Two teams line charge at each other from opposite ends of the park. It’s like a scene from “Braveheart,” but instead of axes, maces and swords in their hands, there are Nerf guns.
Time almost seems too slow as the two groups collide. The fight is adults versus kids. Kids duck and dodge around adults, their youth rendering them far more limber. Even so, they are extremely outnumbered, and, in a short time, this match of Dart in the Park is over.
This is just another day in the life of the event’s host, John Pantoja, also know as the Corpus Christi Joker.
“I have a large number of adults who show up to Dart in the Park, as well as kids,” Pantoja said. “I host this event on the last Sunday of each month, and we always have a really good turnout.”
Dart in the Park has been going on for nearly two years under Pantoja’s command.
“I really want to get the college kids to come out,” he said. “Many young people are so focused on video games that they don’t get out and play anymore. I use this event to encourage community fun in a positive atmosphere.”
Pantoja combined his love of cosplay and Nerf to become the Corpus Christi Joker.
“I cosplayed the Joker with all things Nerf,” he said. “Eventually I moved more toward cosplay and just participated in Nerf events.”
Pantoja earned the nickname “Joker” when he was very young, and it has stuck.
“In elementary I had a smile that was bigger than my head,” he said. “One of my teachers said I looked like a little joker. Eventually everyone started calling me Joker.”
This nickname, along with the introduction of the Batman films in 1989 and the surplus of Joker merchandise that accompanied it, really inspired Pantoja. As an aspiring artist, he combined his history with the Joker and his life passion, art, and began to cosplay.
‘AN ARTIST AT HEART’
“I’m an artist at heart,” he said. “I have a degree in art, graphic design, and visual art. Cosplay is the only medium that combines all the different facets of art.”
Pantoja said cosplay is the definition of an artist.
“You have to combine fashion, makeup, art, design, photos, editing, costume making and public speaking,” he said.
Pantoja uses his love of cosplay to spread positivity throughout the community. He participates in all manner of different events throughout the Corpus Christi area.
“All upcoming events are posted on my Facebook,” he said. “I’m getting away from conventions and am focusing more on local events.”
Pantoja is invited to make a guest appearance as the Corpus Christi Joker at many events.
“I’ve gone to Windfest, Shrimporee, and even Buc Days, if I’m in town,” he said. “A few other cosplayers from my group, the South Texas Cosplay Alliance, and I will just walk around the events and take photos with the community.”
Another event Pantoja has made appearances at is RealmsCon, a local convention. He also used to participate in out-of-state conventions, but they required a lot of effort.
“I would, for example, fly out to Phoenix, Arizona, right after work on a Friday, and do a meet-and-greet for a few hours that evening,” he said. “I’d get up the next day, put on whatever cosplay I’m doing, and be at the con from 10 a.m. until midnight. I’d do the same thing on Sunday and fly home at about 6 p.m. so I would be back at work the next day. It was exhausting.”
After 15 years of doing this over and over, he decided he had gotten his fill of conventions.
“I want to focus more on community events in the Corpus Christi area,” he said. “I’d much rather make a big positive impression here.”
Pantoja said the people of Corpus Christi are really supportive, which is something he loves about the city.
“They understand what I’m doing this for,” he said. “I’m not doing it for the money or the fame. Most of the events I participate in are free. And if they are paid, I try to give them something a little extra than just going there and meeting me.”
Lyndsey Shinn, member of the Junior League of Corpus Christi and chair of the Literature and Learning Committee, recently organized a free Comic Con at La Retama Library and invited Pantoja to make an appearance.
“I’ve always liked what the Corpus Christi Joker has done,” Shinn said. “He’s participated in lots of charitable events. When I was organizing volunteers, I started with him and went from there.”
Pantoja and several other members of the South Texas Cosplay Alliance spent their day at the event taking photos with guests, judging the costume contest and meeting dozens of fans.
“He’s really amazing,” Comic Con guest Harley de Leon said. “I really love the laugh because it’s so authentic. Plus, he’s a really good role model.”
