Jason Aulicino (@nerd_alert_cosplay) considers cosplay the greatest display of fandom.
“When you love a character so much, the best way to honor that character is to try to recreate it and actually become them,” he explained.
He also considers cosplay an art form, an opinion few could dispute after seeing the suits of armor painstakingly assembled by hand, one piece of foam at a time, on his Instagram feed. For a long time, Aulicino satisfied his drive to create by building elaborate Halloween costumes that required months to prepare. One year he constructed an X-Men-themed costume and managed to summon the courage to wear his costume to a convention that occurred shortly thereafter. The response was encouraging so Aulicino decided to turn his passion into a hobby. And now he gets to celebrate Halloween all year ‘round.
“Cosplay is a unique form of art. Unlike most forms of art, you spend so much time building your craft with your hands, and then you get to BECOME your art and bring it to life. It combines fabrication, fantasy, escapism and acting all into one thing,” Aulicino gushed. “It's also the greatest form of fandom and tribute. When you love a character so much, the best way to honor that character is to try to re-create it and actually become them.”
But developing the skills to assemble elaborate pieces of armor didn't happen overnight. Today, there are countless resources available to first-time cosplayers trying to find their footing. Eight years ago, that wasn't the case. Aulicino had to rely on trial and error, and when you're a first-time cosplayer with grand ambitions, there's no getting around the fact that there will be errors. In the early days, Aulicino drew his designs onto fabric with a Sharpie producing results that were dissatisfying to the cosplayer who values accuracy above all else.
Then Aulicino discovered EVA foam and everything started coming together. “Discovering foam as a material really changed my craft,” he acknowledged. “The first time I used it, I glued a single piece of foam to the shoulders. And when I saw how great that looked, I was eager to incorporate more and more foam all over the costume.”
Years and countless cosplay builds later, Aulicino has a much more refined process in place. The cosplayer starts with a paper template which he transfers to EVA foam. He then glues the foam pieces together with contact cement, seals on the foam with a spray-on rubber or coats the foam in layers of industrial white glue. When everything's in place, he paints and air bushes the piece. As a final step to bring a realistic touch to his armor, Aulicino adds a distressed effect to account for battle and weather damage. For larger projects, the process can take upwards of six months although smaller projects can be accomplished in one to two months.
Despite mastering EVA foam, there are some standard cosplay materials and skills that continue to elude the foamsmith including LEDs and upholstery foam. In terms of inspiration, Aulicino relies on his passion for the ‘80s and ‘90s television shows and movies he grew up watching with an emphasis on X-Men, Power Rangers, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Voltron. Capturing the comic book and cartoon aesthetic became a challenge that drives the foamsmith's art.
“It was a great form of escape,” Aulicino said of the X-Men comics and cartoons. “I love the idea of taking a drawing from a book and figuring out how to give it a three-dimensional look and feel. Sometimes things don't translate so easily and that makes it so interesting.”
One of Aulicino's most popular and recognizable projects is his Lord Zedd, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' first American-made villain. The costume was a four-month build made entirely from Aulicino's material of choice: EVA foam. To construct Lord Zedd's extensively muscular form, Aulicino used patterned foam scored with a wood burner and sealed in dark red Plasti Dip®. The muscles were airbrushed to create added depth. For the chrome portions of the costume, Aulicino used his standard foam building thick layers of enamel spray paint and wet sanding them down for a smooth surface. The wet sanding process involves using fine sand paper under a running faucet. He repeated this process multiple times. The chrome finish was achieved by spraying the foam with a glossy black paint and lightly spraying with mirror chrome paint from Spaz Stix. The helmet made Aulicino particularly nervous and he briefly toyed with the idea of commissioning the piece from a manufacturer. In the end, he decided that it was important that he made the helmet himself and he acknowledges that he's pleased with the results.
But what prompted him to invest such time and painstaking care to a suit of armor inspired by a children's television villain who made his debut more than 20 years ago?
“One of the biggest influences on my childhood was Power Rangers. I would race home after school each day to make sure I didn't miss a single episode. There was nothing else like it on TV. I remember being obsessed with the toys and begging my parents to take me to the toy store to track them all down. One of my most formative memories was during the peak of the Power Rangers' popularity, they aired the season premiere of the third season during primetime on a Saturday night. This was unheard of for a kids' show,” Aulicino recalled. “This was the episode that Lord Zedd debuted and everything we knew about the series changed on that day. There were new characters, new sets, new zords and, most importantly, a new main villain. I was always a fan of intimidating villains like Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the world had never seen anything like Zedd before. From the metal eco-skeleton to the exposed flesh to the fluid-filled tubes running over his body, he was instantly iconic. Looking back now, he was even more important than anyone could have imagined, because after years of recycling footage from Japan, Lord Zedd was the first original creation by the US-based production company. Also, fun fact: He was so scary to kids at the time that angry parents forced the producers to tone him down, which resulted in him becoming more comic and bumbling in the later episodes.”
But eight years, countless builds and a lot of foam later, there were still some cosplay firsts awaiting Aulicino thanks to the McVengers. The foamsmith happened to know Brandon Isaacson from attending the same local conventions and when he saw how much fun the McVengers were having together, he decided he wanted in. Aulicino was surprised to discover that the group didn't yet have an Iron Man and Taco Bell happened to be his favorite guilty pleasure fast food so the idea for Iron Taco was born. At the time, Aulicino was focused on building his Lord Zedd costume and he was strapped for time but he had promised the McVengers he'd have a costume ready in time for the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con. So, he built a placeholder Iron Taco costume comprised of mostly store-bought items that he repainted and Taco Bell logo stickers available on eBay. In time, Aulicino plans to improve the costume, incorporating additional armor pieces until—fingers crossed—he has a full head-to-toe pink and purple set of armor.
Before joining the McVengers, Aulicino hadn't done much in the way of group cosplays in part because most of his close friends weren't cosplayers. As he developed friendships within the cosplay community, he had a hard time finding people who loved the same fandoms. So, the experience of cosplaying with a group of people whose costumes were rich with superhero and fast food references was an unexpected delight. Iron Taco also represents the foamsmith's first mashup, which is a major departure for Aulicino.
“The funny thing is, I got into cosplay because I was fascinated and obsessed with replication,” he explained. “I always wanted to create visually accurate items that looked exactly like the comic book or the show. Doing a mashup is a little odd for me because it involves breaking the rules of accuracy and using your imagination to fill in the gaps and come up with something brand new.”
Besides building out his Iron Taco armor, what's next on the foamsmith's agenda? A Power Rangers Dragonzord costume has been at the top of Aulicino's list since he started cosplaying but the amount of work and time required to complete a build of that magnitude has so far prevented him from getting started. Given the ambition, quality and breadth of his previous builds, it's likely only a matter of time before Dragonzord finds himself stomping across the shiny floors of convention halls.
Jason's Cosplay Dictionary
Foamsmith: Someone who builds armor out of foam.
Con Crunch: That stress you feel for weeks before a convention when you know you are behind schedule.
Crossplay: When someone dresses as a character of the opposite gender
Simpsons did it!: What cosplayers say when they come up with a costume idea and realize it's already been done to perfection by someone they know.
Jason's Advice to First-Time Cosplayers
Watch lots of YouTube videos, invest in some good tools and don't forget to stop and pay attention to proportions.