Comic-Con International: San Diego or, as it is more commonly known, San Diego Comic-Con or simply SDCC, is a massive event. Each year presents attendees with a challenging exercise to determine which of the many simultaneous activities they can afford to miss. Comic-Con scheduling is particularly vexing in my case since I wear multiple hats. For Knowledge@Wharton I’m on the lookout for emerging business trends, which frequently sends me to many of the offsite marketing “activations” (as they are known). As a photographer for TwoMorrows’ Comic Book Creator and other magazines, I attend many of the comic book panels and autograph signings. And, of course, there are things of which I’m personally a fan, which often send me to the mammoth Hall H for the major movie and television properties.
Here is an overview of San Diego Comic-Con 2017 from my perspective. [Click on the images to view full photo albums.]
The Big Panels in Hall H
The most popular programming sessions at Comic-Con are held in the 6,500-seat Hall H.
On Friday, the cast of Twin Peaks: The Return took to the stage for “Twin Peaks: A Damn Good Panel.” Moderated by Damon Lindelof, the panel included Kyle MacLachlan, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Dana Ashbrook, Kimmy Robertson, James Marshall, Everett McGill, Matthew Lillard, and Don Murray.
Following the Twin Peaks panel, I was able to do a brief photo shoot with the cast of Twin Peaks before an autograph signing in the Entertainment Earth booth.
Saturday typically hosts the biggest panels to Hall H. This year, the day began with Warner Bros. and concluded with Marvel Studios.
For the first Warner Bros. panel, Ready Player One, the curtains on the side walls pulled back to display a huge 180-degree video display that wrapped around the audience. Following a trailer for the upcoming film, moderator Chris Hardwick brought to the stage director Steven Spielberg; writers Ernest Cline and Zak Penn; and actors Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, and T.J. Miller.
The Blade Runner 2049 panel began with a display of a timeline of the events between the period of the first film (2019) and the upcoming sequel (2049). A version of this content can be seen at roadto2049.bladerunnermovie.com. Following this, the film’s trailer was screened, followed by a hologram-like projection of actor Jared Leto. Moderator Chris Hardwick then introduced director Denis Villeneuve; actors Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Lennie James; producers Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson; and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
The final Warner Bros. presentation was for Justice League, which began with the stars of the forthcoming film charging down the center aisle past the Hall H audience to ascend the stage. Moderator Chris Hardwick first introduced Aquaman‘s Jason Momoa, who danced around with his trident like Jimi Hendrix on the guitar. Next up was Gal Gadot, followed by the rest of the cast: Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher, and Ezra Miller.
After Warner Bros., next up in Hall H was the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel. While this annual panel typically includes a group of female actors, this year it highlighted a single performer: Charlize Theron. After an extended clip from Atomic Blonde with Theron in an intense fight scene, the actor was interviewed by Sara Vilkomerson.
The Stranger Things panel showed a trailer for season 2 of the popular Netflix series and then brought to the stage an enormous panel of cast and crew: series creators Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer; actors Natalia Dyer, Shawn Levy, Joe Keery, Gaten Matarazzo, David Harbour, Caleb McLaughlin, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Dacre Montgomery, Millie Bobby Brown, Paul Reiser, and Sadie Sink; and moderator Patton Oswalt. Midway through the panel, Shannon Purser, who played Barb in the show’s first season, emerged from the audience to join the cast on stage.
The Westworld panel included a trailer for the upcoming season of the series and featured a large cast including showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy; actors Shannon Woodward, Luke Hemsworth, Angela Sarafyan, Ben Barnes, Jimmi Simpson, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Rodrigo Santoro, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Simon Quarterman, and Tessa Thompson; and moderator Reggie Watts.
Capping Saturday in Hall H was Marvel Studios. Moderator Chris Hardwick first introduced Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. Before introducing other cast members, Comic-Con International Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim presented Kevin Feige with an Inkpot Award.
The first part of the Marvel panel then focused on Thor: Ragnarok. Joining Fiege and Hardwick on stage were director Taika Waititi and actors Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, and Jeff Goldblum. An exclusive trailer was shown.
Following Thor: Ragnarok, Feige brought to the stage the cast and crew of Black Panther: writer/director Ryan Coogler and actors Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis and Winston Duke. Exclusive footage from Black Panther was also debuted.
Although Fiege had initially stated the session would cover two films: Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, when Fiege began to sum up after the Black Panther cast exited the stage, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Chadwick Boseman, and Mark Ruffalo returned to egg Fiege on for more — pointing out there were three Avengers on stage. Responding to the rising audience demand for additional material, Fiege, playing along, relented and showed the first public footage from Avengers: Infinity War.
While the footage shown in many of Saturday’s panels was released to the public shortly following its debut in Hall H, the Marvel Studios footage remained unavailable elsewhere. While it’s a shame to keep the content from fans who couldn’t make it into Hall H — and it’s likely beneficial to the studios to have the material seen by the largest possible audience — I’m pleased Marvel is upholding the tradition of showing exclusive content to the fans who who camped out for hours (or even days) to get inside Hall H.
