Kleefeld's Fanthropology #20: Makers Vs Consumers At San Diego Comic-Con

Kleefeld's Fanthropology: Makers vs Consumers

These days, San Diego Comic-Con receives a lot of media attention and regularly gets spots in all manner of news outlets and venues. And, inevitably, they typically show three types of scenes. First are the crowd shots. Large swaths of unidentifiable people swarming over the booths. Second are the celebrities because they're names everyone recognizes. Third are the cosplayers.

Now if you exclusively watched those mainstream media outlets talk about the convention, you might get the impression that every other person is in costume. You and I know, of course, that it's really only a very small percentage of the overall attendees. Probably something in the 5%-10% range. But the cosplayers do tend to look good for the cameras because they're both more colorful than your average con-goers, and they've already put a great deal of time and energy into their appearance. Though this isn't necessarily why they put on costumes, they're much more aesthetically prepared to appear on camera.

Slave Leia cosplayersInterestingly, though, while these cosplayers get a lion's share of the media attention at a convention like Comic-Con, they often get the short shrift from the corporations attending the event. Not that people in costume are ignored when they stop by a booth, mind you! They're frequently treated quite well in fact, particularly those with excellent or clever costumes, and are given (often photo) opportunities that not everyone might enjoy. No, what I mean by their getting a short shrift is that they're seen as consumers.

Now, to be fair, a good many people at a convention are consumers. They often go with the express purpose of buying t-shirts and books and statues and whatever else strikes their fancy. But many of the fans, certainly the cosplayers, are there in other respects as well. Notably, they're there as makers.

Makers are the people who actively engage in fandom by... well, making things. They watch their favorite shows and read their favorite books, internalize it, and then reflect their interpretations of it back out towards everyone else by putting their own creativity to work. Now you might think that creating a costume that duplicates one that somebody else designed is derivative, and not especially creative. But take a closer look.

First, a lot of these costumes are indeed based off designs by other people, but the actual patterns are not shared by the original designer or they don't even exist because they were based off comics or animated characters. So the cosplayer then has to figure out how to interpret and represent those designs on their own body. Look at those Slave Leia costumes in the above photo, and you'll actually see a range of styles. Different fabrics, different colors, different braids... Each of those costumes is a little different because each person did their own job of interpretting what they saw in "Return of the Jedi".

Boba Fett ChickenAnother aspect of creativity here is in the deliberate variations. Taking the basic concept, and putting a spin on it that no one else has thought of. Elvis Stormtrooper. Pimp Darth Vader. Steampunk Han Solo. Chicken Boba Fett. There is nothing in the official Star Wars material to suggest there was a race of giant chickens that adopted Mandalorian armor, but somebody out in fandom made that connection anyway and created a costume based on the idea. That's almost the very definition of creativity.

The cosplayers are the most visible proponents of this at a convention like San Diego, but the halls are crowded with other makers as well. Their medium of choice might be prose, or comics, or film, or cake, or music... So even though someone might not provide obvious visible evidence of their creativity as they're walking between booths at a con, that's not to say that they don't have that maker mind-set.

And that is something that corporations don't always seem to understand. They might talk to these makers and appreciate that these are fans who are more engaged that others, but they're still largely looked at as consumers. Highly engaged consumers, but ones whose engagement is seen through the lens of a financial transaction.

Certainly, not every company feels or acts this way. But historically, the corporate response has been more along the lines of, "Great! Free advertising!" than anything else. Which is one way to look at it, but many of these companies would probably do well to look at the type of engagement fans are creating. Why does one TV show spawn throngs of cosplayers while another might see greater numbers of musicians? How can that be encouraged (without trampling over copyright laws, of course)? How does the enhanced engagement of some fans affect more casual ones?

Not every story is going to become the cultural phenomenon that "Star Wars" has, obviously. Likewise, not every story is going to result in the same types or styles of engagement that fans have with "Star Wars." While the fans will take it upon themselves to interpret and reinvent the stories according to their own interests and needs, it's still up to the companies who own the properties to choose how they look at and engage with these makers.