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Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Starting a Libary Comic-Con

Starting a library comic con was a no-brainer. We are passionate about our fandoms and are veterans of a variety of cons. Our annual pop culture programs, including Star Wars Reads Day and Free Comic Book Day, are hugely successful each year, indicating significant patron interest in pop-culture events. With our passion and our patrons’ interest, how could we lose?

Planning, promoting, and executing this huge event from scratch took a lot of work. The payoff was absolutely worth it; attendees and staff alike had a great time, and we were able to please our Library Board with high attendance statistics. Still, there are many things we wish we’d known when we started planning our con.

Thinking of starting your own library comic con? Instead of starting from scratch, why not learn from our mistakes?

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

It was down to the wire. Our first Comic-Con was just over a month away, and we had no confirmed panelists and no one registered for our Artists’ Alley. We reached out to a friend, someone who runs a successful con at a nearby library, to ask if she would feel comfortable posting about our con on her event page. She asked how things were going, and we said that though our PR was good, at this rate we’d likely have hundreds of attendees at a con with no panels, no invited guests, and no creators. She said the following game-changing sentence: “I'm happy to pass along some artist info if you'd like.”

BOOM! Suddenly, we had a full Artists’ Alley with tablers selling a variety of wares. Two of the artists filled our empty panel slots with fun drawing and cosplay workshops.

Inspired, we did more research and found free materials we were able to incorporate into our Con. Given the broad interests of our patrons, open-ended projects were the way to go. We used our die-cut machine to quickly cut basic domino masks and laid out scrap paper to be used as decorations. We downloaded a blank superhero ID cards to help guide the creative process (and again, for open-ended decoration, with optional staff modeling).

Similarly, we put a spin on a tried-and-true activity, a scavenger hunt. Since the movie was about to be released, we made it a Detective Pikachu-themed scavenger hunt. To jazz it up, we added a “spot the difference” element: the kids looked for nine Pokemon, but six Pokemon had a different color element from the sheet. It added an additional level of challenge, and it made it feel like an entirely new activity.

Everything came together very quickly. Since we host a passive program each year for Free Comic Book Day, we’d chosen FCBD as the date for our inaugural con, so we had plenty of free comic handouts for attendees. It happened to fall on May 4, which meant free printable Star Wars Day activity sheets. Reaching out to Hoopla meant receiving tons of additional swag and handouts. For trivia prizes, we put together packs of comics and trades from donations and from exhibitor tables at conferences.

What we learned: Look to local comic and fandom events for invited guests and creators. Find crafts and activities that you know will work with your audience and give them a new, timely twist. If possible, plan your con for a date that has a preexisting fandom activity. Ask publishers and vendors for free swag for handouts and prizes.

Make It Fun for All Ages

Planning a con for one age group is tough enough, but we decided to make it even tougher by targeting ours to all ages. The planning committee included librarians from children’s, teen, and adult services, to ensure we were thinking of all ages throughout the planning process. Additionally, we asked our Teen Advisory Board to weigh in on what types of activities they’d like to see.

Some of our most popular activities among adults included fandom trivia with prizes and a nerdflakes craft (with real scissors - adults will not use the child-safe ones). Teens loved our Acting for Cosplay and How to Make a Minicomic workshops. Our most popular kids’ activity was our bottle cap charm craft. The hard work - punching holes in the metal, threading the split rings through, and cleaning - was all done in advance. All attendees had to do was to select a circular image of a popular character or design their own, glue it to the center of the bottle cap, and add an epoxy sticker. The result was a polished professional-looking product that they could wear throughout the event. We had adults and teens making these charms all day as they helped younger kids out, and we continued to see patrons and staff sporting these charms on a daily basis.

To accommodate all ages, we tailored our Detective Pikachu hunt to multiple age groups. Younger kids spotted Pokemon around the Library and won their choice of Pokemon card for completing their Junior Detective sheet. Older kids, teens, and adults completed the Senior Detective sheet, a paper packet containing a series of six different puzzles. The solutions for the first five puzzles yielded clues to the mystery. They were also necessary to finish the last puzzle, which allowed finishers to be entered into a raffle for three Pokemon and Pokeball sets. Many younger kids who had finished the Junior Detective sheet worked with their older siblings and parents to complete the more challenging Senior Detective sheet.

What we learned: For cutting crafts, make sure to have multiple types of scissors on hand, including child-safe, regular adult scissors, and left-handed. Plan activities for kids that will be fun for their parents and older siblings as well, since many families will work together.

Active and Passive

While planning a con, it’s easy to get bogged down in active programming and forget to incorporate passive activities. A lot of the programming staples of cons, such as the Artists’ Alley and panels, require patience and politeness, something that can be tough for amped-up kids. Also, attendees may be excited about participating in activities but uninterested in the inherent social aspect of most active programming.

When figuring out our passive activities, we tried to consider the required staff time in instructing or guiding patrons. Our Detective Pikachu hunts and nerdflakes were easy to explain in a single sentence. For our bottle cap necklaces, where the focus was on making a product, we needed to have staff on hand to explain. Whenever possible, we included instruction sheets and samples so patrons could guide themselves. Even for activities that could be summarized in a single sentence, we were still bombarded with questions from all fronts.

What we learned: Blend active and passive programming activities for a con that is engaging to all attendees. Include instruction sheets and samples to allow self-guiding. Make sure to have enough staff on hand to answer questions and give detailed instructions for more complicated passive activities.

Be Flexible

We tried to anticipate any potential snags. It may seem naive in retrospect, but since we were detailed in our planning, we expected things to run smoothly. With large-scale events, though, there will always be snags. Last-minute improvisation and changes are inevitable. For instance, the initial plan for the bottle cap charms was to have a limit of one per person with one staff member as the sole provider of epoxy stickers. However, the bottle caps proved to be surprisingly popular, and we were quickly overwhelmed. We couldn’t monitor the bottle caps or explain the limit, and patrons started getting the epoxy stickers themselves. Rather than reprimand patrons, it was easier to let them do as they liked until we could spare the time to enforce our rules.

Similarly, we realized  some of the puzzles in the Senior Detective Pikachu hunt were too difficult. Many attendees needed hints or the answers outright. While we hadn’t planned to offer hints and could easily have refused, it was determined on the fly it would be more fun for everybody to feed hints to those who asked.

Our trivia was targeted towards adults, so we planned prizes that would be age-appropriate, including a Game of Thrones game for our GoT trivia session. We were very surprised when our GoT trivia winner was a seven-year-old who had no interest in the game we had specifically purchased as a prize for that session. Fortunately, we had plenty of kid-friendly comics and were able to throw together a prize pack that pleased him.

What we learned: Don’t purchase a one-size-fits-all prize assuming the prize winner will want it; it’s better to allow prize winners to select from a variety of prizes. Though activities may be targeted for specific age groups, expect that patrons of different ages than anticipated will participate in those activities. In our case, since the bottle caps were hugely popular among adults, next year we plan to have a second station alongside the adult-targeted crafts.

About the Authors

Shira Pilarski (left) is a teen librarian at the Farmington Community Library whose forever fandoms are Buffy, Baby-Sitters Club, and Gaimanverse.

Madeline Lank (right) is a children's librarian at the Farmington Community Library, and has been involved with libraries since she was a teenager. When she's not doing story times, she enjoys losing at board games and crushing bar trivia.