The Incredible Panda Express isn't your average cuddly bear. For one thing, most bears have a physique that could best be described as rotund whereas The Incredible Panda Express has abs that would make Jason Momoa green with envy. For another thing, he's got a vicious set of fangs, the better to chew bamboo and orange chicken with. But somehow that doesn't stop young kids at comic conventions from running up to the McVenger eager for a big bear hug.
“I guess my demographic is little kids, 8- to 10-year-olds,” laughed Marion Dreo (@doccanecosplay) who cosplays as The Incredible Panda Express and personally sculpted each and every one of the character's equally incredible abdominal muscles. In five years of cosplaying, Dreo had never made a muscle suit. Then he bumped into Brandon Isaacson—better known as McThor—at a convention and Dreo knew it was time to McVenger up. The McVengers didn't yet have a Hulk so Dreo started hunting for a fast food brand that would pair well with the mean, green villain-fighting machine. Dreo settled on Panda Express in part because he loves orange chicken and in part to represent his Asian heritage. But building a buffed out Panda with the Hulk's rage issues wouldn't be easy.
To start with, pandas are generally just too cute for their own good. There were plenty of costume panda heads available in stores but Dreo didn't want a happy panda. “I just thought ‘this is not going to be right if I make a happy panda,'” Dreo recalled. “I had to make a head that looked like he was about to eat somebody.” So he Googled “angry panda” and used the search results as inspiration, designing sharp teeth and using his 3D printer to produce massive claws. He briefly considered throwing blood on the costume to suggest the panda has recently been involved in some sort of massacre or violence but ultimately decided that might terrify children.
“I finally realized I couldn't add anything more to this. This is pretty much what the Hulk is, this thing with pants on and he's angry,” said Dreo. “It's angry cartoon-y though.” Of course, there's more to the Hulk than rage; there's also the muscles that make the Hulk's rage so formidable and figuring out how to make a muscle shirt that would showcase those muscles took about six months of experimentation.
“That was a whole learning process because I've never done that before,” Dreo admitted. “Making a muscle suit is a thing. The ripped part of it can look really stupid if you're not doing it correctly. You've got to individually glue each of the pecs and abs to these suits. I watched a bunch of tutorials on muscle suits and Hulk suits.”
Even with the tutorials, Dreo found himself remaking the chest over and over trying to get the proportions on the muscles just right. Too big and he insists he looked “like a mutant.” So he just kept shaping muscles and covering them with fur until he'd finally gotten it exactly right. That tenacity, the willingness to keep experimenting until something worked, is a quality that has served Dreo well in his five years as a cosplayer.
“I think my skill is being resourceful with the stuff I have at home,” Dreo explained. “I know a lot of people just make one thing, maybe just make armor. I'm always making something different, trying something new. The skill of being resourceful is a skill that you need to make something look alive.”
Before he was carving abdominal muscles and pectorals into panda costumes, Dreo was the community manager for Borderlands, a fandom with a number of talented cosplayers. Dreo would look at photos of their cosplays, admiring their work and wishing he could take part. He was already that guy whose Halloween costume was a little bit crazier than everyone else's so he had the passion even if he lacked the know-how. Finally, Dreo decided to take the plunge.
“I decided to make Deathtrap from Borderlands. That was the first time I made a costume that wasn't for Halloween,” Dreo said. “It was a lot of cardboard. It was a hot mess. But people liked it.
Dreo is drawn to robotic characters that require massive quantities of PVC to build. But working with PVC wasn't enough so Dreo bought a sewing machine and learned to sew, even if the learning curve was steep. He still hates sewing, citing the tediousness of the act due to the fact that “there's just no way to speed up the process.” He learned to work with foam, discovering how to make clean cuts into foam and which glues worked best with the material. Sometimes something as seemingly simple as determining which glue to use for a project requires research followed by trial and error. That's where that resourcefulness comes in handy.
For the most part, Dreo's materials and skills are driven by the fandoms and characters he loves. His absolutely favorite fandom is Rick and Morty, which won't surprise anyone who follows him on Instagram. So far he's cosplayed as Morty, Squirrel Morty, Scary Terry, Rick's spaceship, Snowball from the day Snuffles overthrew his human overlords and Pickle Rick. If Dreo wants to build a cosplay around a character he dives right in, so he doesn't exactly have dream cosplays that have been lurking in his brain. But the Pickle Rick costume he made within a month of the episode airing was a pretty big cosplay moment for him.
But if Dreo has a showstopper, it's Snowball, Morty's pet dog who revolts against his human overlords in an epic and highly quotable episode titled Lawnmower Dog. Making the costume, which is part robot and part cuddly stuffed animal, was a challenging feat of engineering. Dreo started by sketching his ideas into Microsoft Paint—one figure for himself and imposing a robotic dog over the figure. He then used PVC pipes to build the frame, joints to ensure the legs actually move, wiffle balls at the kneecaps, shotglasses on the top of Snowball's helmet and wheels on the feet to keep the costume mobile. Finding the stuffed Snowball was actually the most challenging aspect for Dreo who finally bought the dog on ebay before pinning, velcroing and otherwise finagling the dog into place.
“You don't want to know what this dog has been through,” Dreo said with a laugh.
When Dreo isn't working on Rick and Morty costumes, there's a good chance the San Francisco resident is attempting to infiltrate local stadiums to combine his love of cosplay and his favorite teams. “I follow sports. I'm really into the Warriors and the Giants,” Dreo said. “I also made a Warriors Boba Fett costume. I try to pop into the games in the outfit when they let me. Sometimes the security at these events just don't understand why I'm in costume and security just doesn't let me in sometimes.”
Issues with event security aside, Dreo's fully committed to embracing his favorite characters and incorporates his recent training and experience as a voiceover actor into his cosplay. He makes a point of memorizing each character's best lines—Scary Terry being one of his favorite characters to quote—all with the goal of making people laugh.
Dreo acknowledges that, if you really think about everything that goes into cosplaying as a hobby, it sounds kind of crazy. In addition to making costumes for himself, Dreo accepts commission work, which always takes priority over his own projects. Finding time for everything he wants to make is all but impossible. And, contrary to popular belief, building a cosplay usually costs more than buying a ready-made costume.
“I just wish we had more time for everything. Making a good costume takes time and we want to move on to the next thing,” Dreo lamented. “Things cost money. You can be creative but you're pretty much buying that many Halloween costumes for yourself every year. Does this make sense for your life, spending all this money and using up all this time?”
Obviously, Dreo thinks the answer is yes, the investment of time, energy and money is well worth the joy and camaraderie he derives from the experience.
“I think it's worth it. It's a whole lot of fun. You make friends,” Dreo concluded. “I highly recommend that anybody who has this creative itch should try it because I think there are a lot of people who really want to but don't want to take the leap,” Dreo encouraged. “It's just like being a kid again. Cosplay is good for your life and soul.”
Marion's Advice to First-Time Cosplayers
Everybody waits till the last minute to finish their costumes and you've gotta give it some time. You've gotta finish it at least a week before and then walk around in it. Jump in it. See what falls off. Test that thing. Give yourself time to test things out. Then you can just have fun without worrying about that stuff.
Just make the stuff you want to make. It's so much fun because you have complete control of what you want to do, up to your skill level. You have to start somewhere. Most of the time it's going to look like a hot mess when you start out.