If you saw me at this summer’s Dragon Con… well, you probably had to be actively searching for me. I wasn’t wearing a press badge. I wasn’t conducting interviews with celebrities and staffers. I wasn’t taking notes or futzing with my field recorder. Hell, I hardly even snapped any pictures.
I was—and I seldom get to say this—off the clock.
I was just there for the experience, to soak up the atmosphere. Which, ironically, helped me to see things that much clearer.
This year was my first Dragon Con, though it was not my first major metropolitan convention experience. In 1989, my cousin Dusty took me to my first real con, Atlanta Fantasy Fair at the scenic downtown Hilton and Towers. I was 13, and the experience was, to say the least, transformative.
It was there that I bought my first piece of nerdy apparel, a t-shirt bearing the cover image of Uncanny X-Men #242. It was there when I rapturously dove into my first proper dollar bin. It was also the first time I encountered cosplay (though it would be more than a decade before I ever heard the term).
I recall walking out into the hotel concourse only to spy the most peculiar of sights. It was a trio of Klingons. Eating Wendy’s burgers. It wasn’t until sometime later that I came to realize that as the moment where I truly began to understand who I was.
There was, even then, a myriad of places where I did not fit in. School, church, the cut-rate day camp where I spent my summer afternoons while my mom was at work—these were all environments that proved to me, time and again, that I was an outsider. That I did not belong.
But there, between the stuffy panel rooms and the strange, sterile expanse of the dealers’ floor, I fit. I blended in. I gelled. These were my people.
More than anything else, that’s what I saw at Dragon Con 2017. Yeah, Alton Brown was there, and so was Nathan Fillion. There were also more Raven, Daenerys Targaryen, Rick, and Morty costumes than you could shake the proverbial stick at. There was drinking and dancing and loud music. There were all those things.
Of course, there was also the flip side. There were creeps and gatecrashers. And at least one grand example of mindless, wanton violence and destruction.
But none of those are really what it’s about. It’s not about standing in line or riding an elevator up just to get down or drinking out of a flask during a late-night puppet show–even though a lot of us, myself included, did all those things.
No, if Dragon Con has a cohesive force, a central core, a cultural nucleus around which we all mix and mingle as we rotate, it’s that same sense I felt nearly 30 years ago. It’s that peculiar sensation of belonging, of kinship even with those from different cultures or socioeconomic strata or *gasp* fandoms.
Dragon Con is about being yourself, even as you do it behind a mask and makeup. More to the point, it’s about finding yourself.
I saw it on the faces of young couples of all persuasions holding hands and trading fevered glances. I saw it in men and women, many of whom likely feel too self-conscious to cut loose in the doldrums of their day-to-day, going full-on ham on the dance floor. I saw it in countless crossplays that were, more than a simple lark or a thoughtless gag, tentative first steps into a persona, a lifestyle that might differ from those into which they are relegated by the world at large.
The staying power of Dragon Con, its (pop) cultural gravitas isn’t really about John Barrowman in a Wonder Woman costume… Ok, so maybe it is, but more as a metaphor.
Dragon Con isn’t simply about stepping out of the little box where you are regularly restricted by your work or school or even your family. It is about destroying that box. Demolishing it and drawing your own lines in whatever color or shape strikes your fancy.
While mythologist Joseph Campbell encouraged individuals to find and follow their bliss, Dragon Con’s (and con culture in general’s) most sacred functionality is to encourage the subset of those same seekers in attendance to find and follow their weird.
Some of those you may find around you are surely on a similar path, while others are pursuing a different, even weirder weird. And that’s ok too. Because, when we’re all weird together, even those dividing lines seem tenuous and insubstantial.
So I reckon my final thought here, my closing salvo, is little more than a solitary, flimsy wish: that you and everyone else reading can find a place to get weird with friends both new and old. And, more importantly, that you can take a little piece of that quiet self-acceptance home with you. Tucked into your carry-on next to a souvenir program, a couple of hard-fought autographs, and a handful of dollar comics.