Vancouver FanEXPO gives cosplay creatives an invaluable platform for being themselves

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      By tobias c. van Veen

      Cosplay has been undoing consensual reality for well over a century. I’m feeling a bit surreal myself, as I wander around the harbourfront at Vancouver’s FanEXPO, a massive convention of some 25,000 science fiction and fantasy freaks, dodging nefarious elves, dayglo ninjas, and giant winged-beasts with sparkly scepters.

      The scene is a vibrant crush of creatives. Panelists present on everything from crafting to comix, and rows of talented artists hawk their wares, from psychedelic fan-art to hand-knitted baby Yodas. Dance competitions, foam-sword battles, and Jedi hunts grace the day, while the Cantina crowd takes over local bars by night. At my first convention since the pandemic, I am immersed once again in the world of cosplay—or costume play for the uninitiated—clad as a space pirate.

      All the big players are out in force, from the Storm Troopers of the 501st Legion, who have achieved near-legendary status for appearing in The Mandalorian, to the charity-fundraising Ghostbusters of British Columbia, to the tight-frocked Star Trek squads beaming-in for Romulan ale. The overall effect is an unending stream of strange worlds colliding, much like Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe—a kind of everything-everywhere-all-at-once vibe that culminates in a culture of the surreal where you can let your imagination run wild. 

      Members of the Star Wars cosplay group Storm Troopers of the 501st Legion take photos with fans.
      tobias c. van Veen

      This is how I ran into the RevoSquad, a group of vibrant, brightly-dressed cosplayers from the Dream SMP Minecraft server, a unique storytelling corner of the sci-fi world where users have modded the platform to create new role-playing characters, quite unlike the recognisable figures from the giant franchise. They caught my attention as they carried around miniature nukes and TNT, apparently “for family protection,” and also because of their electric and infectious energy.

      Gravitating around the force-of-nature known as Jabs, the RevoSquad ranges in age from 12 to 24. Surrounded by the Squad, I opened up the mic to let them speak to what cosplay means to them. Holding aloft a sparkling blue sword, Jabs jumps in as “Tommy”: “Cosplay opens up this hub of creativity and friendship that you would never be able to get anywhere else. It’s like a different world. I love it.”

      This different world is a real world, too: many post-school cosplayers I spoke to worked in the film, design, and animation industries, and Jabs, a graduate of Vancouver Film School, credits cosplay for her interest in professional make-up and design.

      But it’s more than just film types who are into cosplay. Cosplay can also be an empathic and supportive space in which to become oneself, a bit of a beautiful haven in an anxiety-laden, often fear-driven society coming to grips with everything from drag queens to transgender identities. As RevoSquad member Grey puts it, cosplaying “Phil,” “It’s really freeing to be able to be myself, also having people being able to back me up no matter what. It’s awesome. I’m trans, so for me it’s not gender-bending, it’s the way I am.”

      RevoSquad member Soph, cosplaying a Minecraft character called Ranboo, considers fellow cosplayers "siblings."
      tobias c. van Veen

      Another RevoSquad member pipes in, a strange figure with fangs, two small horns adorned with a crown, and a face half-painted black and white. Two big, gremlin-like ears stick out from the sides; it’s a character known as Ramboo, and it is a startling reminder of how banal us humans usually look—and as many cosplayers pointed out to me, they love cosplay because it is so surreal. And this surreal transformation of reality is liberating for many a cosplayer and their sense of self-identity, when allowed to flex and become fluid. 

      As Ramboo puts it (cosplayed by Soph), “I was always very insecure and really, really shy sometimes about what I was, and who I was with other people, so I used to hide myself a lot. I was in fear that my friends wouldn’t respect me for that. I met the RevoSquad at a convention, and back then I was just a fan, and now I consider them my siblings.”


      Getting weird and wonderful with gender

      Ever since science fiction erupted into the dull realism of romantic literature, its fans began playing out the future they could only dream of by dressing in costume and acting-out the characters. In the late 19th century, Jules Verne invited hundreds of party guests to dress as characters from his novels, and in 1908, Mr. and Mrs. William Fell were the first to cosplay a sci-fi comic strip character, Mr. Skygack. The very first World Science Fiction Convention, held in 1939, featured the inventive cosplays of Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas, who dressed in “futuristicostumes” based on the 1936 film, Things to Come.

