[This is an updated version of my Comic-Con Guide article from 2012.]
The 2014 San Diego Comic-Con begins tomorrow, and the convention can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’ve never attended the madhouse before. For those who are going to Comic-Con for the first time, I have come to offer you some friendly advice. I’ve provided these primers in the past, but I like to keep them updated with new tips I’ve learned from previous years. This primer isn’t designed around what specific panels you should and shouldn’t see, but rather a way to make sure your Comic-Con experience is a fun and memorable one.
Hit the jump for some Comic-Con tips I’ve learned over the past seven years. The 2014 San Diego Comic-Con runs from July 24 – 27th; Preview Night is on Wednesday, July 23rd.
How Hall H and Other Panel Rooms Work
Comic-Con does not empty the rooms after each panel. Let me repeat: Comic-Con does not empty the rooms after each panel. What this means is that once you’re in the room, you’re in. No one will kick you out. If you’re outside, then your ability to get in is contingent on how many people leave after a panel. This is where things get tricky.
Say you want to see the Marvel panel in Hall H, but the panel is near the end of the day. Guess what: Hall H holds 6,500 people and there are more than 6,500 people who want to see that panel. If you want to guarantee yourself a seat, then you can’t show up an hour before the Marvel panel. You have to show up at the beginning of the day before the first panel even begins (for Saturday’s panels, you may want to start lining up on Friday night). Otherwise, you roll the dice and take your chances. Maybe you’ll get in, or maybe you’ll be standing in a line for hours on end for nothing. Also, there’s no point in saving seats for people who didn’t come in with you. You can save them a place in line (within reason; don’t save a place for twenty people; also, please take the new wristband system into account if you’re lining up for Hall H), but if you’re inside, and they’re at some random place outside, and The Walking Dead is about to take the stage, your buddy probably isn’t going to make it.
This system is how all the panel rooms function. If you absolutely have to see a panel, then be prepared to wake up super-early and get in line before the conventional hall doors even open.
Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Line
So let’s say you’re committed to waiting. You’ll wake up early, you’ll get in line, and spend hours waiting in line and through panels you don’t care about just so you can see the approximately hour-long panel for Hannibal (I would not blame you for this behavior; if I weren’t covering Hall H, I would join you). But remember this: panels come and go. They’re salesmanship. You can get a first look, be entertained by the celebrities, and maybe even ask them a question during a Q&A (more on this later), but it’s only a fraction of your time. The majority of your time is the line.
And the line isn’t the worst thing ever. If you’re waiting in line for a panel, you can sit down, chat with friends, or even better, make new friends. Nerds get a bad rap for being anti-social, but the person next to you in line might be really cool. Strike up a conversation, share what you’re excited to see, see if you’re both part of the same fandom, and so forth. You’re more than welcome to break out a book or a video game or what have you (but read on for why you should be careful about the electronics), and you probably will when you’re waiting for hours in line. But you’ll have a better time if you take some time out to chat with someone. Seeing the panel you’re excited for is all well and good, but it’s only a fraction of the full experience.
Be Sure You Know What You’re in Line For
Yes, making friends and chilling in line isn’t so bad and can even be fun in its own way. But there are many lines at Comic-Con, they can criss-cross, they bend around corners, and it’s possible you could end up waiting for hours in a line that’s not for the thing you care about. This problem doesn’t affect people waiting for Hall H because that line is strictly outdoors and clearly between the end of the convention center and the Hilton Bayfront hotel. You can’t miss it.
But you can miss a hell of a lot of other lines, especially on the exhibitors’ floor. All of the major booths are crammed together, and even if you ask someone who is standing in the line, they might say “I think this is for…” Even they’re not 100% sure. Missing a free poster or a t-shirt or some such nonsense will be a bummer, but it won’t ruin your day. However, you would be justifiably peeved if you stood in line (remember; exhibitors’ floor is mostly standing) to get a poster autographed only to find out you were in line for something else. Being in the wrong line for the exhibitors’ floor is tough, but getting locked out of a panel can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.
The Best Panels Aren’t Necessarily in the Biggest Rooms
There are tons of panels going on all across the convention center, but most of them are in tiny rooms that hold maybe around 100 to 200 people. But because so many people are burning up their day to check out the major panels, they might miss some gems that are elsewhere. One year, I found my way into an awesome panel where Marti Noxon, Felicia Day, and other female writers talked about their experiences in the business and the challenges they face. Another time, I easily got into the panel for the (sadly unrealized) animated adaptation of The Goon. Since David Fincher was a producer on the film, he showed up for the panel. Fincher didn’t go to Hall H or any other major room that year. He showed up in a small room to talk about a project that could have used some more attention.
Keep your program guide on you at all times and hold on to a contingency plan.
Rules for the Q&A
Some panels, and most of the ones in the major rooms, will hold a question-and-answer session near the end of the presentation. This can be the most cringe-worthy part of any presentation because people don’t think before they speak. This isn’t meant as an attack on fans. I absolutely understand getting star struck, wanting to take the opportunity to speak with a famous person you admire, and not having a good question to back it up. Here’s a tip: if your question begins with “Was it fun…” don’t ask it. You’re going to be in front of a lot of people, and the crowd will let you know when you’ve asked a good question (or when you’re an adorable child). You have more than enough time to think of a good question, so come up with one. And if you’re dead-set on asking your question, make sure you know where that line is (in Hall H, the line has been to the far left side of the room), and get as close to it as possible so you’re ready to go when they start inviting people up to ask questions.
One final note: be sure your question is a question. Telling a celebrity, “I think you’re really hot,” is not a question.
