My last day of Dragon*Con 2011 started with what had become a routine. Bubba Chuck had warned me that by the end of D*C I'd have become a "pro," someone whose job it was to Do Geek full-time everyday. He was so very right.
I quietly grabbed my shower without waking my roommates, mingled with the early risers/late closers in the Marriott elevators, strolled quietly across the skybridge to the Peachtree Center food court to grab a Dairy Queen sausage biscuit, then scampered back through a trio of hotels and a drizzle-specked Atlanta concrete until I reached the lobby of the Sheraton. There I joined a line that was already wound through the entire upper lobby level of the hotel and, minutes after I arrived, filled the complete lobby and burst out onto the sidewalk.
Wil Wheaton was coming to Dragon*Con -- for the first and perhaps only time.
Wil, you see, is a friend and ally of Gabe and Tycho, who run the PAX gaming convention in Seattle on Labor Day weekend every year, meaning Wil Wheaton is booked opposite Dragon*Con from now unto the foreseeable future. Yet somehow, Garrett Wang had thrown enough money, Trek camaraderie and sheer geek-society whinging at Wil that he snagged the redeye Sunday night to make a 10am Eastern (7am Pacific) panel aptly titled "Boy Genius".
Oh, and he brought Paul and Storm with him.
Garrett took the mic and intro'd Wil as P&S played him onto stage. Wil then explained the great time he'd had the night before and how he wished that Dragon*Con was opposite Comic-Con, not PAX, so he could come every year. Comic-Con, you see, was about selling geeks their own culture back to them. It was about booth babes and demo reels and Hollywood trying to monetize all the things we love for their benefit, not ours. Dragon*Con, on the other hand, was flat out a come-what-may, come-one-come-all celebration of all things geek. Dragon*Con is for us, by us. Wil loved Dragon*Con, and wished he could make it back someday, though he was honestly doubtful. PAX is a family reunion for Wil, and that trumps even Geek Mardi Gras. He was glad he could make it, if only just this once.
It wasn't all philosophy and mild regret, mind you. Wil quickly segued into his main event: a reading from his memoir Dancing Barefoot, with musical accompaniment by Paul & Storm. Those of you who attended w00tstock know the bit. Those who don't: I won't ruin the chapter or the performance for you, as Wil performs it lots of places. Just know that he did the routine wearing the Cape of Dicks, and that the chapter read is titled "William Fucking Shatner".
When he finished to stirring applause, Wil was quick to point out that he's "cool...now" with Mr. Shatner, despite the content of the chapter. Garrett quickly pointed out how not-cool he is with Shatner, thanks to a famous limp-handshake brushoff he gave Garrett in a Las Vegas green room some years ago, which Shatner famously chose to forget when he suddenly needed Garrett to interview for a documentary Shatner was filming. Wil's only response? "William Fucking Shatner."
The floor then opened for questions, most of which were forgettable until a man sitting a mere six seats down from me strolled to the mic, eliciting from Wil a shout of, "Hey, it's Drew Curtis of Fark.com!"
Yep, I was six seats down from the local guy who runs this. I had to go to Atlanta to meet an Internet-famous geek who lives in Lexington and with whom I share personal acquaintances (mostly Jason Falls). It's a small, strange world after all. Mr. Curtis and I exchanged pleasantries and politely discussed having him to Louisville as an LDA speaker, but the opportunity has never come around.
Wil thanked us all profusely for coming, and for coming so early, and then the 2,000 or so of us crammed into the room giddily filed out into the light rain. The weather was the perfect metaphor for the last day of Dragon*Con: warm but slightly overcast, a welcome break from the afterburner engine of the previous few days but nonetheless bittersweet. I had unknowingly chosen the one Dragon*Con Wil Wheaton would ever attend, sat a stone's throw from him and within arms reach of another web celeb, and all of it by joyous chance.
This is the magic of Dragon*Con.
From there I made my way to the absolute opposite end of the Dragon*Con geographic footprint -- the Westin Hotel four blocks and an uphill climb away. I kept to the streets, rather than go out of my way (and through the crowds) by reentering the other D*C hotels. The Westin would host all three of my final Dragon*Con panels, and the best was expected to lead off.
I was on my way to see the cast of The Walking Dead.
I would never meet (much of) the cast of The Walking Dead.
I arrived at the largest ballroom in the Westin, situated on an upper level and filled to bursting with hundreds of seats and a raised dais/stage set for a dozen speakers. The panel was scheduled to start at 10:30 am. I arrived a few minutes early, and the crowd filed in to fill half the seats by the time the start rolled around.
But the cast did not.
The moderator, whose name infuriatingly escapes me, was an otherwise memorably self-described "biggest flaming geek queen" you'll ever meet, and an extra on the Walking Dead cast. He tried to stall with stories of his own time on set and, more interestingly, his time as an extra on Zombieland. (The Bill Murray stuff was originally written for Sly Stallone, but when Murray was filming another movie nearby, the Zombieland producers literally drove over to ask him to play himself in their movie. He said yes, and they improv'd most of his scenes. Bill Murray is the embodiment of awesome. The moderator, for his part, is seen only from behind as the Japanese businessman eating a woman's thigh in the amusement park. Yes, they had the gay guy do the below-the-waist woman-eating scene, which was both ironic and a nice bit of consideration for the actress involved.)
