Comic-Con International: San Diego celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and boy have things sure changed since it first opened in 1969. In just the last couple of decades, San Diego Comic-Con has expanded its reach beyond comics to all forms fandom and pop culture. The studios, networks and media makers have taken notice and capitalized on the 135,000 attendees congregating at the San Diego Convention Center. Today, the biggest panels are tied to films and television shows, not comic books, and there is just as much to do (if not more) outside the convention. It’s virtually impossible to do everything at Comic-Con no matter what kind of badge you have, and the lines are so massive that a single activation, panel or party can become a whole day event for those without connections. So in case you couldn’t make it down to San Diego for this historic Con (or didn’t see everything if you were there), we’re breaking it all down — the people, panels, parties and popular activations that took over our SoCal sister city last week.
People, Booths & Bodies
If there’s one thing that San Diego Comic-Con has enough of, it’s people. The aisles inside the convention center see wall-to-wall bodies with very little wiggle room, pretty much from Thursday through Sunday (preview night on Wednesday was a little less packed but still decently crowded). Since we’re talking people, it seems fitting to begin with a person who many consider to be Comic-Con royalty — and no, we’re not talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda, who walked the convention floor this year in a Deadpool costume. We’re referring to Jason Mewes aka Jay in all the Jay and Silent Bob films.
Mewes is a Comic-Con veteran, attending about 17 times since 1997. “The actual event itself was smaller [in 1997]. Like the biggest vendors were DC and Marvel and they had huge booths in the middle of the Convention Center room, and there’s all these little tiny vendors all around them, maybe a couple things out in the Gas Lamp, but not many,” Mewes recalled in an exclusive interview from his hotel suite. “And a good amount of people came. Now you can ask 100 people who Tony Stark is and they’ll know, but I swear in ‘97, maybe five people would know. I’m not saying here at the convention, but it’s just such a different, awesome, amazing place. I love it, I still get goosebumps when I walk on the floor every year.”
Mewes was at Comic-Con this year to promote his directorial debut (he also stars) releasing next month, Madness In the Method. “It turned out better than I hoped,” Mewes said. “Like we started reaching out to people, we didn’t have a lot of money. A lot of people jumped on board and wanted to be part of my directing for the first time.”
Mewes has another movie on his slate too — the much-anticipated new Jay and Silent Bob film, called Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, set to release October 15 (tickets are already available to purchase at fathomevents.com). “It was so much fun, man. It’s been 13 years, I believe, since Kevin [Smith] and I have played the characters,” the actor shared, sounding not unlike his super-chill character. “I’m like, bro, I’d love to do another movie… he didn’t want to do another Jay and Silent Bob right off the bat. And part of it was me, I’ve been sober nine years. It just all came together and it was awesome because it was fun working with my best friend and doing characters we hadn’t done for 13 years.”
Fans will be seeing a lot more of the Jay character too. “It’s like literally I was in every scene, every day that we shot,” Mewes said. “So it was definitely a different, fun, experience and I really think people are going to love it. I mean, there’s a lot of awesome cameos, people from the movies in the past and some new people in the movie. It’s a fun stuff.”
Back at the convention, the booth expansion Mewes mentioned was on full display. Content providers and studios put a lot of time and effort (and money) into making their booths stand out, from Netflix to Mattel, Dark Horse Comics to Blizzard Entertainment. Every booth is different, some sell Comic-Con exclusives, while others focus more on interactive elements.
One of the best booths this year was from Warner Bros. For the first time, Warner Bros. and DC Comics combined their set-ups into one (in previous years they had separate booths). Although 70 percent of the booth was DC, a lot of time and effort goes into making every small detail matter. For example, the booth had only digital screens which were changed depending on what was being spotlighted at that exact moment. If an HBO show was being featured or had a signing, the DC branding was swapped out on the screens for HBO branding (Time Warner owns both DC and HBO).
