In this issue, we talk to Lizz Dworak, a graduate student in psychology at Northwestern University, about her experiences as a cosplayer — the craft, the characters, and the community. In particular, we discuss the creativity involved in cosplay, from the very beginning of the costume build to the day of the convention itself, when one gets to embody and play that character to the general public. In cosplay, you bring fiction into the living breathing world around you.
Hi Lizz, thanks for making the time to do this interview!
Could you introduce yourself and how you got into cosplay?
I’m a graduate student, going into my second year at Northwestern University. [I’m] working on my PhD in Personality, Development, and Health, looking at personality and how it relates to coping behavior/strategies, what situations you put yourself in, and how stressed out you are. My PhD advisor always jokes around that the way I cope is by doing weird art things. I feel like “weird art things” is a good description.
I started cosplaying with my husband back in 2016 and a lot of that was because we were going to be Gillian and David from The X-Files. People used to joke about us being Mulder and Scully so we wanted to cosplay [as them] when we met [Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny] at Wizard World 2016. That kind of cascaded into figuring out how to go from dressing in things in your closet and making fake FBI badges to how to actually build things.
Lizz and her husband flanked by Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, the actors who played Mulder and Scully in The X-Files
When you say cosplay, what does that mean, in the largest sense of the term?
My love letter to cosplay: Adam Savage | Source: © TED/YouTube
[For example, with] Overwatch — the Blizzard video game — my husband and I [have] twice [gone] as steampunk [skins of] characters that don’t actually exist in the game. But there are poses and emotes and dances that are in the game, so part of it is learning “how does this character stand” because you have to pose for a lot of pictures or videos. The first time that I cosplayed as steampunk Mercy, looking back at the photos [now] I feel like I don’t look a lot like her. Andrew, my husband, pointed out “that’s because you’re standing too aggressive, you’re leaning forward in your pose. She’s a very prim and proper medical doctor, you need to hold yourself up, pull your shoulders back.” Figuring out how to improve that presentation, and memorizing voice lines helped a lot the second time I cosplayed as her. Sometimes people will yell things at you, and you want to be able to have something in character to yell back at them.
How many people at a con are doing some kind of cosplay?
It definitely depends — Wizard World had a lot less cosplay. I really love C2E2, which is the local Chicago one. There’s such a higher proportion because they do a cosplay championship, where they bring in people that are competing worldwide. There’s a heavy amount of cosplay, over 50%.
C2E2 2015 — Cosplay Celebration (Pt. 1) | Source: © beatdownboggie/YouTube
What are people judged on when they’re competing in cosplay?
There [are] different categories. In the Needlework category there was this beautiful, beautiful Anastasia dress. The big full ball gown; she looked great, and she did amazing. The C2E2 winner of the Armor (Foamsmith) armor category this past year, she did a really good Mighty Thor. A lot of people like to call her female Thor but she’s not female Thor. She’s goddess of thunder. Just accept it. She’s worthy.
Anastasia Cosplay at C2E2 2018 | Source: jedimanda/Instagram
How consistently are you acting the character you’re embodying?
I’m obviously not cosplaying when I’m eating, or like sitting on the floor. But there’s also these geek-out moments where you just know that people really get it. The wings I wear for steampunk Mercy, I used a specific painting tool that they use to make fake wood. A lot of people were running up and were like, “Can I touch your wings?” Because it looks like wood from far away, but when you’re up close the illusion is kind of broken. [Or] there’s this really amazing cosplay of an Egyptian god and goddess, and this guy had made this entire jackal head out of wicker, but it didn’t look like wicker. It was beautiful, and it was so intricate. And it’s something that I never would have thought of making — a giant headpiece out of wicker.
How much do you feel like you can take liberties with the character, or how much do you really have to stick to canon?
I think it depends on the type of character you’re doing, but I think it also depends on how much you care about being recognized. With being instantly recognized, there’s kind of a dopamine kick you get from that audience reaction. If you don’t want to be someone that’s constantly in character or a recreation or a costume, that’s also totally fine. I’m just so into that [being in character]. For me, having a bunch of people run up to you, and everyone wants to take a picture, it makes you feel really satisfied with the work you’ve done. [With] that extra touch of “I want to be in character,” I just get that much more satisfaction from it. It’s like Halloween, you don’t have to be yourself on Halloween. C2E2, you don’t have to be yourself! You definitely have people jokingly fall on the ground and be like, “I need healing,” because Mercy’s a healer in Overwatch, so then I’ll run up to them with my staff and I’ll pretend that I’m healing them and their friend will get a picture. For some characters it’s about having key elements that people will recognize.
Would you say most cosplay is impersonation of a fully-formed character, or is a lot of it populating the fantasy world?
