Unmasking A Costume Player: The Body As Comic Art Canvas

As I evolve as a fan of the comics medium and as the fandom of that medium evolves with me I discover the art of costume play, or “cosplay”, or as I used to refer to them: Trekkies.  For me the only people who used to dress up in full regalia at cons were Star Trek fans. Now, you go to an event like the New York Comic Con and you will see more fabulous and diverse costumed fans than you will plainclothes fan boys and girls. One of the best at costume play is a comics journalist and rising star in costume play and modeling. Panel Surfing is thrilled to chat with the super-talented and super-beautiful super-heroine on demand, the lovely Elizabeth Amber.

The beguiling Ms. Amber as Wonder Woman

Jason Versaggi: Tell me a little about where you are from and where you grew up.

Elizabeth Amber: I’m born and raised in New Jersey but originally we were from the area around Newark, that part most people think of when they hear the words “New Jersey;” but when I was 10 my folks moved us out to the countryside near PA. Our neighbor down the road has sheep in her front yard, there’s an acre between us and the neighbor to the north and we worry about things like hitting deer with our cars and bears and coyotes eating our pets.

JV: Were you always into comics?

EA: Actually, I was not always into comics. As a kid I rarely got them but I would read my brother’s RICHIE RICH or BUGS BUNNY although I loved the pocket books of comic strips like B.C. or FAMILY CIRCUS. I was really into coloring books, Barbies and cartoons. When I was a teenager and leafed through my brother’s INDIANA JONES and X-MEN, all I cared about was the art (and it was the late 1980s with some less than stellar art). I didn’t get my own pull list until 2006. I had been in several comic shops looking for presents and was treated like garbage; I drove past Comic Fusion for about a full year before daring to go in. Then I finally did; discovered it was co-owned by a woman named Stacy, now one of the very best friends I have. She talked to me for 45 minutes that first day explaining all about Wednesdays and pull lists and crossovers. By 2007, I was mingling at cons and writing for Dynamic Forces.

JV: What were your favorite characters or titles? What else did you like to read?

EA: I have drastically changed my subscriptions in the past 12 months. Usually I do that once a year just to get the feeling for different things. My Top 3 books are: TINY TITANS, THE LONE RANGER, and LOVE AND CAPES. I’m also really vested in the older universe of Matt Wagner’s GREEN HORNET: YEAR ONE line which has a couple books. Mainly, I’m switching over to trades and mini-series. I try to review regularly and post at YouTube.com/amberthestylist with exciting things I’ve discovered like MADAME XANADU by Matt Wagner, THE ALCOHOLIC by Jonathan Ames or SWEETS by Kody Chamberlain.

JV: What is Cosplay? How did it start? How did it start for you?

EA: I don’t know the full history of “cosplay,” per se but people have been donning costumes for centuries through rituals and celebrations. If you ever see pictures from a Mexican Day of the Dead, you’ll see some remarkable stuff. Then there’s the American biggies like Mardi Gras and Halloween. Of course for us nerds, it’s comic cons. The term “cosplay” is a spill over from the kotaku subculture of Japan (anime/manga/lolita) and it just means “costume play.” It seems that a lot of people (usually a much younger crowd) are into the “play” part where they act out skits and stay in character. I rarely see this in mainstream American comic costuming. Steampunk costumers are also much more inclined to be in character but they usually develop original characters and I’ve never heard them use the term “cosplay.” It’s a specific subculture term and honestly, some people who dress up in mainstream costumes hate being called a cosplayer and prefer costumer.

JV: How much work goes into creating one of your costumes? Describe that process.

EA: I’ve learned to hate certain aspects of building a costume like making boots, gloves and accessories in general. That’s always the time consuming part and the moments that bring me to tears. The little details of accessories take so much longer than making the suits. I’ve also learned that if there’s a costume somewhere on my To Do Someday list that I keep my eyes open for parts; Rogue for example was actually a two-year project because I keep looking for gloves, a jacket and boots that I liked. To make the suit only takes me two days.

Designing for myself is much easier. I actually don’t enjoy designing suits for people unless they just so happen to be my size, which is rare. Believe it or not, I’m a terrible artist so I usually sketch out something really rough paper or I take it digital by going into City of Heroes and creating a new costume in there to get a sense of where the cut lines will go and which colors I like.

I start with a base pattern, then have to apply the new cut lines for color blocking. I usually transfer from that pattern onto scrap fabric so that I’ll have a working fabric pattern which can be reused. I test on scrap spandex and try to get initial fittings to make adjustments to the pattern. Then it gets done on the final fabric, normally. My Star Sapphire is actually the mock-up stage on fabric I hated but I wanted to wear something new at the CGS Supershow so I wore it and hated it but it was new at least.

JV: You are essentially a 3D work of art walking around Cons. What was it like the first time you put on a costume and strut through a Con?

EA: The first time was a really fun experience because it was a small show, the old Steel City Con, where a large group of people I only knew online were getting together. We had formed our own fan club for WHO WANTS TO BE A SUPERHERO (and we’re still together to this day). A lot of us created our own characters; I was going to audition that first season and chickened out so it was the whole reason I created a costume. Wearing that with a group of really accepting and wonderful friends was an amazing experience. When I wore it to NYCC, it was different. No one knew who I was. Several people complimented me but I found out they thought I was dressed as someone from the original BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA just because my colors were the same.

JV: Who is your favorite character you have portrayed?

