“I’m baffled and completely confused,” said Kevin Lacey of the Peculiar Pretzelmen about his first Dragon Con experience. I totally relate. I didn’t know what to expect at Dragon*Con, and I could not have imagined the bizarre enormity of the largest fan-run multimedia popular culture convention in the universe.
When my band Mad Tea Party, aka Mad Tea, was asked to play Dragon*Con, we jumped at the chance. We felt confident that our oddball sound and songs about zombies and ghouls would fit right in. Not only that, but by playing we got a booth where we could sell our records and my bandmate Krekel’s lino prints Krekprints which feature horror movie stars, skeletons and devils. Pop art, if you will.
Dragon*Con is held in five hotels in the center of downtown Atlanta, Ga. The dramatic architecture of the hotels, especially the Marriott, contributed a surreal, space-age feel. Attendance was estimated at 50,000. Fifty thousand people! I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to an event of that size. Not only that, but the majority of those 50,000 were wearing elaborate costumes. It was dizzying.
Costuming (or “cos play”) is one of the main aspects of Dragon*Con. People went all out. I saw characters from movies, cartoons, video games, TV shows, toys, other cultures and every era of human history (and the future). There were monsters, pirates, steampunks, superheroes, barbarians, zombies, soldiers, vampires, wizards, robots, toys, aliens, rock stars, sex slaves and even a group dressed as the entire cast of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Of course there were Princess Leas, Storm Troopers, Spocks and other Star Wars and Star Trek characters. I rarely watch movies and I don’t read comics or play video games so I didn’t recognize most of the costumes. Krekel did, though. Conversations about geek minutiae were rampant. I felt like I was in another country (or on another planet). It was exhausting processing all of the input.
For every photo I snapped, there were ten more I wanted to take. The steady stream of mind-blowing costumes was just too much to keep up with. I’d be remiss not to mention that there were tons of gorgeous women (and men) in tiny costumes/body suits and high-heeled boots. Some were topless. Some were spilling out of their corsets. Butt cheeks were everywhere. And amidst all of this eye-candy was a sea of men (and women, but mostly men) not in costume but carrying huge cameras, shooting away like crazy. It was an interesting dynamic to observe.
The folks in costumes (including, or perhaps especially, the scantily-clad women) wanted to be photographed. Most had set poses they got into for photos. In fact, I read in the program guide that many of the stars at Dragon*Con only allowed photos when they were “properly posed.”
Speaking of the program guide, that was another aspect of Dragon*Con — programming. With five hotels full of meeting rooms, there was an obscene amount going on. The program guide had 127 pages of panels and talks and workshops. There were set times and places to get your favorite actor/artist/writer autograph. There were costume contests, such as the “Comic Book Babes” contest. Fan tracks included Sci-Fi Media, Dark Fantasy/Horror, Gaming, Science, Anime, Space, Paranormal Activity, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, etc, etc, etc. At one point I peeked into a huge room filled with hundreds of people watching a full-on wrestling match. Krekel actually attended a few talks. He saw Carrie Fisher, William Shatner, filmmaker Lloyd Kauffman, the creators of the Venture Brothers and artist Ralph Bakshi.
Then of course there were the parties and concerts and balls. Mad Tea played two sets (one Friday and one Saturday) on the Concourse Stage. Our sets fell between films and panels in the adjoining ballrooms, so even though it was our first time at Dragon*Con, we got to play for big crowds. It was a blast. In addition, Mad Tea played the “Villain’s Ball” on Saturday night. Hosted by the “Brit Track” folks, the Sheraton Grand Ballroom was filled with mischievous characters that we were happy to entertain.
The only other Asheville act at Dragon*Con was Hellblinki. With its punk-gypsy-pirate sound, Hellblinki is a natural for Dragon*Con. This was their third year and they had a number of appearances over the course of the weekend, including sharing the stage with Con favorite Voltaire.
There were whole floors of vendors and artist booths. The owners of soon-to-be-opened Asheville gallery ZaPow were in attendance, recruiting artists. Dragon*Con was a great place to be if you were looking for a light saber, chain mail or metal googles for your steampunk outfit. Krekel stocked up on bargain comic books and horror movies.
Dragon*Con is run by a team of 1,800 volunteers. I was impressed with how well organized everything was. Even with the staggering logistics involved, things ran smoothly and on time. Of course there were long lines (even around the hotels at times) but it never got out of hand. Hotel staff and volunteers kept people moving and miraculously managed to keep the Fire Marshal satisfied. Dragon*Con was also very accommodating to people with disabilities. In fact, there was a “Disabilities Services” team focused on accessibility. Another thing that struck me about Dragon*Con was the ethnic diversity of the attendees. I guess I didn’t expect that.
All weekend “Dragon*Con TV” played in all of the hotel rooms, screening the panels and scenes from around the con. The “Daily Dragon” newsletter (printed each day), Dragon*Con Twitter accounts and a smart phone app kept people up to date on programming changes and lost and found (i.e., “Lost in the Westin, silver sword with red hilt”). There was even a very successful blood drive (vampires!).
Over my time at Dragon*Con, I felt a variety of emotions, ranging from inspiration to fear. I also felt an overwhelming sense of kinship. The event attracted all kinds of people, but I suspect that many if not most consider themselves “nerds” in some way. Misfits, as it were. Outsiders. But at Dragon*Con they could be anything. They could be playful and weird without feeling judged. In fact, they were surrounded by others interested in the same things, ready to play with them. It was touching.
Or maybe I was just projecting my own insecurities, imagining that this collection of people understood what it’s like to feel misunderstood. I wanted to comfort myself believing that they too struggle with wanting to be more popular or with feeling left out. But I could be wrong. Perhaps the uninhibited self-expression and confidence I saw at Dragon*Con is an everyday occurrence for those folks. I sure hope so.
— Ami Whoa