As has been said before, and will again, it’s been a long strange ride.
I’m pretty sure no one ever expected DragonCon would grow the way it has. Every year, it just gets bigger. And then, the next year, bigger still. And so on, and so on. Until now, here we are, tapping on seventy thousand fans. And, least you misunderstand, that’s nearly 70K individuals; fan cons don’t play numbers games like ‘mundane’ normal business conventions do by counting each badge each day as one (so someone who attended a Golf Convention three days would count for three in the numbers that Golf Con report in their press releases).
I missed the first DragonCon. My family had just moved up from Florida somewhere around 86 or 87, I was just a kid and it gets fuzzy thinking that far back. But I remember finding the flyer at a comic store for the 1988 DragonCon. It sounded so neat. I never expected to be able to go, but I did. I spent the whole weekend at the Omni Hotel, wandering around. I played Dungeons and Dragons, and computer games; both whenever I could. I read comics at the time (I didn’t give up my Avengers and Spiderman habits until both books went to $1.25 each; that was my limit). I read constantly, and nearly all of it science fiction. I was raised on Star Wars, dreamed of superheroes, and had the sort of fantasy life only geeks get.
The thing I’ve always liked about DragonCon can be best summed up with something that happened when I was watching the Masquerade. I couldn’t tell you the year. My first DC, I was twelve. This happened somewhere before I started driving, I remember that much, so it had to be about 1989 or 1990, plus or minus a year or two. Anyway, the Masquerade is the costume contest. The actual costume portion ended, and they said the judges would confer for a few minutes to figure out and tally up votes. Then the lights dimmed a little and the Looney Toons logo appeared on the screens.
It was obvious almost immediately what was playing; Duck Dogers, the Daffy Duck spoof of Buck Rogers. I loved both. I watched Buck Rogers whenever it was on. In fact, a few years ago, I got caught having a ‘fan moment’ by Erin Gray when she saw me staring at her with my mouth agape; I just couldn’t believe it was her (and she still looks just about as fantastic as she did in the 80s). So, sitting on my chair in the ballroom back then, packed in with the rest of the crowd, I was pretty happy that cartoon was on. What a great way to pass the time while boring math gets done.
Then the audience began shouting. “Duck Dogers, in the 24th and a half century!” nearly the entire ballroom screamed in unison with the overconfident animated duck on the screen. I nearly fell out of my chair. It was unexpected. It was loud. But it was great. It was so incredibly great.
This is always the thing I think of, and answer with, if someone asks me what it is about DragonCon. Why is a convention fun. What is the point of going? That’s why. It has faded somewhat these days, with the rise of the internet enabling people to connect with each other no matter their interests or physical separation. And as popular tastes have begun to be invaded by us geeks, with our computers and superheroes and space movies and video games and so on. But in the 80s and 90s, geeks were a minority. People saw you reading a D&D book or a SF novel, and you were weird. People heard you spent your weekend playing games on a TRS-80 or Commodore 64 and it made you strange. Only kids were supposed to watch cartoons, not teenagers.
But sitting there, regaining my balance on the chair and settling my backpack on my lap once more, I was just overwhelmed with a sense of YES! There, in that place, at that moment, I was surrounded with people who were as into the things I liked as I was. I knew that cartoon nearly by heart; I still do, in fact. It’s just that funny, that cool. It had never occurred to me, even though I had been going to DragonCon for a few years by that point, that others would be that involved with it too. It is a powerful feeling, one that’s very hard to describe.
Every year, at DragonCon, in the heart of a southern city that’s full of football and gun enthusiasts, full of farmers and transplanted city folk, full of people who are as normal as any mundane folk get . . . for a little while, the geeks rule the roost. You get that many people together, who all share the same interests, and it’s just . . . awesome. It’s amazing. It’s FUN. For one weekend a year, DragonCon gathers tens of thousands of fans into one place to celebrate being fans. For that one weekend, we outnumber the normal people. At DragonCon, we’re the majority. We’re not weird. You’re only weird at DragonCon if you don’t get why people are wearing every costume you can’t imagine, when you only maybe understand one conversation out of twenty, when you can’t place all the t-shirts and books and posters and games people are carrying around, talking about, and geeking out over.
And, the truly beautiful thing, is we don’t actually all have the same interests. DragonCon covers hundreds and hundreds of subgroups of fandom. I promise you, no matter what obscure show or book or comic or toy or thing you’re into, there are others at DragonCon who are into it too. 60s Doctor Who, obviously. Anime, definitely. Comics, absolutely. The latest genre tv shows and movies, no doubt. But ham radios and hackers too. Robot builders. Costumers, from the most staid historical Victorian seamstresses to the most modern replica Iron Man armorers. Gamers of every video and board and card variety imaginable. Making and singing punny folk songs about fandom. And on and on.
