For Yaya Han, it all started with a character from the mid-90's anime "Maze." "I dressed up as Mill Varna who was this really obnoxious little princess. That was 13 years ago and I think part of the costume was made of felt and I shudder think about it now." Since then, Han has become a fixture at cosplay conventions around the world, crafting her own comic, anime, and video game-themed costumes out of cloth, latex, thermal plastic--you know, the usual.
That level of detail has been a passion for Han since that very first costume, and in the years since she's been a panelist at cons, she's released her own calendar, doled out tips and advice to would-be cosplayers, and recently served as a judge on "King of the Nerds" (she almost declined out of fear the reality show would be about poking fun at fandom instead of celebrating it). Han is a name in this scene at a time when puerile arguments about "real" nerds, assaults on women's body image in fandom, and race are creating an unwelcoming environment for would-be geeks even as fandom has blown up.
But for Han, who believes something like cosplay can change a person's life, it's all worth it.
Mill Varna (and a love of anime and manga) was like a gateway for Han into other fandoms, a love of anime and manga piquing her interest in the designs of video game characters: "When I discovered that gaming had the same type of characters that’s when I got into gaming." Later, friends would try to get her hooked on American comics and their spandex-clad heroes and villains, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities for long days and late nights constructing costumes from scratch or ordering key pieces online that would need to be assembled, glued, bolted on, and so on.
She tells me that back when she got started, the network of fans was tighter and simultaneously dispersed. For her and her friends, there was really only one site serving as a way to communicate--Fansview.com offered a mailing list linking to photos of other cosplayers at different conventions. "We’d look at fansview pictures and go on the cosplayers’ mailing list and literally be like, 'I saw this person, and the cosplay was really cool! Do you know who they are?' She adds that at the time, "The community was small enough that you could actually find each other. We’d just email each other as ask for techniques or tips that they had."
Nowadays, it's a lot easier to get started as a cosplayer (provided you're willing to put in the time and effort). Sites like cosplay.com fansource any number of photos from avid cosplayers, while Facebook groups likewise aggregate slick photos of amateurs and professionals giving their best Joker, or Ryu, or complicated, baffling mech suit (you've seen these guys ambling down the narrow aisles of SDCC).
Han marvels at the difference between being a cosplayer now and being one then: "It’s great, it’s amazing to cosplayers from all over the world now you’re no longer limited to people in your state or your country. You can admire from all around the world now and sometimes if you’re lucky enough you can become friends with them."
Looking back on my notes from the interview, her exuberance about the spread of cosplay reminds me at my own surprise at seeing how big SDCC was during my first con in 2010. You arrive at something of that scale with that number of people and you just marvel at the shared love of something, and how it seems to liberate the fans (for both good and ill). And like San Diego, there's money to be made and opportunities to establish a personal brand. Han told me about one cosplay event which brought together fans from around the world in a televised event, where cosplayers from around the world would gather to compete, showing off their best and most professional works of costuming.
Han has gone from fan to brand over the years--she's been selling prints, wings, and accessories in her online store, most of the items Han makes herself. Her rep is built in part from the undeniable cheesecake element to her outfits (the bulk of the comments on her Facebook photo posts are from unusually respectful male admirers) and the hard-to-ignore craftsmanship. Who spends hours trying to figure out how to make their own armor for a character from "League of Legends?" That person's definitely not a tourist or attention-seeker--it's about showing off something cool you made and sharing with the world the way you were able to make it work. "I love challenging myself and learning new techniques and getting better after all these years," Han tells me. "I seek out costumes that get me frustrated and get me into the thick of it and those two are tied."
And as with any thing you make and want to share with the world, there are going to be comments, criticism, and advice and Han recommends that would-be cosplayers build up a thick skin right off. Someone always has something to say, she tells me: "The public can be very cruel especially to people they don’t know and when a girl who is African American decides to cosplay an Asian character, there will always be people who will just say, “that’s not accurate.” Even for someone like me, being Asian, cosplaying an American character, I always get the, 'Well you’re the Asian Catwoman or you’re the Asian Jessica rabbit.'" She says that it's not just race but how skinny or fat the cosplayer is, are they tall enough, can they somehow match the impossible dimensions of these imaginary characters on a couple of hundred dollars (or less) budget?
The peanut gallery always has something to say, fair criticism and friendly advice often shouted down by people who don't care, as Han observes, that the person wearing the costume usually isn't getting paid for this--they're doing it because they love it. "Hardcore fans have a vision in their head and if they look at your cosplay of it you may not fit their vision."
And for all that, she's optimistic, on one hand saying that would-be cosplayers should be aware of how they look before they head to a con ("If you’re a girl and you look sexy and they will look at you a certain way, some people will not be able to look past the way your dressed"), while largely, she believes that no matter what anyone says, a cosplayer shouldn't let comments get in the way of you strutting your stuff.
She's a big believer in cosplay having a positive impact for the cosplayer: "It can literally change someone’s life, it’s very positive for young teenagers to get into cosplay if they do it with their friends or with supervision from their parents--it can really foster their social skills."