Most people spend their Labor Day weekend cooking, shopping or just getting the heck out of town. Other people spend Labor Day weekend cooking up plans for world domination, shopping for rare-action-figure collectibles and finding ways to fly to another galaxy.
At least that’s the main explanation for most black folks who attended Dragon Con weekend in Atlanta. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Dragon Con—and, not coincidentally, the start of one of the best eras of black pop culture ever. A sign that maybe, after all these years, the genre dedicated to white male power fantasies has finally opened up.
Going to a comic book or science fiction convention is a lot like attending any other convention: You dress up, look forward to meeting colleagues and similarly interested people, attend some panels, and spend most of the night partying. The only difference is that at Dragon Con, you do most of this while wearing costumes of your favorite video game, movie or cartoon characters.
The convention began 30 years ago as a small collection of fans who would get together to play Dungeons and Dragons and trade comics. Over the years, Dragon Con has grown to what is likely the second-biggest convention of its genre in the country, with over 70,000 people crowding into the downtown-Atlanta hotel district for four days of panels, fun and parades.
There are two things that really distinguish Dragon Con from most other conventions. First, it has remained, for lack of a better word, more “fan friendly.” Celebrity guests in the autograph room, like Austin St. John (the original Red Power Ranger), Janina Gavankar (The “L” Word, The League and True Blood) and Jack Gleeson (King Geoffrey from Game of Thrones), are incredibly accessible and fun to talk to and generally appear to be having a good time. Often fans will just walk up to talk and share stories about the shows without buying an autograph or taking a picture.
The other big distinction with Dragon Con is often how amazingly, unmistakably black it all is. Maybe it’s because of Atlanta, maybe it’s because of changing culture and demographics, but the number of black folks who are interested and are willing to come out and share their love of all things Marvel, DC and Cartoon Network has increased every year since I've attended Dragon Con, and I’ve been going since 2011. There are black folks in costumes for black heroes, white heroes and just about anyone else. The feeling of acceptance is universal, and the convention tacitly enforces an “accept all costumes and body types” theme.
Although this year’s convention didn’t feature as many big-name actors as in years past (in previous years, stars like LeVar Burton and Avery Brooks hosted panels and autograph booths), the artist and fan talent was deeper and more spread out. Jamie Broadnax—the über-talented queen of the BlackGirlNerds blog and podcast—was there and threw her second annual meetup in Atlanta’s Edgewood district. Afua Richardson, one of the most prolific and creative comic artists of the last decade, signed copies of her Batman comics and spoke about the upcoming Black Panther spinoff that she’ll be drawing. My favorite panelist was probably Allyssa A. Lewis, a former animator for FX’s Archer, who talked about diversity in animation both on-screen and behind the scenes.
Part of the excitement in the black community at the convention was based on the increasing importance of the African-American consumer in “nerd” popular culture. September features the premiere of the new Donald Glover (the patron saint of black male nerdom) show Atlanta on FX. At the end of September, the first Marvel Netflix show starring a black person, Luke Cage, premieres; and in the first week of October, Insecure, the HBO version of the popular YouTube series Awkward Black Girl, finally premieres. The buzz is no longer about far-off movies like Black Panther, or hopes that the racebended black girlfriend of some white hero gets screen time. Fans at Dragon Con got to celebrate finally becoming the central figures in our own sci-fi and fantasy adventures.
Is everything perfect in the universe? Of course not. I heard disturbing behind-the-scenes stories of the struggles that people of color go through in comics, animation and even film. One artist in the vendors room told me he still believes that animation is a “white boys club” where artists of color are put into a corner of irrelevance when it comes to simple ideas like diversity of skin color and hairstyles. However, despite resistance and challenges, the world is still more open today than it was five, 10 and certainly 30 years ago, when Dragon Con first opened its doors. With Marvel Comics introducing more characters of color and DC Comics resurrecting more African-American-led comics, there’s a good chance that the trend of a diversified Dragon Con will continue.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.