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."
Any type of weirdo is welcome. The MisCon schedule caters to all levels of geekdom, from confused spouses (one session is titled, "What the heck am I doing here?") to diehard fanatics. For the diehards, the weekend compares to Christmas—something they wait for all year. For everyone else, it's a peek at a close-knit community more than willing to introduce others to its customs.
"My wife wouldn't come to this a couple years ago," says Barba. "There was no way. Now, she's here every day with the baby. And the baby's wearing a Yoda hat."
The man who's worked hardest to create this all-inclusive environment is Bob "Cthulhu Bob" Lovely. For the last 14 years, Lovely, who is 48, has served as MisCon's chairman. Despite suffering from a neurological disorder that causes frequent seizures, dyslexia, blurred vision, and a wicked headache he's had "since February," Lovely has a hand in every aspect of the weekend. Last year, at the suggestion of another MisCon organizer, he added a drag show.
So—what, exactly, does a drag show have to do with a sci-fi convention?
"Nothing and everything," Lovely says. "It's all part of a community we're trying to create."
Enter the giant squid
Bob Lovely can't stop crying.
His job during the opening ceremonies is to introduce this year's three guests of honor, acknowledge a few other important attendees, and announce any changes to the schedule. He leaves his wheelchair to the side, preferring to address the room while standing. He looks sharp in a dark suit, purple shirt, and green tie, his hair pulled back in a ponytail. Everything's running smoothly except for the fact that he can't get past mentioning someone's name without choking on the words.
"For those who haven't been to an opening ceremonies before, I cry a lot," he says.
The first tears come when Sgt. 1st Class Clay Cooper of Missoula, currently stationed in Iraq, appears on a computer screen via Skype wearing his MisCon 25 badge. Cooper, who purchased the $35 badge even though he knew he'd miss the weekend, woke up at 4 a.m. Iraqi time to be a part of the festivities and warn Lovely of a special visitor. Right on cue, someone in a squid suit enters the room and hands Lovely a flag that had flown over Cooper's base in Iraq. Scattered "ooh-rahs" break out in the room.
Lovely cries again when introducing John Dalmas, an 84-year-old sci-fi author. Getting Dalmas to Missoula wasn't easy—he's on oxygen, and wheels around a tank nicknamed "R2O2"—and a local nurse spent hours securing the necessary paperwork to allow him to fly. But it was important he be here, Lovely says, because the former Spokane resident is a mainstay in the Northwest sci-fi scene, "and we're all a family." During one of the event's leaner years, when volunteers were scarce and funding nonexistent, Dalmas kicked in $500 to make sure things could continue. As Lovely recounts the memory, his voice begins to crack, and he reaches for a table for balance. But he doesn't fight the emotion or stop to collect himself. He powers through, voice cracking like a teenager's, face crinkling as the tears well up. Then, in a neat public speaking technique that he repeats throughout the ceremony, he swings himself out of the moment with a remark that leaves the room laughing. "Without that check," he says, "I guess we'd all be watching a marathon of 'Stargate' or something—not that that'd be a bad thing, of course."
Lovely even has tears for people who are new to MisCon, like the general manager of Ruby's, Tim Giesler. Turns out, most hotels don't exactly welcome sci-fi conventions. MisCon has been "professionally tolerated" or downright kicked out of a half-dozen local hotels, including the Quality Inn, Campus Inn, Doubletree, and Red Lion.
Ruby's, on North Reserve Street, rolls out the red carpet. Giesler and his staff wear MisCon T-shirts. Thirteen rooms have been stripped of all their furniture so gaming tables can be set up. Two other rooms are empty for late-night parties that double as fundraisers for other Northwest Cons. Almost the entire hotel is covered in silver wrapping paper—literally taped, with Giesler's consent, from floor to ceiling—to honor the silver anniversary. In all, MisCon controls all but six of Ruby's 125 rooms.
"I thought for sure the minute he saw a naked Klingon we'd be looking for another new hotel," says Lovely, again rebounding from an emotional moment. "But this man was all right. He remembers the hospitality part of this business."
During the course of the 45-minute kickoff, Lovely cries 11 times. By the end he's exhausted and needs his wheelchair again.
"I can't imagine anyone not greeting these people with open arms," Giesler says later. "I mean, they're the nicest, big-hearted people. Did you hear Bob during the opening ceremony? That's just how he is. This is his family, and the Inn considers itself part of the family, too."
Lots of squid
Mike Fowlkes strikes an imposing figure at 6-foot-6, 300 pounds. It only adds to his presence that he's wearing a black kilt, combat boots, black socks, official MisCon STAFF T-shirt, sunglasses, baseball hat, and a wire in his ear. Even the gigantic werewolf from the costume contest—stilts were built into the wolf suit's hindquarters—looks small next to Fowlkes.
"My job is to protect the Con," he says. "We're not so much security as we are a liaison between the Con and the hotel. We just make sure people are smart."
