Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
In 2019 my wife Anne and I attended our very first Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia. We returned home to Indianapolis with a plethora of new memories, hundreds and hundreds of photos, and a shared suspicion that we’d return someday. Not every year, but someday. In the year of our grand pandemic 2020 we attended exactly zero conventions for easily guessed reasons. In 2021 several cons made their comeback plans, but Dragon Con stepped up hardest and made us some offers we couldn’t refuse. We didn’t have to think long or hard before accepting the special rules under which this pandemic-era show would be held…
The first official day of our first official convention since the official start of the official pandemic eighteen months ago had its awkward parts, its mild discomforts, and its spots of disappointment. By all rights, everyone should’ve forgotten how to do conventioning and disasters should’ve abounded. But everyone figured it out because, hey, at least we got to have a convention. Despite the challenges and worries, the established Dragon Con ecosystem adapted to the necessary changes and thrived at a reduced level. Life found a way.
For our part, we tried to ease back into The Game and not overextend ourselves. We were concerned D*C’s sprawl across multiple city blocks might prove too much for our quarantine physiques. We’re also getting older and naturally losing stamina points with each passing year. Someday cons will be too much for us. That day did not arrive in 2021. Blame it on our excitement to leave the house, whatever adrenaline our aging bodies can still eke out, contact highs from the mere presence of other geeks, and/or unquantified magic in the downtown Atlanta air. All I know is, we managed our two-day D*C experience without any lasting damage, unless you count the bruises I got from falling in the shower Friday morning. Fortunately the one on my forehead was hidden behind my eyebrow and not too visible in the Galactica photo op.
That same morning was off to an energetic start, partly because we could sleep in. We had nowhere to be early, no hot-ticket events to fret about filling to capacity and shutting us out. Very few activities were scheduled to kick off immediately at 10 a.m. We felt no pressure to revive our penchant for lining up at locked con doors two hours before showtime and chatting with the other early birds. That can be fun, we’re willing to do that again if a future con merits it, and yes, we did want conventionly goodness to begin ASAP, but we succumbed to the temptation to lollygag and then arrive anytime we felt like it.
Once we ran out of reasons to linger in our hotel room, we grabbed breakfast from the nearby college campus, then headed northwest of our hotel to Merchandise Mart 2, the building that houses their three-story Comic and Pop Artist Alley. The day’s journey began with a single step toward a line of hundreds and hundreds.
The line wrapped around the entire building and lapped itself on one side. We paled a little at the sight. We were way out of practice for waiting in long lines unless you count Anne’s pandemic nightmare grocery shopping trips. But we reminded ourselves extra-length con lines were the old normal. We overcame hesitation and leapt into the fray, by which I mean we had to walk a couple more blocks to find the end of the line and get into lockstep. We met a couple who travel for cons much farther than we do and compared happy war stories. They told us about a Kansas con we’ve never done. We recommended C2E2, which they’re considering. We’d missed line chats like these.
The line lurched forward many minutes after 10 and kept a brisk pace until we walked inside after 10:30 — not too bad, given our preliminary dawdling. I wasn’t sure all those hundreds who’d preceded us would fit inside. If they capped the line and barred our entry, that would’ve been uncool but understandable. It never came to that; everyone fit. Merchandise Mart 2 is sizable on the outside, yet clearly even bigger on the inside.
D*C lines can look intimidating, but we’ve never stood in one that devolved into a mismanaged drag. We’ve had our share of line catastrophes over the years. I still recall this one time back home in 2012 when a staffer at a fledgling con dared to compare their mess favorably to Dragon Con. I sneered then, based on what friends had told us in glowing terms. Today I sneer again retroactively, now based on our firsthand experience. D*C has been around for decades. They know a thing or two about line management, and their regular attendees know how to go with the flow. And flow they did.
As a lifelong comics collector, Artists Alley is usually my favorite part of every con. I love meeting creators I haven’t met before and buying reading matter from them. We entered their Artists Alley with cash in hand and prepared to go wild.