The booth also had costumes from Batman films on display to celebrate Batman’s 80th birthday. This booth was not selling anything and was there purely for the fans. Interactive and Instagram-ready moments made the line worth the wait, too. Fans could sit on the iconic orange couch inside Central Perk from Friends for a photo op to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show or they could pretend to drink milkshakes in Pop’s Diner from Riverdale for another photo op. To promote the upcoming release of the new DC Universe animated series Harley Quinn, attendees got to visit Arkham Asylum, where they could look into various cells that housed characters like the Joker or Harley Quinn herself, with phones that offered a chance to hear the characters speak.
The people who run Comic-Con’s bountiful booths might be the most important people there. They keep the never-ending lines organized as well as the security set-up to make sure everyone is safe. Both of these jobs are thankless but necessary, even if some of the rules being enforced were a bit silly. An indication that Comic-Con has gotten perhaps too big is that many of the most popular booths didn’t allow badge-holders to just get in line and buy their exclusives; you had to win your way in with a golden ticket from random lotteries that you could enter prior to the convention.
One example of this was at the Funko booth. Funko always has some of the best Comic-Con exclusives, so if you didn’t win a ticket ahead of time, your only option was to return toward the end of the day to see if they decided to open the line to the general public. When the line was open to the public, it was a crowded mess with security guards yelling at people standing and creating space hazards. They opted to pick people walking by to get in line which made no sense. Some fans literally spent an hour walking back and forth in front of the booth hoping the security guard would randomly pick them. Security then started choosing people based on certain criteria, asking the crowd if there were any service members, first responders or children who wanted to get in line. Someone suggested asking trivia and I actually scored a spot in line by correctly answering who the fourth president of the United States was — it’s James Madison (the security guard didn’t know the answer, so I had to show him on Google). All this for the privilege of spending more money? OK…
Demo booths were a lot less stressful. Doctor Who: The Edge of Time, an animated virtual reality experience releasing in September was previewed at the BBC America booth, and its actors brought the experience to life. In the game, the doctor is lost in the edge of space and it’s your job to help free her. She communicates and gives instructions, basically turning patrons into a virtual doctor’s companion.
Finally, we couldn’t talk about the people who make Comic-Con what it is without mentioning the cosplayers. Every year, more and more people dress up (a few years back I went dressed as my favorite character from Game of Thrones). This year, the most popular cosplay costumes appeared to be Pennywise from It, the Avengers and their villains (Thanos in particular), Superman and Super Girl, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Disney princesses, Rick and Morty, and there was even a guy dressed as Alf! The level of detail to many of these costumes was pretty impressive and the color and pageantry they provide are an important part of Comic-Con culture.
Panels, Panels and More Panels
For many, the panels offered by San Diego Comic-Con are the biggest draw of all. One die-hard fan, a nurse practitioner named Laurie Whorley, traveled by herself all the way from Wisconsin for her second Comic-Con. She said attending the convention was on her bucket list, and after going the first time she had so much fun she returned again this year. She arrived Wednesday evening and as of Saturday evening when we spoke, she had yet to be inside the convention aside from attending many of the famed Hall H panels (Hall H is the biggest in the Convention Center, so it’s home to all of the most popular panels). Every night she waited around three hours in line to get a wristband that got her access into Hall H the following day if she arrived prior to 7:30 a.m. (which she did for multiple panels). Fans like Whorley spend a lot of money on the badge and travel expenses, only to wait hours in line, but nevertheless, it seems worth it to them.
The most buzzed about panel moments this year included: Tom Cruise making an unannounced appearance in Hall H on Thursday, debuting the first trailer for Top Gun: Maverick. Then there was the Marvel panel, which revealed the future of their cinematic universe (also known as Phase 4) now that the Avengers films have concluded. The announcement included many exciting upcoming Marvel Studio films: 2020’s star-studded Eternals, which features Angelina Jolie in the cast (she was also present at the panel), Natalie Portman’s return as a female Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021, and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, confirmed as MCU’s first LGBTQ superhero (she’ll also appear in the Thor movie). The Marvel panel (which included other announcements about upcoming content, both theatrical and streaming on Disney’s new platform) was named best at this year’s Comic-Con by both journalists and fans alike and it’s not surprising — its offerings epitomize what convention is all about.
