Things I Learned From My First Comic-Con

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I remember seeing ads for comic-cons in various comics and magazines when I was a kid.

Chicago. New York. San Diego.

2014 came along, and I decided to finally pull the trigger and go to a con. I wanted to make this year a big year for Hyper Geeky, so I bought two three-day passes for the Wizard World Portland Comic-Con.

The trip was part business and part vacation/birthday present to myself. Since my wife couldn’t make it because she got a full-time teaching job, I messaged a friend and told him I’d be putting him to work if he wanted the extra ticket.

I wanted to write this article as a sort of how-to for first-timers. Whether it’s your first time going to a con, getting your books graded, meeting your favorite artist/writer, or going to a panel — I wanted to share my experiences so others could know what to expect.

1. Be prepared.

Figure out what you want to get out of the comic convention.

Start with the big picture.

Let’s say you’re going shopping. You’ve got almost a full run of Uncanny X-Men at home, and you’re hoping a dealer will have the obscure issues you’re missing.

As you start to plan for your day at the convention, take it one step at a time, becoming more detail-oriented as you go.

Since you’re obviously going to need something to carry those books in, think about how much weight you’re willing to lug around from booth to booth. It may not be the most convenient thing to lug around a long box or even a short box which can be jostled every time you bump into another attendee or while you wait for a group of photographers to finish taking pictures of a cosplayer. A backpack might do the trick, but you don’t want that $6,500 Avengers #1 floating around and getting its corners bent.

Mylars, folders, binders, and hard cases might do the trick.

I put the comics I wanted autographed in Mylites2 mylars with Half-Backs. Since the backing board is longer and wider than the comic, I wasn’t too concerned about the corners getting bent out of shape inside my messenger bag which I padded with a clipboard, some extra Mylites, and the con’s program guide.

And while we’re on the topic of autographs — there’s several ways to do it if you’re concerned about damage while signing, and you’re going to CGC them. Cutting a hole in the bag with some masking tape for reinforcement — the masking tape can also be written on to point to where you want the book signed — will keep your comic in the bag where it’s safe and sound.

For more information, check out the CGC forum board.

-How to window-bag your books for SS (with photos!)

Being prepared makes the day less stressful for you, and it gets things done.

2. Go to the CGC booth. ASAP.

This one’s for the graders.

I had a short box of about 75 comics I wanted graded. Carrying it around was stressful because I kept thinking of possible scenarios that could have put me in a sour mood. Being at a con with thousands of people walking this way and that while I’m holding onto a box that could lose its bottom at any moment — well, it’s the stuff that nightmares are made out of.

Find out where that CGC booth is. Look on the con’s website for a floor map, or check the program that you get when you enter the facility. When those doors open, make a beeline to the booth. Don’t get distracted. Sure, you might not be the first to stand in line for Neal Adams or Humberto Ramos, but you’ll be glad to have that load off your shoulders and out of your tired hands.

Once you’re at the booth, ask questions. Some of you will be glad you didn’t go off getting your books signed because — guess what — without a witness, you won’t get those yellow tabs certifying your books with the Signature Series label.

Wait, what?

If you’re tuning in now, and you’re interested in getting your books graded with certified signatures, the yellow label is what you want. You may have seen signed books in CGC slabs with the green Qualified label and a 9.8 grade, but Qualified means it’s been given that grade in spite of the unverified autograph which can actually be considered a flaw if you decide to get another signature with verification.

A yellow Signature Series label means the book was signed in the presence of an official CGC witness. To get a witness, you need to talk to a CGC staff member. Someone will follow you or plan a meetup with you where you’ll be getting your book signed or sketched. Again, be prepared by knowing where the artists/writers are. If you’re getting a sketch done, the witness needs to see the sketch pass hands from the artist to you.

It might sound a bit complicated, but remember the first lesson. Be prepared. If you’re adamant about getting your books graded right, do what it takes to make it happen.

3. Artists and Writers are people too.

Be polite. Don’t be sensitive.

Meeting your childhood heroes can change your life — for better or worse.

Take, for example, my meeting with Adam West.

I grew up watching Mr. West play Batman, and I wanted to get his autograph along with Burt Ward’s on my Batman ’66 Mattel variant cover. It was an expensive get, but it was something I really wanted.

