Today and tomorrow chances are you’ll bump into Wonder Woman or your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman in Dubai. Rest assured, the latest Avengers film is still weeks away and Halloween another six months — it’s just the Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) that’s back for its eighth run, which means the UAE’s geeks are out in full-force robed in their fantastical best cosplays. An anglicised portmanteau of ‘costume’ and ‘play’, cosplay is the Japanese pop culture phenomenon kosupure that sees fans of anime, manga, TV series and comic books dress up as the characters they revere. What started as a niche subculture hobby in Japan in the eighties, now has a full-blown annual championship where enthusiasts battle it out in elaborate high-grade costumes that’d put Hollywood and on-screen counterparts to shame, often spending hours, weeks, and sometimes months perfecting looks — cosplayers live by the tenet that mimicry is the highest form of flattery. This year, the MEFCC is hosting the UAE preliminaries and the winning pair will represent the UAE at the World Cosplay Summit 2019 Championship Finals in Japan.

Before you pigeonhole the hobby with adjectives like ludicrous, childish or an escapist fantasy of adults trapped in a Peter Pan complex, hear what passionate cosplayers have to say of the art form — for some, it’s evolved into a career, for others it’s an artistic release and for most it’s just wholesome, imaginative fun.

Sheikha Benazir Lawkum, 22, Mauritian

The term Otaku is the Japanese variant of the English word geek used to describe diehard anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comics and graphic novels) fans. Like it’s English counterpart, the once disparaging term used to belittle fans, has now been reappropriated as a positive label — one that Sheikha wears as a badge of honour. While other kids would doodle stick figures in their textbooks, she would draw anime characters and would be late to classes because she was busy playing video games.

In 2017 Sheikha cosplayed Princess Lucina from the video game Fire Emblem

‘Even in university during lunch, I’d eat watching anime on my phone and prefered staying home and watching shows,’ Sheikha says, explaining the depth of her love for anime. And while that sounds like the stereotypical antisocial basement dweller in the making, anime saved Sheikha’s life and cosplaying found her a community of like-minded friends and hobbyists, reveals the human resource graduate who is a host at trampoline park Bounce. ‘I rediscovered anime when I was depressed as a teenager. Watching those shows and series brought me so much joy; new episodes and movies gave me something to look forward to on tough days.’

Then when Sheikha discovered cosplaying at MEFCC 2014, she had stumbled into the perfect medium to pay tribute to the characters she loves. And so, she convinced her doubtful older sisters to rock up to the event the next year dressed as FBI agents accompanying her convict character. Her sisters were sold.

But not everyone else is as supportive as her family and friends, with criticisms of her chosen hobby being too childish or ‘attention-seeking behaviour that create a bad image’ being flung at her — common brickbats female cosplayers endure — but Sheikha remains unflappable.

Cosplaying’s escapism is a major draw for Sheikha: ‘For 15 hours straight during three days, I can forget about my worries and literally transform myself into this character that brings joy to me and other people.’ It’s an additional high when people recognise her modified outfits that she always ensures deviates slightly from the original to add a touch of individuality. She has learnt a lot of important life lessons from anime and cosplaying that those missed extra classes could never have taught her, including learning a few Japanese words: ‘I’ve learnt from my failed first attempts at creating costumes and succeeded from those failures. Thankfully, I learnt stitching and sewing from school.’

Cosplaying was the incentive she needed to stick to her fitness goals so she can stay in shape to play her favourite characters. It also helped her develop her make-up skills and freelance as a special effects make-up artist who transforms people into zombies and superheroes. Personally, she prefers bucking trends and portraying lesser-known niche characters — ‘The look on people’s faces when they see their favourites who aren’t mainstream is priceless. In 2017 I cosplayed Princess Lucina from the video game Fire Emblem and 2018 I was Daedra from the video game Skyrim.’

Handmaking a costume from scratch isn’t cost-effective, confesses Sheikha — she spends two months sketching the outfit and sourcing materials such as worbla (a thermoplastic) and certain fabrics. What makes all the sweat, tears and money worthwhile is the doors it unlocks to friendships. ‘The best thing about the UAE’s diverse cosplaying community is we’re a family and I feel the love and warmth from complete strangers at events. I’ve made a lot of friends and we can really be ourselves with each other.’

