Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Comic Con Survival Guide, Part 1: Pre-Show Planning

A lot of times when I tell people that I'm going to a comic book convention, they think I mean the massively hyped extravaganza that is Comic-Con International in San Diego.  And while Comic-Con is the popular catch-all name for any comic book convention these days (similar to the way that a lot of people refer to all adhesive bandages as Band-Aids) the fact is that comic book conventions occur all over the country all year long, in practically every city.  The shows come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny conventions with no more than a dozen six-foot dealer tables set up in a local meeting hall to major extravaganzas that host well in excess of 100,000 attendees a day like next week's San Diego show.

Comic cons can be REALLY overwhelming to first-time attendees, be they casual or hardcore fans.  There can be complete sensory overload, and it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle of so many people.  However, with a little planning and foreknowledge, you can minimize that confusion and increase the likelihood that you'll have a fun time.  In this post and the next, I'm going to try to share my tips and tricks for a successful comic con based on my own experiences over the years.  Today I'll focus on some prep that you should at least consider prior to getting to the con.  The next post will focus on tips for the actual day (or days) of the show itself.  Without further adieu, let's dive into it.

Attendance figures for the fifteen largest North American comic book conventions in 2012-2013 (so far), as reported by Publisher's Weekly on June 19, 2013.  The original article can be found here.
Tip 1: Research

Once you've decided you want to attend a comic con, the first thing you'll want to do is try to find out a little about the show.  How big is it?  Does it have a tight focus on comics, or are there other pop culture interests represented as well?  Do celebrities attend?  How much do passes cost?  How early do you need to order your passes?  What do prior attendees think of the show?  A lot of these questions can be quickly answered with about 15-minutes of Internet research.  Most comic cons now have web pages, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts that give easy access to a lot of this information.  Comic book news sites like Comic Book Resources can also provide valuable insight.
Tip 2: Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

Getting in shape is definitely not the first thing that most people would associate with a comic book convention, but it's important, especially at larger cons.  You don't need to be able to run an 8-minute mile, but you should be able to walk a couple of miles at a time without getting winded.  Some of the show floors are massive, and odds are good that you'll be doing a lot of walking to and from and around the floor during your time at the show.  As an example, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out how far I walked in a typical day during my first San Diego Comic-Con trip in 2009.  Between walking between the convention center and my hotel, shuffling (and sometimes running) between conference rooms for different panels, and just taking in the show floor, I easily walked about 10 miles a day for four days straight, all while carrying about 50 pounds of books and other goodies around on most days.  The reality is that in most cases you'll be on your feet for a majority of the day, even at smaller shows, so it might not hurt to hit the treadmill or go for an evening stroll at least two or three times a week to prepare yourself.

You don't need to train like Captain America to get ready for a comic con, but it might not hurt to get off of the couch and go for a walk a couple times a week.  Art from Avengers #19 (Aug 1965) by Don Heck.

Tip 3: Determine Your Objective

It'll be practically impossible to do everything you want to do at a mid-sized or larger convention.  Accept that truth now.  Artists and celebrities only autograph stuff at certain times each day.  Panels stick to a strict schedule, and there are different panels running concurrently all the time.  Lines are usually long to snag con-exclusive swag like comics with variant covers, toys, and t-shirts.  Something has to give, and you just can't be everywhere at once.  So it doesn't hurt to spend a couple minutes to ponder why you're really going to the con in the first place.

I like to jot down a list of a few things that I really want to accomplish at each convention, and then rank those by how important they are to me.  For example, I love meeting artists and writers at shows, and will gladly wait in hour-long lines for some, but not so much for others.  If an artist or writer whose work I admire is going to a show, then meeting them is probably at the top of my list, especially if I've never met them before.  For others, a priority might be getting into that Walking Dead or Game of Thrones panel featuring cast members from the show to see if any hints about the next season get leaked.  Others might be into cosplay and want to make sure they attend the con's masquerade or costume contest.  Aspiring professionals might be going to get portfolios reviewed or to meet editors.  Everyone is different, and making a plan ahead of time will help make sure that you get maximum enjoyment out of your comic con experience.

Most cons will release their panel and activity schedules anywhere from one to three weeks prior to the start of the convention, and taking the time to figure out what interests you on each day is a big help.  You can also follow creators and celebrities on Twitter to figure out when they're signing or participating in a panel discussion.  If the big publishers like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, or Image have a booth set up for the show (and this isn't guaranteed; they usually only show up for the bigger conventions, with attendance in excess of 50,000 per day), then they also likely host one-hour signings with different creators throughout the day.  Publisher signing schedules usually aren't released until a day or two before the show starts though, so be patient. 

However, don't stick to your plan so rigidly that you keep yourself from taking advantage of really cool opportunities that may spring up unexpectedly.  You might skip an Avengers panel that you wanted to attend because a big-name creator like J. Michael Straczynski is giving away free con-exclusive variants of his new book to fans who attend his panel.  (He did this with his new book Ten Grand at this year's C2E2.)  Keep your eyes peeled during signings for unusual chances to converse with your favorite creators, like getting to stand-in as a bouncer for author Ed Brubaker for five minutes while he eats a doughnut for breakfast in front of a line of 75 patient and not-so-patient fans.  (True story: this happened to me at Emerald City Con in Seattle in 2011.)  Bottom line, if you show up to a comic con with a plan, but you're ready to adapt as conditions warrant, you'll probably have an awesome time.