My total purchases over the next two hours:
- A copy of John Scalzi’s Redshirts
- A half-dozen buns from one of the two Asian snack booths
…end of my Artists Alley haul. That includes any other exhibitors, too.
In my defense, I had tons of excuses:
- Nearly all their comics guests were good folks I’d met before.
- Comics creators who weren’t already doing cons pre-COVID are in no hurry to join the scene. This issue isn’t a D*C exclusive. 2021 Artists Alley lineups across many of the major Midwest cons we’ve been tracking have been smaller reruns of previous shows.
- Some tables were unmanned upon our arrival.
- Same as other cons, many artists were only selling prints, not reading matter. (I hate buying art and then throwing it in a pile, never to appreciate it again. We don’t have the wall space to do it any justice.)
- Eighteen months of non-shopping dulled the wallet-emptying reflexes that have indulged me so well at past cons.
- One of my pandemic-era accomplishments is that I’ve finally made headway into my three-decade-old unread stacks and I’m reluctant to see them replenished too quickly unless I can justify it by buying only books that are guaranteed better than what’s still languishing on those stacks.
- The already extravagant expenses of the hotel and the rental car, not to mention the clothes dryer that broke before we left home, had triggered the adulting side of my brain, which began judging me on the inside even though I had cash set aside specifically for Artists Alley.
- Nothing really leaped out at me.
…so let’s all agree to tell Artists Alley it’s not you, it’s me.
I even tried switching gears and investigated a few booths selling geek clothing. T-shirts were in plentiful supply, but I’m overflowing with T-shirts. I thought it might be nice to find a new collared geek shirt to replace my fraying Doctor Who shirt which, frankly, any longtime followers are surely tired of seeing by now. We found one booth selling quasi-Hawaiian Star Wars and Marvel shirts in my size, but that’s not what I had in mind. I prefer my clothing icons a smidgen less popular, with net income absolutely never measured in billions, but not so obscure that no one ever gets it, yet an IP well-known enough that some tailor would consider them profitable enough to turn into a shirt despite their outnumbered fan base. I may have raised the bar too high. This vague finickiness is why Anne never buys me clothing as gifts.
Getting used to indoor crowds again added some discomfort, but not intensely so. Everyone was masked and vaccinated (or tested negative) and consequently represented a low-risk gauntlet to us. Some shoppers were surely anxious to be in there, but by and large, everyone wandered and browsed and milled about and squeezed by and bumped into each other just like the Before Times. We found the same ambiance at all other participating buildings as we bid adieu mostly empty-handed and moved on.
We walked across downtown to the Sheraton for a fan panel about a series near and dear to our hearts: Netflix’s The Crown. Last year the two of us latched onto it several steps behind the rest of the world and enjoyed it more than any of our other pandemic binges. It sparked so much conversation between us, and between myself and the voices in my head, that I had no choice but to write my own listicle about the first three seasons and a follow-up after season 4 dropped last November. Suffice it to say we had a vested interest in a show we’d never seen adored in any comic-con context before.
One slight catch: it was our first time attending a fan-run panel in a long, long, long time. When we began doing smaller Indy cons together as friends back in the late ’90s, we tried the occasional fan panel and didn’t enjoy those experiences. The reasons varied. Some fans are excellent public speakers. Some are not. Some are suited to moderating or encouraging live discussions. Some are not. Some topics attract standing-room audiences. Some attract you and the moderator. We’ve rarely prioritized them ever since. It’s why we didn’t catch any D*C fan panels in 2019 despite the hundreds to choose from. I’ve never been on a blind date, but I imagine the awkward feelings in our past panels were a lot like that: maybe not something you yearn to relive.
But, we reasoned more loudly with ourselves this time, this was the Dragon Con, an environment that surely fosters a higher-quality level of fandom among its nigh-infinite fan circles. So we did it for The Crown. I think we even managed to add it to our calendar without asking each other, “What’s the worst that could happen?” We know better than to ask that.
