Comic Cons: Breaking Down Setting it Up


 I know. Another convention article from me.

Maybe that’s because comic con season just hit full swing, or maybe it’s because the #1 question I get asked over and over here at the Alliance is something like, “Where do I get ____ for conventions?” I have covered how to SET UP YOUR STOREFRONT (as in, your table). I’ve dished out my TIPS & RESOURCES for buttons, banners, business cards, and more. There’s even that comic con REPORT CARD post for my 2013 “tour”. Not to mention Chris and Robin have done some pretty solid articles on CON PREP and SKETCH CARDS. So, we have covered this, folks. I’m branching out today to cover the suckiest part of doing conventions: the loading in, setting up, and breaking down.

It sucks, it really does. Lugging all that stuff (books are heavy!), setting up the same $#@! table you have over and over, remembering what you forgot to bring. If it’s a bigger show at a major convention center, you have MORE fun stuff like where/how to load-in, where on earth you’re gonna park and who’s going to watch your stuff, and how to avoid being robbed blind by extra hidden fees. Toss in a flight, when you don’t have your trusty car to stash your stuff before and the after the show, and ….. UGH. It’s enough to sentence yourself to another year hiding behind the computer screen instead.

To an outsider, it may seem like a MAGIC TRICK…

…How can I, in just one trip, bring in two tubs during set-up…

photo 2

…..and go from this…..


photo 3

….to THIS.

Well, 3 reasons:

  1. Selective Minimalism
  2. Clever Condensing
  3. Tetris-Master Packing Skills

Selective Minimalism!

I know you want to be prepared for anything and everything. You have every single type of tape (duct! masking! art! scotch! double-sided!), just in case. You pack your art box full of every…. single…. marker… you own. You’re not sure how many books to bring, so you just pack WAY too many. While I’m all for being prepared, experience will help you narrow down what you tend to use and what just collects dust. Unfortunately, this is something very particular to YOU.. so I can’t really TELL you what to leave behind. But here’s some food for thought:

  • Is a big part of your income from commissions? If not, bring only the essentials.. consider only doing B&W/grayscale art, and leaving your color supplies at home. Who says you can’t arrange a take-home commission if someone really wants color?
  • Consider your audience at each show to determine how many books to bring. Is it a show you always do and have a fan base that will seek you out? Make sure to bring MORE of the latest book. Is it a new show for you? Make sure you have enough of the first volume. Also, determine ahead of time what kind of combo deals you may offer– and what you’ll be sweetening the pot with; don’t skimp on those. As for the rest of your wares? Leave it at home. A few years in you’ll know what sells and what doesn’t.
  • If you sell, on average, 3 Tshirts per show… you probably don’t need 10 of each size on hand.
  • Know how much space you’ll have at your disposal. 8′ table or 6′? What’s behind you? Enough room for all of your banners, or only 1? Do they provide a chair or do you have to bring one?
  • If you have the luxury of driving to the show, you can keep extras (like a couple extra sets of books!) in your car. You don’t have to bring it ALL in at once.

Clever Condensing!

It took me some stumbling around and years of experience to find my display equipment. Now, of course I wanted it to help my product stand out and get noticed, but I also wanted it to be utilitarian and EASY to CONDENSE. Things that can collapse, fold, & stack are your best friends. For me, the limit was being able to haul it all in IN ONE TRIP. Especially at those bigger conventions where you have to park & haul, making 2 trips is a huge pain in the behind. I’m at the brim now, so if I want to add something to my convention haul, I have to leave something else at home. Being an artist that tends to over-do it (clutter up my table, my art itself), this limit is crucial otherwise I may have 200 different pieces of merchandise for my comic. Just because I CAN doesn’t mean I SHOULD.

