Cosplayers in the Age of COVID-19

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Every summer, some 130,000 attendees gather in San Diego for Comic-Con to celebrate entertainment, fandom and geek culture. Amy Vaughn had hoped to be one of them. Vaughn, an engineer, has wanted to attend the event ever since she started cosplaying two years ago. She tried getting passes last year but wasn’t able to register. So, in November, after she and two friends secured tickets via lottery, Vaughn immediately started planning for what would be her biggest fan convention yet.

“San Diego Comic-Con was going to be my first out-of-state con. I’ve gone to Tucson Comic-Con. It’s pretty small, [and I’ve been to] Phoenix Fan Fusion — that’s the biggest Arizona con that we have,” she says.

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Vaughn, who is based in Tucson, booked plane tickets, made hotel reservations and, most importantly, began crafting her costume. She planned to go as different versions of the alien Pearl from the animated series “Steven Universe,” one of her favorite shows. But as concerns over the coronavirus pandemic grew and other conventions canceled, it became clear to Vaughn that her hopes of attending SDCC would be dashed. The 2020 event was officially canceled in April.

Since getting the bad news, Vaughn has been connecting with other cosplayers online via Facebook groups and recently posted pictures of herself decked out in a pink wig and white body paint as Pearl on Instagram. She tagged them with #ComicConAtHomeCosplay, the hashtag organizers of Comic-Con are using to promote an at-home cosplay challenge. But it isn’t the same as wandering around a convention floor and meeting other fans.

“I’m disappointed,” she says. “All that hard work and the opportunity to meet other friends in the same fandom as me didn’t work out.”

It’s a feeling many in the cosplay community share in, as conventions are often places for cosplayers to celebrate in-person.

“It’s this really nice, endearing experience,” says Wes Johnson, a Twitch streamer. For this year’s Comic-Con, which would have been his tenth, Johnson had intended on dressing up as Geralt from Netflix series “The Witcher,” played by Henry Cavill on the show.

A canceled convention isn’t keeping him from finishing his ambitious costume, which involves attaching a livestock bathtub to a motorized wheelchair. The plan was for Johnson to sit in it and ride around the convention center, recreating the famous “bathtub scene” from the show, complete with artificial bubbles. A friend was going to dress as Jaskier (Geralt’s bard companion, played by Joey Batey in the series) and accompany him. Johnson says he’s still building it out, perhaps for a future convention, and feels like he’s on a more relaxed timeline for it now.

Still, the happenstance of meeting like-minded fans is a cherished one, he says. “You walk around a convention and say you’re dressed up as Geralt, and then you run into a Yennefer or you run into a Jaskier cosplayer, and everyone gets excited. You take pictures together. It’s how I’ve made a lot of friends in the cosplay community.”

For Jasmine James, conventions are also a way to find inspiration and exchange tips with fellow cosplayers.

“I’m a nerd when it comes to just constructing things. I’m also always trying to get better at things like that, so I am the type of person who would be like, ‘Yo, how did you make this? I’m trying to do this new technique, how did you go about doing this?’” says James, a video game concept artist and professional cosplayer based out of Atlanta.

James is known for her intricate costumes, dressing up as beloved characters ranging from Princess Jasmine from “Aladdin” to Katsuki Bakugo from “My Hero Academia.” She crafts almost all of them by hand, spending upwards of 100 hours a month on her builds and planning them well ahead of time to avoid “con crunch” — the race to finish a costume before an event.

Like Vaughn, James — known as “CutiePieSensei” in the cosplay community — had hoped to attend her first SDCC this year. Despite not being able to secure passes to the convention itself, she still planned to go to San Diego to network with fellow cosplayers and hang out with friends. She had started crafting her costume, a gold-plated Wonder Woman, with armor made of ethylene-vinyl acetate foam, thermoplastic sheets and vinyl. It was a tribute to “Wonder Woman 1984,” the superhero sequel originally slated for release in August, which has since been postponed until October.

