While walking the crowded skybridge between the Marriott and the Hyatt, I saw the best costume of the con. It was a guy in the cheapest Iron Man outfit ever – red & gold long sleeve shirt, red pants, and a mask constructed from paper with a picture of Iron Man’s helmet scribbled in crayon held on with a rubber band. On his chest he taped a sheet of paper confidently proclaiming “NAILED IT”.
That costume says a lot about DragonCon for me, at least about the best of DragonCon. It’s unique; there are no other costumes like it. It’s self-referential and pleasantly self-effacing. It’s fannish but not slavish. It’s born out of a sense of fun. The guy was clearly amusing himself, but trying to draw others into his ridiculous vision. Pop culture co-opted and reflected by fans.
DragonCon, if you don’t know, is a massive convention dedicated to science fiction/fantasy popular culture. It is held in Atlanta, Georgia every year on Labor Day weekend. Exact numbers are unclear, but it likely attracts around 75,000 people in an event spread over five large hotels and a sizeable convention space, with most other hotels in central Atlanta filled with attendees. There are many pop culture events in America, but DragonCon has a reputation for being uniquely vibrant and borderline chaotic. While others are bigger, none have the buzz of DragonCon, except perhaps San Diego ComicCon. Those two events are similar in content, but very different in approach. DragonCon is a convention while ComicCon is a corporate trade show. It is dominated by the major media companies such as Disney, SONY, and FOX and for all its crowds and bustle, it has the feel of being well managed and moderated. Old-timers gripe about how “in the old days” ComicCon was about comics, but now it’s all “Hollywood”. I can understand their complaints, but in all honesty, that’s why I like it. For those of us not in the entertainment industry, ComicCon has the feel of a big Hollywood event. You can pretend you’re in the “business” for a weekend. Plus, San Diego is freaking awesome.
DragonCon is not like that at all. Atlanta in early September is not always (or ever) pleasant. It’s hot and sticky. DragonCon eschews the participation of media corporations, by and large. Certainly there are movie and tv stars aplenty, but there are no gigantic display spaces dedicated to studios or game companies. DragonCon is not as organized and herded; it’s a wild bustling amoeba of people who somehow manage to accomplish a joint goal, or at least struggle towards it. It’s like a hive that doesn’t communicate quite as well as it should. But that energy is what makes DragonCon both appealing and frustrating. As with any event, jerks can always spoil the experience.
Susan and I have been attending DragonCon since 1989, off and on. On our first trip the entire convention was held in the Hilton hotel. In 2002, we felt it had changed into less of a convention and more of a party that didn’t suit our goals. We stopped going for nearly a decade until 2010 when The Greyfriar came out and our publisher, PYR Books, had a booth. We found a new purpose for DragonCon and we found a convention family led by our editor, Lou Anders. The experiences over the next few years were the best times we ever had at conventions; and we’ve been to a lot of them.
I felt burn-out coming again last year. The ever-increasing mass of the convention, the move of the Dealers’ Room into the unpleasant cavelike AmericasMart, and the fact that I seemed to be getting sick during the con, made me look forward to it less and less. Susan never wavered in her excitement; she was ready to go at any time. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about this year. In fact, I was planning to lay out at least a few years after this one.
However, as I’m writing this, we just drove seven hours home today, and I would go back tomorrow. DragonCon has worked its strange, dark magic on me again. We had an incredibly wonderful time this year. We worked a number of great panels, and even had people seek us out later to tell us how much they enjoyed them. That means a lot. The Dealers’ Room, which had once been a top attraction for us at DragonCon, was accessible again in a newer, larger, better space (still inferior to the old Marriott ballroom, but the con just outgrew that). We saw a lot of our old friends, and felt newly embraced into our community.
Even these days, where you have instant access to friends, colleagues, and strangers via social media, there is no real substitute for face-to-face conversation. My favorite memories of DragonCon, this year and every year, are the talks, usually in a bar, but also in coffee shops, hallways, sidewalks, sometimes close whispers, sometimes shouts over the background din. The waves. The hugs. The hopeful promises to see each other next year. The unspoken recognition that we are a lucky crowd.
Like life, DragonCon is unpredictable, for good and bad. Turning any corner reveals an amazing costume or unexpectedly peculiar sight. A relaxing beer on the final night is interrupted by an Adam West/Burt Ward-era Batman and Robin running through the bar desperate to dispose of their ludicrous long-fused bomb hoisted high overhead. It can be a beautiful thing.
And the fact is it’s nice to have a little reinforcement that we’ve achieved something in our profession. We love to meet fans of our books (what author wouldn’t?). And we love to see the shine of interest in new readers when we tell them the premise of either Vampire Empire or Crown & Key, and they say “That’s sounds good.” Also, many years ago we used to go to conventions to talk to authors and try to find out how to get published. We were shy, hopeful writers and many authors were kind to us. Now we are mindful of that, and grateful for whatever small opportunity we may have to stoke the enthusiasm of a shy hopeful writer.
So as you can see, DragonCon is more than a convention to us. It’s a moment we share with both friends and strangers. But it is just a moment, and then it’s over and we go back to work. It isn’t the real world. It appears every year and then vanishes. Like that guy in the cheap Iron Man costume. I didn’t get a picture of him because the con rules are “no pictures on the skybridge.” Even the fantasy world of DragonCon has some rules, and the chief rule is that when Labor Day weekend is over, so is DragonCon. The cheap Iron Man guy no longer exists. But he did. And he nailed it.