Comic Book Panels, Signings, and Awards
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed comics artist and writer Jack Kirby. A number of this year’s comics-focused panels honored his legacy.
On Thursday, the panel “Jack Kirby’s Consciousness, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Barry Ira Geller, and the Real Argo” featured Barry Ira Geller and artist Mike Royer discussing Kirby’s work on a planned movie and science theme park based on Roger Zelazny’s novel, Lord of Light. While neither the movie nor the theme park materialized, the unproduced movie script and artwork were used as part of the scheme to rescue American diplomats who were in hiding in Iran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, events portrayed (in a fictionalized version) in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film, Argo.
Mark Evanier moderated a separate spotlight panel with longtime Kirby inker Mike Royer. In comparing his inking style with that of another noted Kirby inker, Joe Sinnott, Royer said, “Joe Sinnott inked Jack MGM. I inked Jack Warner Brothers…. MGM was glossy. Warner Brothers was raw, and to the point.”
TwoMorrows’ publisher John Morrow, editor of Jack Kirby Collector Magazine, was featured in a spotlight panel on Friday. At the outset of the panel, Morrow was awarded an Inkpot Award by Comic-Con International’s Gary Sassaman.
Also on Friday was the “Jack Kirby: Friends and Family” panel with Kirby decedents Jeremy Kirby, Tracy Kirby, Lisa Kirby, and Jillian Kirby, along with artist and family friend Mike Thibodeaux and moderator Mark Evanier.
This year also marked 100 years since the birth of Will Eisner, who was honored in a number of panels, including Denis Kitchen in conversation with Danny Fingeroth discussing Kitchen’s long associated with the influential artist/writer.
The “Spotlight on Paul Dini” panel featured the writer in conversation with his friend, writer/producer David Mandel.
“The Women of Marvel” panel included Sana Amanat, Lorraine Cink, Margaret Stohl, Rainbow Rowell, Christina Strain, Alanna Smith, and Mariko Tamaki, moderated by Judy Stephens.
Beyond the panels, comic book creators are available throughout much of Comic-Con — in Artist Alley, at signing events, and simply browsing the con with the other attendees.
And, as always, Friday evening brought the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Ceremony, which is a wonderful event honoring the women and men who create comics. Among the many awards given that evening, the members of the Kirby family accepted the Bill Finger award given to Jack Kirby for his writing.
Science Fiction Meets Real-World Science
While Comic-Con often features panels that look at the scientific underpinnings of fictional worlds of movies and television like Star Trek or Star Wars, this year saw a number of panels and events focusing on science in the real world.
New at Comic-Con this year was the Futurism and Tech Pavilion (an expansion of last year’s VR Con) with demonstrations of a wide range of immersive entertainment technology including virtual reality, 4D VR motion controlled chairs, and augmented reality goggles.
In the “Science Fiction, Science Future” panel, science fiction writers, including The Martian‘s Andy Weir, discussed the synergies between science fiction and science fact with scientists and engineers.
“No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars” featured engineers and scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discussing how the space program works to anticipate and avoid problems in interplanetary travel.
The “2017: The State of Iron Man Tech” panel, moderated by Dent the Future’s Steve Broback, featured inventor Richard Browning (who has developed a prototype jet-powered exosuit), actor and stunt woman Zoë Bell, NASA engineer Chris Gerty, and venture capitalist Adam Draper. That evening, Dent the Future hosted an informal get-together with Browning and Bell at San Diego’s Mission Brewery. While billed as an opportunity to see Browning’s jet suit, there were hints during the panel that Browning might do more than merely model the suit. And, indeed, midway through the gathering, people were given earplugs and asked to assemble outside the brewery where Browning flew around the parking area in his jet suit.
For more on the real-world science in evidence at this year’s Comic-Con, see Knowledge@Wharton, “Science — No Longer Just Fiction — at Comic-Con.”
Marketing: From Ubiquitous Banners to Immersive Environments
Advertising takes over nearly every square inch of San Diego during Comic-Con. This year’s award for Most Ubiquitous Ad Campaign would likely go, as in other recent years, to TBS. This year the network was promoting People of Earth (replacing the Conan ads from the past two years). Ads promoting the series appeared on everything from the stairways and baggage carousels at San Diego International Airport to the large building wrap covering the upper floors of the Marriott Marquis.
The companion real estate on the Hilton Bayfront was occupied by wrap for FX’s Legion, which mercifully replaced the creepy banners for The Strain that occupied that location in the previous two years.
The most significant marketing activity at SDCC occurs on the large-scale activations that take place around San Diego. Virtual reality was all the rage at many of the immersive marketing events in recent years. While VR was still in evidence, several of the most popular marketing activations this year were geared toward physical installations and real-world interactions. Scavenger hunts were featured in the activations for The Tick and Mr. Robot. Meticulously constructed physical environments populated with actors formed the core of the events for Blade Runner 2049 (which also included an optional VR component), Mr. Robot, and Westworld.
