Since I've been posting these obsessively-detailed Guides to Comicon on a yearly basis for some time now, I strongly suspect these people are being aimed at me. But since I love you all (those of you I know, anyway; I am well-inclined by amiably indifferent toward those of you who just came in out of the cold), and want you to have the best convention experience you possibly can, I have once again updated my Handy-Dandy Survival Guide to the San Diego International Comic Convention. See? It's handy and dandy, and that means it must be good! This guide includes tips on:
* Reaching the convention alive.
* Getting a hotel room.
* Enjoying/surviving the con.
* Things to do at the con.
* Eating food.
* Staying healthy and in a good mental place.
* Not getting killed by your friends.
It is also heavily biased toward my own opinions on all these things, because hello, totally me. But I'm honest about my biases, and I'll be factual whenever it's fact, rather than opinion. (In short, don't expect me to falsify hotel room rates to suit my own ideas of "fair," but don't expect me to recommend a good Thai place, either.)
Introduction: What is the San Diego Comicon?
If you're reading this guide, I'm going to sort of assume you know the answer to this question, but just for the sake of clarity, Comicon is the San Diego International Comic Convention, one of the, if not the largest comic book conventions in the world. Held in San Diego towards the end of July, this event is known as "Geek Prom" in a lot of circles, because, well, it effectively is. This is where geeks go to finally understand what it was like to be a cheerleader at Homecoming. It is awesome, and it is massive, and you shouldn't go if you don't like comic books, cool things, media, toys, geeky fun, and, oh, yeah...crowds.
Seriously: Comicon is huge. It is massive, it is sprawling, and it is growing every year. There's no such thing as "not crowded" at Comicon; the San Diego definition of "not crowded" is very much like the definition of "violating fire codes" at most conventions. There are that many people, crammed into a lot of very popular spaces. In 2006, the fire marshals were turning people away by noon on Saturday. So if you're claustrophobic, tactophobic, noise-sensitive, have environmental allergies, or are just really, really averse to being nudged up against by strangers, you should maybe consider that this is not the convention for you.
Mind you, none of this changes the fact that if you want to know what's new and hot, or coming down the pike in genre movies, comic books, genre books, graphic novels, or genre television, Comicon is the place to be. This is where I saw the premiere for Supernatural three months before it aired on network television, and where we saw a sneak preview of the T-Rex fight in King Kong (arguably the best part of the movie). This is where we saw Tenacious D, live and in-person. This is where I met half the writers for Doctor Who, and Amy met the man who draws Archie. This is where a lot of awesome things are happening, have happened, and will happen in the future. It's the geek social event of the season, and it's as slammed and jam-packed as that statement makes it sound.
You need a membership to attend the convention. Membership includes admission to all public convention events. It does not guarantee admission to specific panels. Some events will be private or have limited availability, and are not guaranteed by the purchase of a badge. I will explain in more detail later. If you do not have a membership, and you are not a professional in the industry, you're basically screwed at this point, because the convention is that big. Badges are no longer sold at the door; advance memberships are sold out. If you read this guide and think the convention is something you'd like to attend, please make a note on your calendar to come back in, say, September, and buy a membership for next year. You can also potentially acquire a membership by watching the SDCC Twitter feed; that's where they announce the sale of returned badges. But it's a long shot. Hopefully, if you're still here, you have your membership already.
Remember to buy your date a corsage. Let's get ready for the prom.
Part I: Travel.
Unless you have a magical teleportation machine (and why aren't you sharing?), you'll have to travel at least a little to reach the convention. Let me help you figure out how to do that.
Where is Comicon?
The San Diego International Comic Convention is held, naturally enough, in San Diego, California, specifically at the San Diego Convention Center. California is in the United States of America. The United States are in North America, which is on the planet Sol III. If you need more precise directions than that, please consult the Comicon website. It can give you the exact address of the convention center, along with some utterly useless advice on parking (as in, they'll imply that it exists).
How do I get there?
You can reach Comicon through a variety of methods, depending on where you're starting from. Many people starting in the western half of the country drive; I carpooled from the San Francisco Bay Area once, and know folks who drive from all over the West Coast. (This doesn't mean you can't drive from further away—heck, drive from Maine if it makes you happy—just that it's less common, and will take a lot longer.) Driving is a convenient way to reach the con if you need to bring more stuff than a plane allows, or just want to be more mobile during the convention. If you decide to drive, be aware of current gas prices, and that there are several hundred-mile stretches through Nevada and Arizona where there are no gas stations to speak of. Middle of nowhere, desert-style. Bring lots of water.
Depending on where you're staying, your hotel may or may not provide parking, so I recommend finding out before you get into the position of needing a place to stow your car. If you call the hotel, they should be able to tell you. According to the Comicon website, there is parking at the convention center. Unless you're handicapped, a special guest, or an exhibitor, this is a lie. There is no parking at the convention center. Even if you are handicapped, a special guest, or an exhibitor, this may still prove to be a lie, because there are that many people, and that few parking spaces. Do not plan on bringing your car any further than the hotel parking garage. If you're staying right next to the convention center, due to some amazing stroke of luck and maybe an animal sacrifice, do not count on the hotel parking garage having room for you.
By far, the most common method of reaching Comicon is by plane. The nearest airport is San Diego International, airport code SAN. It isn't uncommon for the more desirable flights to San Diego to sell out early, due to the fact that, hello, San Diego in summer; I recommend booking early. You can also book through any of the Los Angeles airports, but if you do that, plan to rent a car, and plan to sit in traffic for the duration of at least one panel you really wanted to attend.
