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Confessions of a Former Costume Contest Fan

C2E2 2015 Finalists!

C2E2 semi-finalists, left to right: a Warhammer 40K Inquisitor; Takuto Tsunashi from Star Driver; an original Norse Valkyrie; the Khorne Marauder, also from Warhammer 40K; and I believe you’ve met Groot.

Each time my wife and I attend a convention, we love coming home with dozens upon dozens of photos to save for posterity once we’ve turned elderly and forgotten everything we ever did, to show to friends and family interested in what we do, and to share with followers and passing strangers here on Midlife Crisis Crossover. To us it’s all a part of the geek experience, a sort of community service for those who couldn’t be there, or for those who were there but are looking for more shots, different perspectives, or simply proof of their existence when they were unable to take or locate any pics of themselves.

On a related note, for better or for worse, MCC’s highest single-day traffic figures every year are nearly always from cosplay photo galleries. Longtime readers who have no use for cons may wonder why I devote multiple entries to each con, but for me the math is easy: cons provide plenty of new content, anecdotes, and visual wonders to share with the world; and we usually see a traffic spike with each miniseries, especially when it comes to reporting costume contest results. Everybody loves winners, and even runners-up in such showdowns are impressive in their own right.

The grandest of them all is Gen Con, which we’ve been attending since before the recent boom in the Indianapolis con scene. Anne and I aren’t even tabletop or TCG gamers, but their exhibit hall contains scintillating multitudes and their costume contest attracts some of the most imaginative, hard-working, dedicated fans around with a penchant for representing characters and concepts far from the mainstream norms. I come away from each Gen Con a little more wowed and schooled at the same time. I’ve made no secret that the costume contest is the primary reason I attend Gen Con.

After our recent con experiences and no small amount of self-examination on my part, I think I need to let the whole costume-contest thing go.

Any longtime MCC readers who paid obsessive attention to the past several months’ worth of con write-ups may have noticed we’ve encountered difficulties with recent contests. They’re among the most popular events at every con and require tremendous effort and patience just to attend, let alone bring back reportable results. You’d think the process would be as simple as showing up at the appointed time, taking pics willy-nilly of all the people ever, uploading the best shots, adding perfunctory descriptors, reveling in the responses and becoming internet king for a day.

Oh, my, if only. If you attend these things as quote-unquote “Press”, maybe it works like that. I wouldn’t know.

Indy Pop Con 2014 Finalists!

Finalists from 2014’s inaugural Indy Pop Con: Sauron, the Hound, Smaug, and Kohakuren from Kamidori Alchemy Meister.

Tradition demands that official, major-stakes costume contests be held on Saturday evening of every con. In the respective cases of 2014’s Awesome Con Indy and last month’s second annual Indy Pop Con, our reason for skipping the contest was basic: by mid-afternoon we’d run out of things to do. We’d seen all of the exhibit hall, we’d met all the creators and actors we’d planned to, we’d done all our spending, none of the remaining panels or activities spoke to us, and neither of us enjoys simply loitering. As we’ve found at past Gen Cons, there’s no other more painful form of boredom than when you have a few hours to kill, you’re surrounded by a wealth of entertainment options, and you can’t or don’t want to do any of them.

Our mutual agreement between the two of us today is we leave a con once we both feel like we’ve done everything we wanted to do. People-watching and cosplayer-hunting aren’t necessarily off the table as pastimes, but there’s a thin line between anthropological observer and paparazzo stalker that I’ve lost interest in approaching, especially if all I’m trying to do is prolong the convention magic out of a desperate, clingy urge not to return to the non-geek outside world. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

In the case of Indy Pop Con 2015, I understand we were fortunate to exit when we did. The overwhelming crush of thousands of YouTube fans took up all the Main Stage seating, refused to let go, effectively shut out anyone who hadn’t wanted to see the previous panel, and generally made for uncomfortable times. As I previously wrote: “If I hadn’t lost the urge for cosplay-photo hyperdrive like we had last year, odds are I would’ve stuck around and counted myself among the fuming and the furious. As it was, apparently we saved ourselves a lot of anguish.” A round of high-fives for us old folks who’ve never seen a Markiplier video.

