For the past three years that I've been covering conventions for LA Weekly, people have been telling me to go to Atlanta for Dragon*Con. I've heard it from commenters, friends and professional contacts. There are many who believe that Dragon*Con is the best of the U.S. fan conventions, that it trumps San Diego Comic Con in many regards. I was curious, curious enough to fly out to Atlanta last Labor Day Weekend to find out for myself.
Both Dragon*Con and San Diego Comic Con are massive gatherings, but they are drastically different conventions. Comparing them isn't easy or even necessary. If you can only attend one of these two conventions, make sure you pick the one that best suits your interests. I've broken down some deciding factors below, excluding price, as neither is cheap and the actual cost will depend on how far you have to travel and how early you start making arrangements.
Best Con for Cosplayers: Dragon*Con
If you're a cosplayer and you have the means to get to Dragon*Con, do it.
The cosplay scene at San Diego Comic-Con isn't great in comparison to other Southern California conventions I've attended (if you like costumes and are in L.A., go to an anime convention), and it's downright terrible when held against Dragon*Con.
In San Diego, you'll often see people dressed in costume only to find out that they are part of a street team for some TV show or movie. Sure, there are some great cosplayers who attend, like the group who formed Gender Bent Justice League and the guy who showed up at The Venture Bros. panel dressed as Plugface, but they're in the minority. Geeky t-shirts and jeans or shorts is the standard dress here.
At Dragon*Con, though, at least half the crowd is costumed (a conservative estimate). We're not talking run-of-the-mill costumes either, although there were an awful lot of Poison Ivies entered into the convention's beauty contest. My roommates at Dragon*Con dressed in Nerfpunk, which is sort of like steampunk rendered in bright, Nerf colors. I shared an elevator with a guy dressed as Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. Not only did the obscure Plugface character make an appearance, but we caught him at The Venture Bros. Blog party with Mommy Longlegs. Hell yeah!
Best Con for Toy Collectors: San Diego Comic-Con
After Dragon*Con, I talked to my pal Marc Illagan of The Venture Bros. Blog. He goes to both San Diego Comic-Con and Dragon*Con and is torn between which one is his favorite. Both cons have their advantages. One of the plusses of SDCC, he notes, is that the exhibit hall in San Diego has a much better selection of toys and collectibles.
Dragon*Con had two exhibit halls, plus one artist alley, which I visited at this year's convention. Still, it's only a small fraction of what you'll see at SDCC. Since the San Diego con is a major, international event, many companies release items that will be exclusive to the convention. The lines are long, but the toys are almost guaranteed to become collectible.
Moreover, SDCC is a major event for designer toy artists and the selection of vinyl figures is excellent. This year, the first Designer Toy Awards took place during SDCC. I didn't notice any sort of designer toy presence at Dragon*Con.
Best Con for Music: Dragon*Con
Music is not a part of SDCC, at least officially. After the exhibit hall closes and fans head into the streets of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, there are frequently live band and DJ events to check out at the local clubs. Over the years, I've seen The Mighty Boosh, Voltaire and Flying Lotus play at SDCC-related events. Oftentimes, though, these events can be inaccessible, either because tickets are costly or unavailable or because the venue is nowhere within walking distance of the convention.
If you want to check out concerts and hit up dance parties, Dragon*Con is a much better choice. Music is part of the convention's programming schedule. Not only do they have panels on subjects like Britpop and goth, but they have live bands and DJs. Cruxshadows, Bella Morte and Voltaire are amongst the regular performers at the convention. This year, we also got to check out Dragon*Con newcomers Freezepop.
The music presence at Dragon*Con isn't just good for the convention. It's good for the bands, who also get to set up booths and sell merchandise throughout the event. Members of both Bella Morte and Cruxshadows told me that they've gained many new fans from their involvement with the convention. For musicians, and music-lovers, Dragon*Con has a huge advantage over SDCC.
Best Con for Fan Panels: Dragon*Con
Dragon*Con is divided into programming tracks, ranging from British Science Fiction to Anime. Each of these tracks is packed with programming and a lot of that consists of panels run by fans. While you won't necessarily hear from the people behind your favorite shows and books at these events, you will get a ton of insightful commentary from fellow fans. This year, I was able to attend a really fun Adult Swim fan panel run by website Adult Swim Central and a very informative Invader ZIM panel hosted by the folks behind InvaderCon. One of the coolest things at Dragon*Con, though, was a screening of Akira with commentary from Joe Peacock, owner of the most badass collection of Akira art you will ever see. Peacock's presentation brought together the film with original pieces of production art to present the anime classic in a new light. You'll never know how much detail is in Akira until you see Peacock's collection side-by-side with the film.
