Five minutes later, he replied, sounding like a high school senior on his way to Vegas for Spring Break! So I then started giving him some sage advice to help his planning.
This, of course, got my pachinko-like thought processes pinging, so I’m sharing my strategies with the general public, months in advance of the summer convention season. Feel free to share your own experiences below! I’m always eager to learn some new technique!
So you’ve never attended a convention-centered comic con before.
You’ve never attended ANY comic con before.
So, what’s the best way to ease your way into the maddening hordes?
Try this… this is similar to what I did, when I was a shy, bespectacled, nerdy fan of comics and other popular (yet marginalized) cultures.
Step One: Attend a dealer show.
Mine was held in a shopping center. It wasn’t just comics, it was collectibles of all sorts, a bit of an antique show. Lots of cool stuff (including a glass blower creating glass animals!), and not too pricey.
The shows nowadays are comics-centric, much like a dealer’s room at a comic book convention, but not as hectic or crowded. Most are usually free, or have a small admissions fee. (Most are funded by charging the dealers for space.) You’ll find some cool stuff, but you will not be overcome with uncontrollable rapture.
Step Two: Attend a local science fiction, manga, or comics convention.
The next step is to attend a larger local show, usually held in a hotel. In my youth, there was a local science fiction convention which used a “big tent” strategy to welcome as many various tribes of fans to attend. The sponsor was actually a local space advocacy group, so there was a space science guest. There’s a gaming room, a dealer’s room, an art show, movies being shown, costuming competitions, a dance, professional guests… something for everyone! (Ours was held in a hotel with a pool, so instead of a BarCon, we all congregated in the swimming pool and sauna.)
Attendance will usually be under a thousand people, so there will be lots of people, but not a mob. You’ll be able to see lots of cool stuff, meet lots of cool people, and maybe even make some new friends!
Manga/anime conventions are very similar to science fiction conventions, as most of those fans evolved from SF cons, which actively screened the cool animated SF coming from Japan in the 1980s. It’s ALL comics and cartoons, but a specific genre and style. Even if you’re not interested, it’s worth a visit, partly to discover something different, but also to discover other comics fans in your area. You can simply be a spectator, checking out the kawaii fanboys and -girls cosplaying. (What we used to call “hall costumes”.) This fandom is also very welcoming, so there’s less pressure on you, a newbie.
Many states now host smaller comics conventions. The Small Press Expo is the best-known example of a hotel-based comics convention. With the Internet and universities encouraging a diaspora of comics talent across the country, there are many colonies of cartoonists all over this great land. There won’t be a lot of glitz and glamour, but you’ll be able to meet locals pursuing the same dream you have.
Step Three: Attend a regional comic con held at a convention center
You are now ready for a road trip!
Find a comic con that’s nearby, or accessible by affordable transportation. There are many regional conventions which are large enough to utilize a few halls at a convention center, but not so overwhelming that the Red Cross needs to set up a relief tent outside in the parking lot.
Check online. Ask your friends (who might want to go with, and help pay the cost of a hotel room). See which professionals are attending. Check the news sites for previous years reportage and critiques. Ask your boss for time off.
So now you’re ready! You’ve bought your ticket, you’ve planned your itinerary, you’re ready to go!
Rome wasn’t burnt in a day. It took lots of planning by Alaric and the Visigoths before Rome was sacked in 410 A. D. You, too, need to plan ahead, lest you become an Internet meme (where your fifteen minutes of fame becomes fifteen days of infamy).
Step Four: Select your equipment.
The most important item to pack: your swag bag. This is what you’ll carry your supplies in as your schlep around the convention center, and where you’ll stash your treasures.
What not to use:
Anything with wheels. (Most cons prohibit this type of luggage, and most attendees hate the inconsiderate/clueless louts who run over their feet. Even strollers, full of cute, adorable, future fans, get scorned.)
Backpacks. These might be comfortable and actually designed to carry pounds of materiel. But you do not have eyes in the back of your head, and one quarter turn is all it takes to whack someone with your overstuffed pack. (I’ll let the physicists figure out how many Newtons are involved, how much momentum is created.)
Instead, find a sturdy tote bag or messenger bag. Messenger bags are nice, as they are designed to hold a variety of items, usually have multiple bags and pouches, and a comfortable strap. Tote bags are just as sturdy, and usually are free. They tend to be bigger than messenger bags.
So, you’ve got your bag. Here’s how you test it:
- Fill it up with the largest books you can find. Encyclopedia volumes are good. Unabridged dictionaries. The complete hardcover run of Harry Potter. Omnibus volumes of graphic novels. Canned goods work well.
- Pick a day where you’re at home the entire day. Carry that bag constantly, except when you’re sitting down. Transfer it from shoulder to shoulder as necessary.
