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May 26, 2015


Comic-Con Tips Guide: 164 Ways To Maybe Sort-Of Possibly Improve Your San Diego Con Experience

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imageComic-Con International -- also known as CCI, Comic-Con, San Diego Comic-Con and even by the shorthand "San Diego" -- is the largest gathering of comics industry professionals and fans in North America. It is also a show of great importance to hundreds of pros in and fans of related publishing, merchandising and film businesses.

Comic-Con International features on its main floor a massive marketplace of vendors, creators and direct suppliers. You can buy old comics, new comics, original art, movies, t-shirts, toys, and licensed items from every walk of geek life at Comic-Con.

The upstairs rooms offer aggressive programming tracks in comics, film, television and a cornucopia of related activities.

There are opportunities all over the show to see and meet creators from any number of entertainment fields: actors, cartoonists, academics, voice-over talent, models and writers.

There are chances in the convention center and all over San Diego on Comic-Con weekend to meet like-minded fans, to celebrate your favorite oddball things, and to network on a massive scale.

It's Geek Vegas, Nerd Prom, Nerding Man, Fan Cannes, Fandom Branson, the Grand Ol' Cosplay Opry and Four-Color Ground Zero. It will be, for that weekend, What We Tweet About.

It's also an extraordinarily complex event.

That's where this guide comes in.

I'm a 20-year veteran of attending the show as a professional and covering it as press. What follows is a list of observations, tips and insights from a comics-culture point of view that may help prepare you for your San Diego con-going experience.

Everyone's San Diego is different, but there are a few commonalities and shared experiences that we at CR hope makes talking about some of them worthwhile.

In 2015, the show is scheduled for July 9-12, with a preview night on July 8. This is slightly earlier in the schedule than its traditional mid-July slot, although Comic-Con has certainly done all of the July weekends and some of the August over the years. The only thing I can imagine this changing is plans for some folks to make a trip to the region, say several days in LA first, as the July 4 weekend is a difficult one on which to travel and set up meetings.

No matter when you come out, I hope to see you there!

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imageTip #0: Figure Out What's Different From Last Year
I'm not sure that I can pinpoint a lot of what was specifically different last year than previous years. Comic-Con continues to trend in certain ways. The overall swelling of the convention at its civic, off-site borders continues. It is nearly as hard to pass that last 200 yards to the front door of the convention center as it is to walk ten blocks before you get there. I crossed from the Omni to the Hilton Gaslamp at one point and it took me 21 minutes, just because of the crowds.

I think this is bad news for CCI because they're not equipped to handle running a show at the convention and monitoring all sorts of inside/outside activities spread out over a 20 block radius. Nor should they be. Still, most of what happened out there in 2014 was processed as if it were Comic-Con in charge, so I'm not sure they can avoid whatever blame might come to them if one of the incidents outside the show ends in a tragedy, whether it's an "event" like a zombie walk or just drunk people acting out.

Even with all the surrounding noise and all the stuff in the spotlight about which I care nothing, CCI continues to be one of the best comics shows I attend every year. There were a significant number of really talented mid-level indie/alt creators on hand, from Eleanor Davis to Jim Rugg to Lucy Knisley to David Lasky. I spent the entire day all three days in panels except for a meeting here and there during convention hours. I barely noticed the Hollywood aspect, although I was told it was fairly ordinary this year. Not much to be done about that, either, as fans make their decisions to come far before a studio has to figure out what they'll do there.

I met a number of younger people working in the industry that were planning on working elsewhere, a continuing problem for an inudstry that does not keep all of its most promising twentysomethings.

CR recused itself from the Eisners in 2014, so my brother Whit (CR's photographer) and I sat in back and enjoyed the show. It was nice to see Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez win Eisners after all of these years. People were generally in a good mood that night, it seemed. I remember that particular gathering of people after the show feeling small, the first time that had ever flashed through my head.

It's become a really good business show, with a lot of pampering and dinners and small events of four to eight people -- not the blowout parties of two decades ago. And that's fine, there's a space for that. It's also pretty clear that the convention focuses the publishers mid-year: there's a lot of stuff announced and a general sense of possibility that San Diego serves very well. I think it can settle into this model for years to come.

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imageTip #1: Pay Attention To Personal Safety
In 2012, a woman with the intention of attending Comic-Con died after running into traffic and being struck by a car during the time she spent in a line that formed in advance of the show. Her name was Gisela Gagliardi. She was a fan, a lot like you and me that way. She didn't think she was going to die when she got out of bed that morning.

Please, please be careful.

Don't do anything because you're at a show and in a different headspace you wouldn't do and wouldn't invite your family to do with you back home.

Remember that San Diego is a city. San Diego isn't some strange city from a fantasy book. It's a real-life city with all that entails: crime, commutes, carelessness. Please remember this.

