Describing Niki Smith’s Crossplay (Iron Circus Comics) as a “love letter to fandom” is one of the most succinct and accurate elevator pitches for a graphic novel ever. Smith originally published the chapters of Crossplay on Filthy Figments, one of several sites that sells access to comic erotica on a subscription plan, but this is the first time the story will be printed and made more accessible. With a reputation for publishing LGBTQIA-friendly erotica that’s been years in the making, Iron Circus feels like a perfect home for Crossplay, and fans of publisher C. Spike Trotman’s previous books will likely have a new favorite in Smith. Crossplay is raising funds for publication on Kickstarter for another few weeks, and it’s well worth checking out.
The book revolves around seven friends, all attending the same convention, and Smith deftly delves into the idiosyncrasies that are very specific not only to convention life but people who cosplay professionally—or nearly so. A lot of people, including comic fans and those who regularly attend large conventions, look at the apparently impenetrable subculture of cosplay artists and their friends and respond with disbelief, if not derision; every convention season someone can be counted on to write a think-piece about how cosplay is ruining comic book conventions for everyone else. But Smith portrays these characters and their friends as rightfully sympathetic and tight-knit, a group that’s bound together by a common hobby and enthusiasm, mostly for anime and manga characters. Crossplay is an intimate look at an often misunderstood hobby that shows just how community-oriented it is, and how kind and vital these relationships are.
Of course, being erotica, Crossplay is also intimate in a literal sense. Several of the cosplayers are “crossplaying,” or dressing as a character of a different gender than their own. Many of them are openly, or are revealed to be, LGBTQIA+. There are established couples as well as budding romances, and not every character ends the book paired off, or having had sex on panel. It’s remarkable that Smith has captured the two core tenets of any convention culture: the enthusiasm about a shared obsession and the fact that a lot of young people end up getting laid, and not always with someone they know well, by the end of the weekend. There’s no conflict between these two things, and Smith switches between emotional scenes founded on friendship and erotic ones without missing a beat. The explicit scenes are sweet and hot at the same time, without some of the awkwardness or impossible anatomy that plagues a lot of comic erotica, and it’s nice to see a genuinely diverse cast in terms of body type, race, gender presentation, kink, and orientation represented as sexy and sexual without being fetishized.
At first glance, Crossplay looks simple, a little sketchy and cartoony. It’s a trick of the coloring, all done in black, white, and a saturated pink, with shades between to accentuate texture and depth. Particularly on pages with wide shots or a lot of characters, there’s a lot of detail packed in. Smith’s artistic style feels like Babs Tarr meets Sara DuVall, full of well-dressed young people with bright, expressive faces. It’s a good balance between simplified and realistic, allowing characters to convey a lot of emotion and intent without packing the pages with dialog or unnecessarily detailed art. Ultimately, it’s Smith’s obvious adoration for con culture and especially cosplay that makes Crossplay an emotional, evocative read about finding yourself and finding love, in the tradition of books like Devin Grayson’s User and Lucy Knisley’s Relish.