Header Photo: by Dan Ethan
As a child of the 90s, I grew up with the unique experience of watching comic book and pop culture conventions evolve from stigmatized gatherings often referred to as “dork parades” by my peers in school to Hollywood-funded powerhouses everyday people yearn to one day attend. It was not until just after high school that I attended my first convention; Anime Expo in Anaheim, California. There I donned my first cosplay, Nicholas D. Wolfwood from the show Trigun, and I immediately fell in love with “con culture” — the comradery among cosplayers, the overwhelming love fans shared with each other at panels, exhibit halls filled with rare loot, and of course the after parties. I was so enamored that the following year I attended San Diego Comic-Con (you know, the big one), and from then on I knew conventions were going to be an annual part of my adult life.
But that was over thirteen years ago. Today it seems like new fantasy/sci-if conventions pop up every month, in every city, with every possible name (typically trying to capitalize on the “comic con” label). Growing up in California, I had the benefit of being within driving distance to many of the higher profile conventions on the West Coast; specifically Anime Expo, SDCC and its sibling convention Wondercon. But after several years, I noticed that as the size of these “dork parades” grew, the “con culture” began to change. Exhibit halls suddenly became walk-in billboards with few things actually available for purchase. Panel discussions about were replaced with panels promoting Good Luck Chuck. And more and more cosplayers began experiencing sexual harassment on convention floors. But just as I began to feel disenchantment with the convention scene I heard about a rather unconventional pop culture convention — Dragon Con.
Though founded back in 1987, I had not heard of Dragon Con until around 2009. Until then, my convention focus had primarily been on local events, and Dragon Con took place at the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, Georgia. For those not from Atlanta, the Peachtree Center is a cluster of hotels, restaurants, bars, and office spaces interconnected via human-sized hamster tubes known as sky bridges. The first time I heard about Dragon Con it had been described to me as “Adult Comic-Con.” At first I took this as a jab at SDCC (haters gonna hate), but it is honestly an apt description. While Comic-Con aims to have “general audience” appeal, Dragon Con’s charms are rated M for mature. Parties such as their annual “Bunny Hutch” and Hogwart’s Yule Ball start at dusk and rage on through dawn. Geeks drink and sing karaoke out in the streets. After 10PM, cosplays consisting entirely of body paint and exhibitionism are a regular occurrence. Unlike other conventions, Dragon Con does not put much effort into having a “family friendly” image. But not only are the multitude of themed after parties fun, DC manages to keep instances of sexual harassment to a minimum.
I attended my first Dragon Con in 2011, and like SDCC it has grown exponentially over the years. Also like Comic-Con, DC has had to get creative when it comes to accommodating their booming attendance. While less than half the size of Comic-Con, Dragon Con 2018’s expansive Vendors Area almost seemed to match its West Coast rival’s Exhibit Hall in size. But it is not just the size of Dragon Con’s exhibit hall that left me awestruck, it was the type of exhibitors they had at the show. Up until around the time of the first Twilight film, SDCC’s enormous Exhibit Hall was like a dealer’s hall on venom, but over time became a place where corporations like TV Guide started selling you commercials, but without the cool merchandise. Dragon Con’s Vendors Area had the opposite problem — it was a paradise of affordable props, cosplay supplies, rare collectibles, and custom-made fashion and furniture… but scattered throughout several small basements in hotels throughout the Peachtree Center. The lack of space for the Vendors Area was a constant issue Dragon Con faced until 2018, when they finally decided to devote four entire floors of AmericasMart to house their many vendors as well as Artist Alley.
It might sound odd to praise a con’s exhibit hall as one of its biggest draws, but consider how much time attendees spend in dealer rooms at conventions. DC’s vendors area seemed to have anything a con-goer and/or could want; games (video and board), geek fashion wear, cosplay supplies such as wigs and contact lenses, movie and television props, books (comic and otherwise), artwork, fantasy and sci-fi inspired furniture, and even a 360-degree panoramic Overwatch stage. If you wanted to get an early start on your cosplays for next year’s Dragon Con, there was even a few booths that sold exclusive fabrics like YaYa Han’s line. On the other end of AmericasMart, Dragon Con also had an arcade filled with old and new cabinet games as well as a tabletop gaming area.
But beyond the Peachtree Center, Dragon Con also rented out space in other parts of Atlanta for their 2018 show, such as the Georgia Aquarium for one of their larger Saturday evening after parties. Though admission for this shindig did not come with your Dragon Con badge and even general admission to the party cost over thirty dollars, Dragon Con Night at the Aquarium was impressive nonetheless — and an amazing photo opportunity for the plethora of Aquaman and Princess Arial cosplayers in attendance. On top of live DJs and open bars, attendees were also able to view the aquarium’s many exhibits, including a glass viewing tank the size of a standard movie theater screen. The only downer to the event were the protestors posted outside near the line, but aside from yelling slogans about aquariums being prisons for fish they respectfully left con-goers alone.
While Dragon Con lacks the abundance of Hall H sized Hollywood panels that SDCC flaunts, the few Atlanta-based TV shows they do host panels for are fun and presented professionally. The CW’s Black Lightning made it’s Dragon Con debut with not one but two panel discussions with cast members Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce/Thunder), China Anne McClain (Jennifer Pierce/Lightning), Marvin “Krondon” Jones III (Tobias Whale), and Christine Adams (Lynn Pierce). The panel included anecdotes from the cast about working on the show and Adams even dropped hints about a future Black Panther TV series she may be working on in the future. The cast also invited a Thunder cosplayer attending the panel onto the stage to take pictures and chat. The lines for most of the panels are nowhere near as long as those at SDCC, but should you happen to miss a certain panel, the convention films and airs them on “Dragon Con TV.”
It is not my intent here to be overly critical of San Diego Comic-Con. It is the largest convention of its kind and a shining beacon for nerds around the world. But as someone who attends both conventions regularly, it is hard not to compare Comic-Con with Dragon Con. Comic-Con created the mold of modern pop culture conventions. Dragon Con broke the mold into pieces. While other conventions try desperately to mimic Comic-Con, Dragon Con has built its own identity. Rather than relying on star power and Hollywood spectacle, DC has created an atmosphere that captures the exuberance and energy reminiscent to when I first entered the cosplay scene. Maybe it’s because I work in the entertainment industry, but I find myself less and less interested in the big Hall H and Ballroom 20 panels of Comic-Con, and instead look forward to hanging out with friends at clubs styled in the fashions of the Oasis and Hogwarts. Comic-Con offers all of that, but Dragon Con offers it as its main course.
Many of my peers in the nerd community claimed to have given up on going to conventions like SDCC due to commercialism and general audience pandering watering down the experience, but part of their disenchantment comes from attempting to recapture the nostalgia of the past. For better or worse, Comic-Con will never go back to being the moderately-sized geek boutique of yesteryear — we let the genie out and no amount of whining will ever rebottle him. Instead of trying to make Comic-Con what it once was, embracing the new, the unfamiliar, and the unconventional is the best way to recapture the magic of the “con scene” from years past. Marching through Atlanta alongside other fellow nerds dressed as their favorite fantasy and sci-fi characters, joining the endless list of professionally hosted photoshoots, meeting up with friends via the Dragon Con app for a late night dip in the Sheraton’s gorgeous pool — these are the reasons I fly across the country to attend this particular “dork parade.” If you are exhausted from the monotony of the big convention scene, perhaps Dragon Con is exactly what you need.