San Diego Comic Con: The Special Edition.
After two years and four months, San Diego Comic Con has finally returned as an in-person event–but not quite at full blast. In the thick of the ongoing COVID pandemic, San Diego Comic Con was turned into an online-only event, which meant that panels were held via Zoom calls, and that the merchandising wares of the Dealer Hall were sold exclusively online. San Diego Comic Con: Special Edition was held over this past Thanksgiving Weekend, November 26th-28th, and it was less a “Special Edition” and more like a cautious dipping of collective toes into the waters of convention-attendance. The massive, almost airport-sized San Diego convention center was once again engaged, but tickets were limited to only 40,000 or so–far fewer than the usual 130,000 normally allotted (and sold out) for the event. With SDCCSE taking place over the US holiday weekend of Thanksgiving (and Black Friday), tickets were not sold out–this was the first time in over a decade that has been the case. There were still local hotel rooms available, as well.
Much as I saw at the “55 Year Mission” Star Trek convention at Las Vegas a few months ago, there was stringent on-site verification of vaccination status and COVID testing for attendees, and mask-wearing was absolutely mandatory; during the convention I saw several attendees warned by security to keep their masks over their noses while indoors at all times. So, instead of the usual line to pick up your badge, there was a prior line to show vaccination status first before you were allowed to get your badge. Good news is that if you were already fully vaccinated (as my wife and I are), and could show your card or a screen cap from your phone of your online verification, you only had to wait in this line once, since you were given a sturdy wristband to wear for the entire 3-day event (yes, you could shower with it). Personally, I was grateful for these precautions–particularly the mask mandate–since the weekend was flooded with news of a more resistant Omicron coronavirus variant slowly working its way around the globe.
Note: For California residents (other states/countries vary), you can get an instant digital record of your vaccination status by going to https://myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov; once there, you type in the required fields, create a security code, and you’ll see a QR-code proof of vaccination, from which you can make a screenshot. That, or a physical vaccination card were accepted as proof of vaccination at San Diego Comic Con (and at the Las Vegas Trek convention as well).
So, how was it different once you actually got inside the event? Well, first off there were no infamous “Hall H” or “Ballroom 20” panels (the two largest venues at the convention center), but most of the smaller meeting rooms were used for in-person and virtual panels. Once again, people were allowed to sit close to each other, but mask-wearing indoors was absolutely mandatory. Otherwise, it felt pretty much like a Comic Con of around 2004 or so… in those days before people camped out overnight to attend the Hall H panels, or wait in marathon lines to buy tickets for next years Comic Con–while missing out on the current Comic Con to do so. There were some lines to get into certain panels/events, but everyone wore masks, and those lines were generally a lot smaller than in previous years.
The bottom floor Dealer Hall–the single most massive space at the San Diego convention center–was still the most crowded place at the convention, but there were actual places where you could step outside the lanes of foot traffic and catch a breather, unlike previous recent years, where it’s usually wall-to-wall people the moment you step in.
The Dealer Hall’s famed Artists’ Alley was in full swing, as artists and authors sold personal, autographed copies of their works. There were also many deals to be had on collectible Funko vinyl figures, and many other rare/exclusive toys. There were also some themed booths, such as the horror specializing Trick or Treat Studios (with their high quality pullover horror masks and prop replicas), or the Studio Ghibli sponsored Bandai booth. Whatever one’s geeky niche, be it sci-fi, horror, anime, fantasy or what-have-you, the craving could probably be sated somewhere within the massive confines of the Dealer Hall at San Diego Comic Con–even its smaller, less-packed Special Edition.
Note: I don’t collect nearly as many trinkets as I did just 5 years ago (lack of room, for starters), but I did manage to get a “Beaches Closed” replica sign from the movie JAWS (at Trick or Treat Studios’ booth), a few vintage sci-fi magazine back issues and replacement miniature of the starship USS Enterprise (as it appeared recently on Star Trek: Discovery); I bought one at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention two years ago, but it fell from a tall bookcase and shattered–got one at a fair price from an Eaglemoss collectibles dealer.
The architecture of the San Diego Convention Center remains a marvel to me, even after attending Comic Con fairly regularly since 2004 (COVID-mandated cancellations excepted, of course). Whether you glide down one of the escalators looking down the rounded rows of windows, or look out the side facing the marina at San Diego bay, it’s an amateur photographer’s dream to photograph. Although I’ve come to know the convention center almost as well as my own house, I’m still a bit awed by the vast size and gorgeous architecture of the venue. It’s no wonder that it doubled for the heart of a gleaming, 2032 “San Angeles” in 1993’s futuristic action-satire, “Demolition Man”. If I have time (and my schedule was exceptionally light this year) I enjoy taking long walks around the convention center, before it opens, as a friend and I did early on the first morning of the event. I also enjoy looking out across the marina, seeing the various boats and even luxury yachts that are docked there. If you ever attend a San Diego Comic Con, try not to let your schedule become so packed that you don’t have time to relax and take in the view now and then…
One of the few startling reminders of SDCC’s ‘special edition’ pandemic-operations status came on Friday morning, the first official day of the convent, when I went up the escalator to the Sails Pavilion area; usually a vast meeting area where most of the convention’s autograph signings are held. That first day, the place was eerily quiet. Only a few celebrity signings were happening, including “Farscape” actress Gigi Edgley and actor Brent Spiner (“Data” on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Spiner was the only ‘ticketed’ autograph event (meaning you needed to wait in line to get a ticket to ensure your autograph), the rest were just meet-and-greet. Fortunately, the ghost town version of the Sails Pavilion I encountered on Friday was considerably more populated on Saturday and Sunday, though empty meeting tables were still all too easy to find.
