Dragon Con: The birth and growing pangs of a nerd pilgrimage

Published 4:08 PM EDT, Fri August 30, 2013

Story highlights

Dragon Con 2013 is expected to draw 55,000 ticket-holders to downtown Atlanta

The con appeals to a broad spectrum of subcultures from passionate fan base

Dragon Con has taken steps to distance itself from controversial cofounder Ed Kramer

(CNN) —  

It took John and Jean Mayes of Richmond, Virginia, less than two hours to realize that they were woefully unprepared for their first Dragon Con in 2006.

The first hint came as they unloaded their car in front of the downtown Atlanta Hyatt hotel for the South’s biggest science fiction and fantasy convention. Guests unloaded box after box of costumes from their vehicles, “as if they were clown cars,” John Mayes recalls. “They just kept coming.”

Alas, the Mayeses brought only one costume each: his Sandtrooper outfit and her biker scout regalia.

Then, there were the sights and sounds inside the hotel. And the smells … Thousands of excited sci-fi and fantasy fans, many in costume, crowding into elevators, bars, hotel rooms and lobbies, gleefully reuniting and posing for pictures, makes everything a little more odoriferous, he said.

The Mayeses are members of the 501st Legion, an international costuming group known for showing up at parades dressed as Star Wars characters, so they’re used to big groups of stormtroopers and Darth Vaders.

But the scene at Dragon Con was a whole new universe.

“You walk into a hotel, you see a Klingon high-fiving Spider-Man and talking to Poison Ivy,” said John Mayes, an alarm system programmer. “It’s a great shock. It’s something you won’t see anywhere else in the world.”

San Diego Comic-Con might draw more ticket-buyers, press and bigger Hollywood names, but Dragon Con appeals to a broader spectrum of subcultures from a more passionate fan base. For 25 years, the convention has built a reputation of acceptance and appreciation of all things nerdy, growing from a crowd of 1,400 in one hotel in its first year to an event spread out among six hotels in the heart of downtown Atlanta. Organizers say Dragon Con is expected to draw at least 55,000 people this year based on pre-ticket sales alone.

But, a convention created by nerds for nerds is bound to be complicated. As it enters its 26th year, longtime fans and attendees wonder whether Dragon Con’s organizers and massive volunteer staff can keep up with swelling attendance and remain a family-friendly environment where decidedly adult parties take place after hours.

For a convention that happens in hotels instead of a city convention center, there’s an atmosphere of freedom, fueled by world-class costuming, camaraderie and alcohol.

“It’s not like Comic-Con, where it’s 8 in the morning until 8 at night,” Mayes said. “This is 24 hours a day for four days, where we take over Atlanta.”

Behind the party, management squabbles and the demands of an ever-growing event strained organizers, who volunteered their time for years without drawing a paycheck. Adding to the stress and tainting public perception of the event were allegations of child molestation against a convention cofounder.

Initially, friends and allies of Ed Kramer’s rallied in his defense, but support waned over the years as he filed grievances against his jailers and motions to postpone his trial. McNeill Stokes, a lawyer for Kramer, said his client wants to go to trial and maintains his innocence. On Monday, a December trial date was set, 13 years after Kramer’s first arrest.

While some con-goers were rankled by the convention’s previous association with a man accused of child molestation, others remained unaware of – or unconcerned – by the controversy. And as fans converge upon Atlanta again this weekend, the show, obviously, has gone on.

“(The fans) have all grown with the convention. We know what it’s there for. We know what happened in the past. I don’t think it’s an issue anymore,” Mayes said.

The dragon’s first roar

The seed of Dragon Con was planted in 1986 during a meeting of comic book store owner Pat Henry and a cabal of like-minded fans of science fiction and fantasy.

The meeting was convened by Kramer, who invited friends and associates he knew through science fiction and gaming clubs, including the Dragon Alliance of Gamers and Role-Players, the inspiration behind the convention’s name. Henry says he was the outsider who was brought in for his experience managing a vendor hall at another gaming convention.

The goal was to start a convention where science-fiction fans, gamers and comic book readers could revel in their obsessions – open forums about who would win a battle between comic book heroes Hulk and Thor, for example – without having to explain themselves. The dream was to find one hotel that would host them and “keep Mr. Normal out of there,” Henry said.

“Then we could really kick.”