I stood in line for Mr. West, and when it was my turn, I paid the handler the fee, and he asked for my name.

“It’s Ji, spelled J-I,” I said.

“Two letters, Mr. West,” he said, pushing the book towards my hero. I could tell I was shaking, but I couldn’t feel my body. I had gone numb from the nervousness.

Mr. West signed my book, To Ji – Adam West. I forced myself to say something, something along the lines of, “I grew up watching you, Mr. West.”

Mr. West’s expression changed, and he leaned forward and said, “Why, thank you.”

I offered my hand for a shake. He gave me a fist bump instead.

I was a little heartbroken.

Why did he deny me a handshake? Aren’t fist bumps a little informal? Did he think I was a smelly fanboy with sweaty palms?

After I got my CGC stuff done, I asked my buddy what he thought, and he basically said I was over-reacting.

Sure, we have expectations, but we’re also geeks. The stereotype of the rude and unstable geek is based on some form of truth, and I was reinforcing it by jumping to conclusions and making it about me. Sometimes, fans get way too sensitive when things don’t go as planned. Whether it’s an artist picking up his cellphone during an autograph session, or an agent butting into a conversation to remind a fan that commissions aren’t free, I think fans should expect nothing and be open to everything. And by that, I’m saying — approach the situation with an open mind and give the person you’re meeting some leeway. Imagine having to sit for eight hours with a constant stream of fans, some nicer than others, asking for autographs, your life story, a photograph, or even to say, “Hey, your last comic sucked!”

Be less rigid, and flow with the situation. If you have a long line behind you, come back later to show off your portfolio. Artists and writers have to contend with how the public views them, so they might have to make an unpopular decision by saying something you might consider rude.

Chill out. Have fun. And try to be positive in negative situations.

4. Read the signs.

Before you rush over to an artist’s booth and throw your comics all over the place, look for signs or cards. Some artists and writers charge for autographs. Some sell prints, books, and other merchandise which they’d like you to buy before they even consider doing anything for you.

Now, before you start ranting about your belief that artists and writers should be obligated to autograph your beloved comic, realize many of them spend hundreds of dollars to appear. How willing are you to spend eight hours a day during a weekend doing your fans’ bidding at your own cost?

Artists and writers need to eat too, and some of them are very well off. Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to make a living.

At Portland, Arthur Suydam said he would sign any and everything if I bought a print. Neal Adams charged for autographs, and some artists had a Hero Initiative box — a great charity, by the way — for donations. Many of the other creatives signed books for free without asking for a thing, and some of them have portfolios with original art that they will gladly sign for you.

Take a more deliberate approach, and you might even be surprised with where you’ll go with good communication.

At Jonathan Case’s table, a card listed his prices for prints. It also said to inquire about commissions. I figured why not and asked, “Mr. Case, how much for a commission of Batman?”

He showed me a commission he was finishing up, told me how much it would cost for something similar, and I jumped at the chance to get something ordered.

At Josh Burcham’s booth, I saw a stack of Transformers issues with sketch covers ready for some pencils and inks. That could save someone a trip through the retail spaces.

Read the signs. They’re there for a reason, and if you show the creatives respect, it could go along way towards making the experience a good one for the both of you.

5. Artists want to draw for you.

This doesn’t go for every artist — it won’t hurt to ask — but that childhood hero of yours may be open to drawing a sketch just for you.

I went by Humberto Ramos’ table and asked about a commission. There were several options, but there were no more slots left for the day. They told me to come back the next morning because his schedule fills up really quickly.

Artists have different methods of obtaining orders for commissions. They also have a schedule that’s filled with more than drawing what you ask them to.

Some artists will take a list on the first day, and some will take orders each day. Some will take orders online and bring the finished commissions to the convention.

Depending on how popular the artist is, how they fast they can create a piece, and what you’re asking for — a head shot, a torso, or a full body pose — the price and finish time for a piece can vary.

Commissioning art is an amazing experience. My first sketch was a Batman head shot by Matt Wagner who did one on a backing board for a donation to the Hero Inititiative. I enjoyed watching Mr. Wagner work with a Sharpie, and other artists use different mediums.

For my Ramos commission, I came back the next morning and was second in line. When it was my turn, his handler asked me, “What do you want?”

