Dragon Con: A nerd community where the fans are the celebs

Gazing up through the dizzying honeycomb tower of Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis, I witnessed a crowd of fans quoting Robin Williams movies on the balconies. The movement culminated in “O Captain! My Captain!” and in the midst of it, I caught sight of an actor friend on one of the levels, taking part. He noticed me, waved and returned to the chants.

That Friday-afternoon flashmob sums up the spirit of Dragon Con, which draws more than 50,000 people. It is a place of pure fandom expression where you go to geek out as part of a community. And it has gained the reputation for being a cosplay capital.

Unlike the industry-driven vibe of San Diego Comic-Con, the 27-year-old event that is Dragon Con is not the place to go for breaking pop-culture news and big reveals. Though the show also boasts an impressive yearly roster of celebrities and thousands of hours of programming, DC attendees may opt out of autographs or panels entirely and choose to dress up and hang out for four (or more) days at both family-friendly and very adult-oriented events.

This is not a slam against SDCC or any other large con, but Dragon Con is unique because the largely volunteer-run event could potentially exist outside of the commercial model of most fan conventions. I am fairly certain that if there weren’t any famous faces booked, thousands would still swarm the five downtown hotels in costume to buy from vendors, attend parties, people-watch and generally let their geek flag fly. And perhaps more than any other con I’ve attended, the cosplayers are the celebs at Dragon Con.

OK, the celebs are also the celebs at Dragon Con. And there was no shortage of them at DC 2014. Sir Patrick Stewart, Terry Gilliam, James Gunn and many others didn’t experience a shortage of people at their autograph lines, photo opps or panels. What’s interesting, however, is how the camaraderie of the geek community bleeds into the interactions with celebrities.

Throughout 15 hours of talking on panels, I noticed that there is little separation at Dragon Con between fan and celebrity. Fans treat the “talent” as “one of us.”

For instance, on a panel I hosted with Adam Baldwin (Firefly, The Last Ship), a serving member of the military asked for his challenge coin. Tradition dictates that if the challenged doesn’t have his coin, he must buy a round of drinks. But if he does have it, the challenger has to buy.  In this case, Baldwin had a couple coins in his pocket and the serviceman delivered a six-pack of beer to the actor -- who then proceeded to pop them open for the man himself and me. 

Photo courtesy CONography.

What did the cast of Being Human do when photographers and fans positioned themselves in front of the stage for pictures during our panel together? Sam Witwer, Meaghan Rath, Sam Huntington and Kristen Hager (and yours truly) stopped everything and posed until they were done. And this was after Witwer brought a ladder onto the stage for no apparent reason.

In another example, in one of the four Defiance panels I hosted, a woman said she hadn’t watched the show and challenged the cast as to why she should. After some playful scoffs -- caught in the photo above -- Tony Curran (who plays Datak Tarr on the show, and has fan love from his role as Vincent van Gogh on Doctor Who) offered a serious answer capped with a joke: The show offers family drama, an immigrant story and Julie Benz in her underwear. 

I noticed this kind of informal connection throughout the show. Over here is Richard Hatch from Battlestar Galactica standing in line at Starbucks (irony noted) with everyone else. Over there is Gunn grooting with fans, and asking for photos with cosplayers. 

At Dragon Con, there is a crowded mass of heroes, villains, monsters and more. They are there to geek out, party down, get freaky and sleep very little. But it all very much happens in a community way.

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