Dragon Con 2013 has wrapped, and it was once again an incredible four-day party in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Is there some bias coming from me as an Atlanta resident? Absolutely. But one of the things that continues to surprise me every year is how the majority of people I meet at the con aren’t from Atlanta or even the southeast (or sometimes even the United States).
Dragon Con differentiates itself from other cons, like San Diego and New York, by having a bias towards fantasy and sci-fi. But that’s only part of the story. What really makes Dragon Con (yes, they ditched the asterisk because they bought the bad guy out) so unique though is that it is truly a con for fans and people who perhaps — though not necessarily — identify largely as misfits. Plus, where else can you find a Whedonverse panel, a marionette cabaret, and Mythbuster Adam Savage wandering the convention floor all in one day? Hit the jump for 5 things you may not know about Dragon Con.
1. It’s not about the size, but what you do with it.
Dragon Con reportedly had an attendance of around 52,000 last year (although the data is hard to pin down), making it seem small in the shadow of San Diego’s mega Comic Con. But Dragon Con remains one of the biggest conventions of the year, and the largest that deals specifically with fantasy genres (including anime, gaming, alternative history, robotics and scientific skepticism, in addition to sci-fi and fantasy literature and TV).
The fact that the con is spread out over five Atlanta hotels is another endearing quirk that also helps mitigate feelings of overcrowding. The hotels (one whose interior resembles the vertebrate of a giant whale) are all clustered together, but con attendees can still be seen walking around between and around them, interacting with onlookers and curious SEC fans (college kickoff weekend is hosted just down the street at the Georgia Dome), and roasting slightly in the late August heat. The hotel staff and the con’s 1500 volunteers also deserve a mention and major kudos for keeping crowds moving and preventing costumes from getting stuck in escalators all weekend. The control of the chaos is astounding.
2. You can let your freak flag fly
One of the biggest draws Dragon Con has in the Atlanta community is its Saturday morning parade, which brings in an incredible number of people who might not attend the rest of the con, but who are still interested in seeing Stormtroopers on the march, or Aliens and Predators creep down Peachtree Street. But the family-friendly parade is in contrast to Dragon Con “after dark” (after 10pm, to be specific), where more adult-themed panels, burlesque shows, and punk ragers go late into the night. There’s a time and place for pretty much every passion — indeed, some of which are X rated. Dragon Con also does have the reputation as a hookup con …
3. It’s all about the fans
This bullet point is on a more personal note. I don’t have a lot of experience with other cons, but I would challenge any of them to come close to the niceties and good vibes that permeate Dragon Con. Everyone is chatty, everyone wants to talk about their fandoms or about their con experience. And while some friends you make waiting in line* are friends just for that moment, there are still others you end up becoming genuinely close to and look forward to meeting up with year after year. I’ve spent Dragon Con days by myself and with friends, and both are equally fun because there are always people to connect with. The C.S. Lewis quote is alive and well: “friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
* — One thing that helps with fairness and letting people experience as much of the con as they can is that you cannot line up officially for any panel earlier than one hour before it starts. Granted, you can usually unofficially loiter for a lot longer if you want to get in the very front, but you didn’t hear that from me.
4. It’s easy to get on the right track
The Dragon Con schedule can be overwhelming, but having “tracks” — i.e. categories — can help fans absorb everything related to their passions. Following, say, the BritTrack will lead you to all of the panels and discussions about Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Sherlock and more.
Though there are recognizable faces from TV that show up every year (last year there was the main cast of Battlestar Galactica, True Blood and others, this year saw Eliza Dushku and Nicholas Brendon for a Whedonverse panel, plus William Shatner, Lucy Lawless, Billy Dee Williams and Lou Ferrigno and more), some of the best panels are the smaller ones, or ones with authors or artists. One of the best panels I attended this year was on Horatio Hornblower. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt there are many cons who could fill a room with rabid fans devoted to an early 1950s book series and A&E TV series from the late 1990s about the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
What’s even better is that there doesn’t seem to be studio pressure pushing the celebrity appearances — the panelists want to be there, and are moved by the devotion of the fans, who have a great time interacting with them (they seem to enjoy it, too. I wasn’t kidding about Adam Savage, Phil Plait and others just wandering the con enjoying it for themselves and talking casually with fans).
5. Expect the unexpected
Beyond panels, discussion groups and the costume contests lies all kinds of things that one might not expect from any other kind of con. There are late night puppet slams, steampunk bands, “adult origami” classes, an Avengers Ball, zombie task force meet-ups, and everything that can be imagined. Dragon Con doesn’t just celebrate fantasy, it kind of is its own fantasy adventure.
Look, Dragon Con isn’t perfect, and it’s not for everyone (although it probably really is). It’s weird and wacky and entertaining. Even though it’s not as flashy as some other cons, it has a feeling that just makes its participants happy because of a carnival kind of atmosphere. Refreshingly, the only “weirdos” at Dragon Con are the ones who aren’t in on the fun.