Toward new horizons: Cosplay (re)imagined through the superhero genre, authenticity, and transformation

Ellen Kirkpatrick

Kingston University, London, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—I identify and explore connections between cosplay and costuming practices characterizing the superhero genre. Utilizing the concepts of authenticity, context, and transformation, I open a dialogue between these cultural texts and interrogate and rearticulate the spaces and surfaces of cosplay. I work with cosplay as a simultaneous performance—as source character and as member of the cosplaying community. Analysis permits the presentation of three interconnected assertions. First, cosplay is readable as an embodied reception of the unstable modes of identity worked within the superhero genre. Second, cosplay, although conventionally sited and treated within fandom, is also performed within spaces away from organized fandom, notably on screens (industry costuming) and streets (copycats or real-life superheroes). Cosplay can thus be reconceptualized as a spectrum of intersecting behaviors rather than as a limited fan practice. Third, the idea of transformation does not adequately reflect the actuality of performing as a source character. I assert and demonstrate instead that cosplay exemplifies a moment of what I have termed embodied translation, where cosplayers transfer the source character from a limitless fictional landscape to their delimited physical one. Such creative consideration complicates and troubles our current understandings of cosplay and commences the project of reconceptualizing this most complicated and manifold practice.

[0.2] Keywords—Costuming; Embodied translation; Fandom

Kirkpatrick, Ellen. 2015."Toward New Horizons: Cosplay (Re)imagined through the Superhero Genre, Authenticity, and Transformation." In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

[0.3] Costume: Custom, use, wont, fashion, guise, habit, manner…The mode or fashion of personal attire and dress (including the way of wearing the hair, style of clothing and personal adornment) belonging to a particular nation, class, or period.

Oxford English Dictionary

1. Introduction

[1.1] Identity play within fandom is not just a material matter. Cosplay is only one of many ways in which fans engage with and enact identity; others include fan fiction (Coppa 2006), role-playing games (Lancaster 2001), or digital spaces (Booth 2008, 2010). Although using different materials—the page, the screen, and the body—these seemingly diverse sites of fan engagement do intersect, especially around identity and the agency of fans through many practices: rewriting extant characters and texts and, interrelatedly, inserting themselves within texts; negotiating dual or multiple identity performances and, relatedly, inhabiting the spaces between the fictional and the real; and, through collaboration, creating, maintaining, and developing fan communities. It is also worth emphasizing that fan practices are not performed in discrete isolation: a cosplayer may simultaneously cosplay, write fan fiction, produce videos, and digitally role-play the same character. Fandoms are not quiet, disconnected places but are fluid and dynamic spaces, filled with interchange, where borders and outlines dissolve and reappear through the passing and the telling. So, although this discussion focuses upon ideas of embodied identity play, I hope to transcend that discussion and speak to other fan practices engaged in performing identity, in whatever forms.

[1.2] Identity and its play are super complicated within the superhero genre, and generalizations do not come easily. Identity, once ascribed, is not treated as sacrosanct but rather as something dynamic and always subject to change. Genre protagonists are not created the same and are not, as the universalizing marker "superhero" suggests, members of a monolithic or homogenous group. Well-worn patterns of identity shape these archetypal characterizations and through repetition secure an idea of them, a familiarity, within the popular consciousness (Bongco 2000; Coogan 2007). Yet within such rigidity, there is fluidity, a strong sense that things are not set in stone. Identity play within the genre is characterized by diversity and plurality. Chief among the various modes of identity worked within the superhero genre is the cycling, transiting, alter/hero pairing (e.g., Bruce Wayne/Batman, Virgil Hawkins/Static). Although common, this mode, with its stress on alter identities, does not characterize all genre protagonists or all modes of super identity, but a brief account will serve to provide a sense of the intricacy of super identity.

[1.3] Popular and easy considerations of the alter/hero pairing imagine it in terms of simple duality (note 1): a characterization within which at least two identities distinctly cohabit one character; when one aspect is present the other is absent (e.g., Bruce Banner/Hulk, Peter Parker/Spider-Man). The alter ego is often, although not always, the originating aspect, the one accommodating, overrun, and transformed by the emergence of the super aspect. With exceptions (e.g., Wonder Woman, Superman), the originating character is a regular citizen from whom a new masked identity emerges, such as Captain Marvel from Billy Batson or Static from Virgil Hawkins. Crucially, both aspects hold authenticity; within specific contexts, both are accepted and considered as real and true. Bruce Wayne, in all his poses, is not diminished by the existence of Batman and vice versa. An alter ego is not necessarily a secret identity; it may be exposed through self-declaration or through accidental or deliberate revelation. Ironman/Tony Stark and the Fantastic Four team are just a few characters living their transiting identities publicly. Established protagonists may also have several historical alter egos associated with them, and entirely separate protagonists may even share the same alter ego (note 2). On top of already complex identity play, these figures are always open to further, albeit episodic, transformation. Within Superman, for instance, identity plays out interminably within the Kal-El/Superman/Clark Kent dynamic, but during his long tenure he has also been the subject of many other fantastical transformations including becoming "monstrously obese, insect headed, a Frankenstein's monster, a lion-faced outcast" (Morrison 2012, 70). Yet despite all this mutability and border crossing, superheroes are created within a highly regulatory framework (Coogan 2007; Reynolds 1992). But even this framework can be ultimately collapsed, for superheroes do not really have to appear costumed, have superpowers, have secret/dual identities, be orphans, or have origins or even noble intentions. Few genres are as seemingly marked by binary oppositions, bounded with traversable borders, and regulated by pliable rules.

