Rick Stafford is a cosplayer with a wide range of charters that he brings to life, but he is most known for his many variations of DC Comics’ heroic defender of the deep, Aquaman. Rick dons the green & gold to attend cons and volunteers to visit sick children in hospitals. He has attended numerous charity events, and conventions to inspire the hero in all of us.
Like any true hero, Rick has had to overcome some extremely difficult obstacles in his life. Some of these obstacles would have broken weaker men, yet Rick continues to preserver, moving forward with the strength and endurance of the indomitable characters he brings to life through his cosplays.
We at NerdBastards had a chance to talk with this real life hero and learn what motivates him to cosplay and volunteer so much of his time to others.
NerdBastards (NB): Thanks for talking with us Rick.
Rick Stafford (RS): My pleasure, thank you for the opportunity.
NB: Your Aquaman cosplays are simply amazing. It appears as if you’ve created a cosplay for almost every version of the aquatic hero. What inspired you to start cosplaying as Aquaman? Why that character instead of say, Batman or Superman?
RS: I currently have 10 versions of Aquaman and I have plans for several more over the coming year. Truth be told, I initially did not want to do Aquaman as a cosplay. I started into the superhero cosplays with Marvel characters. My very first was Angel from the X-Men and that was followed up by my Mark 3 Ironman. It was great being Ironman during the time that the Marvel Movie Universe was taking off; but then the cosplay friends I had at the time decided they all wanted to do DC characters as well. So everyone was jumping onto a character they wanted to portray and I was still wanting to hold on the coolness of being Ironman. Someone in the group told me I needed to be Aquaman, and I was like: “Seriously? No on likes Aquaman! Everyone thinks he is a joke.” But they persisted in trying to persuade me by telling me all the attribute that I shared with Aquaman that would make it a perfect fit for me. Those included the fact that I had swam around the island of Key West in a 12.5 mile swimming competition and came in first place, so I was a fast swimmer. At the time I was a Divemaster at Disney in the Living Seas Aquarium in Epcot, where I worked in and around sharks, sea turtles and sea life on a regular basis. My physical features of having blond hair, blue eyes and a muscular swimmer’s physique didn’t hurt either. These were just some of the arguments they kept using to get me to finally cave in and don the green and orange outfit of Aquaman. But once I took on the persona, everything about Aquaman began to change, in the comics and for me personally.
NB: You do bear a striking resemblance to the King of Atlantis, it’s almost uncanny, but this hasn’t always been the case, has it? Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
RS: This is very true. I was born with a genetic disorder called Conradi Syndrome. It is a calcium deficiency at birth and the effects on me included the underdevelopment of my facial features. In essence, I grew up looking like someone had hit me in the face with a frying pan in a cartoon. This led to severe cruelty and mocking by those around me growing up. This included having a camp fire song being sung about me during my years as a Boy Scout called “Ricky The Flat Nosed Boy Scout” to the tune of “Rudolf The Red Nose Reindeer”. So I spent a lot of time alone growing up, and since I had a swimming pool in my backyard, much of my childhood was spent swimming in and under the water.
RS: When I was 15 years old, I had the first of several facial reconstruction surgeries. These were painful and scary procedures. Once I had healed from the surgeries, I started at a new high school, as my family had just relocated from (Kentucky) to (Florida), so it was very difficult for me to make friends as, although my appearance was now different, my eyes were the same, so I kept expecting everyone to mock me as they had while I was growing up. So, all through high school, I was like a shadow. I was never the center of attention, but rather always on the outskirts of groups. It took me years after the facial corrections to develop a level of confidence that allowed me to be confident with the way I looked in front of people. But it’s hard to believe I was ever one to hide away and be shy with my outgoing personality today when I am at charity events or conventions.
NB: That must have made your childhood extremely difficult, and you’re right, after meeting you at a few conventions, it’s difficult to imagine you being shy at all.
NB: Do you make all of your own costumes and props? If not, where did your acquire some of the pieces you didn’t create?
RS: In the beginning of my cosplay career, I built my own cosplays and many of my props. As I got into the world more and more, I began to commission more and more of my costume needs to experts, so that my portrayal of my characters would have a much more authentic look. And as I became a cosplay guest at more and more conventions around the world, I had to make sure I always brought my “A Game”, and so I had to learn more and more crafting skills or hire professional makers to give me that “straight off the screen or out of the pages of a comic book” level of presentation for my cosplays. Today, I still do a lot of my own prop and costume accessory work, but use professional seamstresses and 3D print builders for the high-end elements of my super suits.
