Comic-Con is back. Here’s why it might not be the same as you remember it

Phillip Molnar
The San Diego Union-Tribune (TNS)

SAN DIEGO — Comic-Con International is back in person after a two-year hiatus and while a lot of it looks familiar, it isn’t exactly the same pop culture event you remember.

There will still be massive crowds descending on downtown San Diego with 135,000 confirmed ticket holders starting Thursday, but efforts are in place to slow the spread of COVID-19: The convention has instituted a strict mask policy and attendees must show proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours.

The convention itself feels like a contradiction: On one hand, some of the large companies that traditionally take up space on the big exhibit floor will be absent this year. Yet there will also be some of the biggest panels in years — even predating the time before the pandemic — with DC, Marvel Studios, Netflix and other entertainment companies doing an all-out push for their latest movies and TV shows.

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Even with a few companies avoiding the packed exhibit floor, citing COVID concerns, Hollywood is showing up big in different ways with Hall H panels and installations throughout the Gaslamp. The enthusiasm from studios was welcome news to Comic-Con organizers.

“I was very gratefully surprised,” said longtime Comic-Con organizer and spokesman David Glanzer.

Among the major draws at the 53rd year of Comic-Con will be Marvel Studios, whose cinematic universe totals 29 films and has now stretched into several hit TV shows, including “Moon Knight,” on streaming service Disney+. Historic rival DC is not to be outdone, also taking up space in Comic-Con’s biggest space, Hall H, and featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with his film “Black Adam.”

Those might be the biggest names, but the streaming wars have added a new element, and importance, to the convention. Amazon Prime Video is doing a full-court press on its new Lord of the Rings show, “The Rings of Power.” Much of the gigantic cast is confirmed for Hall H. In a similar vein, HBO is seeking to gain momentum for its Game of Thrones spinoff, “House of the Dragon” with its full cast and crew making the rounds.

All the major pop culture franchises you’d expect will be in attendance: Star Trek, The Walking Dead, Dragon Ball, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Dungeons & Dragons.

Miro Copic, a marketing lecturer at San Diego State University, said it makes sense that Hollywood would be all over Comic-Con after heavy losses as theaters around the world closed to stop the spread of the virus. He said now, more than ever, studios are pushing big blockbusters.

“At the end of the day, it is a big promotional event,” he said.

Comic-Con’s return is a major boon to San Diego’s tourism industry, which gained nothing from the convention being online-only for two years. The San Diego Convention Center Corp. estimates this year’s convention will bring in $164.1 million to the region, with at least $3.2 million in hotel and sales taxes for the city.

Copic said Comic-Con has the potential to be a major free advertisement for the region. For instance, he noted the $38 million San Diego plans to spend on tourism promotion this year often only translates into a short TV commercial. Yet for Comic-Con, Copic said national and international TV reports about the convention can go further — especially if the news media go out into the Gaslamp or deeper into the community to highlight San Diego.

Comic-Con International Convention fans ride the escalator on the second day of the convention, July 19, 2019, at the San Diego Convention Center, in San Diego. (Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

“Instead of a 30-second commercial, it is a three- to four-minute TV segment,” he said.

Maren Dougherty, marketing director with the Convention Center, said even though it has had other conferences in. the past year, nothing compares to the size and scale of Comic-Con.

“It’s a huge event because we have gone two summers without it,” she said. “You can just feel the excitement.”

Conventions in the time of COVID: There is still a pandemic going on, and hospital admissions are increasing in much of California. Comic-Con received some pushback when it canceled the in-person event for a second year in March 2021, but it might have made the right move in hindsight: San Diego County was averaging around 300 cases a day when it made the decision to cancel, but a summer surge hit and cases were averaging nearly 1,000 a day by the time the convention was supposed to be held.

The daily average is now around 1,590, but a few things are different from last summer: Vaccines are widely available — not limited by age groups like last summer — and there are new treatments, like the oral antiviral pill Paxlovid.

Despite all that, the convention is still cramming 135,000 people into a closed structure.

Glanzer said Comic-Con was happy when they received very few complaints about the mask policy. Instead, Glanzer saw a lot of emails thanking the nonprofit for requiring them.

“We, as an organization, have made our decision to be as cautious as we possibly can,” he said.

Comic-Con’s mask policy is strict: Masks must be visible at all times (not hidden under a Spider-Man mask), and ticket holders who say they are unable to wear a mask due to medical reasons are asked to not attend the event.

There is a blueprint Comic-Con can follow. New York Comic Con— with a bigger attendance of 150,000 — returned in October 2021 with a mask and vaccine requirement. While a few pictures could be found online of people without masks, it did other things to keep things safe, such as reducing the number of attendees from 260,000 to 150,000.

The CDC found attendees were no more likely to have caught COVID-19 at the 53,000-person convention than other places in New York City.

It’s unclear to Comic-Con organizers if a few usual names staying off the exhibit floor will make it less jammed. Attendees are usually packed like sardines on the exhibit floor, and it can take hours to get from one end to the other. Glanzer said he anticipates attendees will be more conscious of personal space after, as a society, we have changed a lot of our habits because of the pandemic.

Homecoming: For Heidi MacDonald, editor of The Beat, a comic book news website, coming back to San Diego from New York for the pop culture event is a chance for her and others in a close-knit community to finally see each other again.

She said she first experienced the power of reunions at New York Comic Con last year.

“The overwhelming feeling was joy,” MacDonald said. “It was a very happy event and not a super spreader event. There was a lot of compliance.”

Some organizations known for their big presence in the exhibit hall, such as Batman and Superman publisher DC and smaller publisher Dark Horse Comics, have decided not to have booths this year.

Dark Horse Comics, known for its indie books Hellboy and The Umbrella Academy, decided to forgo its booth due to concerns over the pandemic and safety of its staff, MacDonald reported in Publishers Weekly and The Beat. Image Comics, the third biggest comic publisher behind DC and Marvel, decided to limit its presence with a smaller booth because of similar concerns. However, MacDonald has also been reporting on how smaller publishers are eagerly taking the place of those that stay home.

One of the exhibitors taking full advantage of the situation is San Diego-based IDW Publishing. The company is riding a wave of good press and fan excitement for its recent “The Last Ronin” series by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman. The dark tale follows the last surviving ninja turtle in a dystopian future.

Nachie Marsham, IDW publisher, said he can’t wait for fans to meet with creators of books, such as “The Last Ronin.”

“This is why we get so excited about doing something like this in the first place,” he said, “because it’s a place for people to celebrate everyone who put so much hard work for years and years to make that storyline happen.”

Marsham said he understands why some companies have decided to stay off the exhibit floor and tried to make it as clear as possible to staff that they didn’t need to go. He also said they are talking about the changing Covid situation every day and are ready to make adjustments if something happens.

“It’s not like we’re going into this with the attitude that the pandemic is over,” he said. “We tried to make it very clear for all the employees that if you want to go, you can go, but if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable, there are no repercussions for not going and no pressure to go.”

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