For comic book — and, in recent years, film and TV — fans around the world, San Diego Comic-Con marks the ultimate pop culture pilgrimage, something akin to a celebration smashed into a trade show that also happens to be the industry’s biggest gift shop. As studios announce their immense Hollywood slates, comic creators fill artists’ alley and passionate readers, thinkers, and artists program panels, filling each and every ballroom in the San Diego Convention Center. 2022 marks the return of the full convention, after a small “Special Edition” last November, for the first time since 2019. While the city of San Diego is “operating normally,” COVID-19 and the monkeypox outbreak — which was designated a global health emergency during the weekend the convention took place — are still a real threat. So what does San Diego Comic-Con look like in 2022? And was it worth the wait? It depends on who you ask and what brought them to pop culture’s most famous gathering.
If you’ve ever been to SDCC in the last 10 years then you’ll know that just walking around the city can be a feat. That was noticeably easier this year with the usually mobbed areas of the Gaslamp Quarter like Fifth Avenue and J Street, and even the outside of the convention center itself, pretty easy to traverse. Pre-COVID, SDCC annually brought in over 130,000 people and was expected to do the same this time around, but it did feel considerably less busy than previous years. It made it a decidedly more pleasant and less stressful version of pop culture’s busiest weekend.
That doesn’t mean SDCC didn’t feel overwhelming in the face of COVID-19 and three years of social distancing. Cosplayer Brenden Keller — who’d crafted a very impressive Qrow costume including a huge scythe that only weighed four pounds — appreciated the convention’s “COVID consciousness” but would have preferred it to be more like last year’s Special Edition, which was attended by around 40,000 people and took place almost completely in the convention center.
“I actually preferred that! I mean, we got lucky this time because it’s not too crowded,” he said, noting the apparent dip in SDCC attendance. Keller explained that it was definitely better than LA’s Anime Expo, which he’d attended in early July. “That was a little too crowded. It’s not nice, you get tired, and it’s not as fun.” He also had some great tips for people thinking about attending a convention: “It’s really a matter of figuring out and really properly organizing your time,” he shared. “Bring enough food and water! Water is really important!”
Staying hydrated was key this year as high humidity and 80 F (or higher) temperatures spanned the full five-day show. Historically, Wednesday’s Preview Night has always been slow, but by SDCC standards the city felt almost like a ghost town. By Thursday, the streets were busier but still easily walkable. Friday morning continued that trend, although by the afternoon it felt packed directly outside the convention. Saturday is traditionally the busiest day of the show, but even then it was possible to walk the floor without bumping into people or getting stuck in human traffic, something that can’t be said of years past. Multiple people said they felt like it was noticeably quieter, with some feeling that attendance was at least 20% lower than normal.
While official attendance numbers haven’t been released, David Glanzer, chief communication and strategy officer for SDCC, spoke to Forbes in the days leading up to the convention, saying, “People bought their tickets in 2019, and there have been some refunds and exchanges, but I expect it to be crowded. We are pretty close to a full house.”
Mysterious Galaxy bookseller and comic artist Rebecca Ann had some interesting thoughts on why the exhibit hall felt easier to traverse. “A lot of the bigger vendors in the exhibit hall weren’t there this year, so it allowed for these wider aisles and for it to accidentally have safer protocols.” Rebecca also found it to be far more COVID safety-focused than Comic-Con International’s own WonderCon earlier in the year. At that show “there were exhibitors that were not masking even after being told to, and people just casually walking around on the floor without masks.” As an immunocompromised person, the improved COVID protocols were key to Rebecca’s ability to enjoy SDCC, as they were working on the show floor every day. For them, the changes that the convention made along with the extra space meant “it was the best con that [they’ve] had in a while.”