Be Respectful of Other Fandoms
I used to hate Twilight fans. I really did. Their screeching cheers shattered my eardrums, and they took up a huge amount of space in Hall H for a single panel (Comic-Con fixed this problem by having Twilight go first thing on Thursday morning). But then I realized that while I may find Twilight itself despicable, the fans are harmless (except for the eardrum thing) and they have as much right to love their property as any other fandom. Even if they ask statement-questions, and you’re uncomfortable for the next minute or so, this discomfort will pass. No one is excited for every single property, but that doesn’t mean you have to snipe at things other people really care about.
Bring Healthy Food or Get Fast-Acting Diabetes
I honestly have no idea why Comic-Con is intent on shoving junk food down the mouths of its attendees. It’s not that I oppose junk food being on sale. Junk food is delicious. However, it shouldn’t be the only option for hungry people who are stuck in Hall H (you can’t leave Hall H unless you’re willing to go back to the end of the line, but there’s an adjacent room that serves food; bathrooms are also adjacent to the hall). Doesn’t the catering company make more money by also offering lettuce wraps and pre-made salads? I assume someone made this suggestion and then was promptly taken out back and shot. The food is also pricey (they know there’s nothing you can do about it), so your best solution is to bring in some protein bars, or pre-made sandwiches, or anything that isn’t pizza, hot dogs, potato chips, nachos, cookies, soda, and bottled water. Honest to God: that’s all they sell and have ever sold in all the years I’ve been there.
Do You Really Need to Buy That?
Let me say up front that I’m not trying to stop exhibitors from making money. I know Comic-Con is a huge part of their yearly sales. But speaking as a consumer, I want you to think through your purchases. When you’re surrounded by so much merchandise, there’s a greater temptation to impulse shop. There’s an even greater impulse when you’re handed your free, gigantic swag bag when you pick up your badge, and now you have a desire to fill the bag. So you’re walking around with this gigantic swag bag with money burning a hole in your pocket and you think, “What am I going to do? Not buy all these 50%-off trade paperback comics?”
However, you’re going to have to carry that weight around all day, and that’s in addition to all the free swag you pick up. And are you really getting a good deal? If you find a rare comic or something that will complete your collection, go for it. If there’s an exclusive toy or figure, go for it. If it’s a trade paperback, you can probably find it cheaper on Amazon. A lot of the merchandise on the floor can be found online for a comparable or cheaper price.
And here’s one more question for you to consider. How do you plan on getting your stuff back? You can either leave room in your luggage, check a bag through (which means you’ll probably pay an airline fee), or you can ship it. There’s a FedEx shipping center inside the convention center, and there’s a UPS store inside the Hilton Bayfront (you don’t need to be a guest to use it). Still, these costs add up, so just remember that there are hidden costs behind every “deal”.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
This was the most painful lesson I learned from my first Comic-Con. You will spend a lot of time at Comic-Con in lines. You’ll be sitting in them but you’ll also be standing in them, especially if it’s on the exhibitors’ floor. Additionally, there’s all the walking around you’ll be doing to get from place to place. Comfortable footwear is your savior in this environment. I will never forget the agony I was in and my desire to steal a motorized scooter from an old woman.
Also, wear open-toed shoes at your own risk. You may think it goes great with your Kid Icarus costume, but Kid Icarus looks a lot less heroic as he’s crumpled on the ground clutching his crushed toes (However, this may simply be the life of a devoted cosplayer, environmental hazards be damned).
It should come as no surprise that available electrical outlets are in short supply in the San Diego Convention Center. You know how long your electric device lasts, and taking that into account, make sure you begin the day with your phone, laptop, etc. fully charged. Additionally, you may want to bring a spare battery. Going back to the whole “new friends advice”, bring a power strip and you’ll be the most popular guy at the Con.
Don’t Be a Dick
This piece of advice seems obvious. You may be saying, “I’m not a dick! I would never behave dickishly! I majored in ‘Not-Being-a-Dickology’ at the College of Fictional Universities!” This may all be true, but Comic-Con can be stressful and your priorities may get fucked up. So let me make something perfectly clear:
Being annoyed doesn’t give you license to be an ass-hole.
There seems to be this notion in American culture that any inconvenience is an unforgivable slight. Yes, there are rude people in this world. If someone brazenly cuts you in line while you’re waiting to get food, getting in their face isn’t going to make them change their ways. It’s going to escalate the matter, and now you’re part of the problem. And sometimes, people aren’t even trying to be rude. A person who waited in line might get to the front and change his or her mind about what they want to order. Now you have to wait the grand total of one more minute. Granted, people should know what they want by the time they reach the counter, but that’s no reason to groan audibly or snap at someone.
If you don’t get the last comic book, you can probably find it online. If you don’t get the exclusive toy, then remember you didn’t buy a badge and wait in line just so you could own a single action figure. If you don’t get an autograph from a celebrity you admire, remember it’s just a signature on a piece of paper. Not owning something is no cause to get upset (losing something you bought is cause to get somewhat upset).
And speaking of ownership, do not claw and bite and act like a savage to get swag like t-shirts and bags. You already own shirts and bags, and it’s not like these ones are magical. This free shirt is like any other shirt you already know: it was made by cheap labor and will cloth you. The end. Plenty of booths on the exhibitors floor have sturdy canvas bags, especially if you buy something.
Remember why you came to Comic-Con, and realize you can have a good time because there’s so much to see and do. I’m covering Hall H for most of my time here, and even I have fun at Comic-Con because I get to hang out with friends. And keep in mind that there’s plenty to do beyond the convention center, so keep an eye out for off-site events. You didn’t buy an expensive badge to sit around and mope. You came to have a good time, so have a good time.
And for other previous attendees, was there anything I missed? Sound off in the comments section if you have other advice for first-timers.