[1.4] Our experiences in identity also reflect the inadequacy of binary identity, suggesting instead modes much closer to the fluid, nonbinary models worked within the superhero genre. Binary systems are inherently unequal, marked by violent hierarchy (Derrida 1981), a relationship of the privileged and the suppressed. Implicated within the imbalance of power relations within these binarisms is the marking of the inferior position as specific, visible, and seen against the unmarked, invisible, and unseen superior position. Of further concern is the normalizing or naturalizing of the superior as the general, the normal, or the benchmark, if you will (Derrida 1981; Hall 1996; Chabram-Dernersesian 2006). Contemporary identity theory offers other ways of handling the contentious and problematic concept of identity (Barth 1966; Goffman 1969; Crenshaw 1991; Bukatman 1993; Halberstam and Livingston 1995; Bhabha 1995; Hall 1996; Ahmed 1999; Anzaldúa 1999; Butler 1999; Bauman 2000, 2004). Many actualize and employ concepts such as intersectionality, difference, liquid modernity, posthumanism, and passing in order to both reveal the inadequacies of the concept of identity and to attempt to theorize ways out or through it. They allow us to begin reimagining identity and therefore begin reimagining ourselves in ways that perhaps more adequately or satisfactorily reflect our experiences in subjectivity. As we shall see, the superhero genre and cosplay performance also offer other ways of conceiving, representing, and living in identity, ways not regulated through systems, structures, and binaries but instead welcoming of ambiguity and plurality (note 3).

[1.5] The diversity of modes of identity within the superhero genre is matched only by the diversity of costuming practices. Dress is a powerful signifier of identity, purpose, and function; connections between dress identity and power relations are long established and long exploited (note 4). But it is not solely visual; it is also the milieu in which the dressed body appears. Reading identity is not only dependent upon how a body appears but also upon where and by whom it is read. Costuming is a visual means of transforming one's reading in identity, a way of being other, another way of being. It takes center stage in the performance of identity and has a broad repertoire, from the material to the digital. It plays its part in fandoms, reenactments, films, games, and the gambits of real-life superheroes, a term that refers to the increasingly popular cultural practice of citizens not only imitating the costuming practices of superheroes but also emulating their crime-fighting behavior. It also comes into play in the modes of dress that characterize our daily existence, from the ceremonial use of uniforms (e.g., military, clergy) to their daywear counterparts (e.g., business suits, office wear) or even the uniform dress practices of certain subcultural groups (e.g., skinheads, punks). As both concept and practice, it defies easy description; it is fluid and dynamic and functions idiosyncratically, and as with the superhero genre, it is often hard to know where it begins and ends.

[1.6] The superhero genre and cosplay are knowable by their costuming practices and identity play (note 5). Within the superhero genre, as with cosplay, dress sets out intent and sets up expectation (Reynolds 1992) (note 6). The donning of any costume—changing from one mode of dress to another, from one subject position to another—is a momentous move, visualized. It affects everything. Here I take these defining preoccupations as a starting point. Documenting the ways in which superhero genre costuming practices speak to and echo around cosplay culture and performance leads this discussion outward to consideration of other, related forms of costuming and identity play, suggesting them all as participating in the same conversation. Such work generates an opportunity to creatively reconsider our current understandings of the conditions of cosplay, moving from limited fan practice toward an intersectional understanding sited within a dynamic continuum of identity play as a performed dialogue rather than monologue.

[1.7] I undertook a series of textual analyses and consulted a wide range of secondary sources, including recent research on cosplay (Lunning 2012; Lamerichs 2011, 2013; Bainbridge and Norris 2013); Web sites and fan sites such as iFanboy (, (, and YouTube (; and documentaries such as Superheroes (2011), Cosplay: A Way to Escape (2012), and Heroes of Cosplay (2013). I also read other works engaging different modes of role-play and identity within fandom (Lancaster 2001; Sandvoss 2005; Coppa 2006; Booth 2008, 2010) in order to broaden my understanding of the myriad ways in which fans enact identity play. I chose such a combined methodology to correspond with my purposes here, sources that would help me not with elucidating the experiences of cosplayers but instead with identifying and then interrogating the general understanding of the practices, the ways, of cosplay. I felt that as this type of general information was already readily available within secondary sources, which often provided accounts of primary research (e.g., questionnaires, ethnographies), such sources would provide appropriate and reliable details upon which to base my understanding of the central, popularly held tenets of cosplay. Such sources form the basis of my account of the accepted character of cosplay.

2. On embodied reception, authenticity, and transformation

[2.1] Here I treat cosplay as an embodied reception of the identity play and costuming practices worked within the superhero genre; for instance, just as conventionally cast superheroes simultaneously perform (at least) two characters, so too do cosplayers, as source character and as cosplayer. Interestingly, although dealing with a differently phrased fan practice, this simultaneity of performance calls to mind Cassandra Amesley's idea of "double viewing" (1989 quoted in Jenkins 1992, 67), a strategy allowing observers to simultaneously contend with both the fiction (the characters as constructed by an author) and the reality (the characters as people with stories of their own). The recognition of the simultaneity of the performance of cosplay, of the real and the fictional, the cosplayer and the source character, is both novel and significant. By engaging cosplay thus and through the associated concepts of authenticity and transformation, I interrogate the simultaneity of the mimetic and diegetic qualities permeating cosplay.

