Jessica Bowman applies eye makeup. She was transforming herself into Sailor Venus, an anime character. She is part of a trend across the country called cosplay. Photo by Nick Shepherd.
Inside Sherrod Library on the campus of East Tennessee State University, Jessica Bowman was laying out her supplies.
In a little under an hour, she will no longer be Jessica Bowman, biology student, but Sailor Venus, an anime character from the show Sailor Moon. Anime is short for Japanese animation.
A blond wig, bright orange dress, blue bow, a bag containing other supplies and a make-up bag were placed on a table inside a group study room. She unzipped one of the bags and pulled out a hair net.
“You have to make sure to get all of your hair,” she said. “If you have any of your natural hair sticking out from under the wig, it doesn’t look right.”
After a few minutes, she gets all of her hair inside the hair net. She then sits down and starts the transformation process.
She starts by applying concealer around her face. She said anime characters have flawless skin, so she needs to have flawless skin too.
Bowman is part of a movement that has been taking place across the country called Cosplay.
Cosplay is short for costume play acting. It involves people dressing up in costume and becoming a character. It's different from Halloween though because when people cosplay, they try to become the character and emulate their personality, even if it's very different from their own.
See a video at the bottom of this page showing Bowman's full transformation from biology student to anime character Sailor Venus.
People who cosplay try and pick a character they identify with and dress up as that character. It can be a character from comic books, TV, movies, video games and in Bowman’s case, anime. Characters from any genre of entertainment can be used for cosplay.
The father, the daughter and the actor
Cosplayers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Retired elementary school teacher Dough Hubler started cosplaying with his daughter, Tara, in 2009.
Hubler is 61-years-old and has been a fan of comic books his entire life. He said he learned to read from Superman and Batman comic books long before he got to school, and his earliest memory is George Reeves flying across a black and white screen as Superman. He has loved Superman ever since.
In southern Illinois, a small town exists named Metropolis. It is the only city in America named Metropolis. In 1972, the town got permission from DC comics and Warner Brothers to call themselves Superman’s hometown.
Every second week in June, Metropolis has a Superman celebration, which is like Jonesborough Days, Hubler said. Including the most recent one, he has attended the celebration for the last 12 years. After meeting people who cosplay, Hubler and Tara, who is a nurse, decided in 2009 that next year, they would come in costume and have been doing it ever since.
“We’ve just met so many people in the costuming community that are just wonderful, heroic ideal people that we’ve been embraced in that community,” Hubler said. “We enjoy it.”
Although he did dress up as Superman for the Superman celebration, he mostly cosplays as the Marvel comics version of Hercules. He said the reason he doesn’t do Superman is because there are very few versions of the character with long brown hair and a beard, which he has.
After he graduated college with a degree in theatre, he decided to settle down and start a family. In order to do that, he needed a real job and became an elementary school teacher. His love for comic books didn’t leave him and he would take Tara to the comic book store with him, where she formed some of her earliest memories.
“One of my earliest memories is sitting in the back room of a comic shop with a pile of comics while dad is shopping,” Tara said. “The owner of the store was very nice and he would allow me to just go sit in the back and read. It’s one of the ways he taught me how to read, was reading comic books. And they were mainly Supergirl.”
Tara likes to cosplay as Supergirl. She does a few other characters, but Supergirl is her favorite.
After starting cosplay in 2010, the pair have been hitting the comic convention circuit. The biggest cosplay convention they go to is called Dragon*con.
Dragon*con could be called the Mecca for cosplayers from around the world. It is held in Atlanta every year and usually attracts around 80,000 people with around 12,000 being in costume.
Hubler and Tara went down to Dragon*con a couple of years ago. Another person attending Dragon*con was C.J. Ferguson.
Ferguson graduated from ETSU with a theatre degree. He had been attending Dragon*con for around eight years. When he was down there a couple of years ago, he spotted Hubler, who was dressed as Hercules, and needed a picture.
“His Hercules to this date is still my favorite because it was so spot on,” said Ferguson, who works as a phlebotomist.
Ferguson is a cosplayer too. Right now, he is in between characters, but in the past has been Gambit from X-Men and is currently working on an Iron Man costume. The pair became friends while at Dragon*con and had no idea they both hailed from the same area.
A couple of weeks after the convention, Hubler was in Best Buy when a voice from behind told him he was a long way from Dragon*con. When he turned around, Ferguson was standing there.
All three quickly became friends and their love of comic books and cosplay has made them like family. Hubler even called Ferguson his little brother.
The first timer and the dress maker
Cosplaying could be seen as weird for grown adults to do. Hubler thinks all people do the same thing, just in different ways.
“When you see somebody that constantly wears University of Kentucky clothing because all they can do is live for that team or their entire house is decorated in UT orange and they live for every game,” he said. “I don’t see that big a difference.”
Frederic Poag used to be one of those people who thought cosplay was weird, and didn’t understand why people would dress up. Eventually, his friends talked him into trying cosplay last year, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“It’s hard to explain until you actually do it,” he said. “It’s almost like if you could grab on to that magical feeling you had for an instant as a child when you first fell in love with the character. You get that with cosplay.”
Poag went to Dragon*con last year with his friends and cosplayed as legendary wrestler, The Big Boss Man. He loved it so much he plans to head back to Dragon*con at the end of the month and is hosting his own cosplay convention called Kokumanga on Aug. 17 at the Holiday Inn in Johnson City. He plans on dressing as Rocky for this year’s Dragon*Con.
One of the most important things to cosplay is, of course, the costume. Different people create costumes in different ways. Some people buy their costumes, some people make their own costumes and some simply go to their closets and make outfits from what they have, which is known as closet cosplay.
Aria Dunn has been cosplaying for a few years and creates her own costumes from scratch. She cosplays mostly as an anime character named Sailor Moon, but does other characters as well.
When she goes to create a costume, she tries to get as many different angles of the outfit as possible. Once she determines how the dress is made she sketches out the dress.
“I make sure I have the design down first before I even cut into the fabric,” Dunn said. “After that point, I then go to into a mock-up version...that way I feel comfortable with the design before I start cutting into the fabric I intend to use.”
The hours Dunn puts into the costumes can vary greatly. She can spend as little as 10 hours on a costume or as much as 80 hours. It all depends on the design.
She is also trying to turn her costume design into a business. She sells some of her costumes online to other cosplayers through her business AriaDoneDesigns
Both are currently pursuing their Master’s degrees at ETSU.
Eyes. Eyes are important.
Anime characters always have eyes that pop, eyes that stand out, Bowman said. She spends a lot of time working on her eyes. She applies orange eye shadow and puts on fake eyelashes to make them pop.
After her eyes are done, she puts on lipstick. Lips aren’t as important as eyes because most anime characters have very dainty mouths, Bowman said.
Next up is a bow she puts around her body and then comes the bright orange dress. Once the dress is on, it is time for the wig.
Bowman combs the wig out because it gets tangled easily. She slips it over her head, and after a few minutes of adjustment, gets it right. Gloves that come up to her elbow are the final piece of her transformation into Sailor Venus.
Once she is done, she walks out of the library very different from when she walked in.
“We all have interests, we all have loves, we all have hobbies and we all have distractions, this is just ours,” Hubler said. “We’re just people who enjoy play acting like kids every once in a while...It’s just something fun.”