The modern comic convention experience

The comic book convention is hardly a new invention. Fan conventions go back nearly a century and have exploded in popularity in the last decade however, they have changed greatly in that time. The modern convention experience is an almost overwhelming one; filling you with more sights and events than anyone can possibly take in. With the 2013 convention season in full swing now, I thought I would take a moment to provide a primer and a little history. The convention experience can be divided into several distinct aspects…

Preparation

To put it bluntly, you cannot over prepare for a convention! For the last several years that I have been going to cons, I have made lists. Lots of lists! From items to take with me to things I want to make sure to see and/or buy at the show. Sadly, the lists are never enough. No matter how prepared and organized you are there will always be more than you expect or can do in the time allowed.

Things everyone should have for a convention are simple enough; good shoes, bottled water, portable snacks, hand sanitizer (to ward off the ‘con plague’) and lots of patience. It is those things specific to YOUR desired experience that create the biggest challenge. Your specific areas of interest will determine these needs, but there is one thing I can promise you will need: a swag bag. The bigger swag bag you bring the better! I have resisted anything more than a backpack for years and I believe I have finally learned my lesson. While they can be a little pricey, many vendors at these shows will sell you (if you are lucky, you can find a giveaway) swag bags so large that they will nearly touch the ground when worn over the shoulder!

Autographs

Celebrity autograph lanes at fan conventions are a relatively new addition to the convention scene. When most comic and other fan-cons started they were little more than a collection of dealers and vendors selling their wares with maybe a few fans discussion or trading groups thrown in the mix. As other media was included in the cons, organizers found the need to separate TV/sports personalities into another part of the show floor. The waiting lines for celebrities can take up huge amounts of floor space and even if you think (insert celebrity name here) is a ‘has-been’, devoted fans will line up in droves for a chance to meet their hero and get a picture or autograph with them.

The Mythbusters guys at a con signing
The Mythbusters guys at a con signing

Now I know many non-con folks will call these lines and the people in them pathetic geeks and they may often view the celebrities that are attending as old ‘has-beens’ but I see fans who care deeply about something or someone and want to have a connection to that person, even if it is only a brief one that they have to pay for. Almost all celebrities sitting at the tables charge something for pictures and autographs and generally do very well at these conventions. There are fans who say ‘how dare they charge a fan for an autograph’ but for some of these folks, this is a major portion of their income. Not to say they are destitute or that cons are the only way they can make a living, rather it is just they really can make good money at these shows. Most signatures start around $25 each though they can go much higher so every person in a line represents 25 bucks! That can add up very quickly after a three day con is over considering some of these celebrities have met and signed for hundreds of people.

At my most recent convention, I saw some lines that never got below 50 or so people at a time. Begrudge them all you want but what have you done that will make people line up just to pay you to sign some grotty piece of memorabilia? Fans can even pay for a photo op. A chance to stand side by side with their hero in a photo that will remind them forever that they met someone special to their lives is no small thing. while it may sound like an easy-breezy gig for the celeb, I sure wouldn’t be so willing to shake hands with every grubby fan out there!

My only gripe about this portion of the conventions is that they are not always confined to the same area. When you have a main section of autograph lines that is largely isolated from the rest of the show floor, overcrowding is usually at a minimum. For example, the show I just finished, C2E2 in Chicago, had 17 tables and lines plus a photo op area separate from the vendors and artist alley areas. The area was big enough to accommodate the fans and easy enough to find and/or avoid if you we’re so inclined.

Unfortunately many shows are putting signing areas onto the main show floor area. I presume that there are several reasons for this; the cost to the celebrity may be different for a different area, the need for certain celebs to be in an area of the show floor where they can be near vendors selling something in the same genre etc., but it tends to create a bottleneck for those fans with no interest in those specific celebrities. My advice is, plan ahead and avoid these areas if you have no interest in them so you don’t get stuck in the traffic jam.

Panels

The discussion panel rooms are a section of the convention experience that I have almost completely avoided in recent years. Two decades ago when I attended a few conventions the Internet didn’t exist the way it does today (yes, I know I’m showing my age). Something announced or talked about on a panel was news that only the few people in the room would know about, often for days. There was no tweeting what someone was saying to the Internet before they actually finished the sentence. There was a real sense of excitement that just is not there in the age of instant info. If I really want to know what was said in a panel, I can simply stay on the show floor doing the other things I want and check online as I walk around.

