When Kelly Tenzyk makes an appearance as Zatanna, magic happens.
Small children wonder if DC Comics’ mistress of the mystic arts will suspend time or darken skies. Adults might admire the sorceress’ abbreviated, form-fitting black tuxedo costume, complete with fishnet stockings, long black tresses and top hat.
If Tenzyk is in the mood for Ms. Marvel, Marvel Comics’ blond powerhouse, civilians will meet a masked woman with a yellow lightning bolt streaked across a black body suit, a long red sash tied around the hips.
If classic movie actor Lon Chaney was the “Man of 1,000 Faces,” Tenzyk is “Queen of the Cosplayers” in the Capital Region. The 35-year-old East Greenbush resident, a secretary for the New York State Comptroller’s Office, dabbles in “cosplay.”
The word is short for costume play, and the hobby is more than just buying a Superman T-shirt and rummaging around for a red bath towel “cape.” Outfits from comics, fantasy and anime worlds are often meticulous re-creations of character clothing. Attention to detail is part of the challenge, and Tenzyk takes weeks to sew her clothing and choose proper accessories such as wigs, shoes and contact lenses.
“I’m kind of an extrovert anyway, so it’s all flying around out there,” said Tenzyk, a 5-foot-6 redhead who grew up in Albany. “I like the fact that you’re wearing your interest on the outside. You can walk around someplace and immediately somebody’s going to be like, ‘Well, clearly this chick loves Black Canary. I want to talk to her about Black Canary.’ So we automatically have something in common right off the bat.”
Black Canary — a DC heroine whose power is in her voice — is on the Tenzyk roster. So are members from extended families of Batman and Green Lantern, Daphne from the Scooby-Doo cartoon and movie gang and the Valkyrie, a Norse warrior related comically to Marvel’s Mighty Thor.
“I got a sword, and nobody ever let me have a sword before,” Tenzyk said of the latter character. “So I was thrilled to do that.”
The latest costume will be on display Saturday, when Tenzyk makes an appearance at Free Comic Book Day at Albany’s Earthworld Comics, 537 Central Ave. It’s almost a national holiday for comic book fans — participating shops across North America give away books for free.
The new subject will be Princess Gamora from Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” scheduled as one of the company’s big budget movies this summer. Gamora is green in the comics, so Kelly will be green at Earthworld.
“I look forward to it every year,” Tenzyk said. “I like the kids. When you go to conventions, you have kids, but they’re sporadic and they’re there with their parents. But there are hordes that come in with one parent on Free Comic Day, so you get to see the ‘Ohhhhhhhh.’ It’s like meeting Barbie in the parade.”
J.C. Glindmyer, who owns Earthworld, likes it when characters walk off his pages and into his store.
“When the costume’s really good, it really sells it,” he said. “You stop to think for a second, ‘Wow, that’s what Superman would look like, that’s what Wonder Woman would look like.’
“Between Kelly and her friends from New York, whenever they’ve done the costumes, they’ve been very impressive. We’re very lucky to get Kelly, and the costumes she’s done are top-notch. She’s more familiar with the characters, she thinks more like a fan than an actress.”
Tenzyk first began dressing as characters from the “Sailor Moon” manga series in 2002. She rediscovered her comic book roots in 2008, after watching Saturday morning cartoons featuring old school characters, and began masquerading as members of the cape and cowl set.
Sometimes, Tenzyk is solo. Other times, cosplayers go to fantasy and comic book conventions in groups. “I think I take more time and care for the characters I like more,” she said. “Then, sometimes, it’s one of those, ‘Oh, and event is coming up and I really want to go.’ So I’m just going to cob-job this together and fool around with my friends.”
Generally, each costume takes about two weeks to assemble. “And that’s if you don’t want to have a life,” Tenzyk said. “It takes a lot of patience, and patience is one thing I don’t really have.”
The effort pays off when small children approach a super-powered Tenzyk with the same awe reserved for Santa Claus. “I love the little kids because they don’t see you as a person in costume,” she said. “They totally see you as that character. It’s awe-inspiring, just watching their faces, getting questions asked like, ‘Can you fly? Fly around the store!’ It’s pretty cool.”
Tenzyk has to improvise her answers, to keep the illusion alive.
“It’s awkward making up lies, but I’ll say, ‘This is a no-fly zone’ or ‘I’m not allowed to use my super powers in public right now.’”
Adults get the joke.
“Oh, they think I’m a freak, they totally think I’m a freak,” Tenzyk said, laughing. “You see a red person walking around outside ... you get stared at more than anything. People ask if the circus is in town, or if Halloween is coming early. I don’t care; I’m having fun. If you’re having fun, you’re not going to let it bother you.”
Some adults have more respect. Tenzyk said she once dressed as Zatanna, and entered a convention seminar in which respected illustrator Alex Ross was speaking. “He said, ‘Oh my God, Zatanna’s here,’” Ross said. “That was pretty cool.”
Cosplayers don’t always have to wear form-fitting disguises. Tenzyk said characters who have been around a while were illustrated with less risque outfits in past decades. But an extrovert won’t mind wearing miniature hub caps over a black vest — standard issue for the Valkyrie’s blue and black raiment.
Tenzyk has favorites. “For Zatanna, I really liked the contacts and the top hat, I think they were dapper,” she said. “I liked the black and white, the dark lipstick. It’s almost noir.”
The queen of the cosplayers receives support from family, friends and people at work. Tenzyk’s 13-year-old son Aidan wants his own costumes, and Tenzyk recently made a yellow and red Kid Flash outfit for the boy. “He wants things I really can’t make, like Iron Man,” she said.
Tenzyk has been cutting back on her cosplay, no longer vacationing at comic book conventions. Still, she will return to needle and thread if she likes a particular character.
“One character I really want to do is Green Arrow,” she said, referring to DC’s longtime archery champ. “I’m going to do a female version, but I feel those are very frowned upon. I don’t care.”
For now, putting on masks and capes is still fun. Tenzyk isn’t concerned about comic book issues like world fame or domination. She kind of already has that.
“I’m a secretary,” she said. “I run the world. Don’t all secretaries think they do that?”