Panels: Both Virtual and In-Person.
One of the major differences between San Diego Comic Con and its Special Edition version were the panels, which range from costume-making and writing seminars to full-on media blitzes for new movies and TV shows. I usually pick and choose my events carefully, making sure they don’t conflict with other events I wish to attend, or that the venue isn’t too crowded because of high-profile celebrity panelists. This year that wasn’t quite the problem that it normally is during a regular San Diego Comic Con, since there weren’t many big movie promotions going on, not to mention that the typically crowded Hall H and Ballroom 20 venues weren’t hosting their usual celebrity-studded events.
One of the events I ducked into for a few minutes was a panel for the new NBC series “La Brea”, a sci-fi fantasy series that involves the famous Los Angeles-area tarpits and a massive sinkhole leading to a bizarre prehistoric dimension, where a group of random Angelinos find themselves in a prehistoric (or post-apocalyptic?) world of unknown dangers. This was held in one of the larger remaining auditoriums at the convention center, the combined Rooms 6DE. Right off, I noticed that this was one of the virtual panels I’d heard of; all the guests were broadcasting live via Zoom chat, which was then projected within the ballroom’s large monitors. Panelists included actors Natalie Zea, Eoin Macken, Jon Seda, Chike Okonkwo and Nicholas Gonzales were joined with showrunners David Applebaum, Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt. The event was moderated by TV Guide magazine’s Damian Holbrook. Like I said, I only watched a few minutes of this event, but the series’ first season is available to watch on NBC and for streaming on Peacock.com, where you can binge the first 9 episodes of Season 1 (as of this writing). I might have to check out the pilot, because what little I heard of the panel sounded intriguing enough to give it a try.
Speaking of “La Brea”, the new series was had one of the few off-site displays at the convention. Typically there are many of these in the surrounding parks and along the marina near the convention center, but this was the only one that I saw this year. On a corner across the street from the historic downtown Gaslamp Quarter, the photo op area for “La Brea” had a fog machine providing a bit of ambience, as well as a downed (prop) streetlamp and street signs strewn among the scenery, which is supposed to be wreckage poured into the sinkhole’s dimension from above. Since I was dressed as Fred Flintstone (as I’ve been doing for 12 years now), I decided that a couple photos in a strange, prehistoric dimension might be a good idea, so I posed for a few. Apparently the costume caught on with the people running the booth as well, since two of them took out their personal phones to get their own pictures (I was appropriately flattered).
Another panel I made a point of attending was for the nonprofit anti-bullying outreach group “Pop Culture Hero Coalition,” which was founded by “Deep Space Nine” actress Chase Masterson (“Leeta”) whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for Treckcore.com back in 2018 (Chase Masterson Trekcore interview). Masterson put together PCHC to teach bullying prevention, self-acceptance and what it means to be an ally. The coalition has now produced a graphic novel, written by their VP in charge of creative strategy, Raymond Litster, which is given free to high schoolers. The graphic novel is also illustrated by part-time graphic artist and pediatric nurse, Mr. Loki.
In addition to Pop Culture Hero Coalition founder Chase Masterson (one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in all my years of convention attendance), other panelists included Litster (who also moderated), as well as Bow Wow Wow lead singer Annabella Lwin (“I Want Candy”), actress Elizabeth Dennehy (“Gattaca,” “Star Trek:TNG”), drag artist Scarlett Bobo (“RuPaul’s Drag Race Canada”), actress Terry Farrell (“Deep Space Nine” “Becker”) and Mister Loki. All panelists related their stories of being bullied. Dennehy smartly suggested the term ‘bullying’ be replaced with a stronger word, like ‘attack.’ The panelists also related how they deal with bullying (attacking) now, as well as the lingering trauma that stays with us all, long after the damage is done. Their personal stories were both uplifting and empowering. If you have a chance, stop by their website popculturehero.org and help spread a little good across sci-fi/fantasy fandom.
As I’ve said before, cosplay is the very soul of these conventions. I could easily imagining attending a convention of nothing but cosplay, and it’d be every bit as rewarding as if it were crammed full of exclusive panels, merchandise and celebrities. Despite the restrictions placed on the number of attendees, and with mandated masks due to the COVID pandemic, there were still many creative cosplayers in attendance for San Diego Comic Con Special Edition, as you’ll see below…
My Flickr album with all of my San Diego Comic Con Special Edition photos (and many more cosplay pics) can be found in the link below:
What Happens Next.
While I realize that future San Diego Comic Cons would be unsustainable with such limited attendance, the quiet introvert in me rather enjoyed seeing the convention run at a more relaxed pace. Granted, it lacked the audacious star power of past events (though “The Suicide Squad” actor John Cena did crash the Masquerade Event on Saturday night), but it was also nice just to be back at the venue again. After nearly two and a half years away, it almost felt like a homecoming. Barring any deadly surges of new cases during the current COVID pandemic, San Diego Comic Con is scheduled to return as a 5-day summer event next year, beginning with preview night on Wednesday, July 20th, and running through Sunday, July the 24th of 2022. Once again, I assume this is contingent on more attendees being vaccinated, and with no new lockdowns due to the new Omicron variant. In the meantime, I would ask readers to get vaccinated as soon as possible; it makes attending events like these much easier, not to mention it provides an extra layer of protection against a deadly pandemic that’s already killed 776,000 Americans (and over 5 million people worldwide) as of this writing–including a good friend of mine over this past weekend, who spent his last days on a ventilator. Here’s hoping that with adequate safeguards in place, a full-strength San Diego Comic Con will indeed become a reality next year. Take care and be safe!