I arrived at the hotel at 8 a.m., a half-hour early in July weather that already was getting sticky.
My luck and planning bore out so far on this Friday the 13th. I had traveled 129 miles from my Connecticut home to reach the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A route opposite the New York-bound traffic on I-95, and ahead of the Hartford rush hour on I-91, however, assured a smooth ride.
I’d need the extra time, as I was only halfway dressed for my assignment that day: Wearing my Captain Nemo outfit as a model for the New England Camera Club Council’s 73rd conference. Prepare to pose!
How did I end up here? By sticking out in a crowd, of course.
Walking around the Connecticut Renaissance Faire last year in my Nemo outfit, I was approached by Tom, a photographer.
A few months later, I did a full shoot for him, and then that turned into this July conference of pro and amateur photographers sharing best practices and shooting, shooting, shooting.
And it was fun! So much fun that I stayed a few extra hours. I spent the morning greeting conference participants and posing for photos in the hotel lobby, and posed for a class. Then I found out about a full studio shoot – lights, backdrops, and all – with a bunch of cosplay models also on site, and was compelled to stay overtime for that.
Am I a cosplayer?
I felt privileged to be considered a part of this. I stumbled into cosplay through buying outfits for renaissance faires and seeking a new challenge for a Halloween costume! And, really, Nemo and Thor are the only intentioned characters I put an outfit together for. These men and women came with multiple looks, and they were so on point. They live this life!
I think Nemo stood up well next to their many elaborate outfits, and I’m happy about that.
And to trade Instagrams and hashtags and dip my toes into that large world, especially for black people, because we still have to jockey for equitable space.
I just don’t think I’m a for-real-for-real cosplayer, living the lifestyle, attending cons – not yet, anyway.
Spending a day as Captain Nemo, in particular, was super rewarding for the “Two Americas” reactions to it.
For me, Nemo isn’t just a grand and exotic look.
Nemo, in Jules Verne’s original books and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, is Prince Dakkar, a Sikh Indian who renounces his royal name and wars against the British Empire that colonized his country and people.
To me, he’s a figure of resistance and rebellion against white supremacy, doing his own version of by-any-means-necessary, with flair and technological brilliance.
I derive some joy from explaining Nemo as such to people, nearly all of them white, who only remember James Mason in the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
However, I make even more fun when other people of color see the outfit. Hanging in the lobby, a couple of black passersby came over to ask about my outfit and dapped me up.
Even if they don’t know who it is, people of color pick up something rebellious and dignified about it. Something about it not being European, worn by a black man, recalling the pride in historical figures such as Haile Selassie, Hannibal, Tariq ibn Ziyad, Saladin, or the kingdoms of Nubia and Dahomey. History downplayed, disregarded and discarded under the racist order of the modern West.
The best reaction I ever got with Nemo was one Halloween, at a liquor store. A young man, who was of Indian descent, from behind the counter looked at my outfit and said, “Your clothes are Indian. Like what the old kings used to wear.”
That meant I was doing this right. I didn’t want it to be just a “costume.” These are clothes.
Appearing as a model, I also noticed some other reactions to me and my getup. Some of the female photographers attending said they were happy to shoot more men. Having more men modeling counteracted the prevalent men-staring-at-pretty-women dynamic, I could see.
Now the women got to take a gander? A couple of them called me handsome. Another jokingly called me her “toyboy.”
Maybe they were just puffing me up. Maybe not. Maybe they were just non-creepily appreciating a handsome young man to look at and shoot pictures of. Maybe not. But I sold “look at me” in whatever form worked.
Standing there in my Captain Nemo outfit of sea green coat and golden turban, I had to project that I looked amazing beyond all this mess I have on.
I had to know it, I had to feel it.
I had to sell that to the photographers and through the camera.
Even so, I’m still not really used to being looked at in that way. As a subject, as aesthetically appealing, perhaps even as a subject of beauty.
As I contorted my body and face to hold poses and create moments, the photographers – often 10 or more at a time – felt probative with their lenses, moving around and giving commands for how I could become what they saw in me. It was a whole other level of being looked at, or even dealing with one photographer instead of a dozen all at once.
It was a lot of being looked at! I sing in front of crowds and don’t feel that much looked at as I did in that shoot.
Over the years, I’ve had to reconfigure my mind as someone who is acknowledged as being nice to look at.
Not just nerd-world nice, but regular nice. I’ve been insecure about my face for much of my life, for example. So round, with a middling jawline and a high forehead, with large ears that have thick lobes.
But just because I don’t see myself as some idealized kind of mass-market handsome doesn’t mean I can’t accept what others see and amalgamate those responses into the more accurate picture, right? Eventually you have to believe it if enough of the right people keep saying it, right?
Part of this reconfiguring-growth also is about coming into my looks as they are now, in my late 30s and inhabiting my prime adult body and bearing. My beard, my shaved head and hair loss. And a thick and muscular body that carries 220 pounds but looks like 180.
I truly had to tackle this reckoning head-on a few years ago when I became a muse for my artist friend Anna, who said she had to paint my face. That all dovetailed with coming out of mourning after my father’s death four years ago. During that time, I tried to take stock of my life, what my father taught me, what he left behind in me.
Among those things my father left me, was his face. When he died, I truly saw how much of my face is like his face, especially with the beard.
In the NECCC shoot, I see my father’s face from when I was a boy. He had me when he was 37 going on 38. I’m that age now.
I like this face. I like it more than ever now, looking over these photos.
I wish he could see them.