One foot in front of the other

What it's like to march in the Macy's Day Parade as a stormtrooper

One foot in front of the other
Image: Alex Vargas

It was right when we turned onto 6th Avenue that chills went down my spine, and I burst out in a bit of a pent-up laugh/sob. Arrayed for blocks ahead of me as far as I could see was the line of iconic balloons that made up the Macy's Day parade, towering over the crowds on thin lines.

At the moment, I wished that I could take a picture, but I'll have to be contented to burn the image into my memory. It'll be one of the coolest things that I've ever seen from the inside of a stormtrooper helmet.

I've done a handful of high-profile, casted events for Lucasfilm through my work in the 501st Legion over the years: a memorable event with Snoop Dogg when he released a collaboration with Adidas in New York City's Times Square, with the Today Show for a Halloween special (I'm the white clone trooper right behind Al Roker at the 1:50 mark), and at the premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Those events are a class beyond what we usually do in the group: they bring together tons of fellow troopers from all over the region, and they carry with them a bit more of a buzz and joyful anticipation. They're events that tend to be rehashed and recounted in the years that follow, war stories from our particular community, and inevitably, we tend to talk about what events would be cool to do. One that we've always talked about? The annual Macy's Day Parade.

Weeks earlier

A chat window popped up on my phone: a fellow 501st member with a message: we've got a cool event request, details just got posted up: First Order Stormtroopers, New York City, November 23rd through the 25th.

There's only one thing that that could be: the city's Thanksgiving Day parade. Word had broken a couple of weeks earlier that Disney and Lucasfilm would be debuting a balloon for the first time at the event, a giant version of a Baby Yoda Funko Pop, chasing a ball. I was immediately excited — it had to be that, right?

Already, excitement was building within our group in our forums and amongst the troopers who had the prerequisite costume: a First Order Stormtooper from the sequel trilogy. It's one of the costumes that I've made, and one of my favorites, despite it being the heaviest and most cumbersome one I own.

As a fan group, the 501st has a particular advantage: to get in, you need to meet a strict set of requirements, and that set of requirements means that if Lucasfilm needs a handful of stormtroopers for something, they've got a pool of people and costumes that they can draw from for high-profile events, like with Snoop Dogg, the Today Show, or even The Mandalorian. It's a role that is both exciting and complicated: it's crossing a line from fan to professional performer, hobbyist activity to promotional prop. There's no easy way to untangle that.

It had been a while since I'd worn the suit: and the general procedure with these types of events is to provide a handful of pictures as a sort of audition. I pulled everything out, and called a friend in to help.

Image: Evan Johnson

Compared to the original stormtrooper, the FOTK is a beast. My kit is made of a sort of flexible fiberglass, and it's a two-person job to get on. It's got a specialized undersuit, gaskets with ribbing for the shoulders, elbows, and knees, an ammunition rig, and a backpack. I'll swear up and down as I'm putting it on, but once it's on, it looks very cool, especially once kitted up to the nines.

We had to shoot the pictures twice: the first go-around revealed some issues and needed adjustments: snaps that had come loose, some cracks that needed reinforcement, and a couple of parts that I put on wrong. After some workshop time, the pictures went out the door, and the waiting game began.

A week later, I got the confirmation: I was one of the troopers that had been selected to go. Groups and group chats sprouted up as we coordinated plans and prepared for the day. I tinkered with the suit, and my wife and I worked out our plans for the trip. We'd already been planning to head down to her mother's in Pennsylvania, and the trip would add a couple of additional days to the holiday. I missed New York City, and we'd been wanting to make the trek down with the kids.

Image: Andrew Liptak

November 23rd

We packed up the car early in the morning on the 23rd. We had to arrive to the city by that evening. I'd packed my armor into a large rubbermaid tote, and jettisoned the stuff I didn't need: no backpack, vest, or guns. We stuffed it in alongside out suitcase and bags, and set off. We made good time: and got in early enough to wander around a bit before the work began.