When it came to the first-ever Wizard World Indianapolis last February, the activities kept us cheerfully occupied till an hour or so before the contest. The con scheduled a time-killing pre-show, which we ultimately declined. As I wrote back then:

Longtime MCC readers know we normally take dozens of costume photos, including the costume contest winners and good sports, and share them over the course of multiple MCC entries. With WWIndy, attending said contest came with a catch: if you weren’t a VIP ticketholder, the only way to reserve a seat was to attend the event preceding the contest in the same room -— in this case, a concert by a World of Warcraft tribute band.

Some of you read that last clause and are now excitedly searching for free sample songs online. That’s understandable, and maybe they’re amazing at what they do, but I’ve never gotten into WoW. They could be the Weird Al of MMORPG filking for all I know, but I wasn’t really in the mood to spend nearly an hour listening to a set list whose contents and in-jokes would all be over my head. Unless, mind you, every aspect of WoW is a straight-up ripoff of Dungeons & Dragons, which I played in my youth and still retain a lot of (obsolete) working knowledge in my head. See, if they were a D&D tribute band calling themselves Band of Vecna, I might’ve given ’em a listen, except then my wife would still be left out. Sure, she’d abide by my decision and wait patiently and fall asleep on my shoulder, but she shouldn’t have to do that, even though she’s a big fan of napping.

Anyway. We missed the Costume Contest. Hopefully those who stuck around saw cool things.

According to subsequent complaints on WWIndy’s Facebook page (which was later subsumed into the Wizard World main page and no longer exists), if we had stayed, we would’ve had the off-putting displeasure of listening to costume commentary from sexist dude hosts all too happy to share their lusty thoughts about various female contestants with the all-ages crowd. From a blood pressure maintenance standpoint, perhaps our absence was for the best.

The following month, I fully intended to attend the costume contest at the second annual Indiana Comic Con. This was my experience:

…the Costume Contest was scheduled for 4:00. Anyone who’s attended a Costume Contest at a large con knows you have to arrive at least 60-90 minutes early (sometimes more) if you want a decent seat.

Same as Gen Con, the Costume Contest would be held in the 500 Ballroom. When I arrived ’round 2:50, people were sitting against all nearby walls, none of them in a line-shaped pattern. Observing Gen Con tradition, I headed due west and sat to the right of the last person along the Ballroom wall. Over the next forty minutes, the hallway grew dense with cosplayers and viewers alike, none of whom knew how the lines should work or which doors we’d be using.

At 3:30 a volunteer showed up long after one should’ve been posted there in the first place and ordered entrants into one door and viewers into another. As I approached from the Gen Con-traditional direction, I could see a few hundred people entering the Ballroom before me from the opposite, even though I’d been waiting longer in the hallway than many of them.

I’d had enough. I walked away. Objective incomplete.

The TL;DR version: Indiana Comic Con failed at basic costume contest planning. For what it’s worth, I didn’t hear any negative feedback about the contest itself after the fact. So that’s a point in their favor, I guess.

But the mere act of seating is simply the first hurdle to leap in the race to costume contest enjoyment. It’s all part of the Game. Fans who’d rather not sit a thousand yards from the stage have to line up an hour or more in advance. Even if you head straight toward the venue at 10 a.m. and wait all day long with a sack lunch and a superhuman bladder, you’ll still be stuck behind ten or twenty rows filled with VIP ticketholders and quote-unquote “Press” attendees. And after waiting and waiting and waiting for your precious vantage point, then you’ll have to abide the same room’s previous panel or the contest’s opening act (consult your program for whichever option applies). With Gen Con we’re used to the half-hour belly-dancing show that precedes every contest, but neither of us is into any kind of dance and we see it as just another intermission we can use for snacking or resting our feet after a long day or, sometimes in my wife’s case, literally napping.

