Halloween is coming early in Tyler this year.
Dressed as superheroes, villains, elves, monsters and more, cosplayers from Tyler and beyond are anticipated at Tyler Rose City Comic Con this weekend.
The convention, in its second year, is hosting workshops, celebrity guests, vendor booths, gaming areas and performers for fans of comics and the arts.
A portmanteau of "costume" and "play," cosplay is the hobby of dressing — and sometimes acting — as characters from video games, movies, television and literature, typically for fan conventions, called "cons."
Costumes range from simple, homemade or mass-produced pieces to elaborate, months-long projects or commissioned works.
Where once the idea of costumed adults trolling convention centers seemed confined to only the geekiest of sci-fi fans, cosplay has become increasingly prominent thanks to the booming popularity of video games, "nerd" culture seen in shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and the resurgence of superhero franchises and comic books.
The craft has even inspired a SyFy channel reality series, "Heroes of Cosplay," in which participants compete, "Project Runway"-style, to race against the clock and handcraft costumes.
Andy Meadows, a 33-year-old lab technician and cosplayer from Kilgore who will attend the event, estimates that at a typical convention, 1 in every 4 or 5 attendees is in costume.
"It's kind of the norm now to dress up," he said.
Meadows and his wife, Jennifer, 28, made their first venture into cosplay on a lark a few months after their wedding three years ago, wearing store-bought Star Wars outfits to a convention in Dallas. They were hooked, and soon began creating their cosplay gear from scratch, spending their first anniversary in costume at another.
Fresh from a September trip across the country to a fellow Rose City — Portland — for its Rose City Comic Con, the couple, which often dresses as duos, will be attending the similarly-named Tyler Rose City Comic Con as hero and villain Hanna-Barbera characters from the cartoon "Space Ghost Coast to Coast."
Mr. Meadows dabbled in painting and sculpture prior to his interest in cosplay, but fulfilling his visions has required him to add a seemingly endless list of talents to his repertoire. Guided primarily by YouTube videos and the advice of fellow crafters, he has taught himself, among other skills, to airbrush paint, create prosthetics, work with microchips to add animatronics, program LED lighting and add internal fans to keep him cool in bulky costumes.
"I try every time I make one to do something a little more outlandish or intricate," Meadows said. "Something that has some ‘wow' value to it. I try to push the envelope whenever I can."
He spends up to five months working on each costume and Mrs. Meadows provides her talent in leatherworking to add the finishing touches. Additionally, she sometimes acts as her husband's "handler" at events, leading him around hazards on the convention floor, as he often wears full-head masks that temporarily render him half blind and deaf.
For Mr. Meadows, impaired senses and the risk of heat stroke are worth it to show the labor of his love to the world.
"It's like an art. It's like sculpting, or painting a picture," he said.
"I put in time and effort and ability to create something and I like to showcase what I create by being in a gallery that you wear. To me it's getting to show off something that I made with my hands."
One thing any cosplayer will tell you, or any aspiring cosplayer will lament: it's expensive. For even a casual hobbyist, fabric, tools, machinery, wigs, prosthetics and special-effect contact lenses can add up to a few hundred dollars per costume — all before tallying in the costs of convention tickets and travel.
Meadows estimates he and his wife have spent at least $5,000 on clothing and materials, with more than $1,000 of that going toward a custom plague doctor costume made entirely from pieces crafted by leatherworkers from the United Kingdom to California.
Longview cosplayer Saiph Heisler, a Kilgore College student, puts his total at around $3,000 and said for him, money is no object.
"When I get a character in my head that I really, really, really want to do, if I need a specific item, I will get that item," Heisler said. "I don't care what it costs."
Heisler, 21, began cosplaying as a teenager.
At that age, Heisler says, "I was a weird kid." Social problems and bullying led to being homeschooled in high school, which left him isolated and bored.
"I didn't talk to anybody," he said. "I didn't really leave my house. I didn't really have a lot to do."
At 16, Heisler attempted his first cosplay at a convention in Atlanta, sporting a simple white T-shirt and blue jeans to represent a favorite character, L, from the Japanese anime series "Death Note."