Some of these panels can be a great deal of fun though. Quizzes and games for fans, contests and activities (particularly on kid’s days) and interactive Q&A sessions can be a real hoot if you want to take some time off of your feet. My favorite has been the ‘stump Mark Waid’ Silver Age trivia panel at my local convention. If you are attending for more than one day, check out the panel schedule, you may find something worth the time.

Cosplay

The Amazing Belle Chere as Ms Marvel
The Amazing Belle Chere as Ms Marvel

The one part of the convention that is universal to every con is the cosplay. For those unfamiliar with it, cosplay refers to all of the people dressing in costume for the show. You will see them everywhere on the show floor. It is particularly odd to be waiting in line to use the bathroom behind Superman, but these are always a fun aspect of conventions for me.

There has been a lot of talk on the internet (silly internet slap fights mostly) in recent months about ‘fake geek girls’. This refers to people just in it for the attention of the lonely geeks. While I have never dressed in a costume for one of these shows (I doubt my pear-shaped version of Captain America would be a hit), I am always in awe of the dedication and willingness of these people to put themselves out there. So ‘fake’ or not, who cares? Some of these costumes are amazing and require huge amounts of time and money to create. I enjoy a well-made character costume a great deal but the real magic is when a fan uses their imagination to create something unique. That is when these fans really begin to shine and make the experience a special one for themselves and the people just looking as they walk by. Bring a camera (most people are only too willing to pose for you) if only for this reason; I promise you will see something you have never seen or ever thought of before.

Artists’ Alley

The Artists’ Alley section of most cons takes up a huge portion of the show floor. Several hundred artists sit at small tables in double-sided rows waiting to show you what they do for a living. From major comic book stars to local artists looking to sell their wares, you will find something here to interest you. Convention sketchbooks and prints, as well as books and comics that the artists have produced are regularly for sale, and you can get sketches and even full commission drawings. Some artist are fast enough they can really crank out the work for fans and the prices are very reasonable if the artist is serious about doing sketches and getting them to the fans quickly. Once in a whole, if you are lucky, you’ll make a connection with an artist and have a wonderful conversation about a topic you are both passionate about.

By local artist Kurt Wood from C2E2 in Chicago
By local artist Kurt Wood from C2E2 in Chicago

Before anyone pooh-pooh this as just a bunch of ‘comic art’, they should know there is a huge variety of art and styles at most larger shows. Fine arts and commercial works stand along-side comic book art and children’s art while comics and more grown up works all share the same floor. No matter how well-versed you are in the art world, you can find something here you have never seen from artists every bit as talented as the ‘famous’ comic book guy sitting next to them.

Most of the inhabitants of Artists’ Alley will happily sign your books and chat with you about whatever you might want to ask them about, some are very good at combining this with drawing while they speak you. Please keep in mind they are all people doing a job. Yes, it is possibly the coolest job in the world, but it is still a job and they are there at these cons instead of working on their art. A little understanding of that fact can really help everyone involved in these shows. (Yes, I’m speaking to you Mr. I-Bring-Every-Single-Floppy-Plus-Copies-I-Own-To-Have signed) Commercial art of ANY kind is essentially ‘piece work’. These people get paid by the page or by each piece of art and are here because they enjoy the interaction with fans and can supplement their income by selling art or sketchbooks.

Many are very good at talking to the fans, who are almost always total strangers, many somewhat less so. Be nice, be respectful and enjoy meeting people who create something special. Over the years I have found that many artists and writers of comics that I have met at these shows will actually remember me from year to year and we have begun to converse like old friends at these shows. They will get to know you by name, which is a feat in itself, and enjoy seeing you each year as much as you enjoy seeing them.

Vendors

The Artists’ Alley can be expensive, but the vendor area of the show floor will be what breaks you. Physically exhausting and wallet destroying, the vendor area is candy land. Every possible genre interest is covered and the vendors will have everything from the same stuff you can find at Amazon, to hand-made toys and gifts that will be a unique treasure just for you. Publishers and related businesses will have booths to show what they have available and what is coming soon, often with creators signing and answering questions for the fans. Businesses hoping to court your dollar based on genre similarities will be there too. The local renaissance fair, fragrance companies and clothing designed for the geek in all of us will sit alongside publishers’ booths all to tempt the money from your pockets.

