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Cracked LCD- Dragon Con 2013 Post-Mortem (or, The Misanthrope among the Tribes)

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It’s late in the afternoon, Saturday at Dragon Con, and I’m walking by Malcolm McDowell’s table in the room of “celebrities” that I like to call the Career Graveyard. This man was Alex in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, one of the defining films of my life and one of the great performances in cinema. 17 year old me would have lost his damn mind. But at 37 and having seen him at the past three Dragon Cons I’m completely unmoved, unphased as I push the stroller containing Peter Pan and Tinkerbell past the dim stars of shows I’ve never even heard of. My wife, who works in film and television, is irritated by the phony glamour of it all as we edge past the morbidly obese on their mobility scooters, past the muffin-topped jailbait skanks desperate for attention in what passes for “sexy” in the minds of the socially decrepit, and through the pathetic tribal boundaries between Browncoats, gamers, otaku, steampunks, and furries. Amidst the sleazy aura of desperation and the stench of sweltering bodies, she asks “why do we still come to this?”

For the first time in the 21 years that I have been going to what is billed as the Southeast’s largest celebration of pop culture, I don’t have a justifiable response.

We wander the disaster of a dealer’s room, strolling past table after table of worthless junk. Why is there so much My Little Pony stuff? My two year old daughter, Tinkerbell, loves it. So do 30 year old men, apparently. I’m creeped out. I think back again to 17 year old me shopping at the Con, saving money all summer to buy a $200 Captain Harlock doll or happily plunking down $100 for a copy of Dungeonquest with the Heroes expansion long before Fantasy Flight mangled it. I can’t believe I used to spend so much money at this thing. I’m looking for obscure European science fiction comics, Jodorowsky stuff, but nothing.

I could buy bumper stickers or T-shirts with funny geek slogans on them to show which fandom tribe I belong to, but I actually have what I feel like is good taste and a sense of identity beyond the media that I consume. Most of these people I’m watching do not. They are constructs of consumption, buying more junk for collections that create who they are. I think about the classic Fugazi line- “you are not what you own”. The dealer’s room gives these people a common ground to become who they wish they were by devouring the creativity of others. I keep telling myself “it’s not the people, it’s the culture here”. I’m not trying to tell people that they’re having fun the wrong way or spending the money the wrong way.

I participate. I spend two dollars. Peter Pan spies a bin of Green Lantern rings that were probably comic shop giveaways during the Blackest Night promotion. He picks Guy Gardner Green, Tinkerbell goes for the hot pink Star Sapphire one. It’s the first time I’ve bought something at the Con since 2007. They love them, Peter Pan says he’s going to make a giant hammer with his. I wish inside that he would, and smash this whole display of empty “fandom” into the ground.

I try again to tell myself that it’s not the people. I look around and I see people having fun, comfortable with whatever it is they are. I respect that, I realy do. But then I wonder what makes these people tick, really. Why the obsessions with things others have written, drawn, or created? Why does a person expend so much time, effort, commitment, and (I guess) passion on making a costume to duplicate something from someone else’s fantasy world? Like vampires, they consume, that’s it I guess.

Common areas packed with gawkers and cosplayers. I high five the guys dressed like Luke Cage and Iron Fist. I laugh at the person with the bill costume (as in “How a bill becomes a law” from Schoolhouse Rock”). There’s a guy dressed like Rick James, totally playing the role. He poses for pictures with some guys in Daft Punk helmets and wannabe Yves Saint Laurent glitter suits. I love it. But I feel remote. I’m not one of these people. Not anymore. Is it really not about the people?

After dinner we browse through the art show, by and large a miserable display of talent and materials wasted. My friend Jason Thomas, of Red Rocket Farms, is doing gangbuster business drawing robots and octopuses and I’m happy for him. Don Rosa has a big sign to warn off people from talking about Duck Tales, which doesn’t stop Peter Pan from yelling “look dad! Duck Tales!” I make my annual visit to heckle this lady’s illustrations of wolf-men with giant penises flapping out of their lace-up breeches. It’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing. And it’s gross. I’m sorry, but this garbage deserves to be mocked and made fun of if not arrested and tried by a tribunal of wolves. But I can’t find her pictures. An hour later, a friend texts me- “WOLFCOCK FOUND!”