EA: I have three favorites: Wonder Woman for being easily the most recognizable female character; Firestar because she’s very specifically from my generation so when fellow geeks recognize me, it’s a great feeling; and Susan Storm of the Fantastic Four because she’s the character I probably most relate to which is ironic since I hated the F4 when I was little and found them dreadfully boring.

JV: Who is a character you have yet to envelope yourself in but are dying to?

EA: Wonder Woman’s villain Circe. I am in love with the Dodson design and I would feel great in that costume. It just looks out of my skill set so I’ve never tackled her. She’s magical and quite often, more like the “anti-hero” where she just wants what she thinks is best. That’s different than being crazy and evil.

JV: Name a few characters you are working on adding to your repertoire.

EA: I am hoping the costume I’ll work on over the winter is Phyla-Vell from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. I actually don’t know much about her yet because I have only read a few issues. The Annihilation arc sprawled through it and I find epic crossovers to be so daunting (usually annoying but not always). And I don’t want to dress as a character I know nothing about, so I will definitely be doing homework on her if I decide to go through with it.

Despite my fear of spiders, there is a spider themed lady that I’d like to be. The Black Widow from the TWELVE not from the AVENGERS. She is extremely powerful; people fear her; she is free with her sexuality and orientation; and she has a badass costume.

The new Batwoman is another that I’m not sure I can ever pull off because of the complexity of the accessories. I know a lot of other people who can make them for me but it’d be a matter of having the ability to hire them for it. For kicks her villain Alice would be a fantastic costume, but talk about complicated! I know I couldn’t put that one together.

Plus, I’m always thinking of someone from a Lantern Corps, probably an original character.

JV: Who are some of your biggest influences as an artist? As a journalist?

EA: I’m part a great community called The Superhero Costuming Forum which has been instrumental in getting me this far. We have some sisterly sites like the League of Lanterns and League of Heroes and Replica Prop Forum too. My biggest influences are my close friends there. To start with though, it’s my mother; she always made our costumes and she bought me a sewing machine to get me started back in 2006.

As a journalist, that’s pretty easy. One of my best friends Jill “The Nerdy Bird” Pantozzi writes a lot of fun columns and her reviews brilliantly showcase the vast knowledge she has of DC Comics. I’m such a newbie that I don’t have all that history to draw from when I write. For me to get a great interview or a decent article, I end up spending a lot of time doing research when someone like Jill already knows all that and knows what to ask. She’s great in written, audio or video format. We both spent a lot of time in broadcast radio and have migrated to the web. The only people besides Jill would be Blair Butler and Chris Gore both from G4TV for all the same reasons; they know their stuff and they’re great on camera.

JV: Your super power is obviously devilish sex appeal in massive quantities. What is the lamest line tossed out at you at a con? Any horror stories from battles with fanboys? Other Cosplayers?

EA: This is the first year of the con circuit where I didn’t have a husband next to me at all moments holding my stuff so for years I wasn’t hit on. If I was, I didn’t notice. This year at NYCC, the worst was some young teenage boy who was doing a scavenger hunt. He showed me his list and asked me nicely if I could help. So I’m thinking, “aww how sweet.” Then he points to a line reading, “brental floss.” I had to ask him what it meant it and he said it was to get a picture of a girl’s thong. I was dressed as Amazonia from LOVE AND CAPES, which is a very wholesome comic book; and while it was true that the “slave Leia” inspired design meant I was wearing a thong I gave the little creep a firm response that there was no way in hell he was getting that picture. I should have been smarter and asked to have a picture of him and his friends then showed security but I didn’t think of it until afterwards.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience with other costumers. I do get really annoyed when there’s a shark-frenzy type of situation involving a group of manga/anime kids. They just tend to grate my nerves when they are in such large loud obnoxious groups. The Star Wars folks hang out in large groups but they’re dignified and pleasant to be around. I think it’s just that such a huge part of the manga/anime material attracts immature kids.

JV: What are some of your upcoming events? Where can fans see you and your work?

EA: The annual superhero fundraiser I help with is this very weekend. We do a full two-day Superhero Weekend featuring one day of Wonder Woman Day. Oct 23-24, 2010.

After that is Oct 30, the Great Allentown Comic Con, where I’ll be a guest to judge their costume contest. It’s great that it’s nice and close to my home so I can easily drive and it’s the first time I’m being added to an actual docket as a “Guest.”

As always, I make announcements on Facebook, Twitter and AmberUnmasked.com.

JV: You have just spent an entire Con Weekend as the Black Queen from the Hellfire Club and you are dying to just throw on some sweats and unwind with a pizza and a movie. What’s on your pie and what’s in your DVD player?

EA: Whole wheat crust pizza with vegan pesto sauce (lots of garlic), soy cheese and really good veggies. I tend to unwind by playing marathons of my favorite TV shows like Castle, Monk, Psych, House, Dead Like Me, or Batman:TAS.

  1. Thanks for such a great write-up, Jason!

    • You are welcome. You are a great story, and so is Wonder Woman Day 2010. Fans should get out and support a cool event for a good cause…and get their picture taken with a Wonder Woman.

    • Jim
    • October 21st, 2010

    I like the horror story part, that was funny. And ironic, as there were plenty of women at the con that apparently had g-strings as part of their costume.

    And I would have to think that if that’s one of the worst experiences, an ignorant kid on a scavenger hunt, then the pros way outweigh the cons.

  2. whoah this blog is excellent i really like studying your articles.
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