But it could be worse. Lots of aspects could be far worse. That brings us to a story I’ve been keeping to myself since last April: our unpleasant evening at the C2E2 Crown Championships of Cosplay.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Wikia and ReedPOP are conspiring to establish a corporate dominion over the cosplaying pastime, expand its increasingly formalized requirements into an international industry, and next year begin bringing overseas winners from conventions in India, Australia, Shanghai, and France in to Chicago every year for a higher-stakes world cosplay tournament. For the time being, thirty-two competitors faced off in four categories in front of three judges — a costume designer, a creature makeup artist, and a cosplayer who’s been on TV — for four-digit cash prizes.

(For MCC followers who’ll be sticking around with us after this special photo series has concluded, I’ll be revisiting some elements in that preceding paragraph at a later date.)

This, then, is that later date.

C2E2 2012 Finalists!

Assorted Costume Contest participants from the third annual C2E2 in 2012, before Wikia overtook the scene.

We knew we were in for a long night. We ate an early supper around 4:00 at one of the meat carts in the exhibit hall, then arrived upstairs at the Main Stage room a good 90-120 minutes before showtime, just in case. There was no line to enter the room per se. You could either lounge around in the foyer furniture, which was all taken; start a line yourself; or simply enter and attend whatever panel was in progress. Given the choice, we entered and grabbed seats while they were still available. That’s us, the master planners taking advantage of every, uh, advantage.

To our horror, the panel-in-progress was a Q&A with some guys from Adult Swim, which lost my interest once they finished airing Cowboy Bebop, and my wife’s only ever used it for King of the Hill reruns on road trips. If a steady buffet of F-bombs and masturbation jokes are your idea of an awesome time, this panel was for you. For us this became one of those Stories We’ll Probably Never Tell Our Pastors.

I would’ve preferred belly dancers. Or breakdancers. Or college scholars discussing the sociocultural relevance of dance in eighteenth-century Scandinavia. We should’ve fled. We stayed put only because this would guarantee us seats for the costume contest. I thought of it as an endurance test and spent some time climbing down a rabbit hole inside my own head. Anne napped like a slug. It was her only defense.

A depressing number of listeners somehow lasted until the very end of the panel and then left. Upon their exodus we moved up a lot closer, maybe three rows behind the VIP seats. The next event was a trivia competition, which turned out much more engaging than expected, as previously recounted. Bonus fringe benefit.

Then came the grand finale to our C2E2 experience. The VIP rows filled up. The lights were turned off so as to better ruin most of our photos. The contest began. Promotional stage patter commenced regarding the expansion, globalization, institutionalization, and monetization of the Crown Championships of Cosplay. It’s not even the plain ol’ “C2E2 Costume Contest” anymore like it used to be. Entrants are more strictly vetted than Gen Con’s, and only the most worthy are allowed onstage and in the contest. Now it’s a high-stakes, high-pressure competition where the points aren’t made up and the prizes totally matter because they’re large and they could lead to theoretical employment opportunities in whatever domains would consider “cosplayer” a job title. That meant entrants needed to bring their A-plus-plus-game efforts, spend hundreds of hours and/or dollars on their unique renditions, and come in looking like nothing less than professionally tailored models. Y’know, as winners look.

The crowd majority applauded and cheered with approval. ReedPop has basically reinvented beauty pageants for the 21st century. Three cheers for corporate co-opting of geek culture and fan commoditization.

That’s not what we signed up for. At all.

Far as I can tell, other cons haven’t put up the budget to head in that direction, but if there’s enough money in it, I’m sure future showrunners will find ways to make it happen. That’s not our tempo. We just like costumes. We appreciate fans who go to the trouble of spending their own money to create costumes based on the characters they like a lot. They don’t have to look like award-winning Edith Head gowns or WETA Workshop armor. It’s okay for art and bodies to have seams and flaws.

Once we got past the foreshadowing of the alienating future of costume contests, then came the best part: costumes! At last, the main event! The kind of thing we like to see! The reason we stayed in Chicago much later than we prefer! Because of the kind of things my readers and visitors like to see! Plus I’d gotten a new camera last December and couldn’t wait to test it out in this environment so that my pics would be improved over previous cons and readers would fall in love with them and I’d be hailed as a C2E2 hero shutterbug across all the internets!