If you need a last-minute flight, you might want to try one of the following sites:
Obviously, none of these sites are endorsed by the convention, and no one can guarantee you any real luck, but I've found them to be useful. All three will offer to find you a hotel room; if they can actually do it this late in the game, you've just won the Comicon jackpot. Odds are good that they can't, since the convention hotel block has been sold out for months, but there are always cancellations, and you could get lucky.
Plane fares will vary depending on where in the country or world you're starting out, and there's no way to guarantee that what you get will be "the best." I recommend determining what you want to pay, and what you can pay, and then watching the fares until they give you something you like. The final price jump usually happens about two weeks before the convention. If you need a really specific flight time, just book when you can. If you're booking through a specific airline, rather than through one of the discount sites, I recommend Virgin America. They only fly a few cities, but the ones they fly, they fly right.
Every hotel has its own situation regarding "hotel shuttle or lack thereof." I cannot guarantee that your hotel will come with a shuttle. Find out the situation with yours before you get to the airport, as "stranded" is a situation best left to other people. You can also take a taxi—if you arrange to split it several ways, this usually isn't overly expensive, unless your hotel is in the middle of nowhere—or you can arrange for a private ride ahead of time. You're on your own with this one.
Part II: Hotel.
If you're local or living in an RV, you won't need a hotel room. But you should read this section anyway, just in case.
How do I find a hotel room?
There are a lot of people flooding into San Diego every July, and they all need a place to sleep. The convention maintains its own database of hotels that are considered "convention hotels"—places that are near the con, and may have a price break for attendees. These hotels filled up within eight minutes of the room block being opened this year, and are now considered unavailable.
Note: While the convention hotels tend to fill up fast-and-early, there's always the possibility of a cancellation. Call the front desks of the various hotels, and see. The worst you're going to hear is "sorry, no, we're booked." Also remember that nothing means you have to spend the entire convention at the same hotel. Moving will be a pain in the ass and cut into your valuable at-con time, but it's better than sleeping in your car.
There are also hotels in San Diego that aren't on the convention list. Most of these will also be full by this point, but it never hurts to call around and check. I have had fabulous experiences with the "non-con" hotels; they may be further away, but that means they aren't as mobbed, frequently making staff more responsive and rates lower. Your mileage may vary; just don't let "oh, it isn't official" scare you off a perfectly nice place to spend the weekend.
Finally, if you absolutely can't find a hotel room, or can't afford a room on your own, start looking for roommates. Check with people you know will be at the convention, see if they have space, or know anyone that has space, or can duct tape you to your ceiling. You'll never know unless you ask, and again, the worst you can really hear is "no." I never have fewer than three people in my room at San Diego, and with as little time as I spend there, it's not a big deal.
What do I get with my hotel room?
This will vary from hotel to hotel; nothing is guaranteed, either by the convention or by this guide. If you have specific needs, be sure to call the hotel and talk to them directly before you book your room. If you're doing this early enough, you may still have the luxury of picking and choosing. If you're doing this close to the convention, "a bed" is an actual luxury, and running water, moreso.
My hotel comes with free Pixie Sticks. I like my hotel.
I can't afford to room by myself.
Comicon is a great place to meet new people, sometimes by sharing a room with them! While the convention doesn't offer an official "roommate dating service," you can often find people who need Comicon roommates by posting on your blog, Twitter, or LJ, or by visiting one of many, many applicable the online forums. Do not share a room with anyone that no one will vouch for. I cannot stress this enough. Comicon is a very large place, and while it's generally safe, sharing a room with a total stranger whose references are completely unchecked is not smart. That way lies madness, and more, starring in your very own low-budget horror movie. Not a good idea.
If you've never shared a hotel room before, please, be upfront with your needs, and with any disadvantages that might come from sharing with you. For example:
* I am a light sleeper, and require quiet during my sleeping periods (possible disadvantage).
* I don't smoke or snore (advantages).
* I am a very early riser, and while I will do my best to be polite in the mornings, there's every chance that I'll be up and moving around before you're ready to face the world (possible disadvantage).
* I need half a bed, and cannot sleep on the floor (possible disadvantage).
* I will share with members of either gender (advantage).
By putting things clearly, I increase my odds of finding a roommate, and more, my odds of being on speaking terms with that roommate by the end of the convention. Do not misrepresent yourself just to get a place to sleep. The drama it causes won't be worth the crash space.
(Also, and I'm talking to everybody here, not just the girls: doing a mixed-gender crash with people you don't know before the convention is not something to be undertaken lightly. You so do not want your trip to Geek Prom to turn into your trip to the police station or your very own shotgun wedding. Not everyone is a nice person. Minimize the potential for things to go wrong.)
What about tipping the hotel staff?
Okay. Here's the thing: if you stay in a hotel room, someone has to clean up your mess. Even if you don't let the maids in during your actual stay, they're going to have to clean the place after you go. Tip your maids. Tip them whatever you can. They're nice, hard-working people who spend their days wallowing in the filth of others, and given what I've seen geeks do to hotel rooms, they deserve a little love and compassion. Tip your maids. Tip them in quarters if you have to. Call it a charge to karma, and tip your maids.
Remember, the better you treat the hotel staff this year, the happier they'll be to see us again next year. And having hotel staff who like you is so, so much better than the alternative. Hotel staffers who don't like you are fully capable of ruining your weekend in creative and inventive ways, and if they already know you're a lousy tipper, hey! What have they got to lose?
In conclusion: tip your maids. They're not your mother.
Part III: Packing for Comicon.
So you've decided to come to the convention—that rocks! Yay! You have a means of transportation, and you have a hotel room (or an RV). Now what happens?
Now you pack.
The weather outside.
