Cover Story: The wizard of Dragon*Con stands trial
The force behind Atlanta's largest sci-fi convention finds himself in his own world of darkness
Ed Kramer has rubbed elbows with Alice Cooper, swapped horror stories with Clive Barker, treated Timothy Leary to a trip and hung out with half the cast of Star Wars.
He's played host to Xena, Conan, the Toxic Avenger and a star cruiser's worth of Klingons.
After a decade of intergalactic networking, inspired genre-hopping and ruthless gamesmanship, the co-founder of Dragon*Con was the unlikely but undisputed master of an expanding universe populated by Trekkies, comic book geeks, Buffy fanatics, goth-mongers and legions of disaffected adolescents.
Yet while he was boldly building up his fantastic empire, Kramer was shadowed by persistent rumors. The veteran dealmaker and accomplished celebrity-schmoozer often was seen in the company of a revolving troupe of young boys.
Toward the end, he was seemingly oblivious to or simply untroubled by a lingering suspicion that his behavior was inappropriate and quite possibly criminal.
For the past year, the ailing 40-year-old fantasy impresario has been confined to his Duluth home under strict house arrest, charged with molesting two teenagers.
His jury trial, scheduled to begin next week in Gwinnett Superior Court, has been postponed indefinitely as the county's court system struggles to recover from a Jan. 14 ruling that invalidated its entire jury pool. Meanwhile, Kramer sits sidelined and publicly silent, and the local sci-fi and gaming community roils in bitter divisiveness. Speculation about Kramer's private sex life runs rampant in online debates, and former friends trade accusations of disinformation campaigns and character assassination.
Some are outraged over what they see as a modern-day witch-hunt against a self-made man who can appear strange and even a bit creepy at first glance. Short, stocky, with a face wreathed in thick, dark hair that suggests fur, Kramer resembles a dwarf as imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien, the perfect scapegoat for those who choose their villains through typecasting.
"Ed's lost his job, his income, his health, his good reputation and his freedom," says friend David Robinson. "He's lost more than anyone I've ever known. My gut instinct is that Ed's a victim."
Others, however, are incensed by the notion that a suspected pedophile was allowed for years to operate unchallenged in their midst by virtue of the fact that he was the gatekeeper to one of the largest sci-fi confabs in North America — and not shy about throwing his weight around.
"He must have thought he was immune because he's king of the convention world," says shock-film director Joe Christ, a former guest artist at Dragon*Con. The cluttered Candler Park apartment Christ shares with his wife, horror writer Nancy Collins, has become ground zero in the battle of words and innuendo over Ed Kramer's true nature.
"You'd almost think," Collins says, "you were dealing with dope fiends because of the way people react when their little subculture is threatened."
When Kramer, a Brooklyn-born, Miami-raised orthodox Jew, brought together a group of Atlanta-area friends and fellow sci-fi enthusiasts for gaming sessions in the mid-'80s, he was a twentysomething substance-abuse counselor with a master's in public health administration from Emory University.
A visible oddity, Kramer suffered from a laundry list of health problems, among them a virulent form of psoriasis. Even then, his resume was anything but typical: freelance rock concert photography for local magazines, an avid interest in caving and a long record of volunteer gigs, largely with children's shelters and programs for troubled youths.
At the time, local fandom was being served by the family-oriented Atlanta Fantasy Fair, the Spock-specific DixieTrek and Magnum Opus Con, a comic-book convention in Athens. Still, Kramer's gaming group — dubbed the Dragon Alliance after his Japanese-made computer — decided to launch its own event.
"I first met Ed at the 1986 World Science Fiction Convention in Atlanta when he was hanging out in the writers' suite," recalls Gregory Nicoll, a local writer and longtime CL contributor. Kramer's was an unfamiliar, if unforgettable, face, but that would soon change. When Kramer managed to pull off the first Dragon*Con, "he impressed everybody," Nicoll says.
Dragon*Con got off to a roaring start in 1987, nabbing such top-rung guests as British fantasy novelist Michael Moorcock and Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax. It attracted a respectable crowd of 1,400.
Right from the beginning, Kramer and the six fellow Alliance members who formed the first Dragon*Con board hit upon the magic formula that has made it a must-do weekend for anyone who ever yearned for a Dr. Who lunchbox or squandered their allowance on action figures and 12-sided dice.
In addition to the usual comic dealers, movie memorabilia and armor-making workshops, Dragon*Con threw in the kitchen sink: live music, TV celebrities, best-selling authors, a blowout costume contest and the key ingredient, gaming tournaments that appeal to 12-year-old boys who don't have the money to buy Action Comics #1 or who haven't yet developed a taste for Philip K. Dick.