Meanwhile next to me, Anne was gnashing her teeth and having the exact opposite of the time of her life.

Darkened ballroom settings are a challenging photo setting in the first place, especially for amateurs like the two of us. But she found herself trapped in a worst-case scenario: a photo-happy guy about my height and width sat right in front of her, was taking multiple shots of every single contestant, was taking his sweet time focusing and adjusting his DSLR settings for each individual frame, and was letting his Popeye forearms take up most of the airspace in front of her.

A lot of Anne’s shots from that evening looked like this:

C2E2 2015 Iron Man barely!

This was one of the least benign examples that she didn’t delete as she went, in between exasperated grumbles. She was not happy. But the seats were too packed for us to rise up and relocate. I tried to reassure her that I understood her frustration and that she shouldn’t let it upset her. Well, I said as much in between snapping my own pics, of course. I’m nearly a foot taller than she is, and the person in front of me was puny. That meant it was up to me to save the day, take all the pics, and become C2E2 photojournalist supreme. Maybe later I could have it out with the bounder in the next row.

At some point it dawned on me: that guy is me.

My wife is cute and tiny and harmless and has never blocked anyone’s line of sight in her entire life. I, on the other hand, am neither short nor narrow. I put the camera down occasionally, but I’d been trying a few times to capture each contestant as they stopped onstage and posed for us and the judges. I was probably as much a human obstacle to others as that guys was to my wife. A living MST3K Shadowrama head enjoying the show at the expense of anyone behind me.

I spent the rest of the show still taking pics, but keeping my arms as close to my body as possible and doing my best not to extend too far outward anymore. Eventually my equally evil twin moved up to a closer seat away from us and probably won endless approval from his Instagram entourage. Anne’s pics beyond that point were much better, but between the day-long convention experience and her disappointment at perceiving herself as having let me down, her smile had disappeared.

After the contest ended, I briefly joined other viewers in the time-honored tradition of approaching the stage for close-ups of the finalists, then returned to the foyer to see if any straggling losers were still hanging around. As usual, they weren’t. The emcees at many costume contests like to tell their audience to stick around afterward and they can take pictures of anyone and everyone at their leisure. This is FALSE. Once they realize they’ve won nothing, the average cosplayer flees the vicinity at Road Runner speed, holes up in their hotel room, and changes into civilian togs faster than you can say “Clark Kent”. You can never, ever depend on simply seeing everyone later. After the contest there’s not much left to do but go away.

The 3½-hour drive home to Indianapolis in the middle of the night isn’t our favorite memory of the weekend. We were both exhausted and not in any real condition to discuss what had just happened, though we tried for a while anyway with mixed results. But it brought up something I’d suspected was the case for quite some time now: I like taking cosplay photos way more than she does.

We’re both pretty good at doing the loving husband/wife thing of supporting the other’s endeavors, lending a hand where asked, being patient with each other at cons as we take turns enjoying our respective activities. She liked to contribute where she could to our photo parades, but her height wasn’t the only problem. She’s not as familiar with as many fictional universes as I am, and often can’t tell which people are in costumes and which ones are just making independent fashion choices. We’re agreed that we don’t take photos of every single warm body in every single outfit (we’re both burnt out on Jedi, Stormtroopers, Ghostbusters, and other too-common sights), but sometimes she second-guesses herself on which costumes to pick up or pass. It can be distracting and time-consuming and take more concentration than an incidental sideline activity really should. For her, cosplay photos were becoming less like a joyful hobby extension and more like a job — or worse, like an unpaid internship. She was Peter Parker trying to bring me usable shots to the best of her ability, and I was J. Jonah Jameson with a firm editorial vision and an ostensible readership to satisfy and technically grow. Mind you, I wasn’t barking orders at her or even getting visibly rankled, but that wasn’t the point. She wasn’t having any fun.

Gen Con 2009 Finalists!

Finalists from Gen Con’s 2009 costume contest: original character Brass the Dwarf; an Imperial Guard Commissar and a Sister of Battle from Warhammer 40K; and an original Ice Elemental.