[2.2] Concerns around authenticity and transformation characterize much scholarly work undertaken on cosplay (Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012; Lamerichs 2011). I also utilize these concepts but perhaps for slightly different ends, not to establish or reinforce the idea of stable definitions of cosplay or cosplayers but to undermine them. Although discourses on authenticity characterize many debates and stem from many conceptual frameworks (e.g., existentialism, poststructuralism), there is a shared acknowledgment that authenticity is an unstable concept, one whose meaning is hard to fix. For my purposes here, however, I work with the popularly conceived understanding of authenticity as evoking notions of realness, truth, and identity. Through authenticity, I explore and query ideas of real cosplay and real cosplayers. I reveal the plurality of cosplay performance and in so doing illustrate ideas of realness and legitimacy as subjective, mutable, and unfixed.

[2.3] Transformation is another word and concept closely associated with cosplay and with the superhero genre, but it too proves hard to pin down. Transformation is not necessarily unbounded and is often enacted within limits (e.g., physical, psychical, contextual), and I, uniquely, work here with the idea and consequences of delimited transformations. While cosplay is routinely interpreted as transformative, as a means through which subjects can experiment and play with identity and subjectivity (Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012), it should be remembered that not all cosplayers seek such an experience—some wish only to publicly declare their connection with a specific fan object. Within this discussion, however, I treat cosplay as transformative, as it is most often interpreted (Lamerichs 2011; Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012; Lunning 2012; Bainbridge and Norris 2013), as an act through which participants can safely experiment and play with identity and subjectivity. I point to the elements necessary to secure a transformative performance, involving matters of costume acquisition, rehearsal, and self-belief. I conclude that because of corporeal limitations, these elements do not effect transformation but rather what I term embodied translation, that through these processes both cosplayer and character become lost and recreated in translation. I am interested here in exploring the discursive ways in which cosplay performance and culture are currently realized through these concepts and further in testing the source and nature of these discursively imposed limits. In short, I am interested in contesting the realness, the authenticity, of the ideas and transformative spaces encircling cosplay and cosplayers.

[2.4] While research on fans and fandom is burgeoning, work focusing upon cosplay remains something of a rarity. As Nicolle Lamerichs (2013) notes, it is more often mentioned as an example of fan practice rather than engaged directly as a cultural practice deserving dedicated research. Of work that is undertaken, theoretical attention still focuses upon a relatively limited range of themes (e.g., characterizing it within fandom, exploring performance and identity, and uncovering motivations), and upon mediums dominant within the cosplay scene (e.g., anime, manga, tokusatsu), leading to something of a preoccupation with why people cosplay and why they draw predominantly from these mediums (Winge 2006; Lamerichs 2011, 2013; Bainbridge and Norris 2013). By working beyond the boundaries within which cosplay is currently critically engaged, I creatively redress the relative lack of dedicated formal attention paid to cosplay.

[2.5] In seeking to rearticulate cosplay as something more than the material, more than the singular dressing-up practices of fans, I distinctively interrogate the ways of cosplay, by focusing upon how participants cosplay, considering the mechanics, the surfaces, and spaces, and upon how they affect their double performance as cosplayer and as source character rather than why. Reading the costuming practices and identity play present within the superhero genre and cosplay as in dialogue can facilitate a more nuanced understanding of the processes and practices of costuming identity; identifying the patterns and rhythms in each will illuminate all. In the following discussion, I use the costuming practices and identity play of the superhero genre as lenses through which to test our current assumptions of cosplay, of what it looks like and where it can be seen. The analysis aims to generate both an expansive understanding of how such practices and play are being responded to and a more shaded critique of cosplay.

[2.6] In the opening segment, I highlight moments of repetition and intersection within the costuming practices and identity play characterizing the superhero genre and cosplay; both field an idea of identity as plural, mutable, and performed. Critically engaging the idea of costumes and cosplay as transformative enables a reconceptualization of the effects of cosplay upon the cosplayer, one capable of not only transforming the cosplayer, but also—by transferring them onto the delimited bodies of cosplayers—the modes of identity present within the superhero genre. Theorizing fictional depictions of identity alongside material examples reveals them as differently phrased expressions of the same concerns and ideas.

[2.7] Transformation also informs the subsequent segment, although not with regard to cosplayers but to cosplay itself; that is, with the transformation of our idea and current understanding of what cosplay is and what it can be. Through the concept of authenticity, I test the definitional limits of cosplay and the performance of fan identity by interrogating our ideas of real cosplay and real cosplayers. To do so I consider ideas of cosplay away from the safety (note 7) of the convention hall, its cultural heartland, and out onto the screen and street, toward the realm of industry costuming and real-life superheroes. Treating cosplay thus permits a unique exploration and testing of its boundaries within entirely different contexts and to entirely different, unpredictable audiences. Such querying allows me to demonstrate the ways in which the tenets of accepted (authentic) cosplay are present within other popular forms of costuming and role-play. This explication sets the stage for future thinking on the nature of cosplay and its relation with identity and with role-play. Opening such a dialogue allows the suggestion of cosplay as a continuum of intersecting behaviors rather than as limited fan practice and ultimately allows a reconceptualization and transformation of our understanding of the ways of cosplay. However, in order to consider cosplay as performance that can perhaps travel, it is necessary to first identify what today popularly constitutes authentic cosplay performance.

