Sometimes, all it takes is a little scruff for a cosplay to take on a life of its own.
Cecil Garner, 46, of Melbourne, Florida spent 16 years as a mortgage banker, but it was a fateful decision to stop shaving that charted a new career path, one that has taken him all over the world in the past three-and-a-half years, to meet mobs of fans who want nothing more than a photo with him in character as Sheriff Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead.
Garner, who cosplays as "Cecil Grimes," appeared at MegaCon Tampa Bay Sept. 21-23 as a featured guest, complete with a massive diorama of Alexandria, the last hope for refuge in a zombie-ravaged world, as he embarks on what he expects will be his last two years as Sheriff Rick.
Not too bad for a guy who barely watched the show during its early seasons.
“I caught the first two episodes of The Walking Dead, but with my schedule, and the hours I worked, it was kind of hard for me to continue on with the show. I wasn’t watching any TV,” he said during a phone interview. “So, about the end of Season Three when I started growing out my facial hair for Mustache November, that’s when I couldn’t go anywhere without people saying, ‘You look just like that guy from The Walking Dead,' and that’s when I started catching up on the show to see what people were talking about.”
When Garner first dipped his toe in the convention waters in 2015, he didn’t have much experience navigating a shoulder-to-shoulder-packed space. He started small, throwing together a costume — polyester sheriff’s shirt and a gun holster — for appearances at Walker Stalker Con in Orlando and the Brevard Zombie Walk. Then he went to MegaCon in Orlando, debuting a new outfit, Prison Rick, from the hit show’s third and fourth seasons, and suddenly, he knew his life might change.
“That’s really what laid the base for me pursuing, as Rick, full-time. The response was just enormous, and I was thinking, ‘Well, this is just a wardrobe.’ I didn’t have to build — it didn’t take me six months to put this together,” he said. “I felt very honored and humbled that people were just so ecstatic and happy. The first time somebody turned around, their eyes would get huge and they would come over and they wanted a picture. It was just, really, an amazing experience.”
Still, Garner said he didn’t see the resemblance to Andrew Lincoln, the British actor who has played Rick Grimes for nine years on the AMC horror series — until he finally met Lincoln in person, in Atlanta, home to the original Walker Stalker Con.
“Until I did, I had no idea. I was right nose to nose with him. Obviously, our noses are different, but the eyes and the forehead was so, so similar. He looked at me, he said, (mimicking a British accent), ‘Oh, that’s so weird,’” Garner recalled. “When he said that, I got a little lightheaded because it’s like looking at a, my eyes and his eyes, it was like looking in a mirror. And then he moved and I didn’t, and it made me dizzy for a moment. That’s how weird it was. I had no idea. I had no idea myself. I was just happy to make people smile, and they thought I looked like him.”
After he won a Rick Grimes lookalike contest, Garner said he began getting invites from other conventions, all across the globe, to appear in character. That’s when he realized how little some cosplayers might do.
“When a cosplayer goes to a convention, they… sit behind a table and they sell pictures of all their different cosplays. I’m really not one to sit. That would drive me crazy, on top of the fact, I’m kind of a one-hit wonder. I’ve done other cosplays, but nothing to be a big draw,” he said. “I was like, OK, how am I going to do this? I said, well, I’ll bring some props then and then we’ll do selfies together.”
That idea led to another: “I was like, why don’t I do something like a backdrop?”
Garner spent seven days inside his Florida home constructing from scratch a 10-by-20-foot diorama modeled after the prison, complete with a sliding gate and a gun turret tower.
He went a step further, giving a new name to his approach — ‘set play.’
At the time, he was the only cosplayer he knew going to such lengths to give fans an immersive experience. In three years, however, ‘set play’ has become the new normal for fan conventions around the world. In Atlanta this year, there will be seven separate booths with full-scale models and props, all dedicated to different iconic Walking Dead moments. In Italy, he said, cosplayers have expanded on his concept to incorporate performance art and full-scale theater troupes performing original plays based on the show.
All of which is very humbling to the former banker.
Garner always knew he was living on borrowed time, but now he’s certain his cosplay life has an expiration date. The ninth season of The Walking Dead will be Lincoln’s last, following an announcement this summer. Garner suspects he has maybe two years remaining to get his Grimes face on, what with his international bookings and scheduled stateside appearances already on the calendar. Then he plans to pursue acting full-time and also try his hand at producing a project for film or TV.