Fowlkes is part of a 12-person "elite" security team referred to as "Squids." Another 15 "Mooks," or security trainees, also keep an eye on the proceedings. All of the Squids and Mooks operate out of Room 233, aka Base Operations, which houses an eight-camera surveillance system. "When it was smaller, they maybe had 200 people and there wasn't much of a need," says Fowlkes, who also works as a driver for Yellow Cab. "Now, as we get more and more people, we need more and more people to protect [them]."
Security is a fraction of the behind-the-scenes planning and on-the-ground work required to pull off MisCon. The entire event is DIY, reliant on a year-round planning committee (ConCom), membership dues ($35, or the cost of the Con) and more than 50 volunteers. Each of the 20 ConCom sub-committees—costuming, marketing, registration, etc.—has a chairperson and, if they're lucky, a couple volunteers helping with tasks. The grassroots setup separates MisCon from some of the big-city Cons that can feel more commercial or impersonal.
But MisCon didn't always have the luxury of volunteers and money, and it didn't always run smoothly. MisCon 5, for instance, became LawnCon. The host hotel had booked a postal convention the same weekend as MisCon and apparently figured it could do without the nerds: On the eve of the first day, the hotel demanded full payment from MisCon up front. MisCon didn't have the money. Left without a venue, Elaine Higgins and Ron and Brenda Martino moved the merchant tables and art show to their front lawn. "That's the sort of thing that would have killed it," says Ron Martino, an employee at KECI-TV who returned to MisCon 25 after spending a few years away from the event. "The merchants and artists need to sell things for the gas money to get home...Luckily, they didn't give up on us after that. They still came back the next year."
By all accounts, Lovely brought some much-needed stability to MisCon, but even his ascent was rocky. After just one year of volunteering, he listened as the chair announced on the eve of MisCon 11 that she was done running the event. When nobody else stepped up, Lovely offered to take the reins. "It was an exercise in selfishness on my part," he says. "I just wanted a Con to happen in the town where I live. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea about anything."
Lovely refuses to confirm any details, but other ConCom members are quick to list the ways he's influenced or outright saved the event since taking over in 1997. He's covered printing costs, travel costs, and other bills out of his own pocket. One year he reportedly fronted the hotel bill on his credit card. He travels to Cons across the country to promote MisCon and recruit big-name VIPs. His ability to build a reliable volunteer staff and spread MisCon's image has no doubt led to the recent increase in attendance.
In a world that's hard to stand out in, Lovely's done so by giving everything he has to MisCon.
"He's like Yoda," says Justin Barba. "Did you ever see that one movie? The one where Yoda's hobbling around the whole movie and then he goes to fight Count Dooku and all of a sudden he's bouncing off the walls? That's how Bob is. He can muster up this energy when he needs it and put on a show. He does it every year."
"My husband's a huge nerd..."
The fate of the world rests in the hands of three men sitting around a table full of Butterfinger wrappers and bottles of Corona.
Things don't look good.
Atlanta just got hit with an outbreak of a virulent disease—ironic, it's pointed out, since the Centers for Disease Control is based in Atlanta—and the scientist who may be able to quell the situation is located clear across the globe in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
"We're fucked," says Kyle Hood, an IT specialist from Great Falls wearing a camouflaged Oak-land Raiders hat. "There's not much to do now."
Hood and his two friends, Greg Eitzen and Kevin Carney, are in a group called the Sandbaggers Game Club. Based out of Great Falls, the group meets two or three times a week to for role-playing games, war games, board games, or card games. During MisCon, the Sandbaggers run nonstop games out of Room 260. Four card tables fill the space that once contained twin beds and three beverage coolers are arranged on a nearby desk. In one corner, dozens of boxed games are stacked on the floor—Risk 2210 AD, Diplomacy, and at least four versions of Ticket to Ride: Europe ("...features brand new gameplay elements including Tunnels, Ferries and Train Stations!").
Hood, Eitzen and Carney are currently playing Pandemic, a board game that asks them to work as a team to save the world from the simultaneous outbreaks of four plagues. "It's like golf—you're playing the course, not against each other," says Hood. "And this course is really hard. That's why we like it."
The Sandbaggers are part of MisCon's most popular attraction—gaming. Events like the drag show and Sunday morning's medieval sword fighting may present the best eye candy, but the real action occurs in a dozen cramped hotel rooms and in the expansive basement next door at Joker's Wild Casino. In those spaces, hundreds of attendees bunker down for games that can last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours to, in some cases, 16 hours spread across all four days of the conference.
"When simultaneous kidnappings of Pathfinder and Aspis Consortium agents rock Cassomir's Imperial Naval Shipyards, the Society orders you to join forces with hated Aspis agents to solve the mystery," reads the program description for the four-day game of Shipyard Rats. "Can you work together with the enemies of the Society to uncover the source of the kidnappings, or will you perish in the shipyards of Cassomir?"
The gaming schedule takes up 12 pages of the MisCon program book. "It's the biggest track at the Con, no question," says Barba, who arranges the entire schedule. "The challenge is you have so many different genres and sub-genres of games, and everyone is crazy about their favorite. We've had to add rooms to meet demand."