From there, the game room. Where Dragon Con 2013 came to die. It’s packed, its own tribes divided out among board gamers, CCG players, RPG groups, and miniatures tables. For some reason, a group of twenty or so big, hairy overweight men are standing around with their shirts off. My wife surmises that it must be “some kind of fucking gamer bullshit”. I think it might be some kind of “bear” thing. A man rushes past my wife to get to his game table, and he puts his hands on her waist and moves her out of the way. No “excuse me”, just a half-hearted attempt at a grope. I would have had words with him if my kids weren’t there. Another gamer literally steps over the stroller because he just can’t be bothered to wait for us to get two children off the elevator.

Peter Pan and Tinkerbell need to run around a bit, so I let them while my wife talks to our old friends from Atlanta Game Factory. I’m tickling Peter Pan on the floor, and a stranger gets up from a game and comes over and starts tickling my son. I see red. I would have broken a chair over this man’s head if I could have. You don’t go up and touch someone else’s kids. Maybe someone should have broken a chair over Dragon Con founder Ed Kramer’s head before he molested children at the convention some years ago. I don’t know, at this point, if I can really say that it’s not about the people.

Peter Pan needs to potty, and I check out the bathroom. It looks like what I imagine a truckstop in a rural area of Missouri looks like after the apocalypse. There’s a film of piss on the floor. Someone in that game room defecated and neither wiped nor flushed. The manners, the common decency, of gamers is appalling.

Get off your white horse about stereotypes and generalizations; I’ve been around these people all my life. I’ve seen enough to pass judgment whether you agree or not. At Dragon Con 2013, I was more embarrassed than ever to be associated with gamers regardless of the many awesome, amazing people that I know and love that are passionate about games and playing them. It isn’t all of them, I know this. You don’t have to tell me.

It’s still great to see friends at Dragon Con, almost all of whom play games, watch Doctor Who and read comic books without crossing over into unhealthy or unbalanced levels of consumption/obsession. Texts are sent- meet here, where are you right now, did you see that eight foot tall guy in the Rollerball costume? We eat at a bizarre Turkish place with fire-breathing belly dancers that must have some kind of ties to organized crime. We laugh, we catch up, we remember things that happened at conventions past. We all wonder why we don’t get together more often, why we spend $130 to get together once a annually at a place that with every passing year feels more and more distant from where we are in our lives, what we do with our lives, and what we want our lives to be.

Maybe we were geeks or nerds once, and coming to Dragon Con made us feel at home with others like us. But those terms no longer stand for brainy, smart kids that are outcast from mainstream social circles that gravitate toward imaginative science fiction, strategy games, or more obscure media. Now those terms stand for people that watch too much TV, spend too much time playing video games, or otherwise filling something that’s lacking in their hearts and souls with action figures, ersatz bondage gear, discussing the fourteen episodes of Firefly at length, or trying desperately to be noticed by someone- anyone- at a convention.

We left early Sunday evening after laughing at this terrible “cybergoth” band called Angelspit that apparently never got the memo that 1995 ended in, well, 1995. It was early. I used to stay four days straight, gaming until the small hours and then falling asleep in the video room while a bootleg VHS copy of Spider Baby or City Hunter whirred away in the darkness. This year, I just wanted to leave. I’m not a fan, I guess you could say. I didn’t feel like I belonged.

So this isn’t my usual “yeah, the Con was lame but it was fun because of friends” post, filled with winsome ruminations and a general tolerance for the rudeness, sleaziness, and pervading sense of emptiness that wafts through the hotel halls during Dragon Con. It saddens me that some- but most definitely not all- of the people that like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other genre media spoil gatherings like this for those of us who live balanced and value these things as part of a healthy mental, physical and spiritual life.

I left Dragon Con 2013 never wanting to be around anyone in a Deadpool costume again. I never wanted to be in a room full of disgusting gamers again. I wanted to wrap myself in a bubble where being a Star Wars fan doesn’t seem so lame and silly because of the people for whom Star Wars is a more important factor in their lives and personalities than mountains and love are. I wanted to go be someplace where no one recognizes that the tattoo on my arm is from Watchmen or that the one on my leg is a Brian Froud illustration. I wanted to say that it was my last Dragon Con, that this was the point at which my interest in going stopped. I’m just not like the kind of people that make up the majority of its attendance, and I want nothing to do with people that comprise a subculture based almost completely on consumption of media- much of which is corporate owned, corporate controlled, and corporate created. Or worse- fan-made.