[2.8] Putting on a costume, whether on a page, a screen, or a body, visualizes a subject's desire to change their locus, to cross a border, and it is always a meaningful move. It affects all. In fictional worlds, we have no special name for this practice—characters simply just suit up—but in the real world we call it cosplay.

3. On cosplay

[3.1] Recognizing that cosplay is not easily defined, I seek to evoke rather than define this practice.

[3.2] Cosplay is routinely presumed, described, and understood as authentically operating only within the bounds of fandom. It commonly describes a set of fan-based practices where participants dress up as original characters or characters from extant media texts (note 8). Cosplay is only one of many ways in which fans respond to media texts: some write fan fic, some perform and produce fan films or vids, and some create fan art. Fandom should not, however, be considered an assortment of distinct branches; there is a great deal of intersection between fandoms and fan practice. As with other fan practices, cosplayers are cultural consumers and producers; using the text as a starting point, they extend meanings of the text and of themselves (Hills 2002). While fans draw upon many mediums and surfaces to produce fan material, such as the page and the screen, the body is the surface of choice for cosplayers. In fact, I would even go so far as to propose that cosplayers, rather uniquely, materially participate in several fan practices simultaneously: they may write and perform skits at conventions or pose and perform for photographs, they often create, design, and manufacture their costumes, and they rewrite and perform their chosen character upon their own bodies.

[3.3] Cosplay culture refers to the broader range of cultural activities performed by cosplayers, for instance, digital or interpersonal (face-to-face) community participation, spectating, or knowledge sharing. It is a diverse global activity with a long established history (Winge 2006; Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012; Lamerichs 2013). However, as an expansive practice it is subject to definitional complexity and fluidity. Cosplay is a social activity and one of degrees, where some participants are highly implicated and others less so. It can be a moment of embodied reception when cosplayers enact and perform fictional characters, but it is not necessarily an act of fannish practice nor indicative that the cosplayer is a self-declared member of a character's fandom (Lamerichs 2011). The process of acquiring a costume is also idiosyncratic; costumes may be personally, innovatively, and devotedly crafted and handmade, or commissioned, or shop bought (mass produced), or involve elements of body modification such as tattoos, colored contact lenses, or dental prosthetics. Most costumes are ultimately created through a combination of all elements, as evidenced in Cosplay: A Way to Escape (2012). Changing the visuality of the body through costuming allows a different reading in identity, be that alter ego to superhero/villain or cosplayer to source character. Participants in cosplay, however, not only enact their source character but also become realized as members of the cosplaying community, visibly claiming their cosplayer identity.

[3.4] Cosplay is not monolithic or homogenous, and participants come to it from many directions. Not all superhero genre cosplayers are readers or fans of superhero comics and may in fact only know these characters through films, cartoons, games, and other informal sources of popular cultural knowledge (note 9). Cosplayers use the visuality of their bodies to revise and refashion their position in culture and identity. Similar to the alter ego device within the superhero genre, cosplay performance provides participants with another way of reading visually and thus another mode of being. A culture of revision and plurality not only marks identity and costuming within the superhero genre but also within fandom and cosplay. Just as fans are not limited to one fan object, cosplayers too are not bound to one tribe (Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012; Brown 1997). They are nomadic (Jenkins 1992, 36), and their participation within fandoms is simultaneous and dynamic (Hills 2002). As Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung (2012) note, "The image and identity of an individual is never stagnant…cosplayers move frequently and fluidly between different characters and tribes according to their changing interests and passions" (320) (note 10).

[3.5] Context also plays a key role within cosplay performance and within the superhero genre (note 11). Cosplayers will often travel to conventions—change their context and location—in order to perform their cosplay. As cosplayers mainly perform for fellow cosplayers, the cosplay audience is, for the moment, niche (note 12). The convention hall or similar space is by far the most popular venue for performing and spectating cosplay. Sharing photos online at dedicated Web sites or through personal social networks provides another popular avenue. Cosplayers who post photos of their various cosplays on their personal social networks such as Facebook and Tumblr often create a back catalog, or at conventions they may even perform several characters during their convention attendance. Convention Web sites often feature photographs of cosplay performed during the event, such as at Comic-Con and WonderCon. Thus, spectators can observe and recognize the same cosplayer perform different characters or revisions of self. As with the superhero genre and its penchant for core character revision, cosplayers too revise themselves; ebbing and flowing through performances, they are simultaneously same (originating subject) and different (cosplayed character).

[3.6] Observing the popularly accepted tenets of cosplay as they connect with the superhero genre sets the scene for the forthcoming analysis, which, as discussed above, is directed through the concepts of authenticity and transformation.

4. Transforming bodies: Costuming in the superhero genre and cosplay

[4.1] The origin of costuming superhero genre protagonists remains something of a mystery, with many accounts offered (note 13). Whatever the original and real motivations were, it remains to this day a defining and unavoidable feature of its creation and proves a constant source of pleasure and frustration. Costuming within this genre is not simply visual disguise; it is also the context in which the dressed body appears. Creators use modes of dress to signal how they wish a character to read in a particular moment (Reynolds 1992). The removal of a costume is as important as its donning. As with cosplay, the mechanics behind costume changes are largely unseen and inexplicable, but they are always made and always timely (note 14). Although costuming is unique to each character (often reflecting their origins) it is, however, a universalizing practice, and within the genre, all protagonists must, in whatever fashion—outlandish or daywear—appear costumed if they are to perform or read in the desired way (note 15).

