COVID-19 closed summer’s ‘nerd kingdom.’ Here’s what Comic-Con fans miss most

PPE masks have replaced cosplay at the San Diego Convention Center this year. Normally, Comic-Con International would attract 135,000-plus attendees. <span class="copyright">(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)</span>
PPE masks have replaced cosplay at the San Diego Convention Center this year. Normally, Comic-Con International would attract 135,000-plus attendees. (Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Evangelina Sanchez has been attending Comic-Con International: San Diego since 2008, when she and her boyfriend received comp tickets from friends in the industry. Since then, the two have gone to nine cons — “and yes, we started buying our own tickets.”

“What stands out most to me about the first time was how accessible everything was,” the 36-year-old Maywood native said on the eve of this year’s virtual edition, which concludes Sunday. “We were able to stand in line for panels and did not have to sleep on the pavement overnight like some people do now. My favorite part is and always has been the exhibition floor: I love spending hours walking down the aisles, running into people you may know, discovering new art, buying a cool T-shirt from some obscure vendor and being in awe of some of the amazing cosplay. That is the one aspect I will miss this year.”

Sanchez is not alone. Like officials, business owners and fans in San Diego, where the absence of 135,000 convention-goers has been acutely felt, Comic-Con veterans from Southern California and beyond told The Times that there’s no replacing the carnival atmosphere of the city’s Gaslamp Quarter or the particular mayhem of a Marvel panel in cavernous Hall H.

Still, Comic-Con regulars expressed support for organizers’ decision to scrap the in-person event because of the COVID-19 pandemic — a reflection of polls indicating that Americans favor face-covering requirements and other restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease by wide margins.

Virtual or not, Comic-Con is “an experience that never gets old,” Sanchez said. “As a lifelong nerd, you feel at home there because you meet people who are as weird as you. It’s sad that people will miss out on the experience this year, but it’s completely understandable. I would not put my health and others’ at risk for a couple days of goofing around. It’s incredibly selfish if people are legitimately upset that they can’t buy their exclusive toys this year.”

Had the convention been held this year, San Bernardino’s Mele Tabisula, 32, and her husband, Braden, 31, might have decided to skip it anyway — even though the couple have gone to Comic-Con to celebrate their wedding anniversary the last six years, commemorating each by buying a new piece of art there.

“We have a massive display in our house,” she said. “Each piece reminds us of memories that we’ve made each trip, from camping overnight in lines to meeting some of our favorite actors and artists. It’s just not going to be the same purchasing the art and watching panels online. To not be able to go this year is quite a bummer, but while we’re sad about not being able to attend in person this year, we definitely understand and are super supportive of the decision to cancel. I don’t know if I would’ve gone anyways. There are way too many people crammed into a space with this whole pandemic going on.”

It’s the loss of these annual rituals that disappoints the diehards most, more than the A-list celebrity sightings or high-gloss trailer debuts.

Mateo Romero, 53, from Santa Fe, N.M. — a self-described analog kind of guy, wasn’t interested in Comic-Con @ Home, but he was missing the favorite food spots he’d found over 12 visits: “Convoy Street for dim sum, Hodad’s for burgers, Nobu sushi at the Hard Rock.”

For Los Angeles’ Jami Losurdo, a veteran of 17 Comic-Cons, the place to be is normally the Gaslamp Steak Club. “There’s a group of friends I only see [at the convention] — most of them live out of state. We’ve been going together for years. We get a room together,” she said. “We’re going to have a virtual dinner.”

Shane Holly dressed as Spartan 2296 from the video game Halo on board the Flagship Cruises Cabrillo in San Diego Bay. A number of Comic-Con regulars cited the cosplay as the aspect of the event they miss most this year. <span class="copyright">(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)</span>
Shane Holly dressed as Spartan 2296 from the video game Halo on board the Flagship Cruises Cabrillo in San Diego Bay. A number of Comic-Con regulars cited the cosplay as the aspect of the event they miss most this year. (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The familiar sight of cosplayers dressed as their favorite characters is another Comic-Con phenomenon that’s hard to replicate from afar.

