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Bang! Pow! Within the World of Black Cosplay.

AS ANYONE FAMILIAR with the legend of the world’s most jacked (and least clothed) cartoon character knows, He-Man’s go-to move is thrusting his broadsword in the air and transforming from the mild-mannered Prince Adam into a ripped dude in a loincloth. But when a fan-made He-Man tribute video hit the Internet in the summer of…

AS ANYONE FAMILIAR with the legend of the planet’s most jacked (and clothed) cartoon character understands, He-Man’s go-to move is thrusting his broadsword in the atmosphere and shifting in the mild-mannered Prince Adam into a ripped dude in a loincloth.

But every time a fan-made He-Man tribute video hit the Internet in the summer of 2019, that moment appeared a bit different. From the clip, our hero is still cutting through the skies with his sword, but his signature blonde bowl cut is replaced with a massive Afro. Since his bulging arm reaches upward, his blade and hair catching the morning light, he seems like he is raising a Black-power fist and harnessing the power of Grayskull in 1 swift motion.

This specific He-Man’s alter ego is Demetrius Holt, a 37-year-old single dad and electrician from Maryland. From the video, Holt’s joined by four friends playing with other Masters of the Universe characters: Richard Sutton as Man-at-Arms, Eric”the Smoke” Moran as Skeletor, Lynne Finley as She-Ra, and Wendell Smith as Orko. Filmed in Blerdcon, a Washington, D. C.–place tradition for Black nerds, or”blerds,” the movie is only 60 moments but shows exactly who gets the power. As a result of quick-cut shots of every character along with a techno mix featuring sound from the cartoon, it feels like a trailer for a new Masters of the Universe live-action movie with an all-Black cast.

Holt recalls being a bit cranky at the start of the shoot. He was on a strict diet to prepare for his portrayal of both He-Man, and his mind was on his next meal. It is the sort of impulse he used to survive for bodybuilding competitions, before he realized he could use his body to achieve a different kind of recognition. After filming began and people were stopping their cars to gawk or crying out affirmations as they walked , he was no longer thinking about his stomach. “At one point, we all kinda looked at each other like, Wow, this is something special,” he says.

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Since hitting on the Internet, the montage has racked up over a half thousand views, and the majority of the people commenting are all excited. “That afro is a thing of glory,” says one. “I’m soooo glad that MY PEOPLE are getting more recognized for their cosplay skills and creativity!!! LOVE IT!!!” Adds another. A third simply drops a hashtag: #Blackexcellence.

While Holt’s crew has ceased building during the ordeal, their effect is still reverberating. In late 2020, Holt and Sutton earned an invitation to talk about the enabling effects of cosplay (that is geek talk for the wide world of comics and/or pop-culture role-playing) at the AfroPunk festival, a nationwide and, this year, virtual celebration of the culture and music of the African diaspora. That’s exactly how Holt hopes his efforts will likely be noticed. “From my perspective, representation shows Black boys and girls that they can be more than what’s expected of them [by society],” he says.

demetrius holt
Holt in personality in Blerdcon in mid-2019.

Courtesy Nagier Chambers/Big Gold Belt Media

Cosplay might sound fringy until you find that the planet’s largest movie stars play with Avengers, that”Workout gear or Marvel costume?” Could be its own meme, which the”Wakanda forever” salute has come to be a sign of Black empowerment. The adults that take it to the next level by donning full pendants say that the act is an undeniably joyous pursuit. In fact, lots of emerging research shows that there might be an additional payoff from the symbolic association of cosplay, since people who dress up to look more powerful may carry that feeling with them to the rest of their lives.