We found our way to the second floor of the Sheraton, which we hadn’t visited before and naturally went up to the end of the floor farthest from the panel room. We found our way there along with three panelists and about twenty other fans, which I thought was a solid showing for a series with zero Funko Pops to its name.
Before the proceedings began in earnest, a higher-ranking official from the Alternate History track — the panel’s official classification — supplemented the panel rules on the screen with one addendum: not only would masks remain mandatory throughout the hour (i.e., the whole D*C deal, which no one disputed), but they were to remain firmly in place and never be moved a single centimeter from our faces for the duration of that same hour, from minutes one to sixty, not even for the basic human need of a quick drink of water. She explicitly forbade any and all drinking in no uncertain terms. And with that, she vanished from the room and was never seen again, leaving the duly delegated trio on their own recognizance.
It took about 5-10 minutes before one audience member pulled down their mask while making a long point, then pulled it down every time while speaking, and would go on to speak more often than anyone else in the audience, even more than at least one of the panelists. No one pointed out this infraction. Nary a punishment was meted. Anne also saw a guy at far right take a swig of water. We did not feel compelled to shriek in panic, raise a hand to narc on him, throw our heaviest object at him (my new copy of Redshirts), or see if the Dragon Con app had a 911 button to beam security directly to our room. (It’s the best con app I’ve ever used. I wouldn’t rule out that possible feature.)
I mean, we obeyed in deference to our hosts — their room, their rules — but we reserved the right to make Halpert-faces under our masks once it became clear the rules weren’t quite “theirs”. We didn’t deeply care if everyone or anyone achieved absolute masking perfection. We’re fully vaccinated. We’re good. But we’re not fans of Draconian rulings, inconsistent management, or meetings with strangers that are kicked off by someone setting a stridently disinviting tone.
As for the panel itself: I liked the taxonomic logic of taking a TV production that has based its narratives on true historical events and, knowing full well liberties have been taken and always will be, treating it as an “alternate history” story. Usually that label is reserved for intentionally untrue premises such as “What if Hitler won WWII” or “What if JFK lived”. We’re not used to seeing it applied to the likes of, say, Hamilton or Bohemian Rhapsody. Hence its clever inclusion in D*C’s dedicated Alternate History track.
The discussions themselves were, to be honest yet hopefully not mean about it, a bit lighter than we’d expected. Much of the prompts involved photos of cast members next to their real-life counterparts, then solicited comparisons in terms of “liked” versus “didn’t like”. Occasionally someone would bring up an episode in terms of “the one where…” like normal people. Before the panel, I’d wondered if it might be a good idea to brush up on all the episode titles in case we ran into such extreme Crown superfans streets ahead of us that they’d just naturally have all those memorized by heart and we’d have to keep asking them for refreshers. I never made that time and in hindsight that would’ve been unneeded extra credit.
Anne spoke up a few times to comment on thematic matters and parallels, much as we do in our own one-on-one rundowns. No one tried to one-up her, which is nice, or to piggyback on her points to any scholarly degree, which is fine. I spoke once at the very end in what became a truncated debate (literally an “oh, look, we’re out of time!” ceasefire) over a matter that dealt with either Peter Morgan’s true shadow overseers or some peculiar European conspiracy lore I’ve never heard, depending on whether you asked me or the gentleman disputing my question.
There was one other moment at which I nearly raised my hand, when someone briefly brought up “Tywysog Cymru”, the one where Prince Charles caps off a satisfying moment for himself by addressing a Welsh crowd entirely in their own language, which he’d spent the entire episode learning, and saying things that made them happy at the expense of quite explicit commands from on high. After his oppressive childhood it’s the closest he gets to a punk rock moment in his own pretentious upper-class way, but his pride is swiftly deflated when Mum verbally eviscerates him afterward and reminds him he has no real authority or free will. Then fast-forward to season 4 after he’s married flighty Diana Spencer and decided she’s someone, or rather something, over which he’s legally and traditionally allowed to exert any real control, a luxury more precious to him than any of their wealth. So they move into the house he wants, which he orders servants to begin reshaping to his very desires inside and out, including lots of chores and fripperies that Diana is meant to oversee for him to his liking because for once in his life something is all about him, him, him.