Whatever happens from here, though, he will always remember the joy that he brought to strangers everywhere he went. And, he can finally shave.
“I don’t know what my face looks like anymore,” he said, laughing. “It’s been so long.”
A date with Death & Co.
“Just enjoy your near-Death experience,” Roy Winters said, chuckling, as he saddled up next to his companions, Heather Winters (Plague the Dragon) and Danielle Rivera (Death Knight), before chatting with The Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Winters, of Ruskin, said he wanted “something to show the souls of cons and Ren Faires past,” which is why he commissioned Dawn’s Leather Treasures of Spring Hill to make his elaborate black cloak, which featured tortured faces pushing through the fabric.
For Steve Fowler of Palm Harbor, the decision to portray The Black Knight at MegaCon Tampa Bay was highly personal. His best friend, Jon Bateman, who died in February 2016, was British and a loyal Python devotee. Fowler said Saturday, the day he wore his outfit, would have been Bateman’s 50th birthday.
The Walking Dunham Dead
At first sight, it was hard to know what to make of Jennifer Pohlers’ high-concept cosplay. Upon closer inspection, though, her execution was nearly flawless.
Pohlers, of Ocala, who was waiting to have her photo taken with Jeffrey Dean Morgan — the villainous Negan on The Walking Dead — said she decided to do a mashup of Darryl Dixon from the show with four of ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham’s most popular puppets.
Wearing the prison dress given to Dixon by Negan to wear in solitary confinement, she repurposed a large headpiece into Achmed the Terrorist. In her right hand, she held a zombified version of José Jalapeño on a Stick. On top of José’s head was a miniature Peanut dressed as Sheriff Rick Grimes. And in her left arm, she cradled a Walter doll dressed as Negan, complete with a black hairpiece and barbed-wire bat.
When asked what she hoped Morgan’s reaction would be, she said, simply, “I hope he just laughs.”
Kraven' some cosplay
Sometimes a great cosplay isn’t based solely on the outfit chosen, but the inspiration. As Kraven the Hunter, a founding member of the Sinister Six and one of Spider-Man’s most iconic, if little recognized, foes, Chris Gobbi had to keep stopping for photos with fans.
Gobbi, 56, of Tampa, said he had only procured the outfit the day before from a friend who helped hem the printed tights and modified the lion T-shirt and tufts of fur. Almost immediately, the cord in the pants broke, but Gobbi was undeterred.
“It kind of validates my ability to want to be unique,” he said, just prior to lassoing the neck of another cosplayer in full Spider-Man regalia, “and showcase a villain who is not showcased very much.”
Defending the con
It was about a month ago that Ben Johnson and Andrew Salcedo, both of Tampa, met in person at a local NerdBrew event, when they decided to team up for MegaCon Tampa Bay.
Johnson, 41, chose Luke Cage. His 10-year-old son Jacob donned the iconic yellow-and-green costume of Danny Rand, aka the immortal Iron Fist. And Salcedo, 28, a doppelganger for actor Charlie Cox (Netflix’s Daredevil), decided to portray the Devil from Hell's Kitchen’s alter-ego, lawyer Matt Murdock.
Together, they represented three-fourths of Marvel’s The Defenders (minus Jessica Jones).
“He inspired it,” Johnson said, pointing at Salcedo, who mimicked legally blind Murdock as he wandered over, tapping his way with a cane.
A golden lasso and...Duct tape?
Sometimes, even an Amazonian goddess needs some assistance.
That’s what led 18-year-old Sarah Anchor of Orlando to the Cospital during Saturday’s packed convention after she fabricated a chestplate, belt and skirt out of duct tape to emulate Wonder Woman.
Anchor said she was inspired to make her costume after watching a YouTube instructional video. But, after just 90 minutes at the convention, Anchor said a portion of her outfit began to tear and rip.
Enter Jamie Kruger, 41, who co-founded Cospital, a tip-based cosplay repair company that set up shop in a small room at the Tampa Convention Center. Cospital, which Kruger said he is in the process of trademarking, offered multiple stations replete with scissors, glue guns, replacement batteries, a sewing station, dozens of rolls of different-colored tape, paint and more.
“We see the need,” Kruger said, explaining this is the fifth year he has offered the free service. “We like helping people. We like the sense of community. Getting older, it’s nice to have the con come to us.”
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at bloodviolenceandbabes.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.