The Rapidian

Cosplay at Grand Rapids Comic Con explores media's final frontier: diversity

Civil rights took center stage at Grand Rapids Comic Con 2014 with Nichelle Nichols, the first woman to play a character who was not submissive to a man, and the first black woman in a position of power as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek.

This year saw the second annual Grand Rapids Comic Con come to the Deltaplex. Last year, the locally organized convention saw 4,000 attendees (with another 3,000 turned away). With as many as 50,000 attendees estimated for this year and the center at capacity both main days, it looks like they’re on target for an even bigger third year.

/Courtesy of Marjorie Steele

/Marjorie Steele

/Marjorie Steele

Comic Cons are a haven for lovers of all things comic book, sci-fi or TV related. They’re places where niche aficionados, shy crafters, obsessive and just plain weird people of all ages, sizes and creeds assemble for a weekend to just… play.

This year saw the second annual Grand Rapids Comic Con come to the Deltaplex. Last year, the locally organized convention saw 4,000 attendees (with another 3,000 turned away). With as many as 50,000 attendees estimated for this year and the center at capacity both main days, it looks like they’re on target for an even bigger third year.

Grand Rapids Comic Con 2014 saw a lot of the TV Power Rangers cast, some superb cosplay and plenty of anime reveals, but the silmarillion of the weekend was Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in the original cast of Star Trek. As is often the case in sci-fi, Star Trek broke ground in Hollywood with the diversity of its core cast, which included a black, female Lieutenant. Nichols’ and Shatner’s famed kiss was the first scripted interracial kiss aired on television.

It’s been a long time since Nichelle Nichols kissed William Shatner on TV, but diversity issues continue to create turbulence in the worlds of comics and sci-fi. A Wonder Woman movie (which has been conspicuously absent for years) is finally coming out from DC, and Marvel has at last announced solo titles for the much anticipated fan favorites Black Panther and Captain Marvel, which will star black and female leads - firsts for the labels. 

With these recent announcements on the audience’s minds, Nichols’ presence was both well timed and warmly met.

“I was the first woman to play a character who was not submissive to a man,” Nichols told the audience Saturday afternoon during her presentation. When the audience applauded enthusiastically, she motioned to several people in the crowd, and said “I see a lot of men here clapping - that’s excellent to see. But all of you need to understand that this is not something men were clapping about at the time.”

When Nichols’ young son saw Star Trek on the TV at home for the first time, he ran to her and exclaimed, “Mommy, there’s a black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid.”

“I’ve always loved sci-fi, even before I was on the show,” Nichols told the audience. “It’s a genre that allows you to be something else - to become someone you couldn’t be otherwise, in this universe or galaxy. But maybe there’s another universe, out there, where you can be whatever you want to be.”

Many in the crowds were doing just that. A good third of attendees were cosplaying, and another third was thematically accessorized, posing as characters in an impossibly wide swathe of media. From Star Wars (both new and old) to Lady Lokis to Sailor Moon- few fan favorites in comic, TV and film were left out. 

There was plenty of love given to Guardians of the Galaxy - Rocket and Groot in particular, and at least one Legend of Zelda’s Link in each room at any given time. Disney’s Belle experienced a renaissance; there was a lovely assortment of Game of Throne’s Daenerys Targaryens and the event was overwhelmed by a veritable army of Dr. Who Tardis booths and characters, including a few excellent weeping angels.

One middle aged couple, who were attending the show for the first time, were replete with tasteful steampunk ensembles. Scissored spectacles and top hat had come from a renaissance festival, silk blouses from thrift stores and a gathered bustle skirt had been imagined from several old pinstripe work skirts. Their teenage son, dressed as an anime character, had come to the event with them.

A younger couple, also first timers, had come as Wesley and Buttercup, with a Lord of the Rings twist. “I really wanted to be Wesley, but I had the Fellowship brooch, so I just…imagined what it would have been like if Wesley had gone with them,” Wesley explained. “It makes sense in my head.”

One first-time cosgoer had hand stitched a Captain Marvel uniform. “I just picked the books up about a year ago,” she said, “and I couldn’t put them down. Carol’s just so badass.”

A Castle Crasher guarded the show floor’s unauthorized exit, and a hopeful electronica band called “Wesley and the Crushers,” dressed in white and black Boba Fett helmets and tuxedoes, jammed out on keytars for attention under the stairwells.

Even attendees who weren’t cosplaying were in the spirit. One middle aged gentleman, who wore plain slacks and a gray sweater, sported a bright Star Trek Communicator Badge. Both Harvard grads, he and his wife were coming to their first Comic Con because they shared a common love of the original Star Trek, and because they were eager to meet and hear Nichelle Nichols. 

“This, what’s happening here,” he said motioning to the crowds, players and vendors, “is civil rights in action. It’s not just a game, because what you see, you believe. That’s why representation is so important. Nichelle changed what people saw, so that they saw a black woman in a powerful position instead of a subservient one. And people believed it could happen, so it did.”

By their natures, the comic and sci-fi worlds bend reality, making them a testing ground for all the weirdest and most contrary forms of expression and identity. In the 23rd century, it makes perfect sense that an elite group of explorers would be composed of people all human - or nonhuman - races. It made no matter to the creators of Star Trek that a cast which included Russian, Japanese and black members might seem to 1966’s audiences a bit radical. The intensity of the story demanded their methods be radical. And that’s the brilliance of the genre.

The cosplayers, and even to some degree the plainclothes cosgoers, are also bending reality, even if it’s just their own for a day. They envision themselves as something else, then become it or immerse themselves in it. Comic Con is where everyone’s bent realities smash up together, and create a place where strange is normal, and laudable, and welcome in all its forms.

The same kind of strange that was Uhura kissing Kirk in 1968.

Perhaps we could use a little more strange. 

 

We’ll certainly get more at next year’s Grand Rapids Comic Con.

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