Comic cons are about more than just comics. This essential guide has everything you need to get ready for San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions. Learn about the history of SDCC, what to expect, and how to get the most out of your event.
So you’re thinking of going to a comic-con. This event can be the time of your life. However, there’s more to it than just showing up. If you want to have the best comic con experience, you need to be prepared.
Whether you’re headed to the famous San Diego Comic-Con or a different con in a city near you, we’re here to help you get the most out of it. This guide will show you everything a beginner needs to know about comic cons.
Even if you’ve been going for years, there are still some new tips you can pick up. Read on to learn how to have the best comic con ever!
What is a “Comic Con?”
Comic con stands for “comic book convention.” But there’s a lot more to it than comic books. These gatherings provide a space for everyone from fans to creators to get together and celebrate the love of comics… And the movies, TV shows, and games based on them.
Comic cons cover not just comics, but everything and anything remotely related to comics, too. You’ll find vendors selling comic-book-inspired makeup. You can get autographs from the stars of T.V. shows inspired by comics. You can even attend panel discussions on a variety of topics, such as feminism in comics or how to get started as an artist.
You’ll also find non-comic-book-related things at comic cons. Anything with a “fandom,” from Game of Thrones to Stranger Things, is likely to find its way to a convention.
In short, comic con have something for just about everyone, no matter what your fandom is. Of course, Comic Cons are just one kind of “con” – you’ll find related but different conventions around the world, too. Sakura-Con, for example, celebrates the love of all things anime.
How Comic Con Got Started
Comic cons are huge these days. They aren’t a gathering of few friends – they’re massive productions that are anticipated all year round.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people attend a comic con. The San Diego event alone brings the city about $150 million worth of financial gain each year.
How did the San Diego Comic-Con get started, and how did comic cons grow into the phenomenon that they are today? Let’s take a look at the history.
In the beginning
The idea for the San Diego Comic-Con was drafted by an unlikely group of heroes. Mike Towry, Bob Sourk, Barry Alfonso, Richard Alf, and Dan Stewart were all teenagers at the time. They shared one thing in common: a love of comics. In fact, Towry, Sourk, and Alf all sold comics through the mail.
In 1969, the five teenage boys met up with Sheldon Dorf in their hometown of San Diego.
Dorf, unlike them, was already in his 30s. Today, being a 30-something who loves comics is pretty normal, even cool. Back then, though, comics were still in the realm of nerds. Comic book lovers were generally considered outcasts who lacked the social skills for more “acceptable” activities.
The five teenagers were just happy to find someone who shared their passion for comics, though. And Dorf had invited the boys to meet with him for a specific reason: he wanted to plan a comic con.
All his life, Sheldon Dorf had loved comics. He read comic books and comic strips and collected memorabilia with a passion. His dream was to work in the comic book industry. However, he wasn’t a talented writer or artist. So he turned his focus to something he knew how to do well: bringing people together.
Dorf had already helped put together a convention for fans in Detroit. He decided that his home city of San Diego would be a great place for a similar event. But he knew he couldn’t do it himself, which is why he invited a group of comic book fans to help him plan it. The fact that they were teenagers didn’t matter – they were all passionate about the same thing.
The Jack Kirby connection
In order to impress the boys during that first meeting, Dorf called up Jack Kirby, one of the most famous comic book artists and writers. Kirby had helped create some of the best-known heroes in the Marvel universe, including Captain America and the Hulk.
Dorf didn’t know Kirby well – he had only recently met him through someone they both knew. However, the connection was enough to impress the teenage comic lovers. Dorf even set up an in-person meeting between the boys and Kirby. Sheldon Dorf may not have been well-connected and famous, but he knew how to use the connections he had to his advantage.
That in-person meeting was crucial for the convention’s success. There, they were able to talk Kirby into attending their first comic con. The presence of a big industry star would go a long way toward giving the event legitimacy.
It was also Kirby’s idea to include more than strictly comics in the convention. Kirby said that if they expanded the focus to other fandoms, the event would be more fun and well-rounded. So the team decided to include other things like fantasy, science fiction, movies, and whatever else fit.
