by KC Carlson
Having recently returned from C2E2, I found myself thinking about how people behave at comic conventions. I’ve seen more shows than my share, from several sides of the table (guest/signer, staffer, attendee), and I want to give you the benefit of my experience so you’ll have a better time at the next con you visit.
Here are some tips on meeting your heroes:
1. Be normal. Or, failing that, at least act normal. Creators are people too. They are not gods (although a few might disagree). Be polite. Don’t interrupt them if they’re working or talking to somebody else. Ask simple questions (this isn’t Stump the Band!). And you don’t always have to talk about comics – movies, TV shows and sports are always good ice-breakers – but don’t assume you know what they like. You know their work. You don’t know them as people (yet).
2. Ask questions in such a way that it doesn’t force them to sound like a jerk. For example, it’s always preferable to ask “Are you sketching today?” rather than “Can you do a sketch for me?” If the answer is no (as it may be), the former doesn’t sound personal towards you.
3. If you are asking them to do something for you (like a sketch), make sure that the details of the transaction (type and complexity of the sketch, amount to be paid and when, when the sketch will be completed) are agreed to upfront. Try to keep your request simple, and don’t be surprised if the artist asks for reference on a character requested. (Artists are not encyclopedias – there are a lot of characters out there!) If you want a picture of an obscure character, you should bring reference with you. Also, don’t be surprised if an artist refuses particular requests, especially those of an unusual nature. It’s his/her right to do so.
4. If you want a memorable moment with your creative hero, try to think outside the box. Don’t just bring the most recent blockbuster for them to sign – try to find an old favorite story of the artist, and you might get a story about working on it in return. Bringing up really obscure stuff could go either way, however. Some artists may not remember a job they did 20 or 30 years ago. Always remember that comics are primarily a business for creators – occasionally something that you love might have been “just a job” to them. Alternately, you might pick a favorite of yours, even if the story is less well-known, and tell the artist how much the work meant to you.
5. Do not monopolize the creator’s time, especially if there’s a long line. Most creators want to meet everybody in line, and if you stay for just one more question or one more signature that makes things longer and tougher for them. If you are on a long line, get used to the fact that there is no “one more” anything. Period.
6. Along those lines, don’t be a jerk and ask for more than the limit of things to be signed, especially when there are hundreds of people waiting behind you. Most likely, the artist would normally love to oblige you, but by asking, you put them in the position of being the bad guy, which is unfair to both them and everybody else in line. And if you’re having your picture taken with somebody, make sure that that the person using your camera actually knows how to use it.
7. Personally, I think waiting in those extremely long lines for “current hot artist” is just foolish. In the hour or two that you are in line, you could be meeting four or five other creators and actually have a conversation with them. Comic conventions are all about opening yourself up to new experiences, so why not take the time to meet new people? And don’t discount the older guys. They seldom have long lines, and they always have great stories to tell! This is where you get to learn about the real history of comics. Don’t miss any opportunity to talk to these guys and thank them for their contributions. Because, sadly, you might not get another chance. I’m constantly kicking myself for not getting to know some of the greats better before they passed away.
(And here’s one of comics’ dirty little secrets: There are always new “hot artists” which means that the current hot artists are not always going to be so hot. So, instead of waiting in line this year for two hours, why not come back next year when the wait may only be a few minutes?)
8. But if you are going to wait in line, while you’re waiting, prepare your items to be signed. This means out of their protective bags. Frankly, if you’re more worried about the condition of your item than having it signed by your idol, then you have more problems than I can help you with. Chances are the pen will clog or spit, the artist will accidentally smudge their own (or someone else’s) signature, the book may become accidentally creased, the artist may be on autopilot (you try signing your name hundreds of times in a row!), or you, yourself, will screw up the signature when putting the comic back in its bag before it properly dries. All of these things have happened to me over the years, either giving or getting signatures. When something like that happens, the only correct response is to laugh, whether you want to or not. Because things happen.
9. One last thing: Don’t stand there eating lunch (and then leave your garbage on the artist’s table afterwards). That’s just rude. In fact, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb not to eat on the main floor of the convention anyway. I’ve seen dumbbells leave their open soda containers on thousands of dollars worth of old comics and then watched the arguments when the soda was accidentally knocked over. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. (And potentially expensive, as well.) So do everybody a favor and eat lunch and snacks in a designated food area or somewhere away from the main floor. Your feet could probably use the break as well.
THERE’S MORE TO THE SHOW!
When you’re not meeting artists, consider the other people also at the show. Here are some additional points of convention etiquette to consider.
