In case you hadn't heard, Funko loves fans. Whatever you're passionate about, and however you express that passion, we're here for it. It's not very difficult to make an argument for cosplay as the pinnacle of fandom: seemingly ordinary women and men who spend their days—and nights—sewing, shaping, chiseling, gluing and weathering all in the name of pop culture glory—or simply to pay homage to their favorite fandoms and characters. Many cosplayers make this commitment while maintaining full-time careers, sacrificing weekends and vacation time to conventions and sewing marathons.

It seemed only fitting, as a brand that celebrates fandom above all, that we devote a blog series to these pop culture heroes, telling their stories, sharing their advice and tips and, above all, lauding their passion and creativity. So buckle up and get ready to be inspired.

Four years ago, Leah Stevo had minimal crafting experience and didn't even know what cosplay was. She was, however, a devoted gamer. It was her love for the characters and stories she played that drove her to develop the necessary skills to create stunning replicas of her favorite characters with an emphasis on out-of-this-world armor.

“There was one day during the summer when I was several hundred hours into Skyrim and I found myself wishing that I could have a set of Daedric Armor like my character in the game. It looked so badass, and how cool would it be to have something like that as part of my wardrobe? There's so many stunning armor sets and weapons in these games, I just constantly wished I could reach through the screen and take them all. Then I thought, ‘Well, Leah, there's nothing stopping you from logging out and trying to make this stuff yourself.”

Three months later Leah was wearing her very own set of homemade Daedric Armor at a local convention. Of course, a full set of Daedric Armor doesn't simply materialize out of thin air, more's the pity. Leah's very first cosplay involved dissecting and reassembling old yoga mats. In the years since, she's learned mold making, resin casting, Arduino programming, robotics, makeup and sewing, adding to her repertoire with each new project in part because she deliberately seeks out characters that will require her to learn something new.

Leah's also become skilled at incorporating dazzling special effects into her costumes. She's currently using Arduino boards and servos and stepper motors to animate future costumes. LED lights are a regular feature of most of her costumes—Leah describes herself as “a huge fan of having everything I wear light up like a Christmas tree”—and she likes to use a layer of translucent material such as a piece of milk jug, packing foam or toilet paper to diffuse the LEDs.

Ultimately, whatever skills she acquires, Leah never strays far from her gamer roots and her commitment to breathing life into the characters she loves to play.

“I think what separates cosplay from merely putting on a costume is having a passion for the character/franchise, and being able to represent that character's personality to the best of one's ability. I'm typically already obsessed with the characters I build, so to get into their heads a bit better before I suit up, I'll practice their facial expressions, blast the epic music from their respective games, anything to try and better understand the kind of person they are and why they carry themselves the way they do,” Leah said. “For example, when I cosplayed Elder Maxson from Fallout 4, I memorized all his lines from the game, including his dialogue and terminal entries. In trying to piece his character together, I ended up realizing Maxson was far more nuanced and complex than the game had revealed, and the process of trying to emulate him just made me appreciate his character even more.”

In the past four years, Leah has cosplayed as Urgot from League of Legends, a Pack raider from Fallout 4, Eris Morn from Destiny, Taric from League of Legends, Daedric Armor from Skyrim, Elder Maxson from Fallout 4 and Reaper from Overwatch. If it's not evident from this list, Leah adores the Fallout series and cites Paladin Danse from Fallout 4 as her all-time favorite character. Her dream cosplay is to create the commanding officer of the Brotherhood of Steel's giant suit of power armor but, despite her incredible past success at replicating complex armor pieces, Leah worries that she wouldn't be able to do justice to her favorite character. She also added a set of Corruptor Raiment from World of Warcraft to her to-do list, although she added that once it's done she's “probably going to wear it every day—to work, grocery shopping, going to the bank.”

Despite her doubts about a Paladin Danse cosplay, Leah's past work has earned her acclaim and awards on Instagram and the convention circuit. Perhaps the greatest testament to how far she's come is Urgot from League of Legends, a project that was years in the making.

“Star Guardian Urgot was my first pipe dream, ‘someday when I'm really good' cosplay that I buckled down and promised myself would happen no matter how long it took,” Leah explained. “Urgot is this notoriously unpopular, outcast character in League of Legends and the first champion I played in that game. Because younger me was bullied and rejected by many of my peers, his story and reputation just resonated with me. He deserved to become a Star Guardian.”