[4.2] The process of acquiring costumes within the superhero genre is often similar to that within cosplay culture, but not for all protagonists. Innate super characters, such as Thor, come ready costumed, whereas engendered super characters—those who become super through design (intent) or by accident—such as Spider-Man, must design their own. Origin stories often detail the costuming process but some remain teasingly unaccounted for, such as Hulk's purple shorts. Spider-Man's origin story, in Marvel's Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962), holds particular thematic relevance.

[4.3] Peter Parker did not originally design and manufacture his Spider-Man costume in order to fight crime but rather for public performance, or as Peter himself describes it, showmanship (figure 1). As well as revealing the costuming process of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, these panels offer, I suggest, a window into the domestic world of the cosplayer. Peter Parker easily reads as a dedicated cosplayer, one busily creating a costume and anticipating the admiration and acceptance from a peer group when they appear wearing it. In demonstrating that wearing a costume is much more than changing modes of dress, these panels reveal Peter privately getting used to his body costumed, used to how it looks and moves, and practicing performing his newly dressed and named identity, Spider-Man. These panels show readers that Spider-Man is not simply Peter Parker in costume but Peter Parker transformed, through practice and play, into Spider-Man. Peter has to learn a different way of being, of moving, in his newly costumed body. For Peter, transformation is not just about gaining a superpower but about teaching his body how to authentically and visually perform that ability.

Image of a single comic book page showing Peter Parker designing Spider-Man apparatus and naming himself Spider-Man.

Figure 1. Peter Parker learns to become Spider-Man. From Amazing Fantasy #15. [View larger image.]

[4.4] The idea of costuming as something more than just putting on a costume is further revealed through two distinct yet similar uses of the word idiot, one referring to industry costuming and one to cosplay. Of his filmic performance as Batman, Christian Bale stated he felt like an idiot when he was "just standing in the Batsuit and being a guy" (Murray 2005). Bale realized that merely being in the suit would not be enough to allow him to perform Batman; he would have to learn how to inhabit the suit. Similarly, Andrea, a participant ethnographer and a first-time cosplayer, states of her first cosplay performance "All of a sudden, I felt like an idiot…like a ballet dancer but one who knew nothing about the basic positions and movements" (Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012, 7). Andrea also realized that she could not perform without knowing the moves of her character, that it was not enough to simply be in the costume. Such examples demonstrate that performing in costume, in any mode of costuming be it genre, industry, or cosplay, requires the subject to learn how to fully and materially inhabit the costume.

[4.5] Dedicated cosplayers also rehearse with similar aims before cosplaying publicly, learning and perfecting their performance of the visuality and the body language of the source character. In all cases rehearsal can be understood to help mitigate feelings of "epidermic self-awareness" (Eco, quoted in Entwistle 2002, 133), referring to a heightened, possibly uncomfortable awareness or self-consciousness of oneself as a dressed body, a self-consciousness which could hamper performance. Private rehearsal works to secure a more natural, confident performance, which in turn contributes to securing the desired reading as authentic. For dedicated cosplayers, cosplay is not just about dressing up but also about transformation and translation. It is a complex process involving the transference of the source character from the page and the imagination onto the body. Cosplayers endeavor to transform the visuality of their body into the visuality of a fictional and usually fantastical other. This cannot be a literal transformation; their material reality ultimately limits and bounds their transformation.

[4.6] Spider-Man, for instance, is a clear source of inspiration for the real-life superhero known as the Vigilante Spider. The Vigilante Spider will never be able to materially replicate Spider-Man (although he may not wish to do so) (note 16). It may be better to conceive of this practice as translation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines translation as an art, a means "of turning from one language into another [and] to bear, convey, or remove from one person, place or condition to another." Translation itself is a fluid meaning-making process, one troublesome to concepts of authenticity, truth, and constancy. Translation is not static and assured; it is a movement of meaning across boundaries, where meaning can slip and change as it echoes through differing minds, mouths, and bodies. Translators are empowered during translation, as they create their meaning, but it is a boundless process with meaning endlessly open to translation.

[4.7] Cosplayers are, throughout their costuming preparations and rehearsals, in a dialogue with their source character, not only learning how to read its body language (including poses, expressions, and movements) but also how to speak and to perform it. Cosplay performance sees the transference of this newly acquired language onto their unique material visuality as an instance of embodied translation. Locked in as translators, cosplayers cannot become first language speakers; cosplay will always be their second tongue. Embodied translation is, I argue, a complex process and uniquely enacted within the frame and bounds of the material body of the cosplayer. Thus, in translating established characters, cosplayers are implicated in a process of re-creation; they produce simultaneously both a new character and a revised version of the original (note 17).

[4.8] This practice is also present within the superhero genre where super characters are routinely recreated by transplanting them into new bodies and subjectivities. The introduction of Ben Reilly (the second Spider-Man) into the Spider-Man continuity in Marvel's Sensational Spider-Man #0 (1996) provides a ready example. Ben Reilly operates variously in this mythos: as a new character pairing (Ben Reilly/Spider-Man), as a new yet related characterization (Ben Reilly/Scarlet Spider) and as a revised and sometime stand-in or copycat of the Peter Parker original. Relevantly, Ben Reilly's Spider-Man costume sees him as recognizable as the original Spider-Man; it is not, however, an exact replica and is unique to his characterization. Spider-Man as performed or translated through the body of Ben Reilly is different to that of Spider-Man as performed by Peter Parker.