It's okay to complain about the police officers and what they have you do as far as crossing streets and waiting for trains, but do it anyway; they have your best interests in mind.

The security inside the convention center has a job to do and your day will go just fine making their days go a little easier by in nearly every case doing what they ask.

You look after you.

None of what follows is important at all if you don't come out of it on the other side as healthy as happy as the day you set foot in San Diego.

Tip #2: If You Don't Have A Badge, A Way To Get There And Place To Stay, Maybe Stay Home
The convention is sold out. The demand to attend Comic-Con in its current form outstrips the number of tickets available for the show, by a wide, wide margin. My guess is that if demand were unfettered by any structural concern more than a quarter of a million people could attend San Diego Con. Maybe 300K. Maybe 400, who know?

That rise in demand came with such sudden force as to discombobulate -- if not snuff outright -- traditional avenues for securing tickets. You have to pre-register as press now. Being able to claim professional status in a hobby-related field, even comics, is no longer a guarantee of entry. You certainly can't show up at the show and buy a ticket.

Abuse of the system by several parties and a general desire to allow for as many attendee badges as possible means you can't easily pick up an extra badge or two through an exhibitor pal. Fakes like this used to be commonplace; now they're useless. That's right: even "Bruce Wayne," "Ned Stark" and "Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet" have difficulty getting badges now.

It is possible if you're a big attraction all by yourself that an exhibitor or the convention may be willing to help you secure a badge. I've never heard of an A-list movie star sitting at the Omni Bar, unable to walk across the street, or a significant creator at Image Comics lurking around the parking lot exhibits hoping for her friends to get done inside so she can join them for dinner.

I wouldn't count on it, though.

As far as a place to stay, this late in the game I would suggest commuting in from Oceanside, Escondido or parts further north. Even LA. This is perfectly feasible, with some slight hassles. I've done the Escondido commute before.

If you don't have an airline ticket or an Amtrak ticket or a bus ticket yet, get it now. Past about June 15, I'd suggest giving up on finding a ticket and driving in. It never hurts to check.

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Tip #3: If You're Going Late, Favor Reserved Over Unreserved Options And Off Hours Over Main Hours
I'd suggest this generally, but I'd super-suggest it for anyone putting together travel plans now: spend the extra $20 for reserved seating as opposed to an option that might get you crowded out if a line is too long. This may be only trains, but it makes a huge difference for that form of travel. You can also look at some timing options that might strand you a bit, like taking a plane that arrives so early you end up storing your luggage and having to go back to check into your hotel as opposed to one that comes in the middle of the day. I've had a lot of success mixing up travel plans, too.

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Tip #4: Going? Not Going? Be Happy!
So the way things are set up right now, a lot of people are going to be left out of the Comic-Con experience. Those are the cards that Comic-Con has to play. The show has decided to stay in San Diego for the immediate future, and capacity in San Diego was reached several years ago now.

It's totally okay not to go.

There was a time when Comic-Con was an outright must-go for a certain kind of fan and pro and press person in comics. If you wanted to get everything you could out of comics, if you wanted to enter into the industry, if you wanted to be noticed, if you wanted to stay connected to what was going on, if you wanted to start datung a small-press company intern and maybe have access to their free comics, Comic-Con was the primary facilitator of these things.

That's no longer as true. As true.

If you go to Comic-Con these days, you can go because you want to, not because you feel you have to. It's the best one-stop shopping for a lot of what cons offer, but there are a whole lot of folks eschewing grocery stores altogether for a string of local grocers and farmers marets.

There are so many opportunities for daily connectivity and interaction out there that actually flying in and pressing the flesh and sharing a breakfast buffet -- while all still incredibly useful -- no longer seem like necessary things. At least not to the same degree.

Conversely, it's also totally okay to go. It's fine to look forward to San Diego, to build your professional year around it, to have social/personal expectations and hopes.

Don't fall into the Comic-Con trap. Because it may be more difficult to attend Comic-Con than it is to go to some other conventions, this puts pressure on the Comic-Con weekend to give back on a scale that would obliterate the fussier parts.

Remember that the hassle of going to Comic-Con is mostly an accident of our recent cultural history -- All those spectacle movies! All those fantasy franchise books! Marvel's post-bankruptcy comeback! All those graphic novels! The toy explosion! The rise of manga and anime! Kids read comics now! Older people continue buying toys! More women than ever are openly interested in geek culture! -- rather than something the convention itself enjoys or endorses or requires or was ever shooting for.

I honestly don't have any more fun going now than I did in '96 or '01, back when it was so much easier to attend the con that the worst-case scenario was registering on-site and staying in a $65 hotel ten blocks away. It wasn't that long ago!

