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Some experiences defy explanation without firsthand observation. Dragon Con is one of those things. You may have been to a con, but Dragon Con is not just a con. I’ve seen many threads where people ask what other cons capture the Dragon Con spirit, and no answer ever quite offers the same event.
What sets Dragon Con apart can partly be explained by the venue. Unlike the many convention center-based conventions, for many, many years Dragon Con has been held in a growing series of hotels that connect to one another by sky bridges (“habitrails” in the con-goer vernacular). Then it slowly expanded to other nearby hotels and a trade center space. But fundamentally, while mermaids swim at the Sheraton and writers convene in the Westin bar, the con is still taking place in those first three connected hotels: a Hyatt, a Marriott, and a Hilton. And by “taking place,” I mean programming is in their meeting rooms and attendees are sleeping upstairs—inasmuch as anyone ever sleeps at Dragon Con—and the parties never stop in between. (3-2-1, the con rule goes. Three hours of sleep, two meals, one shower every day.)
Friendships are forged in these 120 hours (plus or minus) of constant cultural immersion in the geeky civilization of your dreams. Whatever your fandom, whatever your interest, no matter how obscure, someone in those hallways shares it. And it’s the intensity of this weekend of nerd bonding that becomes difficult to explain. I have 17-year-long friendships that started in the hall in front of the Buffy track (later “Whedonverse,” now subsumed by the Urban Fantasy track) or in the aftermath of an RPG panel so good it couldn’t end after an hour and had to be moved to the hotel bar.
If anything can start to offer a glimpse into this world to an outsider, it’s the tribes that have formed within it, in many cases lovingly referred to by their members as “cults.” They often form around changes in the convention, which makes them a way to signal to others “I was there when” (or, at least, “I would like to have been”).
But there are more tribes than just the pervasive carpet cultists (of which I consider myself one). The smallest events (or non-events!) spawn fans. In 2014, someone posted in a Dragon Con Facebook group that a particular trash can would no longer be available. (See link to the carpet cult above for the whole story.) But now Trashy has his own followers and annual memorial event:
This year, a speaker caught fire at a concert, and by the very next day, the first flaming speaker costume had appeared. While this is just the sort of event that has the opportunity to spawn dedication, I haven’t seen much sign yet of speaker cultists. (There’s still time.) But this year did see the rise of two significant new followings: The Cult of Jon and The Cult of the Blue Postcard.
The latter is much easier to explain. For many years, attendees have picked up badges on-site using postcards mailed to their homes. Next year, the con is switching to sales via app, and the postcards have gone the way of the carpet and Trashy. Thus The Cult of the Blue Postcard (the color of the 2019 cards) was born in memoriam. Not only have costumes already been planned, but this posthumous honor won’t even be the first time the postcard has been spotted in costume form.
As to the former, The Cult of Jon formed around some minor acts of vandalism this year. As many hotels do, the con’s Marriott has FedEx services in it. And thus, for at least a few years now, in the process of walking between the hotel and the connected food court, con-goers encounter a life-size cardboard stand-up of a FedEx employee advertising their services. As you may guess, his name tag indicates his name is Jon.
Enter an earlier long tradition of minor vandalism—or rather, vandal-eyes-ing. I can’t remember the last time I arrived at the con on Wednesday that the tiki girls on the Trader Vics sign in the Hilton elevators had not already been modified with googly eyes. And so it began, with Jon’s vandaleyes. He’s gotten the googly eye treatment in the past, but this year, over the course of the weekend, his… accessories, shall we say… slowly expanded in number.
On the final day, he disappeared and was replaced by a shrine featuring DoodleBob costumes. Mourners took photos. By the time I could get home that evening, multiple Facebook groups had swelled to thousands of members—new devotees to The Cult of Jon. Someone at eBay may have noticed an uptick in the sales of used FedEx uniforms. A custom Funko Pop was created.
And multiple cultists called for the true Jon to be found and invited as a guest next year. Within 24 hours, he was found.
Cardboard Jon was also found. Multiple people called the FedEx location in question. (Please stop doing that now.) They were assured that it was all taken humorously, and Jon has been securely stored away for his followers to worship next year.
How do you explain this kind of madness to an outsider? I’ve just explained it to you, and all written out like this, I suspect it sounds like a bunch of adults have lost their minds.
Maybe we have.
Maybe it’s just what 120 hours or so of like-minded nerd bonding brings you to. It’s not an event; for many, it is an identity. (I would prefer if our joy came without defacing other people’s property, even if it is inexpensive and easily replaced, a topic intensely debated amongst Jon’s cultists.)
Of course, there are many other tribes. Some simple—gathered around a certain costume or fandom. There are the craft brewers, the crockpot chefs, the Pokemon Go players, and the DropByDragonCon weight loss crew. There are those that bring joy, such as Swag ‘n Seek, a community of con-goers who make and bring small items to share freely with folks they encounter or to hide for others to find as a surprise. But it’s the truly odd ones, the cultists of various stripes, who signal to one another “we are of the same stripe,” that make Dragon Con a very special place.