The weather in San Diego in July is usually very, very warm. It's not quite blazing desert heat, but it's a kissing cousin. Please note the word "usually." I refuse to be caught by some freak weather pattern and have you jabbing your finger accusingly in my direction. I highly recommend checking the weather forecast before you go, and bringing a coat, Just In Case.
Also remember that heat is a subjective thing. As a Californian, I can tolerate heat at levels that many of my Canadian friends whimper over, but which pale before the tolerance of the folks from, say, Arizona. I also get cold easily, and will put on a sweater while my friends from Minnesota are basking in the sun wearing tank tops and cutoff shorts. If you come from a cool climate, make sure you bring breathable fabrics, tank tops, loose, long-sleeved shirts to keep the sun off, and plenty of changes of clothing. If you come from a warm climate, you already know what to expect.
San Diego is a blessedly dry heat, with livable levels of humidity. It rarely rains in California during July, and the sky is often extremely clear. Which means bring sunscreen. I'm serious about this one. I've seen a disturbing number of fans turn really impressive shades of red over the years, just from the amount of sun they get while waiting for the buses and/or trains. If you're very fair-skinned, you may also want to consider sunglasses (my friend Sharon is fair enough that she can actually damage her retinas by going out without sunglasses in overly bright climates, and San Diego qualifies).
We'll be touching on this more, but if you plan on spending any serious time outside the convention center, please also plan on drinking a serious amount of water. The human body needs eight glasses of water a day to be happy, and that's when you're not standing in the sun sweating it all right back out again.
Inside the convention center.
It's going to be cooler inside the convention center. Much, much cooler. Not "welcome to the Arctic Circle, to your left, behold the penguins," but definitely cozy, and you should plan to bring a light jacket or a sweater, just in case. At the same time, we're packing that convention center full of bodies, and bodies give off heat, which is why I've been known to spend a good portion of the weekend in tank tops and shorts, even with the air conditioning going full blast. Bring clothes you're comfortable sitting down and hanging out in, things you like, and most especially, things that wear well. Bring comfortable shoes. Please remember that you'll be doing a lot of walking over the course of the weekend, and don't plan to spend three days solid wearing heels.
Just to make things more fun, sometimes they turn the air conditioning up, and then it gets colder inside the convention center. Much, much colder. This happens especially in the larger rooms, and you don't want to miss the big events just because you're chilly! Remember this when you're leaving your hotel room and trying to decide whether you want to carry that windbreaker.
Bring a swimsuit if you think you might want to swim and your hotel has a pool. Nothing is sadder than seeing everyone else having fun in the pool and not having the option, even if you want it.
Many people choose to attend the convention in costume. This is awesome, and is one of the things that makes Comicon fun for everybody. That said, please take your costume into account when planning your day. Are you wearing six inch platform heels? Don't plan to do an excessive amount of walking. Are you wearing a lot of body paint? Make sure you have someone who can touch up your makeup, or you'll spend the day transforming from The Human Zebra into The Human Smear. Are you wearing a short skirt? Baby powder will save your thighs from chafing themselves into hamburger. Remember that leather gets sweaty and vile, plastic doesn't breathe, and hat-hair comes for everyone.
Please also remember that your costume, cool as it is, may take up additional space, and plan your day accordingly. At Comicon 2006, a group of women whose costumes included non-removable wings decided to attend a very popular, highly-anticipated panel. The three of them not only took up six seats, depriving three other people of the opportunity to experience the fun, they completely blocked the view of the people behind them with their vast butterfly wings. I'm sure their costumes were very pretty, viewed under different circumstances. As I was viewing them through a red veil of hate, I found them horrible and hideous, and was not amused. Please, cosplayers of the world: don't be assholes. Your costume does not entitle you to more than one person's-worth of fun. (If you buy a membership for your costume, that's different. I still won't be happy, but I'll no longer want to hurt you.)
Finally, while carrying and storage space will probably be at a premium for you, remember that it's never a bad idea to bring spare socks (for blisters) and an extra shirt (in case of spills, stains, sweat, or just plain over-heating) with you to the convention center. The comfort it brings will be worth the extra half-pound of weight. Trust me.
The necessities of life.
It's silly of me to say all of this, but I'm saying it anyway, since some people have never been to a convention before, or have never fully prepared for a convention, and keep wondering why they aren't having as much fun as they think they should:
Bring something comfortable to sleep in, not just your best lace teddy. Bring one pair of underwear more than you think you're going to need, because you may sweat a lot, and clean clothes will make you feel better. Ditto socks. Girls, bring an extra bra. If you plan to work out, bring a set of workout clothing, and a plastic bag to put it in, to keep it away from the rest of your clothes. Also consider the fact that you'll be spending a lot of time on your feet, and that your workout may not be strictly necessary. Saving that luggage space could be awesome.
There are stores in San Diego—shocking, I know—but you'll be happier if you don't have to shop, so bring your toiletries. This should include, minimum, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a hairbrush of some sort, and deodorant. The hotel will supply little soaps, shampoos and conditioners. I, personally, don't like to use these, and travel with my own shower gel, shampoo and conditioner. This is because I am very girly, but also because I like to have control over my cosmetics. You can get travel-sized bottles of most common shampoos, conditioners, and shower gel brands at any given super- or drugstore, such as Target, WalMart, or CVS. They also sell little bottles that you can put any liquid cosmetic into, for handy travel purposes. I do not recommend attending Comicon carry-on-only, both for reasons of "transporting toiletries" and "getting the swag home." The extra time you spend at baggage claim will be more than balanced out by the convenience in getting all your crap back to your house. Remember that many airlines now charge to check luggage, and check your airline's fee structure before you get to the airport. Lush sells solid shampoos and conditioners that are divine for taking to conventions, because they don't spill and don't need to be checked.
