Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The DragonCon Experience

Today in The Cube:

DragonCon, held this past Labor Day weekend (Aug. 30-Sept. 3) was a cavalcade of awesome. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Amazing. Appalling. Wonderful. Wacky.

I attended this year, staying with some friends of mine, and we encountered many adventures. Here is the chronicle of my experience.

The Setting
For those who haven't been, let me line it up for you: DragonCon takes over five hotels in downtown Atlanta. Two are largely off the beaten path, these being the Sheraton (where registration is held, as well as a few panels) and the Westin (also where a few panels are held). The true Ground Zero of DragonCon takes place in the Hilton, Marriott, and Hyatt hotels in the downtown, interconnected by skywalks.
This year, gaming was totally concentrated in the Hilton, art was in the Hyatt, and vendors were in the Marriott, with various other programming taking place throughout. The Marriott, with its massive "platform-style" layout, looked for all the world like Zion from The Matrix – its central "habitat" ring was the THE place for costumed revelers to see and be seen, and throughout the con was packed with the biggest and best that the con's cosplayers had to offer. I took most of my best photos there.

As you can imagine, with a convention that attracts upwards of 50,000 to 80,000 people, certain resources are in short supply.
Case in point: seating. Chairs were largely extinct at the convention, and so there were massive numbers of con-goers that sat along the walls, under tables, and anywhere else they could.
Case in point: power. The first day (Friday) I made the rookie mistake of not packing my phone charger in my satchel. By the middle of the day I was completely out of juice and, in the middle of a Magic tournament, my friends were good enough to come and take my phone with them to be charged. Eventually, we found that the area near the Crystal Ballroom in the Hilton – quiet, out of the way, with a broad, available ledge for seating – provided a veritable Shangri-La, what with its plentiful power outlets. Of course, by the end of the con, every Tom, Dick and Harry had found out about it, too.
Case in point: Food & Drink. Food was actually plentiful throughout the con: pizza could be found at most any of the hotels, and the Hyatt had a busy snack station in its lobby filled with options. The Hilton offered the best smorgasbord, with a running buffet of hot dogs, brats, burgers, chicken fingers, fruit, drinks, pretzels, etc., all for essentially decent prices. The con organizers also did a good job of making sure that water was plentiful: water coolers and paper cups were accessible at nearly every venue.

My friends and I were spoiled on Thursday and Friday. We were actually able to pick up our pre-registration badges within 10 minutes, and our gaming tickets within five. Indeed, at the registration line in the Sheraton, people could actually run, in free-for-all fashion, down the purple intestines that formed the turnstiles there. In the hotels, the skywalks were clear and easily navigable.
Saturday and Sunday were a different story.
The lines and crush of people were incredible. Traffic jams across the skywalks were common, stopping foot traffic and causing us to go outside and navigate along the streets.
Lines for panels were legendary. On Saturday, one line for a Torchwood panel contained more than a thousand hopefuls and stretched for more than a mile around the Marriott. Our line for Levar Burton's Reading Rainbow panel stretched nearly halfway around the Sheraton, and a good many people in line didn't get to enter.

Comics and Art
The Hyatt's basement was the setting of the comic and pop art exhibitor's wing. There I was able to meet comics great J. Scott Campbell, as well as favorite artists like Joe Benitez (Lady Mechanika) and Andy Smith. It was my pleasure to shake the hand of one of my fave pin-up artists, Scott Blair, and to get a sketchbook signed by the great Playboy cartoonist Doug Sneyd.
I also picked up a nifty commission by comic and storyboard artist Cassandra Poulson, who drew me a super-terrific Dejah Thoris.
The second half of the wing was an art show, where "fine art" was exhibited. There were a number of phenomenal artists there, but the highlight for me was to meet one of my favorites, Todd Lockwood, who has produced art for Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering games. He signed a Magic card for me!

Gaming was a mixed bag for me. Held in the lowest level of the Hilton were most of the board and card games, and I played in an 8-man Swiss-style Magic tournament on Saturday. I placed 4th overall, through no grace of my own: I didn't win a single game, but after losing my first match 0-2, my next two opponents dropped out, rocketing me into the money for the first time in my life.
I later entered Magic League play – essentially they give you an intro deck and you play others for fun (and for free) for the rest of the weekend whenever you want, then picking out cards at random from a treasure chest after play to continually customize your deck. This was enjoyable, and I met a bunch of players from throughout the country, and actually won a bit.
Unfortunately, what I had hoped would be a highlight of the con turned out to be on of my greatest disappointments. I'm a fan of the now-defunct Start Trek CCG, and they had a First Edition tournament on Sunday night. I eagerly entered, but found that I hadn't kept up with the rules changes in the intervening 12 years. I was beaten handily twice. Now, this is in no part the fault of the organizers, who ran a good event and were as nice as could be to me, even being helpful. I was just embarrassed and sad that I was, basically, left behind by the game I'd loved. Oh, well. The night got better.
My friend and I also played a D&D session Saturday night. The session - centered around a rebellion on a slave ship - was promising, except for the fact that THERE WERE 20 PEOPLE PLAYING. While the DM was a great guy, the game soon devolved into chaos and we only got through 3 turns of action in 3 hours. My friend and I bailed.

