VALib v59n3 - We Put On a Comic-Con (And So Can You!)
Spider Man reading 'Spider Man'

Comic-con noun . An organized event for fans of comic books, graphic novels, manga, anime, and science fiction to gather and enjoy, discuss, learn about, and participate in the dissemination of information about their interests. (“Con” is a shortened form of fan convention.)

How many of you have been in meetings when an idea was proposed that garnered nearly universal support? It may not happen often, but that was the response when we proposed that Chesterfield County Public Library (CCPL) have a comic-con of its very own.

A comic-con may seem like a strange fit for a library. People may think of comic books as an inferior form of literature, or not as literature at all, and they may think of a comic-con as a commercial enterprise (which it can be, but often isn’t). The most famous comic-con, popularly known as the Comic-Con, is the International Comic-Con: San Diego. Started in 1970, it has since grown to draw upwards of 13,000 people, and features superstar creators and authors of the comic, sci-fi, and fantasy world. 1

At Chesterfield County Public Library, we felt that a comic-con would align well with our mission of transforming information into knowledge, and would help us achieve some powerful goals.

We wanted to share the importance and impact of graphic novels and comic books on literacy and the validity of their inclusion in a public library materials collection. After attending a presentation at Virginia Library Association Conference 2012 in Williamsburg, we were able to better conceptualize and design our event. The program “Anime for the Rest of Us” was presented by Jess Fessler and Katie Walton, and included details of their first and second Greenbriar Comic-Con events, and gave us ideas for how we wanted our comic-con to look and feel 2 . We hope our experience will inspire other libraries to consider similar events.

In fall of 2012, a number of new comic books, graphic novels, and manga collections were purchased, and CCPL was eager to promote the new items. CCPL’s collection management department was also in the middle of reorganizing graphic novels into a separately-shelved section with a “GN” call number. As a promotional event, Chesterfield Comic-Con gave us the perfect, fun and out-of-the-ordinary way to support and show off the shiny new collection. Staff members were excited to host an event that tied in to the collection so neatly and clearly. We also hoped to use the comic-con as an opportunity to engage teens. CCPL successfully hosts an annual Teen Read Week Masquerade in the fall, but we have struggled to attract teens at other times of the year. By creating a second annual event aimed at teens, staff intended to engage middle- and high-school students multiple times throughout the year, creating a positive, lasting relationship with the library.

As part of our planning, we wanted to make sure that all staff members were aware of the new and improved graphic novel collection and had some familiarity with the genre. To that end, in the months leading up to the event, CCPL’s staff training newsletter and our collaborative staff wiki both included lists of resources about comic books and graphic novels, including introductions to the genre, history of comic books, and the specific literacy benefits of hybrid (image and text) books. We also issued an “Unofficial Staff Graphic Novel Challenge,” in which we challenged the staff to read one new graphic novel during the four months leading up to the comic-con. Librarians worked with Collection Management to develop a list of graphic novels that were “a good place to start,” for those who might never have read a graphic novel before.

Photo of two library staff dressed in comics costumes

Library staff enjoyed it too!

Never having been to a comic-con, we attended a local event, the VA Comic-Con on November 18, 2012. While we made several important contacts, it was obvious that the VA Comic-Con was focused on selling comic books. We decided that we wanted to include anime, science fiction and fantasy in our event, to create a broader, family-friendly appeal. By researching comic-cons and drawing on past experience creating library events, we determined the following activities would best appeal to our audience: a large display of our graphic novel collection, workshops, a creative space, anime screenings, a costume contest, comic book sales, exhibitor tables, and door prizes.

Altogether, there were over
1,000 items delivered to
the comic-con for the

Since one of our goals was to promote the CCPL graphic novel collection, we wanted to have a large number of items available to check out at the comic-con. Collection Management came up with a wonderful way to do this: they brought the newly-ordered graphic novels to Meadowdale to “debut” at the comic-con. They also brought in items from all other eight branches in the system to Meadowdale for that day. Altogether, there were over 1,000 items delivered to the comic-con for the event. Library staff members created a dramatic, bookstore-style display with the items and were on hand to assist patrons who had questions about the new collection.

Comic-cons usually feature workshops and famous guest speakers as a big draw for their audiences. However, time was short and the budget was limited, so we focused on local talent and used successful past programs as springboards for new ideas. For the creative instructor-led workshops, we emailed the comic artists that we met at VA Comic-Con, chose the first two artist illustrators who responded favorably, and contracted with an artist instructor who had led a previous manga drawing program. The workshops centered on teaching the creative storytelling aspect of comics and graphic novels. Presenters showed enthusiastic audiences how to plan, script and lay out a storyline and how to draw characters, heroes and villains. The three presenters were Chris Otto, author of the webcomic “A Dogs Life”; author and illustrator K. Michael Crawford; and Kelly Nixon, a freelance illustrator, graphic artist, and teacher. Even though the sessions were spread throughout the six-hour-long event, every workshop was packed to capacity with eager participants of all ages.