[4.9] Through embodied translation, cosplayers convey source characters from a textual realm into a material one. Consequently, in so doing they subject super or fantastical characters to the laws and limitations of the real world, of real bodies, where there can be no super speed, no spider-sense, no flaming, and certainly no flying. Cosplay can never fully realize these characters; it can only ever be embodied translation. That cosplayers still perform these unperformable characters demonstrates the intention of this mode of cosplay as more than wish fulfillment. Cosplayers embody the cold reality that superbeings cannot exist in reality, an idea commonly experimented with in the comics superhero genre. Through their performances, cosplayers take the super out of the superhero and demonstrate that superbeings can only really exist within fictional worlds.

5. Transcending boundaries: Cosplay rearticulated

[5.1] Authenticity is an intricate concept, shot through with indeterminacy and subjectivity. It evokes many troublesome ideas, not least truth and realness but also power—how does the power to define the authentic circulate? It also concerns identity and ideas of acceptance and belonging, and in terms of cosplay, an authentic reading can secure acceptance as both cosplayer and source character. Matters of authenticity are important within fandoms and their study, not only as a way of distinguishing between fans and nonfans but also as a means of regulating communities (i.e., determining who is a real fan) (McCudden 2011; Williams 2006; Campbell 2006). Authenticity is well recognized as an unstable concept and perennially subject to change and renegotiation (McCudden 2011). The idea of a real or authentic fan is problematic not least because fan experiences are not homogenized—one fan's experience and performance cannot be the same as another's—but also because definitions of authenticity, of what makes something real, are subject to change. Within this section, I work to complicate and decenter the academy's ideas of what currently constitutes real cosplay and real cosplayers.

[5.2] In first considering how the costuming practices of the superhero genre appear off the page, it is useful to imagine cosplay as a continuum of dressing-up behaviors, traceable, I suggest, throughout history. Consider, for instance, alongside our modern understanding of cosplay the tales of the shape-shifting and costuming practices of the ancient gods visiting Earth dressed in the guise of mortals or the ancient real-life costuming practices of religious adherents dressing as their favorite gods (Knowles, quoted in Atchison 2012, 13). It is further possible to suggest that in recent times cosplay has even gone digital and is now regularly performed within virtual or online spaces. Evidencing this are the general role-playing games, such as Batman: Arkham City (2011) and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (2006) but perhaps demonstrating it particularly well is the more recent multiplayer game Gotham City Imposters (2012). Players within this game choose to join Team Batman or Team Joker, but instead of becoming Batman or Joker, players cosplay them, so each game character looks different to the others and to their source character, reflecting real-life cosplay. Twitter also sees members cosplay as fictional characters, such as Tony Stark (Iron Man) or Bruce Banner (Hulk), often dressing up their Twitter accounts with images of the characters in question as the avatars (Booth 2008, 2010).

[5.3] Moving now to consider specific cases, I open by looking at costuming within superhero films, or, more specifically, at industry costuming. Costuming within this context is, I assert, open to a reading as a mode of cosplay; it is conceivably the case that some of these performances constitute cosplay. Both are, on the surface at least, decidedly similar practices. Superhero films feature costumed actors, often (but not always) superhero fans, who are performing as genre protagonists, reenacting origin stories and select narratives from the superhero genre. Samuel L. Jackson and Nicolas Cage are just two notable actors known for their love of superhero comics and for appearing in superhero films (e.g., Cage as Ghost Rider and Jackson as Nick Fury in the recent spate of Marvel films). It is not impossible to imagine that in accepting roles within superhero films such (self-acknowledged) fan/actors are expressing their love of and for these characters and texts and their affiliated fandoms. Even if actors declare that they were unaware of or not fans of superhero comics before they chose to undertake the role, as both Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman (Murray 2005) and Heath Ledger as Joker ( did of their performances within Christopher Nolan's rendering of the Batman mythos (although both Ledger and Bale read the comics and immersed themselves in the Batman mythos to prepare for their performances), it may still be cosplay. Even recreational cosplayers are not required to know or like their chosen characters (Lamerichs 2011). Even when considering ideas around work and economics, this industry costuming may still be considered cosplay, for many within cosplay culture are career cosplayers and receive payment for their performances. Yet for all this shared positionality, defining acts of cosplay may just come down to a matter of self-belief. Such actors, even fan actors, may not believe they are performing cosplay and so do not describe their performances as such; they may believe that their performance is different and so do not seek or receive admittance into cosplay culture. Yet, as seen within cosplay culture, if such actors chose to declare their performances as cosplay, they would be welcomed into the cosplay fold and their authenticity within such duly determined. Authenticity, as with cosplay culture and performance, is not fixed, reliable, and true but something that can be lost and found, given and taken away. Real cosplayers look precisely as they mean to look; believing and being believable, they can be anything and anywhere.

[5.4] Taking the idea of cosplay and authenticity a little further away again from the page and the screen is the copycat or real-life superhero mode (note 18). Copycats or real-life superheroes are citizens moved to practice social activism or vigilantism by imitating the costuming practices of fictional superheroes, often emulating their crime-fighting behavior (note 19). They lift from the page and take to the streets. A specific superhero character inspires some, while others develop their own persona through an amalgam of superhero genre tropes. Superhero copycats, although pejoratively deemed mere mimics, do lift a great deal from the conventions used to create their fictional counterparts. Both are motivated to fight injustice within their communities and use various devices to achieve their goals (e.g., secret identities, costumes). Interestingly, in fictionalizing a copycat's experiences, it is possible that they would stand as an example of an authentic costumed hero. Copycatting is a global activity (note 20). Copycats also in limited cases have the opportunity to be much more than mere simulacra (note 21). It is possible for someone with enough personal wealth and time to develop a comparable skill set to those held by costumed heroes like Batman. In fact, Bruce Wayne was once just a strongly motivated civilian with a lot of time and money. Yet the reception of copycats is mixed. To some, they are failed and poor imitations. However, to others, they are real heroes working for good within their communities and serving as positive role models, as the HBO documentary Superheroes (2011) demonstrates. Such ambiguous readings further reveal authenticity as constructed, mutable, and simultaneous.