As chairman, Kramer invited guests like Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons, the game that revolutionized role-playing; Richard Garriott, creator of the computer game “Ultima”; and notable fantasy writer Michael Moorcock.

Author and horror film aficionado Anthony Taylor attended the first Dragon Con in October 1987 for just a day. He saw Moorcock and Eric Bloom from Blue Öyster Cult performing “Black Blade” on stage.

“I went, all right, so this is maybe more than just a gaming show. Maybe next year I’ll come to the whole thing,” he said. He has attended every Dragon Con since.

The first convention was something of a success, Henry said. With big-name guests and 1,400 ticket-holders, it was a healthy start, and they were encouraged and moved forward.

Henry was the self-described “belt and suspenders guy” who loved accounting and working behind the scenes. Kramer was the leader and public face of the convention who conducted himself like a “carnival barker,” Henry said.

In 1993, Dragon Con officially incorporated in the state of Georgia, according to court documents, with Kramer and Henry the majority stakeholders. It made sense, Henry said, “since we were the two working the hardest.” Most of the original board members from that first meeting made up the minority stakeholders, Henry said.

“We were the two that were absolutely dedicated to not letting Dragon Con fail at that point. Atlanta needed a nice convention, and that’s what we were going to do,” Henry said.

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Vader’s boys herald a new era

By 1998, Dragon Con had found a place on Atlanta’s annual convention calendar. Other conventions that draw fans of science fiction and technology like World Con, E3 and Comdex had all called the city home at some point, and Dragon Con was starting to feel like a natural fit.

More hotels signed multiyear contracts to block off rooms for Dragon Con attendees, allowing more tickets to be sold. The star power grew as well, with 1998 panels featuring guests including Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen and Forrest Ackerman, a rarity for a convention anywhere at the time, Taylor said.

“There have been a lot of moments where I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Atlanta,’ ” he said.

Then came the guys wearing armor.

Albin Johnson was recovering from a car accident that cost him a leg. Daydreams of “Star Wars” kept his spirits up, and a fledgling Internet fueled a community of fellow fans. Johnson wanted to meet his friends at 1998 Dragon Con and, if the Force was with him, start a club of Stormtroopers. He would call it the 501st Squad.

He made a logo and got a 3-foot-by-3-foot foam board, “thinking we could have a flag to rally behind,” Johnson said.

But, when he showed up in the lobby, no one was interested. Even Anthony Daniels, the actor who played C-3P0 in the “Star Wars” movies, refused to pose for a picture with the sign, he says.

But he managed to stoke the interest of a few fellow fans, and a movement began. Over the years, he drew more followers at the convention and beyond; today, the 501st counts 10,000 members from 48 countries, Johnson said. Members dress as Stormtroopers and use their powers for good to promote Star Wars fandom and raise money for local charities and volunteer groups.

The 501st is a now a Dragon Con fixture; the groups of Stormtroopers have even been known to associate with Klingons, Mayes joked.

A friend in trouble

By 2000, Pat Henry and his wife, Sherry, were feeling beaten down by Dragon Con after years of negotiating with hotels, working with celebrities and running day-to-day operations during the convention in addition to his day job running a comic book store. In their second-floor room in the Hyatt, they took a quiet moment to reflect.

“We’re too old for this. This hurts too badly. We are way too heavily invested in this thing,” Henry said, reflecting on the crux of their discussion.

And yet, below them, they heard the clomping of thousands of convention-goers’ feet on the brick lobby floor. As they peered downstairs to watch the crowd of revelers, the 501st appeared, escorting Darth Vader and Boba Fett actors David Prowse and Jeremy Bullock to a panel.

The crowd went nuts and parted “like the Red Sea,” Henry recalled.

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“Sherry and I look, and we shake our heads, and we say, ‘we can’t quit,’ ” he said. “It was really moving.”

But then in October 2000, Kramer was arrested and charged with four counts of child molestation involving two teen brothers in Gwinnett County, Georgia. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Henry’s unhesitating reaction was to support him. Henry never observed such unsettling behavior in his friend, he said. Henry had two young daughters whom Kramer seemed to care about. Kramer was a counselor for troubled children.

“He would have been one of the six guys to carry me to my grave in a box,” Henry said with a pained look on his face. “But I was sucked in, and I believed him, for a long time.”