… every workshop was
packed to capacity with
eager participants of all

As further encouragement to dive into the world of comic and graphics creation, we set up a Creative Space. Tables were set up with stacks of paper and markers allowing attendees to take advantage of the creative energy at the event. The area was monitored for neatness and supply levels by a staff member, but otherwise had no structured activity planned and stayed continuously busy throughout the event, both as a creative space and a spot for socializing.

The anime screenings were held in a meeting room to minimize disruption for both viewers and passers-by. We found that a public exhibition license for anime films was available at relatively low cost and that the list contained appropriately rated films for the family style event. While the selection of appropriately-rated materials (E, G, PG) was limited to about four titles, which were not well-known, the films still drew a respectably sized and interested audience.

One of our Friends of the Chesterfield Public Library members was a valuable liaison between local comic book vendors and the planning team because, in addition to being a long-time comic book fan, he had many contacts in the local industry and was a big supporter of the idea of a comic event at the library.

Photo of four people dressed as Star Wars characters reading.

Star Wars characters also like to read

The Costume Contest proved to be a more complicated activity and went through several revisions before we decided on the methodology. Contestants stood in front of a simple draped cloth backdrop, and were photographed by a staff member using a tablet. The images were then printed in color and posted for all to see. Voting ended one half-hour before the end of the event and the winners in all categories — adult, teen, kids and audience favorite — were announced at the end of the event, along with the overall grand prize winner. We decided, early on, that prizes were necessary as an incentive to draw people in. In addition to costume contest prizes, we held drawings for smaller door prizes all day (winner had to be present) including a grand finale prize. The door prizes and grand prize winning names were drawn from entry slips that attendees filled out when first registering at the door. The Costume Contest proved to be one of the highlights of the event. The 110 entries with entrant ages ranging from 3 to 30 years of age showed the wide variety of fans and fandoms represented. People from as far away as Norfolk heard about the event, dressed up, and dropped by.

The gaming activities were a relaxed and casual component, consisting of a table for a local “Hero Clix” (a role-playing board game) group doing a live all-day demo game and a Wii gaming station set up with a library volunteer assigned to keep an eye on things.

Chesterfield County prohibits commercial activity on library property but we were fortunate to have support from the Chesterfield County Friends of the Library (FOL), who decided to host the Vendor Hall as a Friends of the Library fundraiser. This allowed us to have comic book sales while remaining within organizational guidelines. In addition to commercial vendors, we had several local artists exhibiting their work — they came for the visibility and for the chance to speak with teens about life as a professional artist. Two clubs from a Chesterfield County School also had tables — the “Sci-Fi and Fantasy Club” exhibited a model and game they created, while the “Anime and Manga Club” created caricatures for attendees.

You don’t often hear
muffled screams of delight
and gasps of downright
admiration at library

We were able to execute the event with a small budget. Most of our activities were run by library staff or by volunteers. Local artists volunteered their time as presenters, volunteers came in costumes, and the Friends of the Library arranged for vendors to sell their work at the event. In the end, we spent only a small amount on supplies for our art activity. Our largest expenditure was the door prizes.

The biggest “Wow!” moment of the event, though, was when members of the 501st Legion: Garrison Tyranus (a Star Wars costume-making group) marched in. You don’t often hear muffled screams of delight and gasps of downright admiration at library events. Legion members had so much fun and were so well received, that they asked us to please call them for future events.

Promotion and Marketing

Promotion for the comic-con took place mainly through partnerships. We determined a comic-con would most likely appeal to a specific segment of interested people, and our strategy was to find those individuals and use their existing networks instead of trying to build new ones ourselves.

Our first promotional outlet was through the comic book vendors who were selling at the event. Inexpensive flyers were distributed to all vendors, and were handed out at comic bookstores and comic-related events just prior to ours. Reaching out to our geographic area’s core group of comic book enthusiasts was an important step in this event. Our evaluation surveys indicated that this effort was a success — 37 percent of survey respondents said that one of their reasons for coming was to buy comic books. Since we met two of our presenters at vendor events, it was no surprise that they too advertised the library comic-con at events they attended. One vendor also sent a blast email to his mailing list in support of our event.

Our second (and probably most important) promotional outlet was through the schools. CCPL adopted a person-to-person approach in getting materials into the schools: Our librarians contacted school librarians at Chesterfield County public middle and high schools, and displayed posters and flyers in the school libraries. School librarians proved enthusiastic about the event, and their assistance with promotion was invaluable in spreading the word and building buzz about the event with their students. Another group of important school contacts were club leaders. Anime clubs and sci-fi and fantasy clubs were extremely excited about the event — in fact, some clubs even requested exhibitor tables, dressed in costume, and created special games for the event.

