The Comic-Book Guys Quivering in Fear of Cosplay

The backlash against fans—especially women—who dress up might speak to some gender anxiety on the part of nerddom's gatekeepers.

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You wouldn't think that folks dressing up in Sailor Moon costumes would strike fear into grown adults. And yet, for many in the comics industry, cosplay—“costume play”— seems to produce unusual levels of anxiety and bile. As first reported in Bleeding Cool, the most recent individual to publicly shout at the X-Men to get off his lawn is artist Patrick Broderick, who wrote on Facebook:

If you're a Cosplay personality, please don't send me a friend request. If you're a convention promoter and you're building your show around cosplay events and mega multiple media guest don't invite me....You bring nothing of value to the shows, and if you're a promoter pushing cosplay as your main attraction you're not helping the industry or comics market..Thank you.

Writer Mark Ellis then suggested that cosplayers had "narcissistic personality disorder" and took a brave stand against "overweight women in Power Girl and Slave Girl Leia costumes posing, posturing and demanding $20 to take a photo of them. A guy I know just said, ‘You’re standing around in public looking like a fool…shove your $20’ and took pictures anyway."

The dynamic here is clear enough. As Sam Maggs writes at The Mary Sue, the superhero comic world has long tilted overwhelmingly towards guys. That's changing though—and cosplay is both a result and a cause. Cosplay combines comics with the stereotypically feminized world of fashion; it's a way for folks to combine a love of Batman or Thor with a love of fabric and sewing and dressing up. As Maggs says, "Cosplay is an industry largely dominated by women; it opens up the world of comics—a world which has overwhelmingly felt exclusionary to girls and women—in a whole new way."

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The question is, why do folks like Broderick and Ellis find that threatening? How exactly does someone cosplaying Power-Girl next to your booth damage you? People sometimes make vague claims about loss of revenue, or that the cosplayers don't buy enough comics—though it's hard to figure how more people at a convention filing past your table is going to damage your bottom line. The real vitriol, in any case, as in Ellis's statement, seems to be directed at the sexuality of cosplay, and even more at its artificiality. It’s the same mentality behind the fake geek girl meme—the idea that women cosplayers aren't real fans, and, beyond that, aren't actually real people. As Julia Serano argues in her 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, the feminine is often denigrated as artificial and sexualized. The cosplayers threaten to undermine the authentic purity and virtue of the comics industry. A woman is getting her picture taken close by—how can we ever take our magic wishing-rings and giant-sized Man-Things seriously again?!

Those giant-sized Man-Things are perhaps more relevant than some cosplay nay-sayers might like to admit. It's true that comics in recent years has tended to define itself as authentic, serious, and male against the frivolous artificiality of cosplay. But in other contexts, it's comics themselves that have been defined as feminized, frivolous, and artificial. Bart Beaty in his 2012 book Comics vs. Art pointed out that high art has often framed comics as "feminized kitsch"—much to the discomfort of comics creators. Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and (more recently) Jeff Koons use comic books as a way to tweak high-art seriousness and the cult of the swaggering expressive male genius. In doing so, they linked comics to gayness, femininity, and camp. Beaty says that the massive success of the Adam West Batman TV series was especially painful for comics fans, since that show "drew heavily on a camp aesthetic." It did this, not least, through its colorful costumes. Ellis scorns the non-stick-thin bodies of cosplayers, but before those folks dressed up, Adam West was proudly sporting his Bat-paunch, to the delight of many a lusty villaineness.

More, according to Beaty, pop art was often validated as masculine itself in comparison to feminized comics. Lichtenstein, he says, has been figured as "a masculinized saviour of commercial culture" in comparison to "popular forms" like comics that are seen as "sentimental and feminized." In the catalogue for the 1993 traveling exhibition High & Low, curators Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, for example, argued that "Pop art saved the comics." Pop art used comics to undermine masculinity, and then, in Beaty's view, built its own masculinity on a vision of itself swooping down to rescue a lower art form in distress.

The backlash to cosplay is in part guys trying to keep girls out of the male clubhouse. But in this context it can also be seen as feminized guys panicking at yet another in a long line of demonstrations that the male clubhouse isn't all that male to begin with. You could argue that cosplay's associations with fashion actually make it more highbrow than comics—the New York fashion runway and the New York gallery scene are more kin than either is to low pulp superhero comics. Cosplay is appropriating superheroes for art, much as pop art has done—and some in comics fear the results.

But they shouldn't. The truth is that cosplay is not a continuation of pop-art denigration by other means. Instead, it's an antidote. Pop art's self-conscious manipulation of comics is only possible, or painful, in a world where comics defines its legitimacy in narrow terms. Lichtenstein is only an outsider co-opting comics if you insist on seeing Lichtenstein as something other than a comics artist himself. Cosplay—like the Batman TV series before it—could be a way for fans to be the pop artists: to cast aside the wearisome performance of legitimacy for a more flamboyant, less agonized fandom. Once you stop neurotically policing boundaries, the question of whether comics or superheroes are masculine or feminine becomes irrelevant. If superheroes and comics are for everyone, that "everyone" automatically includes people of all genders, wearing whatever they wish.

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