Meet the cosplay handlers,
unsung heroes of Comic Con
Every year over a hundred thousand pop culture fans flock to New York Comic Con, transforming the Jacob Javitz Center into a world filled with fantasy. Meticulously costumed superfans get tons of attention, but they couldn't do it without their helpful sidekicks.
Cosplayers are the most visible cornerstone at the conventions, with casual attendees and superfans alike dressing up as—and taking on the persona of—their favorite characters from comic books, cartoons, film and television. Some cosplayers like Yaya Han and Jeff Siegert have become pop culture phenomenons of their own, drawing autograph lines as long as those for their industry professional counterparts. What you often don’t see however is all the help these cosplayers need—whether it’s getting into costume, navigating with limited vision, or controlling potentially unruly fans. These helpers, called cosplay handlers, are the unsung heroes of Comic Con.
New York Comic Con
October 8-11, 2015
New York Comic Con is the East Coast's biggest popular culture convention, hosting to the latest and greatest in comics, graphic novels, anime, manga, video games, toys, movies and television, as well as panels, screenings and autograph sessions.
Tom DePetrillo has worked with many handlers over the 19 years that he’s been building costumes, which are epic in both proportion and detail. “When I pick out a handler I make sure I pick out someone who is always smart,” DePetrillo told Hopes&Fears. “You want someone who is basically going to keep people from grabbing something or from coming at you from behind.”
Past ensembles have included the AMP suit from Avatar and Bumblebee from Transformers, the latter of which weighed 85 pounds and stood 8’6” tall. DePetrillo’s handlers will dress in complementary costumes as well, such as a a pit crew for his Bumblebee costume or a military platoon for the AMP suit. This year DePetrillo came to NYCC with an epic Hulkbuster costume that took 1,600 hours of work and stands at nine and a half feet tall, requiring him to be on stilts while he’s wearing it. He can’t even put the costume on without the help of someone who’s familiar with the suit’s intricate electric wiring for its lighting and audio, let alone keep from stumbling over the inevitable unseen chair leg or running child.
But besides gearing up, DePetrillo noted many reasons why his handlers are indispensable.“You have 200 people who are lining up in a semicircle, and I need a handler who can let people get photos fairly,” he said. Handlers can comfort crying children or intercept journalists and potential clients, allowing him to stay in character. They keep track of time for him, making sure that he takes breaks and stays hydrated.
Comic Con at the Javits Center in New York, NY, on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015.
One of the handlers for this year’s Hulkbuster costume was Quin Mae, who cosplayed as the Scarlet Witch to go along with the Avengers theme. Though most handlers are friends or partners of cosplayers, Mae met DePetrillo almost serendipitously. Mae had been going to anime conventions since they were a high school sophomore and started making their own costumes in 2010. While working at a fabric and craft store in a small Rhode Island town, Mae encountered DePetrillo’s wife, who was picking up supplies for him. The two got to talking and DePetrillo’s wife mentioned his Bumblebee costume, which Mae had seen online. “Is he looking for an apprentice?” Mae asked, half joking. He actually was.
“It just kind of fell into my lap,” Mae said after recounting the story.
DePetrillo was equally appreciative, inviting Mae to join him onstage during the convention’s costume competition so that they could also be recognized for helping make the Hulkbuster a possibility. Mae, who was a big part of the painting and detailing, was excited to be making their first trip to NYCC and see “people love on my baby,” referring to their handiwork. Still, Mae says that dealing with crowds and fans who scramble for photos to be the most challenging aspect of costume handling.
“I don’t need to clear a path for him, he's doing that himself,” Mae said. “So most of the time I’m generally making sure that he knows how long he’s been in costume. Sometimes he loses track of time,” Mae explains, and so they need to make sure to provide water and food, and make sure he’s taking breaks.
Ceido Pochardo, a Comic Con security guard, was introduced into the world of cosplay through handling for his then-girlfriend, who had started her own costume company. “I helped her with some of the designs like building armor or weapons, stuff like that,” Pochardo tells Hopes&Fears. He would use his experience as a sculptor to help her make costumes, while using his experience with security to help with crowd control. “Once I got the hang of it, it was a lot of talking to people, a lot of photography, a lot of answering questions.”
Pochardo then began cosplaying himself and eventually secured a spot on NYCC’s security team through a connection with the Javitz Center from working as an ice sculptor at events there. As a security guard he deals with artists, vendors, exhibitors and attendees. Every now and then he’ll also fall back into the role of costume handler; Pochardo recalled a time with celebrity cosplayer Jessica Nigri when a massive crowd had gathered around her. “The handler was there handing out photos, collecting cash and things like that,” Pochardo said, but they wouldn’t disperse. So he asked if they were waiting for an autograph or photo, but they were just standing there to stare. ““No, I can’t have you just standing here,” Pochardo recalls responding, “I understand she’s cool, she’s a pretty girl, whatever, but I can’t have you staring at her for like 30 minutes. I need you guys to move.”
This voluntary effort by Pochardo is reflective of the overall generosity of the cosplay community. Cosplay model Adaina Velez, for instance, launched a local charity called HEROES, which brings visits by costumed superheroes to terminally ill children, helps them create costumes of their own, and fully funds trips to comic cons for "little heroes" across the country. "I would not be able to do half of the things I do without my handler, who happens to be my boyfriend," Velez tells Hopes&Fears. "He does everything for me and keeps me on track with all of my appearances, tasks, and photo shoots." Her boyfriend adds, "I basically make complicated situations simple for her. I have made a small bag full of emergency repair items for her outfits and props. Being that Adaina is super busy at conventions, I often have to remind her to eat and drink just to keep her going."
Handlers are often cosplayers themselves whose costumes are easier to navigate. When Daijonee Vanderveer cosplays as elaborate, winged fantasy creatures, she enlists her friend and fellow cosplayer Bryan Williams, whose costumes usually allow for a backpack or extra pockets. The two travel to conventions across the country together. “I felt like I wanted to cosplay since high school, but I didn’t know anyone else who did it,” Williams tells Hopes&Fears. Vanderveer and he started to go to some events together and became quick friends.
In exchange for his help at conventions, she pays for his tickets and meals, as well as helps him make his costumes. Williams, who also photographs Vanderveer for publicity purposes, hopes to share the spotlight in the future. "I’m more in the background, which I’m fine with," he says. "But occasionally I wish that it could be me getting photographers, getting people who want to talk to me. I know I will one day.”
Editor: Gabriella Garcia