Heroes of Cosplay: TV Review

Heroes of Cosplay - H 2013
Paul Conrad/Syfy
An engaging twist on the notion of costume drama.

Syfy's docuseries looks into the daily lives of legends and hobbyists like Yaya Han and Nerdist's Jessica Merizan and Holly Conrad.

For some, dressing up is a full-time job. At least, that's the idea behind Syfy's new docuseries Heroes of Cosplay, which follows nine wonderfully weird costume makers as they work the convention circuit, showing off their intricate artistry replicating the looks of characters from sci-fi, fantasy, anime, video games and more, in the hopes of gaining prizes and recognition. 

For the laymen, full-time cosplay can seem like little more than a very expensive hobby that makes Halloween a 365-day event. But as legendary cosplay star Yaya Han says early on in the program, the world of costuming and conventions has started making a real push from subculture to pop culture, and the appeal is spreading. Syfy is already on board: This show, along with Syfy's other series Hot Set and Face Off (the latter of which is the lead-in for Heroes) completes a trilogy of design shows for the network that focus on fantasy craftsmanship.

Even for those who already have a tangential knowledge of cosplay and costume contests, Heroes of Cosplay does an excellent job of explaining in detail the processes and motivations of its nine costumers, who represent a range of ranks within the cosplay world. A few are year-round professionals (like Han), while others still hold down a traditional job with dreams of expanding their hobby (like Jesse Lagers, the lone male featured in the premiere episode). Some, like Jessica Merizan and Holly Conrad, have gained recognition outside of the circuit by hosting their own show on the Nerdist YouTube channel that helps others learn their trade. 

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Self-branding is key for those who want to cosplay full-time, so it's of little surprise that Heroes of Cosplay puts costumers' names on screen next to their respective Twitter handles and gives them time to hock their wares. After all, most of the featured competitors make it clear that they are looking for prize money to help supplement their passion, as well as recognition that might lead to career opportunities and sponsorships. It's a self-awareness that the show does not shy away from; the participants are doing the age-old trade of privacy for recognition, but here they do so in a way that's refreshingly more honest than most reality series.

The access pays off, and Heroes of Cosplay delves into plenty of things even in just its first episode, such as the financial viability of cosplaying, the process regarding concept drawings, hunting for supplies, the creativity of making ordinary objects become extraordinary costuming pieces and more. It's interesting to note though that given all the women on the program, only once during the first episode did the Cleavage Question arise. Though some of the women (like Merizan and Conrad) opted for nonsexualized garb, they wondered if not showing cleavage would hurt their chances at a prize. Los Angeles costumer Becky Young later brought up a related fact about the sexism of some of the drawings the women are basing their costumes on and how a failure to measure up to impossible bust and waistline proportions leads online commenters to call them the "fat version" of a character. 

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It's in moments like these that Heroes of Cosplay demonstrates it has the opportunity to be more than a showcase for accomplished cosplay artists by also illustrating their struggles and heartaches (and oddities -- "I'm afraid she's going to start peeing in jars or something," Merizan says of Conrad's anxiety). The featured artists are in competition after all, which means there are plenty of judgmental looks and snippy dialogue, not only between creative partners but also significant others, which highlights the toll that competition can take.

Heroes of Cosplay is a worthy journey into a world few may be familiar with. But it may also become something even more valuable if it is able to give voice to its overwhelmingly female roster, speaking specifically about the (often ignored) female perspective relating to cons and cosplay. The corsets and fancy dress of a Jane Austen kind of costume drama are all there, but this time, there could also be the chance for some real female agency.