Dragon Con – Through the Eyes of a Box Hero

Box Heroes / Credit: Stephen Larkworthy

This is a story from behind the cardboard, through the eyes (or at least the cutout eyeholes) of the Box Heroes. A story of friendships born from humble origins, and a shared passion for not taking oneself too seriously – which inevitably has led to the climactic fist bumping march through downtown Atlanta every Labor Day weekend. For seven years I’ve had the pleasure of joining my remarkably geeky friends in our custom-built, hand-painted Box Hero suits for the Dragon Con parade — and all the amazing costumed glory that blazing-hot strut of fandom entails. And it is always, without fail or falter, an absolute blast.

It’s also super hard to do a late summer parade in a walking cardboard oven, but we’ll get to that!

For the unfamiliar, a brief context for you: Dragon Con is a spectacular spectacle of converging passions and fandom. Have a movie, book, comic, video game, TV show or anything remotely similar that you enjoy? You’ll find it at Dragon Con, along with a crowd of like-minded devotees. That in itself is a reason to attend – simply for the world-class people watching – but then consider the celebrity panels, artists galore, gaming competitions, fan events and Nerd Chic skills of costuming and you end up with a perfect storm of awesomeness. Dedicated cosplayers engineer built-in sound systems, ventilation enhancements, stilts, and exoskeletal structures — the list of innovative costuming feats goes on and on.

And with it, much celebration! Dancing, drinking, karaoke, gaming, drinking and an absolute mountain of photos, plus some drinking. So what’s it like from the vantage point of a cardboard superhero suit? Pretty awesome, honestly. And at times, hilariously challenging.

It all starts on a beautiful, groggy Saturday morning — usually after a Friday night of excess at the Con. Cue the peaceful yet inspirational morning music, and fade into a scene of the illustrious parking lot of the Inman Park Marta Station! It’s 8:15 AM, and the parade will begin in under 2 hours at 10:00 AM. There the chariots of heroes arrive, usually in the form of bumper-sticker-laden sedans, as they step forth adorned in black undergarments and suspenders with large mysterious… trash bags. Hey, they’re the best thing to carry the suits in. Don’t judge.

Welcoming handshakes and hugs fill the morning air. Familiar friendly laughs and some stretching-induced groans abound. A few blank stares from Marta police officers. Then down to business. Out of the oversized trashbags emerge a puzzling array of brightly-painted objects — some resembling body parts, oddly enough. (Yeah, the trash bags are super appropriate when you think about it.) The heroes steadily, deliberately don the pieces, as if donning a suit of armor. The snap of suspenders, the creak of freshly-painted cardboard, the unmistakable ripping of duct tape for last-second repairs.

Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography
Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography

And then they’re off, across the parking lot — up, over, down to the Marta train platform — and onto a public transit train packed full of locals and visitors alike. This is one of the most entertaining moments when commuters are suddenly confronted by colorful cardboard superheroes seemingly for no reason. People light up! It’s awesome and silly. Alas, onward to victory! The Heroes are headed to North Avenue and Peachtree, where destiny awaits. Plus a couple polite volunteers telling you which direction to the parade staging area, which is super helpful by the way. High five, because I always forget which direction to go.

A short jaunt from the North Avenue station, the heroes arrive at the Dragon Con Parade official staging area, greeted by an absolute ocean of costumed awesomeness. Every genre represented, every mashup imagined, everyone sweating. Yeah. Like whoa, it’s hot. The Box Heroes commiserate with Jedi in thick layered robes and Stormtroopers in plastic full-body armor. The Deadpools happily hop around in their breezy red spandex, while others quietly curse them. And so the great dehydration of Dragon Con Parade begins. Except for those dudes dressed up as Spartans from 300 who are probably feeling fine, honestly.

And I’m gonna take this moment to say a special thanks to the Boy Scouts of America, who graciously patrol the crowd with cold water bottles and looks of mild concern that suddenly turn the tables on who’s being the responsible adult. Thank you, young gentlemen, for being at both the beginning AND the end of the parade to prevent poor saps like me from passing out.

Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography
Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography

After what feels like an eternity, but in reality is roughly an hour, the megaphones blare with the Parade Marshall’s voice and the masses begin to shuffle out the gates of the staging area onto the road to Valhalla… or more accurately, the Marriott Marquis. But that road is long and perilous! And has some killer hills, man. Like seriously, I never remember that there are actual hills in downtown Atlanta. But I digress!