Tip 4: Make A List (And Check It Twice)

If you're going to a comic book convention, you're likely going to want to buy something.  Sure, some cons have freebies (again, typically the bigger shows where publishers have a booth presence), but at the end of the day capitalism is really what it's all about.  In addition to comic book, toy, game, art supply, and clothing retailers (the amount and distribution of each varies from show to show) selling their typical wares, there may be exclusive versions of comics and other goodies that you can only get from the con (or from eBay later at three times the price).  Prices can vary widely on some collectible items from booth to booth.  So in addition to knowing what you want, it's a good idea to know what a fair price is for those items.

A strategy that works for me is to jot down a list of books, shirts, figures, etc. that I might want to find in a small pocket notebook.  I'll then spend some time on eBay or Amazon to research what prices retailers might be asking for those items.  Since I mainly read trade and hardcover collections instead of periodicals right now, this works out great because trades are easy to find on Amazon.  This step is even more important if you read periodical (or "floppy" magazine-style) comics though, as prices for single issues may vary widely in different parts of the country based on local demand and distribution.

This process can take some time (I've spent up to an eight-hour day assembling my want list and researching prices), but it can pay off.  Nothing feels worse than finding out a week later that the stack of books that you bought for $15 a piece were available regularly on eBay for $5 a piece.

Tip 5: Assemble Your Kit

Batman would never go into action without his trusty utility belt, filled with crime-fighting gadgets like smoke pellets, thermite grenades, and fingerprint powder.  And while you likely won't need any of that at a comic con, it's a good idea to assemble your own utility kit to make sure that you're ready for any obstacles you may face.

You probably don't need lockpicks or a laser torch at a comic book convention, but there are a few things that you might want to assemble to make your trip easier.  Batman's utility belt is a trademark of DC Comics.
The first thing you'll want to procure is a good bag, probably a backpack or messenger bag.  Each has its pros and cons.  A backpack tends to give you a smaller profile, allowing you to more easily squeeze through tight aisles and booths on the convention floor.  The dual shoulder straps generally make it more comfortable to carry more weight as well.  On the other hand, messenger bags typically allow easier access to and storage of items without needing to take the bag off.  My personal bag is a laptop bag.  While it's larger than either of the options previously mentioned, which makes it kind of a pain in crowded aisles and booths, it's got lots of zippered compartments and pockets, many of which are padded, and it's rigidity helps to keep my books protected from bends and dings.

Once you've settled on a bag, what should you pack in it? I've got a few items that I take with me to every show.  In no particular order, they are:
  • A lanyard, since most modern convention passes (i.e., tickets) are badges that you have to wear at all times.
  • A smartphone for keeping in touch with friends and reviewing the con schedule via the show's app (if available).
  • A pad and pen for jotting down want lists, artist booth locations, etc., because even though a lot of shows do have elaborate apps now, most convention halls aren't equipped to handle the demands on wireless data that a big con can generate, which means you won't be able to access the app when you need it.
  • A highlighter for marking activities of interest in the convention program book.
  • Two permanent markers, one black and one silver, for book signings and autographs when you catch a creator or celebrity on the fly.
  • A charger and/or a spare battery for your phone.
  • A good camera.  You just don't have enough options for zoom, shutter speed, etc. on built-in smartphone cameras.
  • Your preferred pain reliever and some adhesive bandages, because you will likely get at least one headache due to sleep deprivation, hunger, or the general noise level, and paper cuts happen. (Ouch!)
  • Hand sanitizer, because there are invariably a lot of germs floating around the convention floor, and the people who generate them just touched the same book you're holding now.
  • Disinfectant wipes in case you want to grab a bite in the convention hall's food court and need to wipe down a table or need to use a restroom stall. (Trust me, you'll thank me for this one later.)
  • Unless you're exceptionally outgoing, an MP3 player to pass the time when you're waiting in a long line or three.  (May I recommend the exceptional Word Balloon podcast for your listening pleasure?)
  • A water bottle, because no one wants to pay $3.00 a bottle for soda all day. I attach mine to a carabiner on the outside of my bag; it provides easy access, lets me stay hands free when I'm browsing, and prevents accidental spills inside my bag that may ruin the loot inside.
  • Some granola bars, preferably without a lot of chocolate, which will likely melt in the warm summer months when comic cons are usually held.  Other good snack options are nuts, trail mix, dried fruit, or jerky.  I take enough stuff to make up a light lunch so that I'm not forced to pay $9 for a slice of questionable pizza in the aforementioned food court every day.
My typical comic con survival kit and its contents get me through just about any situation I may run into, without expensive shark repellant or tear gas pellets.

These tips are merely a starting point to allow you to shape a con experience that's right for you.  They work best for me, but these tips are certainly by no means the "right" answer.  I'd be interested in hearing about any good pre-con prep advice from my readers in the comments section.  Next week we'll move on to the next step: you've done everything you can to prepare, and now you're at the convention.  Now what?  I'll discuss what you can expect, and give you some more survival tips that I've learned the hard way.

Bonus Unsolicited Recommendation!

Looking for something new to read?  May I suggest Image's Lazarus #1 by Greg Rucka and Michael Park, out in stores now?  Lazarus is a science fiction book set in a near future in which governments are irrelevant and society is run by a few powerful families, each of which sponsors a genetically-enhanced operative known as a Lazarus.  Dealing with topical issues of poverty, genetic engineering, and ethics, this book has got a lot of promise.  Give it a try.

Michael Lark's cover to Lazarus #1, out now from Image Comics.

1 comment:

  1. I always wear my Chrome messenger bag to cons. It's durable, waterproof and has lots of pockets for snacks (the most important item to have with you in ANY situation)!