Fallout 76 cosplay plans (top half: vault suit | bottom half: mad scientist)
I think it varies. This coming C2E2, we’re doing [the video game series] Fallout – so Fallout 76 is coming out, and Fallout 4 is great; Fallout: New Vegas is great. I really want to build a vault suit for Fallout 76, but there’s no specific character. [The game’s] kind of a world where you make your own character, so with that we’re creating our own characters. I know I want to wear the vault suit because I know it’s going to be recognizable. By at least having one character in the vault suit, it’s the hopes that [people] see that one cue, so then [their] schema will let them know these other people are from this. My friend is torn if she wants to do the power armor — which is this big armor build — or if she wants to do something else. My husband wants to go as a mad scientist from it; have his character have this mad scientist vibe. But that’s also because he really wants to practice painting and weathering, and also building foam guns, or foam gun props. So, it kind of goes into things he wants to learn, but also things we like.
Awesome Fallout 4 T-60 Armor! | Source: © Tested/YouTube
Do you have acting experience?
Oh god no. Not really. Middle school? Not real acting experience.
In people’s cosplay, is it visible when one is expensive or not expensive? And does that affect how people respond to it?
Andrew as Winter Soldier; Lizz as Black Widow
I think it depends who you talk to. I don’t know, I feel like a lot of cosplay is figuring out how cheap can you do it. For example, my husband and I built his Winter Soldier arm for less than $30 out of a shirt, duct tape, and foam. I love, there’s also this whole photography series that they tend to do at C2E2 where they make people hold up a whiteboard being like, “What do I actually do for a job?” and it makes you realize people come from very different backgrounds. You don’t want to break bank when you’re doing it, but you definitely can have your splurge projects.
Have you always done paired cosplays?
No. Our very first cosplay, I tried to make punk Misty, from Pokémon. That was varying levels of success and unsuccessful. It’s amazing what a Togepi will do. People will recognize you when you have orange hair and a Togepi, but when you don’t, they’re like, “Oh, what’s she wearing?” Andrew went as Castiel, an angel from [the TV show] Supernatural.
Lizz as Misty from Pokémon; Andrew as Castiel from Supernatural
There’s a character called the Pokémon Detective in Pokémon; completely different color palette [from Castiel]. I think he wears green and orange, whereas Castiel is black, tan, white, and blue. But so many people would be like, “Oh my god, are you the Pokémon Detective?” We had this conversation of “maybe we should do things that go together, just because it’s nice to get recognized together”.
How long do you spend on a costume?
Lizz as Gremlin D.Va (with the aforementioned Doritos cape); Andrew as Symmetra — both Overwatch characters
It definitely varies. Con crunch is real, usually. We’ve been learning to start earlier and earlier. It’s kind of a nice balance to school, also. If I get really frustrated with doing my stats homework, I can go paint a Doritos cape, or I can go duct tape my husband to figure out a pattern to create this entire outfit for him. It’s a nice break from reality, I guess.
It sounds like both the creation of the costume and going to the con work that way. Why do you think that is?
I love being a grad student, but [that’s] creative in a different way than actually making cosplay is. I can drink my Saturday morning coffee, and I can sit in our craft room, and I can work on this project. And I can focus on that project. Having a product to your creative work is so satisfying. Especially ‘cause I study coping [as a subject], when I’m stressed out, hitting that creative outlet is really helpful.
Do you have a favorite character out of everyone you’ve played?
It’s so hard. Picking a favorite is just so hard! They’re fun for different reasons. Especially ‘cause you get such different reactions from them. I mean, Mulder and Scully are always really good. But that’s also because David [Duchovny] complemented us on our Mulder and Scully cosplay, so that holds a special place in my heart.
I guess steampunk Mercy, because I’ve done her twice and it’s a video game where kids play it, adults play it, so everyone gets really excited. I’d probably say steampunk Mercy. Even though I feel like I can keep on improving on her — I really want to build a jetpack for her, and eventually style that wig one day — she’s always been fun to work on and also fun to wear.
What sort of misconceptions do you think there are about cosplay? Or what do you think people should know that I haven’t already asked you?
Don’t be afraid to cosplay. So many people think that there’s a high financial bar, but you can literally go to your local thrift store and find something and go as a character, or you can put your own twist on something. Also don’t take pictures of people without asking permission. That’s a big thing. Just ask, it’s polite. Don’t be afraid of the nerds. It’s fine, they’re great.
Lizz as steam punk Mercy; Andrew as steam punk Soldier:76 | Source: catscomicscoffee/Instagram
Thank you so much for your time!
Photos courtesy of Lizz Dworak.
is a second year graduate student of Northwestern University. She completed her undergrad at DePaul University after double majoring in Psychology and Art, Media, & Design. Lizz’s research interested include how personality relates to primary coping behaviors/strategies, stress levels, what situations you end up in, and health outcomes. When not researching or working on homework, she spends her time hanging out with her husband and cats, reading comics, baking, or working on cosplay. Feel free to follow up with her newest shenanigans on Instagram: