Stormtroopers on parade at Dragon Con (Photo by Mark Dean)

By Kathy Dean

Every Labor Day weekend, I ignore my better judgment to be one of the multitudes at Dragon Con. The four-day event, Aug. 30 – Sept. 2, in the heart of Atlanta attracts all manner of fringe folk from around the country and gives us the space and permission to celebrate our passions out loud and in the center of the city. For me, it’s worth the traffic and the jostling.

The whole weekend is a wild mash-up of sci-fi, film, LARPs, goth, gamers, horror, steampunk and all other aspects of pop and sub-cultures, but Dragon Con’s roots are in fantasy writers and gaming. The original 1987 convention drew 1,200 people to the Piedmont Plaza Hotel (now the Sol Melia Hotel) to meet guests that included writer Michael Moorcock and Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax. In 1989, the con moved to accommodate the 2,400 people who came to see guest of honor Anne McCaffrey. The following year, the fan count doubled, in large part to see Tom Clancy.

These days, the attendance hits around 50,000, the events are spread out over five host hotels – Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Hilton Atlanta, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Sheraton Atlanta Hotel and Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel – and there are panels and workshops in more than 30 specific tracks, including Science, Skeptics, Anime/Manga, Whedonverse, American Sci-Fi and Horror. It’s no longer just about expressing your love of your adopted subculture; you can now expand your knowledge with the how-to tracks, like writing, podcasting, costuming, game programming and puppetry.

Heroes come in all shapes, apparently. (Photo by Mark Dean)

I was unaware of all the hoopla until the late ‘90s, when a friend visiting from Chicago came to stay with me while she attended the con. Since transportation wasn’t as available as she’d expected, my sister and I wound up driving with her into the city. We knew we were getting close when we saw groups of people with light sabers and capes. It amused us to see the fans so involved with their favorite pop culture characters, so we dubbed it “Nerd-fest.”

And then I saw him – Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows. Okay, it was someone dressed as Barnabas, Frid-style from the 60’s, with the jagged bangs, walking stick, black stone ring and fangs. Every little drop of condescension evaporated away as I chased him down and made him pose for a photo. A few steps later, I looked across the street and saw a man sporting pigtails, a red and white gingham dress and cap, and carrying a hand puppet. I immediately raced over, yelling, “Oh, my God! You’re Rimmer from Red Dwarf, series 5, episode 4!”

It was then and there that I knew I was among my people. My sister was still unimpressed, at least until she bumped into the living embodiment of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was a character that alternately terrified and enthralled her, and she made me snap a picture of her beside him and his kid-sized net. At that point, we both embraced our inner nerd.

With each passing year, Dragon Con grew in size and scope, and every Labor Day, I’d drag a few more friends with me into the heart of Atlanta. We’d go to the parade, where we could watch Captain Jack Sparrow swill beer and chase wenches as all the Doctor Who regenerations marched with their companions and a Dalek or two. Superman, Batgirl and Flaming Carrot waved at the kids. The Netherworld float belched smoke, the Ghostbuster car blared its theme song and Pastafarians promoted the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Klingons mingled with Imperial Stormtroopers and Halo soldiers along the whole parade route. Then we’d eat lunch in the hotel cafe and play “name that costume.”

Where’s Mad Max? (Photo by Mark Dean)

One year, a friend and I were looking for the Walk of Fame and turned into one of the gaming rooms by mistake. She took a long look at the huddled masses surrounding game boards, dealing cards, clutching joysticks and rolling eight-sided die. After a pause, she sighed, “I’ll bet every one of my ex-boyfriends is here.” If so, not one of them noticed of her.

There’s always a mind-boggling line up of guests and sometimes there’s one I just can’t pass up, like artist Roger Dean. That’s when I spring for a membership. The cost is a bit high and the hours of waiting in line are grueling. But I got my print signed by Roger, in person, and I got to tell him how much I loved his work. Totally worth it.

One year, I even managed to save up enough money to share a hotel room with friends. It was a challenge, from trying to reserve the room before they all filled up to cramming onto the elevators with Stormtroopers. Still, there was a place to go to so I could catch my breath between the robot battles and haunting the Crüxshadows booth. (I was trying to decide which CD to buy and if I really needed the knitted goth teddy bear.) And to be fair, you never know who might cram onto the elevator with you. At one point, if I’d stuck out my tongue, I would have licked the back of James Marsters’ neck (That’s Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slyer). It was a temptation.

The thing about Dragon Con is that the lines are long, the costumes are hot and the crowds are intimidating. I heartily recommend it. Where else can you see proud parents hand over a 6-month-old baby to a fully decked out, 7-foot Predator to get a souvenir photo?

For more about Dragon Con and this year’s line-up of celebrity guests, workshops and events, visit dragoncon.org

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.