Dragon Con bills itself as the “the largest multi-media and popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, pop art, designer toys, literature, art, music, film, and fun in the universe.” This year, Dragon Con staff members told me that attendance was over 50,000 people, who took over five hotels in downtown Atlanta. (The San Diego Comic-Con brought in 126,000 people this year.) Amazingly, practically the entire Dragon Con staff is composed of unpaid volunteers: workers told me there were around 1,000 volunteers — Atlanta Magazine puts the number at 2,000 — and that only three people get paid. It is, in a word, huge. And almost everybody’s in costume.
And Star Wars is still the single biggest cultural force at Dragon Con.
At least if you’re using the annual Dragon Con costume parade as the measuring stick. The most massive section of the 3500-person parade, by far, was the Star Wars contingent, which dwarfed any other single franchise. This is perhaps the most fascinating thing about Dragon Con — while nerd culture has increasingly become intertwined and conflated with internet culture (think Reddit, ROFLcon, E3, etc. etc.), what’s on display at Dragon Con is mostly offline nerd culture. It’s movies, comics, genre fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, and it’s largely top-down culture: While cosplayers at Dragon Con frequently remix genre tropes and well-known franchises — zombie Stormtroopers and steampunk Batmans ran amok — what attendees performed and discussed and mimicked, more often than not, were products of larger cultural machines, like Hollywood or the comic book industry. Not wholly original creations generated by and for Dragon Con, the way the internet often generates and spreads its own cultural memes.
At the same time, nearly everybody I talked to insisted that what made Dragon Con special was that it was “by and for the fans,” as Jane, dressed up as Lady Loki, expressed to me while we stood in the middle of the Marriott hotel, which felt very much like the center of a bee’s nest with thousands of attendees buzzing by us, zipping between the three levels of the hotel. “All of the other [cons] are very commercialized, but this is the fan version of it. This is for us,” explained a girl dressed up as Twili from one of the most recent Legend of Zelda games for the Wii. One of a couple of Links in her group added, “This is a completely different feeling [than other cons]. It’s got all of it in one giant mix.” There are 42 tracks at Dragon Con.
These two My Little Pony costumes are only one of a handful of very internet-y costumes I saw all weekend, along with one guy with a Reddit head, a couple Sexy Sax Mans and a nyan cat. And I saw thousands of costumes. Obviously the communities that come to Dragon Con — the Star Wars and comics and Joss Whedon and six billion other kinds of fans — use the internet to organize and talk and form, well, communities, but there was little evidence of any kind of manifestation of what has come to be defined as internet culture. A side effect is that, well, it’s nicer.
Reddit’s misogynistic streak is well documented, for instance, and a lot of what’s come to be defined (rightly or wrongly) as nerd culture — particularly videogame culture — has, to be diplomatic about it, problems with women. This strikingly isn’t the case at Dragon Con, despite being very much a “nerd thing.” The gender ratio is nearly equal (men still out numbered women slightly, from what I could tell).
More importantly, what nearly every woman I talked to had to say about Dragon Con was totally positive. Kat, who has a two-costume-a-day habit, dressed up as a character from Witchblade above, said that “for the longest time it’s been a very male dominated area, but now especially at a lot of the cons I go to it’s very balanced” and that Dragon Con in particular is “definitely a lot more polite” compared to other cons. In other words, people “aren’t touching you inappropriately. If anything, they put their arm around your shoulder and they ask.”
When I talked to Veronica Belmont before her Vaginal Fantasies podcast with Felicia Day, she said that there was definitely something different about Dragon Con — it’s a favorite of hers and Day’s — and the way that women fit into the culture there. It’s partly because much of Dragon Con is rooted in genre fiction, which has always been more open to women, she explained, as well as the fact that the crowd at Dragon Con is a bit older and more family oriented — much of the crowd has been coming for a long time (Dragon Con is 26 years old). Also, the lack of an aggressive videogame culture at Dragon Con probably helps. (The slice of videogame culture represented by the sniper above was vastly outnumbered by more family-friendly videogames, like Mario and Zelda, and even they disappeared into the throngs of movie and comic book cosplayers.)
Jessica, a Con-goer and professional corsetiere dressed up as a character from Venture Bros, echoed the sentiment that Dragon Con “is the best con” and that “the groups all mesh pretty well at this one.” A fellow Venture cosplayer, Christina, added, “Everybody really appreciates the craftmanship here [in the costumes].”
Christina admitted that “I get my boobs looked at a lot. Boobs are a big hit at Dragon Con.” Still, moments of genuine creepiness appear to be rare. Another Venture cosplayer, Sara, said she had a single creepy moment, “but the guy was schwasted [sic] and he was a dick and security took care of him instantly.” And she refused to let even the occasional “creepier stares” dictate what she wore — at the moment, a costume with an exposed midriff and lots of cleavage — because, she explained, “I’m not gonna hide my body because it may or may not offend you,” adding, “but I’m not going to be slutty about it.”
Lady Loki was the second most popular character costume I saw all weekend — falling just behind Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck — partly because of the Avengers film and partly because it’s “one of the few comic book female costumes where you actually are 99.9 percent covered,” guessed Jay, who helped Jane with her Lady Loki costume. The flip side, explained Jane, is that “in costumes where you’re more covered you have to work really hard to make sure people are taking your picture and looking at you. There’s higher scrutiny in the detail and craftmanship of what you’re doing.”
A wholly original creation, the Captain Hero suit completely follows the three rules of awesome costuming: make it gigantic, make it detailed and fill it with expensive electronics, like an iPad and Android tablet. The suit, along with the two companion suits worn by Jeff’s two kids, took three-and-a-half months to put together.
Jeff, who owns a boat company, says he came to Dragon Con as a robot last year “but it wasn’t as impressive.”
From the videogame Skyrim, this costume won one of the major costume contests — there are a lot of costume contests — on Friday night because of its intricate details. It was constructed from scratch with goat skin, fox fur, linen and completely original metalwork. One secret behind the best costumes is that the people building them to tend to be professionals: this dude works with props professionally. You need to be that obsessive to get past the judges — one explained at length how much they hate seams that aren’t smooth and it was the difference between a winning costume and a total looooser.
Ron has been the Crunk Jedi for four years. He decided he wanted to be a Jedi, but couldn’t figure out how to make the costume his until he saw a Lil Jon video. “Dragon Con keeps me young,” he said, without ever telling me his age. As I walked away, he let a “YEAHHHHH” rip through the air.
Oscar, a con-circuit regular with $5000 worth of camera gear dangling from this neck, explained that he loves shooting cosplayers as a hobby because he likes shooting portraits and there are “lots of interesting outfits and lots of people willing to pose for you.” With traditional portraits shoots, on other hand, “you have to pay the models.” Dragon Con is a favorite — he’s been coming from California since 1997 — but he also shoots a lot of “non-con cosplay,” where “cosplayers go off to a park or some other scenic location and do a shoot for an hour or two or three, away from con, where there’s a nice background.”
Even the salad dressing dresses up at Dragoncon.
A woman behind me told somebody next to her, “Hey it’s Stan Lee! You know, that guy from Big Bang Theory!” And America wept.
The Dragon Con Parade destroyed AT&T.
All photos by me.