Dressing up in homemade superhero outfits isn't some weird kink you indulge in your mom's basement anymore. That's all thanks to cosplayers who have gone from being mocked by jocks to becoming social media celebrities with hundreds of thousands of followers. Dressing up as your favorite fictional character isn't only a Halloween ritual, it's a now mainstay at conventions, gaming shows, and film and TV festivals. One of the ambassadors of this subculture is Yaya Han, a Chinese-American model who cosplayed for 15 years and earned fame with appearances on TBS's King of the Nerds, and SyFy’s 2013 reality show, Heroes of Cosplay, which introduced her—and cosplaying—to a new audience. So when she talks about the "Golden Age of Cosplay", she knows it more than anyone.
Han made her way into the cosplay scene in the late '90s. Her costume-making skills earned a lot of attention and she was invited to conventions as a guest of honor or to judge competitions. By the mid-2000s she was making costumes for other cosplayers, and selling her own line of cosplay accessories like wings, ears, and horns, based on fan-favorite characters. "She's always occupied a central roll in the community, even back in the early days—she was well known and well regarded," says Anna Fischer, a prominent photographer who captured many of Han's iconic costumes. "She just wasn't famous to normal people."
Around the time Han's fame grew, geek culture was readying to burst into the mainstream by way of blockbuster superhero films like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Bryan Singer's X-Men, which would spark the domination of superheroes at the Hollywood box office. Conventions would draw even more people, easily garnering hundreds of thousands of attendees, along with a large pool of fans who'd get in on the fun of dressing up as characters. Cosplaying also gave smaller comic book publishers publicity. Attend one convention and you'll find a multitude of characters, not just Christian Bale's Batman.
If you watch cosplay reality TV programs, like Heroes of Cosplay, you’ll likely think of it as a competitive affair, with the likes of Han vying for prize money and paid modeling gigs against other prominent cosplayers, such as Jessica Nigri. However, for every cosplayer in a competition, there are hundreds of fans dressing up just for fun—and attention.
Social media and the Internet fueled cosplaying growth by connecting cosplayers to each other through the practice's fan pages. Even minor cosplayers can accumulate thousands of fans, and a major player like Han will amass over a million. Though, this rise in celebrity isn't necessarily a good thing to some. "About eight to 10 years ago, we had a Golden Age where everyone was starting to communicate online,” Han says. "It was before Facebook and Twitter. We were sharing ideas, sharing how we made things, and people were starting to make really amazing things. Conventions were having cosplayers come out not as celebrities, but as teachers. People would share their knowledge and experience, and pass on what they know."
This flood of newcomers transformed the landscape of the once-underground community. "The geek scene now is really huge, and I think people are sometimes afraid and intimidated," she continues. "After so many years it all of a sudden exploded. It's an industry now, where money is involved. Some people are lost and confused if they're starting out, or veterans who've been doing it a long time don't know how to go with the flow."
And, ironically, that industry is making Han come full circle: she's currently starring in the Lion Forge comic, Wonderous II (out now). However, her character is an aspiring costume designer and not the established personality she is now. "When I started cosplaying 15 years ago I was a fan, and I was completely clueless," Han says, citing that she wants her character to relate to newbies still trying to find their ground in the scene. "I didn't even know how to sew. I remember what it was like to try to fit into this very broad community.”
Lion Forge publishes several comics based on real-life people with adventurous lives—like MMA fighters and stand up comedians—and the original Wonderous focused on a fictionalized version of Playboy Playmate Claire Sinclair. Wonderous II launches a new story featuring a super-powered interpretation of Han. When she created the character, Han wanted to avoid powers like super strength and speed; the fictional Han can control electricity and influence people by controlling the electric current in their bodies.
At this year’s New York Comic Con, Han cosplayed as her Wonderous II character, a look that she sketched to work both in comics and real-life. The suit avoids cliche lightning bolt designs and uses her favorite color, purple. There’s a cape, partly to look like a classic superhero, and the practical purpose of covering herself up when she needs to move through crowds without drawing much attention. When not avoiding onlookers, Han drew a line of fans looking for autographs and photo ops.
Han gained experience drawing during grade school in Germany, when she created a manga comic called Cherry Blossom for an assignment that let students teach their class any topic. Because no one knew what manga was, she wanted to show the class that a cartoon could tackle a serious subject, like suicide. "It was about a Japanese girl who moved to the United States right after World War II, so she got bullied," she explains. "It was awful, there was racism and prejudice, and she got raped and then killed herself. It was the most depressing thing you could think of, but I wanted to write and draw something that was meaningful, taught a lesson and told a story. The only anime magazine in Germany somehow found out about it and they paid me to publish it in a special issue."
Considering the number of new cosplayers that have showed up at conventions, it's a wonder how Han has lasted almost two decades without disappearing amongst the static. "I do think there is something unique about Yaya, lots of those early stars faded away as latter generations replaced them," Fischer says. "But she [was] always developing her craft, and her skills have grown and evolved at a rate that's consistent with the growth of technology."
After 15 years in, Han, who is now in her 30s, is among the growing group of cosplayers who remain loyal to the craft decades in. But moving on isn't a concern right now. "I know that I’ll always be creative, I will still make something with my hands as long as I can. Whether or not I'll still be in costume in 30 years—I don't know, I could very well be."
Even if the cosplaying Golden Age is peaking, the culture will be around for the foreseeable future, and Han has some advice for newcomers and vets alike: "I don't want people to forget where we came from, and remember what an amazing, unique art form this is.”
Wonderous II is scheduled for an 8-issue run with Lion Forge Comics, and she'll appear on Season 3 of King of the Nerds in 2015.
Charles Battersby is a contributing writer. He tweets here.
[Ed. note: An earlier version of the article misquoted Han as having said that the golden age of cosplaying is over. This has been corrected to better reflect the words of the subject.]