With comic culture becoming popular culture, conventions are emerging at a noticeable rate. With that, some people find general difficulty in identifying an entry point. When I was a kid, I went to a one room hotel con and bought prints from an artist named Dire Wolf, and that created a deep seeded love for that atmosphere. It took nearly a decade for me to get back into that environment, as I had friends who were willing to check out the scene back in 2009. Since then, I’ve gone to conventions big and small and find that there is a lot of interest, but some difficulty in understanding what con fits their expectations, and how, when and where they occur.
Before giving my two cents on how to choose a convention, let’s look at some numbers.
Recent Attendance Figures for Notable Conventions
This list is not ranked or prescriptive and there are plenty of other conventions that exist. With so many new conventions popping up, it’s hard to keep track. These are some comic/anime conventions that I’m more familiar with, along with the most recent attendance numbers, as far as I could research online.
Northern California/Bay Area
- NorCal Cosplay Gathering [Fall/Winter] (2016): 500
- Kraken Con [Fall] (2016): 3211
- SacAnime (2017): approx. 20,000
- Heroes and Villains (2014): 15,000
- San Francisco Comic Con (2016): 19,000
- FanimeCon (2015) :31,000
- Silicon Valley Comic Con (2016): 60,000
- Nerdbot Con (2016):1,000
- Anime Los Angeles (2017): 8,954
- Long Beach Comic Con (2015): 30,000
- WonderCon (2015): 60,000
- LA Comic Con (2015): 70,000
- Anime Expo(2016): 100,420
- Comic Con San Diego (2015): 130,000
Out of California
- Anime Matsuri (2016): 30,215- Houston
- Rose City Comic Con (2015): 32,000- Portland
- Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo [C2E2] (2015): 71,000
- Dragon Con (2016): 77,000- Atlanta
- Emerald City Comic Con (2016): 88,000- Seattle
- Fan Expo [Toronto] (2015): 128,147
- New York City Comic Con (2015): 170,000
There is always a big push to attend the most coveted of events, but for those who are looking to “find their tribe”, I’d suggest checking out a few other conventions to learn a little about what you never knew you loved or loathed. With the sheer numbers and crowds at the larger events, people can be at a loss on how to navigate the terrain, and to engage in the systems in place that allow you, with some time commitment, to get what you want. I want to put some of my experience out there, and some considerations to make, that may help you find a new favorite convention, or simply help you choose your first one.
For the Television Fans
If you’re looking for a good entry point, attend a convention that is clearly geared to your interests, but very singular in its purpose. With a plethora of shows and films touting stories from the comic pages, conventions are a great opportunity to see, hear and meet the celebrities, artists and creators of both. A particular group has emerged of late that is a great entry point for the everyday television fan: Walker Stalker Con. The group also has their super hero version, Heroes and Villains. The main recommendation is that this convention has a clear intent, which is to bring the stars of The Walking Dead, Arrow, The Flash and related shows to the fans, albeit at a cost. I have more experience with Heroes and Villains, and can say despite the for profit agenda, the show provides great panels with the stars and access to the actors. The also spend time shopping the floor, and while they won’t agree to snapping a photo, they tend to be up to chatting a bit. I had the fortune to talk to Echo Kellum (Mr. Terrific from Arrow), as well as the chance to get a very memorable set of photos with Brandon Routh (Former Superman, current Atom) for $30. A bonus for events like this is that a person can find discounted tickets on sites like goldstar and groupon, so you can save on tickets to pay for an opportunity to meet a celeb.
Other conventions that can provide similar experiences are San Francisco Comic Con, Wizard World. The star power varies from event to event, but they have a similar set up in the sense that the focus is meet and greets. These conventions however are not as entertaining to anime fans nor comic fans, although there may be some gems found there. Cosplay on the other hand is frequent, and a good starting point for those who are making their first runs.