[5.5] Copycat behavior appears within the superhero genre itself. Although not routine, it is not unknown for villains or heroes to don the costume of another character. Villains may do so to cause chaos and undermine reputations. Heroes may do so to help protect secret identities by allowing the copycatted character to appear in two places at once (e.g., Peter Parker and Ben Reilly). Genre civilians may also perform copycatting. Originating within the comics superhero genre, The Dark Knight (2008) recreates and indicates its civilian variety. In one scene, Bruce Wayne recounts his previous evening's work and tells his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, that he encountered more copycats. It is the use of the word more that suggests that copycats are an increasing presence on Gotham's streets as they are on ours. The idea of authenticity is also touched upon with both Batman and his nemesis, Joker, punishing and berating civilians for dressing up and trying to act like the true Batman. One copycat asks the authentic Batman what the difference is between them; Batman replies that he is not wearing hockey pads. Although perhaps flippant and for effect, this quip reaffirms Batman's established belief in the power and role of costuming and performance in enabling his authentic performance. Batman does not refer to any other defining characteristics, such as his motivations and skill set, just their difference in costume.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Scholarly articles focusing on cosplay typically open with or include a definition of cosplay (as kosupure, a neologism formed of the words costume and play) and a description including the words dressing up, fans, fandoms, and conventions (Winge 2006; Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012; Lamerichs 2011). While cosplay is and certainly does involve all these things, as I demonstrate, the definitional limits can perhaps be stretched a little more. Cosplayers are not limited to performing in one way, on one stage, and at one time.

[6.2] The dynamic interplay and dialoguing between cosplay and the superhero genre powerfully evokes embodied reception. I worked with cosplay as performance through two main phases, as performing as source character and as community member. Through two key concepts—authenticity and transformation—I suggested and demonstrated cosplay as a practice performed inside, in between, and outside fandom. This testing of limits and boundaries saw two key assertions arising from my analysis.

[6.3] First, cosplay can happen, authentically, anywhere and at any time—it is not limited to convention halls or cosplay parties and gatherings. The idea that cosplay connects simply with fandom has been ruptured, and from this reconceptualization new understandings of cosplay can emerge. Cosplay is better realized as a continuum of intersecting behaviors rather than a limited fan practice. Such a conclusion pushes and extends considerations of cosplay beyond the realms of fandom and in so doing also extends the boundaries of fandom.

[6.4] Second, transformation cannot conceptually reflect the actuality of performing as a source character. In analyzing the mechanics of cosplay—those numerous individual practices that come together to effect the final performance—I concluded that cosplayers experience something more akin to embodied translation than transformation. This idea of embodied translation foregrounds the role of the material body in cosplay performance and complicates ideas of performance authenticity and what is meant by the authentic.

[6.5] Analysis demonstrated costuming and belonging as shared preoccupations within cosplay and the superhero genre. Through my discussion, I established that not only do they speak to each other on such matters but they also speak to us, visually and viscerally, of the critical role of the unstable visuality of the body in identity performance. In this article, I sought to creatively extend work undertaken on the superhero genre and on cosplay, particularly in terms of becoming and belonging. Such deliberations framed my examination of the identity play, transforming visualities, and costuming practices present within both the superhero genre and cosplay. My adoption of such an original approach has permitted the discovery of potent moments of intersection of and dialoguing around costuming and becoming.

[6.6] Here I have sought to start a conversation about the nature of the performance of cosplay and fandom. I have only been able to touch upon and tease out the potential offered by engaging and juxtaposing such practices, texts, concepts, and themes, and these are most certainly not the only intersections. There is much scope for future research around these parameters. For instance, it would be interesting to explore the alter ego device within the superhero genre alongside performing as a source character; both practices offer participants another way of reading visually and thus another mode of being. It would also be interesting to consider ideas of cosplayers and super beings as performing, simultaneously, the same and different. Such critical attention would develop and extend our understanding of the connections, influences, and consequences of costuming identity.

[6.7] Working to complicate and trouble established definitions and ideas is a powerful means of discovering new ways of looking or new vantage points, and it is hoped that the assertions I have demonstrated will have a positive and progressive impact upon the critical treatment of cosplay in the future.

7. Notes

1. Theorizations are also framed around other simple oppositions or duality: between the superhero and their affiliated archenemies (e.g., Batman/Joker, Professor X/Magneto), or the opposition within an individual (e.g., good/bad, sane/insane).

2. Examples of established protagonists having several historical alter egos include The Flash as Jay Garrick (1940), Barry Allen (1956), or Wally West (1986). An example of a separate protagonist sharing the same alter ego is Kevin Sydney, the alter ego of both Changeling and Morph.

