Editor’s note: We’re back with Part 2 of Tom Spurgeon’s tips for attending Comic-Con. Each year, Tom presents advice on attending Comic-Con International on his website, comicsreporter.com. Tom’s list this year has 180 tips; we’ve asked him to prepare an edited version for Toucan. As with all of our columnists—regular and guests—the opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Comic-Con International. But here’s a long-time attendee—and comics professional, not to mention a multi-Eisner Award winner—offering his take on attending the big show. Click here to read part 1 of Tom's Tips.
San Diego's Comic-Con International has blossomed into a travel-destination phenomenon. One long weekend in July, a convention center and its immediate surroundings are transformed into the focal point of the pop culture universe. What follows is 20 more strategies, travel tips, and outright coping mechanisms as collected by one 20-year veteran of the show with the help of dozens of his friends. I hope there's something here that helps you out, and I hope to see you at Comic-Con.
If you're preparing anything at all for the show—resumes, business cards, art and books to sell, art to show, scripts to pass around, your camera, a freelance assignment you have to physically hand to an editor who threatened to kill you and your pets—get everything done by July 4. Seriously. This gives you a day or two of cushion if something gets screwed up. It also means you won't be a basket case when you arrive on the convention floor because you stayed up for 37 hours straight stapling 16,000 copies of your minicomics biography of Matt Fraction.
Let me be firm about one thing: forget entirely getting something done "when you get there." Whatever you're thinking of leaving off doing until you get to the hotel room? You will not get that thing done. It's not convenient, you'll find 10,000 excuses to skip it, and you'll end up feeling dumb as a rock having to carry the raw materials back home with you on the plane. Packing materials you never touched back into the bag you brought with you is the DIY Walk of Shame.
With increased value comes increased responsibility: Comic-Con will charge you for lost badges. Period. They don't care how you lost it. You're paying up. If you're mugged by Joss Whedon's personal assistant, you pay up. If you lose it in a late-night poker game with the Image founders in the captain's quarters on Jim Lee's zeppelin, you pay up. If you allow a badge-less pal to "steal" it, you pay up.
An additional tip for this point suggested by a reader is to take a pin and secure your badge to your shirt as well as have it attached to the provided lanyard. It's worth considering.
To avoid frustration when I'm at a show, I try to pick one event that is a mega-priority for each half-day, and then allow the day to come to me otherwise. There is nothing wrong with finding you have an hour free and going and finding a panel that you can maybe attend, or hitting the floor to look at the exhibits. You're not going to enjoy that part of your day any more for having fretted over it long in advance, not knowing if you'd make it or not. In fact, the opposite tends to be true. Don't build in opportunities for disappointment! Comic-Con can be a hard place in which to move around, so limiting what you really want to do gives you a better chance of at least having those experiences and leaves you open to letting the show happen in your presence as opposed to closely sticking to a schedule. If what you want to do requires more than a half-day split, like waiting in line for a specific must-see panel, you may be required to do whatever it takes—within reason—to make this happen. But for most events and panels and the other things you might want to do, a half-day tends to suffice.
The shuttle buses are great; however, they operate in heavy traffic, particularly right up by the Center. Walking in San Diego is fun; there are crowds everywhere. Comic-Con has things to do that are separated by distances and tens of thousands of people. Give yourself plenty of time to get from one place to another. Three tips. The pedi-cabs can be a lifesaver, but get a price before you jump on board. There's now a footbridge opposite the Bayfront Hilton south of the Convention Center, but it may only be worth the extra steps if you're coming from that direction or there's a train blocking direct access.
If things get jammed up inside the Exhibit Hall—and they will—and you have places to go, sometimes it's most effective to go around the problem through the main lobby and re-enter the hall further toward or even past your ultimate destination. A lot of people who have been attending for years don't know there's another set of stairs in the back of Hall B2 in the Convention Center that lead to both the mezzanine and upper levels, where programming takes place.
