Dragon*Con: You Will (Not) Understand
by David “Blackfeather” Ramirez
It was as though I’d come home.
That’s what it felt like the first time I stepped into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency at Peachtree Center that Labor Day weekend of 2002. It’s really been ten years? Doesn’t feel like it.
It was a Thursday, before the official start of the convention. Attendees were trundling in through the glass revolving door, carts stacked five deep with luggage and delicate outfits on hangers sharing space with Igloos and cardboard boxes full of Irish whiskey and dark rum. There were families sitting down for their first meal after a long drive to Atlanta, overpriced buffet notwithstanding. Lanky high schoolers already populated the second floor balcony outside the con Hospitality Suite, waiting for the chance to fill up on free munchies, watching us all with the weird mix of envy and disdain common among teenagers. And even this early, there were attendees kitted out in costume, posing for pictures, swanning about like they owned the place. In truth, they rather did.
Dragon*Con had been going on for well over a decade now, having celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011, and the locals that occupy that one square mile of downtown Atlanta loved every year of it. Patrons of the con weren’t freakish to them for arriving in full ‘trooper armor, as Spike Spiegel, or Red Sonja. It was all just part of the show. Well behaved and generous with the drink orders. Some of the hotel staff, at least in the Hyatt, even broke out their personal Halloween garb and dressed up while working the check-in desk and restaurant during the evening shifts.
I was still a little wet behind the ears when it came to conventions. I’d been to smaller cons in the East, including Gateway Con (St. Louis), Exoticon (New Orleans), and Fantasm (also in Atlanta). But Dragon*Con was my first major, massively attended comic book and sci-fi convention. Attendance at my previous conventions numbered in the hundreds, maybe approaching one thousand. But this … this affair was over 30,000 geeks, freaks, and nerds — ten percent of which were right in front of me that afternoon in one hotel alone. It was nearly overwhelming.
And I’d come alone.
But I was used that. Back home there were no friends who would be up for this kind of fun, not to mention all the way across the country. No, if I waited around for someone to say “count me in,” I’d never go anywhere. And it wasn’t the first con I’d attended alone. It wasn’t the first time I’d flown out of town alone.
It certainly wouldn’t be the last. Why should it be when you’ve got the open road and the open sky beckoning with open arms? It’s always an adventure. Always a story to tell back home someday. And here was one real ripping tale unfolding in front of my 26-year-old eyes. I’d come alone, but I wouldn’t stay alone.
For the past 25 years, Dragon*Con has drawn thousands of fans from around the world into the humid, sweaty and sometimes rainy heart of Atlanta. Here the beat by day is the foot-pounding of the official costume parade and the zombie walk. By night it gives way to the heavy thud of the speakers from the Cruxshadows concerts and the drums … the drums, the drum circles that protest the exhaustion of the flesh and embrace the will of the spirit to carpe noctem. [I’d suggest this fragment not be its own sentence]To prolong the night by just a few precious seconds.
Dragon*Con really does have a little something for everyone. (You can go down the rabbit hole yourself at www.Dragoncon.org, or check out a brilliant PBS documentary called “Four Days at Dragon*Con” either on your local station or at video.pba.org/video/2065738625) Yes, there’s a vast amount of gaming. Yes, there are two floors of merchant tables and demos. There are panel tracks covering everything from comic books, literature and Firefly to wrestling, hard science and robot battles. There are concerts going on all day and well into the night by performers like Voltaire, Mark Gunn, the Brobdingnagian Bards and The Cruxshadows. There’s even a panel about homebrewing beer with samples given to the audience. What a great panel; the first time I found it, I sat next to an adorable pixie from Maryland who wound up making out with me all the following night.
(Never heard from her after that. A shame, really … but that’s con. Sometimes you make a longtime connection, and sometimes it lasts only until sunrise. Enjoy the time; you never know how much you have.)
Like many cons, themed parties are held in the ballrooms at night, and they are spectacular. Steampunk dances, Battlestar Galactica meetups, and Browncoat shindigs pepper the agenda, along with various raves. Not to be outdone, plenty of attendees will bring their own fun, hosting room parties themed by whatever they haven’t done in the past five years or so. One friend of mine hosted a “Cookies & Punch Social” for all her friends on opening afternoon every year, where the punch was based on whiskey sours or hurricanes and little rubber duckies were everywhere. A Southeast party crew by the name of Con*tourage hosted invitation-only parties that you could only secure admittance to with a password from their message board … and by the power of GREYSKULL, the things they did to their hotel suite make me question whether they ever got back a deposit.
A few dozen other parties, whether themed or casual, can always be found throughout the host hotels. Once you find them, once you brave the density of people pressed against each other (and not always in a fun way), you find the most amazing people. I had many friends who came to the con just for the parties, never having attended a panel or played in a tournament. You can do that at Dragon*Con.