For Black cosplayers, however, it can also be a kind of cultural expression and a reminder to toy producers, film studios, and notably people dealing with systemic racism in their own lives that heroes don’t come in one shade. “We’ve been underrepresented in media, in Hollywood, on TV, and certainly with our superheroes,” says Avalaura Gaither, L.G.S.W., a Maryland-based lifestyle coach. “We love having somebody to root for that looks like us, somebody we can relate to, somebody whose story is our story. It makes sense that we would want to take characters we love and adore–characters that represent how we see ourselves or how we want to see ourselves–and make those characters look more like us.”

at one point, we all kinda looked at each other like wow  this is something special

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Blerdcon began in 2017 and now attracts about 10,000 individuals annually. And tens of thousands more cosplayers are linking and expanding the world through Internet groups like POC Cosplayers, based on Jessica Green in 2009, as well as hashtags and viral moves. (See #Blackcosplayerhere, started by Belema Boyle, and #28DaysofBlackCosplay, created by Chaka Cumberbatch, which is celebrated during Black History Month.) They’ve all found their own way to enhance the world whilst feeling vital.

This vanguard contains Tyler Hoover, aka @Tstunningspidey, a Virginia Beach break-dancer who flips and thwips as Spider-Man (Peter Parker, not Miles Morales) for over 70,000 followers on Instagram, and Charles Nelson, an actor and fitness model at Houston that cosplays as Captain America in support of their #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Las Vegas, Hardy Woods, a limestone miner and Army veteran, embodies his own version of Cap and can be part of a Marvel-universe crew that visits extremely sick children who are hospitalized. (See “More Heroes of Their Own Stories,” slideshow below.)

masters of the universe characters
Holt poses with the remainder of his cosplay crew at Blerdcon.

Courtesy Harry Crosland (Masters of the Universe)

Holt’s own source story begins in the 1980s in southern Maryland. “I’ve been into comics since I was four,” he says. “My mom had a really big hand in that, and then my dad came in on the other side, with model kits and things like that–it’s all part of my DNA.” His elderly sisters pushed him deeper to fandom. “My brother was into Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and he passed that down to me, while my sister was trying her best to get me to understand who LL Cool J was, and I was gravitating toward X-Men and Spider-Man. This is the stuff that’s baked into my heart and mind.”

While he certainly discovered a dearth of characters who looked like him growing up, Holt claims that lack really hit him if he watched the enthusiasm about Black Panther prior to the film’s ancient -2018 release. “We had Meteor Man, we had Blankman,” he says, referring to 2 comedic portrayals of Black heroes. “But we didn’t have images that meant something, that we could get behind.”

Holt says he’d been considering cosplay since initial understanding that it was a thing, but he did not jump into it until 2017, when his three-year marriage was ending. He and his now ex-wife were competitive bodybuilders, and after one contest, Holt thought his show-ready physique resembled that of Kratos, the protagonist of the video game God of War. He’d always been “Halloween guy” having an interest in dressing up, but he eventually made the leap because he liked the concept of embodying the iconic antihero, then washing off the body paint and stepping right into a brand new, post-divorce period of life.

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He spent two months pulling together the costume, along with the consequent cosplay was a hit 2017’s Awesome Con, a massive pop-culture conference in D. C. (“These aren’t fake muscles, I don’t think?” Requested one aide in a video clip with that day. “No, no, that’s me,” he replied.)

He stuck with cosplay in part because his first outing made such a splash. “I’m a believer in’Go where you are encouraged,'” he states. He soon learned that small companies –those folks selling toys and decals and T-shirts at conventions–could pay him to dress up and market their wares at these occasions, which might cover the costs of what could be a expensive hobby.

He went on to test out other characters–such as Icon, who is often referred to as the Black Superman, and Khal Drogo–before deciding on his variant of He-Man, the protagonist of his favored’80s-era cartoon. Even though the Black cosplay community is known for being body positive, inclusive, and welcoming to characters of all shapes and sizes, Holt’s dream of being He-Man involved realistically mirroring those cartoonish muscles.

demetrius holt figurine
The action-figure version of Holt’s He-Man, which he received as a gift from Joe Amato Custom Creations.