"You really have to start somewhere," Heisler said. "Nobody really even recognized me, but you know, I was having fun and I didn't really care."
After seeing the dedication and work that go into the craft, Heisler was inspired to dive in and begin constructing more elaborate costumes, honing his prowess in sewing, woodworking, paper m￢ch￩, thermoplastic molding, makeup artistry and wig-styling.
Heisler confines his costumes primarily to those from anime, playing as dark, supernatural beings and characters with other-worldly, candy-colored hair and eyes.
"Rather than think about where I can buy the costume, (now) I think about how I can make it," he said.
After he became serious about cosplay, Heisler said, his life began to pick up.
"It has definitely changed who I am a lot," he said. "It's made me a lot more social, because cosplay is kind of like acting, only you're interacting with people rather than on a stage. You're kind of wearing a mask, so whatever you do in cosplay, it's just whatever. It's a character. So it has definitely made me a lot braver socially. I think it's improved my confidence a lot."
He's made friends with cosplayers around the world, founded the Longview Cosplay League, a group for fellow fans, and won multiple awards for his costuming efforts.
Heisler even credits the hobby with motivating him to live a healthier lifestyle: "So I don't get too fat for the cosplays I've already made! It's really done a lot for me."
UT Tyler senior and computer programmer Peter Galbraith, 23, caught the cosplay bug at a Halloween party four years ago. Determined to pull together a depiction of character Captain Malcolm Reynolds from the cult hit sci-fi series "Firefly," he cobbled together a costume from a toy gun and items hunted down at department stores. Overwhelmed by the positive feedback, he decided to exhibit the outfit at a convention.
"I was in love with just how much people enjoyed their favorite shows and characters brought to life through costumes," he said. "That's one of my favorite things about it."
Since then, he's become a con regular, attending seven this year alone.
Galbraith labors on his costumes between work and school, producing complex costumes in a matter of weeks. Like Meadows, Galbraith credits YouTube and the assistance of friends and family for helping him acquire the skills he needs.
The abilities he's developed since his foray into cosplay nearly half a decade ago include sewing and dying fabric for costumes, carving and painting foam into props, and producing his own chainmail ("albeit very slowly," he interjected). He is currently studying the art of resin casting to include in future projects.
Galbraith echoed Heisler's sentiments on cosplay bolstering his confidence.
"It's made me more of an extrovert," Galbraith said. "Cosplayers are some of the most social people I know."
Once on the convention floor, much of a cosplayer's time is spent interacting with approaching attendees, who often want pictures with their favorite characters.
While Meadows, Heisler and Galbraith all revel in the artistic process, they unanimously cited the responses of other convention-goers as the most rewarding experience in cosplay.
"The people who do know who you are, they lose their minds!" Heisler said. "And that's just so much fun. Definitely seeing people get excited is one of the best things about it, and that's totally why I keep doing it. That's my motivation for it."
"I absolutely love getting into costume and getting into character," Galbraith said. "It's the most fun when I see that first person's face light up. It's the best feeling. You are the character to these people.
"I just love interacting with them. Seeing their reaction gives me the energy to keep going, even on those days when the costume is hot and uncomfortable and just awful. It gives me the motivation to go on when people come up and are excited about my costume."
Though they've all completed and worn the costumes they'll be sporting to Rose City Comic Con to other events, that isn't stopping them from tinkering and making alterations up until Saturday.
"I'm always fiddling with it last minute," Heisler said. "I just have to make sure everything is perfect."
Despite its growing popularity, there are still many misconceptions about cosplayers. The worst?
"Weird," Heisler offered.
"Childish," Mr. Meadows said, "But you know, some of them are! I'm a little childish myself."
"The idea of a fat, middle-aged, bearded man dressing as a Japanese schoolgirl," Galbraith laughed.
Galbraith said he hopes to see a more positive view of the hobby from the mainstream public.
"It's just a bunch of really dedicated fans, the same way someone who loves their sport team puts on a jersey to go to the games. It's similar to that," Galbraith said. "You love the thing you love, and you want to show everyone that you love it."