From drag queens to aliens, a con for all seasons
LOS ANGELES — At first glance, it has all the trappings of San Diego Comic-Con.
There’s a cavernous convention center devoid of daylight. Inside, it’s stuffed with thousands of fans lining up for everything from an autograph and a selfie to a slice of pizza and a soda. Upstairs, they’re camping out for Q&A sessions. However, there’s not a superhero in sight. Instead, the nearly 23,000 attendees of RuPaul’s DragCon are here for men glammed-up as women.
“We have people from all over the world coming for DragCon because this is more than just a convention of drag queens,” the gender-bending icon and host of the TV reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” told the crowd Sunday at the second annual extravaganza at the Los Angeles Convention Center. “It is a movement.”
Big business: The rows of over 230 vendors at DragCon hawking merchandise — from $20 T-shirts to $2,000 gowns — is the latest example of the proliferation of fan conventions, the once geeky get-togethers that have morphed into a big business. The organizer of San Diego Comic-Con, for instance, makes about $15 million in revenue each year from its events, according to a 2013 tax filing.
“I think cons are the new black,” said DragCon co-creator Randy Barbato. “As our existence has become more digital, the ability to reach out and touch someone — especially a drag queen — is amazing. I think social media is great, but there’s nothing quite like the actual experience of meeting your favorite drag queen up close, well, not too close.”
Besides female impersonators, there are now annual cons for such left-of-center subjects as Lego toys, mermaids, “Power Rangers” and anthropomorphic characters, just to name a few. The History Channel and the organizers of Cosmic-Con announced plans last week to hold the first-ever Alien Con in October in Santa Clara, California. And this week, ComplexCon, which is being billed as a cultural world’s fair, was announced for November in Long Beach, California, with Pharrell Williams as the host committee chair.
Indeed, cons aren’t just for comic lovers or Trekkies anymore.
Popularity: “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture” author Rob Salkowitz said the popularity of San Diego Comic-Con has blazed the trail for other events. He believes the growth of similar gatherings is as much about promoting new endeavors and making money as it is about fans’ desire to prove their appreciation and congregate with likeminded audiences.
“I think people are craving community,” said Salkowitz. “At every fan convention, there are self-selected groups that identify with their enthusiasm for a subject. They’re diverse when it comes to demographics and ideologies, but all that’s checked at the door and people just want a good time. There are few places in American public life like that anymore.”
Events: The term “comic con” is now regularly used to describe dozens of annual events celebrating not just comics but pop culture. In fact, the group that runs San Diego Comic-Con, the most successful of all the cons that regularly attracts more than 130,000 fans, has been dueling over naming rights in court since 2014 against the organizers of the unrelated Salt Lake City Comic Con.
For more than a decade, Wizard World has found success with a roving pop-culture con model that this year includes stops in cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Austin, Texas. For the first time, the company will host a con on a cruise ship in December, featuring appearances by “Thor” star Chris Hemsworth and “The Walking Dead” actor Norman Reedus.
“It seems like a natural extension of what we’ve already been doing on land across the country,” said Wizard World CEO John Maatta. “It’s already great just traveling to the Bahamas, but for an audience that’s affinity based and has an interest in pop culture and celebrities like Chris Hemsworth and Norman Reedus, it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
At this point, it seems cons know no bounds.