Dragon Con 2015 has come and gone, and for those keeping track at home (surely, none of you) this was my 18th appearance at the show. It was the first convention I ever went to as a much younger person, and while the number of days in each succeeding year I’ve attended has varied, I’ve made it a point to stop by at least once annually and get a glimpse of the costumes on display and perhaps get a chance to go meet/see some of the various stars of sci-fi and fantasy television.
To set the scene further, and for those who have no real familiarity with the show, Dragon Con differs from other conventions in how its hosted. While SDCC, NYCC, Emerald City, HeroesCon and shows of that nature are held in convention centers with some support from local area hotels (be it room blocks or meeting spaces), every offering at Dragon Con is held within the walls of six different hotels in the downtown Atlanta area, all within walking distance. With this, it gives the show a bit of an intimate “party all the time” type feel, particularly at night when there’s nothing to do but mingle at the bars, or take in one of the evening dance parties. At the same time, it creates an infrastructure issue as well, where overcrowding quickly becomes problematic, both in general hob-knobbery and in more important tasks like line control.
It’s worth noting and disclosing, that in recent years, the past three to be exact, I’ve served as a volunteer for the show’s Comics and Pop Art track. To delineate further, Dragon Con has a number of tracks that are volunteer run, and cover varying interests by offering panel programming on those areas of fandom. For example, there are tracks at the show that cover Star Trek, Star Wars, Joss Whedon, Anime, Video Games, Alt History, Apocalyptic Fiction, Space (NASA-based), Science, Conspiracy Theories, Armory, and the list goes on and on. My job at Dragon Con has been to work with a small team to create programming for Comics fans, which we do over the course of the year as new guests are announced, along with curating potential fan-based panels and academic submissions. In covering the show as a member of the press, while also being a part of the subject I’m covering, it creates a challenge in how I should tackle this.
It goes without saying that Dragon Con is a show that appeals to fans of a lot of different interests, and the celebrity guest list this year is reflective of that. For example, attendees had an opportunity to meet Stephen Amell, the star of Arrow, along with a number of other cast members from both that series and The Flash. Additionally, there was a fascinating panel where Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood from 2001: A Space Odyssey reunited and discussed their time on set with Stanley Kubrick. Karen Gillan also made an appearance to meet with fans and sit in on a panel regaling in her time on Doctor Who. If meeting the stars of the big and small screen in this setting are what you’re looking for, Dragon Con will likely have something that appeals to you.
If you’re looking to mingle with comics creators…that’s a bit more complicated.
Dragon Con’s Comics and Pop Artists Alley centers in a lower level exhibition floor of the Atlanta Hyatt Regency. It’s not a particularly large space, but it holds around 8-9 rows of talent, with around 100-plus artists populating those rows. The big names that were in attendance this year included such comics luminaries as Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Andrew Aydin, Congressman John Lewis, Brenden Fletcher, Van Jensen, Ted Naifeh and Babs Tarr. There were also a number of industry vets in attendance like the legendary Jim Steranko, George Perez, Don Rosa, and Golden Age artist Al Bellman. Those notable guests produced a very nice panel line-up that included:
- Fraction and DeConnick presenting the upcoming developments of their Image/Milkfed Criminal Masterminds line of comics in a packed panel room that held 460 people.
- Palmiotti, Conner, Jensen, Fletcher, and Tarr pulling a crowd just about as large for a discussion of the new direction of DC Comics and their contributions to the publisher.
- Palmiotti and Conner leaving the audience in stitches on a panel about the upcoming events of Harley Quinn (including today’s Road Trip Special) and Starfire (as well as the Harley Quinn and Power Girl mini). And given how many Harley Quinn cosplayers populated the show this year, the husband and wife duo were rightly the King and Queen of this side of the show.
- Congressman Lewis and Aydin presenting in the Comics and Pop Art Programming Room (which holds 140) discussing the newly released March Book Two, their collaboration with cartoonist Nate Powell. During this panel, attendees lined the aisles in order to see Hogan’s Alley’s Tom Heintjes interview the Civil Rights Icon and his co-author, and the 140 capacity limit was blown to smithereens as the room stretched the limits of the term “standing room only” with an attendance that was surely pushing 200. Even reporters from Politico and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution were on hand to cover.
- Fletcher and Tarr also presented a hilarious talk, moderated by Comicbook.com’s Lan Pitts, where they delved into the new evolution and diversification that the current Batman line of comics have undertaken, led by their run on Batgirl with Cameron Stewart.
- A great slate of Academic based panels, focusing on diversity and other notable pursuits, pulled together by the Comics and Popular Arts Conference.
- And in a talk that started off the entire show for the track, Collider’s Matt Goldberg, SuperHeroHype’s Spencer Perry, and Hitfix’s Donna Dickens shared their thoughts on the “State of Superhero Cinema”, including discussions on their various set visits to Marvel, Fox, and WB productions (that weren’t under embargo, of course) and just where they think the genre has left to go. Given my role here at The Beat, it was probably my favorite engagement of the entire weekend.
I also got a chance to say hi to Afua Richardson, who is a young talent at Marvel that is surely destined to break huge any day now, as well as Andy Runton, one of my favorite all-ages cartoonists. For the comics based guests they have, Dragon Con does a nice job (and again, I was a part of that team, so keep that in mind) pulling together programming and signing opportunities that can engage and enlighten fans. The issue facing Dragon Con is, again, one of space and infrastructure.
As stated above, the area that currently houses Artists Alley can only hold a little over 100 guests. This space is shared by pop artists and comics creators, which leaves space for, at most, only half of the room’s guest list to be made up of comics writers and artists. Add that factor with the very limited space provided for the majority of panels (the above-pictured Lewis panel, which took place in a room with a 140 max capacity, had attendees watching the Congressman through the glass windows) and you have a show whose ability to highlight comics ends up severely diminished. As a matter of fact, the only publisher of note to attend the show this year and bring talent under their banner was Aspen Comics. The year before that, they were only joined by Zenescope. This trending downward is not encouraging.
It’s a shame. As comic properties continue to be more “en vogue” and the audience that reads them continues to grow and diversify from just the everyday Wednesday crowd, a show like Dragon Con, which draws over 70,000 people of all types and interests, is a prime space to promote sequential art to an audience that would likely rapturously devour it. Sure, one could argue that Dragon Con isn’t a “comics show” and they’d be right, but currently, it’s the closest thing Atlanta has to an Emerald City or Heroes Con since the days of the Atlanta Comics Expo. Foot traffic through this year’s Artists Alley was as big as I’ve ever seen it, but I can’t shake the feeling that an opportunity continues to be lost. Then again, with an attendance base that continues to grow for Dragon Con with no sign of slowing down, there isn’t much impetus for the show to really make any changes en masse.
The bottom line is, comics are a medium, not a genre, and should be treated with the same respect as television, books, and film. I just hope one day, that becomes the modus operandi at Dragon Con as well. It’s never too late to course correct.