It saddens me to say it, but it is some of the people that participate in this bankrupt convention culture that spoil it. Judgmental? You’re damn straight I’m judgmental about people that care more about anime or cancelled TV shows than the health of their bodies or their ability to act like adult human beings. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about a flabby girl who thinks that she’s “flying her freak flag” or whatever, fat rolls spilling out of a chainmail bikini or a homemade Slave Leia outfit. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about the guy in some kind of anime costume that I watched for 30 minutes while eating lunch that literally sat there and stared at everyone head-down/eyes-up like he was a psychopathic killer, ready to spring up and tear into the food court with a machine gun. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about the oafish, probably virginal jerk that wore a shirt with a pictogram of a woman performing oral sex on a man with an arrow pointing down to his crotch under the words “warning: choking hazard”. You’re damn straight I’m going to be judgmental about people that have no sense of class, taste, or dignity. And furries? Should be jailed. No exceptions.

But who am I kidding. These people and worse are really everywhere, not just at Dragon Con or other gatherings of “nerds” and “geeks”. There are sports fans that probably put some of these people to shame.

As bitter and down on Dragon Con and its culture- and ultimately, its population- I am, the reality of it is that I’ll probably go back. Next August, I’ll get the text from my good friend Mike- “what are you doing for Dragon Con?” Then Peter will text me the first day, when he gets in from Jersey- “Mike- at the con- let’s do this old school”. I’ll line up and pay my $150 or whatever to do the same things again among the tribes, none of which I will ever call my own.

Cracked LCD- Dragon Con 2012 Post-Mortem

Dragon Con 2012 was my 20th year attending the Southeast’s largest fan convention, and if you’ve followed my coverage of it over the past couple of years you probably know most of what I’m going to say about it. Yes, the kinds of things that got me more or less excommunicated from their press list. Hey, I didn’t realize they’d actually go and read my articles. I’m not sorry for pointing out the rudeness and lack of hygiene of the geeks in attendance, nor am I sorry for jabbing at the has-been and never-was celebrities that make up the guest list. The toilets in the gaming area really are the most unsanitary place on Earth, I’m not making it up.

My searing, Hunter Thompson-like honesty about Dragon Con- not to mention the fact that I’m no longer under the professional aegis of Gameshark- means that I don’t get a journalist badge anymore. I’m just a rank-and-file plebe sans the big “PRESS” ribbon. Now I’m expected to pay a hundred and forty freaking dollars at the door to get into this show AFTER waiting in a line that literally wrapped around a city block instead of just walking into the press office and proving to them that I write about gaming, showing them a letter from Bill Abner as credentials.

I had stopped by Friday afternoon to meet with some friends but I didn’t buy a pass- I borrowed a badge from good friend and noted gaming scene socialite Steve Avery. I just wandered around with my two-year-old son and some buddies, slightly tipsy after begging a great Belgian-style IPA (!) off another friend that owns a craft beer boutique. On Saturday, my family and I got there early and just about turned around land left when we saw the registration line.

My wife dropped the “I’m a mom with two babies” card and cut in line, literally lopping off five or six hours of waiting in the hot sun next to a flabby nerd-sow in sweat-glazed latex and some braying jackass carrying on about some piece-of-shit SyFy channel show like Warehouse 13 or whatever. Three day badges were a whopping $90 a piece, which seems especially like a rip-off since most of our time was spent in the dealer’s room and the public areas of the hotels. We don’t go to panels anymore and I could really care less about waiting in another five to six hour line to see Gillian Anderson pretend to be interested in talking about the X-Files. Attendance this year was record-breaking, topping 52,000. Everything was overcrowded and cramped, the thick reek of social desperation and intellectual slavery to pop culture heavy in the air.

It’s not changed all that much in the two decades that I’ve gone. There is still the lingering inability for the convention to attract the kinds of guests that it was able to in the 1990s before founder Ed Kramer was brought up on charges for child molestation. Instead of John Carpenter, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman it’s a perennial assortment of fading celebrities and who-the-fuck-is-that people. It was pretty cool seeing Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor, and it’s always surprising how good Adam West and Burt Ward look. Rose McGowan was a huge disappointment. She’s not very pretty when she’s not a witch or an amputee on TV. It’s always sad to me to see the fine cast of Battlestar Galactica there every year, instead of getting hired on for other roles. I didn’t get to see Alice Cooper, which was a letdown.