“Can Mr. Ramos draw me a Batgirl?”

“He can draw you whatever you want, however you want. He can draw anything.”

“I want a Cassandra Cain Batgirl.”

“The Damian Scott one?”

“The one with the covered mouth,” I said, motioning with my hands.

I came back a few hours later and looked over Ramos’ back while he penciled. I recognized Batgirl’s eyes towards the top left of the page. From what we could gather on what pencils we saw, the piece already looked pretty amazing.

“That looks sick!” I told my buddy.

We came back hours later. “Hold on,” the handler said, “I have to take a picture of this. Ramos went to town on this one. What do you think?”

I was ecstatic.

Not only did I become an owner of an original piece, it was something customized for me. That art sheet had one of my favorite characters on it by a superstar artist.

In the end, I had commissions from Ramos, Jonathan Case, Josh Burcham, and Matt Wagner. On the way home, I was just overwhelmed by the quality of work, and my buddy said it was probably the best investment, even more than the comics I was sending in for grading. In a way I agree with him. Owning the first appearance of Spider-Man would be amazing because of the value of the comic and the cultural significance.

But having Jack Kirby draw you a commission of Spider-Man — that’s something personal.

6. Go to panels.

I didn’t go to a lot of panels during the weekend, but I did check out a few. There was the panel on breaking into comics by the founder of Committed Comics, the Sons of Anarchy panel with Ron Perlman and Kim Coates, and a panel with Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi which turned into a show.

Panels get you off the showroom floor and into another setting where you can engage in discussions with actors, creatives, and experts. For the Sons of Anarchy panel, two microphones on opposite sides of the room were open for people to come and ask the actors questions.

It’s an amazing experience that’s educational and inspirational. It might be difficult to see everything you want to because panels overlap, but it’s up to you to find out the schedule and figure out what will interest you the most.

7. Haggle.

You can haggle prices in the shops. You might come across more resistance on the first day of a convention, but as the weekend goes on, you might have a better chance of knocking down an extra $10 on that New 52 Batman #1 sketch cover.

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The Dark Crystal.

8. Look but don’t touch.

There were a lot of cosplayers around. A lot. There were a whole bunch of Doctors from Doctor Who, plenty of Deadpools — male and female — and various iterations of Harley Quinn. None of the cosplayers ever rejected me when I asked for a photograph even though some of them looked plenty busy.

That doesn’t mean you should interrupt a conversation they’re having that looks serious, or you should bug them in the middle of lunch — which I happened to do.

Use common sense. On the showroom floor, ask away. If they say no, don’t try to sneak one in.

Realize that not all cosplayers are paid professionals, and you shouldn’t assume that someone who’s cosplaying is there to get exposure. Some just want to enjoy the day and aren’t in the mood to be distracted while they’re trying to make their way to Stan Lee’s signing booth. Gauge the situation on a case by case basis, and be courteous to them. Cosplayers don’t owe you anything, and none have ever asked me to take their picture. A photograph will likely start and end with you, so ask nicely and thank them for their time.

9. Food is expensive.

Pack a lunch if you can. A burrito cost me $8, though I didn’t regret spending the cash to get something to eat.

Bring water and snacks. Stay hydrated and please, please, wear deodorant.

10. Some conventions are better than others.

My CGC witness was a great source of information for me.

Apparently, not all conventions are the same — duh. Guests, number of attendees, facilities, wait times — these can differ wildly from one convention to the next.

Being able to get an autograph from Neal Adams in a few minutes as opposed to a few hours, or standing behind four rather than 400 for an Adam West signature — I had it relatively easy at Portland Comic-Con. Friday was easy, and so was Sunday. Saturday was a lot more hectic, though the amount of attendees and the queues weren’t as crazy as Comic-Con in San Diego.

If I had gone to the Chicago Comic-Con or the one in New York, I may not have been able to come home with the commissions I obtained. I might have spent more time standing in place than freely roaming the showroom floor.

I’m glad it was the Portland Comic-Con that I went to first. It was an experience that I’m grateful for, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

If you’re planning on going to a convention for the first time in your life, prepare yourself to be in the presence of amazing, intelligent, talented, and geeky beings. You might find yourself making eye contact with your favorite actor or favorite comic writer. Have fun, be safe, and treat others with respect.

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