DEFY THE STEREOTYPE: We all know how the rest of the world perceives us comic fans – basement-dwelling, sub- (or hyper-) lingual, ill-mannered, dweeby, know-it-all, smelly misfits of science. Just like Comic Book Guy. (It’s funny because it’s true.) But the real truth is, only you can change the stereotype, and a comic convention is a great place to learn how to socialize. Nobody likes to be told how to behave, but is it too much to ask to pull yourself together for two or three days and become someone the rest of the world can tolerate? If not, at least try to think of the experience as a long-term role-playing scenario: Normal Human (43 points).
The key to etiquette is simply this: thinking about how you can make other people comfortable. Don’t crowd them in lines or at tables. Keep your belongings (or butt) from bumping others. If you’ve been talking with someone for a while, make sure they’re still interested in continuing the conversation. And so on.
PERSONAL HYGIENE IS KEY: This is always annoying to talk about, but remember, you’re at the convention to meet your creative idols as well as new, like-minded friends. As in any social situation, you want to look your best. So it’s in your best interest to pass yourself off as a fully functional human, if you want to make new friends, get autographs or sketches, or generally make a good first impression. So here are a few basic things you need to pack for the trip: Shampoo and comb, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash (or breath mints). Step two: use them! And shower daily. The number one complaint of pros meeting fans is meeting one who comes with his own personal (bad) atmosphere. The pros often mock the especially stinky ones in the bar after the con. Don’t be that guy!
Remember the 5-2-1 rule for multi-day conventions. For each day you’re at the con, get at least five hours of sleep, eat at least two meals, and take one shower or bath. This will help you and everyone else have a better show.
Pack a couple of changes of (clean!) clothes, especially underwear and socks! No one wants to see your “Mark Waid Is Evil” t-shirt all weekend. Especially Mark Waid. And, if you’re lucky enough to meet new people and get invited out to dinner with them, you might want to bring something beyond ratty t-shirts and beat-up sneakers because you may end up somewhere nice for dinner. (I learned this one through personal experience.)
THERE’S A REASON WHY OBNOXIOUS BEGINS WITH A BIG ZERO: Comic conventions are the great equalizers. Where else can fans mingle with artists, writers, editors, publishers, and other industry notables (and at some conventions you can add actors, directors, producers, and tech people to the list)?
The thing to always remember is: professionals are people, too! They deserve the respect that you would normally afford any other person. They are not objects of entitlement, either. They do not “owe” you a autograph, a sketch, or even a conversation if they are pressed for time. Most professionals love to meet the fans and try to be as accommodating as they can. But what you need to remember is that most pros have other work obligations at the show. Often, a convention is the only time that they can meet with their editors or publishers or even have “face time” with their collaborators and friends. A lot of pros are on panels throughout the weekend, and many contribute to various convention charities and need the time to actually produce their contribution. For these reasons, they might not be at their tables at all times throughout the convention. Also, for many pros, the conventions fall on their “days off,” so while many are happy to sign or sketch, always keep in mind how you feel about your days off, and be grateful that they’ve chosen to spend their downtime with you.
TAKING UP SPACE: Don’t bring your entire comic collection with you on the con floor. There’s nothing more obnoxious than getting stuck behind a cart (or pack mule) on a crowded con aisle. Autographs mean a lot more when they’re few in number and unique. And if you are going after A-Listers, you’re probably only going to be allowed to get a couple of things signed, anyway. Creators at their own tables will occasionally sign more (if it doesn’t become a crowd control situation), but it is the height of rudeness to dump a big pile of books on someone to sign without prearranging such a thing beforehand. (And woe to you scum who are only getting a signature so you can turn it around for $$$ on eBay. More on this later.)
To avoid dragging dozens of boxes around, plan your attack ahead of time. Take advantage of the convention schedule and program – usually posted ahead of time online at the official convention website – and find out when your favorites are going to be available. Then, just take the books that you’ll need in the morning, get ‘em signed, break for lunch, and go back to your room, where you can swap the signed ones out for the books you’ll need for the afternoon. Besides having a much smaller load to drag around, you’ll also save a lot of wear and tear on your comics. (Those stupid carts are actually pretty unstable, and I’ve seen quite a number of colossal comic spills over the years.) If you have to use a cart, how about doing everybody a huge favor by using only short comic boxes. Long boxes are a traffic jam nightmare on a crowded convention floor and also make your cart more unstable.
DEATH TO eBAYers!: A special note to all those folks who make a living off of re-selling sketches and autographs online – you suck, and most everybody in the room hates you. The pros hate you because you are making money by exploiting their talents. The fans hate you because your exploitation has caused many pros to stop signing or sketching altogether. Plus, you take up a busy artist’s time getting your hundreds of things signed.