The geeks (and Okatus) have truly inherited the earth.

Khalid Saeed, 31, Sudanese

Khalid Saeed’s move to the UAE in 2011 seems serendipitous in retrospect. The same year, the first Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) was announced beaming up like-minded geeks. ‘Born and raised in Libya, I found it hard to find people there who loved and enjoyed cosplaying although we grew up watching Arabic-dubbed anime. But at the first MEFCC, I went dressed as Gajeel from the anime Fairy Tail and discovered an amazing community of cosplayers. The turnout was amazing.’

Khalid as Kaname Tosen from the Anime series Bleach

What Khalid started as an open Facebook group to share images of these outfits with friends in Libya soon saw people who consume all kinds of pop culture join, share their experiences, and the page snowballed into becoming the UAE Cosplayers Group — the largest online community of cosplayers in the GCC.

Khalid rattles out a list of nationalities that showcase the group’s diversity: ‘We have Emiratis, Indians, Filipinos, British, Americans and not just UAE-based expats but also cosplayers from other countries who are curious about the cosplaying scene in the UAE.’

While MEFCC and other conventions such as PopCon and IGN found the cosplayers and brought them all in, the online platform is the ring that binds them. ‘We have members as young as 11 and as old as 56! Parents join seeking tips to create costumes for their kids and find themselves hooked. It’s one of the friendliest communities out there,’ says Khalid narrating how members exchange the lowdown on where to source materials from, hacks on make-up, and just forge new friendships. ‘You rarely find any negative responses or have bad experiences cosplaying in the UAE.’

Outside of social networks too cosplaying makes for a great icebreaker.

‘When you’re dressed in character, it makes you more approachable and you’ll suddenly find yourself having the most profound and interesting conversations with total strangers. People will smile, stop you and talk to you just because you’re dressed as their favourite character.’

His favourite characters to portray are sarcastic anime figures with a bit of swagger and wit. ‘Think Deadpool and Spiderman,’ he says.

As a non-competitive cosplayer who dons the greasepaint and costume for the pure love of the medium, Khalid isn’t inflexible about how his costumes are made. ‘I’ve had them stitched by a tailor, I’ve made some on my own with friends and I’ve also commissioned some outfits to professionals. To me, it’s about the experience.’

Besides moderating the Facebook page, Khalid also judges small cosplay events, helps organise others and when he has time off from his job as an online marketing professional and freelance social media manager he educates online trolls and sceptics with reductionist views of the hobby as a mere Halloween-style ‘dress up’. ‘A person commented on an MEFCC Instagram post questioning the professionalism of cosplayers and it was triggering because let’s face it, cosplaying can be as simple as buying a costume of Amazon or it can surpass the quality of Hollywood costumes. ‘Let’s respect the effort people put in.’

Saif Zulfiqar, 26, Pakistani

One Thursday night in 2012, commuters on the Dubai Metro were left startled — Wolverine had boarded the train at Union station, retractable claws out, blood splattered across his face and clothes and an uncharacteristic apologetic grin plastered.

Saif took part in the first edition of Comi-Con in Dubai in 2012 dressed up as Wolverine

‘That was the first year of MEFCC and my friends and I didn’t have a car, so we took the Metro. It resulted in a lot of awkward and worried looks from fellow passengers,’ recalls Saif Zulfiqar of his first swipe at Cosplay dressed as the sardonic mutant superhero from the X-Men series played by actor Hugh Jackman.

The only thing unusual about that first outing wasn’t that the digital designer was sprouting adamantium claws and not shooting spiderwebs– ‘Spiderman was my first written word.’ Again, completely standard behaviour in a household where mum would return from grocery runs with comic books and old VHS tapes of Superhero films and dad is a self-confessed Star Wars fan who has cosplayed at events. Both geeky nurture and an imaginative nature turned Saif’s passion into his profession: ‘I now do professional digital illustrations of famous comic and cartoon characters for an ad agency.’

