VICE travels to Atlanta to attend Dragon Con, a five-day bacchanalian orgy of sci-fi and comic book fans going bananas in the city's hotel rooms. We dive deep into the chaos with hundreds of cos-play and sci-fi fans, and then get in trouble for talking...
the sad decline of the american nerd
By Nicholas Gazin, Billy Voermann
Fatman and two black Robins.
All fan conventions, be they about comics, RPGs, anime, or whatever, were spawned by science-fiction conventions. Some believe that the first of these gatherings took place in October 1936 when nine sci-fi fans traveled from New York to the Philadelphia home of Milton A. Rothman, a nuclear physicist and founder of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. There’s also a contingent of people (mostly British) who hold that the first real science-fiction convention occurred in Leeds on January 3, 1937, and attracted about 20 fans, including Arthur C. Clarke.
In the decades following those two meet-ups, sci-fi cons focused almost entirely on literature, and there was little distinction between fan and celebrity. These early adopters understood that true science fiction is more cerebral and philosophical than most assholes will admit, and at its heart, the genre is about predicting the future of human existence based on current technology, politics, trends, and attitudes.
The arrival of Star Wars and its unprecedented mainstream popularity shifted most people’s idea of sci-fi from this “literature of ideas” to “lasers and spaceships.” It also changed the nature of science-fiction conventions. At some point in the 80s, they withered from meetings of minds who wanted to discuss the meanings of things into gatherings of off-kilter individuals who want to live inside fantasy worlds. For instance, costume contests have been a staple of sci-fi cons since the early days, but back then people didn’t parade around in them all day and throughout the evening while they looked for other “characters” to have sex with. And while I admit to loving the cosplay element of all major cons, I recognize that playing dress-up and pretending to be a cyborg is the opposite of intellectually discussing literature concerned with the future of mankind. Still, both are good times.
BAM! BONK! POW! It’s Battyman and Bobbin’.
So last month I paid my first visit to Atlanta’s Dragon Con for its 25th anniversary. The convention was first held in 1987 as a meet-up for Ed Kramer’s BBS role-playing group the Dragon Alliance of Gamers and Role-Players. Since Dragon Con’s inception, attendance has grown from about 400 to somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000, depending on whom you ask. The festivities are spread across six hotels that are relatively close to one another. Attendees wander around to panels and exhibitor halls during the day, and at night their hotel rooms host awesome parties and debauchery that spill into the streets of the nearby Peachtree neighborhood.
My plan was to meander around and talk to anyone who looked interesting, which at the time seemed like a fairly easy task. One of the first people I spoke with was a girl who’d made a dress out of the con’s program pamphlets. Then we were invited to an “anything-but-clothes party” along with a guy who said he almost got his scrotum shot off overseas. Later we hung out with the 501st Legion, a brigade of men who dress in homemade Stormtrooper costumes, throw awesome parties, and do a lot of charity work.
Later I watched a “costumed comic book babes contest,” which featured a panel of celebrity judges that included Jim Steranko, probably best known for his work on Nick Fury comics, who was wearing a white suit that perfectly matched his even whiter hair. He might’ve been one of the coolest-looking guys I’ve ever seen. Elvira was there too, in full costume, looking as hot as ever. Voltaire, the guy who plays dramatic cabaret-ish music that steampunks like, hosted the event, and although most of his corny/horny jokes didn’t work on me, he was able to keep up the energy for about an hour and improvise a lot of dirty humor.
I guess you could say I was a popular guy at Dragon Con because I was being tailed by a film crew documenting my experience. I was dressed as G.G. Allin’s preburial corpse, which could’ve also drawn some attention. At one point, we got into some trouble with the volunteer staff, who asked us to show all of the footage we’d shot that day to Pat Henry, the con’s most senior director. Pat’s minions brought us to his lair, and we played the footage for the big boss. For some reason I started discussing how extreme naïveté and aggressive sexuality are fundamental and intertwined elements of the con. Pat accused me of having an agenda, but he offered no explanation for why there were thousands of Dragon Con attendees dressed as icons of childhood entertainment who seemed to want nothing more than to cavort with half-nude women. This connection became even more troubling on my return home, when I discovered that 11 years ago, Ed Kramer, Dragon Con’s founder, was charged with multiple counts of child molestation and aggravated child molestation in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Then, just before this issue of VICE went to the printer, Kramer was arrested for misdemeanor reckless endangerment of a child, specifically a 14-year-old boy with whom he shared a hotel room in Connecticut. Before this incident, Pat Henry posted a message on Facebook that stated Kramer hasn’t been associated with Dragon Con since 2000, around the time of his first arrest.
The myriad attendees of Dragon Con.
Another major bummer for me was realizing just how big steampunk has become. I frequent all sorts of conventions around the country, and nowhere have I seen as many steampunks as I did at Dragon Con. Although its name is derived from the science-fiction subgenre called cyberpunk, steampunk is essentially the antithesis of science fiction. Instead of pondering the future, these guys are on some “What if steam trumped electricity?” tangent that requires reimagining the past as a place where everyone cruised around in blimps shaped like boats and dressed like vampire hunters. I did meet a few really interesting steampunk enthusiasts (including one genius who made a beautiful steampunk version of Professor X’s wheelchair), but for the most part it seemed like steampunks fetishize an aesthetic that they probably don’t research. On our final day, we attended a Steampunk 101 discussion panel and abruptly left when the host said he wanted to nail down the ideology of steampunk, and an adult woman raised her hand and asked, “What’s an ideology?”
Near the end of the trip I had a little freak-out about nerd culture and how being a nerd is too easy nowadays. When I was in high school no one wanted to be a nerd, and being a lonely outsider was a miserable existence where you mostly hung out with yourself and tried to understand the world because you didn’t have friends. Now all the pinup models jokingly claim that they love Star Wars and video games before laughing and admitting, “I’m such a nerd!” Congratulations for liking one of the most popular franchises of all time!
The outsider status of nerd-dom and being a sci-fi fan has been embraced by mainstream culture, which totally negates what it meant to be one of these things in the first place. Now just about everyone’s a reg, and that means pretty soon everything is going to be mediocre and boring. Except steampunks. They’ll always be terrible.
Watch a documentary about the author’s visit to Dragon Con on VICE.com, just in time for Halloween. Highlights include him being arrested by the convention’s media-relations guy for talking to Princess Leia… at a sci-fi convention.