Emanata: How to Survive Comics Convention Season

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Comic book convention season officially opens today, with the beginning of Emerald City ComiCon in Seattle. Between now and the middle of October, a whle lot of people in the American comics industry will be crisscrossing the country on a regular basis, digging through their pockets to come up with big announcements for every show, and spending days on end sitting behind tables in fluorescent-lit halls. If you’re a comics buff, casual or intense, you can head to a con and have a fantastic day or two seeing creators whose work is important to you and finding killer bargains; you can also end up grinding yourself down to a nubbin and wasting enormous amounts of time and money. Here are a few tips for having the best possible convention experience, some of them learned the hard way.

Pick your con or cons of choice, and plan for them as far in advance as possible. If you were hoping to go to this year’s Comic-Con International, you’re already out of luck: the huge San Diego-based show, happening July 20-24, sold out weeks ago. The other notable mainstream comics conventions this year include Emerald City, this weekend; the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, March 18-20, which is at least as much about ancillary media as about comics (the buzz right now is that Chris Hemsworth of the Thor movie will be there); WonderCon, in San Francisco April 1-3 (i.e. the last big con before the release of Thor, Green Lantern and X-Men First Class, not to mention Transformers 3); Wizard World Chicago, the biggest show in the extensive Wizard World franchise, August 11-14; and New York Comic-Con, which has now expanded to four days, October 13-16.

(More on TIME.com: Comic-Con International 2011 Totally Sold Out)

If you’re at all interested in art-comics, though, the more subdued shows that specialize in small-press and self-published work can be a delight to wander around. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art is holding this year’s MoCCA Festival in New York City April 9 and 10; Stumptown Comics Fest, in Portland, Oregon, April 16 and 17, is always a joy (and tends to draw a handful of big mainstream-comics names, too); the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, May 7 and 8, is impeccably curated, free to the public, and a fine excuse for U.S. nerds to visit Canada; Small Press Expo, September 10 and 11 in Bethesda, MD, is held in the same hotel where most of its guests and attendees stay, which gives it a distinctive 24-hours-a-day vibe.

Schedule parts of your convention day, including the food-and-beverage parts; leave other parts open. No matter what the con is, if you pick a few things that you know you want to do before each day begins–a panel, a signing, a screening–and then do them, you’ll leave feeling like you’ve accomplished something. (Smaller panels devoted to a particular creator or project are usually more rewarding than huge, company-wide panels.) But don’t schedule yourself wall-to-wall: build in time to wander, to sit, to chat, to go to something a stranger suggests. And, especially if you’re going to a big convention, pack a lunch, some snacks, and a water bottle. You will be very grateful not to be standing in a half-hour line for horribly overpriced nachos, or getting irritable from dehydration.

(More on TIME.com: The Techland Guide to Having a Good Time at Comic-Con)

Plan to buy stuff you can’t find elsewhere; budget for surprises. Most of the big conventions have dealers blowing out graphic novels for half-price or less, and purging big, disorganized collections of old comics at get-’em-outta-here prices. (I can’t guarantee that you’ll find autographed copies of Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman run for fifty cents a pop, but I can testify that it has in fact happened.) If you like longbox-digging, by all means, dig. But the wisest use of your convention dollar is buying stuff directly from creators, especially original artwork, books and art objects you’re never going to see at your local comic store. Skip the long lines; a scribble on a cover from the big name of the moment is never going to mean as much as a conversation with someone in Artists’ Alley whose work you’ve loved for decades. Walk the aisles of the show floor and have a look at some comics you’ve never seen before–you might find something great.

Make it a social event. Conventions are not meant to be experienced alone. If you have friends who are coming too, make plans to meet up with them and compare notes; the best conventions are the ones that set aside space for chilling out and socializing. Cons are the places where passionate devotion to particular stories is not just acceptable but laudable, and devotion shared is joy increased.