It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m watching Robin Lord Taylor, aka Gotham’s Penguin, snap selfies with fan after fan inside the Walk of Fame room at Dragon Con. The shuffle pauses when a friend greets Taylor. As I’m thinking, “I wonder who that person is,” Robin’s manager taps him on the shoulder and reminds him of the twisted snake of a line starting to rattle its restless tail. But just a little bit. I look around at my mates and see people just happy to be here, not really in a hurry. You can’t be in a rush at Dragon Con. Lines exist for everything, except strangely not for the bathrooms, probably because half the attendees are wearing costumes that preclude peeing, or have intricate built-in bladders.

Anyway, back to the line. Penguin gracefully bids farewell to his friend and returns to work. I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for him. He’s been shaking hands and hugging strangers for hours. I can’t even imagine the carpel tunnel these stars must develop from all that autographing.

A few feet away, the other Gotham cast members are chatting with fans like it’s any other social function. Everyone is on the same level here, and the tone is relaxed, fun, friendly, even though the space is jammed up with people. This moment makes me wonder what it means to be a fan at events like this one. Plenty of people I know misunderstand my motives for going—usually the ones who’ve only attended a couple of small conventions over the course of their lives.

A friend of mine recently asked, “So do they have Dragon Con in a hotel or something?” She was driving me and my boyfriend back to our room after coffee—away from the convention. My friend, let’s call her Rebecca, had lived in Atlanta for three years now and had no clue about the con. As we approached downtown, she began to swerve and point. “Holy shit, look at all these costumes!”

My boyfriend smiled and nodded. “Yes, please don’t run them over.”

My friend squealed when she spied someone dressed as Dead Pool in a Hawaiian shirt. “That guy’s awesome!” she shouted, honking her horn and waving as she rounded a corner and nearly ploughed into a tipsy party of Whovians.

I suppose it’s true that you have to see a comics convention of this magnitude up close in order to appreciate the grandeur. Before we left for Atlanta last Thursday, I had lunch with some other professors. One of my colleagues expressed shock at Dragon Con’s stats as I explained them. How could upwards of 80,000 people love comics so much that they stand in line for hours and hours, just to meet an actor from a TV show?

Such people imagine the stereotypical comics consumer, the unhappy or unpopular nerds from 80s flicks, sweating into their socks in the September sun, desperate for validation from a stranger who exploits their fascination with starships and super heroes for their own personal wealth.

This stereotype is so far from the truth. Yet it inspires less offense in my heart, I think, than hysterical laughter. Really, I say to myself? They believe we’re all just a bunch of mal-adjusted vampires waiting for this or that signature on cover stock to confer meaning onto our otherwise hollow lives?

Of course, I once thought this way myself. My family conformed to some of the worst traits of the stereotypical collector that you could imagine. I remember my parents watching QVC and dialing whatever phone number with breathless anticipation, paying up to $400 for some rare edition of whatever comic book or baseball card set, or a deluxe edition of Playboy magazines and calendars from whatever year.

Sometimes I had no choice but to accompany my brother to the comic book shop, where he often begged openly for cash to buy the first edition comics like Gambit, which he barely read for fear of creasing the pages. I remember sneaking into his room one afternoon to run my hand over the glossy covers, leaving (gasp) a thumbprint on one that I couldn’t buff out. My parents lectured me, “Don’t touch your brother’s comic books without his permission, Jessica!” Sadly, a friend stole his entire collection, even his Marvel cards, one summer afternoon when he was holding a garage sale.

That didn’t end my brother’s collecting, though, and from that point forward my own interest grew as I tried to help him rebuild. On birthdays and holidays, he accumulated ever more comics, cards, and action figures—one to play with, one to leave in the box.

Still, I only saw the collecting part of fandom for most of my adolescence. I didn’t yet understand the deeper sense of revelry and connection that die hards have with each other—the endless conversations, speculations, interpretations, and debates. That came later, when I started reading graphic novels like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and realized the full potential of the art form.

Even then, I didn’t attend a comics convention of my own volition until my mid 20s when some friends invited me.

And then I finally realized.

You can have Halloween several times a year.

In fact, Dragon Con is Halloween on acid stardust. My first time at Dragon Con, I walked around The Marriott in a childlike daze at all the costumes, some bought, some homemade, and some crafted by some of the most creative, talented, and spontaneous people I would ever meet.