If you go to a panel, feel free to ask questions if you have them and if the opportunity arises. Almost every panel will make time for questions. However, if you ask a question, make people hate you for being awesome, not for being self-indulgent. Make sure you ask a proper question—usually, a single sentence that ends in a question mark. If your question wouldn't fit in a tweet, it's probably time to rethink the question. As comics fan Tom Galloway put it: "Don't do non-question-asking things like tell your life story or say how much and why you love the panelists. Remember, no one else in the room cares about your life, and you're not going to become best friends with the panelists." In general, just follow your curiosity and leave the other stuff at home.
Some lines at Comic-Con are unavoidable. Rather than let them get you down, enjoy them for what they are—a chance to meet like-minded fans and anticipate the experience at line’s end.
Your favorite artists and publishers all publicize their signings in the days leading up to the show. Check for unusual places that a talent might sign. A creator who commands a huge line at the DC Comics booth may not have a big line at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund booth. One thing that's changed in recent years is that creators and stars are much more respectful of keeping to their signing times, to benefit their hosts. Be sympathetic as to how they approach these matters; they're trying to please a lot of people.
Four tips here:
• Walk Artists’ Alley. It's the heart of Comic-Con, and it's been there for decades: rows of tables where creators from a variety of backgrounds do sketches, meet fans, and ply their wares. You should walk it at least once. If Comic-Con is a city, Artists’ Alley is that city's Historical District: a place where you can get to the heart of what the show's all about and prime real estate that a lot of the cool people continue to call home. Artists’ Alley is that area of the show set up for individual cartoonists to come in sell their wares or meet their public or both. The exposure given in this fashion to individual creators is the difference between the show being a full-on, admittedly magnificent flea market and a cultural event with flea market tendencies. You should really walk it at least once. You'll almost certainly spot a creator who for at least a few months was one of your five favorites and another creator you hadn't thought of in 20 years.
• Take a similar swing by the Small Press Area. Comic-Con actually splits its Artists’ Alley from its Small Press Area. The former is usually in Hall G; the latter is usually south of the comics publishers, with a slightly bigger group near the front of Hall B2 and between the mainstream publishers and the alt-/arts-exhibitors. Try to visit as many of these folks as you have a passion for, as it's one area of the convention that I think has genuinely become more difficult to make work given the flow of traffic and how people spend money. Much like visiting the Golden/Silver Age retailers (Hall B1), or seeing an old-school panel (upstairs), visiting a comics person and just seeing new work is a nod to the show's past. In the case of new work, it's also getting in on the ground floor of comics' future.
• Go to a comics panel. I love the big Hollywood presentations, but hearing cartoonists speaking about their art and craft is just as good, if not better. Try one with a European cartooning guest, or anything with (left to right) Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés, shown above with Gordon Kent and Stan Sakai.
• There are two evening activities that stretch back years; try one of them. The Eisner Awards are a comic book awards program; the Masquerade is the annual costume contest. The former is a full Friday evening, and the latter is a tough Saturday evening ticket, but they're both a lot of fun, and connect you to cons past.
There is traditionally a blood drive at Comic-Con each year [check the Blood Drive booth in the Sails Pavilion for information on how to donate blood or our Blood Drive page for updated info as we get closer to the show], and there are two comics charities of great value that have aggressive fund-raising schedules right on the convention floor: the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (a free speech advocacy group) and The Hero Initiative (a group that supports older cartoonists in need). Many of the fan groups assembled on the mezzanine level have a charitable aspect as well. All of these things are worth your time and might provide some balance to a weekend of commerce and excess—not that there’s anything wrong with commerce and excess.
The one recurring piece of advice I hear from people who take their kids to the show is to let the kid's interests drive what you do. If they like looking at artists draw, do that. If they want to go to a certain television-related panel, do that. If they want to shop for early 1970s mimeographed fanzines, do that. Putting the kids in charge puts you in the role of making sure they're not overwhelmed by the show or if they need to refuel as opposed to browbeating them about how awesome the thing is you want them to like as much as you do.