A parade like this is a complicated affair. It's televised, features thousands of participants, from marchers to balloon handlers, to singers, and more. The streets and sidewalks were already getting blocked off by the time we assembled, and learned what we'd be doing. We wouldn't be escorting the giant Baby Yoda balloon, but rather a different one altogether: a virtual balloon that tied in with ILMxLab's Tales from Galaxy's Edge virtual reality game. And we'd be doing more than marching: we'd have a small role to play when we reached the reviewing stand.  

The first night was practice: the eighteen of us broke into rough lines and practiced walking in formation. We'd be part of the commercial, and our handler outlined a rough idea of what viewers would see: we'd march in with the virtual balloon, the Millennium Falcon would swoop in, and we'd run away. We waited in the cold while a handful of singers practiced their routines. We did our our bit, refined it a bit, and turned in for the night.

Wednesday morning brought more practice: we assembled in a soccer field, got into formation, and began to figure out how to march in straight lines and around corners. It's harder than it looks: you have to be hyper-aware of the people around you, what pace you're putting your feet down at, and where you are in relation to your fellow marchers. After a couple of hours, we were ready.

The parade

Walking in a parade in a costume like a stormtrooper is an unreal experience. A key part of cosplay is bringing a character and story to life for a brief moment, and if you're a fan of whatever story that is, seeing one of those fictional characters before you is an exciting moment.

It started before we even hit the parade route. We suited up early in the morning, and were bused to our starting point. We'd been shrouded with cloaks to try and hide what we were, but as we made our way through the maze of tethered balloons and handlers, people started to point and shout. One guy riding a bike did a doubletake as we passed by, and phones started coming out.

The noise builds when you hit the parade route. People's eyes are on the float in front of them, before they look to see what's next, and you hear this ripple of excitement from the first people who spot you. The rest of the crowd looks your way, and the noise crescendos. Even if you've never seen Star Wars, you likely recognize it, and the noise builds.

A friend of mine had a saying: "One stormtrooper is a dork in plastic. Ten of them is a platoon." Troopers are a dime a dozen in the 501st and at our events, but it's something else entirely when you have a group of eighteen of them marching in formation.

As we turned onto 6th Ave, the enormity of what we were part of struck home: the line of balloons down the street, the roar of the crowd quoting every line they could think of, and the sound of my breathing in my helmet. Chills ran down my spine as I marched. This was a cool moment.

The march demanded a cost, though. A group of eighteen marchers isn't just eighteen people. They're eighteen people, each covered with twenty pieces of plastic or fiberglass. We've spent weeks preparing, but even after that work, we're pushing our armor past what we've done with it before.

A couple of blocks in, and I felt a snap: a strap that held my right thigh had come undone, and there wasn't a way to reattach it without taking off the entire suit. I could pull it up without anyone really noticing; the piece was right at hand-level, and every couple of steps, I pulled the armor back into position, hoping it would stay in place. A handler came in, and I told them that I was still good to go, but I could use some tape. We waited until we stopped, and they ended up taping the piece to my leg. A trooper fell out of line with me as the handlers solved another problem. A piece of tape reinforcing the strap on my other thigh ridged up and was digging painfully into my skin through the undersuit. My toes cramped, and my shoulders started to ache under the weight of the armor.  

We hit 59th street. A long way to go. 57th. 54th. 53rd. 20 blocks. There's a point in any parade, usually towards the front, where you wonder what you've gotten yourself into, where it seems like you'll be walking forever. The day before, I was talking to a newer member who hadn't done a big event, and pointed out that the longest part of a troop is the first couple of minutes, and then suddenly, it's over.

Suddenly, we were at 36th street, and then 35th, and we turned onto 34th. We reached the Macy's pavilion, adjusted our formation while we waited for our signal, and marched across the cameras' line of sight.

And then, it was over. We hustled back to the hotel, pulled our gear off, and left to rejoin our families. It's an experience that I'll treasure in my memories.

Currently reading

I took some time off from writing because of the parade and travel, and those couple of days were an excellent time to catch up on my reading. We listened to Annalee Newitz's Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age on the ride down and back, something that's been on my to-read list for ages. It's a fantastic, thought-provoking history of how cities come together and collapse.

