Editor’s note: _ Jason Johnson _ is an HLN contributor and professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” He is on _ Twitter _.
When a group of old college buddies want to get away for a weekend, there are a couple of spots that usually come to mind: Vegas, New Orleans, maybe even Atlantic City at the right time of year.
Not my friends. Our annual wild weekend includes anime, plastic “Star Trek” Vulcan ears and superhero costumes. We go to Dragon Con in Atlanta -- a comic book and fantasy convention -- the place where grown-up nerds with kids come to play.
The explosion of comic book movies and the rise of shows like “ The Nerdist” on Syfy and “ Toy Hunter” on the Travel Channel have made comic conventions more popular than ever. While there are a ton of conventions every year -- San Diego's famed Comic-Con, New York Comic Con and comic expos in Seattle and Chicago -- when I catch up with my friends every year, we choose Dragon Con. Why? Because while we still want to hang out in the hotel lobby until 3 a.m., debating whether Han Solo was a better starship pilot than Sulu, some of us have wives and kids and jobs now. And thankfully, the convention experience has grown up, too, evolving into a full carnival experience for the hard-core fans, the casual lurkers and their kids.
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I asked James Teems, one of the original directors of Dragon Con, what made this convention so attractive to guys like me and my “Married with Children” friends. “We’re a little friendlier -- we don’t judge,” he said. “Over time, as comic fans grow up and bring their kids and family, it’s become the young, the old and the gray. I’m glad to see we can keep it that way, no matter how big we get.”
That explains why the Dragon Con street parade is filled with screaming toddlers on dads’ shoulders, pointing at the dressed-up Avengers, as well as screaming moms, pointing to the chiseled abs of the dressed-up “300” soldiers.
Even the panels at this convention have expanded to accommodate more generations. I saw a father and his 12-year-old daughter at the cosplay (costumed role play) panel, figuring out how they were going to make her Storm costume for Halloween. Personally, my favorite panel was “Helping Your Young Evil Genius Dominate the Science Fair.” It was hosted by an award-winning teacher who’s coached state science fair winners for years. She talked about how using science fiction and fantasy can help your kids do well in school.
At the Hall of Fame autograph room, I talked to old-school and new-school sci-fi TV and movie stars, and it was amazing to see how much they were willing to share with fans of all ages. When I spoke with Erin Gray’s son (she played Kate Summers on “ Silver Spoons” and Col. Deering on “ Buck Rogers”), who was helping manage her autograph table, he talked about how many women say his mother was their inspiration and how they want to share that with their daughters today.
I found the same feeling of appreciation when I spoke to a few up-and-coming stars as well. When I asked Manu Bennett, an actor from New Zealand who melted hearts as Crixus on “ Spartacus” (he also plays Slade on “ Arrow” and Azog the Orc in the “ Hobbit” films), about how he got started, he spoke of how acting saved his life when he lost his family as a teenager and how playing these roles has changed the lives of young Maori kids back in rural New Zealand.
Kandyse McClure, who shot to fame in her role as Dualla on “ Battlestar Galactica,” was even more candid, saying, “I’m just a scruffy kid from a middle class family.” She talked about how acting in shows like “Battlestar Galactica” helped her find her way in her 20s, when she was a new immigrant to the United States. These are great messages for kids and adults alike, and it’s amazing to get that kind of one-on-one interaction at a convention of thousands.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea: There is plenty of grown-up fun at Dragon Con, because once the sun sets, the parties begin. The hotels close their doors to all but the conventioneers, and it’s like a high school lock-in with costumes. There are plenty of Wonder Woman and Han Solo wannabes dancing the night away at the bar.
Despite being up later than we had been all year, the next morning, my friend Bruce was on the phone with his 5-year-old son Clark, and my friend John was buying Spock ears for family members back home. It was good, clean, geek fun.
Whether you’re a 6th-level mage looking to learn the newest tricks from Magic the Gathering or the parent of a sixth-grader looking to give your kid a fun weekend with stars, costumes and collectibles, your whole family’s inner geek can come out at Dragon Con.