James posts pictures on social media of her cosplay, but finds it to be a more ephemeral experience compared to sharing and seeing costumes in person.

“When you’re on social media, you’re on this constant scroll,” she says, “so, if you see something that looks really cool or it’s impressive, you see it for like a second and then you process, ‘Oh, that was neat,’ and then just keep going… If you see an Iron Man person, it’s like, ‘Oh, snap! That looks cool’ because it’s real life. You process it differently.”

Without a convention to work towards in the foreseeable future, she says she has been struggling to find the motivation to build new costumes. It’s a similar dilemma for Stella Chuu, who has made a good portion of her living over the past decade attending events as a professional cosplayer. Initially, Chuu welcomed the slower pace and reduced pressure of having to produce new costumes.

“It was this really calming sense of like, ‘Hey, I don’t have deadlines, and I could just work at my own pace,’” she says. “But now I’m starting to get really antsy, and I’m kind of craving a creative outlet.”

Since the pandemic started, Chuu has participated in online events where she teaches others how to do builds. She is now figuring out which non-”in person” cosplay parts of her multiple revenue streams — which include streaming video games, a YouTube channel and selling patterns on Etsy for other cosplayers to buy and make — to concentrate on.

It’s a pivot photographer Martin Wong thinks will become the “new normal” for the industry.

“I think there’ll be different ways to how people approach it. Maybe cosplay is not confined to conventions anymore, especially as many cosplayers are doing more and making cosplay on streaming,” says Wong, who has been shooting cosplayers for a decade. Businesses like his, which provide ancillary services for cosplayers, have also been adversely affected by canceled events.

He says during a typical convention season — starting at the end of April and running through August — he would be at a different convention every other week, bringing in about $50,000 in revenue. He estimates he’s taken a huge loss in potential revenue this year.

“I would say maybe about 30 to 40 grand,” he says.

Mike Saffels, also a photographer, says that the cancellations of SDCC and other conventions have devastated his business.

“It’s pretty much decimated it,” says Saffels, who estimates he’s lost about $30,000 since March. Saffels lives in Burbank, Calif. and rents out a studio in Anaheim, over an hour away, which remains closed. He has been able to stay financially afloat thanks to small business loans and his wife, who brings in a steady income working at a mortuary.

“I’ve kind of just accepted that it’s going to be a bust this year because nothing is going to be open, especially for conventions of any type where we can meet new people or cosplayers. So, just kind of hoping for, I guess, a miracle for next year,” he says.

For cosplayers, it’s unclear what the future of fan conventions like Comic-Con — with their high volumes of attendees in close proximity with one another — will be, and whether or not costumes that don’t include masks can be part of that.

“I think we’ll probably see a lot more Mortal Kombat cosplayers,” Johnson says about COVID-era cosplaying, with a laugh.

But for fans like Amy Vaughn, masks aren’t inherently part of her costumes of choice.

“[As Pearl from ‘Steven Universe’], I tend to body paint myself. I sculpt a wax nose on to get my pointy nose, and those things aren’t mask-friendly,” says Vaughn, who does otherwise support wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

For now, she’s opted out of all public events, including local photo shoots with other cosplayers. Vaughn is unsure if and when she will attend another convention in the near future. “Even before COVID was a thing, there’s the term ‘con crud’ where after a con, everyone seems to come down with, like, the flu or something… It would be worse with COVID.”

Chuu echoes the sentiment. “I mean, I love cosplay,” she says, “but I also like living.”

Vaughn adds that not being able to attend her first San Diego Comic-Con has allowed her to reflect on what she loves about her hobby. “I only cosplay characters I love love love love, and I want to just show my love to this character by recreating them. So, that’s what I look back to,” she says.

For now, sharing that love means doing photo shoots in her backyard and posting pictures on social media, as opposed to chance run-ins with kindred spirits outside of Hall H.

“Is it the same thing? No.” She pauses. “It’ll be the same one day.”

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