  • They say “Go Vertical”. Well, that’s nice, as long as whatever is making your product vertical is easy to lug in. My wire book rack from Displays To Go collapses and sits nicely on top of the tubs. There’s a reason you see those wire cubes at, like, every comic con.  They are kind of a pain to take apart and put together, but the space-saving aspect is just that beneficial. A set of 4 cubes fits into a 15″ x 15″ x 4″ box.
  • For a while I cheaped-out and got one of those clumsy VistaPrint banner stands. They fell over constantly and the banner had to be duct-taped to the metal holders to not fall out. Plus, the stand at the bottom was a clunky addition to my lack of space in the tubs. I now have 3 retractable banner stands, with it’s own carrying case. Easy to set-up, compact and manageable.
  • Speaking of carrying cases…. things with HANDLES & SHOULDER STRAPS are also your best friends. I throw about 5 things over my shoulder during the hauling process: Purse, lunch bag, 2-3 banner stands. Yay for shoulders.
  • Rubbermaid tubs that stack nicely and have lids are great, not just for staying put while you wheel them in, but for protecting the goods from the weather.. or spilled coffee. Also, a tall tub will come in handy after you empty it, and stack your banners on top. Go vertical, right?
  • Wheels. What an invention! Whether you get a footlocker with a handle and wheels (instead of tubs), or you get a hand cart/dolly, they are make the transportation of heavy things MUCH easier. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but I see so many artists lugging trip after trip of boxes into a show, leaving a trail of perspiration and regret behind them. I suggest the MagnaCart… and guess why? Collapsible!

Tetris-Master Packing Skills!

This one’s tough, because I think it’s partly a personality trait. It may not be something you can learn per se. Some people are just more of the “quick, toss stuff in a heap” type people. But, my precise packing skills, along with careful selection of the additional boxes I use to organize smaller items, is a main reason I can cram as much as I do into 2 tubs.

  • Use the grocery packing rules. Fragile items on top, sturdy & heavy items on the bottom. Balance the weight on both sides of the tub, as well as between multiple tubs. This will help when you stack them and lean them against your hand cart.
  • The Container Store is a great place to start, to pack your smaller items. They have almost any size organizational tray, tackle box, tub, or basket with compartments. They also have foot lockers and large tubs. I go completely hog-wild in one of these stores.
  • Use sturdy ziplock bags too. They can fit into small spaces easier than bulky boxes.
  • Once you figure out the best way to pack, it may be hard to remember exactly how you did it. Take a picture of your open tubs to reference. There’s nothing more frustrating when you’re trying to pack up and hit the road than to be playing Tetris with your tubs. “This all fit before? WTH???”
photo 1

My convention haul. One trip. Less stress.


Some Other Tips on Getting In, Getting Out

The stress comes from more than just packing. Every convention is different and the best thing you can do is to be prepared, keep in contact with the organizers with any questions, and leave yourself plenty of time. But here’s some other tips:

  • There’s two types of exhibitors. The vendors with a TON of product and displays who need to use the loading docks, and the artists/small vendors who have very little to bring in. If you can wheel in your haul in 1 trip, it may just be best to park and walk in, rather than use a crowded loading dock area and then have to go back to park your car. But again, it depends on the convention venue.
  • Pair up. Hopefully you have a friend who is also doing the show. Tag-team the load-in process. Even better, carpool if you can. This comes in super handy if the two (or more) of you are dropping off directly at the convention center. One can watch all the con gear, the other can go park, neither has to wheel their stuff blocks and blocks from the nearest reasonably-priced lot. Do this when you pack up and go to leave as well!
  • Smaller shows at hotels or small venues are less stressful in general. Parking is usually free and within easy walking distance. Regardless, make sure you know where the organizer prefers you load-in; sometimes it’s behind the hotel.
  • If you are not going to be available to load-in during the specified time, be sure to let your organizer know, and have them fill you in about any changes to the original plan. Showing up late without warning can irk a lot of organizers.
  • In big cities, parking can be expensive and hard to come by. Try services like Parking Panda, to reserve a spot & pay ahead of time. However, double-check if the lot still exists and what the hours are via phone call. I tried this in DC last month and it closed very early, so I had to park elsewhere. Parking Panda has excellent customer service and refunded my money… but you have to be on top of it (no later than 24 hours later)!
  • With a hand cart, be very aware of what is around you. Busy streets can be an obstacle course. Leave plenty of time so you’re not rushing or your carefully packed tub could wind up spilled across a busy street (been there, done that). Also, pay close attention to curbs at intersections, even the little hill going up to the sidewalk can cause issues.
  • Write down the level you’re on, in parking garages. Heck, write it on the ticket you carry with you. It really sucks lugging your stuff around looking for your %$#@ car.
  • Ask questions. Don’t be shy. Ask the organizer beforehand, ask the guards and staff at the convention center where to go to get your badge, ask volunteers which way the load-in area is. Ask.
  • If you’re flying to your show, it really complicates things. I do not suggest if you’re just starting out, but some of you don’t have a choice. Be aware of extra fees! Receiving fees from the convention center if you are shipping stuff direct. Airline fees for your luggage going over the weight limit (usually 50 lbs). Sometimes the convention center even charges fees as soon as you walk in the door, as they insist on having their staff transport your stuff. If you have someone you know in the area that’s attending the show, see if you can ship THEM your books and such. Signing up for an airport shuttle straight from the convention center can come in very handy… just find out EXACTLY where it will pick you up!
  • Finally, if you want to be allowed back and keep up a decent relationship with organizers (who may one day offer you a free table?) treat your area with respect and don’t leave trash behind. Someone has to clean that up, or pay fees. Just be cool and think of others around you.

It’s the worst part of the shows that allow you to connect with your readers and monetize your comic, but a little planning, organizational skills, and key purchases will alleviate some of the stress that comes with breakin’ down and loadin’ in. It’s still all worth it, trust me.


DawnPicDawn Griffin is the resident “crazy chick”. She likes steak, Cleveland sports, video games and oh yeah, comics. She spent her formative years either playing street basketball, pitching, or drawing comics and submitting them to syndicates. Once she –accidentally– discovered the world of webcomics, the syndication route became a pointless hurdle. After all, “Crazy Chicks” do things their *&%$ selves. Dawn is the mastermind behind Zorphbert and Fred, and you can find her portfolio site HERE.  She can be easily bribed with ice cream.


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  1. Thanks for your comment about the Vistaprint banner stands. I saw them and they were cheap and all, but didn’t know if they were cheap for a reason. Now I know and I’ll avoid them.

    Also, thanks for these articles. They are really helpful to me and before every show I try to read a few of them over again to try and incorporate something new each time.

    • Hiya Bobby. yeah, at the time, the VistaPrint banners were SO much cheaper than the retractable, but those have come down in price and it’s more competitive now. I suggest – but I know there’s even cheaper options too. I just know the guy at IMPG and he’s earned my patronage over the years. He has a lot of comic con exhibitor clients, goes to shows to promote his business.

      And also… incorporating new things each time is pretty much the norm! So good for you! After 4 years I’m still doing that :0)

      • I had some webcomic buddies of mine us Vista Print (in Canada) and their banner was freaking phenomenal. Much better (and cheaper) than the one I had made over here in England.

        Perhaps the Canadian counterparts are better quality than the US. Who knows. But I considered using Vista Print here in the UK until I saw the prices. YIKES! Definitely way more expensive than their Canadian counterparts.

        • yeah, who knows. It’s been years, and I got the cheapest option on VP. It wasn’t retractable, came with a clumsy bottom stand and the clasps that held the banner wouldn’t stay shut. I duct taped the crap out of it and that held me for a while, when it didn’t just fall over completely (usually on my head at a show). Eventually, paying $150 for a retractable banner made a LOT more sense than the $75 or so crappy one from VP. They’ve lasted me 3 years so far.

  2. Dawn, your articles have been immensely helpful! Salt Lake City got its first Comic Con this past year, and it opened as the largest first-year Comic convention ever. It’s only located about two blocks from where I work, so even though I don’t have a particularly large audience, the cost to attend is pretty minimal. I am sort of cramming to have something ready by September, and I appreciate all the effort you put into telling us how it’s done!

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