I am a comic book geek and so is my seven-year-old daughter. Before we start pointing fingers, let me just say that I blame myself for her condition. When you raise a child in a house filled with comic books, where the living room bookcase has Two-Face book-ends and your art supplies are kept in Hellboy lunchboxes, a certain level of interest in the medium is bound to develop. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise when the concept of the “comic convention” stumbled onto my child’s cultural radar.
She’d seen pictures of Comic Cons online. She’d even seen conventions parodied in her favorite Simpsons comics. She knew what the word “cosplay” meant and she wanted to experience it for herself. Through the eyes of a child, pictures from a comic convention look vaguely like snapshots from a trip to Disney World, except EVERYONE is in costume. It looks like non-stop fun…to a kid who’s never been there before. However, I’ve been going to comic-cons for over twenty years and I knew that, while they can be fun, they can also be poorly organized, crowded, smelly, dull, and vaguely soul-crushing.
Every con is different. So, since my daughter had set her mind to experiencing her first convention, I began my due diligence to try to make sure that her first trip to a comic-con would be a positive experience.
Ultimately, our trip to the con turned out better than I ever could have hoped. If there are other parents out there who are considering taking their young ones to their first comic conventions this year, here are some tips, based on my experiences, which might make your first foray onto the convention floor a little easier.
TIP #1 – START SMALL, START LOCAL
Yes, the San Diego Comic-Con sounds ridiculous and amazing and you might run into freakin’ Loki in the restroom, but it’s also an over-crowded, overwhelming pressure cooker of unwashed, spandex-draped humanity. Taking an elementary-aged kid to “capital-C” Comic-Con as their first convention feels a bit like taking them to Burning Man for their first outdoor festival. If you can, find a smaller, local convention for their first time. Sure, they might not get to meet Robert Downey Jr., but they’ll actually get to see what a convention is all about, without all of the constant waiting in line and/or crippling, crowd-induced social anxiety.
TIP #2 – CHECK ONLINE FOR CROWD ESTIMATES
Several recent major comic conventions have seen record-breaking attendance numbers, attracting enormous crowds that the conventions were not expecting or set up to deal with. If you’re taking your kid to their first show, find the convention’s Facebook page and/or Twitter hashtag and see what the people on social media are saying. If their Facebook page is packed with people screaming about the insane lines or sharing stories about being turned away by the fire marshal, it might be a good idea to scrap your plans and try again another day.
TIP #3 – GO IN COSTUME AND LET THEM PICK THE COSTUME
Cosplay is a big part of the convention experience and, even if you don’t normally dress up, going in costume really turns the trip into something unique for your kids. And it doesn’t have to be a massive, homemade Iron Man suit with working repulsor rays either. Your costumes can be lovingly, obviously simple and homemade. People at conventions aren’t there to judge costumes (except for the judges at the costume contests). Mostly, con-goers just appreciate that anyone took the effort to dress up. Walking onto the floor in costume instantly engenders a certain amount of goodwill and definitely makes you a part of the con community.
That said, since this is your kid’s first convention, personally, I think letting them pick the costumes is a great idea. Now, their choices have to be within reason – “No, dear, Daddy doesn’t know how to make a fully transforming Optimus Prime costume” – but, again, if you can reach a happy medium, the fact that they got to pick the costumes can really give your kid a sense of empowerment. I told my daughter that the point of wearing a costume was to celebrate something you really, really loved (and I believe that). At first, she wanted us to go as Ra’s al Ghul and Talia from Batman (which made my inner geek squee), but, in the end, she said that she wanted to go as the main characters from her “most very favorite book EVER.” And that’s why I found myself at a comic-con dressed as the title character from Roald Dahl’s The BFG (with my daughter dressed as his friend Sophie). Almost NO ONE knew who we were – God bless the two people who recognized us (and thus made my kid’s day) – but I think the fact that my daughter got to strut onto the floor, dressed as a character she adored, really sold her on the power of cosplay for the rest of her life.
TIP #4 – TAKE LOTS OF PICTURES WITH PEOPLE IN COSTUMES
This might be the most fun part of the day for kids. Cosplay has become such an art in the past decade, and the costumes, even at the smallest local cons, are a sight to behold. (If you’re lucky, your con might have a visit from the 501st or one of the other fantastic Star Wars cosplay battalions around the globe. They really go all out and kids freak out when they see them.) My kid loved watching everyone in costume and got so excited to walk up to a complete stranger in a particularly great Thor costume and ask to take a picture. And every single person she asked HAPPILY consented to bend down, pose for a shot, and help make a kid’s day a little more fun.
