Contemplating Dragon Con: Pop Culture, Creativity, and the Masks We Wear

Each year on Labor Day weekend downtown Atlanta hosts Dragon Con, one of the larger conventions for fans of science fiction, fantasy, comics, horror, gaming, and various other forms of pop culture. It’s been going on for 30 years now, and I have friends who attend faithfully every year, but this year marks only the second time I’ve attended.

It’s huge — 85,000 people swarming around in seven downtown Atlanta hotels — so if you don’t like crowds, it might not be your cuppa. But many of the attendees dress up as their favorite characters (a practice known as cosplay, from “costume play”), so it’s a great place to people-watch. Indeed, on Saturday the cosplayers take over Peachtree Road for the annual Dragon Con parade, and folks will come in to town just to gawk at all the storm troopers and superheroes.

Game of Thrones Cosplayers…

But it’s worth paying the price of admission (about $85 for advance tickets) because then you get to attend an amazing vendor exhibit, art gallery, panel discussions on all aspects of fandom as well as workshops for writers, artists, animators, and yes, cosplayers. If you’re into gaming, there are tournaments going on throughout the convention. Each evening is rife with parties. “Filkers,” or musicians who write songs based on their favorite books/movies/shows, perform pretty much throughout the convention.

… and more GoT cosplayers!

Meanwhile, big-name movie and TV stars come to conventions like Dragon Con as guests of honor. This year’s attendees included William Shatner and George Takei of Star Trek along with David Tennant of Dr. Who fame. Many lesser known (but still interesting) performers and creators from the comic/science fiction/fantasy worlds attend, speaking at the panels and selling their wares in the vendor halls.

My friend Darrell (far right) was on a panel at the Dragon Con Horror Track.

It’s a lot of fun — as long as you are comfortable with pop culture and lots of people.

Contemplating Dragon Con

I go to Dragon Con to have fun. I enjoy people watching, and I’m a casual fan of enough genre culture that I generally enjoy the panels I attend. I like fantasy art so I always enjoy the gallery, and like most people I get a kick out of the cosplay.

But I can’t help myself, so even at a just-for-fun event like Dragon Con, I find myself looking at everything through a contemplative lens. Here are some of my takeaways from Dragon Con. If you’ve attended this (or another) fan convention, I’d love to know your thoughts on why these gatherings are so enjoyable — and what we can take away from them.

Cosplayer dressed as Dani from Midsommar
  1. Cosplay is an art: but we are all wearing masks. As you can see from the pictures I’m posting here, cosplayers can develop some incredibly detailed, intricate, and complex versions of their favorite TV or movie characters’ costumes. Some are fairly ordinary: lots of Wonder Women and other superheroes wandering out; plenty of Jedi Knights, Storm Troopers, and Game of Thrones characters. Others are more obscure — and remarkable, like the detailed floral gown worn by Dani as the May Queen in Midsommar (a movie only released in July of this year, meaning the cosplayer had only two months to create it).
    Compared to the cosplayers are the many people (like me) walking around in ordinary jeans and t-shirts. But I reflected on why cosplaying — a hobby activity that could cost incredible amounts of time and money, with no compensation other than compliments from fellow convention-goers — is so popular. And I realized that it’s because we all wear masks. We mask ourselves with our clothes, our material belongings, and even our political or religious identities. We mask ourselves with our career and achievements. We hide behind our friends and family members. Even the notion of the “false self,” which I admittedly have difficulty with, is perhaps simply a mask we wear from the inside out.
    We venerate “the individual” in our culture — we think the individual is more important than the collective, which is why characters from the Lone Ranger to Captain Kirk remain so popular. But we are social creatures, like it or not. So there’s something about cosplay — going to a convention with thousands of other like-minded fans, yet carefully constructing one’s unique “mask” to wear there — that turns our existential fate of always wearing masks into a type of performative play. I imagine this is also why Halloween is increasingly popular, and why Masquerades and Masked Balls were so beloved in years past.
  2. Creativity matters. And fun matters too. Pop culture is derivative. This year’s horror movie hit Midsommar is an homage to a 70s cult-horror flick, The Wicker Man. Much of modern epic fantasy is to a greater or lesser extent based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who in turn based The Lord of the Rings on Norse mythol0gy (the same mythos that gave us the Marvel superhero Thor). So why celebrate a form of culture that, in some ways, lacks originality and creativity?
    Notice I said “in some ways.” Pop culture may be derivative, but it’s also a forum where each generation’s writers and artists and other creators get a chance to put their own unique stamp on it. Star Trek in 2019 looks different from Star Trek in 1969. The same can be said for Dr. Who and other long-standing franchises. Likewise, cosplay is a genuine pop culture art form — where talent is put into the service of faithful reproduction balance by subtle cues of originality (at Dragon Con, many veteran attendees have taken a garish blue/gold/red pattern that used to be on the carpet at the Marriott and incorporated it, in subtle ways, into their costumes — making tribute not only to their favorite characters but to the convention itself as well).
    But cosplay is not the only type of creativity on display at the convention. The art gallery, the writers’ track, and the filkers all provide forums where attendees can rub elbows with (and learn from) creative professionals. The ethos of the con is clear: anyone and everyone can create. I attended one art workshop with my wife, and was moved by how all the panelists spoke of the support they get from each other. They may be rivals in business, but they are friends in art.
    So Dragon Con is a place where everyone can find encouragement to work out their own creative impulses. And since the overall ethos of the convention is a spirit of fun, there’s a subtle message: it’s fun to create. We need more of that message in our society.

    “No-Face” from the movie Spirited Away
  3. Where is the mindfulness? And the meditation? I don’t have a lot of criticism of Dragon Con. Yes, it’s over-crowded; it’s disappointing to spend half an hour swimming the sea of people only to arrive at a ballroom where the event you’ve been wanting to attend has just been closed due to standing-room-only capacity. But that’s a problem that any popular event will share.
    But there is one thing that bugs me. There is an entire track of sessions and workshops devoted to “Skepticism.” If you are an agnostic or an atheist, you have a home base at Dragon Con. I don’t begrudge the skeptics their own safe space: but as the member of another marginal group (contemplatives/mystics), why don’t we have our own track? I mentioned this to a friend who is a veteran attendee, and he said “You should create it.” Well, okay, except that as someone who’s only been going to Dragon Con a couple of times, I’m very much on the margins. But I’m willing to engage in the conversation.
    I understand that a fan convention is not the place for heavy theological discussions. Indeed, politics and religion are probably the two topics that are best kept off-limits at an event like this. I have no need to talk up religion (mine or anyone else’s), but I’d love to see panel discussions on mysticism and the imagination, or on sacramentalism in science fiction, or even on the relationship between horror and Dante. And I’d like to see interspersed with these kinds of events opportunities for mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, zen, yoga (there is someone who offers Tai Chi for an extra fee, but I think there needs to be something more widely available than that). Basically a safe, silent space in the midst 0f the fun and frivolity of the convention. Because us introverts, we need down time! And also because there’s a place for bringing the imagination and creativity and silence together. And Dragon Con would be a great place to make it happen.

Okay, so those are my thoughts. I’ll probably be talking up the mindfulness track idea with folks I know. Who knows? Maybe it will be created for the future!

Probably my favorite costume of 2019. Maleficient…


… whose wings had a very large span!
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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.