As it grew, Dragon*Con overflowed from downtown's biggest hotels into the Apparel and Merchandise marts. It quickly evolved into a round-the-clock event, with gaming, movie screenings and arcane workshops running throughout the night. Caffeine became the drug of choice for the true con-freak.
No genre was left untouched: vampires and trolls mingled with elf queens and wide-eyed Japanime schoolgirls; S&M demonstrations followed filksinging; hallways were clogged with Red Sonjas, Laura Crofts, Bettie Pages and Princess Leias of all shapes and degrees of authenticity.
"It's a kind of controlled chaos," says co-founder Pat Henry, who reluctantly took over Kramer's role as CEO of Dragon*Con last year. "The idea is to let people step off the planet for a few days."
Henry recalls one year when he and Kramer were at wit's end after a long day of putting out organizational fires. Suddenly, a phalanx of stormtroopers stomped through the hotel lobby in front of them. "We stopped and said, 'That's what this is all about!' It's moments like that that get you through the tough times."
From the start, Kramer was the public face of Dragon*Con, possibly because he was the most outgoing and articulate member of a gang of gaming geeks. A skilled networker, ambitious planner and tireless multi-tasker wrapped up in a round, hairy package, he made it his business to know everybody who was anybody in the world of fandom.
Largely through Kramer's efforts, the convention imported an astonishing array of celebrities and performers, from über-novelist Tom Clancy to cult-rockers the Misfits, from animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen to master thespian Adam West.
And when Dragon*Con grew so large it needed an enforcer unafraid to put his foot down, that duty fell to Kramer as well.
Henry, owner of the successful Titan Comics chain, may have kept the books and held the purse strings for the event, but it was Kramer who had to be finessed if you wanted a better space for your dealer booth or a later time slot for your goth band or an extra comp ticket for your girlfriend's sister. Or if you wanted to be invited back next year.
"Ed was very powerful in these circles because he ran one of the biggest shows," recalls Dave Dorman, a prominent sci-fi illustrator. "People tended to treat him as someone who could make or break you in this business — if you got blackballed by Ed, you're going to lose work."
Dragon*Con seemed to welcome racier elements as time went on: Playboy Playmates, adult comic books, erotic fiction and skimpy outfits, sometimes on people who had little business wearing them. Like most of the larger cons, the Atlanta fest was a pressure-cooker of nerd hormones, a place where even Jabba the Hut look-alikes stood a fair chance of getting laid.
Still, fun had its limits. In an early '90s convention, Kramer walked into a performance in which Atlanta's Impotent Sea Snakes were exposing themselves; he angrily banned the male shock-rock band from Dragon*Con for life.
Kramer also became the object of unspoken resentment among those outside his inner circle. Critics say he floated empty promises in order to brush off favor-seekers and complainers — promises delivered with the cavalier attitude of someone who knows he's untouchable.
Ken Johnston, a local performance artist and musician who began his long involvement with Dragon*Con leading sword-fighting demonstrations, is among many who claim Kramer could be unreliable.
"He'd tell me my band was going on stage at a certain time and that he'd send over the equipment and line up the sound guy, and you could pretty much count on none of it being there and no one even knowing you're supposed to be playing," he says, shrugging. "But if you did business with Ed, you just came to expect that."
As his event grew to become one of the dozen or so largest conventions in this convention-driven city, Kramer earned the reputation of being an aggressive businessman. Fetish artist Jeff Pittarelli, a Dragon*Con guest for 10 years, says Kramer would lure celebrities from other cons and counter-program his event opposite the local competition. Within a few years, the venerable Fantasy Fair and Magnum Opus were history.
"Ed was the godfather of conventions," says Roland Castle, owner of Castle Comics in Athens and founder of the ill-fated Magnum Opus. "If you wanted to do business, you had to kiss his ass; if you challenged or bad-mouthed him, you were finished."
Castle speaks from personal experience. During their long rivalry, the outspoken comic-seller was the only person to openly address the unpleasant rumors that had been spreading about Kramer and the collection of boys who often appeared at his side.
In response, Kramer made a legal complaint against Castle. Although the case never made it to court, Castle was washed up in the fantasy convention business.
"I didn't bury my head in the sand," he says. "Everybody else was scared shitless and now all I can say is, 'I told you so.'"
