There are signs of Dragon Con before I even leave Vermont. It’s 4:30 on Friday morning, and as I sit to wait for my flight to Atlanta, Georgia, I count a handful of other early-risers clad in shirts emblazoned with comic book or franchise logos. The closer we get to the city, those signs grow in number. Shirts give way to casual costumes, worn by commuters from the surrounding neighborhoods, which then give way to a parade of elaborate costumes by the time I step off the train at Peachtree Station. The convention has been underway for a day, and while it isn’t yet 10am, the celebration of all things popular culture is well under way.
Dragon Con has become a bastion of cosplay creativity since its inception in 1987. Every year on Labor Day weekend, the downtown turns into a cacophony of visitors from the pages of comic books, film reels, novel covers, and video game levels. It’s a sprawling affair, spread out between five major hotels in the downtown core — The Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Sheraton, and the Westin. Their hallways are given over to long lines of guests snake through their hallways as they move from conference room to lobby to street to hotel rooms.
For someone familiar with the world of cosplayers and conventions, it’s an overwhelming affair. For those unfamiliar, it’s an alien world; a new, bizarre mashup of everything pop culture. It’s not quite as big — around 85,000 people attended this year — half that of what the San Diego con typically draws. And while its bigger cousins attract plenty of cosplayers, Dragon Con is a mecca for them. Everywhere you turn, you see your typical superheroes: Spider-man is big this year, as are variations of Marvel’s Tony Stark, depressed Thor from Avengers: Endgame, Valkyrie, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Deadpool, Superman and Superwoman, and of course Batman.
There are plenty of other properties represented in the crowds. Zelda and Link from various Legends of Zelda mingle with Master Chief and his fellow Spartans from the Halo games. Humanized versions of Pokémon march behind characters from Witcher. There are characters from webcomics, Aziraphale and Crowley from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, members of Star Trek’s Starfleet Command, of the Night Watch from Game of Thrones, a long column of Spartans from Frank Miller’s 300, spaceship crew members and soldiers from The Expanse, and members of the 501st and Rebel Legions — often not dressed as characters from the Star Wars franchise, but in the fan-produced apparel that is an industry in its own right. There are characters from ancient television shows like F Troop and Monty Python, alongside those from new streaming shows like Stranger Things and science fiction favorites like Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, and Battlestar Galactica. Guests — in costume and out — stop to take pictures with BB-8 from The Force Awakens, as well as Wall-E, various Transformers, and Farscape’s DRDs.
There are even more subtle jokes and references to those in the know. Look closely, and you’ll see guests with stylized, colorful lanyards. Others wear clothing and even costumes emblazoned with the same patterning — an in-joke recalling a particularly awful carpeting used for years by one of the hotels, resurrected as a meme for longtime members.
Look in every direction, and there are costumes as far as you can see, from what seems like every property imaginable. I’ve come with a complement of my own, stored safely in my wheeled plastic tote: a generic Belter crew member from The Expanse, Sam Bell from Duncan Jones’ 2009 science fiction film Moon, and General Antoc Merrick, the ill-fated leader of Blue Squadron from Rogue One, A Star Wars Story. Each of these costumes are relatively simple: jumpsuits and flight suits that were relatively easy to put together, which are comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, and which aren’t terribly difficult to don or shuck. For my first time visiting, I figured it would be better to find something that didn’t require a lot of effort.
For years, friends of mine from the 501st Legion made the pilgrimage to Atlanta. They crashed in rooms, taking over beds and floors, debuting the costumes they spent months creating for just the occasion. Some plan out elaborate schedules for when they’ll be wearing certain garments, or for massive group pictures of costumes from the same story. They reenacted scenes from their favorite films, got drunk at the numerous hotel bars, and shouted over the background noise as they elbowed their way through crowds.
At the heart of all of the noise, the endless parade (and actual parade) of costumes, parties that last well into the night, is a common sense of belonging. Dressed as a Belter, I easily fall into a group of fellow Expanse devotees, joined together by our common love of the TV series and novels. I greet fellow 501st members with an introduction and explanation that I’m from the New England Garrison; hands are shaken, costumes and stories compared. I drink at the bar surrounded by armored Witcher characters: we talk about our mutual love of history and theories about the next Star Wars film. Instant friendships are forged, contact information shared between texts and messages and group chats. For a weekend, the downtown core is a single community of shared passion for all things popular culture.
For those isolated or bored with their regular lives, it’s an escape into a world where there’s something for everyone, whether it’s a glimpse of a favored character from a treasured TV series, or a sense of kinship with fellow friends that you might only know about in an abstract sense.
It is chaos, and it is wonderful.