For the Anime-niac
Anime conventions are strange for people that don’t understand how eclectic and eccentric the environment is. While I enjoyed anime when I was younger, it was a different experience for me when I set foot into my first anime convention. Anime conventions, both big and small, are very much about micro communities. Cosplayers, fans, creators and creatives come together to be in the moment. FanimeCon is likely the epitome of that experience. The convention is considered a destination spot for anime fans, and brings out talented artists and cosplayers. The event is fairly large with roughly 30,000 recorded attendees, but it is also important to note that this does not include the attendees for Clockwork Alchemy, the concurrent convention, who have access, and the “ghosts” that haunt about in downtown San Jose around the convention. Programming tends to be fan based, as even someone like me can host a panel there. The special guests range from voice actors, international creators, notable cosplayers and pop culture icons. There isn’t much in terms of cost for meeting them, as they tend to be panel speakers, or simply attendees going about their business. Attendees get their fill of things as the event runs nearly 24 hours a day during the Memorial day weekend. If you want to purchase high quality fan art, see top notch cosplay, meet up with fellow fan, hear people talk about your favorite manga or anime, or to watch your favorite anime, this convention provides all those things in the best of ways.
If you’re looking for something larger Anime Expo is your destination, while smaller cons like SacAnime and KrakenCon might be your speed if you just want to get your feelers out. These conventions have the basic feel describe above with slight variations of guests, masquerade quality, and attendees. Anime Expo occurs during the 4th of July weekend and is massive in its size and scale. There is a larger industry presence, but it also attracts an extremely diverse crowd. SacAnime and KrakenCon have some voice talents show up, as well as a strong respect for cosplayers. Anime Los Angeles has a really good feel, much like a smaller version of Fanime. If you have attended one or the other, you are sure to have a great time if you choose to make that new trip.
For the Cosplayer
Cosplayers have begun to emerge in a variety of ways; there are those who have found a new passion, creative outlet, wish fulfillment, confidence booster, community builder, etc. As such many environments help to fulfill those feelings, a relatively different one is the cosplay meet up. Typically done in a large park area, a meet up is very specifically for cosplayers to just do their thing. Photographers also come along, as their craft is tied to their subjects, so both skilled and novice enthusiasts come out and create connections. Often well attended, it is fun to spend an afternoon in different parks to get good shots of your costume, test run your recent project or equipment, meet up with friends or just get a little sun.
Almost all the conventions listed above are great for cosplay, and the bigger the event, the more likely you can find someone who gets you. DragonCon in particular is known for the amazing level and nuance of cosplay. If you want to see something that you’ve never seen before, this will be the place. I’d advise looking at DTJAAAAM‘s gallery to see what that place is all about.
For the Up to Date Comic Reader
If you are a comic book worm, are enjoying the latest issues and the local comic store is where everyone knows your name, WonderCon is the place you should go. While I have more recently talked about this in cosplay terms, this is one of most ideal places to get in touch with people who are currently creating, or at least have recently done so. In particular, DC Comics often brings their top tier talent to the convention for signings, both exclusive and open. Their special guest list is often star striking, and each publisher will also bring unannounced talent along for signings. I have met face to face with a lot of creators there, and feel like any given year, as long as I am reading books, someone worthwhile will be there.
A place that is probably more amazing, but a bit farther is Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC). We took our first trip there in 2015 and we were able to meet a lot of creators: Terry Dodson, Adam Hughes, Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart, Kurtis J. Wiebe, Robbie Rodriguez, Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Patrick Ballesteros. For the recent readers of books, this is an all star collection of creators that you don’t often see outside of places like San Diego. The tickets are a little easier to pick up than the big shows, but it still takes a little prep work.
For the Hype
San Diego Comic Con is hands down your destination if you want to be overwhelmed with an event from the minute you try to buy your badge to the second the con floor closes. First and foremost, SDCC ticket purchasing is one of the more difficult processes. You have to sign up for an account (Registration ID) and then wait for the email to show up, like an owl from Hogwarts. Once that happens, you have to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people that line up in a virtual queue, and for an hour, you wait to be randomly chosen, and you purchase up to three badges, yourself included. After securing your badge, you’ll have to deal with Hotelapocalypse, as the hotels open up to purchase, but with fewer restrictions. This also happens on a week day. Then it’s the anticipation for the next 3 months until the convention begins, and the line con occurs. The process is a little easier if you have been before, as you can secure your tickets early, and settle your hotel faster.