TIP #5 – DON’T FORGET THAT IT’S A GLORIFIED SHOPPING EXCURSION
That might sound harsh, but it’s true. Aside from panel discussions (which are on the dull side for kids) and cosplay-watching, there’s not a ton of specialized activities for kids at most comic conventions. The vast, vast majority of the convention floor is made up of booths where people are SELLING things – gloriously nerdy and spectacular things. So, personally, I think it’s a little unfair to take a kid to a convention without the expectation that they’re going to want to buy stuff. But that begs the question – how do you make shopping fun for a seven-year-old?
My answer was giving my daughter her own shopping budget. I gave her thirty dollars and told her that it was hers to spend however she saw fit. My only other rule was that we had to look at all of the booths and consider our options before she actually bought anything. My daughter LOVED the freedom of having her own money and she began surveying the booths like a hawk, searching for bargains. We made notes on a map of the convention floor when she found something she liked and, if something was too expensive, we’d hunt through all the other booths, hoping to find a cheaper alternative. It really made her engage with all the booths, appreciating their wares like she was browsing tiny pop culture museums, and, when she finally did spend her thirty bucks, her purchases felt hard-won and earned. (We came home with a stack of Simpsons comics, a Japanese Godzilla figure, a stuffed Mario, and some trading cards.)
TIP #6 – GET AN ARTIST TO SIGN A BOOK FOR THEM OR DRAW THEM A SKETCH
Every convention has an “Artists Alley” where all of the comic creators sell their wares, sign autographs, and draw pictures for hire. If you can find an artist who will do an original sketch for a reasonable price, it’s totally worth it, even if only so your kid can watch an illustrator create something on the spot. If the original art prices are too steep, just having an artist sign an issue of a comic and maybe exchange a few kind words with your kid can be a really powerful experience.
TIP #7 – NEVER PAY FOR AN AUTOGRAPH, EVEN FROM FAMOUS PEOPLE
This is a hard one because most major comic conventions have transformed into broader pop culture celebrations, where you’ll almost see more B, C, and D-list celebrities sitting patiently at autograph tables than actual comic book creators. And it’s REALLY tempting to want to go over to them and introduce your kid to Michael Madsen or that guy from Beastmaster. I’m here to tell you – resist that urge. Almost every single one of those visiting celebrities charges between $20 to $50 for an autograph and/or a picture, and it’s almost never worth it. I just think there’s something inherently creepy about kids watching their parents have this weird, transactional moment with a complete stranger where you’re sliding them some folded-up twenties just so they’ll smile and take a picture with you. The return-on-investment for that transaction is almost zero.
But if there are celebrities that your kids are really interested in, here’s how you circumvent all of that weirdness for FREE – You SMILE and you WAVE. At my daughter’s first convention, Cary Elwes was at an autograph table, interacting with folks for $40 bucks a pop. My daughter had just seen The Princess Bride for the first time and couldn’t believe she was seeing Westley in person. So, I waited for the crowd to die down a little, we slowly walked past his table, we made eye contact with Elwes, we gave him big smiles, waved, and said “Hi!” (My daughter blurted out “I love Princess Bride!”) Mr. Elwes was a complete gentleman, smiled and waved back, and we kept on walking. It was a great moment my kid still talks about and it came without any of the transactional BS. (ONE NOTE – In that situation, it is a supremely dicky move to try to take a picture of the celebrity with your phone. I don’t fault them at all for charging for photos – they’re paying their bills – so trying to sneak out a free one makes you tacky and rude. Just enjoy the brief moment of pleasant social connection and don’t ruin it just to get an out-of-focus selfie.)
TIP #8 – PACK SNACKS
The food in convention halls is almost uniformly greasy, bad, and insanely expensive. And sometimes you have to wait in line for an hour to get that greasy, bad, and expensive food. So, throw some juice boxes, granola bars, and other high-protein snacks into your backpack to tide your kid over until they can eat a real meal somewhere else.
TIP #9 – DON’T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME
For their first trip to a convention, don’t try to do everything. Don’t hit up every panel you want to see. Don’t meet every artist you ever wanted to meet. Concentrate on your kid’s experience. Show them the highlights. Give them a sense of why these events are special, why they attract so many devoted fans, and then leave sooner than later. Exit on a high note, leave them wanting more, and, if you can, come back without the kids later to do everything you wanted to do on your own.
Make their first trips about THEM, first and foremost, and, hopefully, if it’s a good experience, they’ll be sharing it with their own geekily anemic kids one day when they’re a stunted nerd parent just like you.
(title image via Flickr user Jennie Ivins)