A note to fans: Don’t be surprised if a pro asks “Who should this be made out to?” in regards to signing a sketch or an autograph. Part of this is the artist wanting to personalize his or her signature as a gift to you. It’s also done as one of the few ways artists can retaliate against the re-sellers. (Personalized items go for considerably less on eBay than non-personalized items.) It’s sad that the fun of many has been ruined by the greed of the few.
ATTENTION PARENTS WITH CHILDREN: REMEMBER,YOU’RE NOT THE KID!: You’d think this was a no-brainer, but I see this at most conventions. The adult shows up with a kid or two, gets swept up in the convention, and completely forgets about the kids. Which leads to lost kids and unattended children running around the convention causing havoc. If you have young kids and have to bring them to the con, you might want to consider also bringing the spouse or baby-sitter to watch and entertain the kids while you are playing at the show. If your kid gets tired and starts screaming, that’s your cue to either get off the con floor for a break (to calm the child down) or to call it a day and go home. Please don’t subject the entire convention to your screaming, unhappy kid.
(And sorry if your kid doesn’t love comics the same way you do! Most of us were probably disappointments to our parents as well. But this is no reason to take it out on them!)
Also keep in mind that strollers take up a great deal of space. Please be aware of the people surrounding you, and don’t run your kid’s oversized vehicle into their ankles. You know best how to manage your child, but you may want to watch for a dedicated “kids’ day” or similar at a convention before bringing the entire family.
LOOK, BUT DON’T TOUCH: There’s a lot of tactile enjoyment to be had at comic conventions, so be smart and don’t be grabby. It’s bad form to take things from displays or “comic walls” without asking first. If you want to inspect a bagged item in greater detail, always ask for permission and assistance. There’s nothing more heart-stopping than seeing a piece of tape accidentally getting stuck to the cover of an old (and probably pricey) comic book. In many instances, it’s a very costly mistake.
Also, don’t automatically assume that you can walk into a booth and start grabbing comics off the display wall. Rule of thumb is always to ask to look at something from the wall.
Look but don’t touch also applies to your fellow convention-goers. There are a lot of interesting costumes at the shows, with both handmade fan costumes and professional costuming worn by actors and spokespeople, that you may be tempted to touch. Don’t! Respect for your fellow con-goer is paramount. Many of these costumes may feature exposed flesh, but this is not your license to touch, grope, accidentally bump into, or even heckle, ridicule, or demean. Use common sense, and keep your personal fantasies in check. Should you be lucky enough to encounter a potential soul mate (or hook-up) at the con, be safe, protected, and respectful, and be sure that everything is of mutual consent.
Similarly, don’t assume that a new acquaintance wants a hug or to be glomped (mostly a risk at shows with heavy anime/manga presence). You need anyone’s consent before you touch them.
Convention experiences should be fun for everyone. Not to go all hippy on you, but it is a big communal experience. Be good. Be nice. Have fun. And respect all. You want the perfect con experience – go for it! But don’t be the guy that ruins it for somebody else.
FURTHER READING: I can’t think of a better how NOT-to guide to convention-going than Stuart Immonen’s 50 Reasons to Stop Sketching at Conventions, at least in terms of sketching etiquette. In fifty biting, yet hilarious, comic strips, Stuart offers up some of the horrors of being on the other side of the table. The book effectively shows you what not to do when you meet a pro and ask for a sketch. (Sadly, every cartoon in the book is true. I witnessed several of them first-hand when Stuart and I were on the convention trail together years ago.) Also, to save you potential future embarrassment, Stuart is always happy to meet and chat with fans, as well as sign books. But he no longer does convention sketches for individuals. So don’t ask. He’s made this lovely collection of strips to explain why. Unfortunately, it’s currently sold out through Stuart’s website, but you may be able to track one down elsewhere – maybe at your next convention!
KC CARLSON would like to offer a tip of the hat to Maggie Thompson for her articles on convention etiquette over the years. Her columns are a lot more polite than mine are, and she’s probably been to a lot more shows than I have. Thanks, Maggie, for your efforts to keep convention-goers clean and keen over the years!
And a special ongoing acknowledgment to the ever-efficient Johanna Draper Carlson for organizing my random collection of notes (as well as my increasingly random life) into something that people might actually enjoy. J. routinely packs 48 hours into every 24. I believe this may actually make her an unrevealed identity of Kang. Thanks, honey!
SPECIAL BONUS RE-RUN: Since we’re on a a convention theme this week, here’s another look at a column I did a couple of years back, about portfolio reviews at conventions, for all of you contemplating the leap from fan to pro. Hopefully you might find a nugget or two that might help you amongst all the silliness. Good luck with your review!