The stories about Kramer, the sidelong glances and eye-rolling, the snickering behind his back were there almost from the start. What chum is to sharks, fantasy conventions are to teenagers, especially those who consider themselves misfits. Youngsters fill the gaming halls at Dragon*Con and are underfoot anywhere Magic cards are being traded. But for many that didn't explain why Kramer had a constant coterie of boys seemingly wherever he went.
"You'd go up to his suite to get passes or to talk to him and the room would always be filled with pre-pubescent boys," Johnston recalls.
Mike Dillson, who served as Dragon*Con's head of operations and security for nine years and oversaw a volunteer staff of 135, says Kramer "always had a legion of little boys following him around. 'Ed's boys' — that's what we called them."
But while the rumors attained near- ubiquity, most people laughed them off or kept their suspicions to themselves rather than risk angering the master of Dragon*Con.
Dorman remembers: "Ed never offered any explanation as to why he had all these boys with him and no one was willing to ask him about it."
Pat Henry says his former business partner never felt the need to explain himself. Kramer was a dedicated volunteer at the DeKalb children's shelter, a mentor to numerous troubled boys and a surrogate father to children of single friends — the people who mattered to Kramer knew that about him, Henry says.
"He's straightened out a lot of kids who had drug problems," he explains.
Still, Henry adds, one should always strive to be above suspicion when dealing with children. Does that mean he was aware of the rumors about Kramer? No, Henry is quick to answer, he never heard a thing.
Celebrated sci-fi writer and pundit Harlan Ellison has been a Kramer pal for 30 years. During his several visits to Dragon*Con, he never heard scuttlebutt about Kramer's sex life, he explains in typically direct style.
"I've seen Ed around young people in unguarded moments and there was nothing about his body language that suggested anything inappropriate," Ellison says. "Frankly, I can't imagine any child not running in fear from this creature who looks like he stepped out of an EC comic. Fact is, picturing Ed in bed with someone is like imagining Jerry Falwell fucking Eleanor Roosevelt."
Yet even Pittarelli, another Kramer supporter, says the rumors were hard to miss. "People made fun of him, but nobody took it too seriously," he says.
Johnston, having once seen Kramer making out with a woman of appropriate age, says he's undecided about the accusations. "I think people didn't necessarily believe the rumors, but repeated them because they didn't like him."
On the other hand, some incidents were so eyebrow-raising they were difficult to ignore. Early one morning, Dillson recalls, he called Kramer in his hotel room to come down right away to sort out a snafu in the dealers' hall. "He came from the shower dripping wet and so was the little boy he had with him." Later, he says, he refused Kramer's request to take his young son on a caving trip.
Christ says he was taken aback in 1995 when he started hearing rumors: "After that, I started hearing it everywhere I went and, for a long time, I defended him because I assumed it was petty gossip."
Christ says he finally decided otherwise when he saw Kramer one evening with a young boy in tow at the decidedly adult-themed GothCon 2000 a few months before his arrest.
"Ed was behaving very inappropriately with the boy, who seemed uncomfortable — kissing the top of his head, stroking his hair, basically canoodling," Christ says. "I thought, 'Damn! Doesn't he know what people are saying about him?'"
Still, no one had the nerve to follow Castle's example and make the charge to Kramer's face.
"A lot of us had ideas about what was going on, but we didn't want to confront him," Dorman admits. "Unfortunately, in the sci-fi/ fantasy world, you see a lot of things that creep you out, so you tend to take it in stride."
Kramer has the ability to inspire strong feeling in those who know him well. But for Christ's wife, Nancy Collins, he's become an obsession that has devoured weeks of her life and made her and her husband pariahs within their own subculture.
In the months following Kramer's arrest, Collins has copied and posted online hundreds of pages of court documents that walk the curious through various bond hearings, search warrants and indictments.
She's pumped Kramer acquaintances for incriminating tidbits about his background and spent long nights scouring Internet chat rooms for postings about Kramer or herself. Every new shred of information she turns up is passed on to Gwinnett prosecutors or any reporter who seems interested.
Her motives are the source of wild speculation; Collins has been accused both of carrying out a mysterious vendetta and of engineering Kramer's fall in order to score a book deal. (She pitched the book idea to a local publisher early on but says she has abandoned that effort.)
What's clear, however, is that she views herself as the self-appointed conscience of the Dragon*Con community.
"For these people, a convention is more important than children," she says. "The con geeks don't take it seriously and now they whine that this scandal makes fandom look bad. It does, but the cover-up makes it look worse. Some of these people knew Ed for 15 years and didn't say anything."