Aside from the headline-grabbing panels, others featured noteworthy moments and/or introduced the world to new series or films. The CW’s Nancy Drew panel, for example, began with a screening of the pilot episode followed by an interesting discussion with the cast and creators about how this incarnation of the 90-year old character is different and unique. She was described as a bit more messy, complicated and tragic than she’s been depicted in the past. The cast and creators also discussed the diversity of the show both on screen and behind the scenes. In fact, diversity and representation was a common theme in many panels. Community’s Yvette Nicole Brown, who hosted the panel for Netflix’s upcoming new fantasy series The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill and based on the popular video game, mentioned how she thought the show had “beautiful diversity” and how “representation matters.” She even said that those who aren’t fantasy fans would like the show, but there were only a few clips shown (as opposed to an entire episode).
The Westworld panel discussed the female empowerment of the show after debuting the third season’s trailer, which shockingly featured Maeve’s character in Nazi Germany! Thandie Newton, who plays Maeve, explained that she thought her character’s nudity was empowering because the nudity wasn’t sexual. It was “powerful” that Maeve had “not a stitch of clothing on” and she wasn’t “weakened by nudity because she wasn’t sexualized,” she said. Aside from this, however, there’s so much secrecy around the new season of the show that even the actors didn’t know how to talk about it because they never know what they’re allowed to say. Similarly, Amazon’s The Man In the High Castle panel continued celebrating girl power when they told fans, “spoiler alert: watch all the women this season.” They revealed that the final season will debut this November and showed numerous clips from the first episode, while joking that the cast couldn’t steal any props to keep because they all had swastikas on them.
Also touting the brave new woman-powered entertainment landscape was Hulu’s Veronica Mars panel. After screening the season premiere (the show is returning with season 4 after the original seasons aired years ago), the cast and creator were on hand to talk about the reboot. Kristen Bell proclaimed that she’ll keep playing Veronica “until everyone in Neptune is dead” because the show and her character are great modern representations of women. Bell explained how even though the show is a “beast” to shoot, it was worth missing six months of bedtimes with her kids “to put [Veronica] back in the world.” She explained how for many girls (and a lot of boys too!) Veronica is really the embodiment of a superhero without the cape and that she hopes young girls can reference Veronica like they did Mary Tyler Moore back in the day. And as a final surprise, to celebrate Bell’s birthday which was the previous day, Hulu announced that all eight episodes were up and able to be streamed, one week earlier than they were originally supposed to be released.
Moving from one Kristen Bell show to another, the panel for the final season of NBC’s The Good Place was enjoyable, and a little emotional, to watch. Series creator Michael Schur revealed that the cast hadn’t seen the first script yet because he was worried Ted Danson would spill some of the secrets to the panel, and also that he promised Bell he’d write another show for her after this one ends. The cast compared the end of the series to a break-up, and Danson said that he got another job with Tina Fey after the show ends. “That’s how I handle break-ups,” he joked. The cast also praised D’Arcy Carden’s performance from the “Janet(s)” episode and how she was robbed of an Emmy, even though they were all celebrating that the show (and Danson) got nominated.
It was also revealed that Bell will be making her directorial debut in a season four episode and that we “may meet a new Janet” this season as well. Danson had to keep from crying a couple of times and the entire ballroom gave Schur a standing ovation when moderator Marc Evan Jackson (who plays Shawn on the show) thanked him for the show at the end of the panel. Side note: It was a really good move having an actor from the show be the moderator. It worked much better than having journalists. The Good Panel ended on a contemplative note, with Bell responding to a question about if her two characters (Good Place’s Eleanor and Veronica Mars) were to interact. “That’s kind of a no contest,” she answered. “Veronica would slay Eleanor so bad. She would drag her. And Eleanor would barely survive but I think after Veronica really gave [it to her], Eleanor would have mad respect for Veronica and be a part of her crew.” Danson added, “Would there be a physical attraction?” to which Bell cheekily replied, “Big time.”
