Comic-Con’s ever-expanding universe: At 50, the show is bigger than ever

Stormtrooper mannequins on display at Comic-Con's Star Wars booth
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Despite an ever-increasing number of free Con-related attractions sprouting across the city, few seemed to mind spending money on a pass and then fighting the caped shoulder-to-caped shoulder crowds inside.


As Wednesday’s preview night horde jostled and squeezed into the San Diego Convention Center, you had to wonder:

Is this still the white-hot center of Comic-Con?

On Wednesday’s Preview Night, the launch of the 50th annual San Diego Comic-Con International, the answer was clear. Despite an ever-increasing number of free Con-related attractions sprouting across the city, few seemed to mind spending money on a pass and then fighting the caped shoulder-to-caped shoulder crowds inside.

“Here you have cartoons, movies, TV, video games all in one place,” said Rose Noyes, 32, after her karaoke performance of “Stronger Than You” on the Beach City Stage, part of Cartoon Network’s promotion for “Steven Universe: The Movie.”

“You can go to an anime convention,” she continued, “but that’s just anime. This includes everything.”

Inside the exhibition hall, there was an embarrassment of pop culture riches. Fans lined up for the Star Trek Universe Transporter Experience, a 30-second blast to an alien land; $1,400 life-sized busts of superheroes and villains; $30 photos with Neal Adams, a legendary comic book artist; and the fortress-like installation for Netflix’s “The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance.”

“It was great,” said Karen Brain, a San Diego County employee who uses a wheelchair. “And I really appreciated that it was wheelchair accessible.”

Comic-Con’s come a long way since 1970, when the entire show could fit in a basement. Then, it was ignored by all but hardcore fans of comics, movies and science fiction literature. Now, said Akito Takahashi, this is a global phenomenon.

“San Diego Comic-Con is very famous, even in Japan,” Takahashi said through an interpreter. “And if you look at the long queue that is forming, it will tell you how grateful we are that there are so many fans.”

That long line was for exclusive models of Godzilla, the most popular star of the Tokyo-based film studio Toho, where Takahashi is an executive. Last year, the studio sent a team to check out Comic-Con. They were impressed.

“And when they found out that this year in Comic-Con’s 50th and it’s Godzilla’s 65th,” Takahashi said, “it was perfect.”

Peter Leftwich might not call it “perfect,” as he was at the tail end of the Godzilla line. But the 36-year-old Glendale resident, a veteran of a dozen Comic-Cons, understood that patience is more than a virtue. It’s a Comic-Con necessity.

“It’s worth it if you don’t mind the crowds,” Leftwich said. “If you are a nerd, a geek, interested in anything having to do with pop culture, you need to be here.”

“Here,” though, is a moving target. For years, Comic-Con has staked out large swaths of the Gaslamp Quarter and East Village, but always within a short walk of the convention center. This year, for the first time, the show is presenting panels in Barrio Logan and has organized a major exhibit in Balboa Park’s still-developing Comic Con Museum.

“We are hoping this will take off,” said David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s director of marketing and public relations. “This is an experiment.”

The lab results should be in soon. BarrioHaus, 1616 National Ave., is hosting two panels today: “Long Story Short: Mexican Comic Books,” from noon to 1 p.m., and “From Mexico to the USA,” exploring comic books created by artists and writers on both sides of the border, from 1 to 2 p.m. The panels are free and open to the public — Comic-Con badges are not required.

The Comic-Con Museum has been transformed into a Gotham City neighborhood, complete with the Bat Cave (downstairs, of course), two Batmobiles (from the `1989 Tim Burton movie and another from 1995’s “Batman Forever”), plus an unprecedented collection of treasures from 80 years of Bat-mania.

“This is the largest gathering of Batman memorabilia and props in one room,” said Benjamin LeClear, DC Comics’ manager of the library archives.

In the Bat Cave, visitors can try out DC Universe, a new multi-player online game; enter a rogues gallery, where guests knock around villains, whose images are projected on a punching bag; and inspect a Batman suit from one of the recent Christopher Nolan directed films.

Outside the museum, guests lined up for the “Dark Knight Dive.” After donning a Batman costume and Virtual Reality headset, they were led to a skydiving simulator, allowing them to fly over Gotham City.

While that’s a Comic-Con sanctioned event, a host of other companies have set up their own attractions. Amazon Prime has taken over an empty square block in the Gaslamp, and installed rides to promote three shows: “The Boys,” “Carnival Row” and “The Expanse.” On Sixth Avenue, blocks from the convention center, Nerdist has opened its “Mayhem Museum,” dedicated to the Borderlands 3 video game.

On San Diego Bay, director and comic book collector Kevin Smith will skipper the IMDboat; tonight’s invitation-only cruise has a guest list that includes Kelsey Grammer and other members of the “You’re Not a Monster” cast.

Nearby, aboard the USS Midway Museum, Topgolf is welcoming duffers eager to drive biodegradable golf balls into perhaps the world’s largest water hazard, San Diego Bay.

But for Thao Dao, a retail manager from San Diego, none of this can match the wonder of Comic-Con itself. On the exhibition floor, she sat on a mock-up of a “Sesame Street” stoop, spending a moment — which her brother, Tam Dao, memorialized with a snapshot — with one of her favorite creatures, Cookie Monster.

“Granted,” she said, “there’s a lot of stuff outside. But this is just cool to see.”