four iron man helmets instead of one (true story).

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Goldilocks has nothing on me

Don’t punish yourself. Don’t punish the art. I often feel as if stage of my piece is like a stage of its life. You have its inception, its birth; you nurture it through the adolescence of rough drafts and paper models and fiberglass skeletons. You’ve seen it look messy, you’ve seen it broken, you’ve visualized its potential and seen it’s maturity long before everyone else. You believed in it. You believed in yourself. I often expect these life cycles of production to move forward without looking backward, without falling behind–but it does. It’s up to us to correct our work without blame, without self-criticism. Because, really, what’s the real point in falling?

We learn.

Sure, duh. We all ‘learned’ this in first grade. Learn from your mistakes, right? While working on Iron Man and, most recently (and with greater impact) while working on costumes for other people, I found out how difficult it was to actually learn anything from my mistakes–outside of how many walls I can run headfirst into.

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Fiberglass Matting: The Friend you Hate to Love, and Love to Hate

But there is something to be said about being the mother (or father) of your own creation: don’t be scared of it. Don’t be scared to cut it, to alter it, to modify it. Don’t be scared to think of something new, to research, to ask, to push the limits of your materials. Most importantly of all, don’t be scared to go slow. We love to get wrapped up in the fruit of our labor that we forget the most exciting part of all isn’t the con, or the costume, or the beautiful smiles of the people who see us–it’s the journey of what it took us to get there. 

Wait…you do what?

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Me as fallen Jedi Atrus, in front of the Marauder

It is my personal belief that cosplayers are born, not made. I think cosplayers come into this world with a playful angel on their shoulder, one that whispers secrets of creativity and inspiration, one that tells each of us how to discover and channel a self-expression that goes beyond the mundane of day-to-day life.  Cosplayers are the forever young, the eternally creative, the pioneers of imagination. They take the fantastic and drop it into the real world, they pull from their spirits the inner child, the writer, the creator. They never take off the mask, the suit, the makeup–we are who we portray, and we portray who we identify with. They are our alter egos, our secret identities; and the spirit of our cosplay is as undefinable as the joy it brings to each and every person who has experienced costuming in one way or another.

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Me and a fellow Rebel Legion member, Lillian.

Trying to explain cosplay can sometimes be as difficult as trying to define the moment I “became” one. As I opened with, I believe that all cosplayers are born cosplayers–and if you’re over 16 and have ever dressed up for Halloween, you might even roughly be considered one too–but there is a moment in our lives that we define ourselves as a part of this massive, enriching community of like-minded individuals who costume as their favorite fandom (be it games, entertainment, comics, Anime, etc). In that sense, I believe I’ve always been a cosplayer. As a child, I used to wear Halloween costumes out of season around the house. I also used to combine Halloween costumes to make up my own character. When I was in high school, I custom ordered a Jedi Knight ensemble to wear once at a party because I wanted my costume to look “screen accurate”. At my first convention, I was going to meet a cast member of the Battlestar Galactica re-imagined series and it was suggested I put together a costume for the convention–by then I was ten years out of high school and still only wore costumes for Halloween. Still, I researched one and ordered a custom made esemble for the Green BDU outfit. I wore it to Fanexpo Canada, met Katee in it and had photos of myself taken in it. It’s the convention that made me want to have more costumes, attend more conventions and submerge myself in this awesome community. Was this the defining moment? Or had it been there all along?

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The following year I created my first home-made costume, the Iron Man Mark 4. I learned how to replicate armor and props, and had purchased in that time my Viper Flight-suit and my femme Two-Face custom 3-piece suit. I had been using my high-school purchased Jedi Knight costume to troop with the Rebel Legion, and had begun networking to other cosplayers while attending major cons like NYCC, D*Con and C2E2 as well as some of the smaller conventions like Farpoint, ICON and Lunacon. When the Mark 4 was complete I went on to compete in Masquerades and won awards at Farpoint, Lunacon and PhillyCon. It’s inspiring, humbling, and amazing to be so supported by peers and judges alike that I could never thank any of you enough for the experience.