NB: You and Aquaman have a lot in common, you both seem to be just as comfortable on land as in the water. Can you tell us a bit about your past in the military and your time working at Disney?
RS: As for my similarities with the character of Aquaman, it has been pointed out that there are more than just a few. My time working with military and law enforcement units over the years trained me to be a very competent combat swimmer and diver. All the years of swimming both in my youth and with these units defiantly honed my speed both in and underwater. And speaking of underwater, the rigorous levels of underwater training also allowed me to adapt my underwater breath holding capabilities to over 3 ½ minutes. On a regular basis, I keep my skills up by swimming 1-2 miles, 3-4 times a week and finish each swim session with a 50-meter underwater breath-hold-swim. As for Disney, that was probably the most amazing job of my life. I was paid to swim for hours in a 6 million gallon, salt water aquarium with sharks, rays, turtles, and about 5,000 other fish. I was tasked with protecting both divers coming into the environment as well as the animal life. It was a surreal experience. I also got to entertain visitors in the windows with all kinds of underwater antics, and it was such a joy to make so many people smile. On several special occasions, I even got to be the personal dive buddy to Mickey Mouse himself, as he was a certified SCUBA Diver and enjoyed diving in the Living Seas to entertain the guests. It’s a job that I would truly consider going back to when my life settles down long enough for me to be able to maintain a reliable schedule.
NB: You and Aquaman also share the tragedy of losing a son at a young age. I can understand that this may be a difficult subject to discuss, but can you tell us a little about what happened? How did this loss change your life?
RS: It’s never an easy subject, but it truly is the catalyst to how I got into the world of cosplay, so it is an important element to who I am today. In 2003, my Son, Christian Richard Stafford, was diagnosed with Leukemia at age 6. He battled cancer for over a year and a half, until it took his life on March 6th of 2005, at the age of 8. While in the hospital, Christian would watch the Cartoon Network for hours and came across a series of short cartoons done in the style of “Samurai Jack”, called “Clone Wars”. These 5-7 minutes episodes were based on the Star Wars franchise. Christian really liked what he saw and began to ask me what Star Wars was. This opened the flood gates to an opportunity to introduce him to the movies I loved so much growing up. I was one of the fortunate ones to have gotten to see every Star Wars movie in the movie theaters, including the original Star Wars, aka A New Hope in 1977. Yes I am that old, haha! So I rushed out and bought a portable DVD player and the boxed set of all the currently available Star Wars films, including the animated Droids and Ewok movies. He became obsessed with the stories and proceeded to watch the movies over and over again. Then one night, while I was sleeping in his hospital room, he woke me up and asked me a question that changed the course of our lives. Up until this point and even until the day he passed, we never really told him he was battling a deadly cancer or that he was dying, so he was unaware of what was the reality of the situation. This left a vacuum of information that his imagination decided to fill in the gaps with. After waking me up and getting my attention, he asked me: “Daddy, am I becoming a Jedi?” I had two options at that moment; tell him the truth about his diagnosis, or lie to him. I chose the latter and confirmed his belief that what he was going through was indeed part of his Jedi Trials. I immediately went online and began searching for a child’s Jedi outfit and a family friend agreed to purchase him a high end, functioning lightsaber with authentic sounds and an activated glowing blade. He was beyond ecstatic to get these items and they made him happy for about two weeks, and then he dropped the other shoe: “Daddy? Who will be my Jedi Master?” So I went back to the internet and proceeded to purchase a Jedi Master costume and my own lightsaber to the tune of over $600, but it doesn’t matter how much things cost when you’re trying to bring a fantasy world to life for the Love of your child. I also bought books on sword fighting techniques, meditation methods, how to be mindful, and books about Buddhist Monks because I had read that George Lucas had used their ideologies as the basis for developing the Jedi. Each visit with Christian became a Jedi Training event with sword practice from his bed, meditation sessions with the lights off, discussing the ideology of mindful existence and reciting the Jedi Code. He never traveled anywhere away from his hospital room without at least wearing his Jedi robe. He was the perfect Padawan. I will not lie and say I am not in tears as I tell you this, as I miss him so much. I truly would give up every bit of my life as a cosplayer to have him back. But because I know that cannot happen, I go forward giving back as a charity cosplayer and at conventions around the world where I get to tell audiences about this amazing child and how he changed the lives of so many people. I am often quoted as saying, “Christian never got to grow up, So why should I?” I will continue to play dress up and be a kid at heart for as long as I can to preserve his memory in the hearts and minds of others. It was his death that ultimately introduced me to a Star Wars costuming group called The 501st. They were asked to be his Honor Guard at his Celebration of Life and soon after, I was asked to join their ranks. Through my involvement with the 501st, I transitioned from a grieving parent into a full-fledged charity cosplayer. For those that are interested in more of the details of this story, it is available on YouTube through a documentary that is now shared on that streaming media under the title “Heart of an Empire.” I’ll warn you, have tissues nearby, as it always proves to be a tear jerker of a story to watch.
