Cosplay, Coffee and Story

“How About We Cosplay together for C2E2” my wife asked me one day in the car while listening to our favorite sci-fi novel on an audio reading by the author. “You could be Ish, and I could be Bev,” she said. I’m still reeling from how much this would change my thought about costumes and stories. 

I’m not much of a costume person. I spend way too much effort trying to be the real me, and putting on a costume ties me in so many logical knots you could crochet an afghan from it. Putting on a costume is a form of a lie to me, becoming a fake person. At least I thought it was.

The Audiobook we were listening to was Quarter Share, the first book of the Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell. The series takes place in a series of planets almost all controlled by large corporations. This is a universe of company towns the size of planets. In Quarter Share, 18-year-old Ishmael Wang is without a job. When his mother dies, he must find a cheap way off-planet since only dependents can be unemployed on a company planet. He ships out on the interstellar freighter Lois McKendrick as a lowly mess attendant. The story follows his adventures in dealing with shipboard life and his shipmates. 

The series is not some grand space opera of the military, or of space heroes and princesses, but about everyday life and discovering yourself. There’s also coffee…lots of coffee. 

We were to cosplay these characters as the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo or C2E2, one of the biggest such conventions in the Chicago area. Many people come dressed, acting out their favorite characters from comics, movies, or video games. This is known as cosplay, short for costume play. A few, like my wife and I, pick a novel. This is a bit more challenging, one that costume designers for movies adapted from books deal with frequently.

The costumes are not only part of the story but tell a story. For visual media, this is easy and already spelled out. Superman cosplayers usually look like Superman of film or comic book, and Darth Vader looks like Darth Vader of the movies. The visuals are set. Yet the author of the book may ignore what their characters are wearing. For Ishmael, all I knew from the books was he wore a ship suit in green and gold. 

When cosplaying a book character, the cosplayer has to write more of the story to make the costume. It may or may not be what the author intended or what other people who read the book expect. We’ve all had one version of a character in our heads. Movies are sometimes jarring when that character looks nothing like our vision when brought to the screen. A story for a costume, a form of fan fiction in a sense, is not the same one for another person. 

To make a good costume, I asked about the costume and got other fan reactions and thoughts. Some of those ended up in my final outfit. There were a few accessories that would help me, especially a hat and a pair of boxer shorts with some logos on them. 

Most of these are elements of the story. I began to think about the bigger context of the story. An orphaned Ish has to leave a planet owned by a corporation into a world owned by corporations. Space exploration was all about profit in the Western Annex of the galaxy. Ish moves from one corporation that wants to get rid of him to another, Federated Freight, signing a two-year contract to work at the lowest levels of ship life. The Captain of the Lois McKendrick’s declaration to Ishmael of “Your ass is mine” is in a legal sense true, even if she has a far more humane take on what that means. 

Clothes tell stories. It could tell a story of tribal belonging. My Chicago Cubs hat makes me a member of a larger tribe of Cubs fans. It could also speak of ownership, a person belongs to an organization. The brown uniforms for UPS or prison jumpsuits are clothes of ownership. Clothes can broadcast a brand. Clothes are advertising for a particular product or service, either by a logo or by the style. A Disney t-shirt does not make you part of a tribe, nor does Disney own you for wearing it, but it does represent Disney. 

An element of the series, especially the second book Half Share, is that clothes are essential factors in identity. The crew dresses very differently on shore leave than onboard, bringing out outrageous in some cases and amazingly beautiful outfits in others. 

Mixing all that up, I realized the ship suit would be green. I bought Dickies coveralls in dark green. I bought some gold fabric paint and a few stencils, though I ended up hand lettering much of it. The suit would be emblazoned with logos of Federated Freight. The back of the coverall would say  Solar Clipper Lois McKendrick. I made the story of the ship suit one of slightly tribal affiliation, but more of branding and the company “owning” the person in it.  

 I didn’t want to ruin the cosplay by having a bag or backpack with me at C2E2 but wanted something to carry things around in. While many cosplayers were heavy with weapons, Ish is not a warrior. He is a cook who spends a lot of his time making coffee. Ish’s talent and snobbishness about coffee is a running theme throughout the series, nearly to the last page. I found an empty white five-gallon airtight bucket. I put a sticker on it, identifying it as Sarabanda Dark coffee, one of the harder to get varieties in the book. Ish’s and my own love of good coffee were the same.

I went to C2E2 and put on my costume. No one I know recognized the character, and I was not asked to take pictures with anyone. Interestingly, after all this talk about identity and story, I felt no different — except a lot more comfortable in a coverall than in a bulky winter coat walking around the aisles of the show. The coffee bucket made security a breeze. Pop it open, look in, move on. 

That does not mean people did not notice me. While walking, we were at a booth for an artist who had participated in a panel discussion. Although we sat towards the back of the room, and there were hundreds there, he recognized us from his panel. A unique costume stood out among all those Spiderman and Captain Kirk cosplayers. 

Sitting over coffee many days later, wearing jeans and a Disney World sweatshirt with my favorite character embroidered on it, I realize how clothes are a story. We tell stores about ourselves in what we wear. The fictional characters in print and digital media have stories to tell. How I re-wrote that story tells more than Ishmael Wang’s story. I tell my story in how I impose me on the character. I saw the ever-present “ownership” of people in corporate-controlled space. Someone else might have seen the quasi-military aspect. Creativity does not stop with the author’s vision. Fans change the story to reflect ourselves. In cosplay, we can reveal aspects of a character the author didn’t realize they wrote. That might be something others will then riff on, or it may be just part of your personal identity. 

I was resistant to cosplay because I didn’t want to be fake. Yet, my 50something body getting into an 18-year-old’s uniform was more introspective than I believed. Dressing up isn’t being fake. It gives one the ability to really look at oneself for a different perspective from a different story. 

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