If you're a light sleeper, bring earplugs. If you're a light-sensitive sleeper, bring an eye-mask. It doesn't make you look like a wuss, it makes you look like someone who's actually getting a decent night's sleep. If you're one of those people who needs noise to go to sleep by, bring an iPod or CD player of some sort, and really, really good headphones. Using really, really good headphones will help to make certain that your roommates don't kill you.
If you have a tendency to injure yourself, bring basic first aid supplies. I never travel without an Ace bandage, some good painkillers, and a jar of muscle relaxant, such as Tiger Balm or Blue Emu Oil. If you're carrying prescription drugs, make sure you have the original bottle, as the TSA can get weird about unlabeled pills. If you aren't normally a walker, bring band-aids for the blisters you will almost inevitably develop. I recommend colorful ones with cartoon characters on them, as you can get away with it at Comicon, and no one will look at you funny. Whether you're accident-prone or not, pack basic painkillers, such as aspirin and Tylenol. If your period is looming, pack the necessary supplies. And remember that your nutrition is likely to suffer during a convention; if you take any vitamins or dietary supplements, be sure to measure them out before you go, and bring enough to get you through the weekend.
If you have allergies or medical conditions which may require medication, be sure to bring whatever it is you need, as no one else is guaranteed to have them along, and no one wants to swell up like a blueberry because they accidentally ate the wrong thing. Be certain that you have at least one more day's-worth of medication than you're expecting to require, and carry it with you. Your epipen and inhaler do you no use sitting in your hotel room.
If you're an artist, remember to bring the things you need to make art, whatever they may be. You can probably find someone to give or sell you some blank paper—we're nice like that—but no one is going to be able to loan you your favorite pencil, and there's no guarantee that you'll be able to find the pens you like. If you write, make sure to bring a notebook and something to write with. Very little is more frustrating than being surrounded by creative people and realizing that you lack the supplies you need to do some creation of your own.
You'll probably want a camera, just because there are so many awesome things to take pictures of at Comicon. Make sure you have film if it's a traditional camera, or spare batteries if it's a digital camera. Make sure you have batteries for all your electrical equipment, actually. Bring a cellphone if you possibly can. The cell service in the convention center gets better every year, and is now almost completely dependable. Almost.
Bring a power strip. Everyone in your hotel room is likely to be an enormous nerd, and you're all going to have things that need charging. The person with the power strip is the most popular person in the room.
There is an exhibitor's hall full of people selling things. There will be more on this later, but for now, you need to know that it's very large, and it probably will have things you want. Bring cash and/or your checkbook, and decide ahead of time how much you have to spend. You'll be happier that way.
Part IV: Comicon!
Getting to the convention.
Because Comicon is massive, and the hotels are very far-flung—some of them are even farther than I'm willing to walk, and I tend to view two to four miles as a good way to stretch my legs—the convention runs a free bus service for attendees all weekend long. Look for the posted bus routes. Note that these bus routes do not cover the entire city of San Diego, and it's entirely possible that you may wind up staying in a hotel that's outside their "zone." San Diego also has an excellent train service, which is reasonably priced, and will take you to a station right up near the convention center. If you take the trains, be sure to allow enough time to get there, get a ticket, and ride to the convention center. Nothing is more frustrating than timing things so tightly that buying your ticket means missing your train.
You can also, if your hotel is close enough to the convention, take a pedicab. I recommend doing this at least once. Why? Because it's just plain fun to ride in an open-air cab run by bicycle power through the balmy San Diego air, that's why. And they're reasonably priced, too (usually about fifteen dollars a person). Be sure to confirm the price you're going to be paying before you get into the pedicab, as it will sometimes mysteriously change when you're at your destination.
If you have a lot of stuff to carry, you can take a cab. If you do this, I recommend you have them drop you off near, rather than at, the convention center. Why? Because traffic in front of the convention center is murder. I usually get off the bus a quarter mile or more away, and walk. It's faster. Do not attempt to ride a cab to the front doors of the convention center unless you feel like spending half an hour sitting perfectly still and paying for the privilege.
At the end of the day, your feet are going to be what gets you there and gets you in. Be prepared for this. It's only the beginning of the walking that you're going to do.
Getting into the convention.
When you arrive at the convention, you're going to need to pick up your badge. Look for the lines. Clearly marked signs will lead you to them. Or you can try asking a Storm Trooper. They're nice people, and they don't bite. Professionals go in one line, attendees in another.
The lines at Registration will ebb and flow over the course of the weekend. Picking up your badge may require a very long wait on Thursday and Friday; bring a book. Registration opens for badge collection on Wednesday and will be open throughout the weekend. Check the posted hours for details. The line for Professional badge pickup is often longer than the line for Attending badge pickup. If your party is a mixture of fans and pros, arrange a place to meet up. You will not be allowed into the convention without a badge, period. There are a lot of guards making sure you don't sneak in. If they catch you, they will make you leave.
Comicon attracts more attendees every year, and Comicon 2012 broke all previous records, resulting in the fire marshals starting to turn people away. Yes, people who already had their badges. Get there early. If you want to get inside on Friday or Saturday (the biggest days of the convention), you need to plan to arrive before noon, and stay inside until after two o'clock. Otherwise, there's a chance you simply won't be able to get back in, especially since the projected numbers for 2013 are higher than ever.
Don't say you weren't warned.
Packing for the convention.
