With co-authors Brianna McDonell, Sara Leady, Dani Lubsen, and Sarah Holmes.
“The gate count is over 1,000!”
On August 8, 2015 we were two hours into our library’s first ComiCon and attendance was surpassing anything we had imagined. By the end of our four-hour event, over 1,700 had come to share their love–correction, passion–for everything that the heroes and villains of Sci-Fi, fantasy, comics, games, graphic novels, and gaming meant to them. Community “geeks,” obsessed with their hobby, had discovered our library!
How did four young library staff members, who share their love of geek culture and the literature that inspires this fandom, manage to stage such a fantastically successful event? Never have I met committee members on any project who spoke in such concert, who agreed on their goals from the start, and who never faltered in what they hoped to achieve. What follows is their collective voice relating how they brought the first Electric City ComiCon to our library. Perhaps the specific details and the actual process they went through will inspire you to host a Comic Con at your library.
We are fascinated with the geek culture, especially when fans bring their favorite characters to life from literature. We all promote literacy and already had formed a bond through social media. When we found out two years ago that the 2015 theme for Summer Reading would be “Heroes,” it hit us that a comic convention or Con would be the ideal way to culminate the program. Some of us had been to Cons and were already familiar with how they worked, but they were more adult-oriented. We wanted to offer a safe place to our library patrons in real space for their passion and interests, and what place better represents a safe haven to our community than our library! And, more importantly, we wanted to focus on our younger patrons, our Tweens and Teens. We wanted parents to come with their kids to find out what we have to offer, and we insisted that our Con be “family friendly.”
PERMISSION AND PLANNING
We pitched the idea, first, to the Head of our Children’s department. She gave us overwhelming support, became part of the initial planning stage, and was integral throughout the process. Next, we had to convince our library director, Faith Line. She was reluctant to let us hold such a venue without a lot more research on our part. Did we really know what we were getting into? As we worked on gathering more information, she took a leap of faith and gave us the go-ahead. She was a very exacting mentor, and we learned to think more from her position as director and to consider all the issues involved: Library Board approval, security, staffing, and a hundred logistical matters. Well in advance of our Con we had to write our photography policy and post it publically. We wanted to have those who attended in costume have the opportunity to be photographed digitally against the green screen with the background of their choice. Those photographed were advised that their digital photo might be posted on any of our social media sites.
Our learning curve was huge and the planning took us over a year to complete. We deeply appreciate the guidance Faith gave us and the hard work she put in with us, right up through the day of our event.
FINDING FUNDING, PARTNERS & SPONSORS
Faith sent some of us to Spartanburg, SC, to attend their SpartanCon. Their organizers graciously shared all their planning notes with us, but it was obvious from their event that they had a substantial budget while we had zilch to spend. We concentrated on where to find funding. Friends of the Library gave us money and we wrote an LSTA grant tied into the Summer Reading program to help pay for publicity. The Children’s department purchased a green screen for us to use for the photography part of the venue.
This was a brand-new library event and we had no track record to convince potential partners or sponsors. We developed a sponsorship packet, which didn’t turn out as effective as we wanted because we started too late in the year to approach big corporate sponsors. We had no way to judge how popular our ComiCon would be, so we couldn’t make solid projections or promises of return for their participation or advertising. We did a lot of pleading to our sponsors,and they too, had to take a leap of faith.
Books-A-Million and Planet Comics agreed to be our major partners. Smaller local businesses donated gifts for the panelists or food for our Green Room. The Independent-Mail, the local newspaper, provided free ad space. An up-scale downtown inn, The Bleckley, provided lodging for one of our guest panelists. People’s Bank, BlueRidge Security, Forx Farm, (ever taste goat’s milk fudge? Wonderful!), and the SC State Library sponsored us in significant ways. We were fortunate that, as we evaluated the costs, we only had to use library funds for prizes for the FanArt and Cosplay contest.
As lead-ups to our ComiCon, we engaged regional artist Enoch Vaughn to hold three Super Hero Creation workshops aimed at teens to adults. We also decided to sponsor a FanArt Contest, which we initiated two months ahead of the Con. FanArt is a huge part of the geek culture, as you can see when you go to Instagram and Tumblr and search the hashtag #fanart. Artists are constantly reimagining characters or placing characters in weird worlds and having character cross-overs. Although FanArt contests are not typically held at ComiCons, we used the contest as an inexpensive way to advertise our Con and to get our community engaged in the world of heroes. We were hoping it would appeal to our teen demographics; however, our contest was open to all ages. Entries would be judged on the day of the ComiCon. Two weeks before the Con, we only had a dozen entrants and we were worried that it wasn’t being well-received. In that last week the entries flooded in and we were blown away by their quality, in all age divisions.
