Sunday, September 2, 2007

Story in

Dragon*Con draws locals
By Dan Whisenhunt
Star Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Tom Millington of Anniston works by day in an insurance office. He spends his free time in a room in his basement where a brown coat hangs on a mannequin torso.

Millington has spent months here, carefully dissecting and recreating outfits from a cancelled television show.

"I watched how the coats fell," he said, his hand turned to a page in a book about the show Firefly, the stories of a renegade space captain and his crew. His basement is a nod to the show's aesthetic scheme, the walls decorated in Chinese lanterns and red sheets

Saturday morning, Millington and members of fan club he helped to found, the 76th Independent Battalion, marched through the streets of downtown Atlanta in the annual Dragon*Con parade.

A cool breeze swept through the intersection of Peachtree Center Avenue North East and Baker Street; Millington's crew, 35 members strong, marched in a tight formation, sharing time with zombies, storm troopers and pirates. It was as if a pop-culture piniata had exploded.

Since 1987, Dragon*Con, an annual Labor Day Weekend multi-media event in Atlanta, has drawn ever-larger crowds. Last year, 30,000 people filled up three hotels in the southern capital city. Millington and his friends — fans who come from as far away as South Africa and Canada — represent one fandom among many.

The event is billed on its Web site as "America's largest, multi-media, popular arts convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film."

People who go to Dragon*Con can participate in a plethora of role playing, table-top and computer games. They can join in workshops, including a writer's workshop. They can shop for obscure movies and comic books or hang around and meet celebrities from their favorite shows. There are charity events, tournaments, theatrical, television and musical performances, and wrestling events.

Many who attend wear costumes and make the rounds, posing for pictures with total strangers. Their garb ranges from the elaborate to the titillating; women dressed busty Japanese cartoon characters and men wearing gladiator outfits are as plentiful as the alcohol.

"It's a spectacle," said Dorothy Nelder, a Piedmont family-practice physician who attends the annual convention. "There's nothing like it. People go all-out for Dragon*Con. You see some amazing things."

Millington made most of the costumes for his friends, and says his own cost $400 to $500.

"The 76th is based on 20 minutes of flashbacks which show the characters during the war," Millington said. "So we've based an entire group on maybe 20 minutes worth of stuff. The name, 'The 76th' is mentioned in one of the deleted scenes."

Tricia Byrne is recent transplant to Piedmont from New Jersey. She goes to the convention to meet with other fans and stars of Stargate SG-1. Byrne writes "fan fiction" about the characters in the show and has met many of its stars, even getting photo credits in a book about the series. She also collects trading cards from the series in big, three-ring binders.

"The cards are insured for $5,000," Byrne said, pointing out some of the more expensive ones. "It goes on the homeowner's as 'collectibles.''"

Byrne moved to Piedmont partly because of her friendship with Nelder, who also writes fan fiction in her spare time.

Stargate follows a military team as they fight off an alien menace. Unlike Firefly, Stargate had a healthy 10-season run and has its own spin-off series, Stargate Atlantis.

"Last year I hung out primarily in the Stargate Track Room," Byrne said. "The year before, the con didn't have one. This year, I'm working the track room."

Julie Cochrane is not originally from Calhoun County, but the best-selling science-fiction author of Cally's War spent many summers in Anniston while her mother attended Jacksonville State University, and she comes back to visit family.

"My basic grounding in southern culture when I was little was from the South," Cochrane said, adding later, "My ability to relate came from the summers I spent in Anniston."

Friday, she was part of a discussion about mentoring and collaboration on science-fiction books with her mentor and co-author, John Ringo. The character on the cover of her book was inspired by a costume she saw a fan wearing at Dragon*Con one year.

For her, going to the convention is pleasant part of her job.

"I like to make myself available and accessible to readers," Cochrane said. "If they're going to take the time to go out and want to talk to me I'm going to take the time to be there."

Joel Laird has gone to the convention for the last few years. The Calhoun County Circuit Judge collects comic books and celebrity autographs.

He can rattle off the names of half-a-dozen stars he's met while on his usual day-trips to the convention.

"I'm not interested in dressing up," Laird said. "I do like seeing the costumes. Some of them are so life-like."

About Dan Whisenhunt Dan Whisenhunt covers Anniston and Calhoun Co. for The Star.

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