I know, I know, we just had a whole section on packing. However, as I doubt you're planning to tote your entire suitcase around the con all day (and if you were, you should rethink it, because security is unlikely to let you), you'll need to consider what you want to bring with you from the hotel to the convention itself. Now, I've already recommended extra socks if you're not a walker, and an extra shirt if you're a sloppy eater. That's eating about a half-pound to a pound of carrying capacity, depending on your shirt size. Figure out your own carrying capacity, and balance your load accordingly. A few recommendations...
Food and water. We'll be discussing this at much more length in a little bit, but please remember to factor "snacks" and "fluids" into your load-balancing process. The human body needs a lot of water to function at its best. You want to be functioning at your best. You don't want to resort to cannibalism. Trust me on this one. There are drinking fountains inside the convention center, so carrying a clip-on sports bottle can fulfill your water requirement. There will be vendors selling bottled water inside, but at four dollars a shot, you want to have a cheaper solution. For snacks, pack something calorie-dense and filling. You're not going to want to stop every ten minutes to eat.
Survival supplies. Painkillers. You're gonna want them. Deodorant. I'm gonna want you to have it. If you're a perfume freak or BPAL nut, wear mild perfumes—Graveyard Dirt is okay, Embalming Fluid is okay, Mutant Hot-Rodders From Hell High and Sticky Pillowcase are not okay—and leave the things with a throw radius of death-stench +20 in the hotel room. Normally this is where I'd say something nice about chemical sensitivities, but you're about to walk into one of the smellier pits of hell. The fact that you smell like roses instead of ass is actually a bonus. Sunblock. It does not help you back in the hotel room. Hand sanitizer. Altoids. If you're planning to eat at the convention—and you are planning to eat at the convention—you could do worse than packing a tiny toothbrush in your purse or backpack, and hitting the bathroom to re-minty your breath. Any medication you need, either regularly, or under emergency circumstances. Protein bars. Small candies to get your blood sugar back up until you can get to something more substantial.
Writing supplies. Paper is an awesome thing to have on hand at the convention. Paper can be used to collect sketches, autographs, and instructions on how the hell you're supposed to locate your party. Please remember that cellular service is still not universal inside the convention center, so "oh, I'll just call you" is not a reliable means of finding people. If you're an artist, you're going to want to be able to art. If you're a writer, you're going to want to be able to write. It's just the way the world works. There is way too much potential for awesome at this convention to be caught empty-handed. (I plotted the last hundred pages of Feed on Post-Its while waiting for a panel to start. I know whereof I speak.)
Business cards. Comicon is sort of like the Internet poured into a convention center and given physical form. You're going to want to talk to some of these people again. Get business cards. You'll be glad that you did.
All packed? Great. Let's talk about stuff to do.
Programming in general.
Part of what makes Comicon so huge is the programming. They get everything from small, reasonably intimate panels on genre topics (mostly relating to or revolving around comic books, although other media are heavily represented) to special screenings of previously unseen movies and television shows, sneak previews of material from unreleased movies, presentations by the biggest names in the business, and special events like 2005's Tenacious D concert or 2009's world premiere of the second episode of Glee. Yes. We saw Jack Black perform live, and it was awesome. But seeing such things requires planning, and so here are a few things that may help with that.
The program will be posted on the website before the actual convention. Usually it's there no later than a week before the con. Take a look at it. Figure out what items you absolutely must see, lest you die. I generally try to rank things from 1 to 5, with a 1 being "don't care" and a 5 being "would sell my firstborn." In 2005, for example, my only rank 5 programming events were the Veronica Mars panel and the autographing session that followed; I was thus able to build my programming plans around those two events.
Once you know what you want to see, take a look at when and where those panels and events are being held, and whether they conflict with each other. You will have to make choices, starting now. Keep in mind that...
...if you are with a group, other people in said group will have their own priorities. If it's genuinely important to you that you hang out with your friends, you'd best be willing to negotiate on a few of your preferred activities, because otherwise, you won't have friends for long. Remember, you, too, can fly solo if needed.
...the cooler something is, the more people will want to see it. The main rooms—the ones where the biggest, most bad-ass events are held—tend to have lines that literally extend the length of a city block. Every person in that line is a contestant on Has A Seat Island, the game show where you're rewarded for your trouble with a seat. Convention membership doesn't guarantee you get to attend everything you want to attend; the fire marshals frown on that sort of thing. If you absolutely must see something or you will die, get there early. Be prepared to spend a few panel slots watching things you don't care about, just so you can be well-positioned for the things you do care about. I recommend bringing a book.
...if you don't have a buddy with you, and you need to go to the bathroom between panels, you're going to need someone to save your seat. Making nice with the people around you is a really, really good idea. Wearing giant butterfly wings, smelling bad, and talking during the panel? Not making nice.
...you cannot possibly see everything. I am very, very serious, here; it isn't possible. Comicon is too big, and the programming is too diverse. You're going to need to eat, go to the bathroom, stretch your legs, and, y'know, have a life outside the chair. Make your peace with this early, or you're not going to have a very good convention.
The program book will also contain a copy of the programming schedule, and changes will be announced throughout the weekend, as they inevitably occur. Please do not get angry with the programming staff when things change. It isn't their fault, and yelling at them will just stress them further. The convention has a newsletter where changes to programming will be announced. Find a new copy every morning, check on the status of the panels you care about, and go from there.
Programming in the big rooms.
The main rooms are slightly unusual, in that because seats are in such high demand, there is no in and out during events. That means that if you're not inside when the event starts, you're not getting inside, and if you are inside, you're not getting out unless security is feeling really, really generous. There are bathrooms inside the main event rooms, so that shouldn't be an issue, but keep in mind that some events will overlap other events, or may run into other convention functions, like "the closing of the dealer's room."