We weren’t sure if the patrons understood what “cosplay” was—that it’s a combination word: costume + role play, not intended for a stage production. Our director bought a dozen or so books on cosplay topics and we set up a display. Those books were checked out immediately! To heighten interest we contacted Sybil Todd of White Knight Cosplay—who knew we had such an expert in our own backyard?–and she presented two “Getting Into Costuming and Cosplay” workshops for teens in early July.
GETTING PANEL PARTICIPANTS
Since our ComiCon was the culminating event of the Summer Reading program, we planned two sessions for our local young heroes in the Children’s Department on “How To Be a Hero.” These were presented by Heroes in Force, a regional group specializing in motivational activities for kids. Thanks to them, Batman made an appearance at our Con and wowed the kids. We scheduled their programs so that panel sessions would not be competing with them.
We sought experts for the authors, cosplay, and artists panels who understood heroic characters for young adults, and we wanted local or regional authors and artists. We also wanted artists of comics and graphic novels who could speak to young people about combining art with words.
We contacted local cosplayers to talk about cosplay etiquette, how to approach weapons and mask making, what steampunk costuming is, and what cosplay design involves. We already had been going where authors, artists, and cosplayers were appearing—the DragonCon and AnachroCon in Atlanta, SC Comicon, and other regional Cons—in order to make personal contact with them. We attended book signings. We sent them brief inquiries via email and told them what we were planning. We also sent out letters and made myriad phone calls inquiring whether stated fees could be waived. We worked on the philosophy of “why not ask?” and took a chance. Our mantra became, “They can’t come if you don’t invite them.” The trick was to get them all to come for free!
One of the most pleasant surprises was to find out how willing authors, artists, and cosplayers were to work with us once we told them our objectives. Those who responded “yes!” are great advocates of libraries and literacy and we were thrilled to have them as our panelists. We owe special thanks to David Weber, Megan Shepherd, Delilah S. Dawson, Robert Venditti, Tara Lynne, George Farmer, Allen Swords, Marla Roberson, Gypsey Teague, and Amanda Finley for their support of our event. On the day of our Con, we were very disappointed when Robert Venditti cancelled due to illness. Enoch Vaughn agreed to substitute and the panel went on as planned. ComiCon people do form a very cooperative community.
STAFFING AND DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITIES
We shared the responsibilities and all of our decisions were made by consensus, although we each had specific tasks we worked on. We didn’t move forward until we all agreed that what we were going to do met our basic goals. And we also knew that there was no way our library could hold this event without the help of staff.
The Summer Reading/Electric City ComiCon staff T-shirts were designed by Sara Leady. With special ALA approval, she modified the official library logo by dressing the Big L in a green superhero cape with mask. Each staff member who worked our Con wore a special T-shirt, with the same logo on the front as the Summer Reading T-shirt, but with the logos of all our sponsors on the back, a salute of thanks to them for their support.
You can’t have a ComiCon without vendors, but we had to get Library Board approval to waive the rule of no commercial activities in our library. We started looking for potential vendors almost two years ago. We visited vendor booths at all the major Cons, craft fairs, and through location-based searching on the internet. We narrowed our list of over one hundred down to thirteen—the number determined by our space limitations. One advantage for the vendors was that we did not charge a booth fee. The authors had booths and their books were available for purchase and autographing. Some of the cosplay panelists had booths dedicated to costume accessories. Our IT department installed an additional access point to our Wi-Fi so that vendors had internet access from their locations.
MAPPING THE FLOW
We mapped what we thought would be effective crowd flow. We had no idea how many people to expect and how much open floor space in our two-level library we would need for crowds. We wanted everything located in logical, accessible places, with freely-flowing traffic between events, without blocking the day-to-day routines—we performed normal library operations during our Con! For weeks prior, we posted signs throughout the building warning our patrons to expect a lot of noise on Con day.
We debated how we would set up the vendors and eventually agreed to assign them all to one space to allow equal access to the attendees. We had to deal with the main stairway and elevator ingress/egress to the upper level when locating the FanArt display, the panel tables, and audience seating. We were concerned that the activities in the Children’s area on the main level would be overlooked by those immediately going upstairs to the panel presentations and the gaming stations in the Teen Center. Our fears were unfounded. The huge attendance meant that all areas were visited by large numbers of people.
One major concern, of course, was security. Since our building is County-owned, our director arranged for two additional county deputies (three in all) to be on duty throughout the event. One deputy manned the main entrance as a weapons inspector. In cosplay many participants come with prop weapons as part of their costume, and we did see several really convincing Uzi’s in the hands of storm troopers! The deputy inspected and tagged each one to reassure us that they were not real.
