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With San Diego Comic Con just around the bend, and numbers of attendees surely through the roof, as a first time comer you are surely excited, nervous, and probably slightly clueless as to how the whole thing works. SDCC is massive — far vaster in numbers of people and content than other comic or entertainment conventions-and  stepping  in the doors for the first time can be very intimidating. Here’s what you need to know.

1.  First things first — Comic Con is no longer just for nerds. While your friends may scoff at you for attending or make fun of you for rubbing elbows with pimple-faced geeks who live in their mothers’ basements, they happen to be the ones who are missing out. You can argue that this is a good thing or a bad thing, but SDCC has broadened its horizons to include film, television, video games, books, and the occasional bit of technology, on top of its original comic book fodder. HBO was a sponsor last year, for Chrissakes. If you’re looking for the scoop on what  fall TV show to catch,  see the cast of True Blood talk about their terribly fascinating lives, or see a sneak preview of Tron: Legacy, you are surely going to the right place (last year I scooped that awful follow up to Boondock Saints –– bummer).

2.  Make a schedule. Get on the SDCC website, look up the program guide, and figure out what you want to see (they’ve even made a handy schedule builder on their website to help you out). Then take into account that everyone else probably wants to see that too, and make plans to wait in lines. A lot of very, very long lines. Also, and this is especially true for major celebrity signings, you need to stand in a line before standing in a line to draw from a raffle to get into the event. So yes, you’ll probably need to account for that as well. Think of it this way — the more famous or popular the event, the more people that will want to be there. As I mentioned above, SDCC is no longer just for nerds — everyone and their brothers are going to flood the panels, movie screenings, and sneak previews like it’s going out of style.

For this reason, it’s also physically impossible to make every event that you’re going to want to see — so be prepared to prioritize. Or, for that matter, be prepared to show up to an event, see the line, and give up all hope of ever getting inside that Burn Notice panel. Damn those Bruce Campbell fanboys.

3.  Park off site. Yes, as a matter of fact, San Diego becomes so flooded with people during Comic Con that it’s hard to walk down the street, let alone find a place to park. And yes, parking garages in downtown charge vast amounts of money to use their spaces. With much success, my friends and I have been parking at Qualcomm Stadium and taking the train into downtown each year (save that one time I made the mistake of parking in downtown — took at least an hour to find a spot). A day pass costs $5 and will get you back and forth (and last I checked, parking at Qualcomm is free). Check out the Metro schedule and just get off when that girl in the Xena costume does.

4.  Pay attention. Free stuff, favorite authors, surprise guests, and major giveaways lurk everywhere in the convention halls. Keep a keen eye on site and on the SDCC website — new announcements are made daily (I’d probably follow them on Twitter too — just to be safe). Same goes for any exhibitors — they’ll more often than not make announcements on their websites or Facebook pages in the morning before things kick off. It’s easy to get inside and get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff to see and miss the free Minimates or Harry Potter swag bags.

And another thing — I am aware (painfully, sometimes) how unfamiliar I am with what comic book authors and writers look like — admit it, you might not either. If you want to get something signed, I’d make sure to find out what your person of interest looks like BEFORE showing up and hoping to find them at a panel (I mean, if you know who you’re looking for, you might get lucky and find them sitting at a Coffee Bean and won’t have to stand in line). I will not forget (or live down) the time that I said, “I don’t think that’s Mike Mignola” while standing in front of Mike Mignola at his booth (in my defense, signings with Mignola have previously been huge ticketed events that you had to draw a raffle to get into. I was shocked to find him all forlorn in the back of the main hall).

5. Pack a bag. There are several necessities you’ll find yourself wanting while at Comic Con:

-A backpack — You know, for all the swag you’ll be picking up.
-Cash — You’re not going to want to wait in line to pay high ATM fees.
-A sketchbook — While many of the mainstream attendees (i.e., those who are there to check out the CW) will be visiting the big, fancy booths, there’s this fun, albeit somewhat less visited corner of SDCC- Artist Alley. While some do charge (a lot) for sketches, generally, if you are polite, sometimes persistent, and you show genuine interest in their work, artists will draw you fun little pictures in your book if you ask them. Bring a sharpie too.
-Comic books — See the story about Mike Mignola above (no, I didn’t have a copy of Hellboy with me for him to sign). If it’s something you’re interested in, be sure to bring some. You never know who you’ll bump into.
-Munchies — Waiting in line is tiring and boring, and paying $6 for a cookie only adds insult to injury. Bring your own.

All in all, San Diego Comic Con International is definitely quite the spectacle to behold. Yes, it’s overwhelming, crowded, and oftentimes very smelly inside, but there’s so much stuff to see and do that you’ll eventually get over the apprehension.  Don’t worry, you’ll probably end up nerding out when you see Kevin Sorbo just like the rest of us.

–Caitlin Elgin