Any selfish inner voice that tried to take comfort in how I personally benefited from the experience was quelled and banished once I saw the end results over the next few days. MCC traffic for the next nine posts barely budged. I’m used to virtually flatline results from Wizard World Chicago or our local Thanksgiving sci-fi con, but not from the C2E2. Four hours of discomfort and all we came away with in the final analysis were some decent photos for her scrapbooks and a humility lesson for me.

Cosplay traffic isn’t a given anymore, especially not for low-end sites like mine. I imagined we were contributing to the geek community, or at least helping to lay a foundation for present-day costume contest legacies. The internet has no Wikipedia page or other archive where costume contest winners from all conventions worldwide are tracked for future generations to look up and respect in hindsight. I rather liked the idea of creating a modest space where I could do a little something like that for our favorite shows. I took pride in the fact that, unlike a lot of social media users, I do my best to identify every character in every pic, and ask others for labeling assistance whenever we meet new faces from new universes beyond our old folks’ limitations. It was all part of the service.

But well-meant fanboy intent isn’t nearly enough of a value-added perk to compete with millions of other geeks doing the same thing with far more expensive cameras and vaster spheres of influence, even if they’re just captioning them as “Some Anime Guy” or “Hot Chick #27”. We can’t compete with folks who possess photography degrees, or who take cosplayers aside to run them through thirty or forty carefully posed shots, or who come armed with tripods or selfie sticks or Steadicam rigs or whatever. For them it’s not about “fun”. For internet users at home, the photog’s motivation is irrelevant. Either the costumes look awesome or they don’t.

That’s never what MCC was meant to be about in the first place. Its main goals are giving me a sandbox for self-expression, a testing ground for weird ideas, a personal archive for longform thoughts and opinions, an online home base for our annual travelogs, and a centralized sharing mechanism for friends or anyone else who cares to tune in. I still think cosplay in general is cool and we’ll continue sharing pics of the cosplayers we happen to run across casually in the course of our natural convention walking paths in the months and years ahead, but the costume contest quests have deviated from their old purpose as a simple hobby extension and become a dispiriting pursuit of clickbait.

Gotta admit, though: those figures are hard to resist.

My writing’s normally above “Old Man Yells at Cloud” level, but not of the sort of quality that gets picked up for reprinting by news services, or even for light Facebook forwarding by friends or family. Writing for myself and a core circle of listeners is frequently satisfying enough to keep me going, but when you stumble onto a kind of content that generates five or ten times your normal traffic, it sends a message to the writer within: look how much better you could be doing. Look at all these new possibilities for attracting attention. Rethink your everyday priorities and rewrite them to chase this larger, fickle, fleeting audience instead. Exploit those searchers. Find the BuzzFeed within you.

Too bad the retention rates on all that cosplay traffic are, like, zilch. There’s never an influx of new followers. No inherent improvement to the tools in my toolbox. Just a short-term ego boost from this alleged public service for fellow fans who aren’t looking for it. Ultimately it’s not me, it’s not something I can realistically provide on a monthly basis, and it’s not sustainable.

And it’s definitely not worth pursuing at the expense of the twinkle in my wife’s eyes.

WWC 1999 Jedi!

Fans of The Phantom Menace at Wizard World Chicago 1999. One of the first cosplay photos I ever took, in simpler times.

Gen Con 2015 is this week, July 30th through August 2nd. Another installment of the Best Four Days in Gaming for 56,000+ attendees who’ll flock to town, spend lots, play hard, compete harder, and geek out to their hearts’ content. Many will be costumed. A select, hardy few will vie once again for contest supremacy.

Anne and I will be missing the con in general and the costume contest in particular. Hopefully those who attend get to see cool things.

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About Randall A. Golden
Hoosier since birth, geek since age 6, father at 22, Christian at 30; launched Midlife Crisis Crossover at 39. Full-time service rep; part-time internet contributor; former message board admin; inhabits Twitter as @RandallGolden. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of any other corporation, being, or party line.

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