- If you find it too heavy, then you need a smaller bag. You want a bag which will hold a lot of items, but not so heavy that you’ll be quoting Marty Feldman as you shamble down the aisle.
- Also check for strength. Some of those “recycled” grocery bags are a bit cheap in the stitching, and the strap might break. I don’t recommend them for conventions (not enough pockets) but they are handy, so set them aside when you pack (see below, under “Supplies”).
Myself, I use a two-pouch canvas tote bag from Dorling-Kindersley. The main pouch is zippered, deep and wide enough to hold record albums. I use this for the big stuff, like books. The outside pouch is not as deep, and holds small bits of paper, tchotchkes, and snacks. There’s a bottle pocket on one side (where I store the poster tube, more on that below), and a small pocket on the other end which I use for pens and business cards. The straps are not adjustable, and the bag hits about mid-thigh. It either lies on my side as I walk, or I can easily rotate it forward to avoid hitting people in tight spaces.
Also, if your bag is smaller, then you have a great excuse when people try to hand you freebies. “Thank you, but I’m trying to keep my bag light.”
Many conventions will hand you a totebag when you enter, filled with all sorts of promotional material. Find the nearest trash can and toss anything not of interest to you. Transfer the important stuff to your actual bag, and fold up the official tote for later use.
This is where that tote, and those grocery totes, come in handy: downloading.
It’s time for lunch. Your bag is stuffed with geeky goodness. So you wander over to the coat check, which every convention center has. You unfold that grocery/convention tote and stuff it with everything from your tote bag that you don’t need. You check that bag for a few dollars (don’t forget to remember the $1/bag tip at the end of the day), and return to the convention with a much lighter tote, which gives you an extra spring to your step and more positive energy to finish up the remainder of the day! Warn the check staff if your bag is extra heavy.
I recommend you only do this once a day, so at the end of the day you only have to schlep two bags back to your hotel room. Keep extra bags folded up and handy, just in case one of those bags suffers a malfunction.
Of course, there will probably be a dealer selling awesome tote bags as well, so you can always buy one.
Once back at your hotel room, empty the bags and sort everything by size and type. Toss stuff you thought might was cool, but not worth it now. Eyeball the size of your swag and calculate how much space you have in your luggage. (I usually travel with a half-empty suitcase, so I’ll have space for my swag on the return flight.)
IF you have too much stuff, then you’ll have to ship it back home. Which means you’ll have to recalculate your budget. Sometimes you can ship your swag at the convention center (search for the business supply office at the center, usually run by FedEx). I recommend this for any large items you purchase, like toys or statues. Less breakage.
- Ballpoint pens
- Sharpies for autographs
- autograph/sketch book (A5 or A6 is best)
- safety pins (for wardrobe malfunctions)
- poster tube (for the free posters and larger pieces of paper)
- pharmaceuticals (aspirin, Vitamin C for concrud, breath mints, sanitizer, condoms…)
- snacks and liquids
- I usually buy a box of non-chocolate breakfast bars on the way to the convention. They are cheap (about $5), tasty, nutritious, not messy, and can be devoured as you walk. They fill the gap between breakfast and dinner, which means I can avoid the overpriced fare and long lines at the center. Most pharmacies/convenience stores sell them
- I buy a bottle of caffinated soda in the morning. Once this is empty, I refill it with water. If my energy drags, then there’s usually a vending machine nearby where I can buy another bottle. Do not buy cans. The bottle can be resealed, so you can sip from it throughout the day.
- Of course, have a huge breakfast before you leave for the show. Carb up, just like those marathon runners. You’ll burn off most of those calories walking around the show
Wear comfortable clothing. Good shoes are a must. Even if you are cosplaying, your costume shouldn’t be a literal Pain-In-The-Ass.
Convention centers tend to be on the chilly side, so I like to wear a blazer. You can be as casual or professional as you prefer, it sets you apart from the rest of the herd, and it has multiple pockets to store stuff. (Jean jackets work in much the same way, and you can decorate the back of your jacket with patches, embroidery, or paint.)
As a general rule, whenever I travel, I pack an extra pair of underwear and socks. The rest of your wardrobe is your choice. Does your hotel have a pool? What’s the forecast? Will Homeland Security wonder about the metal studs on your blood elf costume? Can you mix-and-match with layers, thereby leaving more luggage space for the cool stuff you’re going to buy each day?
Okay… that’s your list for before you leave. The next post will discuss how to brave the crowds at the convention center.
I’ve been writing for The Beat since July of 2010.
I’ve been reading comics since 1974, collecting since 1984, and spreading the graphic novel gospel since 1994.
I’m a bookseller, a librarian, an amateur scholar, a cool uncle, and a comics evangelist.
Ask me anything!