Behind the Masks

Written by Dave Whalen

Jessica Ann York looks out over the Tennessee River. Jessica was cosplaying as Hawks from the anime and manga series My Hero Academia. Tuesday, November 2, 2021 (Photo by Seth Carpenter)

All was well in Coolidge park as a band of cosplay superheroes patrolled to keep the peace. Should a villian arrive to foil the fun, could these three actually stop a catastrophe of epic proportions? Hopefully we’ll never find out, but they sure looked the part. 

Jora Burnett, Jessica York, and Mica Morgan are three friends who have been cosplaying together since 2019 here in Chattanooga. When they’re not maintaining their secret identities Morgan and Burnett being art teachers and York a writer who specializes in horror, these three come together after hours forming group cosplays stylizing their favorite characters.

Most recently, Burnett, York and Morgan have chosen Fat Gum, Hawks, and Endevor from the popular anime “My Hero Academia.” With impressive replication, the most eye-catching feature is the massive handmade red wings spread across York’s back. While the costumes stick to the script, the ladies make these heroes their own by gender bending the fictional characters who were created as males. 

Cosplay can be broken up easily into two parts: costume and role-play and what sets it apart from mere fashion draws heavily from theatrical presentation.

The group walks together, sporting their costumes. Tuesday, November 2, 2021. (Photo by Olivia Ross)

On the costume side of things, enthusiasts take an iconic look of their favorite characters and reproduce their garb, hair and unique props. Emily Gardner is one of these enthusiasts. As a self-proclaimed “hobbyist” with over a decade’s worth of experience in the community, she dons her cosplay and suddenly becomes her heroes.

Role-play adds a depth and flair to the performance. Doing signature stances and poise are a great start but taking mannerisms to the next level can lead to a fuller embodiment of the chosen character. 

For most, cosplay offers change and empowerment. Some might call it an escape.

In Gardner’s case, cosplay is not only a creative outlet but also a therapeutic way to expel the stresses of real life.

“There’s something about not being myself for a short period of time,” says Gardner. “I can escape being Emily and suddenly I’m Vex’ahlia, Hero of Alexandria. They don’t have the worries I do at home.”

Emily Gardner draws her bow. Tuesday, October 19, 2021 (Photo by Seth Carpenter)

Role-playing isn’t a superpower that all cosplayers rely on though. For our heroes Burnett, York and Morgan, gathering with friends and indulging in expression and excitement is more important, and there’s no better place than a convention. 

Conventions are the mass congregation where the creative hard work of cosplayers can be displayed, appreciated and enjoyed by their peers. In fact, these festivities of fandom occur yearly, in pockets of every corner of the U.S. Here, fans from all forms of media flock together to, as Burnett puts it, “geek out”.

The three describe the delight and comradery from seeing others take on their beloved characters. 

“Endeavor has a bunch of kids so every time I saw someone dressed as one, I would yell ‘My son!’” says Morgan.

For Morgan, York, and Burnett, conventions are their favorite way to display their fandom and “people watch.” Despite the occasional outlier the three see very few perpetrators of evil in their community.

“There is a zero-tolerance policy at conventions” says York “If anyone is rude or tries to assault someone, the community rallies around right away and will either remove or ban the person for life”.

Posting online puts the cosplayer into the fray where anonymous people can say whatever they want. 

“It’s from people who don’t know what goes into cosplay. Some people will see popular characters they know but if size, race, or gender don’t fit their mold then they see it as a bad representation,” says Gardner.

Cosplayers like Gardner have mostly positive interactions with the civilian population, leaving memorable experiences to inspire younger generations. 

“Sometimes it feels like I work at Disneyworld” says Gardner “Kids have no trouble running up and yelling ‘You’re a princess!’ and you’re like their hero for five seconds”.

However some heroes can easily turn heckling into a source of power in the right headspace. 

“Don’t be afraid to get out there and do something you might love because it’s seen as strange or weird” says Gardner.

For those bold enough to display their passion to the fullest, cosplaying provides the opportunity to embody the heroes that inspire them to be different.   

Nessa Parrish met up with Jessica York, Mica Morgan, and Jora Burnett at Coolidge Park to discuss the art of Cosplaying. Audio by Nessa Parrish.

Crafty Cosplays

Written by Seth Carpenter

April Beaudion, cosplaying as Hera Syndulla from Star Wars: Rebels, overlooks Atlanta from her hotel room. April was there for the 2018 Dragoncon donning her favorite cosplay. 2018 (Photo Courtesy of April Beaudion)

You’re walking down the street and you see a green woman with two matching tails protruding from her head and hanging down past her shoulders. Have you just encountered an alien? Well, it is more likely that you have actually just run into Chattanoogan April Beaudion donning one of her favorite cosplays.

