I got into cosplay, which is the act of dressing up as characters from one’s favorite fandoms, because I’ve always been afflicted with tremendous crowd anxiety and stage fright. This might explain why I wanted to grow up to be a superhero, not terrified of something as trivial as attending a crowded venue or being in the spotlight. On a subconscious level, I might have chosen journalism as a career because it seems like something a superhero’s alter ego would do. Thanks to last weekend’s Fan Expo Dallas, an annual pop-culture convention also known as the Dallas Comic Con, I’ve taken another huge step toward overcoming my anxiety.
Superheroes – specifically the kind in the movies – started to become mainstream vehicles for drama and action (and often humor) around my late teens. Though the majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the 23 Marvel Studios movies that are known collectively as The Infinity Saga – happened during my college years, it all started with Iron Man in 2008, when I was an awkward, husky, asthmatic high-schooler. I caught the flick at the Hulen Movie Tavern with my sister’s friend, whom I had a major crush on at the time. She had picked me up in her lipstick-red Mazda Miata, and we enjoyed the movie. I wonder to this day if it was a pity date set up by my sister. I even called her to ask as I found myself writing this, and she claimed to not even remember it ever happening. The 11 years of cinema that followed Iron Man has not only given all of us fanboys and fangirls countless hours of entertainment, but it has also helped to create a world that is now incredibly friendly to cosplay.
I didn’t get into cosplay until 2011, when I became brave enough to attend my first Dallas Fan Days, a smaller version of Fan Expo Dallas – the smaller size helped a lot with my anxiety – held each fall at the Irving Convention Center. Like many of us grown-up geeks, I found myself spending hours wondering which hero I could realistically pull off well enough to compete in the Masters of Cosplay Grand Prix cosplay contest that Fan Expo Dallas hosts every year. Once I thought back to Chris Evans’ portrayal of Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger earlier that year, I made my choice.
Through the next eight years, I managed working my way through college, catching 17 more MCU openings, crafting my cosplay, and working out like crazy. I even attempted copying a modified version of Chris Evans’ Captain America workout regimen that I found online a time or two.
Now I find myself with a doughy yet muscular physique passable for a Captain America stunt double while wrapping up a master’s degree alongside the conclusion of 22 films worth of storytelling.
I turned a lot of heads while strolling Sundance Square after Avengers: Endgame, shield in hand and wearing all of my gear built around a Captain America knock-off Under Armour t-shirt so tight even Dwayne Johnson might look a little ridiculous in it. I crossed paths with only one other cosplayer. This was in the lobby of the AMC Palace 9. Dressed as Spider-Man, he had caught the non-3D screening 30 minutes before mine. Passersby responses to seeing Captain America in downtown Fort Worth after the movie were very positive. My favorite reaction –– “Bloody hell! It’s Captain fucking America!” –– came from a European guy here on business who stopped at the nearby Flying Saucer at about 11:45 p.m. or around my second Miller Lite and the first bite of my German plate. I was crazy hungry and thirsty after a three-hour movie that I’m pretty sure I barely blinked during.
This was not the first time I’ve assumed the role of Captain America. There was the time I worked as an usher at the Hulen Starplex (now an AMC) on opening night for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and last July 4 some friends and I went barhopping around West 7th Street –– with just the shield –– and we joked about playing giant Frisbee all night. Seeing Avengers: Endgame was my test run with the completed cosplay, and the 2019 Masters of Cosplay Grand Prix Central Qualifier was my first legitimate competition.
Thanks to anxiety, the contest at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center last Saturday became my personal Battle of Wakanda. I felt great walking around the con after my pre-judging. Once the MC lined us up backstage an hour before the contest, during a video tribute to Peter Mayhew, a.k.a. Chewbacca, who had died recently, my heart started racing and felt like it was going to explode. I nervously talked to all the other contestants and received advice from more veteran cosplayers, who said if you put in the work, you should show it off to the world. When the MC called my name and introduced my character, I picked up the shield, stood up tall, and took the stage.
Like the good guys in the Battle of Wakanda, I didn’t win that day. However, I was voted eighth out of 10 contestants in the novice slot for fan favorite online after the contest. I wasn’t last, and I’ve learned it’s not always about winning. It’s about never giving up and staring down your fears like a superhero. It’s also about all the friends you meet along the way.
It’s true. I’ve made a lot of friends on my cosplay journey, such as Michael McMeekin or “Big Mike,” who spent countless mornings helping me get in shape at the Morton Fitness Center at Texas Wesleyan University; KellyJo Curry, who took photos of a few of my different cosplays at her studio in Princeton, Texas; and two coworkers from the old movie theater: Justin Burt, who carpools to cons with me, and Dustin Frost, both of whom I still hang out with, just to name a few. I even met Stan Lee, who founded Marvel Comics and its film production arm, Marvel Studios, at Fan Expo Dallas in 2016. The morning he died on Nov. 12, 2018, was incredibly emotional for me. My phone blew up with texts from concerned friends, and the manager of the company I was working for in Addison denied my request for emotional bereavement leave.
The past decade has truly been a journey of self-discovery through cosplay. I still face anxiety, but it’s much more manageable now and I owe it all to the countless friendships I’ve made while dressing up like a superhero. Avengers: Endgame was a fantastic end to a hell of a ride, and I plan to take a long, well-earned break from superhero movies for now. However, it looks like my cosplaying has just begun.