Reading List: The Cosplayers of Dragon Con

Hello!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks — the highlight of which was heading down to attend DragonCon for the first time. It’s a convention that I’ve seen a lot of friends go to over the years, but haven’t had the chance to go to until now. That took place last week, and it was a blast — you can see pictures I took here. This past weekend was Burlington, Vermont’s Pride Parade, which was a whole lot of fun — a loud, joyous occasion.

Dragon Con

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.

The Book

Progress on the Cosplay Book is going well. DragonCon brought with it a handful of good interviews with cosplayers, which I’m working on getting transcribed and fixed up to use. In the meantime, I’ve been jumping all over history to research various things: people like Forrest J. Ackerman and his companion, Morojo (Myrtle Douglas), who are widely credited as the first “cosplayers” in 1939. But there’s other, earlier people as well: Jules Verne threw a costume party in the 1870s. It’s a fun adventure to try and track down, although there are some frustrations: Ackerman’s papers ended up at the University of Syracuse, and for some reason, they’ll be in processing until 2024, and aren’t available to scholars until after then. That’s not helpful when your book is due in 2020! Sigh.

Further Reading

  • Audible Backs Down. In my last newsletter, I pointed out that a bunch of publishers sued Audible over its captions feature. The issue here stems from the fact that Audible doesn’t have the explicit right to display text: it has the audio rights. According to Publishers Weekly, Audible says that it’ll remove publishers from the feature, at least until a court rules on their request for an injunction. I’m guessing that it’ll allow it for its original productions, and in places where publishers or self-publishers allow.

  • Books for September. Over on Polygon, I’ve rounded up 13 new SF/F books to check out this month. Hopefully, this monthly book list will live there for the time being, and I’ll have another one there in October. There are some good ones on the list this month.

  • Etsy’s transformation. My former colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany recently posted a big feature over on Vox: Was Etsy too good to be true?, which looks at the company’s drive to compete with the likes of Amazon as it urges its sellers to offer free shipping. They’re two goals that seem counter to one another: Etsy is a site that provides individual makers with a platform to sell their goods, and in particular, it’s become a haven for knitters and cosplayers. It’s a good deep dive into the formation of the company and how it got to today.

  • Campbell thoughts. Over on Whatever, John Scalzi has some good thoughts about the recent shift in attitudes towards John W. Campbell Jr. has been as of late, and what that means for the field at large. Two points stand out for me:

    Campbell’s reputational demotion isn’t just because he “once said something that wasn’t nice.” Campbell was for many years the apex editor in his field... Science fiction was made in Campbell’s image for decades

    I made a point about this on Twitter earlier this week: I’ve been looking through older ossies of Analog Science Fiction, and uncovered some pretty nasty stuff: advocating for the creation of a “superior race” through which rape was a desirable tool. Yeah.

    The field of science fiction is what it is in many ways because of who Campbell was. This, however, is not an argument that science fiction was the best it could have been because Campbell was who he was. Was the field genuinely best served by having a man who was a bigot and a reactionary as its apex editor?

    I’ve thought about this a lot — not just with the science fiction field, but with technology, education, and other places in life. I was struck by something one of my uncles said once: he was complaining about how people get up in arms about this-and-that, and his griping came down to “back in my day, we had all that, and we survived!” That’s stuck with me, because I can’t help but wonder how much better or different the world would be if we didn’t have these sorts of obstacles.

  • Missing the point. I’m a big fan of the Folio Society. They’re a high-end publisher that puts out very nice editions of a variety of classics, and have recently announced a foray into comics with Marvel: The Golden Age. That volume has run into a bit of controversy recently, as Newsweek revealed that the publisher was pulling an introduction from the volume by Art Spiegelman, best known for Maus. In that essay (which he published over at The Guardian) Spiegelman lays out a history of comics, and includes one particular line:

    In today’s all too real world, Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America. International fascism again looms large (how quickly we humans forget – study these golden age comics hard, boys and girls!) and the dislocations that have followed the global economic meltdown of 2008 helped bring us to a point where the planet itself seems likely to melt down.

    Marvel seems to have been unhappy with “Orange Skull”, and removed the essay entirely. In doing so, they said that they wanted the book to be “apolitical.” That’s a curious stance, because comics and genre works are inherently political. Captain America, as Spiegelman notes, literally punches Hitler. The artists and writers who worked for those books were keenly aware of the politics of the day, and used their stories to push for awareness of various issues. It’s a shame to see that Folio (who declined to comment about this) and Marvel take this stance. It ignores their history and legacy as publishers.

  • New Earthsea. A24 studios is setting up a new adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Over on The Barnes & Noble, I’ve got a look at why it’s a good time for a new take on the series, and why this should help get rid of the taste that the crappy SCIFI Channel series left behind.

  • Setting up the First Order. Over on Tor.com, I’ve written about how The Mandalorian seems to be poised to set up for the rise of the First Order, one of the major lingering questions from the sequel trilogy. It’ll be interesting to see what it shows off.

  • Sony’s Spider-Man Split. The Marvel-Sony Spider-man issue seems to have reached an end, at least for now: Sony Pictures CEO Tony Vinciquerra says that the “door is closed” for future sharing of the character. The problem stems from the fact that Sony holds the rights to the character (and others), and had put together a long line of films for him. They agreed to split the rights, porting Peter Parker over to the MCU for a handful of films (Captain America: Civil War, Homecoming, Far from Home, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.) Sony hasn’t exactly had the best track record with the character, and the MCU’s depiction of the character was a fantastic one — and had been set up to play a bigger role moving forward. Vinciquerra seems to be taking the long view here, noting that they could revisit the issue in the future. Into the Spider-Verse was fantastic, and hopefully, Sony can create a good standalone franchise for the character that doesn’t suck.

Currently Reading

I’m always over-optimistic when it comes to reading while traveling, especially to conventions. I packed along Star Wars: Black Spire by Delilah S. Dawson, which I’m really enjoying (and did get through a couple chapters on the flight!). It’s particularly interesting, given that it’s a tie-in for a theme park, and I’ll likely have some thoughts on that down the road. I’ve also been digging into The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson, which is extremely good so far. The audiobook is fantastic.

I also blew through the first 10 or so chapters of Rule of Capture by Christopher Brown, which I’ve been hearing many good things about — I can see where the praise is coming from, and I’m sort of kicking myself for missing his debut, Tropic of Kansas when it came out a couple of years ago. I've also been starting to re-read Dune recently — a couple of chapters at a time. It's been a while since I've read it, and want to re-familiarize myself with it.

I’m putting aside The Priory of the Orange Tree. It’s gotten a lot of acclaim, but it’s super slow, and I’m impatient.

Up next: Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline. I adored their debut, Autonomous (and their writing in general), and this one has time travel and trilobites. I’m in.

That's all I've got for now. As always, thanks for reading — let me know what thoughts / comments / questions you have.

Andrew