Another Dragon Con has passed. Events have been attended. Celebrities have been seen. Friends rarely seen have been hugged. Swimming pools’ worth of alcohol has been drunk. I’m worn down and exhausted, possibly coming down with some con crud, and I had a blast!
If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, Dragon Con is a four-day science fiction and fantasy convention that takes over Atlanta, GA every Labor Day weekend. The convention fills five of the city’s largest hotels, a mall, and the streets of Atlanta as thousands of fans celebrate their favorite fandoms. Everything under the sun is represented: massively popular film and television, fervently-followed and long-ended series, comic books, advanced science, magic shows, gaming (both table top and digital), and so much more. Celebrities from all across popular culture come out for Q&As and autograph signings. Massive ballroom dances and parties run throughout the night. There’s even a fantastic parade Saturday morning in the streets of downtown Atlanta if you’re actually able to wake up early enough to watch it.
Attendance this year officially topped over 70,000 people for the first time, but adding in public onlookers and employees working to service the attendees in the massive footprint the convention leaves in downtown Atlanta make the true number higher and even harder to calculate.
Attending Dragon Con is a commitment. It’s a mad race to get hotel rooms on site. The excursion required a lot of careful planning for scheduling and packing. Also, Dragon Con is murder on your job’s time off allowance. If you only go Friday through Monday, the “official” four days of the convention, you’ll feel like you’ve missed so much by the time you show up. Even on Thursday, so much has already happened with limited convention programming, themed parties, and the nearby food court already more packed than Black Friday at any mall. Thursday night at a nearby pub had already ran out of menus and gave up on seating people as the place filled up with cosplayers during a charity auction with Battlestar Galactica’s Aaron Douglas.
If costuming is your thing, Dragon Con is a mecca for you. Some of the world’s best and most inventive costumers show off their latest and greatest creations, with several professional-level prop makers having come into their own thanks to constantly making new props and costumes to be worn at Dragon Con. This year, my hands-down favorite cosplay was the Wing Zero mech from Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz, with incredibly well-crafted feathered wings.
I actually went to a surprising amount of programming this year, which is a testament to how much there is to do at Dragon Con without stepping into an actual panel. Married comic writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction told stories about the arduous effort to simply release a polybagged issue of the comic book Sex Criminals covered with hand-drawn dicks (which if that sounds like the oddly zany thing that tickles your funny bone, you should totally check that book out). I learned the complete history of Godzilla toys in America and of the sensational Japanese cooking show Iron Chef. Sesame Street’s Big Bird himself, Caroll Spinney, regaled us with his early days and what being Big Bird meant for him. Magician/internet-personality/National Geographic host Brian Brushwood swallowed fire and drove nails into his face. I even got to see a cock fight with two Sphero BB-8 droid toys from the upcoming Star Wars film, of which said toys were just released right before the convention.
This year’s masquerade was incredibly entertaining with a Korra bellydancer from the Avatar franchise and a lip-synced performance of several hit songs from the cartoon Steven Universe. The masquerade, by the way, I watched from the comfort of my hotel room, thanks to the amazingly handy and well-produced Dragon Con TV channel found in all five host hotels. In fact, I noticed several people mentioning on Twitter and Facebook about having viewing parties for the masquerade’s live broadcast instead of trying to attend. Using a system built from when Atlanta hosted the 1996 summer Olympics, all the hotels are able to share a single broadcasted channel. Dragon Con takes full advantage of that with event broadcasts and re-broadcasts, informercials, and comedic fan videos.
The costumes, the performances, and Dragon Con TV itself are great examples of the creative talent and ingenuity of Dragon Con’s attendees. The people who come to this convention and the people who work for it stretch their imaginations past their limits to make Dragon Con a wholly unique experience. Where else do you find people so dedicated to a convention that they make costumes and clothing patterned after a hotel’s carpet? (Sad to report that the Marriott Marquis is getting new carpet that’s far less colorful and interesting, but we’ll still have the costumes, dammit!)
If Dragon Con has any substantial drawback, it’s the crowding. There are just so many people, especially so many people that like the same things you do. For attending a magic show, I lined up an hour early and still got crummy seats. If you want to attend anything with a big star, plan to add at least two hours waiting in line for that one-hour event. Luckily, those tend to get re-broadcasted on Dragon Con TV anyway, so you can just chill in your room instead. However smaller events don’t often get that treatment, and there’s not a great viewing schedule for when re-broadcasts happen.
Also, good luck finding seating in the food court if you have a group with you. It’s probably better to just go to your hotel room if you’re staying at the convention.
Inevitably sometime early in the weekend, trudging through the crowds makes me question wanting to return. After all, it is a large and stressful undertaking to deal with, especially if you’re not good with crowds, just to then find out that the thing you wanted to attend is already full.
But the events I do get into and the friends I make and spend time with put those questions aside. This year, I was able to see a friend getting married in a small corner of the convention, and that only happened the way it did because many of their friends would already be there for Dragon Con. Not to mention it’s where they first met. And in true geeky fashion, they both cosplayed and gave the rings while saying, “With this ring, I thee wed and accept the End User License Agreement.”
Things like this highlight Dragon Con’s true value: the community. At first, it’s amazing enough to be around thousands of people who have the same interests as you, who have had very similar life experiences as you being the geeky, nerdy one. Here, that’s the norm. You’re the norm, and everyone welcomes you for who you are.
Over the years, your bonds with your convention friends grow stronger. As each year passes and your pile of each year’s badges grows, the convention becomes a family reunion where you catch each other up on your lives, reminisce about old con stories, bring new people into the fold, and experience new events together to talk about next year. After you leave, you go back to your normal lives. You may try to explain what happened over the weekend to your non-con friends and co-workers, but they may not quite get it because no one quite gets it like family.
And that is why I keep coming back.
Next year, I hope to switch things up with perhaps a costume, a panel, or maybe even doing something in the parade. Seeing amazingly talented people doing things drives you to do the same, and that feeling is compounded 70,000 times at Dragon Con.
Now to end on what is one of my new favorite convention stories. On an elevator ride back to my hotel room, a woman who probably wasn’t there for the convention asks the rest of us in the elevator, “Is all you do around here just walk around? Because that doesn’t seem fun.”
Just then, on a floor none of us chose, the elevator doors opened to a massive group of Stonecutters (the very same from The Simpsons) chanting “Cake” and handing us a box of half-eaten birthday cake right before the doors closed.
That same person then figured it out and said. “So that’s what you do.”
Yes it is, random elevator lady. Yes it is.