3. Its representation and acceptance of other ways of being is evidenced, for example, within the routine slippage of names. Genre protagonists commonly refer to costumed subjectivities by their civilian names and vice versa, such as Batman and Superman in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Miller 1986) and Green Arrow in Identity Crisis (Meltzer 2004). In the latter, Green Arrow narrates an entire scene, referring to the other characters by their civilian names even though they are shown costumed. This routine slippage illustrates a high degree of comfort and acceptance of mutable, nonunitary identity within this community and its readership.

4. The power to determine, suggest, or prohibit how people dress is a clear visual demonstration of sociocultural power and authority (state, religious, economic), evidenced most dramatically and extensively during the European colonization period, notably through Africa, the Americas, the Indian subcontinent, and the Asia-Pacific region. Relatedly, dress can as easily visualize resistance and rebellion as it can conformity, acquiescence, and compliance.

5. Costuming is only one axis through which identity play is effected within cosplay and the superhero genre. Notable others include context (i.e., the changing setting for performances) and naming practices (i.e., changing names in line with performances).

6. In addition, see Bongco (2000) who connects superhero genre codes, conventions, and their repetition (including costuming) to setting and satisfying reader expectations.

7. Safety within fandom is a complicated concept operating on many levels. In one sense, it refers to the idea of conventions as safe spaces for cosplayers, where they can perform to receptive and supportive audiences, without fear of ridicule; that is the safety of community, of belonging. However, within convention spaces and their surrounds it is not enough that cosplayers feel safe within their community to perform their cosplay, but that they can do so without wider fears or threats of harm, whether physical or emotional. Recent events, such as those occurring at 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, have shone a light on the harassment culture and dangers of performing cosplay publicly, particularly for women and girls, but these are not new dangers. Ideas and issues of safety and danger thread through cosplay culture and performance and should be assertively addressed within all spheres, including cosplay culture, fandom, and the academy.

8. This definition may be disputed; some cosplay is not based on specific characters but rather on genres, such as Lolita cosplay and real-life superhero cosplay.

9. However, even when expressed via different media, the tenets of the superhero genre remain the same. This ensures that cosplayers unfamiliar with the comics medium are still aware of the fluid identity modes and costuming practices of the superhero genre.

10. With exceptions, it is possible to imagine instances where a cosplayer performs only one favored character, one with whom they feel a particularly deep, personal connection.

11. The curious practice of presenting protagonists as costumed and yet unmasked (e.g., Superman, Icon) demonstrates the power of context in reading identity (Reynolds 1992). Such costuming practice should render each aspect of the characterization as recognizable to the other (i.e., that Clark Kent is Superman, Augustus Freeman IV is Icon), but it does not. Superman, for instance, fresh facedly performs his heroics and yet remains doggedly unrecognized by his peers as Kent. Both are facially recognizable as the other, even with their nominal visual differences (the glasses and the curl), yet only a few make the connection.

12. Increasing mainstream curiosity around cosplay has, however, increased its visibility and knowability within the popular consciousness, such as through documentaries like Cosplay: A Way to Escape (2012) or Heroes of Cosplay (2013), and so although still niche, the cosplay audience has lately become more expansive.

13. Reasons include, in its earliest days, as serving as a means of easily distinguishing it from its competitors and as a tool to help juvenile readers distinguish the super characters from the not so super, the good guys from the bad, and so on.

14. With rare exceptions, readers only see the outcome of the change, for instance from costumed hero to civilian, as an appearance or disappearance. Characters within the narrative also, in the main, do not see these moments, and may be unaware of a change even occurring.

15. Costuming is a similarly universalizing practice within cosplay, in that all cosplayers must appear, to some degree, costumed in order to read successfully as cosplayer and/or source character.

16. The Vigilante Spider is described at the Real Life Super Hero Project ( The Vigilante Spider's costume and name reveal the influence of the fictional Spider-Man. The vigilante suit relates to a costume option available within The Amazing Spider-Man game.

17. Bearing in mind the debate over identifying fans as consumers and producers (Jenkins 1992; Hills 2002), this discussion thus considers cosplayers as textual producers, as "co-creators" or "co-authors" (Real, quoted in Hills 2002, 187).

18. Some may challenge this as cosplay—taking, for instance, a similar position as in the earlier example of the Lolita genre—but this is a definitional matter around ascribing labels of authentic or inauthentic to cosplay, a matter I am seeking to undermine by demonstrating the shared qualities of each of these practices, whether industry or copycats.

19. There are Web sites, such as Real Life Superheroes (, offering networking opportunities, tutorials, and forums. There are also documentary films and shorts revealing the motivations and passions of participants within the copycatting co-culture, such as HBO's Superheroes (2011) and Thrash Lab's The Subculture of Real Life Superheroes (2012). In line with genre conventions, activity such as this raises the question: When will the archvillains arrive on the streets? A number of films have explored the idea of the copycat superhero, such as Defendor (2009), Kick-Ass (2010), and Super (2010).

20. The following are popularly cited: Angle Grinder based in the United Kingdom; Captain Jackson and the Xtreme Justice League (XJL) in the United States; Thanatos in Canada; and Superbarrio Gómez in Mexico. Captain Jackson even has his own Web site ( which features photographs and updates of his crime-fighting activities. Interestingly, Captain Jackson is also the subject of copycatting with anonymous individuals posing as him online. Photographer Peter Tangen, through his Real Life Super Hero Project (, visually documents the global co- or subculture of copycatting by posting photographs and biographies.

21. This is possible but only when copycatting those costumed heroes whose characters are essentially human but who physically train their bodies and technology and personal wealth as their power sources.

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