Then the mentions of the Welsh episode dissipated after about two sentences and I lost my window of opportunity to geek out aloud. Alas.
Most everyone around us seemed a lot more casual than us, or at least didn’t reveal themselves as otherwise. It was an unfair expectation to daydream of discovering a Dragon Con gathering on the level of James Lipton hosting a TV critics’ roundtable at the Paley Center. And yet, we were really, really surprised when the discourse turned to the subject of casting news for season 5. The announcements of Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce as the new Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were made months ago, but came as complete news to at least one panelist who learned of it onstage before our eyes that day. They also segued into wondering how much of a time-jump would occur between seasons 4 and 5, and whether or not the show would at all cover Diana’s tragic death. Given that Elizabeth Debicki from Tenet had been cast as Diana in August 2020 (even though she’s like four feet taller than Diana) and her first official in-character photo had been released a year after that, two weeks before D*C…I didn’t feel it was my place to be the messenger on that one. I blame my increasingly irritated thirst.
(To anyone asking the next logical follow-up: Josh O’Connor, season 3 and 4’s Prince Charles, will be replaced in season 5 by Dominic West from The Wire. Longtime MCC readers know I love every chance to squeeze in a gratuitous mention of The Wire. Obviously we’ll come back to this sometime next year.)
In many ways it was fun to try a fan-run panel after abstaining for so long. Whether or not one would be a top pick in a future comic-con itinerary…we’ll have to see.
We had no time to rest after that because our next panel was over in the Marriott Marquis. We made the same rookie mistake as we did in 2019: we went directly to the correct ballroom and tried to walk inside the door. Ha! What FOOLS we were! That isn’t how many of their largest ballrooms work. No, their lines often begin outside the hotel, form along the sidewalks beginning at some nondescript door familiar to perennial attendees, swelter in the burning sun (not a problem this time), and then are eventually ushered back inside, back to the ballroom, and at long last to the seats. If you’ve never been to Dragon Con, you will never guess this on your first try because the panel descriptions never mention it. This organizational tradition can only be learned in person. Those with verifiable disabilities are welcome to stick around the actual indoor door; everyone else is cordially invited to do some extra walking, doubly ironic if you just came inside the hotel for this very event and now have to go right back outside again and then inside yet again. Because light hazing is fun! At least there was no punching, binge-drinking, or speed-dating involved.
Anyway, next panel was a reunion of child stars from the 1970s Saturday morning show Land of the Lost, about a present-day dad and his two kids stranded in dinosaur times with some grouchy puppets. On stage were Land stars Kathy Coleman and Wesley Eure, known to 1970s fans as the kids Holly and Will Marshall. A third guest was supposed to join them — Phillip Paley, a.k.a. Cha-Ka, their young friend from the Pakuni tribe — but he was among the many canceled guests. In his place was an uncredited, mostly silent Sleestak cosplayer.
Full disclosure: Anne remembers the show more fondly than I do. I remember catching the Saturday morning reruns after it was canceled, but I had a major beef against the show: it was live-action. In ancient times we couldn’t watch cartoons whenever we felt like it. We had no 24-hour cartoon channels or home video machines or this “in-ter-net” portal thingie that lets you pluck embodiments of your stray thoughts from magical electrical currents. Cartoons were sequestered to narrow time blocks and viewable only before school, after school, or on Saturday mornings. I could watch live-action shows anytime I wanted. Cartoons were rarer and therefore special. Saturday morning live-action series stole time slots away from all those deserving cartoons I could’ve been watching instead. Land was lost on me.
Setting me aside, the two of them were a gregarious delight. The Sleestak also behaved themselves. Random tidbits remembered:
- They were happy to be invited to do cameos for the Will Ferrell film reboot, but the finished product horrified them. Both were deleted from it, so it’s just as well.