The other two deputies circulated through each level during the event. They commented how well-behaved the crowd was. We understood why. For the most part, those who attend Cons come seeking others to bond with, to meet up with others who they may have already communicated with via various social media avenues. We saw several teens from several different schools laughing and talking with each other about their costumes. After all, a Con is a community of fellow-fans geeking together. We also planned a combination vendor supply room and public first aid/lost and found station adjacent to the vendor area and near the main entrance.
FOOD & REFRESHMENTS
We discussed having a public food concessions but our director nixed the idea for valid reasons. We had already bitten off a big hunk of this Con to manage, and having to deal with food, inside or out, would add another responsibility or headache, not to mention burden the clean-up crew. We decided that a Green Room for panelists and vendors would be sufficient for this year.
POST EVENT ANALYSIS
For us, the Electric City ComicCon was a mind-blowing success! We already have our second Con calendared for August 6, 2016, from 10-5. We learned a lot about how to improve our event:
HOURS AND ADDITIONAL PROGRAMMING
- Add three more hours to avoid overlaps in the schedule and provide more time between panels.
- Relocate the panel stage to avoid crowd noise and traffic.
- Add a steampunk panel.
- Have an Artists Alley with prints and posters for sale.
- Host more lead-up events for Tweens and Teens.
- Provide more cosplay workshops.
- Have more comic books for sale.
- Readdress the location of photo station and traffic flow by it. It was such a popular activity that traffic got jammed up and blocked access to other areas for children.
- Involve more geek volunteers. (We had one enthusiastic volunteer this year.)
- Involve more staff in the preplanning.
- Create a brand for our Con that is used on all our advertising and everything we print, display, or digitally broadcast.
- Consider selling Con T-shirts. Many, many attendees wanted to buy our staff T-shirts.
- Start early to solicit corporate partners and sponsors for next year. Funding will always be the big issue, but fortunately we’ll have this year’s impressive gate count to entice more sponsors for 2016!
- Consider shuttle buses to and from city parking lots to address limited parking issue.
- Investigate providing ATM access.
- Print more programs. We only printed 500 and had to run off copies on-the-fly.
- Encourage survey returns. We had a survey on our website and included a printed survey in the tri-fold program. Although the survey results were overwhelmingly positive–Bigger! Longer!–we didn’t get back a significant percentage of them.
We overheard one of our attendees say enthusiastically, “The library is interested in what I’m interested in!” That’s why we held our own ComiCon, not only to have people come through our doors, but to shift the attitude held by so many of what they think a library is into what we know it can be for them…to see the possibilities of libraries…the possibility of their library. For more information, contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Banaszak, Mark. “Library Articles. Convention Development: Creating A Mini-Con At The Library.” Diamond Bookshelf. January 20, ? http://www.diamondbookshelf.com/Home/1/1/20/181?articleID=130000 (accessed August 28, 2015).
Cruz, Rebecca. “Comics, Super Heroes, Pop Culture, and Libraries.” Public Libraries Online. August 17, 2015. http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2015/08/comics-super-heroes-pop-culture-and-libraries (accessed August 28, 2015).
Hamdan, Kate Denwiddie and Kareemah. “We Put On a Comic-Con (And So Can You!).” Virginia Libraries. July-September 2013. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/VALib/v59_n3/pdf/denwiddie.pdf (accessed August 28, 2015).
Lynne, Tara. “Introducing Electric City Comic Con!” The Geekiary. June 3, 2015. http://thegeekiary.com/introducing-electric-city-comic-con/25050 (accessed August 31, 2015).
MacDonald, Heidi. “How to Throw a Comic Con at Your Library.” Publishers Weekly. April 18, 2014. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/61940-how-to-throw-a-comic-con-at-your-library.html (accessed August 31, 2015).
Anderson County, SC website: http://www.andersonlibrary.org/
Electric City ComiCon Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/electriccitycomicon
Spartanburg, SC Spartancon website: http://www.infodepot.org/zReaders/Spartancon.asp
David Weber’s website: http://www.davidweber.net/
Megan Shepherd’s website: http://meganshepherd.com/
Delilah S. Dawson’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DelilahSDawson
Robert Venditti’s webpage: http://www.dccomics.com/talent/robert-venditti
White Knight Cosplay: https://www.facebook.com/whiteknightcosplay
Heroes in Force website: http://www.heroesinforce.com/
Enoch Vaughn: https://www.facebook.com/enoch.vaughn
George Farmer’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ArtofGeorgeFarmer
Gypsey Teague’s website: http://www.gypseyteague.com/
Amanda Findley’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AmandaFinleyCrafts
AnachroCon, Atlanta, GA: http://www.anachrocon.com/
DragonCon, Atlanta, GA: http://www.dragoncon.org/