A look behind the veil at the parts of Dragon Con you never knew existed.
In looking into Dragon Con’s history, as presented by its own website, there are several things missing, noticeable only to those who have been around the Con and Atlanta for a long enough time. First, a lot of emphasis is placed on the founders of the con as the driving force behind its growth, finding ways to bring more high profile guests to Atlanta for their then small-time convention.
In 2003, James Marsters, the actor known best for playing vampire Spike onBuffy the Vampire Slayer, is listed as the feature guest who broke all the con’s previous logistics, along with a number of others, driving attendance up by 30%. Up until this point, Dragon Con really was a con with an intimate feel. The potentially apocryphal story of co-founder Pat Henry walking down Peachtree watching a Salvation Army parade aside, the now annual parade is a huge draw for the city in general, not just for the now enormous number of attendees. What was once a hotel convention has grown to include 5 full hotels and two entire buildings of a wholesale trade center in downtown Atlanta. Fifteen years after the growth explosion of 2003, I’m not sure any lessons have actually been learned.
The biggest item scrubbed from the Dragon Con website is the story of Ed Kramer, he who shall not be named in the Atlanta fan community. A founder of the convention, Kramer was charged with child molestation in 2000, and according to reports from con leadership, was later removed from operational control. He was not arrested and tried until many years later due to purported health concerns. Regardless of that fact, Kramer continued to draw money from the convention as 34% owner until 2013 when he sued for more profit from the convention. This is where the story really came to light, including the $154,000 he earned from the convention in 2011. A small social media effort was made to punish Dragon Con for allowing Kramer to stay on board for as long as it did, but little remains of the effort, if anything.
In the past five years, the convention certainly has changed in positive ways, including making daylight hours content more family friendly and by adding this year’s newest track: Diversity in Speculative Fiction. With so many persons of color, women, and LGBTQ+ fans and stars alike involved in all aspects of fandom, this makes perfect sense. The response to the Black Panther section of the parade (complete with a huge panther towed along accompanied by their own live DJ) should be a sign of the rise in popularity of inclusiveness in fandom. In a city as diverse as Atlanta with one of the highest-grossing movies of all time in Black Panther, this one is a no-brainer. The only frustrating thing here is why it wasn’t started sooner.
I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about that second convention, the one that taped off Disney-esque queue lines in the actual street on Portman Blvd for when the line down, around, and behind the block didn’t have enough room for all the people trying to get into the Vendors’ area. The one that I saw stop a vendor from getting back to his booth because the Fire Marshal wouldn’t let anyone in. The one that continues to feel that a reported 80,000 people can fit in several hotels without a real convention space. The other convention is the one I went to on Sunday, and the one I see in so many social media posts. This is the one created and controlled by the fans.
Dragon Con is set up as dozens of small Baronies, run in the fiefdom of an all-powerful circle of Lords. These tracks range from an actual scholarly convention focused on Comics and Popular Arts culture (CPAC) to the aforementioned Diversity track, to those focused on more traditional nerdy things like Star Trek, Star Wars, or British TV to name a few.
In 2018, thirty-six separate tracks held panels and events at the convention. If a con-goer knows their tribe, they can fill an entire weekend with events in Alternative History (including a fully stocked Alternative History Museum) or Puppetry. A massive ballroom is open as a Walk of Fame with celebrities signing autographs or taking selfies for (mostly) reasonable fees. This year, featured guests included 16-time World Champion Ric Flair, perennial guest Lou Ferrigno, 90210 and Sharknado star Ian Ziering, and Jyoti Amge, the smallest woman in the world. Of course, I am poking a bit of fun at the insanely varied list that also included Doctor Who (Peter Capaldi), 3 former Who companions (Pearl Mackie, Catherine Tate, and Karen Gillan), 2 Guardians of the Galaxy (Pom Klementieff and the aforementioned Gillan), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and dozens of other well-known actors, artists, and writers from all over fandom.
Inside each track, panels, events, and parties are organized and held in sometimes exclusive little worlds of their own, tucked away in corners of hotels or walled off into purpose-built spaces in the Apparel Mart. Once one is truly in one or more of these tracks, the world of Dragon Con really opens up. Puppetry panels featuring the stars of Sesame Street? Enough to make even the most jaded English teacher cry as she talks to Bob McGrath about how he helped her learn to read. Q&As about shows long-since cancelled (yes, Firefly, but others as well) featuring the shows’ actors? Step right this way. And that way. And across the street twice this hour. How-to-sew panels near how-to-draw panels next to how-to-write panels next to how-to-podcast panels, all featuring professionals or dedicating amateurs, sharing their crafts. This is where the street-level Dragon Con shines. Each track is essentially self-contained, run by volunteers, and dedicated to their niche.
Where Dragon Con made its international reputation however, involves cosplay and partying. Known to many as “Nerdy Gras” or the drunken revelry where a convention broke out, Dragon Con’s after-hours shenanigans are legendary, not only in fandom, but in the entertainment industry among frequent guests. In the heyday of Battlestar Galactica, half of the main cast could be found after hours partying from room-to-room in the Marriott. This year, I was in the room when Tom Kenny, voice of Sponge Bob and lead of Tom Kenny & The Hi-Seas, told us that he got con passes for eccentric bassist Bootsie Collins and his wife, Princess Peppermint Patty, who both arrived in full Bootsie Collins gear and passed unnoticed through the crowds. Dragon Con after dark rocks if that’s the scene you seek.
Cosplay is an all day affair, raising the stakes and the quality every year. For weeks before the convention, attendees will post schedules of their planned costumes, often multiple per day. No guests, mind you, just attendees. The quality and inventiveness of these costumes is often matched by the enthusiasm from the cosplayers. They will pose in hotel lobbies for hours on end, saying yes to every photo request. They will walk the streets of Atlanta proudly moving from building to building, stopping for con-goers and regular Atlantans alike to marvel at their work. The hours spent are mind-numbing, but worth it. Even celebrity attendees, like WWE’s Xavier Woods (not a guest, by the way, just attending as a fan) participate enthusiastically. This year, Woods’ crowning achievement was attending Saturday night parties dressed as WWE Superstar Asuka while his partner in fandom, wrestling costume designer Mikal Mosley, dressed as the Queen herself, Charlotte Flair.
In Part III, I want to explore the arguments for and against changes to Dragon Con and where I think improvements could be made for the benefit of all involved.