Of course, no one would mistake Christ and Collins for Ozzie and Harriet. Collins' splatter-punk stories are replete with evisceration and severed heads, while Christ boasts of making films that are almost unwatchably grotesque. Their decorating sense (the living room is anchored by a fetal pig in a jar) and taste in literature would have gotten them burned at the stake in colonial Salem and several modern-day Kansas school districts. Even around their apartment they wear solid black.
Collins attributes her fanaticism over Kramer to a sense of personal betrayal — she says he often asked to take her young stepson on caving trips — but it seems somewhat more complicated than that. Part of her zeal possibly stems from the guilty sting of having spent years feeling beholden to a fickle benefactor who has now been charged with a crime.
As any zealot might, she views every new detail about Kramer through the lens of her own convictions. She can rattle off a list of the friends she's lost over her crusade. She was dropped by her literary agent. She has been forced to publicly retract allegations she made against a Kramer associate. Yet Collins feels her efforts will be rewarded by the jury's verdict.
When she met Kramer through the convention circuit in the early '90s, Collins was working in New York as the writer of the Swamp Thing comic book series and had gained a modest following as the author of Sunglasses After Dark, a neo-gothic vampire novel.
Kramer booked her and Christ as guests at Dragon*Con, a non-paying honor that would allow her to plug her books and make industry contacts. They began to collaborate on editing collections of erotic horror stories.
Although he had limited writing background of his own, Kramer had discovered that his Dragon-connections to best-selling authors such as Ray Bradbury, Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey made it easy to find stories he could package into anthologies and market to publishers. He and Collins hit pay dirt when they landed a Stephen King story for their second collection, Dark Love.
Beginning in 1990, Kramer also used his connections to help out a local role-playing game maker. He hooked the fledgling White Wolf up with writers — including Collins — and edited books for the company's publishing arm.
The next year, White Wolf made gaming history when it concocted the hugely successful "Vampire: The Masquerade" franchise. Thereafter, it became a major Dragon*Con vendor, renting a sizable chunk of the dealer space.
But now, White Wolf co-founder Steve Wieck says Kramer is suing the company to recover several years' worth of royalties and agent's fees; Wieck says checks were dutifully mailed to Kramer, but, mysteriously, he never cashed them.
"For whatever reason, he saw fit to sue us over money we're trying to pay him anyway," says Wieck, adding that Kramer has yet to explain his quarrel with the company.
Kramer has had many other irons in the fire, including a handful of Internet-related corporations he set up, then dissolved, as well as several film projects whose choice of subject matter has reinforced suspicions among some of his doubters.
In one scene of the direct-to-Internet splatter film Terror at Tate Manor, which Kramer co-wrote, a 14-year-old boy walks in on a woman who's masturbating.
Most recently, he had been working on Little Savages, described on its website as "Lord of the Flies in space" and featuring a crew of shirtless urchins, as well as such bigger-name actors as Gary Busey and Timothy Bottoms. The middling-budget project's now in turnaround, film-speak for "limbo."
For most of the '90s, Kramer worked as a part-time consultant at the Metropolitan Regional Educational Service Agency, where he wrote grant applications and served as technical adviser. His former boss there suspects Kramer is the victim of a vicious smear campaign.
"There are a lot of people — a couple in particular — who are out there shooting their mouths off trying to hurt him," says Milt Levy, who adds he never heard any gossip about Kramer and was shocked to hear of his arrest.
In 1999, when she was in financial trouble, Collins accepted Kramer's offer to help land her a clerical job at the educational agency if she wanted to move to Atlanta. He also set Christ up with a minor job with Dragon*Con. The couple continued to associate with Kramer professionally and even borrowed money from him, but Collins says they were growing personally disenchanted with their friend.
When she discovered Kramer had been busted, Collins says, all the rumors and his own behavior suddenly came into focus. She walked away from her job and began devoting herself increasingly to investigating Kramer's past.
"Ed's a master manipulator," she says, "and we're gonna make him regret ever sliming his way into our lives."
No one knows who made the anonymous phone call to the Gwinnett Department of Family and Children Services in August 2000 that prompted the Kramer investigation.
The prevailing theory among his supporters is that the ex-husband of Kramer's girlfriend invented the accusation to gain custody of his sons by showing they had an unfit mother. But that doesn't explain why the woman, who had been seeing Kramer socially for three years, would back the charges against him after being told of the alleged abuse of her 13-year-old son.
