The firefighters had certainly seen worse, but nothing quite like this. As they marched up the stairs at Ruby's Inn and Convention Center to investigate a fire alarm, the two men in yellow turnout gear and giant yellow helmets passed a crowd that made them look plain.
They marched past a woman wearing a chain mail bikini, Geis the Demon Hunter, a diminutive doctor in white face paint, and an impossibly tall nurse snapping a riding whip. They passed duchesses and warriors and dudes in jeans and T-shirts milling around The Cave, The Dungeon, and the deck of the USS Griffin. There were at least a couple hundred people, many in some sort of costume. The firefighters at last came to a hazy room. A fog machine from an all-night dance party had apparently set off an alarm.
One fireman radioed in the information and waited for the all-clear. As he began to leave, he stopped at the door.
"What'd you say this is?"
"MisCon," said Justin Barba. "It's the local science fiction convention."
What in the name of Tolkien?!
For the last 25 years, a cast of passionate misfits, unapologetic nerds, and enterprising geeks has hosted Missoula's celebration of all things sci-fi and fantasy. MisCon has almost disappeared at times, and attendance has fluctuated, but every Memorial Day weekend since 1986 people have gathered to play every imaginable game, listen to panels, display original artwork, flaunt costumes, workshop original manuscripts, network with professionals, watch movies, see friends, and revel among other fanboys and fangirls.
This year, nearly 800 people attended MisCon's silver anniversary, marking the third consecutive year its numbers have increased—not that anyone, firefighters included, would ever notice.
Missoula's local Con has been around twice as long as the Montana Festival of the Book, longer than Garden City BrewFest, Hempfest or the Day of the Dead parade. Yet local media, this paper included, has mostly ignored it. Without much of a marketing budget, the whole thing operates comfortably in the shadows, where the organizers and attendees seem to prefer it. "You could mention it at a Con in New York and everyone would know exactly what you were talking about," says Joe "QuasiJoe" Taylor, an attendee of every MisCon and a 17-year employee at Sun Mountain Sports. "We actually have a strong national reputation as one of the better, smaller, more intimate Cons. But if you walk in downtown Missoula and mention MisCon, I bet nobody has any idea what you're talking about."
Knowing about MisCon is one thing. Understanding it is of an entirely different galaxy.
"People always focus on the adults dressed as Klingons," says Amy Farrington, MisCon's marketing chair and a publicist for Missoula Children's Theatre. "I get that. Klingons are a part of it! But there's so much more to it than that, and it takes a little longer to see."
At first, the longer one looks, the more questions pile up like hitpoints in D&D: Who goes to this thing? Why are they so intent on living lives in lands of make-believe and not, say, here? What does an alien-killing gamer possibly have in common with a medieval costumer? And what in the name of Tolkien do drag queens have to do with any of this?
"The baby's wearing a Yoda hat..."
A roar goes up from the crowd as soon as Miss CC, a drag queen from the Hi-Line, emerges from a giant clamshell. Built like a disco ball and dressed as some sort of sea creature, Miss CC preens and lip-synchs in front of at least a hundred onlookers, most of whom are done up in equally eye-catching costumes. It's hard to know where to look.
In the back of the room, two adults in Trekkie regalia—one in uniform, the other sporting Spock ears and a T-shirt featuring the complete original cast—whip out their cell phones to document Miss CC's routine. Wonder Woman dances in front of her seat, The Riddler watches while leaning on his cane, and the Snow Queen from Narnia cheers throughout. Up front, a child in a tin-foil hat jumps from his mother's lap to watch the performance from the aisle. On the other side of the room, the historical clothing expert from Philly, a guest of honor dressed to the neo-Victorian nines, nearly stands on her seat to see why Miss CC has suddenly dropped to the floor.
It's an alien.
More specifically, it's a version of Swiss artist H.R. Giger's famous double-jawed creature from Alien. Just like the baby creature had burst through John Hurt's chest in the movie, it's now clawing its way from Miss CC's bosom as she writhes across the carpet.
To the best of anyone's knowledge, no other science fiction convention turns over its prime Saturday night programming—let alone any part of its programming—to drag queens. MisCon, though, prides itself on not being like any other convention.
"In my opinion, it's the sense of community that separates us," says Justin Barba, the event's vice chair and the owner of a local painting business. "Some people may say the family aspect, but I say community. You can't choose your family. All of us choose to be here with these weirdos for a weekend."