When you're attending programming events in the big rooms, be sure you're prepared to stay all the way to the end, and make sure everyone knows where you are, as anyone looking for you during that time period is going to find a big ol' nothing. (Just to make life more fun, cell service in those rooms totally blows. So you're really going radio silent when you go inside.)
If you have pre-registered for the full weekend, you may be able to get into Comicon on Wednesday night, rather than needing to wait for Thursday morning with everybody else. Obviously, if you haven't already done so, it's a little late for that. There's no actual programming on Wednesday nights, but if you really want to spend your entire weekend in panels, this is a great way to actually see the dealer's room and exhibition hall, and you should consider it for next year.
Programming dos and don'ts.
So you're planning to attend a whole bunch of Comicon events. You're all excited about it, even, and you're going to have the best darn time ever, and it's going to be fantastic. Fantastic! I support this plan. That being said, here are a few tips for both having fun and not being a total asshole to everyone around you.
...make sure you take a bath or shower before you leave your hotel, even if you had one yesterday. One person who hasn't had a shower is maybe a little musky, but not that big a deal. Between five hundred and three thousand of them all sweating in the same room for three hours is a huge deal. An obscenely huge deal. Bathe. The world will thank you for it.
...be aware of your own physical limitations when hunting for a seat. If you, like me, have an obscenely small bladder, either don't sit in the absolute middle of a row, or plan to go without drinking anything for however long you're going to be sitting there. If you can't sit still for extended periods of time, sit on the outside, at the back, where you can pace with impunity. If you're freakishly tall, try to be considerate, and don't sit in front of someone short. (Obviously, this last goes out the window if the person behind you arrives after you do, but still.)
...silence your cellphones. They have a "vibrate" function for a reason, and the last thing I want to hear when I'm watching the teaser trailer for Slither II is your otherwise incredibly clever and geekishly sexy ring tone. They haven't quite reached the stage of kicking people out for having ringing phones, but there's a chance that you might get lynched by your fellow fans.
...DO NOT TEXT during presentations. I am serious. I will find you, and I will make you pay for your transgressions.
...bring snacks if you're planning to stay for an extended period of time, but don't bring things with extremely crinkly wrappers or that make a lot of noise. Candy corn is better than potato chips, Luna Bars are better than pork rinds, and so on. Try to unwrap things quietly, or when people are clapping (which will mask the noise).
...bring drinks if you're planning to stay for an extended period of time (and lack my freakishly small bladder). If they're going to make a noise when opened, do it when people are clapping, or between panels.
...bring enough to share with the people immediately around you; this especially applies to things like chewing gum, candy corn, and beef jerky. You don't have to, but you'll make a lot of friends this way, and that'll help with requests like "can you watch my stuff while I go find my sister who has no cellphone."
...get up and ask a question during open mic periods, if you have one! It's fun! However...
...ask questions just to be a jerk, or use your moment at the microphone to tell the female stars how sexy they are/how hot they are/how hot you think they are/that you jerk off to them. Ditto, ladies, don't use the microphone to give your phone number to Nathan Fillion, however much you want to. It's rude, it's disrespectful, and it makes you look like an asshole. Plus, I can kinda guarantee they've heard it before.
...talk loudly during panels. If you need to whisper some witty comment to the friend next to you, that's one thing, but remember, everyone else is here to listen to the panelists, not to you. Unless you're on the panel, in which case, talk away.
...block the aisles with stuff. Be prepared to haul backpacks and bags of swag up into your lap if somebody wants to get by, and don't grumble about it! Remember, it's best to have the good will of the people around you, so that they'll save your seat if necessary.
...leave a mess when you leave the room. Remember, someone else is going to be sitting there real soon, and courtesy counts.
...take up more than one seat (unless you're seat-saving for the person who just ducked out to the bathroom). Your backpack did not buy a membership; your backpack does not have a right to a chair of its very own. Humans take priority over stuff.
Signings and autographs.
Comicon offers you the chance to meet some of your favorite authors, creators and stars, and get shit signed. This? Is both fabulous and fun. Go for it. Just remember that, as with all events, nothing is guaranteed; you need to get there early, and you need to be patient.
Please don't try to turn a thirty second autograph into a five-minute conversation with Joss Whedon. I realize this may be your dream, and that's great—my dream involves Stephen King and a hot tub full of Jello—but those five minutes represent a lot of people who also dream of meeting Joss, and now won't get the chance. Comicon is very strict about the cutoff on autographing sessions, and they will end them while people are still waiting if time runs out.
There are many special events at and around Comicon, some of which require tickets that can only be a) won, b) sought out, or c) obtained through sheer dumb luck. You may find yourself in the dealer's hall at the exact right moment to get handed a screening pass for some hot new movie. You may get a flier with a special "you get to come hang out with James Gunn, you lucky jerk!" sticker. If this is the case, yay! Figure out if you can go, and if not, barter that ticket for all it's worth.
Barter, not sell. Trading swag for swag is cool. Trying to make money off it is a shitty thing to do, and increases the chances that the swag will stop forever. Don't be an asshole about free stuff.
I can't tell you where the passes to special events will be handed out, or when, or how to find, get or win one. I can say that you're not guaranteed special events as part of your admission. Please don't be bitter if you don't get one, and please don't piss off your SO by ditching her to go see a special screening when you don't have a ticket for two. A movie is for an evening, but an angry girlfriend can spoil a lot more than that.
The dealer's hall.