A vendor area of interest for many is the comic book dealers. Be aware, larger shows have dozens of them. The dealer’s rooms used to be the largest single section of any con and while the comic book dealers are still important to a convention, they are a much smaller part today than in years past. If your interest is back issues, there are boxes and boxes of books spanning the entire history of the medium to choose from. Everything from high-grade classic books from the Golden-Age to ‘four for a dollar’ boxes means you can find what you are looking for if you are willing to look. Many dealers offer large selections of trade and hardcover collections too, usually at major discounts. I recently found several of the Marvel Omnibus’ (cover prices normally between $100 and $125) for $50 or less! Other recent collections can go for 50 to 60% off cover price (which is better than Amazon pricing). Many dealers are very aware of the competition from the internet and they price their books accordingly at these shows.

One thing to remember at all areas of the show is cash. Many more vendors (and even some Artists) are beginning to accept credit cards, but they will always prefer cash and often may be willing to work with you on the price if you are paying with paper rather than plastic.

I will share...This Mike Grell original is from 1991, and Its all MINE!! Just one of several con finds this year!
I will share…This Mike Grell original is from 1991, and it’s all MINE!! Just one of several con finds this year!

Another area of interest and one I have been gravitating towards in the last few years is the original art dealers. There are usually a variety of dealers from the very large dealers to guys who have a few selections mixed in with their ‘other’ stuff. Generally the larger dealers are more reputable and the art is nicer and in better condition but that is not an absolute. Many older pages look like hell to start with so don’t assume that because a vendor has nothing but beat up yellow pages of art that he is somehow a crook. You can get a great selection of original art for most budgets. I came back with several amazing pieces on my last trip and didn’t break the bank doing it. (I did buy more than I was planning but the wife didn’t yell too much once she saw the bargains).

Going home

While not really a part of the convention, it is a major point in your experience. I have never been able to stay at a show from open to close on a given day. This year I went to all three days of the show and my longest day was Saturday. I stayed almost till the close of the show floor but I just couldn’t make it all the way. You will be so unbelievably tired that you MUST leave but like the little kids at the Rollercoaster Park, you will not want to go. Even on your way out you will be distracted by things that will keep you from getting out the door. That is OK. This is an annual event at best, so enjoy it while you can. Those people fortunate enough to live in a part of the world that has several shows a year within easy travel distance of each other are lucky, but we cannot all go to every show even when they are close by. Enjoy each show you get to.

You will always find something amazing at a comic or sci-fi convention and you should treat yourself to one at least once. I bet once you have been to one, you will be hooked forever!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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While I quietly wait for a really good excuse to go on an interstate mayhem spree, I read comics and watch movies. While I do the "writing" here, my wife makes it readable.

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27 Comments

  1. Steph Norgate
    0

    I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first experience, other than that it was supposed to be huge. And it was. Basically, 125,000 nerds completely take over San Diego for a week. At times, it takes about ten minutes to walk ten feet and if you wanted to, you could spend your entire time there waiting in line. (And many people did. lol) Can’t wait for this season!

    • Taylor Ramsey

      One day I will make the great pilgrimage to SDCC.
      The crowds are the only thing I don’t care for, but you can avoid them once you are familiar with the layout of the show floor. There are always dead space areas, which is very nice.

  2. fegster
    0

    I was honoured to be a guest at the Malta convention last year, and they have just announced the dates for 2013! Reading this just made me get more excited!

  3. McMahon
    0

    The conventions are not what they used to be. Back then, it was all about the comics, these days, it works as a outlet to advertise the latest hollywood movies.

    • Taylor Ramsey

      That is why the mid-size cons are the best. Reed Pop (who do my local show C2E2 in Chicago and several others through the US) have the best shows in the US as far as larger organizers go, but the one off shows can be a lot of fun too. Wizard has been the problem in corrupting comic cons with other media, so I avoid their shows.

      • flintysteph

        My favorite convention that I’ve been to is definitely Emerald City. I’ve never been to C2E2, but I’ve heard it’s really great as well. As both a vendor and a participant I think the focus is still more on the comics and the artistic side rather than the commercial. I think this focus is important because it also creates a more positive atmosphere for prospective and current writers and illustrators.

  4. Austin Bender

    I’ve always wanted to go to one. Maybe someday.

  5. I went to my first San Diego Comic-Con last year. Long story short, it was a work-filled, more or less sleepless, alcohol-infused 6-day bender of nerdiness. Long story even shorter, I had a blast.

  6. Vendetta
    0

    I remember going into a nostalgic frenzy when I came across a guy dressed as Trap-Jaw from the classic 1980’s animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The detail put into bringing that character to physical form was amazing!

  7. Jason Krell

    I actually just got back from my first convention — PHX Comic Con. Man, that was a pretty crazy experience, especially for one that I thought was smaller. Still, it was a lot of fun! I also should add that there are a lot of great panels by professionals for artists and writers looking to improve their craft or break into “the biz.” That’s where I spent most of my time at any rate!