Best Con for News: San Diego Comic-Con
Dragon*Con has the really fun, community-oriented panels, but if you're look for the scoops, then you'll want to be at SDCC. As the convention has grown, SDCC has become the place for major announcements, be they about new superhero films, forthcoming TV seasons or comic book series overhauls. This is where the big companies bring out the brightest stars to make a huge PR splash. If that's you're thing, book your trip for San Diego.
Best Con for Parties: Dragon*Con
There's a catch with the SDCC party scene -- many of the big events are industry related. You'll have to figure out how to get on the list and then, maybe, you'll be able to get inside the venue after a good wait. There are also bars where you can chill with your friends and, of course, room parties are always an option.
At Dragon*Con, the parties are all-inclusive. They are also constant. I arrived on Thursday, the day before the start of the convention, and there was plenty of action going on inside the hotels.
There are concerts that start at 1 a.m. and dance parties that go on after that. There are late-night panels, seemingly more than what you'll see inside the San Diego Convention Center. At any given hour, you will find people wandering around the hotels looking for something fun to do. You will not sleep at this convention -- you might crash for a few hours as you listen to the noise coming from the patio beneath your hotel window. But the lack of sleep will be worth it.
Best Convention for Artists: Both
This is where our comparison comes to a draw. Because SDCC has so much of everything, it's a good place to go if you're an up-and-coming artist, or if you're looking for something new to add to your comic collection. You'll find a lot of great, independent work in the Small Press area, as well as the artist alley and publisher booths.
But SDCC's exhibit hall is overwhelming and it's easy for the new and independent to get lost. At Dragon*Con, you'll find most of the comic book creators in the artist alley, which is actually in a different hotel then the exhibit hall. Because the artist alley is a separate entity, it's easy to navigate. It's also really easy to chat with the artists.
Chandra Free, creator of The God Machine, has been going to Dragon*Con for six years, three as a professional, and also attends San Diego Comic-Con. She says that the Atlanta convention is her favorite as it allows her to maintain a "direct connection with her fans. This year at Dragon*Con, she was able to do her first solo panel.
"It's full-on geek, dork, nerd love altogether in this one place and it seems so honest and heartfelt," she says. "The sincerity of Dragon*Con is very apparent."
Best Convention for Pop Culture: San Diego Comic-Con
When you walk around San Diego Gaslamp Quarter during SDCC, you'll notice plenty of signs advertising the convention as "celebrating the popular arts."
The schedule at San Diego Comic-Con reflects whatever happens to be the hot thing of the moment. Hall H is reserved for potential blockbuster films. Ballroom 20 is home to panels for the most popular television series. Celebrities float in and out of the convention hall as they head from hotel rooms to panels to press conferences and roundtable sessions. There are parties with red carpets and paparazzi and TV crews hanging out on corners.
If watching the glitzy chaos of the entertainment industry unfold while hanging out two hours away from Hollywood is your thing, then you'll want to go to San Diego Comic-Con.
Best Convention for Alternative Culture: Dragon*Con
While Dragon*Con certainly has its share of pop culture icons in attendance-- both William Shatner and Carrie Fisher were on hand this year -- its focus isn't on the big names.
Dragon*Con has tapped into something very special about the convention circuit. The organizers are obviously aware that fan culture doesn't have to revolve around the hot properties of the moment. As a result, the convention has a much broader representation of what's come to be known as geek culture. You can check out panels on everything from BDSM to Wikileaks. There are whole tracks of programming dedicated to podcasting and even filking. The music programming at Dragon*Con is far from mainstream, but the artists they book clearly have cultivated large and passionate followings. This is truly a convention that embraces alternative culture.
My Pick: Dragon*Con
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A lot of my friends have referred to SDCC as the "work" convention and Dragon*Con as the "fun" convention. I want to take that a step further.
While I enjoy both conventions, Dragon*Con is more my speed. I'm not interested in superhero movies or Glee. I like checking out cool things in the exhibit halls, but I don't actually shop much at conventions. And while I can appreciate a creative marketing campaign, I get incredibly annoyed when bombarded with ads at virtually every turn I take. My taste in entertainment leans towards the things that aren't hyped and I was able to find more of what genuinely interests me at Dragon*Con.
What I love about conventions, is hanging out with people, making new friends and bonding over some shared interest that a lot of other people might find odd. At Dragon*Con, I was able to do what I love most at conventions and only that. I went to small panels where fans had a great chance to interact with each other. I met a lot of intelligent and creative people and came back with new pals. At Dragon*Con there's a real sense that everyone is welcome and everyone is accepted, just as long as you return the sentiments. Even in the convention scene, this can be hard to find.