Phone Booth Friday: Suit Yourself Up

Since their inception as a genre, superheroes have never really dressed like most people.  Sure, many of them have their secret identities and wear everyday clothes, so that they can hold down jobs or mix undetected with normal human beings.  Yet when they really go to work, they wear clothing which is, to be fair, rather outlandish.  That being said, this doesn’t stop those along the spectrum of fandom, from casual aficionado to full-blown expert, from trying to find ways to bring some aspect of their favorite hero to their own wardrobes – and that’s something we ought to encourage.

For those unwilling to don a garment made from lycra/spandex from fear of being photographed, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, there are of course other options. The now-familiar slanket, also known as the snuggie, i.e. a fleece blanket with sleeves, has been around for a few years now, and comes in a range of superhero styles at many retailers. However some new arrivals on the wearables market may prove to be just as popular with superhero fans who aren’t quite willing to fully suit up for themselves.

Take for instance this new product from Chilean company Selk-Bag: wearable sleeping bags designed to make the user look like a Marvel superhero. They fit just about any size, from kids to adults.  They’re also waterproof, but only recommended for temperatures down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s about 7 degrees Centigrade for you non-Americans.

Although not designed for such temperatures, I can envision some people using these this winter, much to the envy of their friends.  Particularly on warmer winter days when engaging in things like sledding, snowball fights, and ice hockey, a bit of padding can go a long way toward not being knocked about too much.  Still, perhaps these types of garments are best-saved for those of you who live in more moderate climates, where winters are not too terribly cold.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the return of the beloved childhood label Underoos, but this time in adult size.  If you’re of a certain age, you probably had a pair or two of these in your underwear drawer growing up. Underoos were matching underwear sets for kids, the most popular of which featured superheroes and sci-fi characters.  From the late ’70’s through the 80’s, they were quite the rage for kids who wanted to run around the house torturing their younger siblings through acts of violent horseplay.

So far the offerings are limited, but include Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Batman, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, He-Man, and Skeletor.  The underwear sets even come in the same retro packaging that you may remember from your childhood.  In some sense others have already picked up the slack on this type of product, most notably athletic gear/underwear designers UnderArmour in their “Alter Ego” line. However one should never underestimate the appeal of a well-timed bit of nostalgia marketing, particularly when superhero culture is such a dominant force in the entertainment world at the moment.

The huge variety of characters in the superhero universe, who all dress rather unusually, allows people to explore different aspects of their own personality and values.  Even if they happen to be drawn to one particular favorite, when purchasing garments like these, fans can naturally cross over into being several different characters – just as most of the serious cosplay folk I’ve been getting to know do in the projects they work on.  The fact that such garments are even available to the general public only reinforces the impression that, while marketers may be taking full advantage of this trend, there is more going on here than simply choosing a logo and going with it.

Like in Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, comic book superheroes speak to something larger than themselves.  By referencing their articles of clothing in what we ourselves wear, we also reference what virtues these characters stand for.  So while today wearing the “S” on your chest is a kind of textile shorthand for saying that you value “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, in ancient times the wedding knot in the girdle or belt  worn by a bride around her waist was a reminder of the virtue of chastity, from the tale of Hercules and Hippolyta.  Western culture is littered with many such symbols which try to pass on values, which even if we don’t realize it are still showing up in articles of clothing today, from the laurel leaves of Apollo and Daphne on a Fred Perry bag, to the Golden Fleece from the story of Jason and the Argonauts embroidered on a Brooks Brothers polo shirt.

People need and want to be reminded of what makes us care for one another, and why having a free, democratic, and civilized society is better than the alternative.  I don’t mean to suggest that one must always try to dig deeply into the superhero world to try to answer that need, because let’s face it: sometimes you just want to have fun and play make-believe.  Yet in a time when so much of contemporary society seems so lost and rudderless, awash in a sea of materialism and selfishness, and in need of rediscovering virtues like self-sacrifice, charity, and service to others, is your wearing a superhero t-shirt really such a bad place to start?

