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Comic-Con Is Live And In-Person Again And Yes, That Means Cosplayers Are Back. Why They're So Excited

A brown-skinned man in a Cyborg cosplay outfit, with a robotic covering over his mouth (and a COVID-19 mask peeking through). He stands in front of a brightly colored convention booth in soft focus in the background.
How a Cyborg adapts to a pandemic.
(Courtesy Andrew Liptak)
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San Diego’s Comic-Con International — and all the cosplaying fans — is back this week for the first time in three years.

Cosplayers have been some of the most excited fans as live events start to return. They’ll be holding court and taking photos with onlookers at the con, which regularly draws more than 100,000 attendees.

Andrew Liptak is a longtime Stormtrooper cosplayer who also just wrote a book on the subject, Cosplay: A History. He’s been examining immersive entertainment and why fans love dressing up as genre characters.

“We’re trying to bring these worlds to life, by actually making the costumes and bringing them into the real world,” Liptak said. “Stories are really powerful things, and they move us, they inspire us, and they bring us together.”

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Cosplaying In A Pandemic

A woman in a leather-esque Catwoman outfit, whip around her neck and a Black face mask on her face, cat-eared-goggles on her head. She wears an olive backpack and raises her hands toward the cameras in a gesture as if baring claws. In the background is a convention hall and other attendees.
Will pandemic Catwoman's fierce pose protect her from COVID-19?
(Courtesy Andrew Liptak)

While cosplayers will be able to show off the outfits they spent all pandemic making, they’ll have to figure out how to match their costumes with their masks. The convention is requiring face coverings to protect attendees from COVID-19 and to prevent a super-spreader event.

Liptak spotted some of those adaptations when he started going back to conventions after the vaccines became available.

“What I was pleased to see is that a lot of fans had tailored their masks to match the costumes,” Liptak said. “While they’re making the costume, they just set a little bit of it aside, and made a mask that matched. Or they would tailor it somehow, or build it into the costume.”

The convention comes as a highly contagious variant continues to spread. Just like Los Angeles County, San Diego County is preparing to bring back mandatory indoor masking. But that isn’t set to start until the week after Comic-Con.

Three cosplayers have their photos taken by someone with a phone at a convention, in front of a space backdrop. There are two Doctor Stranges and a Scarlet Witch — the Scarlet Witch has a scarlet face mask matched with her outfit, while the other two wear regular masks that appear to be cloth.
Cosplayers pose for a photo in the convention center during Comic-Con Special Edition in San Diego, Nov. 26, 2021.
(Chris Delmas
/
AFP via Getty Images)

Liptak is scheduled to appear on two panels and will be signing copies of his new book — with a couple costumes in tow — before heading home after a long weekend.

“Hopefully COVID-free,” Liptak noted.

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There’s been some smaller sneak previews of what this event could be like. There was the one-off Comic-Con Special Edition over Thanksgiving weekend and the Anaheim-based WonderCon in April, both of which are put together by the same organization as the larger San Diego event. But Special Edition was held during a lull between the delta and omicron waves, and WonderCon fell between the first omicron wave and the rise of the BA.5 sub-variant.

This week’s convention is much larger than either of those other events — in terms of attendees, outside events, and Hollywood hype — as studios bring news of what’s coming next to the influential fanbase. There’s also the widely noted issue that anyone who’s been to a large convention has likely experienced: what Liptak refers to as “the con flu.”

“It’s hundreds of thousands of people gathering in one place from all over the world, you’re going to get some combination of something, and it’s always gross,” Liptak said.

He hopes that the pandemic inspires conventions to require either masking or hand-washing going forward.

“Because, even if it’s not COVID, you still don’t want to get sick at a big, open event,” Liptak said. “Even if there’s no requirement, it’s a basic precaution that I can take.”

Ultimately, Liptak did his own risk assessment and felt that it was still worth going.

“One of the reasons I like going to cons is just to feel that energy. Everybody is there because they like being part of that world,” Liptak said. “When you see fellow cosplayers together, you can visibly see their love of a story, their appreciation, the time and effort and craftsmanship that they put literally on their sleeves.”

How Social Networks Made Cosplay A Phenomenon

A woman with blonde hair and dark roots, with light skin, wears a red dress with a satin finish. Her ponytail is dyed red. She stands on the floor of a convention, booths in soft focus in the background.
This cosplayer adapted Harley Quinn's red dress outfit from The Suicide Squad film, adding a matching COVID-19 mask.
(Courtesy Andrew Liptak)

Liptak got his own costuming start as a high schooler in the early 2000s, pestering the music teacher until he agreed to let them perform music from Star Wars. It gave Liptak the perfect excuse to call in a local stormtrooper cosplayer to come out as the band played “The Imperial March.”

After that event, when Liptak asked how he could get his own costume, the stormtrooper sold him a suit.

Liptak started out on his recent book thinking he’d write a history of the 501st Legion, a stormtrooper cosplay group seen everywhere from the Rose Parade to episodes of Star Wars shows on Disney+.

“But as we developed it, I realized ‘No, this is bigger.’ The bigger story of cosplay is far more interesting to me,” Liptak said.

He traced back the origins of cosplay as far back as the 15th century. The practice slowly started to spread in the 20th century, starting with the first major science fiction convention in 1939.

“They showed up in New York City in these costumes, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, this is weird,’” Liptak said.

But more people showed up in costume the year after that, and again year after year, leading to a marriage of cosplay and fan conventions. That expanded further with the growth of Comic-Con beginning in the 1970s, the birth of the blockbuster beginning with Star Wars, and a new mega-fandom forming around Star Trek, followed by anime conventions in the 1980s and '90s.

A cosplayer wearing a green riddler costume, including a green face mask with question marks on it, stands in front of a Gotham City backdrop featuring skyscrapers, ominous statues, and a clocktower. He holds a staff with a question-mark-shaped top.
A cosplayer dressed as the Riddler poses in the convention center during Comic-Con Special Edition in San Diego, Nov. 26, 2021.
(Chris Delmas
/
AFP via Getty Images)

“A big part of cosplay for a long time is the convention scene, because you don’t really make a big science fiction costume and then go out in public, because there’s not really the context, or the social acceptability, outside of Halloween,” Liptak said.

But more than any of that, Liptak said that cosplay going mainstream has to do with social networks.

“When you go to a convention, you have pictures taken of yourself — [now] everybody sees them,” Liptak said. “That helps to spread the word of what this is.”

People see someone they know going to a convention, and that desire spreads from fan to fan. It also spread through popular culture, both with the rise of superhero films and as cosplay increasingly appeared on TV.

Liptak cited the massive popularity of The Big Bang Theory, in particular. That fan attitude continued to evolve in shows like Disney+’s Ms. Marvel.

“Cosplay is prominently part of the plot, and that helps spread the word of the community, and introduces the concept to people,” Liptak said. “When you see somebody from your favorite TV show talking about going to Comic-Con, it’s like, ‘That’s a thing I can do. I like these things too.’”

YouTube’s been helpful from a practical perspective, as the Internet has helped to democratize the knowledge of how exactly you can make your own costume. It’s also become easier to acquire materials or to make your own costume pieces with affordable 3D printers.

“Before, you might have had to know a person who made the molds or models for something,” Liptak said.

Liptak’s excited to share his book and to see the latest cosplay at this year’s Comic-Con. And he already has his post-convention plans: testing for a week afterwards and watching for symptoms in an effort to protect his family — including one of his kids, who has yet to be vaccinated.

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