These conventions throw comic book artists, writers, publishers, character impersonators (known as cosplayers), and you, the fan — sometimes costumed as your favorite hero — together in major cities across the United States. There might be a theme, for example, “Women in Comics,” where fans can ask questions such as, “What is it like for women being in an industry mostly run by men?”
Add celebrities who take photos with fans and who will autograph your souvenir or a photograph for a fee. You'll have a moment's chance to schmooze with a real celebrity. Then you can take in the latest films being shown. There is a souvenir vendors alley and an artists section.
What a blast. What energy circulating. What confusion. These shows are extravaganzas.
In 2002, Amy Gray said she “started to participate with a friend from artists alley.” It was the Emerald City Comic Con debut in Seattle, where she was living. By the third year she volunteered to work for them, saying, “the show got bigger and needed help.”
After a couple years at the weekend ticket/registration table, she progressed to managing all 120 staff members.
“It’s like planning a wedding every year. It took me a long time working in the industry to know how it all works,” Gray said.
Behind the scenes, her first exposure was at a table where celebs were giving autographs. Gray made change for fans to keep the line moving faster. She color-coordinated Sharpie pens to show up on the autograph background — gold or white ink on black, not just black ink on all.
“To make things more comfortable for the celeb, we typically have one handler who takes the celeb to the signing area,” she said.
“It’s a big place, where anyone could get lost. The handler has practiced finding the booth, the lounges, restrooms and, with his radio or by text, can keep the signing going on schedule.”
There may be as many as five booths when 70,000 or more people attend the event. That schedule is paramount to making a profit.
Besides stage managing in Seattle, Gray worked in New York, San Diego, Chicago for the C2E2 show and Philadelphia at the Keystone Comic Con.
Gray organized her own Starlite Division, LLC company when Emerald City was bought out. She now sub-contracts to the new Reed Expositions, stage-managing for the photo company that is responsible for all photos of all celebrities.
“I like that the boss sends me a spread sheet with color-blocked schedules for each celeb, because they’ll be moving around as they travel to different venues to sign. We can practice getting to each place in a timely way,” Gray said.
Show runners/handlers oversee celebrities all weekend. They escort them from place to place and each escort must have a personality that can intuit or mesh with the celebrity. Some are shy; being among large numbers of people makes them nervous. Some are prickly and want to be waited on excessively. Gray said some celebs insist on having the “good” side of their profile show in every photo.
“The handler is helping the celeb get their own best results,” she added.
“Stage management for live production is like food service. There are so many soft skills needed to keep the multiple parts moving smoothly, as well as to hire and train (my) 40 employees to work well together. Is the booth itself ready to shoot? Is there enough extra photo paper supply near the photo area? Who is available to get it here?”
Current technology means Gray can get photos of the bosses at convention sites and her employees can become familiar with those faces and names. When someone comes down the hall giving a runner instructions, the runner and handler need to know who this person is they have never met. There is no time to find out on Facebook or social media now.
Significantly, Gray has implemented a system of using color-coded index cards to keep the show moving in various stressful circumstances.
“I can hold up a green card to let my crew know I need more change, or cash, but I can still keep talking to patrons until I get assistance. A yellow card means (a) bathroom break; the blue card is for police or other security. Last of all, the red card means some emergency and we have protocols to keep things moving in this case too,” she said.
Comic-con events are drawing more fans each year. The biggest convention is in San Diego.
“It’s a beast,” Gray said. “You can’t get motel rooms; no one knows ahead of time which celebrities will be coming.”
From beginning to end, getting tickets or a parking place is quite an experience with 200,000 attendees involved. Gray said her part of the contract is to “keep it moving.”
“The show must go on. It’s my own little circus.”
It's something she loves doing and is doing it well.