The Tick Takeover, promoting Amazon’s forthcoming series, was a two-part activation. In the first section, fans could work the controls of the large tick antennae that towered over the sidewalk and rest on sofas while viewing the pilot episode of the series. In the second part, fans are first led into a reconstruction of a convenience store and are then whisked away into another room for a competitive scavenger hunt. Throughout the event, fans are required to answer a number of surveys in order to get free schwag.
More immersive was the Blade Runner 2049 Experience. Located in a large temporary structure, this event was also presented in two parts. The first was a 4D virtual reality experience — 360-degree video and sound with a synchronized motion chair. In the simulation, you’re piloting a spinner, the flying car in the show, in pursuit of a runaway replicant. The chase soars between the skyscrapers in Los Angeles of 2049, eventually ending with both vehicles crashing to the ground.
Once the virtual experience ends, you remove your headset to see the wall previously in front of the room has disappeared and you walk into a large scale reproduction of a street scene in Los Angeles 2049. The entire scene is suffused with a foggy haze. Actors wearing outrageous fashions interact with you. A chef prepares dishes at a noodle stand. Police keep an eye on things and, at one point, insist you submit to a Voight-Kampff test to verity you’re a human. There are also props from the film on display and, in an adjacent room a place to pick up noodles or drink vials of Johnnie Walker whisky.
Perhaps the most exclusive marketing event at this year’s Comic-Con was the Westworld Experience, which reportedly accommodated only 12 people per hour. The lucky few who were able to sign up for an appointment, were able to participate in an in-depth physical immersive experience. After being interviewed by a host, you were given a western hat — either white or black. Guests were then led to a full scale replica of the show’s Mariposa Saloon.
This year’s physical construction stood in sharp contrast to the Westworld activation at last fall’s New York Comic-Con, which used a physical entry point for a VR experience. [See Knowledge@Wharton, “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”]
Also built around physical environments, along with a mysterious scavenger hunt, was this year’s Mr. Robot Experience. As with the Westworld Experience, this year’s event stood in contrast with last year’s Mr. Robot Experience, which combined a VR experience with a physical environment. That year’s hybrid experience reconstructed the Mr. Robot Repair Shop and the apartment of the show’s main character, and then launched into an extended, 13-minute virtual reality experience. [See On Technology and Media, “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”]
This year, the Mr. Robot Repair Shop was closed, with condemned notices posted on a reconstruction of the building’s exterior. Open next door was the Bank of E, where fans could get a bank card loaded with 20 ECoin, the show’s fictional digital currency, that could be used to buy food and other items at many locations throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. At the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, an establishment only hinted at in season 2 of the show but reportedly playing a larger role in season 3, fans could enjoy a pulled pork sandwich (supplied by Phil’s BBQ) with chips and a shake.
As if this weren’t enough, observant fans discovered hints that led them on a hunt to decode additional clues around town. When all the clues were collected, they revealed a phone number that directed participants to the final stage of the activation. Past a secret doorway, guards confiscate your cell phone to prevent photos or recordings, and then lead you down a hallway to a dark room that is a near-exact replica of the interrogation room in which Angela finds herself in season 2 episode 11. You’re seated in front of a table with a red telephone and an old Commodore 64 computer. A few 5-1/4 diskettes are scattered around. At the rear of the room is an illuminated fish tank. But where Angela was interrogated by a young girl, you’re sitting across the desk from a masked representative of the Dark Army. He asks a series of odd, somewhat intimidating questions: “How many times have you lied today?” “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” “Are you afraid of the dark?” “What does one in the darkness seek?” After the interrogation, a phone rings. When answered, you hear the voice of Whiterose giving you a cryptic message that may contain clues about the direction of season 3 of the show. You’re then handed a manila envelope and told you have 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside are photos from the upcoming season of Mr. Robot.
While these immersive marketing events relied on real-world environments populated by actors, rather than virtual simulations, next year may reveal whether this was a single year deviation or the beginning of a trend. [For additional commentary, see Knowledge@Wharton, “Marketing at Comic-Con Gets Real (Again).”
Cosplay and Talk Back
While I don’t photograph cosplay as extensively as many of the photographers at Comic-Con, I love original costumes and clever mash-ups. Highlights from this year included a combination of Sailor Mercury and Freddie Mercury, a Day of the Dead costume, and Dr. Strange with his floating cape.
SDCC 2017 ended for me, as it does each year, with the Talk Back session, in which Comic-Con International President John Rogers listens to feedback from attendees on what went right and what went wrong (mostly what went wrong) at that year’s Comic-Con. In addition to the usual complaints about long lines and over-zealous security staff, this brought a new concern: allegations of counterfeit Hall H wristbands. Although these reports were unconfirmed, it was clear something went terribly awry regarding Hall H access on Saturday. After the 6,500-seat room was filled for the opening Warner Bros. panel that day, a significant number of fans with wristbands — which should have guaranteed access to the room — were still outside waiting in line. Rogers made it clear that Comic-Con International needs to “look into the security of the wristbands and how we tie that into people going forward.”
For a gallery of 1,100+ photos from Comic-Con International 2017, see the Flickr photo album: San Diego Comic-Con 2017:
The image from the Mr. Robot is from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the show’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other photos are copyright © 2017 by Kendall Whitehouse.