Comic-Con International: San Diego is a massive enterprise, and everyone’s experience is unique, making an overall assessment difficult. Nevertheless, the consensus seemed to be that this year felt different from recent years — that it was, in some sense, weird (but mostly in a good way). Several attendees described the vibe as a throwback to earlier Comic-Cons.
There were certainly changes this year that influenced the overall tenor of the event. For the first time, Harbor Drive was closed to traffic, making access to the Convention Center less constrained. A new lottery system for some of the exclusive merchandise and autographs reduced the need to wait in line for many. New procedures for wristbands avoided the Hall H access fiasco of the previous year. Changes in this year’s programming – with both Marvel Studios and Game of Thrones skipping Hall H — may have altered the flow of the crowds. In a turn of events unprecedented in recent years, seats in Hall H were generally attainable, even during the peak days of Friday and Saturday. (Of course, those who wanted to be close to the stage still camped out for countless hours.)
Here is an overview of my experience at Comic-Con International: San Diego 2018. Click on the thumbnail images to display more extensive photo galleries of each activity.
Hollywood Presentations in Hall H
As every year, high-profile Hollywood presentations filled the Convention Center’s 6,500-seat Hall H. Even without Marvel Studios, the cavernous hall was packed with fans seeking a first look at upcoming movies and television shows.
In my first foray into Hall H, I caught the second half of the Dragon Ball Super presentation.
Following Dragon Ball, the Better Call Saul panel featured showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and cast members Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, and Giancarlo Esposito. Bill Burr
After Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, and moderator Billy Burr returned to the stage and were joined by Aaron Paul, Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, R. J. Mitte, Dean Norris, and Betsy Brand for the Breaking Bad 10th Anniversary Celebration. To the delight of the audience, Paul arrived on stage with his infant child in tow, dressed as a miniature Jesse Pinkman.
Also celebrating its 10-year anniversary was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Series creator Joss Whedon was joined by lead actors Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion for a freewheeling hour of their usual antics.
Although M. Night Shyamalan previously appeared at Comic-Con to promote Wayward Pines in 2014 and The Visit in 2015, the writer/director made his debut in Hall H this year for Universal Pictures’ Glass, the third film in the trilogy that began with Unbreakable and Split. Joining him on the panel were Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, and moderator Yvette Nicole Brown.
Universal Pictures also presented the studio’s forthcoming version of Halloween, which purports to be the final chapter in the long-running series. Joining moderator Yvette Nicole Brown were series star Jamie Lee Curtis, director David Gordon Green, and producers Malek Akkad and Jason Blum.
Paramount Pictures’ Bumblebee panel opened with singer Stan Bush performing “The Touch” from The Transformers: The Movie (1986).
Following the performance, moderator Anthony Breznican welcomed to the stage Bumblebee director Travis Knight and actors Hailee Steinfeld and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. Midway through the panel, actor and professional wrestler John Cena came down the aisle, high-fiving members of the Hall H audience, to join the panelists on stage. During the Q&A Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime, made a surprise appearance in the question line.
Hailee Steinfeld returned to the stage for Sony Pictures’ presentation of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Joining her on the panel for the computer-animated film were directors Rodney Rothman, Peter Ramsey, and Bob Persichetti, voice actors Shameik Moore and Jake Johnson, producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and moderator Jessica Chobot.
The second half of the Sony Pictures presentation featured Venom actors Tom Hardy and Riz Ahmed in conversation with director Ruben Fleischer.
As has become tradition, Saturday in Hall H began with a two-hour presentation from Warner Bros.
To open the presentation for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Eddie Redmayne joined moderator Aisha Tyler on stage and, using his wizard’s wand, illuminated the wristbands previously distributed to all the audience members. Joining Redmayne for the panel were actors Claudia Kim, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, and Jude Law.
The panel culminated with a surprise appearance by Johnny Depp in full costume and makeup as the Dark Wizard Gellert Grindelwald.
The presentation for Warner Bros.’ The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part featured voice actors Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, and Stephanie Beatriz, writer Phil Lord, producer Chris Miller, and co-director Trisha Gum along with moderator Aisha Tyler.
For Warner Bros.’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters Aisha Tyler brought to the stage actors Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Thomas Middleditch, and director Michael Dougherty.
Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984 featured Tyler speaking with writer/director Patty Jenkins with actors Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.
Warner Bros.’ Shazam! Presentation featured actors Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, and Jack Dylan Grazer, and director David F. Sandberg joining moderator Aisha Tyler.
The slate of Warner Bros. presentations wrapped up with Jason Momoa joining Aisha Tyler stage for Aquaman, along with actors Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and writer/director James Wan.
Later on Saturday, Hall H presented the annual Entertainment Weekly “Women Who Kick Ass” panel. Last year, the presentation focused on a single actor: Charlize Theron. This year the panel brought together a roster of women who embody strong female roles: Jodie Whittaker (Doctor Who), Regina King (Watchmen), Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Mind), Chloe Bennet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Camila Mendes (Riverdale). Entertainment Weekly‘s Jessica Shaw moderated.