Above, youth enjoy the Creative Space. Left, the Cosby High School Sci-Fi/Fantasy Club, one of the supporting groups that requested an exhibitor table

During every step of promotion, CCPL emphasized the literacy value of comic books and graphic novels, and underlined the connection between the comic-con and our graphic novel collection. In CCPL’s event magazine, the announcement of the comic-con was accompanied by a list of the “Top Ten Reasons Librarians Love Comic Books and Graphic Novels,” which offered a quick overview of the literacy benefits of comic books. This list was also distributed as a bookmark on the day of the comic-con and sent to the schools for distribution at their libraries. The press release for the event also mentioned the literacy value of comic books. A few days prior to the event, the major paper in the area picked up on the press release and wrote a small piece about the event, thereby further increasing our reach.

Evaluation of Goals

… they overheard quite a
bit of chatter about the
event … in unexpected
places like the grocery
store checkout line and
even at church.

The final step of the project was evaluating the project’s success. We designed the door prize drawing slips to gather demographic information and opinions about the event. Since a primary goal was to promote the CCPL graphic novel collection, we were gratified to see that graphic novel checkouts made up 51 percent of circulation at Meadowdale Library on the day of the comic-con — about 200 items from the graphic novels in the building checked out.

“To get comic books from the library” was the least-selected option for “What made you want to come today?” — only 60 people, as opposed to the 156 people who came “to buy comic books.”

Anecdotally, staff reported that many teens who attended wanted to check out items, but didn’t bring their library cards. We will promote the need for a card at future library comic-con events.

Photo of ~75 attendees, some in costumes

A few of the nearly 2,000 attendees

Another important goal for the comic-con was to engage teens. In this, CCPL counts the event as a great success. Almost 2,000 people attended the event, and according to the information we collected, about 40 percent of those attendees were ages 13–17. We feel that the involvement of the school libraries and interested clubs played a large role in turning out this many teens. Parents and school officials reported that their teens were very excited about the comic-con. We also received reports from staff that they overheard quite a bit of chatter about the event from school librarians the next school day, in unexpected places like the grocery store checkout line and even at church.

In conclusion, we’d like to offer our “Top Ten Tips for Running a Library Comic-Con.”

  1. Find and build the buy-in. Talk to staff members who read and love graphic novels and gently encourage those who may have overlooked the genre to give it a try. Work with your system’s material selectors. Find people who are excited about the project.
  2. Talk about literacy. Support the idea with your internal customers by sharing all the research on this topic. Be sure to mention the literacy benefits when promoting the event to teachers, parents, and the press.
  3. Work with local comic book shops. Comic book enthusiasts are a built-in audience and the marketing/ promotional network already exists.
  4. Promote in the schools. School librarians can be your biggest supporters for events like these.
  5. Contact costuming and local charity groups. The 501st Legion was a huge hit at the CCPL comic-con, but any group that is willing to come in costume will bring a fun and authentic feel to your event.
  6. Have a costume contest. However you organize it, you definitely want to have some incentive for people to dress up.
  7. Have activities that participants can enjoy without money. While shopping is a large part of many comic-cons, not all teens have spending money. By having plenty of free activities, we made our event more accessible.
  8. Plan for crowds. Make sure that your activities will work whether you have 10 people or 100.
  9. Emphasize the collection. Merchandise your materials, and remind people to bring their library cards to the event.
  10. Have fun with it! Dress up, or wear nerdy t-shirts. Talk about your personal favorite comic books, superheroes, or science fiction movies. Enthusiasm is contagious, so if you’re anticipating and enjoying the event, your patrons will pick up on it, and they’ll have a good time too!

Kate Denwiddie is a Library Specialist at the Chesterfield County Public Library, where she has worked in the Community Services Department for five years. She specializes in event planning, promotion, and social media. She loves working with teens.

Kareemah Hamdan is an Assistant Branch Manager and Reference Librarian for two branches of the CCPL system. She has been involved in designing several successful events and programs at CCPL.


1 “Comic-Con International: San Diego about page,” last modified 2013, .
2 Jessica Fowler and Katie Walton, “Anime for the Rest of Us” (presented at the annual meeting of the Virginia Library Association, Williamsburg, October 24–26, 2012).

Resources for Comics and Literacy

“Comics Are Key to promoting Literacy in Boys, Study says.” School Library Journal , July 23, 2010. (accessed March 19, 2013).

Fletcher-Spear, Kristin, Meredith Jenson-Benjamin, and Teresa Copeland. “The Truth about Graphic Novels: A Format, Not a Genre.” The ALAN Review . no. Winter (2005): 37–44. (accessed July 12, 2013).

MacDonald, Heidi. “How Comics Help Students Retain Knowledge is a Growing Field of Study.” Publishers Weekly , February 12, 2013. (accessed July 12, 2013).

Robin, Brenner. “Graphic Novels 101: FAQ.” The Horn Book Magazine , April 2006. (accessed July 12, 2013).

University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, “For Improving Early Literacy, Reading Comics Is No Child’s Play.” Last modified November 06, 2009 (accessed July 12, 2013). .

YALSA, “Great Graphic Novels 2013.” Last modified 2013 (accessed July 12, 2013). . VL

Comic-con vendor room

Comic-con vendor room