Candace Birger’s bedroom and workshop is a converted attic loft space in her Westminster home, meaning she has to kneel in front of her mirror as she pulls a skullcap over her hair, followed by a bright orange wig, pulled back into two big, puffy tufts, like the tips of paint brushes.
Black goggles with red lenses come next, then white gloves, and a long red jacket with a high collar completes the ensemble.
“Look at you, you look so cute!” Jess Tanzey tells her friend.
“Does it look boss?”
“It looks boss,” Tanzey says. “It looks stellar.”
“Now I’m Dr. Robotnik,” Birger says with a laugh.
Dr. Robotnik, to the unfamiliar, was the villain in the 1990s “Sonic the Hedgehog” video games, and his current incarnation, Dr. Eggman, will be played by a mustachioed Jim Carrey in the upcoming movie named for the speedy blue hedgehog.
Birger, a fan of the games growing up, crafted her own version of Carrey’s costume based on his few seconds of screentime in a recent trailer for the movie.
“I’m just going off of what I think it should look like, and gender bent for what it would look like on a chick,” she says. “I can’t have a mustache and that was one of Dr. Robotnik’s things, to have a crazy stick-out mustache, so I had to translate that into a wig.”
Why? For fun, community, and more: Birger and Tanzey are cosplayers, people with a hobby centered on the use of craft work and theater skills to bringing fanciful characters from film, comic books and video games to life, real life, and embodying them.
“ ‘Cosplay’ is a mixture of the terms ‘costume’ and ‘role play,’ ” says Tanzey, of New Windsor. “These don’t have to be characters that already exist, you can make these kinds of characters up or you can put your own spin on them. For example, this Robotnik is Jim Carrey’s female version, which is very unique. This is something you have not seen yet.”
But if you were at Baltimore Comic-Con in September, you might have seen Birger’s first-place-winning “Lady Thor” cosplay, complete with winged helmet, looking every bit a hefty piece of metal.
“This is all foam,” Birger says, handing the helmet to Tanzey as the two hang out in Birger’s bedroom workshop. “You just sponge paint over it to give it that metal look.”
“I just use black oil paint, is that what you do?” Tanzey asks.
Shop talk is part of what drew the two women together. Tanzey is also a cosplayer and had attended “cons,” or conventions, with different themes: Baltimore Comic-Con has a comic book theme, whereas Otakon is centered on Japanese pop culture such as anime and video games.
The two had worked separately until Birger had reached out to the Times about finding other cosplayers in the area and learned that Tanzey had been profiled for her cosplay hobby when she graduated from Francis Scott Key High School in 2018.
Tanzey and Birger met at the Four State Comic Con in Hagerstown in March.
“I went there just to meet her,” Birger said in an interview, “And now we’re besties.”
Tanzey had come to Birger’s home wearing her own cosplay work to show off — Ciri, a character from “The Witcher” video game. The outfit consisted of leather boots and pants, a breezy white cotton shirt and one very large sword.
“This is PVC insulation foam. People use it to insulate their houses, but you can also turn it into a big sword if you feel like,” Tanzey says, and then points to her “leather” corset. “These are EVA floor mats — I painted them, used a Dremel to sand them down, puffy paint to create some layers and a Dremel to create some indents.”
This use of common items plus the application of sometimes elaborate crafting and modifications is something both women share, as is the use of the Dremel — Birger’s husband even built her a special box with built-in gloves and ventilation so that she can sand foam without getting dust everywhere. But getting her hands dirty was really the beginning of her cosplaying.
“For me it’s about building and creating and making new things, it’s a form of art work and expression I suppose,” Birger said. “Everything that I have done so far has had its own job in teaching me something.”
Lady Thor taught her foam carving, and the Dr. Robotnik costume was a chance to perfect her sewing. But Birger’s next project, a character named Pride, from the video game “Darksiders III,” will push her skills to the next level.
“It’s going to be bananas,” she said. “It’s going to have big chest armor and giant wings, each feather will have lights in it.”
The plan, Birger says, is to enter the Pride cosplay in the New York Comic Con contest in the fall.
“You’re going to kill any competition you enter with this thing,” Tanzey adds.
Competition is part of what cosplaying is about — for some people.
For others, it’s just about running around in a backyard and pretending to be someone else, according to Tanzey.
“I think that is very subjective and everybody has a different angle,” she says. “For example I have a friend who cosplays purely for fun, she just does it to hang out with her friends. But I have an end goal of being able to turn something that I love to do into something that supports me back.”
But the craft — and sharing it — is its own kind of reward. Tanzey loves the intellectual challenge of, for instance, creating a form sword that looks like metal and is longer than she is. Birger loves the opportunity to share months of work done alone in her attic with other enthusiasts.
“I don’t dress up for Halloween because I feel like it’s not getting the appreciation you would at a convention where you see other creators, true artists, who get to see all the work that’s gone into it,” Birger says. Though she is quick to note she loves to field questions from the interested public, too.
“I love walking through Baltimore from the parking garage to the convention in full getup, and to see people not expecting to see some character walking through the streets of Baltimore,” Birger says. “I think it’s a really good launching pad for further conversations.”
She loves talking with people about each costume and character, sharing her fandom for the latter and her hard work on the former.
But both Tanzey and Birger note it’s important to keep in mind that cosplayers are human beings too underneath the makeup, pleather and foam — that there is cosplay interaction etiquette.
“There is a saying, ‘Cosplay is not consent,’ ” Tanzey says. “It’s easy to get excited about seeing your favorite character, but you should definitely ask permission before you take a picture of somebody, before you run up and interact with them.”
That goes doubly for some cosplays that are more revealing than others — video game and anime characters are often overly theatrical and exaggerate everything from shoulder armor to sexy cuts in tactical gear.
“No matter what someone is wearing, it doesn’t give you permission to act a certain way,” Tanzey says. “Just because somebody is wearing a revealing costume doesn’t mean you should change the way you interact with the, the way you interact with any other human.”
But while there can be toxic individuals here and there in any social situation, Birger and Tanzey both say they have found the cosplay community incredibly positive, an experience they hope they can model and share with others in the area.
“We’re both 10, 12 years apart, but it doesn’t matter because we can be friends because we have this similar hobby,” Tanzey says. “It doesn’t matter your age group or your interests outside of cosplay — it brings people together in one united nerd nation, and it’s really fun to see everybody come together.”
“Let’s do it, Westminster,” Birger adds. “We’re going to own it.”