Photos by Richard Vogel
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 plonking down for Q&A panels. However, there’s not a superhero in sight. Instead, RuPaul’s DragCon attendees are here for the 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 reality TV contest “RuPaul’s Drag Race” told the crowd Sunday during his keynote address at the second annual Los Angeles Convention Center extravaganza. “It is a movement.”
The rows of over 230 vendors at DragCon hawking merchandise _ from $20 T-shirts to $2,000 gowns _ and the drag devotees purchasing it all 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 makes about $15 million in revenue from its events.)
“I think cons are the new black,” said DragCon co-organizer 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 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in October.
Indeed, cons aren’t just for comic book lovers anymore.
“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 cons. He believes the growth of similar gatherings is as much about promoting new endeavors and making money from fans as it is about their desire to prove their appreciation and congregate with the likeminded.
“I think people are craving community,” said Salkowitz. “At every fan convention, there are self-selected groups that identify witgh 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.”
For over a decade, Wizard World has found success with a roving pop-culture con model that includes stops in cities this year like Columbus, Ohio, and Austin, Texas. For the first time, the company will host its first-ever event on a cruise ship in December, featuring appearances by “Thor” star Chris Hemsworth and “The Walking Dead” actor Norman Reedus.
“It just seems like a natural extension of what we’ve already been doing on land,” said Wizard World CEO John Maatta. “It’s already great just getting to travel 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.”
For fan cons, the next frontier may be space.
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