Cosplaying is the hobby that allows Saif to explore different aspects of his career. ‘While making a costume, props or armour, I get to take something that exist in 2D and make a 3D object of it. This helps tremendously with understanding functionality in character design and gives me a whole new perspective as an artist,’ he says of the two-week-long costume building sprees he enters into with his best friend, once winning third prize at MEFCC cosplay competition dressed as the Nightwing (complete with a motorcycle prop) and Penguin from Batman comics. Sometimes he purchases costumes.

The pen might be mightier than the sword but no sketches can match the rush of wielding tangible weapons of DC and Marvel comic characters — Saif’s favoured universe to cosplay.’

There’s also the sense of empowerment that comes with dressing up as a character of your choice: ‘you’ll suddenly start walking the walk and talking the talk like a wave of method acting has come over you and introverts transform into extroverts and vice versa mirroring their character’s personality and freely express yourself. It’s almost therapeutic!’

Sounds like a long stretch unless you realise that it draws parallels with American social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s Harvard study on ‘power-posing’ that says your body language governs how you feel.

But nothing makes the experience of becoming a caped crusader sweeter for Saif than little kids who look up to him with awe at events and request for pictures, bringing him nostalgic flashbacks of his own deep-rooted affinity for the characters he grew up with. ‘I feel like a celebrity of sorts, it’s great to be somebody else for a short while, a new identity that you and others look up to.’

The allure of superheroes and villains for Saif lies in their unwavering commitment to their responsibilities, ‘whether it’s saving the world despite being beat up and broken or using extreme methods to fulfil their missions and ideals.’

Saif’s superpower is his art and in line with the motto of his childhood idol Spiderman, he’s using his great power extremely responsibly by creating his very own comic book, which is why instead of participating at the MEFCC cosplay competition he’ll be manning his own stall at the artists alley dressed as Boba Fett from Star Wars.

His dad sure must be proud.

Saud Al Hazzani, 34, Saudi

The course of true love never did run smooth. It took Saud Al Hazzani, six years of stumbling through different professions, including a stint at a big IT company before throwing caution to the winds and moving from Saudi Arabia to Dubai in 2017 to pursue one of his greatest passion — cosplaying. ‘I’ve always wanted to make a living doing something I’ve loved,’ says the full-time cosplayer.

Saud playing Prince of Persia
Jeffery Pabroquez

The path to his true love and fiancée, fellow cosplayer Sumi — also the reason for moving to the UAE — was fraught with fewer obstacles but came with enough costume changes to put a musical to shame.

Saud’s love of cosplay knows no bounds or borders — the Saudi national, flew from Saudi Arabia to various Middle Eastern countries to attend his first 10 cosplay events and went on a roadtrip to Bahrain to attend his first convention ‘that I discovered through a Facebook advertisement.’ Dressed as Portgdas D. Ace from One Piece anime, Saud aced the competition and was addicted to the thrill of crafting and interacting with people. But his memory of cosplaying at the first MEFCC eclipses everything: ‘I was dressed as Devil Jin from the Tekken videogames and got my 4m wide wings to open up and move on stage — I had mechanically [rigged] them. A sea of people stood up to cheer and applaud. I don’t think that reaction can be repeated; people had low expectations of cosplayers then so they were easily surprised.’

Saud has upped the ante with every costume he’s premiered at a convention since — complex electrical moving props and armour with intricate attention to detail have replaced the simple costume he cobbled up from ‘spray painted pants, fake chains, make-up tattoos and wings’. Going by the stage name of VegaCosplay, Saud is a celebrity in the regional cosplay scene and was nominated to participate at the 2017 World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya, Japan — the birthplace of anime. ‘It felt like a dream, it was magic and I’m really excited to share my knowledge with the winners of the UAE preliminaries this year,’ he says of judging the event today.

Saud as Guts from the manga series Berserk

Sceptical family and friends found his off-the-wall hobby weird at first, ‘then later some of them loved it and the rest respected what I did even if they didn’t understand it.’

Art often isn’t always understood but Saud has found innovative ways to monetise his passion beyond guest appearances and commissions for individual costumes. ‘I focus on orders from production companies and recently designed outfits for a YouTube channel, and a functional robotic mascot for an event.’