My Saturday in Hall H ended with the panel for Deadpool 2. Although the film had already been released, the cast was in attendance promoting upcoming Blu-ray release of the unrated Super Duper Cut of the film. Moderated by Karan Soni, the panel featured director David Leitch, producers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, and actors Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic, Zazie Beetz, and, of course, Ryan Reynolds.
Returning to Twin Peaks
Even though Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return had finished the program’s initial airing, the cast from the third and, likely, final season David Lynch’s series had several appearances at Comic-Con.
In Indigo Ballroom on Saturday evening, Jessica Tseang moderated a panel with producer Sabrina Sutherland and cast members Robert Broski, Kimmy Robertson, Harry Goaz, Eric Edelstein, John Pirruccello, Chrysta Bell, Nicole LaLiberte, George Griffith, Amy Shiels, and Adele Rene. Although Lynch himself didn’t make an appearance, he sent a typically cryptic message read by producer Sutherland. “I am working with Philip Jeffries to see if I can get there,” the text read. He added, “Twin Peaks fans are the best fans.” In a later text, he said, “I got my days mixed up. And I’m going to be there yesterday, if not sooner.” His final messages were, “It’s slippery in here” and “In the Red Room, Agent Cooper has already won the Emmy.”
Cast members from Twin Peaks: The Return also held autograph signings, both in the Entertainment Earth booth and in the Convention Center’s Sails Pavilion. I did a photoshoot with the cast before their signing in the Entertainment Earth booth as well as a separate photoshoot with Chrysta Bell (joined briefly by Amy Shiels).
Comic Book Panels
While the Hollywood blockbusters fill the enormous Hall H, many panels in more modest rooms focus on comic books and graphic novels.
NPR Books editor Petra Mayer moderated a spotlight panel with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters author and illustrator Emil Ferris. During the Q&A a young fan gave a copy of his favorite comic book — an old issue of Elvira’s House of Mystery. Ferris seemed touched by the gesture.
While most of the programming at San Diego Comic-Con focuses on fantasy and science fiction, several panels tackled heady real-world problems [see Knowledge@Wharton, “Amid the Fantasy, Comic-Con Tackles the Real World“].
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund hosted a half-dozen panels on legal issues facing comic book creators, publishers, distributors, and retailers. “Outlaw Art: The Trials of Underground Comix” explored the rise and travails of underground comics, sold through new distribution channels like head shops that emerged in the late 1960s. Moderated by CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein, the panel included Zap Comix artist and producer Robert Williams, underground comix cartoonist Joyce Farmer, and underground comix publisher Ron Turner. The panel discussed the period from the late-1960s through the mid-1970s when retailers selling underground comix were arrested on obscenity charges.
An earlier and even darker period of history was the focus of the “Art During the Holocaust” panel. Ruth Goldschmiedova Sax, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, described her early encounter with anti-Semitic German propaganda as a child. Her daughter Sandra Scheller, author of a memoir about her mother, and Esther Finder, founder and president of Generations of the Shoah, discussed the impact of propaganda from both Germany and the U.S. during the war. Also displayed were sketches by soldiers that provided visual documentation of wartime atrocities. Also on the panel were moderator Igor Goldkind and Comickaze Comics owner Robert Scott.
Friday night at Comic-Con always brings a celebration of the men and women who create comics with the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Ceremony. Emil Ferris was awarded three Eisners for her debut graphic novel My Favorite Thing Is Monsters: Best Graphic Album—New, Best Writer/Artist, and Best Coloring. Also on stage to accept a number of awards was Marjorie Liu who was awarded Eisners for Best Writer for Monstress (in a tie with Tom King for Batman, Batman Annual #2, Batman/Elmer Fudd Special #1, and Mister Miracle) and, with Sana Taka, for Best Continuing Series and Best Publication for Teens. Liu also accepted two additional awards on behalf of Sana Takeda for Monstress for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist and Best Cover Artist.
Among the recipients for the Hall of Fame Award were Karen Berger and Dave Gibbons. The Bill Finger Excellence in Comic Book Writing Awards went to Dorothy Woolfolk and long unheralded Wonder Woman ghostwriter, 94-year-old Joye Murchison Kelly, who was at the ceremony to accept her award.
For a photo gallery of all the Eisner Award winners, see the Flickr album “Eisner Awards: San Diego Comic-Con 2018.”
Not only did HBO’s Game of Thrones not present a Hall H session, the Games of Thrones Experience, one of the more popular marketing events in recent years, was absent this year. Also not returning was USA Network’s Mr. Robot, which presented some of the most striking offsite experiences in the past two years at both San Diego Comic-Con and ReedPop’s New York Comic-Con, [see “Mr. Robot’s Multifaceted Marketing Experience at New York Comic Con,” “The Multilayered Mr. Robot Marketing Experience,” and “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media“] would not have a presence at this year’s SDCC.
It was, nonetheless, an impressive year for these marketing experiences, known as “activations” by industry insiders but dubbed “offsites” my most fans.