- Cha-ka’s costume smelled badly, but Paley the youngster put a lot of effort into imitating ape movements he saw at the zoo and learning the fictional Pakuni language that was created specially for the show.
- The two of them still keep in touch with Spencer Milligan, who played their dad in the first two seasons. They’re all still close enough to this day that Milligan will call them and refer to himself as “your papa”. He’s retired and we’ll likely not see him on the con circuit.
- Eure’s all-time favorite line of dialogue was “DO YOU WANT TO BE DINOSAUR STEW?” There’s context, but it looks cleaner this way.
- Coleman remembered the moving experience of an encounter with two fans who’d watched the show as kids but had become blind later in life. With her permission they touched her face and her hair and commented on how much she’d grown.
- Knowingly echoing the refrains of every former TV star of any long-dormant IP: yes, they’re aware someone out there in Hollywood has plans for a reboot. Someone always has plans for a reboot. No, there’s nothing concrete to show off just now.
3:30 seemed like a good time to break for lunch, which we’d forgotten. The Asian snack buns had carried me for a bit, but were no substitute for real food. We went up two Marriott floors, cut through the access tunnel toward the Hyatt, veered southwest at the diagonal midair Habitrail and at my insistence headed directly to Aviva by Kameel, the best restaurant at the closest food court. Their Mediterranean wonders were the culinary apex of our Dragon Con 2019 and handily won the title again this year by an Olympian margin. Kameel himself was on hand once again, welcoming everyone — even a manager from the nearby Dairy Queen who’d stopped by for a bite — and handing out free cups of soup. Anne was blessed enough to receive the last cup before he ran out. I stared at her bowl while empty-handed and tried not to whimper. But I would have my own nourishment soon enough, once again A-plus.
With our energy levels restored, we had a few minor tasks on our to-do list. We wandered back to the Marriott, went back down two floors and checked out their Walk of Fame, the apropos name of their celebrity autograph area. By this late on Friday, many booths were unmanned, some celebs were still around, almost no one had a line more than three fans deep. Some cons allow selfies at the table with the actors for a fee; it was up to the actor as to whether their 2021 selfies would be behind the provided Plexiglas or in masks. Those barriers may account for the low Walk of Fame turnout. Right now, with the protocols in effect, top-dollar brushes with greatness aren’t what they used to be.
After that came a short side quest. When I’d picked up Redshirts at Artists Alley, the vendor let me know John Scalzi would be doing a signing at their booth at 5:00. We went back up two Marriott floors, retracted our steps back through the hamster tunnel to the food court, exited its west side at street level, and headed two blocks over back to Merchadise Mart 2…whereupon I realized I had no idea which floor the book dealer had occupied. I’d paid cash and had no receipt with their name on it. The D*C app confirmed not a single 2021 vendor had the word “books” in their name. We searched all three floors and of course it was at the far end of the third one we searched. But I got my autograph and my jazz-hands photo, thus redeeming the exercise.
Final side quest, shortly after 6:00, was Anne’s photo op with Gil Gerard and Erin Gray from TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. We’d met them at previous cons, but had never seen them come within a hundred feet of each other, even when they tabled at the same con. We were beginning to wonder if there was a story about that. Whatever it might have been, the conclusion was, “And then they reunited for a Dragon Con photo op.” Hurray for happy space endings.
Speaking of which: and then we returned to our hotel because we were exhausted. Also, because our hotel was so far away from the main festivities, wandering around its noticeably contrasting block at night didn’t seem like a charming notion.
To be concluded! One last day to go! We can do this!
Other chapters in this very special MCC miniseries:
Part 1: Return of the Jazz Hands
Part 2: A Cosplay Sampler
Part 3: Some Cosplay Parade
Part 4: More Cosplay Parade
Part 5: Still More Cosplay Parade
Part 6: Cosplay Parade Stumpers
Part 7: More Cosplay Parade Stumpers
Part 8: Last Call for Parade Cosplay
Part 9: Winding Down the Parade
Part 10: Day Zero
Part 12: The All-Star Saturday Grand Finale With Wall-to-Wall Paneling