With all that being said, once you are there, the downtown area is there to cater to you. While SDCC has a strong commercial presence, it is all within your interest. Bars and restaurants become themed, swag is given away on the streets, free events from game companies and TV shows will be open to the public. It is akin to a carnival, which interestingly was a previous theme for one of the outside events. Once you get in, the exhibit hall is likely the very first thing you want to check out. The 460,000 sq. feet of vendors, artists, merchants, and corporations is a spectacle. The larger the company, the more detail and aesthetics involved. An observation that we came up with at WonderCon 2017 was that the bigger companies have taller booths, and SDCC has the skyscrapper version of booths. Every year they change a little bit, but certain groups like WETA and Gentle Giant, have amazing booth designs, while Marvel and DC display a lot of props relevant to their current book events or films. There are no words to properly describe the scale, as it is near impossible to see one end to the middle, let alone the other side.
Once you’ve had your fill of the exhibit hall, you might be inclined to take in some programming. There are 4 days worth of programming and it spans from the Hilton Bayfront through the second floor of the convention center and out to the Marriot adjacent, as well as a couple of satellite sites. There are of course the more coveted areas: Hall H, Ballroom 20 and Indigo Ballroom. Hall H requires the largest investment of time, but arguably the biggest pay off for those looking for hype. The room houses 6,000 attendees and has a separate queue that can start the day before the event (you need to camp out Friday afternoon to see Saturday). Hollywood’s big films do reveals, share exclusive clips, and sometimes give away exclusive swag. Friday tends to be premium television like Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, while Saturday is the blockbuster DC and Marvel films. Ballroom 20 is filled with a lot of comic television like SHIELD, Arrow and Flash, and Simpsons and Family Guy. This room has a separate line as well once the exhibit hall opens up. Indigo Ballroom features many FXX and Adult Swim panels like Archer, Bob’s Burgers and Robot Chicken. Indigo is located across the way at the Hilton Bayfront. Each of these rooms is almost a dedicated day, and it is near impossible to do all of those rooms on a Saturday. Past the TV/film presence many publishers host their own panels, as well as artist spotlights, industry panels, blogger reflection, podcasters, social media experts and almost any type of panel you want to see or never knew you wanted to see. San Diego is also host to the Comics Arts Conference, which focuses on the educational and philosophical side of the culture. You can take a look at year’s past, like the 2016 programming schedule, to get a good idea about what you’d be in for.
There is also an abundance of nightlife opportunities at this convention from the hotel bars to battleships (no joke). If you happen to find the right opportunity, you may end up in quite a memorable moment. Additionally, the masquerade on Saturday is broadcast, and people gather back at the convention for late night fun.
The event is also where high quality cosplayers and creators show up so expect to see people that you have been searching for to show up in full force.
Other conventions that are coveted experiences are New York Comic Con, Anime Expo, and Fan Expo. Each event has attendance over 100,000 and occurs at roughly the same time every year. Badge and hotel sales tend to be harder, but not impossible, and requires you to monitor when those sales occur. DragonCon, while smaller is the cosplayer’s destination.
In the end, you should definitely take the time to travel to many of these conventions, as most will become of interest as you attend more. Even though Fanime is a local convention for me, I didn’t find an interest until I cosplayed at WonderCon. Way leads on to way, but the nice thing about these events is that you can always attend another day (or year as the case may be). If you attend local events, save and plan to go to a larger tier events (60,000+ attendees), or skip one in lieu of another. Of course, I’m offering suggestions on where to start or what to try, especially if you are in the bay area. We all have fun in different ways, but who knows what you’ll find if you try somewhere new.
Have questions, suggestions on similar events in your area. Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.