A used bookstore yielded a new-to-me collection of Berke Breathed's Bloom County comics, Tales Too Ticklish to Tell, which was a delightful discovery, and which served as a good reminder that much of the political fighting that we're seeing in the country and society isn't new.

And finally, I finished reading Lev Grossman's latest book, The Silver Arrow to Bram. I loved this book: a coming-of-age YA story about a girl and her brother who end up on a magical train that transports migrating animals around the world. It's adventurous, delightful, and heartbreaking, and we enjoyed every minute of it. (And we're looking forward to the next one, due out next year.)

On the currently reading list? James S.A. Corey's final installment of The Expanse, Leviathan Falls. I've been reading it for a little over a week, and while it came out earlier this week, I've been trying to savor it, reluctant to reach the end of this series. Thus far, I'm loving every page.

There are a couple of others on the list: The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur Der Weduwen and Cadwell Turnbull's No Gods, No Monsters. I've for a couple of others that I've picked up in recent days: Nnedi Okoraor's Noor, Premee Mohamed's The Annual Migration of Clouds. And there's a whole bunch of others that I've had lingering on my to-read list that I'll have to look through before the end of the year and I mentally reset the clock.

Further reading

The art of Love, Death + Robots

The second season of Netflix's animated anthology series Love, Death + Robots began streaming earlier this year, with another set to come out sometime in 2022. There's a new companion book coming out next year called The Art of Love, Death + Robots, which will showcase the art that went into each episode of all three seasons.

As a bonus, John Scalzi, who's written the stories that a handful of those episodes have been based on, has written a foreword, which you can read over on Collider. There's also a good handful of examples of the art from the book.

Cosplay Cover!

Last week, io9 released the cover for my book, Cosplay: A History: The Builders, Fans, and Makers Who Bring Your Favorite Stories to Life.

Here's the cover:

Image: Saga Books

I'm really happy with how this came out, and Cheryl Eddy asked me some good questions about the creation of the book. I'm excited to see this hit stores next year, and as a reminder: if you preorder it and send me the receipt, I'll comp you a year's supporting subscription.

December books

In case you missed it: I released the December book list earlier this week. You can read it sorted by genre here, or by release date here.

Grave robbing

If here's one thing that you read on this list, make it this one: Josh Sanburn as a fascinating feature in Vanity Fair about an FBI agent named Tim Carpenter who stumbled upon the find of a lifetime: an amateur collector named Don Miller who amassed a collection of artifacts that he'd collected from all over the world — some 40,000 objects in all. Not all of it was unearthed legally, and over the course of the investigation, the FBI ended up identifying the remains of 500 individuals, as well as countless artifacts that he'd stolen and looted from dozens of countries.

The story is a wild one, and it's an interesting look at how archeology and collectors value human life: it's heartbreaking to think that he stole the heads of people who'd been laid to rest.


My friend and former editor Laura Hudson has a really fascinating piece up in Wired: 'At the End of the World, It’s Hyperobjects All the Way Down', an in-depth profile of Timothy Morton and the concept of hyperobjects:

"Hyperobjects speak to the immense, structural forces all around us, and even inside us, that we cannot see with our eyes but strive to comprehend through data or computer modeling. While they are not, in every case, bad things, the most talked-about hyperobjects tend to be the most vivid and disturbing, particularly as they clip in and out of our vision like malevolent ghosts."

It's a fascinating profile, and it's covers some interesting concepts that I'll be thinking over for a while, especially some ideas about our place in the concept that I've mulled over reading books like Leviathan Wakes and The Dark Forest.

Miyazaki's return

Last week, word broke that Hayao Miyazaki, the famed animator and director who's best known for movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and others, would be coming out of retirement to direct a new animated fantasy film.

I'll admit that I'm only familiar with Miyazaki's work in passing — his films have been on my to-watch list for ages. But after reading this excellent profile of him in The New York Times, I'll have to bump those up as a priority.

Weekly updates

For supporting subscribers, I rounded up some news items that dropped in the last week: there was quite a bit of Star Wars news, as well as updates about Spider-man, HBO's Game of Thrones prequel, and a bunch of trailers. You can read the full post here.

That's all for this week: I hope you have a good weekend. As always, let me know what you've been reading/watching/playing.


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