More panel fun: Netflix’s upcoming The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a prequel to the famous 1982 Jim Henson film The Dark Crystal, featured Henson’s daughter Lisa as well as two of the stars, Taron Egerton and the one and only Mark Hamill. Seeing a Hall H Comic-Con panel featuring Mark Hamill was definitely a highlight, even if he wasn’t talking too much about Star Wars. As moderator Damian Holbrook from TV Guide said, “Only at Comic-Con do you get a Kermit impersonation in front of Jim Henson’s daughter and Rocketman sitting next to Skywalker.” Clearly I wasn’t the only one impressed and starstruck to be at a panel that featured Hamill because Comic-Con surprised him with the 2019 Comic-Con Icon Award, to which Hamill replied that he was coming to Comic-Con even before Star Wars when there were only 5,000 people. The moment really encapsulated a great Comic-Con experience.
Another panel highlight was the final Game of Thrones panel. I was surprised that they even chose to have a panel since the show is over, but especially because there was so much backlash from the fans about the final season. Perhaps that’s why all the behind-the-scenes people who were supposed to come, including the series showrunners, dropped out at the last minute, leaving only 7 of the actors on the panel. The panel started off a little odd with a disclaimer, reminding people that Comic-Con is about celebrating fandom and that it was cool of HBO to decide Comic-Con was the place for the fans to say farewell to the show (which I actually do agree with). Of course there was some celebration of the show’s record-breaking 32 Emmy nominations, the most for any program in a single season.
The actors were very funny and had great chemistry (a testament to one of the many reasons the show worked so well). They even started by poking fun at themselves, holding up Starbuck coffee cups that were left at each of their chairs and saying, “Someone left coffee cups here,” a nudge and a wink to the coffee cup that was accidentally left in one of the final episodes. Conleth Hill, who plays Varys, joked about starting the infamous online petition for HBO to remake the season, but said that at its core, he believes that the show was a successful story about the futility of conflict and the pointlessness of war. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister, said that he liked his character’s death and final arc of returning to Cersei, which did illicit some boos from the crowd (as a Cersei fan myself, I agree with him).
Isaac Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran Stark, said he didn’t believe the theory that Bran diabolically orchestrated everything to become king while Maisie Williams (Arya) firmly said she believes Arya acted on her own in killing the Night King, with a little encouragement from Melisandre, but not because Jon Snow told her to do it as some people suggested. It was a bit of a bummer that they didn’t take any audience questions — the moderator, Entertainment Weekly writer James Hibberd, said it was his fault (was it though, or was that the plan all along, many wondered). It was also a bummer that some of the big stars of the show like Peter Dinklage (Tyrion), Lena Headey (Cersei), Kit Harrington (Jon Snow), Sophie Turner (Sansa), Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) and of course Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) weren’t there, but as I said earlier, it was still cool that anyone was there at all because they really didn’t have anything to promote.
Activations & Amusements
If you don’t want to go into the convention, Comic-Con has plenty of activations set up all around the convention center for people to partake in. They’re all free but of course, the most popular ones have huge lines. Interactive elements were a common theme this year, immersing fans into make believe worlds more so than ever before. The NBCUniversal activation for Brooklyn Nine Nine brought fans into a room that recreated the police headquarters from the show. Actors spoke to the crowd in character as either cops or as famous characters who were locked up, such as Harley Quinn or a Jedi Knight. Fans had to work together to solve puzzles in order to complete their mission, much like an escape room. Right next door, fans could step into the Cloud 9 store from Superstore where they could get their own Cloud 9 badge and “shop” (you could look and take photos but not actually purchase) for NBC-branded content like Dunder Mifflin paper.