One of the things that makes Pantoja a unique community figure is the originality of his cosplays. Not only does he dress as the Joker, but he also combines some other well-known characters into his costumes and creates mash-ups.
“My newest one is going to be Joker Wick, which is a mix of the Joker and John Wick,” he said. “I’m going to be unveiling it at Jared’s Epic Nerf Battle 4, which will be held at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on the field.”
Aside from Joker Wick, Pantoja has also done Jokuaman, Funisher, Dread Pirate Joker, Joker Negan and more. He said selecting mash-ups is a design-based decision.
“Funisher was one of the best,” he said. “In the comics, Punisher would sometimes paint his face with a skull, so I just added the Joker smile to it. I also took a shirt with a skull on it and added the Joker smile and some ‘HAHA’s on the sleeves.”
Some of Pantoja’s favorite Joker mash-up cosplays have been Mad Max Immortan Joker and Funisher. Even though he has done plenty of successful cosplays, not all of Pantoja’s ideas come through.
“They have to have an artistic element,” he said. “I tried to do one where it would be Joker on one side and a more regular me on the other, but it just didn’t flow well, so I scrapped it.”
One outfit that Pantoja said really captures what he is trying to do with the cosplay is his Infinite Joker, which is a combination of Cesar Romero’s, Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s versions of the Joker mixed with the Joker from the comic books.
“I want to be as whimsical as Cesar Romero, but as serious as Nicholson and Ledger,” he said.
‘ORIGINALITY IS KEY’
Pantoja said he advises anyone else who wants to cosplay to be original, and not to look up photos on Google.
“Just pick a character and come up with your own design,” he said. “Everyone told me that a Joker would never win a cosplay contest, but I won them all because I was original. Originality is key.”
Pantoja’s sister Veronica Pantoja, a professor at Del Mar, said her family is supportive of him in all his endeavors.
“I can’t express enough how proud my parents and I are of John and what he’s accomplished as the Corpus Christi Joker,” she said. “I think his original concept of playing the Corpus Christi Joker has grown larger than what we had expected, though maybe John had this plan all along.”
She said their parents instilled a sense of fun and wonder during Halloween, and every Halloween was just another chance to choose a crazy costume and act as another persona.
“I have a picture of me and John from Halloween when he was a child; we’re both in full costume where I’m a fortune-teller and he’s a tiny pirate sitting on my lap,” Veronica Pantoja said. “Playing with costumes was just something John always loved to do, and he’s been into cosplay before we even knew about that term.”
‘GOOD FOR THE COMMUNITY’
Veronica Pantoja said her brother has always been a joker.
“He can make just about anyone laugh, so in that respect, he’s always the Corpus Christi Joker whether he’s wearing the makeup or not,” she said. “And, he’s never been a shy person, so his personality attracts attention anyway. When he’s in his alter ego role though, he is very mindful of the children around him who might look up to him, so he makes sure to remain respectful and positive.”
According to his sister, since some of Pantoja’s fans have never seen him without his makeup, people are often shocked to find out he is the Corpus Christi Joker outside of his events.
“I think it’s mainly because John is a perfectionist when it comes to his makeup application, and his makeup can almost alter the shape of his face in a way — it’s really amazing,” she said.
Pantoja said her brother has accomplished a lot as the Corpus Christi Joker.
“He’s been able to use this persona to be an invited guest at comic conventions; to teach a class about cosplay for the city recreation program (Mr. J’s Cosplay Academy); to do makeup and face painting at local stores around Halloween; to participate in local school holiday events, like reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at an area school; to participate in the Junior Buc Days parade, the local Barefoot Mardi Gras Parade, and Portland’s Windfest, among other events; and to generate a sizable following on his YouTube channel and Instagram page,” she said.
“He’s done a lot of good for the community and for just bringing people together in the name of fun. He really wants to make a difference in the community and help boost positivity — which he does!”
Follow Pantoja on Facebook under Corpus Christi Joker.