To some, it may seem like the inclusion of fandoms outside of the comic industry is a new thing that developed as San Diego Comic-Con grew. But a diversity of interests has actually been part of this Comic-Con since day one. Comic cons are less about strictly comic books than they are about fandoms: the mutual love of art that brings people together.
The first San Diego Comic-Con
With this groundwork laid, the very first San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) was ready to be put on.
Technically, the first “San Diego comic con” was a mini-con in early 1970 at a downtown San Diego hotel. Later that year, the official first convention was held over three days in August, at the same hotel.
Downtown San Diego, back then, looked nothing like it does today. It wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where respectable people and respectable businesses were found. Even the U.S. Grant hotel where the con was first located wasn’t a nice place. It had once been nice, but the quality of the hotel had declined along with the neighborhood.
However, it wasn’t like comic books and comic fans were held in high regard by society, either. The U.S. Grant was actually the only establishment in town willing to host a comic book convention. Most of the attendees would be kids, after all, so it wasn’t like a hotel could look forward to money spent by adults visiting their bar or restaurant.
Even the shady Grant hotel wasn’t too keen to host the event: staff put the early San Diego Comic-Con in the hotel’s unfinished basement. In spite of this, the event was attended not just by Jack Kirby, but by famous sci-fi novelist Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was influential at this first SDCC in more ways than one.
How the San Diego Comic-Con became nonprofit
One of the most interesting things about the SDCC to this day is that it’s a nonprofit event. The reason for this is Ray Bradbury.
Dorf’s Comic-Con team was dying to have Bradbury at the con after seeing him speak at a San Diego State University event. However, they couldn’t afford the author’s speaking fee, which was thousands of dollars.
When Bradbury told them that he’d be charging his regular fee, Dorf was struck by inspiration. He lied to Bradbury right then and there, telling him that it was a nonprofit event that existed to inform the public about sci-fi and comic books. Bradbury agreed to attend for free, since it was a nonprofit event, after all. The team suddenly had to figure out how to actually make their event actually nonprofit so they wouldn’t get caught in the lie.
With a bit of help from a local publisher, the team achieved nonprofit status and put on a successful first event. The three-day convention in August saw over 300 attendees.
Since comic books were so stigmatized back then, it was hard for most people to find fellow fans, especially as adults. San Diego Comic-Con helped meet this need. Fans came from miles away to spend some time with their peers.
Needless to say, the SDCC has grown exponentially since that first year.
Today, San Diego Comic-Con is famous for being the first comic convention, and boasts the most annual attendees out of any comic con. However, you can find one in almost every major city now, and in a lot of smaller towns too.
Comic cons are no longer held in the basements of shady hotels. Now, sleek convention centers are glad to host hundreds or thousands of comic book lovers. Comic books aren’t just for kids and misfit adults anymore. As the ever-growing comic book movie industry shows, comics are now solidly part of the mainstream.
Even other fandoms are no longer considered to be on the sidelines of culture. If you watch Game of Thrones, you aren’t nerdy. You’re normal. This widespread acceptance of once-nerdy fandoms can be partly attributed to the existence of comic cons, and SDCC in specific. As fans gathered in one place to celebrate their love of comic books and related art, they realized just how large their numbers were.
And the more people attended SDCC, the more the interest grew. Fans brought friends and family members. Curious people had an inviting place to learn more about comics. Comic book “nerds” didn’t have to be nerdy alone anymore, and eventually, comic books were no longer considered nerdy at all.
What to Expect at a Comic Con
Whether you’re a proud comic book nerd or just a part-time fan, it’s important to be prepared for a comic con. If you don’t know what to expect and go in without a plan, you’ll miss out.
Types of attractions
Each convention has many different events and attractions happening simultaneously. Let’s go over the most common events you’ll find at a con.
One of the first things you’ll see at a convention is the vendors. If you’re not careful, comic con is a great place to spend all your money!