  8. Kelsey Clark

    I enjoyed my first experience at a comic convention, but I do have to admit that it has become a lot less about comics and more about Sci Fi/ Fantasy, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. They still have comic sections, just like anything else, so my favourite manga hasn’t been forgotten about entirely. I love the cosplay aspect and think its a great way to socialise with fellow nerds 🙂

  9. Jordan

    I went to an anime convention this year and what I couldn’t stand was the crowd. It’s like being at the olympic games – you can only take 1cm steps at a time. The hour long line outside of the convention was there THE WHOLE DAY. Is this the same with comic conventions? I almost wish there was a way to make the lines go faster, and dillute the crowd (maybe have a limit on tickets??).
    Either way, this was a fun article. 🙂

    • Taylor Ramsey

      Your experience will depend on the con you go to–the mid size ones can be a lot more enjoyable if you do not like crowds. Also, when you go. The first day and the last day of most shows will be the least attended, often because the first is a weekday, the last a Sunday.
      I always find those to the be the best days for casual roaming.

  10. My state recently started its own local comic con and I must say that the experience is incredible! I’ve gone in costume every year and while there are a few bad apples that try to ruin things, the outpouring of admiration certainly overshadows that. There’s nothing more exciting than watching a child’s face light up after they timidly approach you, asking to take a picture with you because you’re dressed as their favorite superhero. Though, as I’m sure every cosplayer knows, make sure to bring an emergency sewing kit with you; you never know when a seam may come undone!

  11. Jillian Fields

    As a con-virgin, I really enjoyed this. I have been hoping to get one in the near future and I’m pretty sure that your article contains some of the most useful tips I’ve seen thus far. Thanks!

  12. I have been to a number of cons, and always wanted to go to an official Comic Con, and this past October my sister and I went to the New York one. While I was excited, I felt it was a sensory overload. Too much stuff! We weaved our way up and down each aisle from beginning to the end, and by the time we made through the throng of people after one lap, we were too tired to give it another lap, and made our way to the exit which was discouraging since I passed up on the Killer Klowns From Outer Space action figure during the lap. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time, but I think I’ll pass on it next year. The only problem that I had with the con was the insane amount of money they were asking to have your photo taking or to get an autograph from a washed up wrestler, or a Playboy Playmate that was in her twenties in the sixties! But, I confess, I spent a lot of money on t-shirts.

  13. Jamie Tracy

    As I prepare to go to Mega-Con here in Orlando, FL I remember my first convention in New York City. It was 1984 and I was 7 years old. It was so overwhelming I can only remember 2 aspects of it.
    Firstly and maybe my favorite thing about conventions today is the browsing. You can see any comic you have ever wanted to see in person. Never looked at Gian Sized X-Men #1 in person, go check it out. Want to see the color shifts from decade to decade in printing technology, it’s there. It is like visiting a museum, a museum that you can be buy these precious artifacts.
    Secondly, I found, to this day one of my all-time favorite comic books; G.I. Joe # 21, Silent Interlude by Larry Hama. A true classic in the comic book format. I somehow missed buying this issues a couple months earlier when it came out. When I found it I snatched it up instantly. I did not buy anything else that day. I held that book the entire ride home on the train like it was the U.S. Constitution and I was it’s sole protector.

    30 years later I am looking forward to finding some books I have never seen in person and meeting some of the artists and writers I have admired for years.

    (Psyched to see Jimmy Cheung and David Finch)

  14. Leah Smith

    Under the going home section, you should’ve talked about the post con blues; happens every time. When you go to a con you’re with people who get you, even if you’re not a nerd in their category. I’m not a gamer, but I love seeing all the gamer nerds challenging each other on their DS while they wait for a panel or even to get into the convention, because I get their passion for it.

  15. I used to be a constant comic book reader, but I stopped once I grew older. I still want to go to a comic convention! I’ve been in the area when one is going on and it looks like a lot of fun.

  16. I’ve always wanted to do a full cosplay. I need to get a group of friends together to do it with me. I think I might get more people on-board for an anime cosplay than a superhero cosplay. I’ve never been to a comic book convention before, but I want to go to one soon. I have been to an anime convention and various anime days. I love seeing all of the different people and merchandise.

  17. H4zel

    Starting off small and building up to gradually bigger cons is the best way to experience them I think! Also allows cosplayers to get used to cosplaying and building their costumes!

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