In 1991 I started volunteering. I was always broke as a kid, and even though the early DragonCons only cost about $30 for the weekend, that was a lot. I found out I could work the convention, helping behind the scenes, and get my badge for free. I spent three years as a role playing game master, then transferred to Signage and worked on what soon became the Daily Dragon (signage, which is printing the hundreds of signs that appear around the hotels at the con, was split into its own department). Then I transferred again to Media Relations, and helped acclimate journalists and answer questions for them as they set up shots or worked on their stories.
The ugly specter of internal politics reared its head in the late 00s, and one thing led to another before I switched to Information Services and answered questions from new fans who were lost in the sprawling maze of five hotels and over fifty thousand fellow fans. Then I switched yet again and became a TechOps pirate, arrr, which is more or less the heart of nearly everything that happens at the con. Now, if my math is up to the task, I’m a year shy of thirty years of behind-the-scenes at DragonCon. The only thing I’ve been a part of longer has been my love of Star Wars. That’s gotta count for something.
Yes, it has been a long and strange ride. Every year is bigger, is better. You never know what you’ll see. Each ultimate memory, each number one awesome experience, keeps getting topped. The first time I saw the Crossed Swords perform, it was amazing. I still vividly remember the Highlander skit they did in the 90s, which started as them doing one of their standard stage combat routines before a really tall guy dressed as the Kurgan and carrying a broadsword nearly as big as he was appeared from the back of the room and challenged them to duels to the death. That routine included fake blood, a gunshot, took something like fifteen minutes, and was just amazing. Better than most movies, by far, I’d seen at the time and since.
I was one of the people responsible for the rule (and I have no idea if it’s been relaxed, since I’ve long since stopped spending any time at the con there) Computer Gaming instituted that said, very simply, No Lemmings! You see, a rotating group of about twenty of us (with about 6-8 in there at any given point) had spent all Friday night (literally from just after dusk until well after dawn) playing Lemmings; and the staff overseeing things just couldn’t take the little “oh nooooo” and squeaks of the computer animiated Lemmings as we kept finding stranger and stranger ways to get them killed, while roaring with laughter and egging each other on.
The year I got to meet Mark Hamil, which was a huge thrill because Star Wars has made more of an impact on me than anything else, ever; even though the Wing Commander people had brought him to the con and were trying, for some stupid reason, to keep anyone from talking to Mark about Star Wars. The year I got to see over a hundred stormtroopers march down Peachtree Street (go 501st!). When I got to see the entire cast of Firefly on stage (Nathan Fillion is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet). The year I got to meet nearly the entire cast of Star Trek Next Generation. The year I heard about Mike Tyson having bitten Evander Holyfield’s ear from Ed Wasser – Morden from Babylon 5 – and didn’t believe him until the Monday after the con when I got home and saw the news. The year I spent about two hours on Saturday night at a street jam party being DJ’d by a stormtrooper with red Nike armor and gold chains (plus a boombox big enough to make a 80s skateboarder jealous). The year I got to meet Ralph Macchio and Martin Kove from the Karate Kid. The year I saw a stormtrooper crowdsurfing, in full armor, at a concert. The year the Hyatt floor managers wanted to know why were were lining the Centennial Ballroom with three layers of industrial plastic (GWAR played a completely fantastic show that night, it was so much fun).
There’s always something better. I’ve given up assuming this is as good as it’ll get. Because I’m always wrong. Who knows what it’ll be this year. I don’t know, and it’s part of the fun. It definitely outweighs the occasional downer moments. Let’s just put it like this; not every celebrity you meet is as happy you like them as you are. I have a list of some that – while I love some of the characters and roles they’ve brought to life – I wouldn’t give the time of day because they’re such jerks in person. It’s unfortunate, but you move on, and you focus on the fun ones. The ones who are as excited to be a part of fandom as you are.
And this doesn’t even count some of the ‘usual’ favorites I count on every year. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Rocky Horror with a live audience, and you haven’t seen it live until you’ve seen it live at DragonCon. Trust me. Trust me, seriously. Crüxshadows, who aren’t normally exactly right in the middle of my usual musical tastes, give an amazing show that’s tons of fun. Watching Once more with feeling, Rocky Horror style, is actually even more fun than watching Rocky Horror. It’s also the thing that pulled me into Buffy, a show I’d managed to avoid for some reason I can’t even remember until that one fateful year when a friend insisted I watch it with her. Watching Duck Dogers during the judging of the Masquerade, which has become an ironclad DragonCon tradition. And on, and on, and on. It’s just more fun than should be legal, even if this were Vegas.
Today, DragonCon is here again. Four days where the geeks outnumber the mundane. For a little while, in a few square blocks of Atlanta, you’re only weird if you’re normal.
Who wants pie?