Is Comic-Con kid-friendly? Depends on the kid, really. It's an exhausting place, and waiting in line when the time spent in that line constitutes a significant percentage of your life span to date can be tough. Still, there's a lot of kids’ material as the show's central focus, and there are once-in-a-lifetime experiences to be had if meeting creators or getting a special item or seeing some of the behind-the-scenes work is important to your child.
You'll find plenty to do at Comic-Con, but I always suggest taking a few minutes each day to just look around. It may be that I'm older now, but the spectacle of it impresses me more than any of the one-on-one opportunities. One great place to see the show unfold in real time is in the back of the convention center on the mezzanine-level windows near the con's various food stands. It's an incredible madhouse of people and pulp, high-end movie displays meeting low-end longboxes. Enjoy the show!
If you’re eating out at any halfway decent restaurants, I suggest phone or Internet reservations a week in advance. For more impromptu plans, your hotel concierge may be able to help you, and there has been a restaurant reservation booth in the Convention Center for several years now. Because more of the show than ever stretches into the early evening, it can be easier to find an empty table in the 5:00-7:00 timeframe. In general, the higher-end, sit-down restaurants have opened up a bit the last three years as the profile of convention-goer has changed, so there may be some easier opportunities there if you can afford—and wish to afford—a more upscale dining experience.
If you must eat with more than four other people, you should really get reservations. It's easier to seat a larger group that way, and, more important, it takes the decision of where to meet out of the group's hands. Come 8:00 every night, you always see groups of 8 to 12 people roaming the streets, checking out menus, squabbling about what they want to eat . . . it's where zombies come from.
San Diego's downtown has expanded eastward over the last 10-15 years as housing opportunities and the baseball stadium have settled in. In 2012, on three of four nights I was at the show I found myself without dinner reservations. My group headed a few blocks east of the Convention Center and found places to sit down immediately and dine each time. [Check the Comic-Con Restaurant Guide in the Quick Guide publication bound into the center of each Events Guide for a map an listing of restaurants.]
The people of San Diego put on a great show, but Comic-Con is a long and sometimes peculiar weekend for them. Be nice. Tip your cabbies, waiters, and hotel staffs—it’s good karma, and it’s the right thing to do. One way to make sure that fandom doesn't suffer from certain stereotypes is to thwart them, and tipping is a start.
Unlike other conventions where the action is contained within the exhibit hall and a hotel bar near an airport, Comic-Con International offers you all of San Diego. Take advantage. Eat out once or twice, head to Balboa Park for the museums and the world-famous zoo. San Diego is a lovely city, and if you’re staying a few days, a field trip can make your whole weekend that much more special. Besides, there’s no trip that can’t be made better by a close encounter with a pygmy marmoset.
One way to make your return trip easier is to mail purchases home. There are shipping services at the Convention Center, a post office next to the Westin Horton Plaza (which is open on Saturdays), and a UPS center near the Westin San Diego. I mail back as much as I can on Saturday morning, both my purchases and any clothes I'm done using. With airlines demanding money for extra luggage, this may help reduce hassles and save money.
If you're leaving on Sunday, make sure that you build in extra time to get to the airport or train station. If you're checking luggage so that you can spend the day at the con, think about doing so very early or be prepared to wait in line. Make sure you build in some time to pick up those bags, too—there are probably a lot of them in your hotel's storage room! Both the train and the planes are packed, so think two hours ahead of time instead of an hour. If you're going from the Convention Center right to your plane or train, consider the cab line on the street in front of the Marriott adjacent to the Convention Center, or cabs at other nearby hotels.
Comic-Con can be stressful at times, but don't let a few random moments of craziness get you down. You are part of an amazing cultural event, a wholly unique development of modern times, a place where you're surrounded by like-minded travelers as the entire pop culture world bows down in your direction. Have a laugh, have a great time, and take a moment or two to soak it all in. You'll tell these stories someday.
Comic-Con photos by Kevin Green, Chuk Gawlik, and Patrick Cristobal © 2013 SDCC