“They’re doing their best to make SDCC into something this year, but it’s about the whole shared experience as much as it is the products,” said Craig Tomashoff of Encino. “When you can’t actually sit [among cosplayers] while debating which Marvel movie was the funniest, you’re not getting the same experience.”

Tomashoff, who has attended the convention more than a dozen times, said that he’d try to peek into some of the virtual panels but that “between work and life, it’ll be hard to attend any.”

“The real fun of Comic-Con is the very thing that is keeping it from happening, which is human contact,” he said. “The thrill comes from being surrounded by people who are just as enthusiastic as you are, not just about shows and books but this whole idea that there’s a genre of entertainment [that caters to our shared interests]. My favorite part is walking the convention floor, looking at all of the booths and products and costumes. There’s a certain pageantry to Comic-Con that you can’t get by logging onto your laptop and sitting in your home alone.”

Kenny Mittleider, 49, of Tujunga, who’s been to 15 Comic-Cons, developed an interest in cosplaying when wait times to get into high-profile panels started to balloon. But it’s not the same at home.

“I have a friend who makes hobbit feet for me. I usually am not comfortable with a lot of attention, but being in a costume helps that,” he said. “I know they’re doing a cosplay thing where you can dress up, put it on Instagram, win prizes. But I don’t do it for the prizes.”

Throngs of people are a regular feature of Comic-Con most years. In the absence of an in-person convention this year, some fans say they don't miss the crowds and lines. <span class="copyright">(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)</span>
Throngs of people are a regular feature of Comic-Con most years. In the absence of an in-person convention this year, some fans say they don’t miss the crowds and lines. (Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

One aspect of the convention fans certainly don’t miss is the lines. As Sanchez pointed out, one virtual panel with Charlize Theron seemed more promising than its real-life equivalent. (Most panels for this year’s event were pre-recorded.)

“2008 was probably the last year it was possible to just walk into panels. I still attend [them], but now it’s the smaller ones where you don’t waste a day standing in line. If Comic-Con was happening in person, I’d be skipping that Charlize Theron panel because of how hard it is to get into those coveted rooms.”

“I’m looking forward to being able to enjoy the [convention] from the comfort and safety of my home,” agreed Diamond Bar resident Sara Khan, 28, who has attended the convention the last three years. “[Although] the whole excitement of being at Comic-Con has to do with the atmosphere, the fans and all of the celebrations, what I won’t miss is the crowds, the long lines and the heat. I love going to Comic-Con, but walking around the actual convention floor is an Olympic sport in itself. Having to get from one side of the convention center to the other while pushing your way through a sea of people is not that fun, which is why I’m very [strategic] about where I need to go and how to make a quick exit. I’m glad I can avoid all that this year.”

Ariel Staehle, 42, of Los Angeles, fondly remembers cosplaying as “True Blood” protagonist Sookie Stackhouse during the show’s panel at her first Comic-Con: “People thought I was an actual waitress.” She and her boyfriend, stand-up comic and avid fantasy reader Ron Swallow, 43, are glad to skip the lines, though Staehle admitted that there’s no re-creating the feeling of a marquee panel.

“The energy of Hall H won’t be there, but it’s still going to be great,” she said. “That first ‘True Blood’ panel — I was brought to tears. The camaraderie in the room of so many people liking the same thing — I don’t think they’ll be able to replicate it.”

But for many people who can’t usually make it to San Diego, she added, especially those too young to travel alone, Comic-Con @ Home is an opportunity to take part in at least some of the experience.

Swallow added, “And you don’t have to spend $3,000.”

Of course, for those like Los Angeles’ Shannon Forrey, 34, who has been to “at least 20” Comic-Cons, the price tag and the hassle pale in comparison to the camaraderie that engulfs San Diego each summer, and it’s the absence of this sense of community and belonging that fans said they’re feeling most profoundly.

As Forrey put it, “There’s no way you can replicate what Comic-Con is. It’s this special place, special time — this bubble goes up and it’s this nerd kingdom.”

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