For those unfamiliar with cosplay, Beaudion gives a very simple summation of the hobby.

“Oh, you know, like making costumes that look like characters on TV,” Beaudion says.

But the hobby can go much deeper than that, with cosplayers creating and wearing stunning recreations and interpretations of their favorite characters from film, video games, comics and even their own imagination.

Naturally, there is a great deal of passion in the craft for anyone who takes on the challenge, no matter their skill or technical knowledge.

April Beaudion has been perfecting her craft since 2016 when she went to her first convention, Dragoncon in Atlanta, and debuted her own homemade cosplay.

“I spent all summer working on my first cosplay, which was ridiculously easy when I’m looking back on it,” she recalls. “It was red and white, and I stuck it in the dryer and it turned pink. But every year after that I’ve done better. It was a good first try.”

Even with the challenges and mishaps, Beaudion always keeps in mind what originally sparked her interest.

That spark was “the character Hera Syndulla from [Star Wars:] Rebels because I looked at her, and I was like, ‘I want to make that real,’” she explains. “And then once I did that, and with all the green makeup and everything I was like, ‘I’m never stopping. This is fun.’”

But like any passion, there is more to it than just throwing fabrics together in an afternoon and expecting it to work. In fact, for Beaudion it takes hours spent at craft stores just to find the right materials. 

“When I’m starting a cosplay, the first thing I do is go to Joann, and I will touch every fabric in the store until I find the right one,” she explains. “Or if it’s not a fabric-y thing, I’ll go to Michaels and touch every stupid thing in that store, and then once I find the right material to base the entire cosplay around, then I can make it.”

Still, this refined process of Beaudion’s has done little to affect her more chaotic methods.

“Cosplay, for me, is not something I plan meticulously. It’s something I just poke at until it’s right, and I will buy a lot of things I do not need, which, you know, comes in handy later,” Beaudion says. “Or I’m a hoarder. I’m not sure which one.”

Unsurprisingly, her habits have had more than a few opportunities to burn through her bank account.

“I only calculated one cosplay one time, and it was $1,100,” she reveals. “And then I stopped calculating.”

That is not to say that the hobby has to empty wallets, however. In fact, Beaudion urges newcomers to be frugal when they are starting out. 

“You don’t have to do expensive stuff—like literally just the cotton for your first one. You’re gonna break it, so just don’t break your bank, too,” Beaudion says.

Beaudion also advises new cosplayers to ease into the craft, even if they encounter a few internalized villains along the way.

“Don’t compare yourself too much to other people, especially the ones that have, you know, like fashion degrees and stuff,” she says. “You’ll get there eventually even though it doesn’t seem like you will.”

At the end of the day, a more experienced handiwork should not dissuade an interest peaked by creativity and passion, something the cosplay community has plenty of and more than enough room with which to fill another convention hall or two. 


Meet the Storytellers

Nessa Parrish – Head Editor

Nessa Parrish is the Editor for Rising Rock and is currently a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is a highly adaptable and dedicated individual with over 10 years of videography experience. She seeks to highlight and document the voices of individuals whose stories deserve attention through visual storytelling. You can contact her at Nessaparrish@gmail.com

Seth Carpenter

Seth Carpenter is a student journalist writing for Rising Rock. His work has been featured in The University Echo. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Seth told the story of a local church providing students in need with food. Primarily, he hopes his work can make a difference for those around him. If you have a story to tell, please contact me at snv662@mocs.utc.edu.

Olivia Ross

Olivia Ross is a photojournalist located in Chattanooga, TN. She is the Photo Editor for UT Chattanooga’s student-run newspaper, The Echo. After 3 semesters as a staff photographer, she quickly gained skills within photo editing softwares and communication etiquette that led to her promotion. Her main interest lies within capturing pivotal moments in both sports and news.  Olivia Ross is currently open to new opportunities. For more information, contact Olivia Ross at NGK419@MOCS.UTC.EDU. 

Logan Stapleton

Logan Stapleton is an aspiring multimedia storyteller using his skills of videography and photography to highlight what makes people human. He has adapted his skills to work alongside others, absorbing whatever advice he can take to progress his storytelling to the next-level in order to accurately represent his subjects. To learn more about Logan and his work visit RisingRock.net, theutcecho.com, or email him at loganstapleton33@gmail.com.

Dave Whalen

David Whalen takes outdoor sports documentation to new heights. His written adventure stories are accompanied by the visual spectacle of the hidden, hard to reach and natural wonders of Chattanooga outdoors. His hobby of Rock climbing has humble beginnings but now has become a lifetime passion. Dave uses rock climbing to explore the great outdoors and tell stories of those who choose the paths less traveled. For more information and possible collaboration please contact: Davidwhalen5@gmail.com

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