You’ve heard this all before. Oh, the names may change: Chicago Comic Con, Phoenix ComiCon, the big wahoonie in San Diego. Or even thinking about how it all rates against events like Gen Con, or Pennsic, or E3. But you must be thinking, it’s just another big con. You’re thinking, maybe someday when I’ve won the lottery I will check it out. You’re thinking, yeah, I’ve seen and done wilder at such and such event. You’re thinking, going all the way to Georgia when there’s parties and little cons to be found right here? Not worth the expense.
You can think all of this because you don’t know. You weren’t there. The size of it, the sheer spectacle, it has to be seen, felt, tasted. You have to take the red pill.
I’ll be the first to tell you that the red pill is quite the goddamned undertaking. Those of you thinking about cost are right to think twice. Just getting there is not cheap. The airfare from Phoenix to Atlanta can range as high as $400, but can also be lower than $200 during fare sales and the presence of a Delta Airlines hub in Atlanta. Hotel rooms can approach $200 a night before tax, and unless you have roommates, the effect on your Visa bill is going to be like dropping your textbooks on your shoeless foot. That’s assuming you nail down that reservation, agreeing to the first night being put on your card as a deposit. The competition begins the morning that the room blocks open. Then there’s the badge itself, where the cheapest you can get is right after the last convention ends at about $80. However, if you buy your badge early and find yourself unable to attend, the convention does have an exchange process where you can sell it to another attendee so you won’t be out all of the money.
The good news, however small, is that once you arrive, reaching Dragon*Con is the easy part. Atlanta has a light rail called MARTA that runs from the airport directly to the Peachtree Center, so you can walk up escalators and stairs directly to the hotels. Yes, we all scream “THIS! IS! MARTA!!!”
The heat in Atlanta … the muggy heat cannot be ignored despite the presence of skybridges between the three main hotels. At some point, you will have to step onto the smoking patio, or hit the street and walk to the other hotels with panels or games running. In the Great Humid South, you have to expect that. And the crowds … you will believe that all 30-40,000 attendees are right on top of you between panels. The foot traffic within the hotels is so thick, the fire marshal has ascended from civil servant to some shadowy bogeyman, threatening to shut it all down if his demands for clear paths in case of emergency are not met. The crush of humanity will induce a mild case of claustrophobia and agoraphobia simultaneously, making one long for the nice air-conditioned hotel room where you can watch some of the popular panels on the “Dragon*Con TV” bumpers broadcast on the hotel closed circuit TV. There are people who have stopped going precisely because of the crowds, they’re that thick.
The red pill is not to be taken lightly. But worth it? Fuck yeah.
Fandom, for as long as I’ve been going to cons, has been an open, accepting community. It’s why I’ve found fan groups to join and hang with, such as T.H.E.M. at ASU, the Phoenix Fan Force (may she rest in peace), the Browncoats, the Dark Ones, even the Southwest Costumers Guild. But I’ve never been anywhere else I could literally stumble into private room parties, where you have to know who’s hosting, and still was let in because of new friends I’d just met that afternoon. I’ve never been anywhere else I could watch a live demo of a violet wand on a sub’s piercings in a hotel room because I happened to mention to the right person in the bar that I was bored. I’ve never been anywhere else where I could sit on the patio at ten in the morning before the reg desk opens, toasting to the forthcoming weekend with people I’ve just met and sipping the finest whiskey from flasks and dollar bottles that we happened to have on our person. Ten in the fucking morning. I’ve never been to any other event where the attendees feel so protective that they declare each other “Backup” to security in case there’s a costumed girl being hassled by drunken sports fans just because we share the same hotel.
Maybe you’ve been someplace like this. I know you have stories of your own, you’ve been to cons with your friends, thrown parties, gotten shit-faced in the company of people you can trust to pour you back into your room and laugh about it the next morning. But not like this.
It’s not only what you find there, it’s what you take away. If not for Dragon*Con, I’d never have sought out the Phoenix Fan Force or attended my first DarkCon, in search of that same sense of belonging and fun at home that I’d found in Atlanta. I’d never have stuck around the Dark Ones till they finally made me a member. I’d have never met my best friend Katie, who despite living all the way in Tennessee knows me better than anyone and has my back even when I’m being shtoopid.
That’s why I would tell fellow members of the Fan Force and Dark Ones to try to bring more people to this mad event. And once or twice, I even succeeded. An adventure is better when it can be shared. That, you will understand.
You see, it isn’t the size of Dragon*Con that sets it apart. It’s not the width, breadth and depth of the activities pumping at all hours. It’s not the location, that’s for sure. It’s all of that together, plus that intense feeling of community, of belonging. It all comes together as this enormous, fantastic second life where you feel that for one long weekend, you’ve come well and truly home. Where even if they don’t know your name, even if they won’t remember, they’ll ask and shake your hand because they’re glad to see you. That’s fantastic.
That’s why I’ll go back. I’ll always go back. Even if I do it alone again, because once I’m there, once I feel the tiles of the Hyatt lobby and the buzz in the air, I can close my eyes and believe I’m where I belong. That I’m not alone. Dragon*Con proved that to me. And I will never, ever be alone.
That’s Dragon*Con. You will (not) understand.