Selk-Bag's range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Selk-Bag’s range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Dominicans to the Rescue: Saving Souls and Civilization in Iraq

Obviously there is much to be said, and much that is praiseworthy, when someone heroically saves another’s life.  People are more important than property, something which all of us need reminding of from time to time.  Yet sometimes we can find equally praiseworthy acts of heroism when it comes to rescuing objects that are part of the heritage of all mankind.  So for this blog post, I want to take the opportunity to laud the work of my favorite religious order, the Dominicans, who are doing something heroic not only for the care and salvation of souls, but also for preserving civilization, right now, in a very dangerous place and time.

As ISIS slashes and burns its way across Iraq, we are right to focus on their human victims, first and foremost.  Yet ISIS is not only interested in terrorizing their fellow human beings through violence and intimidation.  Rather, they want to show the people of the lands they are conquering, to paraphrase a line from the film “Doctor Zhivago” after the Bolsheviks have killed the Tsar and all of his family, that now, there’s no going back to the way things were. And part of the way ISIS is going about this task is through the destruction of culture and history.

To counter that effort, the Order of Preachers, more popularly known as the Dominicans, have been trying to rescue as many ancient Christian texts as they can ahead of the ISIS onslaught. In an interview with France24, Fr. Laurent Lemoine, O.P., described how he has been assisting in Iraq with the preservation of centuries-old manuscripts, currently in the care of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., who with the help of his fellow Dominicans threw everything they could into a truck and fled ISIS for the comparative safety of the Kurdish city of Erbil, with only half an hour’s warning.

Fr. Michaeel’s is a name which may be familiar to some of my readers from publications like First Things, where he has been reporting on the experiences of the Dominicans and those to whom they minister. This interview in particular gives some indication of what he and the other friars face, and also why they choose to stay.  Their dedication and courage in this regard is an example to all of us who can glibly declare, amidst our relative ease and comforts, that we’re prepared to lay down our lives for our brother, as Christ tells us we must be willing to do.  These friars are putting themselves at risk every day, and not only for their fellow Catholics, but for all of those who are fleeing the ISIS terror.

For those who understand the importance of history and preserving the heritage of civilization, the work that Fr. Michaeel and the Dominicans are doing is no less important.  Without it, the real danger would be the loss of identity and roots for a group of people who have already lost almost everything else they once had.  At the same time, the existence of these objects connects them and indeed us to centuries of our forebears in Christianity, in the part of the world where Christianity first arose.

Christians do not need old objects, like ancestral bones or ancient parchments, to be able to worship God. Yet the Church has always recognized that preserving the past is a way to be more fully aware of the role God has played throughout human history, and the need to respect and honor the traditions and knowledge which others have contributed to the Church as well as to mankind as a whole.  Let us hope that one day, these books and the descendents of those who created them will once again be able to find a place of peace and restoration.

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts


Phone Booth Friday: Why Cosplay Is Great for the Economy

Sometimes it’s possible to have an opinion about something based exclusively on external observation, and still be fairly accurate in your assessment. You do not need to be mauled by a bear to understand that it would probably not be a pleasant experience. At other times however, you can roll out your jump-to-conclusions mat and end up using that shiny red Swingline to staple yourself to it in a rather embarrassing way. Such is the case with this ill-informed and ill-advised piece on the pop culture phenomenon of cosplay, and its impact on the U.S. economy.

By no means am I an expert on either economics or, more importantly for the purposes of this post, the world of cosplay. Sure, I put on a Superman suit for Halloween, or to shoot funny photos for use as Twitter AVI’s (profile pictures); I play-act the persona on social media when it suits my purpose, which is usually to make people laugh and to poke fun at myself. However, I’ve never been to any of the conventions or other, similar events held annually around the country by those interested in things like comic books and sci-fi/adventure.