Vendors sell everything from books to clothes to costumes to collectables and more. You can spend hours just browsing the aisles and seeing what’s for sale.
Although they happen in conference rooms away from the glitz and glamor of the con, panels are quickly becoming one of the main attractions.
In panel discussions, attendees can get all kinds of insider knowledge straight from the mouths of the experts. There are plenty of tips and tricks offered, like how to get better at writing comics. However, one of the main draws of the panels is that big announcements, news, and other juicy industry details are often hinted at – or said outright – in these discussions.
Artists and creators
You’ll find many beloved creators and artists at comic cons. The bigger the convention, the bigger the names.
You can get autographs, buy prints, and if you’re lucky even have a quick chat with your favorite comic book creators.
Comic book shopping
Of course, comic book shopping is an obvious attraction at a comic con.
From new releases to collectable vintage titles, there is always a wide range of comic books you can buy from different sellers. On the last day of the convention, many retailers discount at least some of their comics, so you might want to hold out till then for the best deals.
Costumes, or cosplay, are one of the best-loved parts of a comic book convention. Many fans go all-out on their costumes. Even if you’re not into dressing up, you’ll love seeing the lengths other people go to to look like their favorite characters.
Many people participate in official costume contests, but some just dress up for fun. All throughout the con, expect to find people dressed like your favorite characters – and some you’ve never seen before.
Comic cons usually have official parties to keep things going after the con has technically ended for the day. Plus, there are many more unofficial parties where friends, fans, and even celebrities gather to celebrate.
Depending on who you meet, you might just find your way into one of these unofficial parties. If not, you’ll still have a great time chatting with fellow fans at the official event parties.
Artists, publishers, and retailers might offer limited-edition items that are only for sale at the convention. These can include anything from action figures to limited-edition comic book covers.
It can be hard to get your hands on these items, because fans will already be lining up for them. But if you do, these are sure to become valuable collectables right away.
Even if you don’t want to save your money for an exclusive item, there will be plenty of cool free giveaways at a comic con for you to take home. Publishers might hand out free books to get you interested in a series, for example.
With the rise of comic book movies and popular fantasy and sci-fi shows, Hollywood celebrities are now an official part of nerd culture.
There may be photo ops, autograph ops, or panel discussions with famous actors.
No con is complete without gaming culture.
From table games to card games to video games, gaming is well-represented at comic cons. This is a great place to learn more about your favorite games, meet fellow fans, or try out games for the first time.
Rules to remember
Comic con is a place to let loose and have a good time. You’ll maximize your good time – and everyone else’s – when you keep these 7 guidelines in mind.
1. Plan Ahead
As soon as you get your hands on a schedule for the comic con you’re attending, make a plan.
Decide which events are a must for you. Then, make a rough schedule so you can hit every panel, signing, or booth you don’t want to miss. In between your must-see activities, leave some downtime for other interesting events or just browsing around.
Don’t forget to factor in waiting time, too. There can be a lot of standing in lines at a con, especially if you want to see celebrities or creators.
Keep in mind that at a bigger con, like San Diego Comic-Con, you’ll have time to do less because there are so many lines and crowds to get through. Be realistic about how much time you have, so you won’t stress yourself out trying to do too much.
2. Be Respectful
You’ll be sharing the space of the con with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people.
Part of being a good attendee is knowing how to be respectful. Ask people before you take their picture, no matter how crazy their costume is. Don’t touch anyone without permission, no matter what they’re wearing. Be patient when talking to artists, vendors, and celebrities – remember that they are incredibly busy and can get tired at a convention.
3. Keep Your Energy Up
You’ll need lots of energy for multiple days of walking, talking, looking, and shopping.
Make sure to drink plenty of water, and don’t forget to eat, no matter how distracted you get by all the excitement. Be well-rested the day it starts, because chances are good you’ll be losing some sleep during the con.
4. Dress for Success
Whether you’re going in costume or in street clothes, don’t let your clothing become a distraction from your experience.
Wear comfortable clothes and shoes you can walk in all day. Try to dress in layers, because the temperature can be unpredictable in a big convention center.
