Phoenix Comic Con And The Dark Side Of Cosplay

Mathew Sterling is not a cosplayer. We should get that out of the way right from the start. Cosplayers take great time and effort to look like their favorite pop culture characters.

Mathew Sterling thought he was a comic book character, the Punisher to be specific.

Not a cosplayer Mathew Sterling.

However, whereas the Punisher dedicates his life to punishing criminals, Sterling found a new target for punishment–Jason David Frank, an actor who has parlayed  a role as the Green Ranger 24 years ago on the Power Rangers TV show into a lucrative side career travelling on the comic con circuit. It is not known what Frank did to deserve Sterling’s punishment, but the man targeted Frank’s appearance at the Phoenix Comic Con as the ideal time mete out that punishment.

Sterling showed up at the Phoenix Convention Center wearing body armor and armed with an arsenal that even Frank Castle might have found excessive–two 45-caliber handguns, a .454-caliber handgun, and a 12-gauge shotgun, all fully loaded; a combat knife; pepper spray; and throwing stars. And even though the Phoenix Comic Con does have an enforced weapon policy, Sterling was able to bypass all of the convention’s weapons checking locations (with him being the Punisher, he believed they didn’t apply to him).

Luckily for Frank in particular and the con goers in general, Sterling decided to post messages on Facebook saying  that he was also going to go after bad cops–Aphrodite cops, as he called them–after he was done with Frank, posting pictures of police officers working the convention who were to be his targets.  A Facebook user in Hawthorne, California saw the messages and contacted their local police department. They in turn contacted the Phoenix Police Department who then informed their officers on site. Eleven minutes later, the police found Sterling seated outside the entrance to the convention floor, reading a con program, perhaps planning his line of attack on Frank using the program’s map. The police officers were able to subdue and arrest Sterling without a shot being fired.

The Phoenix Comic Con immediately responded to threat by issuing a ban on all prop weapons from that point forward. That included not only guns, knifes and sword, but also  lightsabers, rayguns and even proton packs needed to remove their neutrino wands or glue them to the base. The cosplay community attending the convention reacted just as expected–they started complaining.

 

 

Cosplayers at a 1980 convention.

Cosplaying and comic cons are nigh synonymous. People have been dressing up to go to sci-fi, fantasy or comic book conventions as far back as 1939. If you are a regular con-goer and you speak to a coworker or a relative who have never been to the con, among the two questions they always as is “Did you see anybody dressed up?” and “Did you dress up yourself?” To a lot of the outside world, cosplaying is a feature of conventions that seems like a curiosity.

 

It’s not. It’s kind of a big deal. There have been not one, not two, but three reality programs devoted to cosplay. There are also a number of magazines devoted to the topic. A cult of celebrity has built up around certain cosplayers such as Yaya Han, RiddleIvy Doomkitty and others, so much so that they have booths at conventions where fans can pay for autographs or to buy prints of them dressed up in costume. And it has never become easier to become a cosplayer. If you have a modicum of talent in sewing, you can buy patterns from Simplicity and McCall‘s to help you make your costume. There are sites that can help you make your props as well. And if you aren’t skilled in these areas? Well, if you have a big enough bank account, you can buy your costumes, props and weapons instead.

And being such a popular part of a community that is rife of self-entitlement, certain cosplayers rise above the norm in this regard. If someone wants to take their picture, they’ll stop in the middle of a crowded aisle, holding up traffic (“Just go around us!”). They’ll put hours of work into their costumes but not a moments thought into the chaos that follows in their wake as they whack other con goers with their costume pieces (“No, YOU watch where you’re going!”) or even knock over kids with their capes or props (“Who brings their kids to comic cons? If they’re that small, carry them!”). No apologies ever come, because they feel they’re they are the drawn for the con–even the main reason why people show up.

Cosplayer Jessica Nigri greets fans.

Just look at the responses on the Phoenix Comic Con Facebook page or their Twitter post when they announced the weapons ban. You have threats of lawsuits, warnings off how much money they will lose, whines of how their experience was ruined by the weapons ban, and defiant promises that they will never come back to Phoenix Comic Con again.  Any mention of the Sterling incident usually comes by them referencing the convention overreacting to it.

Now, there are no absolutes in this world and there are cosplayers on those pages that speak out, if not in favor of the ban, at least with an understanding of the reasoning behind it. But the thing is, all of them should hold that view. It wasn’t savvy detective work or an observant cop on the premises that stopped Sterling. If Sterling just decided to stay off Facebook that day, Frank most likely would be dead. Many others could have been shot and killed in the crossfire. Even more still could have been hurt or killed in the panic that would have erupted afterwards. People walking back to belly in crowded aisles would have been trampled to death. If you think that would not have happened, then you are either terminally naïve or too self-centered to admit the truth.

The sad thing is that this is not a case of these vocal cosplayers not seeing the forest for the trees. It’s the case of cosplay culture becoming their forest and the weapons ban uprooting a large tree in it. Certain cosplayers take the hobby way too seriously and tie too much of their own identity in the costuming. They rely on it for validation or a source of income or a sense of community. They invest vast amounts of time and money in the lifestyle. And certain characters are defined by their weapons. Indiana Jones without his whip is a delivery man in a leather jacket and fedora. A Ghostbuster without his or her proton pack is a garbage man. A Jedi Knight without his lightsaber is essentially a monk.  But by putting up such a fuss over a prop ban instituted for public safety, what they are really saying is that their need for an accurate costume outweighs my safety, my family’s safety. And if you are aiming for sympathy with that attitude, you won’t find much of it from me.

I am not anti-cosplay. I have dress up several times with my daughter at cons and had a great time. What I am against is people with lack of either common sense or common decency not grasping the severity of the situation but instead focusing on their own selfish gripes. There is a lot of good in the cosplay community. There are a lot of creative people who create beauty and put it on display for all to see. But the response by a vocal contingent of their community to the Phoenix Comic Con weapons ban shows the dark side of cosplay. And it’s a side that is not beautiful at all.

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About William Gatevackes 1931 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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