What I can say, based on interacting with a number of cosplayers over the past couple of years, is that they are not what you would expect from reading the article linked to above. They enjoy dressing up as their favorite characters from print or film, and attending conventions or other events with those of like mind. Yet classing these people as unemployed, disillusioned millennial layabouts is either based on faulty reasoning, or the fact that the author didn’t think it worth the bother to actually see whether the category of people he was writing about matched his description of them.

In my travels through social media I’ve come across all sorts of people who enjoy cosplay; as it happens, not a single one of the ones with whom I interact on a regular basis is unemployed, or lives in their parents’ basement. They all have jobs, in many cases they have their own families, and cosplay is just the way they enjoy spending their free time. Many of them, far from being anti-social couch potatoes, exercise and eat well to stay in shape, so that they can look right for the cosplay they intend to do. They also donate their time to charitable causes, whether visiting the sick or participating in fundraising events in full costume, to the delight of those who love having their picture taken with Wonder Woman, Gandalf, or Darth Vader.

In my experience, cosplayers are often entrepreneurially-minded people, who appreciate and encourage creativity in themselves and others. When they come up with an idea for a character they want to play, they research it thoroughly, and either make their own costumes and accessories from scratch – from Batman’s cowl to Captain America’s shield to Thor’s hammer – or they seek out people who are good at making these things, and collaborate with them to achieve the desired effect. They work with everyone from photographers and independent film makers, to makeup artists and lighting designers, to have fun acting out their adventures.

All of this activity touches on a rather salient point, which was apparently lost on the author of this cosplay hit piece: cosplayers and their fans generate a lot of money. You see, those folks in tights and plastic body armor are not only contributing to the economy themselves, in many cases running their own home businesses on the side, but major industries recognize that the cosplay crowd can make or break their business.  The growth of the various conventions from places where a few geeks would gather to talk about vintage comic books, to the massive media events they are now, demonstrates this purchasing power.

For example, the latest installment in the multi-million dollar “Superman” franchise hasn’t even finished filming yet, and won’t be released until 2015. Nevertheless, the director and cast showed up at a comic book convention earlier this summer to meet fans and take their questions, as well as give a sneak peek of a brief clip from the forthcoming film, a bootleg of which went viral and generated millions of hits, posts, and re-tweets. This, for those who do not understand how marketing and advertising work, is called “buzz”, and it can make or break an investment, whether that investment is a movie or just about anything else.

The cultural reasons why people choose to engage in cosplay are for another post, but dressing up in costume is by no means an unprecedented source of revenue in Western history. If cosplay is economically worthless, then I suppose we must also consider not only the Palio di Siena, but the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia to be full of lazy good-for-nothings, whose elaborate expenditures contribute nothing to the economy of their respective cities. The same holds true for Morris Dancers in England, Karnival troupes in Bavaria, Holy Week penitents in Andalusia, Civil War re-enactors around the Mid-Atlantic, and so on. I could say this, except common sense dictates such an argument is rubbish, especially when the hotels are fully booked and the bars and restaurants are jammed.

People who dress up and participate in these kinds of events, cosplayers included, not only enjoy themselves, but they generate significant revenue in the communities where they engage in their activities. Rather than denigrate and dismiss those who choose to pull on the hobbit feet and go tramping about convention centers in San Diego or Baltimore, perhaps something more than a mere cursory consideration of what cosplay is might have generated a better blog post than that linked to above.  For indeed, what the author has no doubt unwittingly done in his piece, is make an argument for the abolition of all professional sporting events, which are based on little more than fantasy.

After all, when you consider how much time and money is spent in this country on athletes, stadiums, tickets, “Fantasy” football and “March Madness” picks, clothing emblazoned with logos of teams which fans will never be members of, or for that matter the names of individual athletes whom they will never get the chance to meet, are these two segments of the economy really all that different?

View of just part of the New York City annual ComiCon

View of part of the New York City annual Comic Con