6. Charge Your Phone
Charge your phone and bring your spare charger with you. Whether you’re taking pictures or just trying to get in touch with your friends, you don’t want to run out of battery.
7. Make Peace With Crowds
If you don’t like crowded events, comic cons aren’t for you. Be prepared for the masses. You’ll be surrounded by people all day. However, if you want to, you can strategically avoid the biggest crowds. For example, stay away from the doors right when the con opens, and avoid the panels that feature popular celebrities.
There will always be part of the con that’s less crowded than others, and some of the best parts might actually be the most sparsely attended.
8. Be Flexible
No matter how much planning and prepping you do, things can change. Your costume might fall apart. Your favorite artist might cancel their appearance.
Don’t let the unexpected ruin your con. Go with the flow and remember that even if you miss out on one thing, there are hundreds more fun things to do.
How Much Is a Ticket to a Comic Con?
Comic cons aren’t cheap. Here’s a quick breakdown of how much you can expect to spend.
Comic con expenses
First off, you’ll want to buy early. The biggest comic cons sell out every year.
For a big con like San Diego, you’ll need to use a Member ID to get a link to the online sales site first, so plan ahead for that.
The price of comic con depends on which one you go to. If you’re attending a smaller convention, you can easily go for less than $100.
However, the big conventions can cost hundreds of dollars just to get in, if you want to go every day. Buying a single-day pass can be more affordable: San Diego’s day passes range from $42 to $63.
In fact, San Diego Comic-Con no longer offers a four-day pass for the whole weekend. If you want to be there every day, you need to buy a separate pass for each day. However, most smaller cons still sell badges that are good for the whole weekend.
Comic con prices have steadily gone up as the events have grown in popularity and scale. Don’t expect prices to stay the same from year to year: always be prepared to spend a little more.
Of course, you can’t just buy your entry badge and call it a day. Budget plenty of money for other expenses at the con, too.
If you’re traveling, you’ll need to factor in travel and hotel costs. Even if you’re just going to a con in your hometown, save some money for parking, food, drinks, and other necessities so you don’t have to go home before you’re ready to.
Be sure to also give yourself a budget for fun comic con purchases. You don’t need to go all-out, but set a reasonable limit of how much you can spend on books, collectibles, toys, or other con swag. It’s okay if your budget is low – half the fun is looking around and deciding what to buy, anyway.
How Do You Get Into a Comic Con?
As mentioned above, you’ll need to strategize to get tickets for the bigger cons. Be online and registered the day tickets go live, since they will sell out.
San Diego Comic-Con is notoriously difficult to get a badge for, since it’s become so popular. Badges are released to people who have gone in previous years first, so it’s especially difficult to go as a first-timer. However, it’s not impossible.
Make sure to sign up for a Member ID so you’ll get an email telling you when the badges will be released to the public. The email will have instructions on when and where to log in and buy your badge.
Some of the sales for SDCC are randomized, so even if you’re logged in at the perfect time, you have to hope you’re one of the people randomly picked to buy a badge. If you miss out, you’ll have to wait till next year – unless you can find someone re-selling their badge, which is unlikely.
Don’t forget to book your hotel and transportation early, since those spots will be competitive, too. San Diego Comic-Con attendees usually have to sign up for a lottery to get a hotel room. If you’re lucky in the lottery, you’ll get a hotel that’s closer to the event. Even parking at SDCC is done on a lottery system.
When the first day of SDCC arrives, be prepared to spend lots of time waiting in line. But thousands of attendees can’t be wrong – it’s totally worth it once you get inside.
Where Can I Find a Comic Con Near Me?
Although attending San Diego Comic-Con can be a (very rewarding) challenge, there are also plenty of other cons to enjoy in a city near you.
For a solid list of the year’s comic cons, check out www.upcomingcons.com. Or you can just Google “comic con in [your city]” to find out where the nearest one is.
What are you looking forward to doing at your first – or next – comic con? Leave a comment and let us know!
Featured image: Promotional image via visitsandiego.com.