Amazon.com brought activations for two of its offerings: Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Prime Video’s new series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. The latter was one of the largest and most impressive experiences at Comic-Con. (More the Jack Ryan Experience later.)
Fire TV’s Fast Forward to the Future had the aura of a trade show, with a series of spaces with product demonstrations showing Fire TV’s streaming capabilities, the features of the Fire TV Cube, and the capabilities of a Smart Home. To tie into the spirit of Comic-Con, there were pop culture set pieces ready made for photo ops, such as the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones.
The Ready Player One Experience also featured a series of set pieces from the 1980s pop culture of the movie. After traversing a tunnel reminiscent of entering the movie’s OASIS, you found yourself in the hallway of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Inside Room 237, you entered the room’s creepy bathroom. Another corridor led to a more cheery experience: a game room filled in 1980s arcade entertainment — an air hockey table, foosball, and classic video arcade consoles including Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Galaga. Further on, was a reconstruction of Parzival’s van. You then entered James Halliday’s room. Here you faced the Ready Player One Challenge, and relatively easy trivia challenge to reveal the clue to escape the room.
To promote the forthcoming television series based on The Purge movies, about the 12-hour period each year when all crime is legal, USA Network opened Purge City. The tongue-in-cheek activation, styled after seasonal pop-up stores, featured a wide range of supplies for your Purge Night needs, from tactical wear to Purge Away detergent (or, as it’s termed, “depurgent”) to clean up the mess after Purge Night. A lighthearted demonstration showed the effectiveness of Purge Away to make your clothes look like they’ve never been through a Purge. Fans were given $20 Purge Dollars which could be used to purchase a wide array of merchandise in the store.
The South Park Experience followed a recent trend in activations to feature an escape room. In Cartman’s Escape Room, teams of ten were given ten minutes to escape the horrors of a grade school classroom, as Cartman’s voice on the PA system taunted you. Unlike the relatively simple Ready Player One Challenge, Cartman’s Escape Room was quite difficult. Only about 15% of the teams solve all the puzzles in order to escape according to one of the staff at the offsite. After you exited the room — either by solving the puzzles or running out of time — there was a final room for photo ops with cutouts of South Park characters and carnival-style games to play.
The largest activation at this year’s Comic-Con was the Jack Ryan Experience, which combined several elaborate immersive elements. Much of the offsite’s 60,000 square feet was fashioned after a middle-eastern bazaar, echoing the Yemeni setting of the program. After checking in an getting your ID badge as a government analyst, you could stroll around the market, pick up free water and ice cream, or just relax on the colorful benches. You could also engage in scavenger hunt style “mini-missions” to hone your skills as an agent.
At far corners of open market were two immersive experiences: the Dark Ops Experience and the Jack Ryan Training Field.
The Dark Ops Experience was a series of escape rooms built around the storyline of the initial episodes of the Jack Ryan series. The rooms included not only challenging puzzles but were also rousing physical environments: from a fan blowing money (some of it real) from the ceiling to a foggy room filled with a web of laser beams.
The Jack Ryan Training Field was a hybrid physical/virtual experience that put participants through a sequence of adventures that included exiting a full-scale mock-up of a helicopter 30 feet in the air, walking across a narrow board, and sailing down a zipline — all while equipped with an Oculus VR helmet and motion tracking technology.
Amazon’s Jack Ryan Experience was the most impressive activation at San Diego Comic-Con 2018. [For more on the Jack Ryan Experience see Knowledge@Wharton, “Marketing at Comic-Con: More Is More.”]
Returning to Comic-Con this year for a third time was Future Tech Live!, which was known as the Futurism and Tech Pavilion last year and VR Con in its debut appearance. Unlike the unofficial offsite marketing activations, Future Tech Live! is an official part of Comic-Con International’s programming. Held in the Grand Ballroom of the Omni Hotel, the event is a showcase of interactive technology including virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence.
Cosplay, Comics Creators, and Talk Back
While I don’t particularly focus on capturing images of cosplayers, it’s always fun to photograph a creative or unexpected costume when strolling through the Convention Center.
Of greater interest to me is capturing photos of the men and women who write, draw, and publish comics and graphic novels in Artist Alley, at a signing in a vendor’s booth, or at the Eisner Awards Ceremony.
Each year, San Diego Comic-Con ends for me with the Talk Back session, in which Comic-Con International president John Rogers listens to feedback from attendees. Capping the occasionally anomalous tone of this year’s con, this year’s Talk Back session — which is traditionally a barrage of complaints directed at Rogers — was relatively upbeat. The usual complaints about lines and access to exclusives were still in evidence but, overall, the audience seemed pleased with this year’s SDCC, generally praising the closing of Harbor Drive, the online lottery for selected autographs and exclusives, and even access to Hall H.
After the Talk Back session, as the Exhibition Hall closed, fans streamed out of the San Diego Convention Center, exhausted and dreaming of next year’s Comic-Con.
For a full gallery of photos from this year’s Comic-Con see the Flickr album: “San Diego Comic-Con 2018“: