Yaya Han is a nerd who knows Doctor Doom from Master Chief. But she’s no mere geek-pop fan — Yaya is a celebrity geek-pop fan. She made her name attending comic-book conventions in elaborate costumes that intricately replicate the looks of Star Trek’s Uhura, Fiora from League of Legends, and pretty much any skinny-waisted, big-bosomed character out there. Now the self-styled ”Ambassador of Cosplay” is a model, a brand (coming soon: the Yaya Han action figure), and an imperious judge of cosplay pageants that feature contestants with a myriad of motivations — including becoming the next Yaya Han.
Yaya is one of many characters who populate the colorful terrain surveyed by Heroes of Cosplay, a well-cast Toddlers & Tiaras for the Comic-Con generation. Each episode tracks an array of cosplayers as they prep for and travel to costume contests on the geek-convention circuit, capturing the creativity and drama of constructing their new outfits, not to mention everything that goes into wearing them. For Becky Young, who has a ”Method” approach, that means taking archery lessons and learning a Scottish accent to embody Brave’s Merida. The narratives are always entertaining and become richer week to week, as the show follows many of the same participants. Can aspiring prop-maker Jesse Lagers rebound from defeat with an ornate, steampunk-styled stormtrooper suit? Will affirmation-hungry Victoria Schmidt score a prize with a light-up TRON dress designed by her costumer boyfriend?
So far, the show has focused mostly on the women of competitive cosplay. The phenomenon is bigger than this, but the female emphasis makes for a strong, sometimes prickly portrait, one that smartly pokes at cosplay’s bias against overweight participants as well as the entire geek subculture’s objectification of women. See: Monika Lee, a former Yaya protégée currently more interested in expressing her emerging sexuality with skimpy, artistically confused costumes. Naturally, Yaya — who likes to say she’s all about ”craftsmanship” — isn’t pleased. Neither is Monika’s mom: ”Please tell me you’re wearing underwear under there!”
The show is best when it digs into the cosplay scene and the competitors bare their vanities and insecurities. My favorite characters are Holly Conrad and Jessica Merizan, squabbly pals, business partners, and team cosplayers. A contrived scenario in the Aug. 27 episode splits them up and reveals genuine truths about their individual needs for self-confidence. I love when Jessica struts on stage punked out in a Tank Girl costume, barks at the emcee for messing up her name, and strikes a defiant pose. The costume rocks because it’s finely made, because it expresses the perspective of its maker, because Jessica wears it so well. It’s thanks to winning moments like these that Heroes truly earns its title. B+