Costumes at the ready: Meet the superhero cosplayers prepping for Dublin's Comic-Con
Costumes aren't just for kids - Maggie Armstrong meets the creative grown-up 'cosplayers' who channel their inner superhero by dressing up as their favourite movie, video game and comic book characters
It's a costume party, but for grown-ups, and they do it every day. It's a form of play, but it requires hard and tricky work over long hours. Cosplaying is a lifestyle choice for the devotional fans who bring characters to life from their favourite childhood cartoons, comic books, video games and superhero films.
The costume-play that first emerged through Japanese anime culture in the 1980s has caught on rapidly in Ireland since Dublin Comic Con (DCC) at the Convention Centre opened its doors in 2013. That year there were 4,000 people, and now there are two shows a year, in spring and in August, packing in 10,000 and 20,000 visitors respectively. 'Cons' around the world give cosplayers a stage and a platform, while social media offers a spyhole into the life of the cosplayer. But are cosplayers more than nerds, grown-up children and photogenic millennials keen to grab attention with a cape and a catsuit?
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One force behind the subculture is the mega-grossing Marvel movies, which have popularised characters previously considered esoteric. From Thor to Avengers to Deadpool, Marvel has brought comic books into the mainstream, and with this new audience the franchise is finally creating plots and characters that reflect more than just giant men with six-packs.
Last month, it was announced at San Diego Comic Con that Natalie Portman will take on the powers of Mighty Thor in the next Marvel sequel, Love and Thunder - while Scarlett Johansson is set to star as Black Widow, and Valkyrie will become the first LGBTQ Marvel character.
The community is tight-knit and inclusive, according to DCC founder Karl Walsh.
"Some people are making their first costume and it's just out of cardboard but they still look great," says Walsh. "I myself, I make a werewolf costume from silicone. It weighs about 100 pounds, and there are individually hand-punched hairs through it. I wear a headpiece; I see out through the mouth. With work and family, that costume took me a year.
"When you see kids running up to you with their eyes wide thinking you're Deadpool or Captain America, it all becomes worthwhile. You've made a kid's day."
So, who are the craftspeople behind these modern masquerades, how do they build their alter egos - and how does it feel to be someone else for a day?
It all began for graphic designer Chris Brown when he bought a red spandex suit for a university costume party. "I went slightly over the top and made a scarlet Spider-Man costume. I ripped the arms off a blue hoodie. The Spider-Man symbol was spray-painted onto the suit." The costume involved cardboard and doilies and was "awful", he concludes - but the experience opened up a new world for him.
A childhood X-Men comic book fan, the Welshman soon found there was a community online who also liked to dress up as fictional characters.
"There used to be a stigma, a belief that people who do what I do are nerds and weirdos. But I'm not - I'm normal. With the Marvel and DC movies, it's become more accessible."
Three years ago he started following Lauren Murphy (pictured left) from Navan on Instagram. They discovered a shared passion for "cosplay, films and nerdy stuff", and they fell in love. They cosplay as a couple, stepping out as Captain America (him) and Captain Marvel. Brown paints his girlfriend green for Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy and puts a little man (called Groot, apparently) on his shoulder to become Star-Lord.
This August they will return to DCC to run the repair centre at the Cosplay Village. "If something's broken on the costume, we fix it with glue, stitches, paper clips.
"I used to be really inward and keep myself to myself. I used to go to work, come home - that was it. Cosplay helps a lot with confidence because when you put that costume on, you become more than you.
"Mental health-wise, cosplay helped me quiet my brain: it's one if my go-to places to just think less and focus on a specific task, which helps with stress and anxiety."
He has cosplayed as Captain America, Shazam and, most uncomfortable of all, Martian Manhunter. "I really can't breathe in it. It's a full silicone mask I've to pull over my shoulders. I wear red contacts and heavy make-up. I need a shower immediately after I take it off."
His office manager and his family are all fully behind his hobby. "My mum is very good at sewing. I'm terrible, but she's shown me how to make a few capes, how to take in material. My dad is very good with power tools. For Ash from Evil Dead, I bought a chainsaw, took the engine out, filed down the metal." These precautions were to make the chainsaw "con-safe", as there are always weapon checkpoints.
He is currently adding the finishing touches to his Han Solo (from Solo: A Star Wars Story) for the big Dublin convention. Superheroes are not just beautiful bodies, Chris believes.
"There is the generic cookie-cutter muscle man with ridiculous proportions. Their looks are totally unattainable but in their actions these characters give you something to strive towards. They are usually the best versions of humanity."
Lauren Murphy grew up playing computer games with her dad and watching horror films with her mum. "Both my parents love sci-fi and fantasy and action movies. They brought me to my first Star Trek convention in Malahide when I was a five.
