Dragon Con group Dragon Con group A group of cosplayers with a Marvel Comics theme at Dragon Con 2014 in Atlanta. (Photo: Amy / Flickr)

The pros of cons: A celebration of geek culture

Around the world, these creative fan gatherings are growing in number and popularity.

Science fiction, fantasy, comic books, role-playing and video games: Geek culture is built by and around fans of these various pursuits, and conventions – cons, for short – bring them together.

The granddaddy of cons is the now-44-year-old San Diego Comic Con, which tops 130,000 in annual attendance. Its popularity has given rise to smaller cons around the United States – such as Dragon Con in Atlanta and Rose City Comic Con in Portland – and the world, including MCM Comic Con in England and the Icon Festival in Israel. In fact, wherever you are, it’s a good bet that there’s an upcoming con in a town near you.

If you’ve never been to a con and don’t know what to expect, imagine a work conference where people in your field get together and discuss ideas and industry trends – but the panels center around entertainment, media and pop culture, and the parties are a lot more fun.

“It’s an event not unlike a family reunion, except you’re looking forward to seeing people like yourself,” Tony Gowell, Convention Office Director at Dragon Con, told From the Grapevine. “You’re hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people that have the same interests you do.”

That feeling of belonging and acceptance is a key reason why attendance numbers are growing. Dragon Con, held each year over Labor Day weekend, had 62,000 attendees in 2014, while London’s twice-yearly MCM Comic Con topped 100,000 attendees in May.

"It's seeing everybody else being able to be themselves and show what they enjoy just as much as you do," Rose City Comic Con attendee Kathleen Nealey told KGW.com. "Knowing that you're not alone in your geekiness."

For some attendees, the best part of a con is cosplay (dressing up in costume, usually to emulate a favorite fictional character), whether to enter a contest, march in a parade, or just get their picture taken. But costumes aren’t required, so don’t feel like you have to dress up if you don’t want to.

“Icon Festival attendees are an inclusive, tolerant and open-minded community and so everyone comes as they feel comfortable,” Yonatan Huber, co-operations coordinator for Icon, told From the Grapevine. “Some come in regular clothes, some wear costumes only for games and events (i.e. our annual cosplay competition), and some hang out in their costumes all day long."

iCon merchandise tableMerchandise from a variety of fandoms is displayed at a booth at Icon Festival in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Beny Shlevich/Flickr)

Now in its 18th year, the Icon Festival takes place in Tel Aviv each October. Attracting about 4,000 visitors, it’s the largest and most diverse convention in Israel, which has 10 other conventions spread out during the year, catering to fans of sci-fi, fantasy, role-playing – both tabletop and live – games, board and card games, miniature war games, anime, comics and more.

In the early days of conventions, these fandoms were marginalized, and “geek” was once considered a pejorative term. But all that has changed in the last couple of decades, mostly thanks to movies based on comic books that have proven their widespread appeal among mainstream audiences, explains Super Comic Fun Time in a video on the history of San Diego Comic Con.

“Hollywood has really propelled a lot of science fiction, fantasy and comic books, through film and TV, into the public consciousness,” Dragon Con’s Gowell said. “DC and Marvel have brought so many people into the world of comic books and made them hip and cool and relatable – take 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' for instance. It’s the norm now to love science-fiction and fantasy and horror.”

Gowell has worked for Dragon Con for 13 years, first as a volunteer and eventually becoming a full-time employee. “A ton of administrative details are needed to make a show as large as Dragon Con run as smoothly as possible,” he said.

To help with those details, many cons rely primarily on volunteers, for whom working at the con is a chance to support and nurture the communities they love.

“Icon Festival is a completely voluntarily organized convention,” Huber said. “All its staff members are volunteers who work tirelessly from love and passion and do so with solely emotional compensation. Hundreds of staff members, dozens of lecturers, game-masters and others contribute their time, skill and spirit, making it truly a community event.”

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