David Schoelen is many things at once. He's a cosplay artist, a visual effects enthusiast, a performer, and a manipulator of textiles, costumes pieces, and makeup. Ever since he was a child, Schoelen has gravitated toward art that made him feel strange, inspired, and transported into some other world where the rules are slightly different than the ones that govern our own.
"I wrote my first story in the first grade, about a little alien that wore a purple trench coat and lived inside a flower," he tells SYFY WIRE, reflecting on how early he began to identify as an oddball. To the geek scene, he's most recognizable as cosplay Rick Grimes or "Dragpool," a drag queen/Deadpool mash-up that sprung to mind after Schoelen watched the music video for Celine Dion's "Ashes," which featured a surprisingly flexible Deadpool in heels.
Schoelen chatted with SYFY WIRE via email about his past and future cosplay ideas, his constantly evolving aesthetic, and his favorite moments communing with fellow geeks.
How do you tend to describe yourself and your art? Are you a cosplayer, a designer, a drag artist, or some combination?
I'd describe myself as a storyteller. Imagination has always been my playground, my sanctuary.
My designs begin with a "story" — the development of a history that informs who my character is. Ultimately, l want fellow fans to have an experience with my cosplay —like the costumed characters that inhabit Disneyland. It's about a memory [and] a connection to fandom.
Even when I recreate an existing well-known character like Rick Grimes, it's more important to me that the character "feels" like he just stepped out of the zombie apocalypse rather than getting the exact screen-accurate make and brand of his jeans. (Though for the cosplay purists — I will spend a mini-lifetime researching and hunting down that exact shirt!) One of my favorite compliments [when I'm dressed as Rick Grimes]: "You look like you should smell really bad, but you smell really good!"
What geeky TV, movies, and comics were you into as a kid? Do you still love those characters and stories today?
I was a child of the 1970s when Saturday morning TV was an event. There were only three major networks and they would have a primetime special the night before the new season of Saturday morning programming to introduce the lineup. I got up at 5 a.m. that day and highlighted the TV Guide to create the perfect morning of sugary cereal (with the best toy surprises inside!), jammies with feet, and a chair too close to the screen (which was supposed to make me blind!).
My favorite shows were anything by Sid and Marty Krofft: HR Pufnstuf; Land of the Lost; Electra-Woman and Dyna-girl! I collect toys, and those toys from my childhood are still the "smiles on the shelf" of my collection. I got to meet the Krofft Brothers at San Diego Comic-Con and had them sign some of my stuff. It was like the Adult Me got to take the Kid Me to meet legends.
But it didn't stop there. I learned to run in slow motion from the Six Million Dollar Man, I used the Force to choke my bullies (at least in my head!), I learned to swear from Ripley ("Get away from her, you BITCH!"), to carry a hurting buddy on my back from Sam and Frodo, and to save the world from Buffy. My world would be such a flat place without stories. I take a bit of each of them with me every day.
Can you tell me the origin story of your take on Deadpool, aka Dragpool? How did you decide to design that look, and what went into it?
Dragpool has become one of my favorite characters to cosplay. I stay in that character all day (nine hours in heels!) and everyone from little kids to Marvel bros to goth nerds to grandmas seem to enjoy him.
I'd never dressed in drag before, but the elements of the character seemed to easily emerge, including crystal bullet earrings, rhinestoned glitter lips, and the 2-foot, red beehive wig! I've discovered a whole community of "Pools" — not only cosplayers who bring the comic and screen Deadpool to life, but others who also create their own fusion of the character. They're great folks who are always excited to see a new Pool!
I continue to develop the character — keep the balance of drag elements and Deadpool — trying to never tip the scale in a direction that destroys the mix. I see Dragpool like the Deadpool from the drag universe, just like the diverse Spider-Verse. All the Pools are connected, but each remains unique.
To keep the character fresh, I have plans to add accessories, and just like Barbie, the foundation remains [the] same regardless of whether she's an astronaut or in a ball gown! That red suit, face, and those big black eyes need to be recognizable. Beauty makeup is also new for me — so I continue to refine the makeup to add more drag elements without straying too far from the iconic Deadpool image. I still get to experiment, which can also be fun.
What has your experience at conventions been like? Are people receptive to your unique take on media?
My effects group is Reel Guise FX and we have never been conventional. We couldn't just cosplay Rick Grimes and Shane Walsh — we had Rick Grimes and the undead Shane as Rick's walker pet! We weren't happy with just recreating the Demogorgon from Stranger Things — I oversized it to give it that looming sense of terror that the people of Hawkins experience.