Leah began the years-long process of designing the costume in 2015, refining her concept until she was satisfied that it would work. The process of constructing the design took an additional nine months. Because the armor is so large and elaborate, she had to work with lightweight materials to ensure the finished costume would be mobile. The finished product was made from EVA foam, PVC piping, aluminum, more than 200 animated LEDs and 9,000 rhinestones. Unsurprisingly, the six legs posed something of a conundrum. Leah answered the challenge by building an enormous aluminum belt she could wear around her waist and attaching the legs to the belt so they flared around her waist like a hoop skirt. Each leg is removable and has an armature of jointed PVC pipe that connects into hip stockers around the belt on her waist and the feet are steel ball bearings, enabling her to move in any direction while wearing the piece.

Not all cosplays take years to bring together. While Leah typically commits to two "major" costumes per year, she often takes on smaller projects simultaneously. Her Pack raider costume from Fallout 4, for example, took just a week to come together and the thrown-together effect fit the character of a raider. While Leah does admit that's she sometimes wishes she could work faster, her love for the characters drives her to pursue perfection for every minute detail of her major costume builds. And if she did build faster, she'd just run out of storage space for the enormous costumes sooner.

In fact, transporting her gargantuan armor suits to and from conventions can be a logistics challenge as large as the costumes themselves, not to mention incredibly expensive. The New Mexico resident loves to visit local conventions where she praises the intense concentration of local talent, but also thrives on the excitement of larger conventions including San Diego Comic-Con, Anime Expo and, her very favorite, Dragon Con in Atlanta. Because of the significant shipping costs—which Leah said often exceed the cost of building the piece in the first place—she prefers to drive to conventions which can add a lot of time to her trips and take time from her actual job. She does dream of becoming a full-time professional cosplayer, and sees herself drawing closer to this goal as her skills grow and word of her workmanship spreads across the cosplay community.

Leah's Instgram handle is @leahstevoart and she regularly gets comments from fans that include sentiments like, “You continue to inspire not only myself but a whole bunch of the cosplay community as well,” “that display is beyond amazing,” “Best cosplay ever,” “You look so incredible, stunning, flawless, gorgeous, badass and super fancy at the same time,” “This is absolutely epic,” “This is the best thing I have ever seen” and “The most badass cosplay armor I've ever seen.”

And, as her skillset and portfolio grow, Leah would like to see the community grow as well, citing cosplay as “a very social activity.”

“The biggest misconception I see is that you have to have a specific physical appearance to be able to cosplay a character,” Leah said. “It breaks my heart when someone tells me they want to cosplay their favorite character, but they can't because they're female, or white, or short, or whatever. If you're a dead ringer for Ahri or Kratos or Piccolo, more power to you. But as artists, we have this immense power to bring these fictional beings to life in any way that we choose. As cosplayers, it's our responsibility to encourage and nurture that creativity. Whether it's a one-time thing or a career, cosplay should always be first and foremost about having fun and embracing these fandoms that bring us together.”

Leah's Cosplay Dictionary

EVA: Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate. It's essentially the squishy foam that comprises yoga mats, flip flops and floor mats. A very popular armor crafting material among cosplayers, and my material of choice!

CON PLAGUE/ CON CRUD: A blob of highly contagious illnesses that combines into Worst Voltron Ever and infects thousands of convention attendees every year. It's very real, and will spread through any and every convention you attend. Cosplayers are especially vulnerable due to the amount of people you'll come into contact with. When you go to a convention BE CAREFUL, shower daily, wash your hands, and don't lick any doorknobs.

ARDUINO (according to Wikipedia): Arduino is an open source computer hardware and software company, project and user community that designs and manufactures single-board microcontrollers and microcontroller kits for building digital devices and interactive objects that can sense and control objects in the physical and digital world.

Leah's Advice to First-Time Cosplayers

START. In terms of crafting, the hardest part of any project is starting. Don't ever be afraid to dive in and experiment. There are so many resources and tutorials available to cosplayers now that can help you along the way. It's important to remember that there is no ultimate apex of craftsmanship, it's an endless learning process for everyone. Failure is A HUGE, NECESSARY PART of cosplay, even more important than success. Every "failed" attempt at creating something nets you a ton of real-life XP towards gaining new skills. To me that acquisition of new skills is the ultimate reward.

GET EXCITED. I hear so many folks tell me that they wish they could cosplay, but they don't know who to cosplay or where to start. Cosplay starts and ends with having FUN! Pick a character or franchise you love, and GET EXCITED about your new quest to bring them to life! When you genuinely enjoy the character, it becomes so much easier and rewarding to create. No amount of skill or experience will never be able to replicate that passion.

BE SAFE. In terms of safety: If you're going to start building armor and props, the resins, plastics and glues that most cosplayers recommend are fantastic. They're also quite toxic, not only to humans but especially our pets! WORK OUTSIDE in a ventilated area, and invest in good quality gloves, safety goggles and respirator.