Since then, I’ve become a small part of the culture. I love every minute, even the lines where you can talk to people who love the same shows as much as you do and probably have great stories about last year or the year before. (Or you can live tweet, or people watch.)

Group selfies happen every couple of seconds, and it’s okay if they block your path to wherever because you want to gawk at those costumes, too, or you get pulled into a picture yourself with The Avengers, or characters from a graphic novel series or show you’ve barely heard about, but now you’re going to either buy it, or see if it’s at the library if you’re broke that month.

There are no strangers among the costumed fans of a comics convention. For the love of god, we’ve even bonded with the hotel carpet patterns.

The Dragon Con nightlife rivals anything you’ll see in Hollywood. Imagine Richard Hatch from Battlestar Galactica doing shots with fans at 1 am, couples kissing in Watchmen attire over in the corner, Wolverine buying a round for the cast of Arrow, Thor getting tossed onto the sidewalk for drunkenly hitting too hard on Poison Ivy.

We’re a rowdy bunch, but what amazes me most about the fans is the reverence and respect we show for the talent. Fandom reminds me a little of religion in some ways. You’re suspending a part of yourself to join a mass of people whose goal lies in making a few people feel special. I prefer this kind of religion, since the people I’m “worshipping” are talented and hardworking. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re real.

I’ll go ahead and make a bold claim: I think most comics fans, regardless of their lean toward sci-fi or fantasy, have more class than the kinds you’ll see screaming at a Justin Bieber concert. There aren’t many ninnies at sci-fi conventions. Our fans show a selfless deference toward the actors, artists, and writers who come.

Daredevil’s Charlie Cox didn’t need a special security escort when he exited the back end of The Marriott one afternoon, to find himself walking straight into a long line of fans who were waiting for another event. A few dozen of us smiled and waved as he climbed into the backseat of his car. He waved back and said something like, “See you later!” See? No need for a cheesy one-liner, or a flurry of camera flashes. How do you describe such a casual interaction with a Marvel super hero? I think the word is nice. It was really nice.

At Charlie’s panel, fans went out of their way to compliment him. One guy said, “You don’t just play Daredevil. You are Daredevil.” Every single person who asked a question first praised his performance and dedication. A healthy exchange of thoughtful questions and answers occurred between us. Charlie’s responses showed that he’d clearly read the comics closely, like when he talked about the way illustrators depicted Daredevil to convey his quiet arrogance.

I’m sure it happens every now and then that some fan violates etiquette. I was disappointed to read today about the sexual assault that happened during the Saturday morning parade, knowing that somewhere amidst all that joy was a depraved man pressing his bare genitals up against a young woman. I suspect the offender never even registered for Dragon Con, simply showing up to take advantage of the crowd.

We live in a time when joining crowds is potentially dangerous. Reading about the sexual assault saddened me, but also made me realize how fortunate the con is to have gone this long without something worse. I hope no superstitious readers think I’m jinxing Dragon Con by stopping to appreciate that fact. (Just knocked on wood.) The possibility lurks, but I don’t think that will stop many of us. To be a fan at a convention of this size is slightly brave. Sure, it’s probably a 3 on the bravery scale, but we don’t have actual super powers. Give us a break.

Otherwise, I’ve never seen anyone lose their temper in a line, not even the Starbucks one. Everyone’s so happy to be here.

Over pizza, one of my convention pals tells me, “I can’t believe it’s over tomorrow.”

A passing Wonder Woman chimes in. “I know! I don’t want to go back to work…”

“Neither do I,” I add.

Our group starts to mediate on normal life. This one friend of mine, let’s call him James, has been coming for years now. He knows people who live for conventions, travel the country for them. The conventions are their real life, and everything in between is just saving up for the next one.

Many people I know would read that paragraph and go aww so sad. The only sad part is how dull, judgmental, and restrictive life can become in the droughts between conventions. I know, and I don’t even have it that bad. Luckily, my job affords me plenty of opportunities to express creativity and inspire it in others. For me, Dragon Con is a concentrated dose of that fun.

Being a fan is so much more than witless self-indulgence or a selfish dash for autographs and merchandise. Conventions offer us a rare chance to thank the artists for creating these worlds. It’s a celebration of talent and creativity. Everyone leaves better for their experiences, and I truly believe there’s no such thing as a completely bad time at Dragon Con, even if some creep presses his balls against your butt. None of us can speak for the victim, but I hope this criminal didn’t mar her time too badly. There’s so much to enjoy at this convention, and so much to protect from those who would abuse all its privileges.