It’s 11am on a Thursday in San Diego, and already 80 degrees and humid. If they’re not already, everyone who’s here dressed as a superhero is about to get very sweaty inside their costumes.
On the sidewalk ahead of me, a middle-aged Superman wipes his brow with the corner of his cape as he walks down the street. A pair of Stormtroopers stand in a patch of shade under the awning of a pizza shop, and the Incredible Hulk buys a bottle of water from a street vendor while thousands of other villains, caped crusaders, action heroes, white walkers and zombies mill about.
Each July, Comic-Con lands in San Diego, CA for four days of industry panels, fan gatherings, merch trading and high-level marketing of the world’s biggest sci-fi, fantasy and comic-related movies and television shows. Multi-story billboards for Stranger Things, Legion, Westworld, and The Walking Dead are plastered to the sides of the massive hotels that line the waterfront here in San Diego’s Gaslamp District.
It’s basically impossible to look in any direction without seeing a banner for the new season of Game of Thrones. While some experts have predicted a downsized industry turnout this year as studios save their precious ad dollars, here on the street there’s no indication the popularity of Comic-Con is waning. Simultaneously an opportunity for brands to build hype around their biggest projects and affable nerds like myself to delve into our superhero dreams among friends and fellow fantasy makers, Comic-Con is a strange and endearing spectacle for the more than 100,000 of us who will turn out over the course of these four days.
And it’s more fun with beer.
Given the festival feel of the event, it’s natural that even at noon many of the caped crusaders lunching in the Gaslamp’s bars and restaurants have already started drinking. Wonder Woman enjoys a martini while Batman tips back an oversized IPA. A sense of excitement electrifies the air as hype people for brands including Redbull, Vice and the Syfy channel hand out swag to anyone with a hand to grab it. A dog dressed in a Robin costume lounges lazily on the sidewalk.
Comic-Con’s hub is the San Diego Convention Center, where hundreds of men, women, children and wookies are currently camped out in an insanely long line to secure a place in the event’s mythical Hall H. Some of them have been here for 24 hours.
For the next four days, actors, directors, writers and producers of hits including Star Trek, Twin Peaks, Thor, Orville, and Atomic Blonde will gather in Hall H to discus plot twists and teasers of each franchise. Dark, spacious and full of secrets, Hall H is to Comic-Con what Wayne Manor is to Batman, and inside things get deliciously meta as fans assemble to see the people who play their favorite superheroes talk about playing their favorite superheroes.
This next few days will see the reveal of the new (thrillingly bad-ass) Stranger Things trailer, vintage rock act Kansas making a surprise appearance to play the Supernatural theme “Carry On My Wayward Son” and the excitement over the Ducktales movie growing exponentially when it is revealed that Darkwing Duck is making an appearance in the forthcoming film. There will, altogether, be much screaming.
But without a badge to get in, the Convention Center is little more than a place where one can stand outside the doors to draft off the air-conditioning. The Gaslamp, however, is truly Comic-Con’s wild west fan zone.
Hordes of people stand in long lines to check out installations by Netflix and Broad City and a line for The Walking Dead obstacle course snakes around the block as everyone waits their turn to get chased by zombies. Down the street people wait upwards of an hour to witness clips from the forthcoming Bladerunner: 2049. (To be fair, this viewing area is air-conditioned.)
The less patient among us are just people watching and beating the heat with a beer.
San Diego’s craft beer culture is massively robust, with more than a hundred indie brewers based in the ocean-adjacent city situated 40 minutes north of the Mexican border. At a slammed Gaslamp bar called Barleymash, local selections span the spectrum from stouts to IPAs to wheats and pilsners. My group orders one of each, and then another round as we gaze out upon the crowds that altogether look like inhabitants of a surreal sort of theme park.
Comic-Con is a fun place to be tipsy, as the very nature of the event already blurs the concept of reality as everyone dresses up as the character possessing powers we each would most like to have. Is that a real cop or a fake one? A messy person or just someone dressed like an extra from The Walking Dead? A regular dog or a dog that actually fights crime alongside Batman? It’s hard to tell. Although there are certainly private chichi parties happening in the air-conditioned penthouses high above us, down here on the street the vibe is celebratory and wonderfully unpretentious and as we all indulge our fantasies in this neighborhood-wide safe space.
Over at the nearby Nasons’ Beer Hall, we make a pit stop for Mission Blonde Ales and eggplant schnitzel before bouncing through the posh hotel bars that are, by 5pm, packed with executive types drinking on the company dime. In the lobby, a man dressed as the Night King from Game of Thrones is disputing a charge at the reservations desk, and the sight of him is legitimately terrifying. At a party on an outdoor patio by the water men in polo shirts drink free beer and talk about when Jon Snow is going to find out he’s a Targaryen while harried looking publicists zip around with walkie talkies in hand.
Back outside, the sun is finally going down over the marina, where massive yachts have been rented out by companies like Activision and IMDB and a line of people (yes, still waiting for Hall H access wristbands) is hunkered along the promenade. Back on Fifth Street the bars are slammed.
On the sidewalk a pair of police officers (real ones!) offer free, “no consequence” breathalyzer tests. A middle-aged man blows into the tube and when the cop announces his number his friends explode into laughter and announce that he will not be driving this evening.
We continue our meander through town past the Spreckels Theater where Conan O’Brien is taping his show during Comic-Con. Two dozen people stand outside as a security guard comes out to address the crowd.
“I don’t know why you guys are standing here,” he says, looking legitimately befuddled. “The show’s over and all the merch is sold out.”
It seems that Comic-Con attendees are just so used to standing in lines that they will form one even when the situation doesn’t call for it. The crowd scatters. Down the street another huge horde stands in line for another expensive-looking installation that appears to have something to do with a cartoon dog. We stop at a Chipotle ( where there is blessedly no line), and buy some chips and guac to drunkenly eat on the train back up to LA. A solitary Spiderman is enjoying a burrito and a Corona. He obligingly puts his mask back on when an employee asks for a photo.
Comic-Con is ultimately a demonstration of high level capitalism – the franchises with the most money arrive to raise awareness, generate viewers and line executive pockets. But the event is also a celebration of human imagination, of the other worlds that might be out there and the heroes, aliens and monsters that might inhabit them. It’s a celebration of what it might be like to be stronger, braver, faster, tougher. It’s a celebration of what’s possible.
In a world where the news often reads like something out of a comic book – where the ice caps are melting and the president is an orange madman – it’s hard to think of a event more soothing or more important than one that encourages us to believe in our own super powers.