NB: Excuse me as I compose myself… That is a truly touching story, and I’m sorry for your loss. Do you have any advice for our readers who may be grieving a loved one at this time?
RS: That’s a hard subject. Each person’s connection with their lost loved one is different. One piece of advice is to do what is right to keep their memory alive in a positive way. People are often amazed that I did not turn to any form of self-destructive methods of dealing with the loss of my only Son. I could argue that spending thousands of dollars on costumes and travels to attend conventions is not always a positive thing, but I would be joking. I do not regret a bit of the money or energy I have put into bringing characters to life through my cosplay portrayals. So the short answer would be, make their life a positive motivation and do good things that add to their memory. By doing so, you keep their spirit alive and thriving well past their physical passing.
NB: You have had a lot of ups and downs in your life. You’ve faced more obstacles than most and yet still keep moving forward. What motivates you? Where does this strength come from?
RS: Going back to dealing with the harsh level of bullying I experienced growing up with my facial disfigurements, and then in my early 20’s, training with military, law enforcement, and fire service units, I learned I was capable of way more than I thought was possible, both physically and mentally. I was challenged on both fronts on a regular basis to the point where it became common place to do the unimaginable. I developed a motto of “Never Fear, Never Quit”. This later lead to lots of issues in the cosplay community for me as I would tell tales of my adventures to people I thought were friends, only to later learn that they saw me as a fake or a liar, as no one could possibly do all the things I had claimed to have done. Some took it too extremes and manipulated my adventures into slander by telling others I was impersonating THIS, or that I was intentionally faking THAT in order to gain a celebrity status of some type. So in essence, it was like being bullied as a child all over again. But, no matter how nasty the haters and bullies got, I never backed down. I am surprised that I have not been accused of starting WWII or the Assassination of JFK with the level of manipulation the haters like to throw around to ruin the reputation of someone who has tried so hard to make the cosplay community a better place. But we all know there are those that would rather see the world burn than take time to see the good in others. It’s so easy for people to spread rumors and hearsay through social media, and I warn people to be careful of what you spread without doing a lot of fact checking. There is a reason I am asked to be a guest at conventions all over the country and in other countries, it’s because convention promoters do their homework about guests and do not listen to slander without concrete evidence. If I have learned one thing about the cosplay community on the subject of rumors, it is that if someone accuses someone of something, the masses will pass judgment and guilt versus allowing innocence until factually proven otherwise. I know this is a hotbed topic, but I am against bullying in all forms and believe the only way to make this community better is to stand up for the rights of those who are being subjected to black balling, bullying, and slander for the personal gain or envy of individuals with dark agendas.
NB: Very well said. Haters and bullies are the bane of any group, be it cosplayers, gamers, or just plain nerds in general.
NB: Now Aquaman is far from your only cosplay, tell us about some of the other characters you bring to life.
RS: To date, I have well of 40 different cosplays. Obviously I have a lot of different Aquaman variants in my collection, but I also have lots of other fandoms that I like to express at conventions from time to time to change things up a bit. I have fandom cosplays from TV shows and Movies like Firefly, Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, Dark Knight Rises, and even SeaQuest DSV. I have video game cosplays from Injustice, Assassin’s Creed and Fallout. I have pirate and wizard cosplays for going to festivals and when visiting Harry Potter’s World at Universal Studios. But it’s often amusing when I’m out and about in street clothes or in any of my other cosplays, and people stop me and say, “Are you that Aquaman guy?”
NB: I’ve got to see that SeaQuest cosplay someday, that’s a deep cut nerd show right there, haha.
NB: So you’re a Squad Leader in the Star Wars Cosplay organization known as the 501st Legion, a Squadron Commander in The Rebel Legion, and have been a part of the 501st Legion Mexican Garrison. Can you tell us a little about these organizations, your involvement with them, and their roles in the community?
