By Brian Skutle
When I first began to attend DragonCon in 2009, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never been to a convention before, and I didn’t really research the first thing to do in terms of how to plan in terms of funds to prepare to go down there. I saw some of the guests on the site, and was like, “Yes, I’m doing that.” I learned a lot of lessons that weekend, which have been adapted throughout the last 13 years of live participation.
For those who aren’t aware, DragonCon is a volunteer-run convention for comic book, science-fiction, horror, movies and television fans that takes place in Atlanta, Georgia every Labor Day weekend. Started in 1986, it is the rowdier cousin of something like San Diego Comic Con, a weekend where people can meet some of their favorite celebrities, authors and comic book artists, go to panels on any of the 30-plus tracks of programming they set up each year, or just go to the vendors and check out the amazing cosplay, whether it’s roaming around the hotels that host the convention, or at the Saturday morning parade. The festivities begin on Thursday, and go until Monday afternoon. The drinking and partying begins on Wednesday, and can go through Tuesday, though; plan accordingly.
Over the years, the guest list of celebrities can fluctuate wildly, and especially in a COVID time, there are more cancellations than usual. That being said, the opportunity to meet people like Karen Gillan (“Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)), Charisma Carpenter (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)), Eliza Dushku (“Bring It On” (2000)) and many others is a big draw, especially when they are added at the last minute, as Dushku was in 2011. Being able to listen to them talk on panels about their projects is an opportunity to really hear about their career in a way that can- sometimes- be unfiltered and fascinating.
Nowadays, Felicia Day is known as one of the more popular “geek girls.” When she was at DragonCon in 2009, though, I just knew her as Vie, the potential slayer on “Buffy.” On the Monday of that Con I had not had the chance to see a panel with her, and wanted to meet her at the Walk of Fame, but her line was typically fairly long all weekend. At the time, I knew “Buffy” was a big draw, and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog” (2008) had made a splash, but was it really as simple as that? When I got up to her table, she had DVDs for the first two seasons of “The Guild,” a web series she wrote about a MMO-playing group of characters who meet in real life for the first time. In addition to getting her autograph and a selfie with her, I picked up the DVDs. One of the things I’d been interested in when I was obsessive about “Buffy” was different projects some of the actors/filmmakers were a part of. Seeing that Day was one of the actors delving into creating at a time when I was primarily looking to make films and tell stories myself was inspiring to see, and whenever she comes back to Con, I try to see at least a panel with her.
One of the best things about DragonCon is how you can find out about other people’s work beyond the thing you love from them. In 2018, Evangeline Lilly (the “Ant-Man” films (2015-2018)) had two children’s books she’d written with her to promote; last year, Bonnie Wright (the “Harry Potter” franchise (2001-2011)) talked about her work for human rights; William Shatner (“Star Trek” (1966-1969)) has talked about his interest in scientific concepts, and George Takai had his graphic novel about his time in Japanese internment camps during WWII. In 2021, myself, my wife and two of our friends finished watching “Farscape” (1999-2003) and we saw that Gigi Edgley– who played one of the main characters on the show- was going to be there. She had a panel on Saturday night, so the four of us got a photo op and dressed for “Farscape” for the occasion. After the panel, where she discussed the Twitch stream she had started during the pandemic as well as music videos she’d done, we were invited to have dinner with her group, and it’s one of those “only at DragonCon” situations that you hear about each year. I never would have imagined that happening before it did, and I’ll never forget it.
It took me a couple of years to go to the film festival the Con had going on the Film Track. That was in 2011, and I was on my own for much of the weekend, without friends or my mother joining me. That was a great experience to deepen my Con-going, because I stayed out later, saw a bit of what the night life was like, and took in things no one else would have been that interested in. The film festival portion of the track has not returned since 2019, but they still have panels throughout the weekend. This year, I returned to the track with my Sunday morning panel, “Making Independent Films in a Corporate World.” The way most panels work at Con is that they get working filmmakers or enthusiasts on the subject to discuss certain topics they have in mind. One thing that made this panel interesting was that the two panelists- Lisa M. Thomas and Tequoia Urbina– are both women. They showed us examples of their work, and discussed the obstacles of not just being a filmmaker in an era of IP, but being a woman in the industry. Thomas is a producer whose work includes animation, and she talked about the obstacles and misogyny in that part of the industry, especially when most of the people in charge are still male. Urbina had some insightful thoughts on not only how to channel inspiration from life, but also how to make yourself more attractive to a Hollywood obsessed with adapting known quantities. Their insights gave me a greater appreciation of not just the uphill climb women have in the industry, but also- I think- offered great perspective for people who think of independent film as just A24 or Neon or any of the other “independent studios.”
For a lot of people, I think cosplay is the main draw of DragonCon. One thing you’ll appreciate is the variety. This isn’t just about the same half a dozen franchises- Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, Lord of the Rings, DC, Harry Potter- although, depending on which guests are there, you might see more of some type of costumes than others. Anime is a huge draw, as is fantasy beyond LOTR and Potter. But, when the Whedonverse was en vogue at DCon, you would see a lot of Buffy and Firefly (and you still do), and some people do Stargate and 300. It goes beyond nerd and horror, though; of course there’s steampunk, and the past couple of years have seen a rise in Plague Doctors. I have done cosplay a couple of times- for a few years with a friend as Jay and Silent Bob, and the past two years as Buster Keaton. And yes, in keeping with this website’s name, there are always a few Rockford Peaches around. And if you can catch the appreciation of a celebrity with your cosplay- I’ve had “Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss and “Eternals’s” Lauren Ridloff show their love of my respective efforts, that makes it feel even more worthwhile.
I’ll close this the way I closed this year’s DragonCon- discussing “Star Wars” (1977) music. You’ll recall that in July, I wrote about Natalie Holt’s score for “Obi-Wan Kenobi” (2022) for this site. In mid-August, a friend of mine shared with me a screenshot that the Star Wars Track was looking for panelists for a “Music of Star Wars” discussion. I reached out, and was selected. Over the week or so before Con started, my fellow panelists and I shared ideas through email about the direction of the panel, some topics we may want to discuss, and clips if we had time. This was my first time on a panel at the Con, and it was a great experience, with a lot of various voices showing their love, and knowledge, on the music of the Star Wars Universe in a way that made for a rewarding discussion, and a great end of DragonCon for me.
I have written about, or podcasted about, each experience at DragonCon I’ve had. You can read- or listen- to those at Sonic Cinema, or on the Sonic Cinema Podcast.