"My mam is obsessed with horror. Every week she asks me, 'Are there any more horror films on?'
"When I was younger, my dad and I would play Tomb Raider until three in the morning. He plays Call of Duty now in his gaming chair. He's like 63."
Ten years ago, Murphy, a graduate of film and collector of fantasy novels and comic books, was invited to a convention in Dublin. On the first day, she didn't dress up. "The second day I thought, 'I'll put on my Bad Girl dress.' I realised quickly it was a very nice sort of community - it was very welcoming."
She now judges competitions and cosplays heavily, creating all her costumes with her bare hands, learning new skills using specialised equipment. She has cosplayed as a female Freddy Krueger and when she was a child, her favourite character was Ellen Ripley from Alien. But these days she more often goes out as Tinkerbelle, visiting St John's Ward in Crumlin Children's Hospital and bringing some magic to very sick children.
This August, she and Chris Brown (left) will travel to Dragon Con in Atlanta and Murphy is hard at work creating Kassandra, a mercenary for hire in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, who requires complicated new techniques. "There's a lot of leatherette and Worbla, a thermoplastic - it's very sandy and gritty to work with and requires a heat gun." She has been working out in preparation. "Kassandra's physique is quite tall and athletic and she has quite defined muscles in her arms. I'm only 5ft 1in. And I'm a lot curvier." Inspiration comes from action and adventure games for this self-confessed "massive gamer".
"I've played upwards of 150 hours with Assassin's Creed. I look at it from a story aspect. It's like sitting watching a movie that you're interacting in, which I just love." Through cosplay she fulfilled her dream of turning into Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and made a special appearance at the premiere in Dublin. She makes no money from cosplaying, doing it for love only. "It's very hard to make money from."
If you want to see her at DCC, look for Mary Marvel from Shazam! and Eleven from Stranger Things, the second series. Her parents are fully behind their daughter's hobby, making the box bedroom into a walk-in wardrobe for her costumes and giving her half the garden shed for making props.
"I've lost count of how many costumes I have."
(aka Bambi Lashes)
Fashion design student Catriona Whelan (pictured) has won significant cosplaying titles, including Irish finalist for Euro Cosplay 2019. It was through cosplaying that she realised she wanted to work in fashion design. She is now an assistant at Fi Bourke's studio in Celbridge and studies at Dublin's Grafton Academy at night. "I originally did my degree in English in Maynooth, and then worked in admin for a while. I was just doing cosplay as a hobby. Then I realised that I love sewing and that this is what I want to do."
She is particularly proud of her Princess Peach from Super Mario, her Taylor Venus Japanese anime and her historically accurate Belle from Beauty and the Beast dress, based on an original Marie Antoinette costume.
"What I discovered was that what I most loved was making the costumes. Wearing them was fun but most of all I loved creating them.
In October, when she is flown to London for the Euro Cosplay finals, Whelan will pay tribute to her favourite film, Labyrinth. She is in the midst of creating Sarah's ballroom dress, which is taking her about eight months and hundreds of euro, and requires "a whole lot of fabric".
"There are seven layers of very floaty fabrics - an iridescent organza, lace, tulle, satin. A huge hoop skirt and a corset. I'm styling a lace-front wig; I'm making her shoes from scratch, her hairpieces and her jewellery."
She likes to salvage materials in her sewing room at home in Celbridge. "I often repurpose old costumes, take them apart and use them again. A lot of steel bones go into corsets: I take out all the bones, take the zipper out and use it for another corset.
"I'm quite reserved and shy in my ordinary life, but I always find that in a costume I feel more outgoing. It's like, I'm so big and ostentatious in this costume, then why not act it too? It brings me out of my shell. A costume gives me energy. Once you put on a big princess costume, you feel like a princess - you get caught up in that.
"It's a great way to express creativity and to push yourself. I've learnt so many skills that I never would have known about. It's so social as well. My friends and I have sewing days where we get together and help each other tackle different challenges.
"Hand-sewing and embroidery are so relaxing, you don't even notice the time going by."
This October, Bambi Lashes will meet her greatest challenge yet - creating a two-minute performance at the spectacular event. "You can make stage sets. I'm hoping to recreate the ballroom backdrop and the dance. You can't bring on a partner, but I'm thinking of something to do with puppetry. It's a bit nerve-racking.
"It is lovely to be going as the Irish representative. The standard is crazy."
Animator Kristi O'Connor has been photographed at cosplay since she was 15. She and her family had just returned from Dubai and she fancied a new hobby. "Dublin Comic Con was just a tiny event then, and mostly teenagers. Nowadays 'nerd culture' is a lot more common, and it's branching out to all ages."