Saud’s dedication to hand making each of his 40-plus costumes has seen him spend nights on the rooftop of friend’s flat sticking feathers to his Devil Jin costume’s wings while he was in-between jobs. ‘My costumes are usually 80 per cent handmade (I take help with sewing and make-up) and take two weeks on an average — that’s considered rushed but it’s directed by how soon an event is closing in.’ The longest he’s taken to create a costume — Guyver: Dark Hero — is four months.

In the vein of the many videogames he enjoys cosplaying for the challenging costume-crafting opportunities they offer, Saud’s stocked up on various levels of skills: ‘I now know woodworking, moulding and casting, all kinds of electrical fixes and tricks and even [coding] programming chips.’

With such an extensive multidisciplinary skillset, does it bother him that detractors belittle his artform as frivolous and childish? ‘I could explain, but I’d rather invite them to a convention and see what goes into creating a cosplay.’

Sumi, 31, Iraqi

Sumi is living most little girls’ dreams: a grown-up playing dress up and pretend for a living — and having a blast. Disney princesses are the professional cosplayer’s speciality but mind you, she’s no damsel in distress having taught herself special effects make-up, mould casting and sculpturing, painting, stitching, styling and all of the other technicalities that go into handcrafting an accurate facsimile of the character she’s mimicking.

It’s this attention to detail and perfection that make her a regular fixture at cosplay events around the GCC both as a participant and a judge. The only identity crises Sumi faces in life are what characters she should cosplay from the panoply of options on offer, effortlessly switching from sweet-faced Snow White to the sorceress Yennefer from the Witcher games, inhabiting the persona, quirks and mannerisms of the character, becoming their doppleganger.

Sumi playing Snow White. 'I like Disney characters because they offer me the chance to sing songs from the films, dance, act and there’s no better feeling than when little kids come and hug me believing I’m the real deal and go crazy!'

Trained in acting and filmmaking from NYU Abu Dhabi, performance is an innate skill and cosplaying offers up the world as a stage to the former actress (she’s acted in short films, Middle Eastern TV series) and triple-threat: ‘I like Disney characters because they offer me the chance to sing songs from the films, dance, act and there’s no better feeling than when little kids come and hug me believing I’m the real deal and go crazy!

‘I couldn’t even sit down for a few seconds when I went to Comic Con dressed as Elsa!’ Sumi puts the ‘role-play’ in Cosplay.

Sumi’s evolution from an ‘almost 
geek but not really’ raised on a staple diet of video games and anime to a professional cosplayer and party entertainer who attends birthday parties as a princess and takes on freelance costume-making projects was kick-started by a photo of cosplayers a friend shared on social media. ‘I knew of the subculture 
but I was so excited to see it had arrived in the UAE too and I participated in all of these small pop culture events. When the first MEFCC came was when I created my first costume.’

Soon event organisers started contacting her to judge competitions and the next thing she knows, she’s off to Japan to participate at the World Cosplay Championship with her fiancée and fellow cosplayer Saud Al Hazzani dressed as Griffith and Guts from the Manga series Berserk and Serenity from Sailor Moon amongst others. ‘I met him through the online cosplaying community and reached out for tips since he was an already established cosplayer. The rest is history!’

Sumi finds picking a favourite difficult considering each csotume is a labour of love. ‘Every character has a different memory attached to it and evokes a different mood and theme. But if I had to pick it’d be Elsa and Maleficent — I play characters because I know and love them and want to be them.’ Her quest for accuracy and authenticity ensures that she shares physical similarities such as body type, gender and occasionally facial features with characters to a certain extent. The rest is camouflaged by exceptional make-up and costume.

Cosplaying Disney characters are far from easy, explains Sumi: ‘Maleficent might look simplistic but the fabric and headgear are quite heavy. Every costume has a tricky element: the wings for Mercy from the videogame Overwatch weighed 10 kg and I had to ensure it was stable and balanced to nail the look!’

Sumi’s greatest accomplishment is normalising cosplay for adults who were curious but embarrassed. ‘People have come up to me and Saud saying we’ve inspired them to try this. And everyone should. I’m recognised and travel places because of cosplaying!’