Similar to the interactive NBC activations, AMC brought back their popular Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead DeadQuarters. This activation featured a walk through both series’ settings, including the winter escape from season nine’s finale of The Walking Dead, as well as an elaborate treehouse and plane crash site inspired by the season 5 storyline in Fear the Walking Dead. Again, it felt more like an escape room than a horror maze. At the end of the activation, fans had the chance to test out the new Walking Dead Onslaught, the official virtual reality game of The Walking Dead.
The Amazon Prime Video Experience was perhaps the biggest activation, a 60,000-square-foot experience spotlighting the new Amazon Original series The Boys and Carnival Row, as well as the upcoming fourth season of The Expanse. All three were interactive and featured actors who spoke to the fans directly and made them part of the story. For example, in the Carnival Row portion, attendees were divided into humans and non-humans, and each group was treated differently, much like the premise of the video game and show. Warner Bros’ Detective Pikachu activation was a little more traditional and less interactive, but still featured some great photo ops as well as the reference model for Psyduck from the film.
My favorite activation, however, was FX’s Fearless Forum, which featured an innovative fan experience for the upcoming season of American Horror Story: 1984. The season pays homage to the slasher films of the ’80s, and so did the activation. Fans were literally put into a scary movie, with jobs as camp counselors and a crazed killer stalking and trying to kill them. Multiple actors, who were pretty talented, brought this one to life, even giving chase at one point. This one took the set-up of Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Night mazes and made it even more interactive, and it was filled with great scares.
The Party Plethora
Since Comic-Con has grown so big and become such a monumental event for studios and networks, it’s no surprise that many invitation-only parties are thrown throughout the weekend featuring open bars, gourmet food and talent. The biggest party is no doubt the Entertainment Weekly Comic-Con Bash on the final night. While that party may be the fanciest, featuring the most big name talent, three other big bashes deserve highlighting.
Friday evening around Happy Hour was BuzzFeed and The CW’s “Batsh!t Crazy Bash” to celebrate the new Batwoman series starring Ruby Rose, premiering in the Fall. Unfortunately, Rose herself couldn’t be there because she was filming in Canada (she had to miss her panel as well), but the rest of the cast was in attendance. The food included Cuban sandwiches and signature drinks (a sipper staple at these soirees) included Batwoman’s Kiss (rum, raspberry Vodka, ginger ale), the Gotham’s Gin (a dark gin and tonic) and the Ruby Rosé. Party-goers were also able to shoot video in front of a green screen that showed them getting attacked by a bunch of bats!
After the Batsh!t Crazy Bash, it was off to the VIP IMDboat Party, also on Friday evening. Kelsey Grammer, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Kevin Smith and our interviewee Mewes were among the celebrities in attendance. (The cast of Riverdale made an appearance on the boat earlier that day). Drink specials included a Frosé Float, a Mango Margarita and a Wicked Chocolate Whiskey. The party also featured ice cream infused with alcohol. But the best part of this gathering was the music: lots of throw-back, nostalgic hip-hop hits had the top-level dance floor hopping most of the night.
Amazon Video’s Carnival Row Party on Saturday night was slightly different from the rest of the ragers. The party was outdoors and Amazon chose to screen the first two episodes of the show, providing chairs and blankets to the guests in front of a big screen projector. They were going for a Cinespia/movie in the park vibe rather than a dancing/DJ-centric party. They also had some choreographed performance art from actors dressed as some of the creatures from the show.
Drinks at the party included the Faeries Wing (Bourbon, peach liquor, lemon and simple syrup) and food included some delicious lamb or a whole (but small) chicken! Party attendees got to take fairy-themed photos. And finally, just before the screening of the episodes began, some furries appeared out of nowhere and started dancing on the chairs — a giant alien, a chipmunk, a penguin and a hippo, which turned out to be the cast of the show, including Orlando Bloom in the hippo costume and Cara Delevingne as an alien. They introduced the series and sat in the front row to watch with the audience, just another example of how fans and stars came together to enjoy the excitement of the entertainment world’s latest and greatest at Comic-Con. Til next year!