There was a fun quasi-celebrity moment. My wife was talking to Lucky Yates, one of the guys that does voices on Archer (which I’ve never seen and know nothing about) and this dude came up wearing full-on N7 Commander Shepard armor. He was chit-chatting with Lucky (apparently pals), and I made the obvious nerd joke that Lucky was his favorite non-celebrity at Dragon Con. Turns out he was actually the guy that does Commander Shepard’s voice. I’m not really sure if it’s awesome or not that he was in costume.

The dealer’s room featured the same detritus it always does. I love that you can still buy Space: 1999 badges and collector’s plates featuring the bridge crew of the original Star Trek. If you’re in the market for devil horns, fetish wear, wiggling cat ears, a mace with a giant D20 on the business end of it, Geiger counters, or “hilarious” t-shirts that juxtapose one pop culture franchise with another, it’s the place for you. One booth I swear was nothing but Dominion games. Another had the new FFG version of Netrunner, which retails for $40, priced at $85. Then there was the crafters that were taking used bottlecaps and sticking a laser-printed image of your favorite character in them. I have no idea why in the world anyone would waste their money on that kind of crap. Who’s going to pay $800 for a cast autographed Harry Potter poster anyway? I spent $0, although I tried to convince my son to want a Green Lantern figure to no avail, since he really, really wanted a sword.

The gaming room was the usual cesspit of stinky, overweight, and middle-aged men hunkered over board games, safe in their subterranean womb where all social interaction is handled with dice and cards. I didn’t play a single game, and my friends- most childless- apparently didn’t get the memo that when you have mom and two under-three children along…you don’t sit down and play a two hour board game. They must have asked me ten times, and every time I pointed at my children.

Cards Against Humanity, a game that I had never heard of, appeared to be the big hit. My friends played it, and said it was like “dirty” Apples to Apples. I flipped through some of the cards and all I could think of was that it was like one of those “adult” board games you used to see at Spencer’s gifts in the mall. A bunch of people played Dominion. A couple of old dudes played some moldy wargame I’ve never heard of. My son ran over and pointed at Starfleet Battles and said “what’s that?” and I could not adequately explain it to him in less than 100 pages of rules. I saw a couple of tables running the new Descent, Steve Avery was trying to lure young ladies in to play his new game that involves cactuses and dart guns, and Atlanta gaming king Will Kenyon held court over- of course- Twilight Imperium.

The art area was crap, as usual, unless you like tacky, tasteless fantasy art. My friend Jason Thomas, who does some very cool robot and squid art as Red Rocket Farms, was put next to Neal Adams. Yeah, that Neal Adams that more or less defined the look of post-1960s Batman and put Green Lantern and Green Arrow on the road to combat drug abuse and racism. Jason did a great picture of a macaroni and cheese-serving robot for River. I didn’t see the lady that’s usually there that does all of the furry (read: bestiality) illustrations, which was a disappointment. I make it a point every year to heckle loudly at her pictures of well-hung dog men.

My kids, River and Scarlett were dressed like Batman and Robin and they had the best costumes at the con, apart from this group of folks dressed like Captain Avatar, Wildstar, and Nova from Star Blazers. Bellbottoms ahoy. The biggest problem is that Dragon Con cosplay has become infected with the same “sexy” virus that has ruined Halloween costuming. Now, attention-seeking women will dress in revealing costumes that are “sexy” versions of male characters. I saw not a single male Loki, but I saw several sexy Lokis and a couple of sexy Thors. Sexy Captain America, Sexy Flash, Sexy R2-D2, Sexy Joker. Oddly, I didn’t really see much Star Wars cosplay, which used to be a huge thing. Now you’re more likely to see a bunch of made-up nonsense from people apparently trying to dress as some kind of anime character so obscure that only the costumer has ever seen it. I guess you can’t really fail at recreating a look like that. For the record, it took me approximately three minutes upon arrival at the con to see someone dressed like that white-haired girl Dennis from Game of Thrones.

Regardless of how down I am on the con, I had a great time. The most important aspect to me is meeting up with friends I never see, like the group of high school friends that I went to my very first Dragon Con with in 1992. I reconnected with my Atlanta Game Factory family and we had an exquisite dinner at a Mexican fusion place- one of my friends commented “I’m 36 years old, I’m not eating peanut butter and salsa sandwichs in the Con Suite anymore.” We laughed, made jokes, and caught up with each other. We talked nerd stuff, made fun of bad art in the art show, and reminisced about the Good Times. Sure, we could have done all of that in a bar. But there’s something special about making this pilgrimage to this godforsaken event every year, and I’ll be there again next year.