In any case, 20 minutes into the panel and the adult cast of Walking Dead never showed up. Apparently they had partied a bit too hardy the night before and wouldn't be joining us, to the moderator's enduring rage. Nonetheless, the child cast of Walking Dead was present, and they filed out to great reception and support. These kids were funny, smart, gave practiced but savvy answers (as in, they weren't dropping any Season 2 spoilers no matter what) and were complete professionals. Despite an almost universal love of Justin Bieber (kids!), they were a treasure. The best response came when asked if the zombie characters scared any of them, and if that helped their performance.
They all answered that none of the zombies are scary, as between takes the zombie actors are just regular guys and are affable and very protective of the kids on set. The child actors see more of the zombies than the adult leads as the zombies don't have trailers to hide in. In fact, it can occasionally be a problem that the zombies aren't scary, but Frank Darabont had a solution for that (that worked on the adults, too).
Walking Dead is filmed in the Georgia backwoods. The sets are country fields and quarries and forests. These places have snakes. Every day, before first call, snake wranglers are sent out to de-snake the shooting locations, and the cast walks by pickup trucks full of caged, captured snakes to reach the set. When a scene was dragging too long because an actor couldn't show the appropriate terror at a zombie, all it took was a reminder that the snake wranglers may not have gotten all the snakes to put a little more scream into the cast's efforts.
The panel was a treat despite the unprofessionalism of the adults, and it was a great reminder of the banality of movie and TV work.
From there I ambled downstairs to the Turning Points in The Whedonverse panel, which was actually a lively discussion of key moments in Buffy/Angel history. Firefly got little love. It was fun, but resembled mostly a live-action discussion board forum. The hour flew, but nothing of great remark or import came of it. Cotton candy Dragon*Con fun.
For my final panel, I ventured to the Future of Stargate discussion, where the entire planning staff of the Stargate Track gathered to theorize (and grind axes) about the next incarnation of the Stargate franchise. It was a fitting discussion for the end of Dragon*Con, if only to illustrate how little we geeks want reality to intrude upon the fantastic community we've built for ourselves.
The Stargate track staff felt that Stargate was a franchise on par with Star Trek and Star Wars (it isn't) and that, if they banded together like Trekkies and Lucas Fanboys, they could force SyFy and/or MGM to revive the franchise (they can't). The sad truth that many of us in the audience knew was that, with MGM emerging from bankruptcy, the rights to Stargate were a frozen asset and a low priority. MGM was going to sell or develop the properties with the most immediate profit potential to pay off creditors -- and Stargate was not on that list. (Side note: the MGM bankruptcy is partly why Cabin in the Woods took forever to get released; it, too, was a frozen MGM asset. It's also why you're hearing about Robocop, Red Dawn and Poltergeist reboots all at once: MGM is getting into the debt-service business with its biggest properties as fast as it can.)
The few of us that understood merely shook our heads at the fanboys and fangirls unwillingness to accept that there aren't enough Gaters out there to force a Stargate comeback. Reality comes only reluctantly to Dragon*Con.
As the panel broke up, I texted my roommates Hickman and Charles, who had promised to include me in their post-Dragon*Con celebratory ritual. They told me to meet them at the CruxShadows booth (they know the band) in the basement of the Marriott. By 5:00pm, with a small entourage in tow, we were on our way to a fabled land of mythical sustenance, hallowed throughout the Southern climes of these United States.
We were headed to Fox Brothers Barbecue.
The rain had picked up by the time we reached Fox Brothers, and were were forced to await our tables beneath the soggy umbrellas of the patio, but it only drew me closer to the friends -- Charles, Hickman, Kayla and Alex -- I had made or remade on my geek odyssey. We discussed our favorite elements of Aliens whilst dodging raindrops, and had begun to segue into the Batman mythos when our table finally opened.
We were hungry enough to eat a targ. Fortunately, the brisket-covered cheese fries and smoked chicken wings came out fast, and my plate of ribs was along shortly after that. Charles and Hickman somehow battled an Everything Plate. While we ate, I was goaded into scrawling a copy of the Batman family tree -- including all five Robins, all three Batgirls and both Batwomen -- onto a napkin from memory. It was a wondrous, low-key and welcoming capstone to my day.
At meal's end we returned to the hotel. I wandered to the lobby and placed a call home to my wife and daughter, regaling my better half with the events of the day (and week) as best I could remember them. I told them I missed them and would be home tomorrow. I took one final, not-so-crowded ride on the Marquis elevator to our room on the 21st floor.
Inside, Charles and Hickman were prepping a quiet affair called Bubbacon -- one final, guys-only get-together at Dragon*Con of just close friends. I felt privileged to be a part of it. All told, there were just five of us, and I was grateful to be included. We traded stories and theories and inappropriate jokes. We remarked on how we never wanted Dragon*Con to end, but weren't sure we could take any more. We were pros now, just as Charles had predicted, and it was time for this job to end. At midnight, the boys filed out for one last drinking session at the bar, a last hurrah for debauchery. I simply prepped my rollaway bed and bid them goodnight.
My Dragon*Con was over. In the morning we'd dismantle the room, pack out our trash and I'd eventually make my way to the airport -- and home. It was among the greatest vacations of my life.
And it wasn't over yet.
[To be continued...]