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People such as yourselves reading this blog and those I meet at these conventions do not birth the cosplayer in oneself. It’s nurtured, fed, and given a life in a way we could not do alone. So when one is asked what one does, do not hesitate to use the word cosplay. It means expression, it means art, it means fandom, it means there’s an alter ego in you that wants to be heard. So strut your kick-ass self alongside me–and let’s play.

Kids and Conventions

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One child has an arc-warming moment at a charity event

Lets face it. Kids need heros. Hell, I need heros. We all do. As a child, there was no greater magic than seeing a character you emulated in television and movies come to life and stand before you in full fleshed out glory. When I was younger, I got totally amped up meeting Mickey Mouse. That mouse in Disney was the legit thing. I also was struck mute when I saw Santa Claus putting presents under my tree in my own home, and forget ever finding the right words to say when Cinderella asked me my name. Name? I have a name? These days, we all have grown out of that absolutely innocent, entirely magical moment where fantasy and reality collide. In those moments we might as well have walked through a closet and exited into Narnia. Now, as an adult, I might get the same sensation when standing toe to toe with Liam Neeson–but we all know it’s not the same. Not exactly.
Now, as an adult, the Universe has granted us all with the most benevolent magical power to be entrusted to us: cosplaying. Our time to feel that pure child-like awe is not past, but reshaped. Now we can not only re-live the experience we knew as children–we can BE that magic. We can BE that hero. We can BE part of the belief that yes, good people and superheros really do exist.

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Even tiny heros need a time-out

Recently, I read a discussion about children attending conventions. I was surprised at the amount of considerable debate around the question as to if children should attend any of the comic conventions cropping up around the world in numbers that rival neighborhood Starbucks. I mean, this is a convention for Geeks, right? Geeks are the lone wolves, the virgins, the gamers living in their parent’s basements. Geek’s don’t have girlfriends, right? They barely get out, don’t they? And they certainly don’t settle down and get married with children, right?
Wrong.
The Big Bang Theory, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (TV) and The Avengers did a weird thing for geeks. Maybe they do still get picked on in school, but it seems once you  hit an age where you can talk back and pick out your own T-shirts at Hot Topic, a funny thing happens in a world where Iron Man is the ultimate playboy version of your tinkering tool-shop Dad and Superwoman becomes synonymous with your multi-tasking mom. Suddenly, being a geek is cool. Being a geek is trendy. Its a mainstream subculture that’s gaining a momentum that rivals the speed of light….and, thus, this booming convention scene is born.
Maybe some of you reading this are shaking your heads, saying “I went to conventions before it was cool”. I can respect that. I can respect that because I’m not one of them. I’ve only been attending conventions for the last few years, and despite seeing the popularity of NYCC leaping from sold out last minute to sold out months in advance, I can hardly say I’ve seen the evolution of conventions turn into the packed, child-screaming, nerd-raging, cosplay orgy it is today.
Alright, maybe I embellished a little.

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Me and some fans at the Iron Man 3 primere

So, it’s true that those of you that have been attending conventions before the reimagined series of Battlestar Galactica went on the air may have more of an ‘educated’ opinion on the matter of children and cons–but only in the respect of comparing it to what it once was to what it is now. Me? I’ll just get right out and say it. I agree children should attend cons. I don’t care if they’re toddlers in strollers, ten year olds dressed as Batman or fourteen year olds appreciating that well-done cosplay of Poison Ivy. Comic Conventions aren’t just for comic book fans of a certain age–they are for everyone. Families, couples and single players.
That being said, I do think parents need to be mindful of the convention scene and go to one (or two, or a few) before deciding if it’s right for their child. It isn’t like taking your child to the department store mall or the local zoo (though sometimes they feel like a cross between the two). It can be a loud, big overwhelming world where not everything is entirely age appropriate; though I have yet to see something (or someone) I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking my child around–when I have one.

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Out of costume at a Rebel Legion charity event with a little Padawan

There is no greater motivation behind cosplay than seeing how children react to you. Children are brutally honest, painstakingly attentive and brilliantly reactive. They are ones biggest critic and one’s biggest fan. So do your research, but love the kids at cons. Sure, they may cry a little and demand a little more room–but they’re the future of cosplaying. Show them what it means to be a hero.