I actually only attended two panels: the first was a Battlestar Galactica panel that I attended with my friends on Friday, largely to rest and sit down someplace. I'd never watched much Galactica, and the panelists largely commented on how scary Edward James Olmos was to work with.
The second panel was on Sunday afternoon in the Sheraton: Levar Burton's Reading Rainbow panel. Burton was amazingly entertaining, noting that the hotel staff was performing a "Level Three Diagnostic" on the place (they were doing to repair work that caused a semi-unpleasant odor) and took questions. I was able to ask a question, and got a big crowd reaction when I said that it wasn't until the episode where Burton took viewers behind the scene of Start Trek: The Next Generation that I realized that Geordi LaForge and "the Reading Rainbow guy" were one and the same.
"And you were like 'Mom, so he's NOT blind?'" he joked.
Burton also led the large crowd in a sing along of the show's theme and kept us all rolling in the aisles.

In the Walk of Fame area, where most celebs were cordoned off in booths, I saw William Frakes and Michael Dorn, and has my photo taken with Robert Picardo, the EMH Doctor from Start Trek: Voyager. I also signed Lou Ferrigno, James Marsters and David Prowse, famous as Darth Vader's body.
Outside of the room, I sighted Felicia Day in the Hilton restaurant (we made eye contact and then I promptly bumped into a chair), J. August Richards (of Angel fame) also in the Hilton, and I re-met Levar Burton by accident, also in the Hilton.

Perhaps the biggest highlight for me, aside from the many I've already mentioned, was karaoke in the Hilton on Sunday night. It was my last night at the con, and I sang Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London to much ballyhoo and dancing. A dude in a werewolf costume even got up and mugged behind me.

I've already posted many of my favorites, but here are a few that I wish I'd gotten photos of:
– A pitch-perfect Tom Baker Dr. Who.
– A pitch-perfect Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones.
– An amazing Steampunk Dr. Doom.
– Some of the best Ghost Busters outfits I've ever seen.
– An amazing Black Cat.

You can't go to a con like this without seeing some of the strangest @#$% you've ever witnessed. Here's my list of the oddest stuff to go down at DragonCon:

• Internet/Network service was spotty at best in the hotels, necessitating lots of radio silence. As a result, the DragonCon smartphone app was rendered useless, making it necessary to constantly pull out the paper program.
• Dudes in kilts. Lots of them. The "utilikilt" was ubiquitous here.
• People on leashes. I kid you not. There were a lot of people on leashes: men leading women on leashes, women leading men, men leading men, women leading women. Not 100% sure what to make of this trend...
• One young lady played a Magic tournament wearing only a leather brassiere, a short plaid skirt, and black vinyl boots. I declare that to be flagrant cheating.
• No one uses staircases at conventions, it seems. Elevators and escalators were continuously PACKED, but staircases were routinely empty, and proved the fastest way to get from here to there.
• I felt bad for a young woman dressed as Cheetara from Thundercats. Just sitting for a rest, and looking exhausted, but every Tom, Dick and Harry with a camera (including... uh... me) came up to her for a photo and she tiredly obliged.
• A HUGE amount of drinking went on at the con. In our D&D session, at least two guys had flasks with them. At one point, I spotted a women in the Hilton drinking from a bag in a plain brown wrapper as she sat against the wall.
• Heard at DragonCon: You will face "horrible, horrible things that I came up with... while high."
• Heard at DragonCon: "Not while I'm drinking" - said my a celeb I will not identify when I asked for his autograph.
• Heard at DragonCon: "So Rebecca invited the Kilngon to her house."
• Heard at DragonCon: "Light is important because, without it, everything's dark." – Painter Todd Lockwood.
• At the charity auction, the auctioneer told the gathered crowd that the item was worth at least $2,000. "So BID" cried an unruly fellow from the audience.
• Twice within five minutes, a tired group of legitimate Delta airline pilots in town for the night were told in the Hyatt that they had great cosplay going.
• Mistaking airline stewardesses for some sort of cosplay.
• My friends mistook the REAL Alice Cooper for a guy doing "decent" Alice Cooper cosplay.

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