With due apologies to millennials, it is extremely difficult to walk into a Comic Con event for the first time in your life and not feel as though you’ve inadvertently crashed a massive fancy dress party with a focus on anime, animated characters, sci-fi and superheroes and heroines.
“Cosplay is combining creativity with art… you need to learn a lot of skills and be an active fan”
But within a few minutes of hanging out, you understand that this is way more than the fanciest of fancy dress parties. What’s happening here is cosplay (the word is a combination of ‘costume’ and ‘play’), which is a super creative take on pop culture based on hard work and the concept of art with a capital ‘A’. It’s become so popular that it has its own heroes. People are known all over the world for their skill and ability to not just bring a character to life, but to breathe new life into it. And here, at the Mumbai Comic Con 2018 is one of those heroes, Yaya Han.
“Cosplay is a unique way to combine creativity and art with pop culture for entertainment,” says Han, one of the world’s top cosplayers. “You are making costumes from pop-culture characters, you are expressing yourself as a fan of that character, but you also need to put a lot of creativity into it. You need to learn a lot of different skills – it is first and foremost a DIY hobby/craft. The idea is that you are an active fan. Instead of just consuming media, you are participating in it actively and creating something.”
Han in her avatar to play Medusa fromInhumans (2018 Mumbai Comic Con)
Han has been doing this for almost two decades now. Over this period of time, she has seen the popularity of cosplay grow almost into an industry. “Now there are a lot of resources and different kinds of easy materials available,” she says. “There are companies that actually make cosplay-specific costume-making materials, wigs, tools to create the armoury. It is incredibly accessible. Anyone can start any time.”
“My parents thought I had fallen under some bad influence and battered me with questions like: Why are you being so frivolous? Why are spending so much money? And, of course, why are you showing so much skin? ”
Of Chinese descent, Han grew up in Germany before moving to the US. She was still in school when she began cosplaying. “I started in 1999. I had no money to splurge. I didn’t know how to sew or sculpt. I had no technical know-how,” she says. “I was a pen and paper artist and I drew Manga (Japanese comic character) and fan art of my favourite characters. It was a very natural progression for me to cosplay. Instead of just drawing characters I liked, I could actually dress up as one.”
However, cosplaying then was a cultish thing to do. Only nerds were interested and no community existed. “It was kind of like the wild, wild West,” laughs Han. “We were all just trying to figure it out. We experimented, made mistakes, came up with horrible costumes. We took time to learn and hone the skills and grow. Only pure passion kept us going. There was no agenda to impress anyone. In fact, there was no one to impress!”
The dressing game
For Han and her US comrades, the only role models were their Japanese counterparts. The Japanese cosplaying community was more developed in the year 2000: they had been doing professional photoshoots for decades, and had a variety of ready-made cosplay items and costumes. “In contrast, in the US, if you wanted a costume, you had to make it yourself and from scratch. This was much before eBay,” smiles Han.
She vividly remembers the first time she cosplayed in front of an audience. “It was at Anime Expo in 1999. I did Kurama’s costume from a Manga series Yu Yu Hakusho. It is a male character. But back then I didn’t know what a crossplay (a type of cosplay in which the person dresses up as a character of a different gender) is or how to do it… and I didn’t really bind myself. I did not use a wig, or put on make-up. And it didn’t work at all. Nonetheless, the feeling of wearing something that I made from scratch was exhilarating in itself,” says Han. “For me it was all about turning a pile of fabric into a beautiful outfit.”
The same weekend she also cosplayed as Jessie, a member of Team Rocket from Pokémon. “That was also incredibly rough but it was more recognisable than Kurama. People actually called me by the character’s name and wanted to take pictures with me. I thought that was incredible,” she says.
“My parents didn’t understand me for years… until I took them to a convention where they realised that cosplaying is not a frivolous activity but one with passion and professionalism”
Then there was no looking back. Han, who began with a $40 sewing machine and a sewing book bought from a thrift store, has today made over 300 costumes in the genres of comic books, video games, anime/manga, sci-fi apart from her original designs. She is a ‘cosplay entrepreneur’ who has successfully turned her hobby into a profit-making business called Yaya Han LLC, and is a legend of sorts in the cosplaying world, jetsetting across the world attending comic conventions as a participant, judge, panellist and businessperson.
Suneet Sebastian cosplaying as Wolverine
“I started pursuing it as a career because I started getting more and more requests to either make costumes for other people or partake in conventions,” says Han. “I was just out of high school and working an entry level job of data entry with zero creativity involved. I was investing around 80 hours per week in between my job to finish the costume orders. Eventually, in 2005, I quit my job and decided to build my own merchandise business.”
The parent trap
Even though Han was gaining fame and money, her parents were not supportive. “My parents didn’t understand me for many years,” she shrugs. “I had just moved from Germany while my parents still lived there, and they were completely alien to all of this. Whenever I participated in some convention, I sent them photos, and they were perplexed. They had no idea why I was dressed like that or what I was doing. They thought I had fallen under some bad influence in the US and battered me with questions like: Why are you being so frivolous? Why are spending so much money? And, of course, why are you showing so much skin? In fact that was my mom’s main concern.”
Cosplayers Hrishikesh Tarwade and Rhea Krishnaswami playing Thor and Hella
(Aalok Soni )
To convince her parents that she was actually working, not just playing around, Han once made an elaborate presentation detailing what her job entails, how much money she is making, how viable her business model is, and what kind of appreciation her work is getting. “But nothing really worked until I took them to a convention where they realised that cosplaying is not a frivolous activity but one with passion and professionalism,” says Han. “My parents met other cosplayers who told them what I meant to the community and that calmed them down a bit. My mom got kind of emotional when she realised that there were people and cosplayers who looked up to me, and that my cosplaying, as silly as they thought it was, has got some people through tough times and brought smiles on their faces. Honestly, to know what cosplay is, you need to experience it. You need to be at a comicon event.”
In India, the niche underground community of cosplayers is slowly turning mainstream. But while professional cosplaying is yet to gain ground, Han’s example is a profound inspiration.
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From HT Brunch, January 13, 2019
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First Published: Jan 12, 2019 21:17 IST