People have overwhelmed us in person at conventions — it's hard to walk even a few feet without attendees wanting our attention. Vendors have stepped away from booths to interact with us. We truly intend that each fan will have that celebratory moment and memory; we interact and pose them to bring their photos to life. We prepare and often bring little giveaways.
The Hall H manager at San Diego Comic-Con liked our work so much, she invited us to attend any panel of our choice that day (which are often incredibly crowded). We've been pulled off the street to have a spot on a morning TV program, been filmed for commercials and news coverage, and we were honored as select cosplayers invited by the Associated Press for a studio photo shoot!
We rarely turn down a request for a photo and are always grateful people enjoy what we do. Social media has been a bit of roller coaster as we figure out algorithms and how best to present the work in still images or small videos. Social media from SYFY WIRE, Netflix, and AMC have all featured our work to an incredible response.
Still, some of our images get thousands of "likes" and some barely register. I am slow in my builds, so I don't often have a fast-paced portfolio of work that keeps folks engaged. I'm also meticulous when planning my ideas for photo shoots, so scheduling those more professional images takes time. Those who appreciate and value our work are diehards and their support keeps us going even when we face some inevitable disappointments.
How long have you been creating looks and cosplay?
The seed of making and creating started as a kid. I would plan months in advance to create a haunted front porch for Halloween. I wrote and directed my own plays in grade school, casting my friends and rehearsing at recess. The teachers would let me perform them in class!
Though I never lost my joy of fandom, I let that creative place shrink due to insecurities and life demands. I'd talk about creating again, but felt intimidated by those whose work I admired. If I couldn't do it perfectly, I didn't want to do it at all. What used to come naturally, now was caged in fear and doubt.
I didn't even pick up my makeup brushes and costume fabrication again until about six to seven years ago. My passion of being a fan finally liberated my anxiety. I just really connected with The Walking Dead and I wanted to create those costumes to celebrate that excitement. I still worried that we would be ignored, or worse, humiliated, but from that first costumed step into the lobby of our convention hotel — we were greeted with the same smiles that welcome us today.
Do you have any formal training in costume design, art, performance, etc?
I have a master's degree in Clinical Social Work and am a licensed mental health professional by trade. I've learned a lot by observing others who do it better than me, asking questions, reading books, watching YouTube, seeking help — and making lots of mistakes. There is never only one way to create.
One of my favorite quotes: "The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried."
My desire to "make it better" has pushed me to learn and develop skills that I never even imagined I would try. There is so much to know. Someday, I would really like to take formal classes, to learn the "right" way to create things, so I can also find new ways to create them. Maybe that'll be my "second career" when I retire from my current profession.
If you were given unlimited funding and resources, what characters would you like to cosplay as? What do you envision that looking like?
I have plans to create the Mind Flayer from Stranger Things — which will be one of my biggest costumes to date if I pull it off!
I like sound and light effects (my Demogorgon roared and had torso lights that mimicked its disintegration at the end of Season 1). I hope to include effects in this build as well.
But, my dream creation is The Wight Viserion from Game of Thrones! I would want to recreate that dragon, complete with roar and blowing icy fire. He'd have big blue eyes and a beautiful wingspan, finished with rotting flesh and individual scales.
What do you love about the horror genre? What do you think makes a great horror character or story?
Horror allows vision to break convention in a very visceral way. It connects to the primal parts of us, gives us some freedom and some control over our fears. It's dark imagination that polite society often tries to contain, the place that we are told we "shouldn't" like — which can make it provocative.
But, a good horror story cannot be just about slashing or gore. Ultimately, the best horror stories are the ones that gives us characters that we care about — we cheer when they survive, we grieve when they die, we plot alongside them to overthrow the monster. If we don't care, we aren't invested. And though a novel approach to the killing or the mayhem may get our attention, it doesn't keep us there very long if we don't unconsciously identify with the characters.
Even horror icons — the villains or the creatures — have to be developed so that we "know" them; the shark from Jaws had a "presence," a kind of "personality" grown out of the reactions and intents of the human characters.
How would you describe your cosplay aesthetic?
Weird. I like weird. I've been called weird my whole life. I embrace it now.
I know that when a lot of people think of cosplay, they think of pretty people in tight spandex. Though I too admire the beauty of attractive people, and many of them work hard to create their image, I would feel restrained by that.
Though, if someone thinks I'm hot, I'll take it! But, it's the kind of hot that will be covered in alien pod goo and marred by a visible curse.