It was the fifth annual Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2), the Midwest’s premiere comic and entertainment expo, when Gregory Parks, an emerging cosplay enthusiast, donned a gender-swapped Doctor Who-inspired Martha Jones costume — thrusting him into the dynamic world of cosplay.
Cosplay is an abstract blend of fandom and artistry that resonates with countless creatives like Parks, whose fandom manifested his desire to replicate (and even enhance) the various costumes his favorite characters wore.
As a lifelong sci-fi fan, Parks possesses a keen passion for franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. His love for Jedi robes, star fleet uniforms, and even an atypical Jar Jar Binks appreciation has ignited a burning desire to design, create and share his work with a community growing at lightspeed.
The Cosplay Movement
Having grown up in Iowa, Parks witnessed the evolution of cosplay from afar. The coasts dominated the scene for decades. What started as a niche hobby has expanded into a social spectacle in cities like San Diego and New York, which hosted their first Comic-Cons in the 1970s.
After overcoming years of under-representation, geographic limitations, and the attitudes of haters who believed Halloween was the only occasion adults get to dress up, the cosplay movement was officially underway.
According to reporter Betsy Golden Kellem, author of History, Cosplay, and Comic-Con, the rise of mass-media popular culture was critical to the spread of cosplay, with fan culture exploding after the new millennium. Fandom enthusiasts emerged in franchises such as Star Trek and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The arrival of Comic-Con united fans under one roof delivering an opportunity to forge bonds over shared enthusiasm, for distant friends to connect, or for “micro-celebrities” to make a name for themselves.
“Growing up, I was aware of Star Trek conventions, but I only started hearing about them in the mid to late ‘80s,” Parks said. “I never thought of going to one just because there weren’t any conventions coming into Iowa. Over time, the emergence of smaller conventions inward of the coastlines would slowly materialize in various cities, providing opportunities for creators to go out and show off their talents.”
Since the 2015 C2E2, Parks has crafted and displayed numerous cosplay builds that have captivated audiences and his fellow creators. As a pioneer of this cultural movement, he has earned his rank of master within this contemporary art form. Through years of practice, Parks has carved out a space for himself within this community, designing mashup costumes with clever twists on classic sci-fi characters.
“My fiancé and I like doing pun and mashup costumes,” Parks said. “She did one that went over well and got some national attention. She did Edgar Allan Poe Dameron, and that was great. She and I have Prince-inspired Star Wars mashup costumes that we plan to do in different versions. She is Purple Ray, and I’m Purple Ren based on Princes’ Purple Rain era.”
The thrill of seeing finished cosplays is immeasurable, and those moments are best when shared between like-mind creators who are equally excited by the wonders of costume creation.
“People are generally excited to see other people cosplaying,” Parks said. “If you’re cosplaying somebody’s favorite character, they’ll get excited, and then you wind up talking to somebody new and telling them about one of your favorite things or learning something new about their fandom.”
Supporting Marginalized Communities
The arrival of Midwest conventions has united fans and delivered an experience unlike any other.
Allison Niemiec, a graduate student at Rowan University, authored The Mental Health Benefits of Cosplay, an article focusing on the psychological benefits of cosplay and convention culture. The highly expressive art form can help individuals develop self-confidence and feel more secure in their interests. The exhilarating energy that flows through the halls of a convention is infectious, as creatives take pleasure in belonging to a collective that values their vision and artistry.
Another article, written by Mindy Weisberger, spotlights The Psychology Behind Cosplay as creators have used their connection with certain characters to cope with personal struggles. This feeling is incredibly beneficial for marginalized minority groups, who have found acceptance in the art of cosplay as the communal representation has fostered relationships built on support and encouragement.
According to Lexi Ginn, contributing writer for Cosplay Central and author of Black Cosplayers Call For Change In The Cosplay Community, Black cosplayers have often been overlooked and underrepresented within the cosplay space. Despite their creativity, talent, and passion for embodying beloved characters, their contributions have flown under the radar. Cosplay has played a transformative role in helping Black individuals embrace and feel more comfortable in their skin. By donning the costumes of beloved characters from various mediums, Black cosplayers can explore and express different facets of their identities. The rich tapestry of cosplayers and their unique perspectives bring a fresh and exciting dimension to the cosplay community.
As a frequent cosplayer, Chicago native Monternez Rezell has found a community predicated on supporting fellow minority creators. What started as an occasional pastime blossomed into an around-the-clock passion that he shares with an often-overlooked subcategory of creators.
“The cosplay culture is very accepting. No matter what your fandom is, you’ll always be welcome in that space,” Rezell said.
He is part of Chicago POC Cosplayers, a group that exemplifies this message. “It’s a racially diverse community that is all about accepting others. My friends Chris and Mike started the group to make a safe space and more opportunities for other minority cosplayers. The cosplay community was already this accepting space, but they created this space inside of this space for people of color to do what they love and to be accepted.”
Although dressing up as characters seems like an activity everyone would want to participate in, cosplay and the larger geek culture have encountered turbulent reception.
“Growing up in the ‘90s, people would often get made fun of for their fandom just because they liked something obscure that nobody else was into,” Rezell said. “Oftentimes, people were too scared to geek out because they were afraid somebody was going to make fun of them.”
These challenges have encouraged the new wave of cosplayers to embrace their most genuine self through art. Furthermore, Rezell believes the best way to get involved in this movement is by doing it and not being afraid to show off your work. He frequently attempts to one-up his past works through a consistent output of cosplays.
The Magic of Cosplay
Recently, Rezell crafted and sported a White Ranger build that emphasizes authenticity and flare. Suiting up in cosplay gives him an exhilarating feeling that allows an escape from the confines of our often-boring society.
“Being in full cosplay feels magical,” Rezell said. “Especially after spending hours, days and sometimes weeks to create, build and complete a costume. It is the most wonderful feeling. Knowing you made the character come to life is the stuff of wonders.”
Cosplay continually provides its participants with an apparatus for creative expression that encourages innovation, artistry, and quirkiness. Geeks worldwide are brought together to indulge in a passion for pop culture’s most iconic figures. Vibrant and exciting futures lay ahead for cosplayers like Parks and Rezell, with bigger and bolder builds yet to come.