TORONTO — Carling Harris of Ottawa has been dressing up as pop-culture characters at conventions, a worldwide hobby known as “cosplay,” for eight years and has noticed a huge trend lately.
“I’m part of a lot of these people-of-colour cosplay groups on Facebook and I noticed even before the movie (‘Black Panther’) came out there was a lot of hype and you saw a lot of people making the new Black Panther cosplay,” says Harris, who dressed up as Black Panther at last September’s Fan Expo Canada in Toronto.
“It’s not just Black Panther himself — it’s the Dora Milaje (special forces) and pretty much all the characters.”
Indeed, the Marvel Comics superhero story that’s set in the fictional East African nation of Wakanda seems to be sweeping the cosplay world in the wake of the film’s release, with fans sharing photos of themselves or their children dressed as the characters on social media.
“There’s definitely been an increase, and even if people aren’t in the outfits, just doing the Wakanda salute, saying ‘Wakanda forever,’ that kind of thing, wearing T-shirts,” says Khadijah Jabari, a Toronto artist/student who’s been cosplaying since 2011.
“A lot of people have been showing plans for making different outfits, or they’ve already bought props and stuff like that. Mostly a lot of people of colour, especially, but even some cosplayers who aren’t seem to have found characters they identify with and want to cosplay.”
Sanjoy Kundu, owner of Theatrics Plus costume shop in Toronto, says he’s seen “a significant” amount of people requesting the Black Panther costume specifically lately.
Meanwhile, organizers of this weekend’s Toronto ComiCon featured an image of Black Panther on one of its flyers and expect to see more of a presence of the character at the convention.
“I’m sure we’re going to see it in the merchandise from our retailers,” says Andrew Moyes, vice-president of Fan Expo HQ, which puts on Toronto ComiCon.
Lovie Lee, a Windows administrator and comic-book lover in Philadelphia, tried cosplay for the first time at New York Comic Con last October in a Black Panther suit that he and two others made over a period of six months.
“When I finally stepped into the crowd in the suit and was walking down the street, I felt like: ‘This is where I’m supposed to be,”‘ he says.
“I’ve actually always been a fan of Black Panther since I was young. I’ve always known that he was the first African-American mainstream comic character…. Seeing him come to the big screen was a huge deal to me.”
While there are several PoC (People of Colour) Cosplayer groups and related pages on Facebook and other social media sites, those communities are “pretty small” in Canada, says Harris.
“When I go to Fan Expo in Toronto, for example, I run into maybe a handful of people who I actually know from the online community and there are a few others here and there who are just out having fun and whatnot,” she says.
“It’s even smaller where I am in Ottawa. I’m one of maybe five cosplayers of colour and I’m probably one of the most well-known ones here.”
Jabari also doesn’t know many black cosplayers such as herself in Toronto.
“I have a couple of friends that have done it but most of the people that I follow on Instagram are American,” she says.
Seeing “Black Panther” cosplay pick up lately is “validation” for those communities, says Harris, whose cosplay name is Mahogany Severia.
“I think it’s quite important that there’s representation and it’s nice to see something that’s Afrocentric as well,” she says.
“It kind of opens it up for more people.”
Kundu says many of his white customers have been reluctant to buy the Black Panther costume, fearing it’s cultural appropriation.
But Harris encourages it.
“Go for it, as long as they don’t blackface or paint their skin darker to match his skintone. Cosplay is for everyone,” she says.
“I, for one, cosplay mostly white characters myself and I don’t change my skintone. (Black Panther) wears a mask most of the time, so just keep that on, take pictures and you’re good.”
Jabari says she also dresses up as white characters.
“For me at least, cosplay is just a way of showing some form of respect and connection to a character,” she says. “If people who aren’t black can appreciate these characters and identify with them, even if they don’t look exactly like them, I think that shows that these are well-made characters.”
Adds Lee: “Really it should just be if you want to cosplay the character, it doesn’t matter who you are — put your heart into it, make your costume and enjoy yourself.”
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