      A century later, and cosplay has exploded into a kind of pop culture performance art, with participants numbering in the millions at sci-fi and fantasy conventions across the globe. Growing at an exponential rate since Star Trek’s earliest fan conventions in the 1970s, to its more widespread popularization at sci-fi Cons in the 2000s, cosplay today is everywhere on social media. So many factors meet to make cosplay, from its Do-it-Yourself crafting and costume ethos, to its devout fandoms, to the massive force of Japanese anime, all colliding in today’s internet where influencers, creators, and photographers meet in a circle of imagination, experimentation, and play.

      A cosplayers portrays N from Murder Drones.
      tobias c. van Veen

      But this is what it’s like from the bird’s eye view: when you get down onto the floor at the Con, it’s all about finding one’s fam. Or rather, finding one’s kin, whoever, or whatever they may be. While cosplay is about expressing one’s imaginative alter-egos through the love of a character, it’s also about shaping a social scene beyond the default meeting sites of work and school. 

      Cosplay has also, and perhaps always been, a space for coming-out and experimenting with gender and sexuality. Though a part of the scene since the start, crossplay—cosplaying a character of a different gender—has exploded into the culture. In fact one could also see it the other way around: after decades of sci-fi conventions, cosplay culture has sublimely infiltrated the mainstream to question and undo the masks and roles we wear everyday. 

      When I ask the RevoSquad what it’s like to cosplay, they tell me it’s “like wearing a mask.” But this of course reveals the flipside: that in order to don a new mask, you have to remove the one you are already wearing. Cosplay calls into question those stubborn masks we aren’t even aware of.

      I’m reminded of this as I talk to Bear Sailor Moon. For anyone who knows the anime character, it is a delightful surprise to see the warm and fuzzy, moustached Bear prancing across the performance stage in Sailor Moon’s trademark sailor suit. Bear has been hosting Drag Show and Cosplay Red Carpet events at Toronto conventions for the past nine years.

      Bear Sailor Moon holds court at FanExpo 2023.
      tobias c. van Veen

      “I guess I am doing crossplay, but I present very masculine,” Bear says. “I have full make-up on, so it’s a really weird dichotomy, because you have someone who is incredibly masculine, dressing in one of the most female-presenting cosplays you can have. Gender-bending and cross-playing has become more relevant over the years, as people get a little more comfortable with it. I’d say within the last couple of years it’s gotten even more heightened too.”

      The effect is transfixing, and the audience eats it up, cheering at every turn, eyes wide. You can see the amplifying effect. “In some ways, a lot of people come up to me, and say, ‘you’ve given me the confidence to do this!’” says Bear. He goes on: “I think what’s happening in society is that we’re starting to lose gender norms, as realistically they’re kind of outdated. Because why can’t I wear make-up? Why can’t I wear these amazing earrings that were custom done for me? Why—like why? When you start cross-playing you’re just like, ‘You know what? Like whatever, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day’.”

      Except, of course, that it does, and I am sure Bear would agree: it matters greatly to all cosplayers, free in their way to play with yet another aspect of what it means to be a beautiful being, alive and unshackled. What doesn’t matter are the rigid categories we are bound by, nor the opinions of the haters.

      As Bear says, “I’ve had some pretty terrible things said to me. But water off a duck’s back, right? It also speaks to the younger generation—they are so dialed in, and it’s really important to remind them, [that the haters] are just people on the internet. They are non-playable characters: whatever they say, it has no basis on who you are as a person.” 

      The family that cosplays together slays together.

      The four cosplayers strutting their stuff on the Red Carpet were unusual. No, they weren’t gender-bending xenomorphs, but this was no normal cosplay fan bunch: from what I could tell, this was a cosplaying fam, with two parents and two adult daughters. 

      That in itself is a special thing, as cosplay can be a point of consternation and concern in some families. I asked them how it all started, beginning with Holly, cosplaying Mary Poppins with a beaming smile: “My husband has been cosplaying with our daughters for 15 years, and they finally talked me into coming with them.” 

      She lets me know she is very glad she did. I turn to Michael, who is cosplaying supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Burt in his orange-and-yellow-striped suit. “My daughters were big superhero fans, and we’ve been hooked ever since,” he says, sporting a mad grin.

      But all the credit is due to daughters Grace and Abby, who found out about the conventions while still in elementary school. Abby reveals something that touches me close to my own heart. for it wasn’t just her parents who were supportive, but her grandmother too, who made her very first costume—much like mine did. 

      Heck, for all we know, Abby’s grandma was cosplaying back in the mid-20th century. And that’s the point: people have been digging the surreal since the start, always pushing the boundaries of what inventive minds and bodies can be.         

      Interested in cosplay? Check out the Vancouver Cosplay Group on Facebook, as well as events and meet-ups organized through FanEXPO at