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Wizard World Chicago 2017: Uncle Sam, cosplay, diversity… and Kato!

Wizard World Chicago 2017 has come and gone once again and yours truly was there to cover it for Pop Mythology. Given the vast range of things to see and do, most of the events and panels I checked out were related in some way to cosplay or issues surrounding diversity and social justice.

Over at the main entertainment stage, the host overseeing the festivities was a guy cosplaying as Kato Kaelin. He had a really good wig and a strong resemblance to the world’s most famous houseguest. Then I learned it actually was Kato (yes, the Kato) engaging cosplayers in karaoke (‘Kato-oke”) and geek trivia. I hung around here briefly to enjoy the festive atmosphere before moving on to the panels. I couldn’t help but smile each time Kato was on the mic; his energy knows no bounds.

(photo: Mare Swallow)

Uncle Sam Wants Nerds for the U.S. Army

One of the earlier stops I made was an information session hosted by the U.S. Army. I was surprised to see it on the programming schedule so l headed down to Room 12 to chat with Sergeants Frederick and Smith, both in full fatigues. The two sergeants, part of the Female Engagement Team, were at Wizard World to meet the female contingent – and potential recruits, which I found interesting. Sergeant Smith told me how the Army has enabled her to live all over the country in her 10-year career. Sgt. Frederick recalled meeting U.S. soldiers when she was a young girl growing up in Dominica, which inspired her to enlist. Both likened the service to having an extended family who would “do anything” for them.  I was a bit skeptical, and asked about cases of assault against women in the military, and what if a recruit had questions about that? Sgt. Smith gave me a well-rehearsed answer, touting the Army’s strict policies and procedures around reporting assault. I still wasn’t satisfied, but I’m smart enough to know that in this situation, it’s not like I’m sitting down for a tell-all with my best friend. I’ll be interested to see if the Army visits Wizard World again next year.

Rob Schamberger: “The Business of Art”

(photo: Mare Swallow)

Artist Rob Schamberger had a dream to paint the portraits of every wrestling champion. In 2012, he ran a Kickstarter campaign, raised $20,000, and quit his day job. He now makes a living painting portraits (usually of wrestling stars), and licensing his images on T-shirts and prints. His love of wrestling began in 1998 the first time he saw Rick Flair, which he described as: “The clouds parted and the choir sang.” Factoid: The wrestler he has painted the most portraits of is Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

Imagination for Radical Resistance

(photo: Mare Swallow)

Krystal Kara (Be Super Initiative) moderated this discussion with illustrator Ashley A. Woods and video producer Zenaya Williams (ROYAL). Topics included Gamergate; the back-and-forth nature of culture shifts, and social justice. Solid advice from Woods: “I pay attention to the individual; not entire groups of people.” On the topic of whitewashing in movies, Williams informed us that it is usually the investors — not necessarily the directors or writers — driving those (ill-advised) casting decisions.

Diversity In Cosplay

From Scooby-Doo’s Velma to Lord Saladin, there were four panelists on this panel and all of their cosplay was to die for. Personally, I envied the Velma. Advice from moderator Papa Bear: cosplay for the fun and the fandom – choose a character you connect to. Don’t choose a character just because your skin color matches. The panel – consisting of Michelle “Mogchelle” Mussoni, Shar Starr, Melissa “Nerdtastic Mel” Torres, and Papa Bear – agreed that blackface is a no-no, but a wig to imitate a character’s hair (e.g.: dreads) is okay. The best “WTF?” story came from an audience member, who also happens to be a member of Chicago People of Color Cosplay. As he left the 2017 St. Patrick’s Day Parade dressed as Cyclops, he walked past a group of young men celebrating. The sole African-American man in the group, wearing a “Kiss Me I’m Irish” T-shirt, yelled to him: “Cyclops isn’t black!”

Women Creators Breaking Stereotypes

(photo: Mare Swallow)

This refreshing and insightful panel of authors shared their processes for creating non-stereotypical female characters. Tina Jens (The Blues Ain’t Nothin’) writes leading ladies with less-than-stellar looks, and even less-than-stellar bank accounts. Former food & drug attorney Jamie Freveletti’s (Blood Run) main character is a MacGyver-like chemist, and Cina Pelayo (Poems of My Night) defines her characters by tragedy. Moderator Genese Davis (Holder’s Dominion) sets her women in the tech industry. Her first publisher urged her to change the protagonist “Kaylie Ames” to “Ken Ames.” (I threw up a little upon hearing this.) Davis said, “Nope!” and took her work to another publisher.

Among influential female characters, the entire panel cited Wonder Woman. Jens also mentioned Charlie’s Angels, and shared that her husband remarked that the original Charlie’s Angels was fairly sexist. Jens agreed and said, “But what else did we have back then?” As a kid in the ‘70s, who loved Charlie’s Angels, I know she’s right. I’m just glad we now have the work of these panelists, and countless other authors, to give us better examples.

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About Mare Swallow

Mare Swallow
Mare Swallow is the Founder of the Chicago Writers Conference and author of 21 Ways to Engage Your Audience. She is a professional speaker, and writes non-fiction. She is working on an in-depth project about subcultures. On most nights you can find her sharing her stories at one of Chicago's many Lit events. She has been named to New City’s (Chicago) Lit 50 list twice. She lives in Chicago and is a complete gin snob.