The Comicon dealer's hall isn't just daunting, it's "AIIIIIIIIIGH OMG IT HAS EATEN MY ENTIRE FAMILY!!!" levels of huge. I cannot possibly explain how large the dealer's hall is without people beginning to think that I'm slipping into hyperbole, so I shall put it into practical terms:
I am a very fast shopper. I can view the contents of the average convention dealer's hall in half an hour. A large dealer's hall can take me up to an hour, if I'm moving slowly.
At Comicon 2011, I spent three days doing very little other than exploring the dealer's hall. And in those three days, I did not succeed in seeing the entire thing. The dealer's hall has gotten larger since then. Please stop and ponder this for a moment. It is a dealer's hall larger than a city block. It requires maps to navigate. You will lose track of people. There is no cellphone reception in a whole lot of the thing (although this is getting better every year, as the technology improves). And it's grown since 2011. How do I know? Because it always grows.
Here are a few tips for surviving the dealer's hall without killing and eating anyone:
* Make a budget before you go in. I'll usually have a two-tiered budget—"X dollars unless I find item Y, in which case, I am willing to pay Z dollars for item Y, which does not come out of the value of X." That way I don't feel so constrained. If you need to give your credit card to someone else to hold, do it. You can do a lot of damage to your budget in the Comicon dealer's hall.
* Check the map to see where the booths you really want to visit are located. Some vendors will have special, Comicon-specific items—Mattel , for example, had a special Comicon-only Monster High doll for 2012. These items tend to be limited in quantity, so if you want them, get there early, and beeline for your destination. You can go back later and take it slow.
* Pace yourself. Do two hours in the dealer's hall, go to a panel, have lunch, do two hours in the dealer's hall. The location markers that they put up to allow people to find the booths they're looking for will also allow you to find where you left off, and pick right back up again without missing anything.
* Try to be polite. Don't shove people out of your way. Don't force your way through crowds. Wait your turn, and everyone will wind up substantially happier and less full of malice.
* Remember your carrying capacity. If you've already bought more than you can carry, perhaps it's time to stop until you can drop it off at your room. Also...
* Remember your luggage capacity. You can always ship things home if you have to; just make sure it isn't a surprise when that time comes.
Artist's Alley is a sub-section of the dealer's hall, and contains awesome artists who draw your favorite things, selling awesome original art—and sometimes even taking commissions for awesome art that's based on your requests. I love Artist's Alley. One of my favorite things about attending conventions in person is having the ability to commission artwork from artists I adore. My walls can attest to this habit. But seriously, it's like a win-win party scenario. I get amazing art that no one else has; the artists I love get to keep their lights on; and best of all, by putting dollars in their pockets, I keep them coming to the conventions. I love it! That being said...
Artists are working. You may be at the convention to play, but they? Are at work. Do you want me to come up to Amy's table and distract her while she's trying to draw your awesome Muppet Rose Tyler? No? Then why would I want you to come up and distract her while she's trying to draw my Emma Frost?
Things that are not distractions for most artists:
* Looking through folders.
* Looking at prints.
* Having a brief, friendly conversation.
* Giving them money.
* Asking if the commission lists are open.
Things that are distractions, all of which I have witnessed at one time or another:
* "Can I get a free one? I'll tell all my friends about you."
* "Oh, hey, let me see what you're working on."
* "You're really hot. Do you have a boyfriend?"
* "Oops, sorry, I/my small child didn't mean to rip that." (Not followed by payment in this instance.)
* "Have you seen Firefly? There's this one episode where..."
Visit Artist's Alley! Take this amazing opportunity to see and purchase artwork, some of which can be created just for you. But remember that the artists are there to make a living, and that trying to bargain that $50 sketch down to $20 because you think it's fun is potentially going to get you stabbed with a colored pencil.
There is a lot of free stuff at Comicon. Books, comics, prints, posters, toys, weird shit, just stuff. You can, in fact, walk into the convention with zero money, and still walk out with several armloads of swag. This is pretty awesome. Just keep in mind that...
* No one is guaranteeing you free stuff. When they're out, they're out.
* The free stuff is for everyone, not just you. Please don't take the last five T-shirts or the last three copies of the cool-looking new book. This isn't an opportunity for you to clean up on eBay, and it's nice to share.
* You don't have to take everything that's offered to you. If you don't care, don't take.
* Free stuff is neither gravity-free nor instantly teleported to your home, and you're still gonna have to carry it. Plan accordingly.
Part V: Staying alive.
Wow. That's a lot of stuff, isn't it? Here are some tips for staying upright.
Look at the available events, and decide what you really want to do. Rank things, and come up with a basic game plan. You can do this daily, hourly, or just once, on Friday, but you really, really want to, because otherwise, you'll blink and realize that you haven't eaten or slept in three days. And that would be a bad thing. Very bad.
The human body needs more sleep than it gets on a regular basis. Note that a large convention is anything but "a regular basis." Know your own needs. I can't function on less than six hours; if I need to be up and active by ten, I have to go to bed by four, period. If you can manage four hours, more power to you. Just be aware of what you, personally, require, and make sure that you get it.
As a rule of thumb, the rule is "six and two"—you either need six hours of sleep, and two meals, or two hours of sleep, and six meals. Make sure you eat. Better yet, make sure you eat food. Candy corn is tasty, but not nutritious. You need to eat green things, things made with protein, and things that are not sugar. I'll try to help you out with that a little later on in this guide, but in the end, it's your responsibility.
You need six glasses of water a day—that's a liter and a half, minimum. You can get some of that from coffee and tea, but the fact of the matter is, you need water. The air in hotels and convention centers is dehydrating, which means that it sucks the water out of you, and the hot air outside isn't all that much better. Soda doesn't replace that. Try to drink some water every day, for the sake of your health. You'll feel substantially better if you do.