Courtesy Demetrius Holt

Chasing that goal became an anchor as he discovered what it was like to live alone and share custody of his son, Kaua’i, two, who often cosplays with him. So he continued carb cycling, drinking at least a gallon of water per day, and hitting his two-and-a-half-hour workouts. But after all that rigorous training, the most important choice he made when creating the He-Man cosplay wasn’t which muscle group to work but what kind of wig to wear. “The Blackest thing you’ll be able to see is that an Afro,” he says. “It resonated; it was lightning in a jar.”

Holt’s eventual Man-at-Arms, Sutton, 31, had served in the Army and was working as a personal trainer and daycare provider in Maryland when they first crossed paths. The two met briefly at a 2018 cosplay photo shoot, but their friendship started after Sutton noticed Holt’s @hellspawned_cosplay Instagram account in June 2019. Sutton had already been cosplaying for a few years, as characters like Mal from the Teen Titans and Turk from Scrubs, and he credits cosplay for helping him kick-start his own fitness routine and serving as a good release from anxiety caused by PTSD from his time in the military. “As a trainer, I was telling others to eat healthier and be healthy, but if you asked me to take off my shirt at a swimming pool, I wasn’t comfortable,” Sutton says.

we didnt have images that meant something that we could get behind

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He and Holt bonded by talking trash online about each other’s fitness regimens. “I had started a diet plan where I cut carbs… and after three months of no carbohydrates, you get angry,” Sutton says. “I made a video and I said, ‘He-Man cosplay, I don’t know who you are, but you’re going down!’ And I tagged Demetrius.”

Soon the two were messaging each other, often publicly, and egging each other on. “He’d message me, ‘Oh, you’re sleeping? You ain’t grinding!’ I would need to jump up, go to the gym, and respond. ‘I stay in the gym! I’m here all day!’ Our friendship was constructed off that animosity,” says Sutton, who eventually dropped 40 pounds.

They also realized they had a friend in common: Moran, a former pro wrestler and retired Marine who lives in Philadelphia and says cosplay helped him deal with his own PTSD-related anxiety.

Moran, 51, is a leader within the cosplay world, having played hundreds of characters over the past three-plus decades. He invited Holt, Sutton, and several other cosplayers from around the country to one of his annual “SmokeCon” meetups, which led to the creation of the full team. “I’m at a sea of people, where before I was in the sandbox with myself,” Moran says.

But even at a time when Black cosplayers are growing in number and finding it easier to discover kinship in the community, the camaraderie is special.

“It was amazing that when I dropped He-Man, Richard decided he wanted to get in shape and be Man-at-Arms, and Eric, that has been in the community for decades, decided to join in,” Holt says. “We were our own unit, and we saw that, and then we started seeing more cosplay groups pop up in precisely the identical manner we did.”

the blackest thing you can see is an afro it resonated it was lightning in a bottle

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Holt has around 12,000 Instagram followers, sells apparel bearing his likeness, and shares pictures that are circulated on Reddit and elsewhere online. One custom-toy maker sells reimagined Funko Pop figures modeled after him. Though he’s increasingly visible, he maintains that overall change isn’t coming fast enough. Holt tags Mattel and Netflix in his content so the companies can see how much attention posts featuring Black superheroes receive.

Part of the urgency: He views fighting for inclusion of Black faces in all spaces as part of his job as a dad. Cosplay has become a fun father-son hobby for the two of them. Holt loves sourcing tiny costumes and staging photo shoots with Kaua’i, but he sees it as being deeper than a good time. “If I don’t make everyone feel comfortable viewing us, I feel like I haven’t done my job to make the world safer for my son”

Still, he had some doubts about showing up in costume at the AfroPunk event. “It’s not like I’ve been at the gym all due to Covid,” he said beforehand. In the end, he went shirtless, just to make sure he had everyone’s attention–and talked about the need for a “proliferation” of positive Black voices and role models. He and Sutton shared the spotlight, in hopes that more people could learn from their experience.

“You begin to figure out who you are, you understand these personalities, you would like to be like them,” Sutton told the audience. “And you eventually learn the sole hero you need to be is that you.”

This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Men’s Health.

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