The parade begins in waves, with groups and subgroups moving together in organized chaos as the Parade Marshall and Crew send forth the costumed throng. As the Box Heroes make our way out onto the road, merging with elaborate parade floats and remarkably detailed vehicles of fantastical designs, the parade takes shape.

Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography
Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography

Moving in unison as only a team of true heroes can, with absolutely zero peripheral vision and incredibly limited hearing capability, we strike a rhythm with the nearest music — whether it be a float, truck or marching band. Then it’s on! We dance our way down the asphalt, fist bumping kids and adults alike, secretly counting how many times someone accurately yells out our character’s name. Side note: much love for all you people out there who recognize Nightcrawler from X-Men. Much love.

I have personally always found this entire series of events to be pure, unfiltered fun. From the moment of gathering in the morning, it feels like embarking on a mini-odyssey to the Promised Land of weirdos and geeks — and I’m getting to do it with a bunch of friends. It really is a great time. But hey, sorry, let me get back to it. The parade!

Box Heroes / Credit: Stephen Larkworthy
Box Heroes / Credit: Stephen Larkworthy

As the costumed groups of dedicated fans walk, ride and wave their way down the road, the crowds along either side of the street begin to grow. Halfway through the parade route, it’s nearly impossible to tilt my Box head up high enough to see the curious viewers spilling out of 4th-floor parking garages and office buildings. It feels good. People smile, poke each other and point. Grins and laughs and clapping and waving. And that’s really the point — everyone having fun. That’s why I’m in this cardboard suit in 90º weather, with full-coverage black clothing on (to cover any exposed skin, like a puppeteer staying in character), jumping and waving and jogging and fist bumping my way down the road. Dragon Con is a celebration of the entertaining, quirky, creative things that bring people a little more happiness in their lives. And it does an absolutely stellar job at bringing people together for exactly that. Alright, enough with the sappy stuff. Back to the sweating and heroics.

Near the end of the parade, the reality of the Box Heroes sets in. Your body itself has essentially filed a lawsuit against you for gross negligence, and your brain is beginning to sober up from the silly fun of it all whilst thinking “what have I gotten myself into” as you overall begin to wonder how much longer there is to go. And then there it is. The Marriott Marquis weirdly-low-ceiling roundabout and main entrance. Box heads come off to reveal the humans beneath. A rush of body heat floods out from the top of your suit into the open air. It’s over, you made it.

Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography
Box Heroes / Credit: Kara Johnson Photography

A cold water bottle is outstretched, and I snag it. Full disclosure: 2018 was the first year in 3 years that I didn’t end the parade with black spots in my vision. I feel that this was a measure of personal accomplishment. (Again, thank you to the Boy Scouts of America.) Everyone turns around and eyes one another, grins on flushed-cheek faces and water in hand. Comments are shared on how the temperature measured up to previous years, how good or bad the music was this time, how many battle scars a suit picked up. We move off to the side to collect ourselves. Photos are taken. Plans are made. And then we move on to sweet, sweet air-conditioning and eventually make our way back to Marta, ride triumphantly back to Inman Park Station, and dine happily — as a team of heroes, of course — on burgers and booze and laughs.

It’s a good time, I have to say.

In 2018, I lost 6 lbs between the beginning and end of the parade. Our suits are cardboard, yes, but most are lined with duct tape inside to better handle the moisture that builds up. We have hinges for our knees, and flexible gaps for our elbows. Some suits use magnets, some use industrial-grade velcro. All are painted with latex house paint — using the same palette for consistency. And every single suit is the brainchild of Stephen Larkworthy, a brilliant geek with a big heart and a love of comics. He engineered each suit custom to the wearer, and we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude for being such a cool person.

Box Heroes / Credit: Alli McFarland Crumley
Box Heroes / Credit: Alli McFarland Crumley

Visit Dragon Con. Take in the people watching, wander the hotels and crowds. Grab a drink, but never forget to grab water too. And come watch the parade — it’s at 10:00 AM on Saturday every year, but if you want a decent spot along the roadside then you’d best get their early. Have a blast! We always do.

Featured Photo Credit: Alli McFarland Crumley

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