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When Mark Fordham chose the dark side, it was for a good cause.

Shortly after moving to Utah from Nashville, Tenn., in 1994, the former SWAT team sniper had hoped to play the role of a repentant Darth Vader at area schools. But Lucasfilm wouldn't give him permission. What to do, then, with his costly custom costume?

Fordham, 49, found the answer in the 501st Legion — an international group whose members are dedicated to accurately portraying villains from "Star Wars." It began as an Internet club in 1997 and grew to such proportions that George Lucas wrote the group into "Star Wars: Episode III."

A fan of "Star Wars" since "the starship came over the screen" in the 1977 original, Fordham now commands the 501st's Utah group, called the Alpine Garrison. He is even married to a stormtrooper — which surely flouts some Empire workplace policy.

"When you get to pretend to be someone else, it's kind of fun," he said. "I'm a fairly shy guy in real life, but I put on a mask and I get to assert myself."

Beyond dress-up • Fordham has seen costuming rise to galactic proportions in recent years as cosplay — short for costume play— has become mainstream through Comic Con conventions like the one that will take place next week at The Salt Palace Convention Center.

Some cosplayers, like Fordham, strictly imitate certain characters, while others create variations. One of the Alpine Garrison's stormtroopers, for instance, moonlights as an "Elvis trooper," complete with a cape and glasses.

If there is a basic tenet that governs the broad spectrum of cosplay, it's that you should be more serious about detail than, say, trick-or-treaters.

Entire online forums are dedicated to specific characters and their various forms throughout the years. Some cosplayers make their own costumes and some buy costumes, but few settle for anything that comes easily.

"Spartacus" actor Manu Bennett was stunned at a recent Chicago convention when he was approached by a cosplayer dressed as one of the show's female characters, Naevia. "She looked more like Naevia than either Naevia that I'd acted with," he said.

Bennett, who will be at Salt Lake City's Comic Con, said he's looking forward to seeing how Utah cosplayers measure up.

"You want to bring out your inner hero," he said. "You can generate a whole activity, running around as a superhero. Some people go to dress-up parties, but this is the dress-up party for your whole city."

Lawyers have complicated the search for nerdworthy garb. Professional designers can't create high-end costume replicas of, say, Spider-Man without getting proper consent.

"If anybody makes their own costume it's fine, but to actually make Power Rangers or any kind of anime licenses, including Disney and Lucas, you'd have to be licensed to do that," said Jennifer McGrew, owner of McGrew Studios in Salt Lake City. Nonetheless, she is able to create a variety of high-quality costumes and mash-ups that fall outside copyright parameters.

Costume creation • Fordham's first Vader costume, in 1990, was "as homemade" as it comes. He donned his black SWAT team jumpsuit and boots, a vampire cape and a kid-size Vader helmet. For Vader's suit panel, he snapped knobs off audio gear and glued them onto some boxes. "It was horrible, but what surprised me when I did that was how much people responded to it."

After that, Fordham resolved to build a "quality" costume. It wasn't easy. He spoke with the costume curator at Lucasfilm and got an inside look at Vader's tailoring. He created molds out of particle board and took them to a local vacuum-form shop, and enlisted Brigham Young University students in the fashion design program to help him sew the leather suit, cape and robe. Finally, he commissioned a fiberglass helmet.

"At that point, I had a credible Vader," Fordham said. His cape required nearly 15 yards of wool crêpe that cost $20-plus per yard. "It just flows beautifully," he said. The leather cost about $150 and he also paid the BYU students $200 for the stitching, which was a steal compared with the $1,000 he spent to have a more recent costume sewn.

"People when they see us, they're like 'Oh, wow, I'd love to have one of those,' and then when they find out what they cost, they're like 'Never mind,' " he said. But unlike a standard Halloween costume, Fordham wears his Vader suit more than 50 times a year, attending conventions and charity events with the 501st. He wore his first getup more than 10 years before it wore out.

When in costume, Fordham doesn't just look like Vader, he is the Sith lord reborn. He's studied the gait and hand gestures made by David Prowse — who is coming to Salt Lake Comic Con — and he eschews his Nashville twang for a spot-on James Earl Jones.

"People are like 'Where'd you get that voice modifier?' There is no voice modifier," he said, explaining that it's how he says things. "It's not 'You found something,' it's 'You fooound something.' "

The ultimate goal for Fordham is not to have an impressive Vader costume, but to make people actually believe that he is the conflicted Force phenom. Yeah, you read that right: He wants to be mistaken for Darth Vader.

"If you're dressing up as Santa Claus, you want to be the one that leaves kids walking away going 'I think that was the real one.' "

Twitter: @matthew_piper —

Becoming Catwoman

When Heidi Mason, a technical writer, decided to be Catwoman one year for Halloween, she wound up spending an embarrassing amount on her first suit.

"I had a hard time justifying the cost, so I often told people it was cheaper than it really was because of that."

A friend told her about HEROIC (, a team of superheroes and villains that, like the 501st Legion, specializes in charity appearances. She spent eight months putting together that first suit, based on the version of Catwoman designed by DC Comics artist and editor Jim Lee.

Here's how she did it:

Bodysuit • She found a Spandex bodysuit with a metallic sheen. It fit loosely, so she sewed a pleather corset on top and fastened everything with a silver zipper from Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores.

Cowl • This came with the suit, but it was a shapeless hood that wrapped around her chin and didn't have ears. She darted it to fit her head. For the ears, she stuffed 3-D plastic cat ears inside some flat pleather ears and then sewed them into the hood. She cut away the part that wrapped around her chin and added a buckle. She also wears a black pixie-cut wig to conceal her long, dark blond hair.

Gloves • She found vampire nails that she painted black. Then she used super glue to attach them to nylon gloves she found on eBay.

Belt/whip • She also ordered the whip — and holster — on eBay and colored the whip handle black. Her rope belt came from Lowe's — 10 feet of 3/4-inch black nylon cording, wrapped around her waist three times. She struggled to find a correct belt buckle. It's "probably the most inaccurate thing about my costume."

Goggles • Finding goggles with a cat-ear tip was tough. She used Apoxie Sculpt, a two-part epoxy clay that hardens and cures without baking — which could melt the lenses. She sanded and shaped the apoxy after it dried and then painted it silver. Catwoman's lenses, she admits, are blue or red in the comics, while hers are yellow.

Boots • Real leather Harley Davidson boots with silver buckle details.