When you're going through that awkward teen phase, if you're dressing up as someone else, you feel more relaxed. It opens up a conversation - you can find an instant common ground that otherwise might be missing."
O'Connor works as a compositor for Boulder Media, the Dublin animation studio making My Little Pony and Transformers: Rescue Bots. She has been steeped in fantasy and sci-fi since a child. "My parents are big Trekkies. Our entire family are total nerds."
O'Connor's cosplay staple is a jumpsuit. She commissions artists online to create patterns for each character and alters the suit with her sewing machine.
"I really like making props, especially from Worbla. I recently got a heat gun and it's just been life-changing. Before that I was using a hairdryer - I could be there for hours."
"There's been times when money is a bit tight and I'll use a really chill costume like Mary Jane Watson from Spider-Man - it's just a catsuit with a printed design. That's a useful one to whip out."
Not everything works out as planned. Turning herself into D'Vorah - bug queen from Mortal Kombat - involved eye-covering contact lenses, a yellow jumpsuit and cape, and a year of slogging. "I wore it to a work party and it broke... it didn't get a second outing."
Her recent move from Offaly to Dublin has meant little space to store these costumes. "You know when you read about those bedrooms with just a single bed and one little wardrobe? Yeah, I'm in one of those. Recently I had to purchase a separate Ikea wardrobe in the living room to store everything. Luckily my housemates are nice about it."
A cosplay group was closed down recently by Facebook because the costumes were considered too explicit. Does O'Connor feel that some cosplay is an excuse to wear tiny, tight outfits? "Certainly those kinds of sexualised costumes are more prominent," says O'Connor. "Especially with the internet now, you can make money by sexualising anything on the internet."
At DCC she will go as Catra, a frenemy of the eponymous heroine from She-Ra, which is on Netflix. "I've sewn up the bodysuit. The hardest part is going to be making the teeth because she has pointy cat teeth. I'm going to use malleable plastic. She'll have a big, poofy cat wig and then I'm going to make ears from brown fur."
Cosplay has not only allowed her to indulge her love of Pokémon, The Muppets and Disney but given her "some of the best friends that you could ever ask for". Surely she won't ever cosplay as one of the Muppets, though?
"Oh, no?" she replies. "Watch me."
A striking resemblance to a Marvel superhero led fitness coach and influencer Ben Mudge into "casual cosplaying", as he calls it. One day he picked up a Thor hammer - Thor being the king of the Norse gods from the Marvel franchise - and posted a selfie.
"It was just me in the back garden with my shirt off on a sunny day, with the hammer. I'd started to grow my hair out, and people were telling me I looked like Chris Hemsworth. It went pretty viral."
Growing up in Belfast with cystic fibrosis, Mudge had an affinity with superheroes. "I loved Superman, Spider-Man. I felt I had a special connection to them. When they didn't have their costumes on, they just looked like normal people. I felt like that was me with my cystic fibrosis - from the outside, I looked normal, but I knew there was something else about me that none of my friends had.
"I had to take tablets with everything I eat, and still do, because my pancreas doesn't work. I had to do a lot of physio. I had to do nebulisers. I went to hospital in Belfast every three months. I got told when I was a teenager that my life expectancy wasn't as good as my friends', and this was always in the back of my mind."
A costume supplier made him a deal: if Mudge invested in a Thor costume, he would make the money back just by wearing it. A foam Thor outfit was custom-made, complete with runic detail, and Mudge attracted a fan club online. But when he introduced the nebuliser into the frame, his character was really born. The image of an invulnerable hero taking his medication struck a chord with kids with cystic fibrosis.
"Parents started sending me messages saying, 'My kid thinks Thor has CF like them,' or, 'It's making them take their nebulisers and their medication.'" He began a weekly Instagram series he called Thorsday, encouraging kids with CF that they could be warriors too.
He can't meet the kids in person due to the risk of cross-contamination in cystic fibrosis - but he steps into character for FaceTimes with kids and their parents.
"I drop my voice a bit lower and they're sold. They either freak out and run around and show me all their toys or else they freeze and get really shy. It is so cute."
As well as his charitable work, he can be found carrying the five-kilo hammer at cons, being mobbed for a photo.
Much more than getting his money back on the costume, Mudge is making a modest profit. "I get pretty well paid, considering what I'm doing. At London Comic Con, I got paid £500 for the weekend, which was nice."
Dublin Comic Con takes place in the Convention Centre, Dublin, on August 10 and 11. Tickets priced from €21 (children's tickets from €10). See dublincomiccon.com