This is for you, and for everyone around you. Bathe. Go into your hotel room, turn on the hot water, and use it, combined with soap, to remove sweat and dead skin from your body. You'll feel better, and you'll smell better, and people will enjoy your company more. (A handy tip: I always pack a few extra outfits, and change my clothes if I start to feel overheated or grimy. It extends the wear of your clothing, and keeps you feeling better, longer.) You may find that you feel better when you shower three or four times a day, and hey! No one will stop you.
Monitor your mood.
Sometimes, the throng of people can be overwhelming, especially if you're naturally shy. It's okay to go off and be by yourself for a little while! No one will punish you. Take a nap, sit and read your book, or go for a cup of coffee, and let yourself relax. You don't have to be social all the time, and a few little breaks will help you feel like you've really lived the convention.
You will undoubtedly find yourself outside for an extended period of time at least once during the convention. This is because people are social animals, and even if you're not as crazy as I am (and thus don't walk from your hotel to the con), you'll probably want to go on a dinner run. At the risk of perpetrating stereotypes, many comic and genre geeks don't get much sun, and thus burn easily. Do you want to meet Kevin Smith when you're the color of a Killer Tomato? No? I thought not.
Part VI: Food.
Now, first off, I'd like to note that I am possibly the pickiest eater in the entire cosmos, and as such, this section will not help if what you want is, say, excellent Thai food. This isn't about what to eat; it's about how to eat. There's a difference.
Eat meals. Actual meals, not just snacks. This isn't just going to fuel your body; it's going to give your psyche a chance to snag a few vital minutes of downtime, and leave you feeling refreshed and ready for the rest of the convention.
TIP: Skipping breakfast is a very, very bad idea. You're likely to get to the convention and find yourself immediately swept up in Doing Stuff, and the next thing you know, it's two o'clock in the afternoon, and you're hungry enough to eat the overpriced convention center pizza. You can make instant oatmeal in your hotel room if that's what it comes down to, and it'll help keep you stable and seeing things for longer if you take the time to fuel up in the mornings.
Eating at the convention center.
They sell food at the convention center. It's over-priced, extremely salty, and not good for you, but it's convenient and close to hand. If you're willing to pay six bucks for a hot dog, go for it.
Eating in a hurry.
The convention center is reasonably close to a mall with a large outdoor food court, a Baja Fresh, and a Wendy's. All of these are cheap, fast, and walkable. You have no excuses.
Sometimes you just want a damn apple already. There are a variety of grocery stores in and around the San Diego area, and at least one of them is in easy walking distance. This can be your new best friend.
Snacks rock, especially in a convention setting. Snacks keep your blood sugar up, and mean that you don't go psycho and kill us all with a Sharpie. Please, snack.
Nuts, lunch meat, cheese, soy-based granola bars, and peanut butter are all good sources of protein. Protein provides your body with long-burning energy that can last substantially longer than simple sugars. Luna Bars are a good source of tasty soy protein, and are available in a lot of flavors. Luna Protein Bars are also tasty, and even more protein-tastic.
Sliced fruit, chocolate, baked goods, candy corn, jelly beans, and jelly are all good sources of sugar and carbohydrates. Sugar and carbohydrates will provide your body with a quick burst of energy that can equalize you faster than protein, and—when eaten in tandem with protein—may allow you to keep going long enough for your body to break down that pesky turkey sandwich.
Yes, I am aware that by this formula, I have just claimed that peanut M&Ms are the perfect food. They're not a meal, but they can get you to your next meal alive. Plus, they were developed for the US military because they're the perfect food, and that's pretty awesome.
If you have specific taste in snacks, bring them with you. I generally wind up bringing Luna Bars and an assortment of single-serving cakes, because I know I'll eat them, and they'll get me through the space between meals. I also generally wind up hitting Whole Foods for a bag of Gala apples, because I've actually met me. Know what you're likely to want, and make sure you can get it. By the time you're hungry enough to eat the other guests, you've gone too long between meals.
TIP: If you're allergic to peanuts, there are other kinds of nut butter in the world! Most are available at Whole Foods, and may satisfy a childhood craving you'd forgotten that you had.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: water. Man does not survive by caffeine alone, and neither does woman, child, or cat. As a rule of thumb, drink a glass of water for every can of soda or two cups of coffee that you consume. This will help keep you balanced and prevent you from dehydrating.
TIP: Vitamin Water is possibly the best con-survival tool I've discovered in a long damn time. A single bottle of Revive is enough to make up for two to four hours of missed sleep. Learn it, love it, drink it by the gallon.
Part VII: Limitations.
All right, look: we all have physical limitations. I currently have a very damaged ankle, which sometimes refuses to support my weight and leaves me slow, grumpy, and extremely unwilling to go from "sitting" to "standing" (or vice-versa). Kate has bad knees, which can result in her being unable to walk after being confronted with hills, and also makes her very easy to overbalance in a crowd. Vixy is prone to migraines. And so on.
There is nothing wrong with having physical limitations. The issue comes into play when you fail to admit them, either to yourself or to others. I must tell the people I attend Comicon with about my ankle, because if it starts giving me trouble, it can impact their ability to have a good time. And while I have a legitimate right to expect them not to abandon me at the first sign of slowing down, I don't get to demand that they come and sit with me for the better part of Saturday afternoon because I just can't walk any more. They didn't sign up to be my babysitters.
Be aware that Comicon is a physically taxing event, and know your limits before you go. Everyone will be a lot happier if they don't come as a surprise. And "everyone" includes you.
I hope this is helpful; I know I've skipped a lot of things, but, well, I was sort of starting to daunt myself.
Have a wonderful time!