This weekend (14th-16th November) will be my sixth Thought Bubble Festival as a volunteer (redshirt – we proudly reclaimed the word from ill-fated Trekkies). I have been behind the scenes at two Lakes International Comic Art Festivals, two Auto Assemblies, moderated online communities, chaired panels, talks, conferences, am active in ‘public engagement’ (what universities call ‘getting out and talking to actual people for a change’) and attended multiple events of the comic book and media industry type as a punter. I enjoy what I do, and do it freely, in my spare time, passionately and mostly for free (and for the red t-shirt; there must be something in the dye).
I am also aware of a high number of convention etiquette posts from professionals, exhibitors, fellow fans, first-time goers and bored companions (partners, relatives, offspring, pets, stuffed cryptozoa). Personally, I think Dan Berry’s 2012 list is a great resource, along with Luke Surl’s illustrated version for exhibitors. There are plenty more out there, but some tend to be fairly condescending and patronising, even in their tongue-in-cheek style (or maybe because of it). So please take what I say here as tips and suggestions, rather than commandments or recommendations. As a volunteer, I have seen many a visitor storm off disgruntled because they were unable to get a sketch, a signature, a book, a handshake – and it’s not always the event’s fault.
Talk (if you can) – This can be really hard. Emotions run high when meeting your idols, and you might not be comfortable with crowds, small spaces, public speaking or eye contact. That is fine. Creators know that their fans come in all types of person and species, and everyone gets tired/stressed out/overwhelmed at times. If you need help, call upon a redshirt. We’re there to help.
Be Nice – Following from the previous point, if you can’t bring yourself to face someone or speak to them, be nice in any way possible. A quiet thank you, a timid smile, nods, adoration in your eyes. Let the exhibitors know you’re interested in their work if you are, don’t diss them if you’re not. Everyone there is passionate about comics; that’s a whole series of worlds in common. Be nice to other visitors. Be nice to exhibitors. Be nice to staff and volunteers. And be excellent to each other.
Look at Everything – Take it all in. The Big Names are not the only names, and they’re only big to the people who think they are. Make sure you take a stroll through the smaller tables. I have met some of my favourite people in the world by wandering around the halls closing off queues and bringing water or food to exhibitors.
Be a True Fan – So you have all the issues a writer has written, you’re on first-name basis with them, and you’ve seen them multiple times. Excellent! A lovely place to be in! But don’t overdo it. Some people have travelled very far to only attend an event for the day, have less money to spend, less time and may be extremely intimidated by everything going on. Give them their space and time. Don’t be greedy. And don’t for one second think there is such as thing as a fake-fan.
Be an Alien, or, Enjoyable Queueing – Yes, you will have to wait to meet some of the guests. Yes, it can take a while, and it will be boring after a bit. Solution? Use all of the tips above: talk to others in the queue; talk to exhibitors you are close to as you move closer to the aimed table; take in the convention area; plan the rest of your day; if you’re in a group, use supermarket tactics. And most of all..
Don’t Panic – Douglas Adams was bound to make it here at some point. Alas, you might not be able to get everything you wanted done. You might miss a panel. You might be too late for a sketch. The guests might be very tired, unable to make it at all or late. It happens, unfortunately (Kurt Vonnegut? Kurt Vonnegut: So It Goes). But go back to three points above, and look at everything else. You’ll find something you didn’t even know you were looking for.
There are a number of other really important points, such as keeping hydrated and nourished, respecting people’s boundaries, social norms, be mindful of children and event rules and regulations, including personal safety. Some of these are covered by common sense, others by explicit policies such as the SDCC and NYCC ones. All should be kept in mind at all times. My list is simply an addition to those guidelines.