On Aug. 25, Gwinnett police Investigator Curtis Clemmons phoned Kramer at home, told him of the accusation and asked him to come to the station for an interview. Kramer said he'd be right over.
A few minutes later, Clemmons received a frantic call from the boy's mother, who said Kramer had driven up to her house and was banging on the door, yelling, "Tommy! Tommy! Open the door! How could you do this to me?"
Trouble was, it wasn't 15-year-old Tommy (whose name we've changed) but his younger brother whom Kramer was accused at the time of molesting.
In November, he was indicted for allegedly molesting both boys during various sleepovers at his house in the week following Dragon*Con 2000.
Kramer's bust sent shock waves through fandom, and not just locally. Comics and gaming news sites, message boards and personal fan pages around the country picked up on the story. Most weren't hesitant about choosing sides and many in the community labeled Christ and Collins as mean-spirited slanderers; one site describes Collins' communications with prosecutors as "tattling."
She and Christ received death threats, she says, and any reference to the two has been purged from the archives of the Dragon*con website.
Pat Henry believes the alleged victims' accusations are part of a setup: "I've heard from the mother's lips that you can't trust a word those kids say."
Clemmons says the boys' mother had believed she and Kramer were a couple and that he was simply being paternal when he would take her sons, individually, on outings or have them stay overnight. His home was filled with enough video games, horror movies, action figures and spooky costumes to serve as a funhouse for any adolescent boy.
Clemmons, however, says the woman finally confided that she and her presumed boyfriend had never had sex. "She would approach Mr. Kramer about why there was no intimate contact throughout their relationship and she said he would get angry and change the subject and didn't want to talk about it," the officer said at an early bond hearing.
Only after Kramer had been charged did anyone discover that he'd also been arrested in 1997 for allegedly molesting another member of his underage posse. That boy had recanted his story before the case went to trial and charges were dropped. When Collins dug up the 3-year-old case, she made certain the media and the sci-fi community were updated.
At first, Judge Debra Turner labeled Kramer a threat to the community's youth and denied him bond. Two months later, she placed him under house arrest to receive specialized treatments for his various skin conditions — under the condition that he have no contact with minors.
A week later, however, he was back in jail. A neighbor had reported seeing a teenage boy — supposedly the same one who starred in Terror at Tate Manor — enter his house. Kramer's attorneys contended the visitor actually was a woman.
During a jail riot a few days after that, Kramer's head was slammed into a cell wall, causing neurological damage that later required spinal surgery. In late January, Kramer was again allowed for health reasons to return home, where he is required to wear an ankle monitor and stay within view of a closed-circuit camera. He is forbidden from answering his own phone.
"I don't think he's even allowed to answer the door to get a pizza, in case it's a young delivery boy," Clemmons says.
Kramer and his lawyer, high-priced Buford attorney Walt Britt, would not talk to CL. His most vocal supporter, Rebecca Bidwell, who maintains the Ed Kramer Legal Defense Fund website, cancelled a scheduled interview.
David Robinson, with whom Kramer helped found an annual caving convention in North Georgia, says that even if his friend is cleared by a jury, his life is largely ruined. "Because of his injuries, he can never go caving again; he'll never be the same," he says.
Robinson predicts the case against Kramer, who still phones him every other week or so, will turn out to be completely based on false accusations and slander against a man who made himself vulnerable by offering a hand out to so many.
"I've seen him help people who he didn't need to help, who are now among those ready to string him up because of his physical appearance," Robinson says.
Says Ellison of Kramer: "He's so naive and provincial that he let this thing happen to him out of the adolescent assumption that everything would work out fine, and it's destroyed his life. The damage has been done by Nancy Collins and her demento husband."
Pat Henry has worked hard to distance Dragon*Con from Kramer's legal troubles. But with record attendance topping an estimated 20,000 in 2001, the event's first Ed-less year, the bad publicity seems to have taken little toll.
Still, Henry, a devout Christian, enforced more conservative limits of attire and behavior on what had become under Kramer a near-anything-goes event.
While Kramer is still a major Dragon*Con shareholder, no dividends were issued last year on the private stock, says Henry, adding that his longtime associate no longer has any other official connection to the event he ran like a ringmaster for 14 years.
But if Kramer is exonerated — and Henry believes he will be ("We're talking about a guy I've been to strip clubs with.") — the door is wide open for him to return to the realm of Dragon*Con. Because, in no small way, Kramer's own vindication seems intertwined with that of the fantasy convention itself.
Says Henry: "Just because we like to dress up and read science fiction doesn't make us a bunch or perverts and freaks."