But I also can't stress this enough. I still have fun. I find Comic-Con extremely pleasurable as a comics fan to attend, and it's wonderfully useful to me as a press person covering the comics industry. These last few years I got to meet Gilbert Shelton, see Kate Beaton slaughter a devoted crowd at her spotlight panel, chat with Alison Bechdel, interview my friends Dave Lasky and Jeff Smith at their spotlight panels, learn which young industry people know how to order wine (none of them), see Dave McKean talk over beautiful images of his work, see Eric Stephenson and comiXology blossom into major industry players, watch as significant publishing figures made impromptu, heartfelt tributes to the late Kim Thompson, see the look of horror and bemusement on Anthony Bourdain as he loped around the Marriott lobby... I've had nearly 100 meetings with friends, peers and key industry figures since 2008.

There will come a time when I won't attend CCI. I can feel it coming. I may be a part-timer now, as I adjust to my move to Ohio and the costs involved. I did Thursday AM to Saturday PM last year, and will again this year. There's a big chance that one day in the next few years I'll become a Friday morning to Saturday night attendee for a time, getting a taste of the show and hitting my meetings hard. Then Comic-Con will become something I used to do.

I never got to attend Comic-Con in the 1970s or 1980s. I'll never again attend the late 1990s Comic-Con of my (relative) youth. Those days are gone. There are still joys to be had. You need only engage the show as it is, not as you wish it to be. Someone will have their first show this year. Someone will have their best. Someone will say goodbye. It's all good.

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Tip #5: You Still Might Be Able To Score A Bed, A Sofa, A Stretch Of Floor; You Also Might Find A Seat In Someone Else's Car
If you don't want to commute but still feel lie you must attend, reach out to personal and professional peers immediately and let them know what you need. You'd be surprised how many people have an extra bed come open as people make last-minute cancellations. Similarly, you might be able to find a ride coming into San Diego or leaving the city, particularly if you're willing to buy more than your fair share of that particular trip.

Remember if you get anything from anyone, even if it's just a section of floor or a drawer in Ted Adams' suite at the Omni, treat that gift like a limousine ride to a suite at the Bayfront. It's only polite.

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Tip #6: Don't Count On Being Able To Stuff Multiple People Into A Room, Whether It's Your Room Or You're One Of The People
The Westgate and Westin Gaslamp have particularly notorious reputations in terms of figuring out who is staying at their hotels and making them all pay whatever might be applicable for that overnight visit.

Most hotels since about 2000 deny roll-aways to anything with two beds. I have been asked about extra room keys I pick up for professional reasons. Be safely circumspect; don't flaunt your Night At The Opera status.

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Tip #7: Plan For The Distance Between The Place You're Staying And The Convention Center
Once you're done figuring out where you're going to stay, if there was still work to do there, adjust yourself mentally as to what's on the way.

I won't lie to you any longer that there isn't a significant jump in class from every other staying option to staying in one of the six to eight hotels within a stone's throw of the San Diego Convention Center. Except for those with a sentimental attachment, the Marriott, the Hyatt, the Hilton Bayfront, the Omni, the Hard Rock, the Hilton Gaslamp -- these are just better hotels now, particularly if you're older. Why? You don't have to fight as many crowds, and you can get back to your room without a lot of hassle. All those crowds up close to the convention and right across are a gauntlet everyone runs, but to run it and be right at your room is a lot different than running it and having seven blocks left to walk. You may get anywhere from an hour to nine hours of time back depending on where you're able to stay.

All of those hotels near the convention center are pretty good ones, too, so it's not like you're skimping on the amenities. Plus they tend to be social hubs, so you're close to a network of bars that can serve as the last couple of hours of every evening. Two years ago I got to stay at the Hilton Gaslamp and ran into people at my own hotel I was happy to see and had two of my four nightcaps there. That was really freaking nice, and not an experience I've had with the hotels further away, at least not for 15 years or more when the comics industry was far more scattered and more tribal within expressions.

All that said -- all of it! -- staying further away won't ruin your weekend. I've been 20 years, stayed everywhere, and have no memory of distance as a particularly damaging element other than the lost time invested. When I'm there and staying further away, I adjust to the distance as a calming factor, a short walk to get my mind off the craziness of the convention floor. If I'm further away than a walk or a shuttle bus, I treat the convention as my oasis during the madness, and particularly try to enjoy the relative calm of morning spent where no one is dressed up as Black Lightning.

No matter where you're staying: count on more time to get back and forth. Go a little early in the morning, particularly if you're carrying items of professional import. You can always stop for a coffee in the lobby of someplace close. Build in a trip home early in the evening or before dinner before you head out for any socializing. If you're an uncomfortable distance away, reach out to friends and peers as to where they're staying, and if someone's close, they might take your portfolio and bag of comic books in their room in exchange for that first drink out. If after projecting on the day ahead you think there may be a chance you can't get back to your room before your social obligations shift, maybe take along a second shirt.

