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Deck the halls: Cincinnati cosplayers revel in stories

Chelsey McDole as Harley Quinn
Chelsey McDole as Harley Quinn
It’s a Saturday night and Aloysius Fox is standing outside of Arnold’s Bar and Grill, waxing poetic about the difference between cosplay (costume play) and steampunk.

Cosplay involves fans of science fiction, Japanese animation (anime), comic books and cartoons dressing up and acting like their favorite characters. In steampunk, a cross between Victorian culture and the Industrial Revolution with a hint of the old West, fans create their own characters, complete with backstories. The term “steampunk” comes from a novel genre coined by novelist K.W. Jeter.

“Steampunk is a way of life,” Fox says in his very real British accent, looking very dapper in his neo-Victorian garb. “For people like us, a T-shirt and shorts is the costume.”

As the events manager for Pandora Promotions – which hosts steampunk-related events around the area, including the Steampunk Salon at Arnold’s and this weekend’s Time Travelers’ Ball at The Redmoor – he knows from whence he speaks. Rather than complain about being bored, the like-minded organizers of Pandora events decided to put on the kind of eccentric events they wanted to attend.

“Most cosplayers are people with very active imaginations and a sense of fun,” notes Fox, who also cosplays the Eighth Doctor from Doctor Who at sci-fi conventions. “It's all [about] the enjoyment of Halloween dress up, but all year round. We all reveled in playing dress as a kid, so why not have fun as an adult as well?”

Whether steampunk, anime, sci-fi or comic book characters, cosplay attracts a wide variety of personalities – all in the name of fun.  

Cosplaying is based on the cosplayer’s knowledge of storyline or genre, says Karen Bertke, a long-time anime and sci-fi convention goer. She has acted as the historian for Millennicon, and hosted prop and costume design at SugoiCon, the area’s biggest anime convention. While she doesn’t necessarily cosplay, her knowledge of anime is encyclopedic and she has used it to create what she refers to as “genre characters.”    

Bertke recalls attending an anime convention and being confronted by a couple of attendees who were “acting like costume nazies,” demanding to know what character she was cosplaying.
 
“My answer was ‘Random Anime Woman #2 from Sohryuden: Legend of the Dragon Kings, the restaurant scene just before Tsuzuku Ryudo gets kidnapped,’” she says. “Now, I wasn't really dressed as that character – she didn't exist – but I could have been that character. The scene does exist and there were people in the background wearing Chinese dresses like the one I was wearing. By picking an obscure character in an obscure anime and designating a particular scene, I was able to create a genre character at the drop of a hat.”

When she attends conventions like the Cincinnati Comic Expo, Chelsey McDole transforms herself into characters. That involves spending months on her costumes. A freelance costume designer and Northern Kentucky University student, McDole is currently working on her second Transformers costume, which has taken about three months so far.

“My favorite thing about cosplay is being able to show my costumes off that I have been working for a very long time to create,” she says. “It’s all worth the hard work in the end. It’s amazing to see something you’ve worked so hard on finally come together.”

A long-time cosplayer before she even really knew what cosplay was, she’s best known for her Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series. (“I do a pretty good impression of her and am in character at all times, even when conversing with con goers,” she notes. “Also, you got to love carrying around that giant hammer.”

At 20, McDole’s geeked-out relationship to cosplay is indicative of her age. The community skews young; most cosplayers are in their teens and 20s, particularly in anime circles (Fox says the majority of people who attend Pandora events are 30-somethings.) However, that doesn’t keep Tina Black, a 41-year-old mechanical engineer, from cosplaying.

“I have a few people near my age and my husband cosplays, too,” she notes. “That makes things better.”

Black, who has been cosplaying since she was in her late 20s, mainly dabbles in steampunk and anime cosplay. While her age doesn’t stop her from attending conventions and events, she is hyperaware of the age differences.

“It does feel a bit odd sometimes,” she adds. “The kids forget how old I am. I was carded once because they didn't believe [my age]. I keep myself separate from the kids a lot to avoid any chances of legal misunderstandings.”
?Like McDole, Black also makes most of her costumes. “I love sewing,” she says. “I love the ability to sit down decide what I want to make and make it. It is one of the most amazingly satisfying hobbies.”

Black says the ability to “live in the moment” is what makes cosplaying great.

“If you want to dress a certain way, do it,” she says. “Don't let anyone talk you out of it. You are only here once – don't regret it.”

McDole agrees: “Always be willing to take advice from others who are more experienced cosplayers and don’t hold your geek back!”

Want to get up close and personal with cosplay? Check out these events:

Time Travelers Ball, Nov. 17, 8 p.m., The Redmoor, Mt. Lookout. Admission: $15

SugoiCon, Nov. 16-18, Drawbridge Inn, Ft. Mitchell. Admission: $25 per day at the door.

Steampunk Salon
, Dec. 1, 8 p.m. until close, Arnold’s Bar and Grill. Admission: Free.


Aiesha D. Little is a writer/editor based in Cincinnati. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including Cincinnati Magazine, Columbus Monthly and Ohio Magazine. When she isn't working, she's nurturing her budding enthusiasm for all things steampunk.
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