Knoxville’s Cosplay Warriors

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Roane County native Rip Elliott’s iteration of the Crown Prince of Crime may not be as raggedly unhinged as that of the late Heath Ledger’s, but it still offers a classic and highly credible take on the Batman’s infamous arch enemy.

“The first time I ever did this, I was the Joker at Fanboy in 2013,” says Elliott, garbed in a neatly-pressed Silver-Age Joker get-up that includes a purple suit, green tie, an orange flower on one lapel and, of course, the obligatory scrawl of red lipstick on a painted white face.

“Before that, I didn’t even know we had things like this around here. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Elliott is one of many costumed fan-boys and -girls making an appearance today at a costume contest, as part of Knoxville’s biannual Fanboy Expo (held last weekend). Begun primarily as a convention to showcase slightly-past-their-sell-by TV and movie stars, Fanboy has expanded the scope of its convention offerings to incorporate more elements of fandom, including cosplay.

The word “cosplay,” a portmanteau of “costume play,” was supposedly coined by a Japanese anime artist, inspired by the costumed role-players he witnessed at a Los Angeles sci-fi convention in 1984. But the practice of genre fans displaying their passion through homemade costumes began much earlier than that—the website cites 1939’s First World Science Fiction Convention in New York, where 22-year-old Forrest J. Ackerman (future editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland) created a stir when he and girlfriend/fanzine editor Myrtle R. Douglas showed up dressed as futuristic characters from the H.G. Wells movie, Things to Come.

But it gained traction as a cultural phenomenon in Japan, and then elsewhere, through the 1990s. Now it rates as a mainstay of nerd culture, one that walks hand-in-gloved/armored/furred-hand with other staples—comic books and movies, for instance—all of which provide inspiration for the art. And for many practitioners, cosplay is an art.

“Some people buy their costumes,” says Clinton resident Elizabeth Martzin, garbed as DC Comics villainess Harley Quinn. “But there’s no fun in that.”

Martzin and her brother, Aaron Martzin—dressed as the Mayor of Halloween Town, from The Nightmare Before Christmas—began dressing up a couple of years ago, inspired by her love of anime, and his love of traditional American comics. Both their outfits are largely homemade, including her Harley suit consisting of a jester-style black-on-red leotard, plus a giant hammer, an impressive construction made from two five-gallon buckets secured with bolts, with duct-taped ends and a handle made of PVC pipe.

Knoxville’s Michael Sharp, 22, learned sewing as a means of making his own costumes, including the hand-sewn Spider-man outfit he’s wearing at Fanboy.

“This isn’t the best mask I’ve made,” he admits, tugging at the exposed end of Spidey’s head cover, which is hanging a little loose around his Adam’s apple. “I’ve made one before that actually fits around the neck.”

His friend Caitlin Copen of Maryville accompanied him to Fanboy, dressed in a red-spandex Lady Deadpool (Marvel Comics) costume. She says she’s been into cosplay since age 10—she’s 17 now—spurred by comics, manga, and YouTube.

“I’m not so good at sewing—he helps me as much as possible,” she says, pointing a red-gloved finger in Sharp’s direction. Then she shows off Lady Deadpool’s arsenal, an array of blades and guns of her own design, adding, “but I do make my own props.”

When it comes to sheer ingenuity, not too many cosplayers have it over R.J. Foster, making an appearance today as “Dirk Astor,” a steampunk character of his own creation. Unlike most of the costumed conventioneers, Foster’s dress-up was born from reenactments and Renaissance fairs, which his father exposed him to at the tender age of 6. Along the way, he learned pieces of trades such as leather- and metal-working.

“You learn a lot by doing the Renaissance fair circuit,” says Foster, a burly bearded 43-year-old Harriman resident. “It allows you to learn some skills, and pick a direction you enjoy.”

For Foster, it also led to a sideline, of sorts—his main gig is as a pharmacy advocate for Roane County Medical Center—when he started Steps in Tyme Designs (One of a Kind Steampunk Creations). Through Steps in Tyme, Foster and wife Joanna engineer jewelry, leather pieces, and other accoutrements and gizmos for fellow steampunk enthusiasts.

He shows off several examples of his work on his Dirk Astor outfit—a 300-hour project, by his estimate. A war veteran with sundry combat-related debilitations, Dirk has steam-powered prosthetics on each arm, complete with tiny spinning wheels, and an elaborate mechanical back-up system on his chest, all utilizing gloriously imagined state-of-the-art 19th century tech.

Like Foster, many of today’s conventioneers have business or group affiliations associated with their cosplay. The aforementioned Rip “Joker” Elliott, a 20-something voice actor and Tae Kwon Do teacher, works with Time for Heroes, a local group that provides costumed characters for various events. “Spider-man” Michael Sharp works for Character Innovations, a local business that makes costumes on commission.

And then there is Aaron Tuggle of Rockwood, strutting around the convention floor as a very smug-looking Lex Luthor, the cape of his (presumably vanquished) arch-nemesis Superman draped across one arm.

In a soft, decidedly non-villainous drawl, Tuggle describes how he was pulled into cosplay by a friend about two years ago. A strikingly handsome fellow with a perfect, hairless pate, Tuggle soon found himself in demand to play various iconic comic-book baldies.

“It started with Professor X, and then the Kingpin,” Tuggle says with a smile. “Then came Lex Luthor. Any bald character, they’d pull me in.”

Now Tuggle makes appearances through The Big Bang Life, a website devoted to various “geek life” fixations, traveling as a sort of post-’90s-era Lex Luthor (when Lex transitioned from the doughy middle-aged criminal of Silver Age lore to the Armani-suited P90X super-executive of Bruce Timm cartoons) to various fan conventions, including the Superman Celebration, held annually in Metropolis, Ill.

“I actually purchased this in Metropolis,” says Tuggle, grinning again as he holds up a polished gem made of green kryptonite, and perhaps lending an ominous clue as to how that red cape came into his possession.

Indeed, cosplay isn’t just a hobby anymore—it’s a multi-faceted business, as outlined in a 2013 Business Insider article, “An Introduction into the Wild World of Cosplay.”

Still, it seems like a business that is likely to remain close to its hobbyist roots, dependent as it is on practitioners who have no qualms about walking around in public dressed as a super-villain, or spending countless hours assembling a tolerably authentic-looking Darth Vader outfit from a detritus of Halloween cast-offs and spare parts.

His mutton-chop sideburns dyed an appropriate shade of Joker green (“I’ve only shaved for the Joker once,” he chuckles), Elliott wears his nerdism like a badge of honor. “We do a lot of charity appearances with Time for Heroes, and the costumed ‘interactions’ are the best,” he says. “The kids will light up like candles. People will run up and hug you, just because they love the character you’re playing.

“I’m a grown-up playing make-believe, and I love it.”

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