The gaming obsession shows late at night, after all the other panels and programming have ended. Conventional wisdom would suggest that attendees would spend their evenings filling the room parties. After all, that's where a trio of specialty alcoholic drinks is served: Toxic Waste (full of fruit rinds), Marmot Juice (heavy on coconut-spiced rum), and Cthulhu Goo (the "goo" comes courtesy of grape Jell-O). It's also where the diminutive doctor and impossibly tall and barely dressed nurse offer to whip guests on a bed adorned with leather straps.
But these party rooms are hardly crowded. The majority of attendees still awake are playing games.
"My husband's a huge nerd," says Amy Farrington, who's waiting for her spouse, Justin, to finish a role-playing game that's stretched past midnight. "When I first came to MisCon he'd be in a gaming room for four hours and I'd just wander around."
Now, Farrington counts herself among the nerds. She's been part of the same bi-weekly Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game—known as a campaign—for seven years. She says it's fun, but not nearly as intense as the other game her husband plays in every week. It's called Call of Cthulhu, and it's run by none other than Bob Lovely.
Again with the squid
Sooner or later, every MisCon story seems to find its way back to Bob Lovely. He hates that.
Lovely doesn't like to take credit for the event's success. Instead, he praises his staff and the local sci-fi community. He'll talk about his past—a non-combat veteran who worked on the electrical systems of ICBMs at Malstrom; graduated from UM law school—but he rushes through the details. The one topic that plugs him in is his game.
Call of Cthulhu, like his CthulhuBob nickname, comes from 1920s horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu is sort of an ultimate evil presence that drives people insane. Artists have depicted it as a squid-like creature that sleeps at the bottom of the sea. "Lovecraft was a horrible, wretched writer, but he had some really cool nightmares," Lovely says.
Lovely describes the game as "low fantasy," meaning that magic is present, but not prevalent. Average folks like plumbers, professors, and cab drivers witness or experience super-natural events that threaten our very existence and vow to defend humanity against the darkness. Society at large will never know what sacrifices these folks make, but they risk their lives nonetheless for a greater good. Call of Cthulhu is gritty, tragic, thankless and, in a way, valiant. "I find it inspiring," says Lovely. "That may sound kinda goofy to say that I'm inspired by what my players do in a role-playing game, but you're depicting someone who's confronted with absolute horribleness and that person, in some way that will never be recognized by eight billion other people in the world, is willing to give a significant aspect of themselves to slightly delay the dark, horrible, tentacled, toothy thing."
Lovely spent years writing the current campaign for Call of Cthulhu and then started to write two overlapping campaigns that will eventually factor into the game he's running. Every week, he does hours of homework and preparation to steer the game's next chapter. As long as people keep showing up to his house every Tuesday night, he expects the current campaign to continue for years. "I don't play video games," he says. "I don't sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey. I sit around writing role-playing games, writing stories and planning MisCon. That's just what I do."
Everyone is in character
Kian, Kormak, Ugg and Eagon take turns whacking the hell out of each other's shields and armor. At one point, Eagon drops to his knees and absorbs a barrage of heavy blows from Kormack. He's getting slaughtered.
Sunday morning at MisCon belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronism. The courtyard that just hours earlier had been filled with costumed drunks escaping a fire alarm is now occupied by medieval sword fights. To the side of the courtyard an armored archer launches padded arrows toward a human target.
The SCA is dedicated to the preservation, research and recreation of all things Middle Ages. Unlike a Renaissance Fair, the SCA is participatory, meaning members assume new names and roles in whatever aspect of the Middle Ages interests them most. In other words, everyone is in character.
The SCA started as an offshoot of the original MisCon planning committee, and, like the Con, has managed to survive ever since. It represents yet another dimension of the weekend's festivities—an SCA sword fighter may never otherwise cross paths with a Sandbaggers gamer, but they still meet every year at Ruby's.
"I would never hang out with half the people here in any other setting," says Barba. "I just wouldn't. I'm a judgmental son of a bitch. I don't watch the SyFy network. I'm not into science fiction itself. I like epic fantasy. But I think one of the reasons I enjoy planning this weekend is that I can see all of these people come together and be weird."
Lovely puts it a different way. "There's a craving for that community embrace," he says. "You may prefer to write the stories. You may prefer to read the stories. You may prefer to tell the stories by running a role-playing game, or play out the stories by being a character in a role-playing game. Whatever you prefer, it's still the same sort of visceral craving for creativity and imagination.
"Part of what brings us together is that this is the community that understands and embraces that, no matter what," he continues. "I think it's an important outlet for people who may otherwise feel set aside in society...Happy people are nicer people. It might be a far cry from playing a role-playing game to ending a war, but at some point, if everyone's getting together to do something joyful..."
It comes back to why drag queens belong at a sci-fi convention just as much as a Call of Cthulhu gamer. Both share visions of a slightly different world—one not necessarily far off from where we live now, only more accepting, noble, brave or—even better—loving.
Until that place exists, they have MisCon.This story was updated on June 23.