RS: Let me make a quick correction. I was a squad leader for Makaze Squad in the Florida Garrison of the 501st and the Phoenix Squadron Commander of the Florida Ra Kura Rebel Legion Base years ago, but those were elected positions, so I only served each for a term or two, maybe three years, haha. I enjoyed much of my time working with these groups and had so many amazing opportunities to bring smiles to the world because of them. I was actively a part of these groups for over a decade of my cosplay career. I marched on Time Square in NYC, was at the midnight premiers of several Star Wars movies, performed on stage with Weird Al Yankovic, was hand-picked to march in the 2007 Rose Bowl Parade with George Lucas and 200 of my fellow 501st and Rebel Legion members from around the world, and got to meet so many of the Star Wars movie actors because of my involvement with these amazing charity groups. The friendships I have made from around the world has had me honored as an honorary member of both the Mexican and Belgium 501st. Today, I am an inactive member as I am often a cosplay guest at conventions and at charity functions as The True Aquaman, but I keep my friendships alive with constant communications with my fellow brothers and sisters in the organizations from around the world. Once a member of the 501st and Rebel Legion, you are looked upon as a member for life. That is one of the awesome aspects of these groups, the friendships you can make within the ranks can be as strong as family.
NB: Can you share one of your favorite moments or fondest memories as a cosplayer, so far?
RS: I’ll share with you how I got the name “The True Aquaman”. Nine years ago now, I was at a large local convention here in Orlando called MegaCon. I was wearing my original Aquaman cosplay that was based on the look with the low cut neckline, black briefs and yellow belt and belt buckle. As I was leaving to help take a friend back to their hotel room, I was stopped by an older woman who asked if I would mind taking a photo with her husband. I quickly obliged and walked over to a frail older gentleman and, as his wife produced a disposable camera from her purse, I proceeded to strike a hero pose next to him. After a couple of photos, I thanked them and began to walk away, it was then the older gentleman reached out and grabbed my arm and told me that I was exactly as he imagined I would look. I told him that I was humbled by this and again went to walk away, he again grabbed my arm and then told me that I was the living embodiment of his imagination. I again thanked him for his kind words and told him that I took a lot of pride in the presentation of my Aquaman cosplay. As I began my third leave, he asked me if I knew who he was. I quickly replied that I didn’t. His answer changed my life. He said, “I’m Nick Cardy and I invented that version of Aquaman and as I stand here, you are TRULY the Aquaman I imagined when I was drawing him.” He then went on to explain that his wife was taking him to a panel at the convention where he was to sit with Stan Lee, George Perez, and several other Golden Age comic book artist to discuss the way it was during that time as a part of the comic book industry. He also told me a couple of quick funny stories about the type of people comic book artists were in that era and we both got a chuckle before we both went our separate ways. I never got to see if the pictures turned out and he passed away about a year later, but I will never forget the day one of the creators of Aquaman said I was The True Aquaman. I have done my best to uphold my different versions of Aquaman to as close to comic book accuracy as possible. And I have had more than one active comic book artist admit that they follow me and have used my likeness in their work. So I remain very humble to being a character that has now become iconic in my day to day life as I am recognized often as Aquaman.
NB: What inspirational words or advice do you have for other aspiring cosplayers?
RS: There are two types of individuals that wear costumes at events in my opinion: There are those that enjoy a fandom and wear something to represent their love of a character, and then there are those who put on an outfit and the persona as much as possible to become the character for themselves and for the other fans of the character, the latter is what I consider a cosplayer. If you choose to be a cosplayer, it does not mater your size, shape, age, gender or costuming skill level, if you love being that character, show it. If you walk around wearing a costume just to wear it, then it’s not really a cosplay. The fun part about being in cosplay for me is becoming the character for the kids, and the kids at heart who enjoy the opportunity to interact with, and share a moment of disbelief, with a superhero. Help make the illusion real for those around you and bring the character to life. At charity events and conventions, attendees are there to have a great time, and by cosplaying the character you love, you get to pass on that experience to the community around you, and that is what makes this such a great hobby to be a part of.
NB: What’s coming up for The True Aquaman? Any appearances or cons that you’re really excited about?
RS: My convention schedule is getting busier and busier each week lately. I will be at Heroes Con in NC, San Diego Comic Con in CA, DragonCon in GA, Space Coast Comic Con in FL, and the Pop Culture Con in Mexico, just to name a few coming up in the next few months. San Diego Comic Con will be special as it will be my first time bringing Aquaman to the West Coast as a guest. Really excited about the opportunity. And of course any time I am traveling to another country to represent American Cosplay is a humbling experience.
NB: Wow! That’s a busy schedule indeed, Rick.
NB: We want to thank you for doing this interview with us Rick, and for being so open and candid. Where can our readers find you on social media?
RS: On the Social Media front: Facebook at www.facebook.com/thetrueaquaman, on Instagram at www.instagram.com/thetrueaquaman, and on Twitter at @thekingaquaman. I post regularly on all of those and respond to friends, family and fans on a daily basis, so don’t be shy.
NB: We won’t Rick.