Any hotel can work if you're willing to work it. If you make the attempt to enjoy where you're staying as opposed to fuming about where you're not, you'll likely have a pretty good weekend.

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Tip #8. Network
I've already mentioned talking to your friends and any professional colleagues that may be going. This is your Comic-Con network.

Reach out in some modest way to folks you know that might be there and let them know you're going and with what general intention in mind (hanging out, finding a job, getting your work seen, selling a screenplay, drinking a beer on the back porch of a hotel bar with your favorite Batman writer, learning about voice acting, seeing a panel stuffed with pale vampire boys, etc.). Once you get closer to the show, reestablish contact with your network to ask after things like social events or to see if they can help you with any of your more specific goals for the weekend. Offer your help in return.

Not everyone will be helpful. Maybe no one will. As I mention above, Comic-Con doesn't look as large in terms of the entire year in publishing -- it could be that worrying after yoru experience this way might be seen as over the top or a little precious. Still, the number of people I've had tell me weeks after the show that there was a disappointing aspect to their Comic-Con weekend because of Reason X when I would have been able to easily provide them with Reason X had I only known is... well, it's about a dozen people. That doesn't sound like many, but that's 12 whole weekends I could have made better if the people involved had sent me a two-line e-mail. So reach out. Don't be a bother, but talk to your pals. Be to the point and unfailingly polite, but do it.

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Tip #9. Start Your Bookmarks
The other great, recurrent skill in the con-goer's toolbox is research. Research in this day and age means bookmarking sites of use and then making use of them. My suggestion is at some point between now and the show start a folder and put everything related to the con into it, including the following web sites.
A. This Guide -- if for no other reason than I'm going to spend time between now and Comic-Con obsessively slipping in more jokes.
B. Convention Web Site -- the source for tons of official information
C. Your Hotel's Web Site -- familiarize yourself with your surroundings, join the points club
D. Tripadvisor.com -- preview your hotel experience.
E. SDcommute.com -- commuting options.
F. VirtualGuideBooks.com -- see public areas before you visit them.
G. News From ME -- Mark Evanier has attended every single Comic-Con, and has logged about 63,000 hours of panel moderation time. He writes about his panels and the con itself with increasing frequency as the show dates approach.
H. The Beat -- Heidi MacDonald's purview is comics culture, and there's no single entity of greater importance within comics' culture than Comic-Con except perhaps the Internet.
I. Yp.Yahoo.com -- nearby business scouting.
J. SignOnSanDiego.com -- a halfway decent baseline review place, particularly for restaurants.
That may sound like a lot of sites, and you can tailor the folder for your specific intentions, but I still think it's a good idea in general to put together a little folder of bookmarks.

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Tip #10: Don't Stress Too Much About Overspending On The Ground
So if you've planned this big trip but now money is a little tight, maybe don't cancel. You don't have to spend a lot of money to go to Comic-Con.

In addition to having to curtail your retail consumption significantly or entirely, consider a) walking everywhere as a general rule, b) eating in rather than eating out, c) living like a cartoonist.

When I say "living like a cartoonist," I mean embrace your inner cheapskate as a temporary way of life -- make a game of being as cheap as possible at all times. Mooch. Keep an ear open as to whether a freebie you received might be worth more than another option (I've known dozens of people that sold their over-sized convention bag when it became clear that they had the most desirable one -- usually Supernatural -- measured in terms of number of bags to number of wild-eyed fans). There are people with per diem accounts that they can spend on you in "meetings" and that get paid back for cabs. Public transport goes just about anywhere a car might, just not as quickly or directly (I've taken it to the airport). Unleash your inner J. Wellington Wimpy. I have been to Comic-Con weekends where I've spent no money and had a great time. Twice only, but still. I've also spent less than $50 up to a half-dozen times. It may go against the spirit of the place -- so many exhibitors are counting on you! so many local businesss want to love SDCC more than they hate it! -- but it can be done.

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imageTip #11: Finish Working On Stuff For the Show On July 1
If you're preparing anything at all for the show -- resumes, business cards, art to sell, opening lines, 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 -- you should finish it by July 1. You don't want to go through Comic-Con having stayed up for 37 hours beforehand stapling 16,000 copies of your mini-comics biography of Frank Cho. Don't show up wrecked.

Let me be firm about one specific thing: forget entirely getting something done "when you get there." Whatever you're thinking of leaving of 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.

*****

Tip #12: Maybe Hand-Carry Everything You Can
There are opportunities to send stuff to your hotel -- call your hotel -- and there are opportunities of course to ship to the convention center if you're an exhibitor. In fact, if you're an exhibitor, you are likely compelled to use the union folks on hand for the bulk of what you're bringing to the floor. Working out the best way to exhibit what you want to exhibit is a big part of the professional portion of attending a show like that in that specific rol
 
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