Face coverings as well as proof of vaccination or a recent negative test were a condition of attending this year’s show, with Comic-Con International verifying everyone’s status at approved locations. Once approved, attendees were given orange wristbands they had to wear in order to be able to enter the convention center. While there were six sites to get your wristband — some with little to no wait — a lot of people ended up waiting at the “center” right outside of the convention, which at times had a line that was hundreds of people long and an hour-plus wait in the hot midday heat.
In the mind of indie comic creator Johnny Parker II, SDCC’s COVID protocols were a step up from some other recent conventions. “I think they did a good job. After going to Emerald City Comic Con where they kind of had some of the same policies, I liked how SDCC did it. They have multiple [vaccination verification] stations. When I did other cons, the COVID stations were really far away from the convention center for exhibitors. But here they were really smart about it. For exhibitors, your COVID station and your badge station were in the same area. So you get your things and get to work for the day. And then having multiple stations around and introducing the Clear app was just a smarter way to approach it.”
Exhibiting in the Small Press section of the convention, which he’s done for a number of years now, Parker also noticed the lower attendance of the show. “This was the first year in a long time where I could just sit and literally see through the crowd,” he shared. “When you walked into Comic-Con in the morning, it used to be hard to make it to our table. But this time it was easier. So you could tell that obviously it was down, but at the same time the vibes were still good. As a creator, the sales were still good and people were still showing up to buy. A lot of us agreed that it wasn’t our best year, but it definitely wasn’t the worst. It was a nice return to form.”
Theresa from Calimesa, California, has been attending SDCC for years, but this year’s show didn’t live up to her expectations. Waiting in her wheelchair in line for a Kevin Smith panel in Hall H, she explained that things just don’t feel the same. “Back in the day you used to go to your panel, buy your Funko, and just participate.” But the introduction of lotteries, pre-booked e-tickets for collectibles, and wristbanded events have taken away that spontaneity. “It’s just really sad that not everybody gets to experience those things. I was really bummed to find that out.” Another big change she wasn’t happy with was in regard to Hall H. “They’re not letting people stay inside, so you see your panel, you leave, and if you want to see another one you get in another line.” To Theresa it feels like another thing that makes it harder to participate in the con.
From the outside, the Hall H lines seemed far more reasonable this year, with the new rules appearing to impact the amount of people willing to wait and a lot of high-profile panels still letting people in within minutes of their starting time. It was a huge change from years past and hopefully allowed more people to experience one of the most famous parts of SDCC.
In contrast to Theresa’s experience, Hall H was a generally great part of the convention for RJ Perry, a writer/artist and first-time SDCC attendee. “Hall H was fun, and not just the big media launches: Marvel, Disney, Paramount. I waited in line but didn’t get a Hall H wristband.” That meant Perry had to queue up for each panel he wanted to attend, which sometimes meant a line farther than the eye could see: “I was told the ‘Hall H line begins here’ and ‘could be seen in the distance.’ I didn’t see it, lol!” In the end RJ, like a lot of SDCC visitors, found joy in the less high-profile moments of the convention. “The attendees, fans, and pros were all fabulous. Especially the small independent publishers.” And, of course, he got to experience that very special thing that only comic conventions offer: “Meeting pros I grew up idolizing was the best.”
That very specific Comic-Con experience also made an impact on journalist Jules Chin Greene. “It was very surreal,” the writer shared. “When I was walking to get COVID verified, I saw Rob Liefeld walking in the opposite direction. It’s like, ‘Oh my god! This is what Comic-Con is, I suppose.’” In that way, SDCC absolutely delivered on the hype. “Meeting so many creators that I admired and just getting to see Scott Snyder and Jim Lee and Bruce Campbell, it definitely lived up to my expectations.” It was Greene’s first time attending, as a fan or journalist, and they found that a press pass gave them direction that helped with how overwhelming it can all be. “I’m glad that I went as a journalist because it focused my experience of the convention. I got to have the Comic-Con experience, but for the most part I felt better — with COVID going around — being there for a specific purpose and having a separate space I could be in that was closed from the general public.”
SDCC couldn’t exist without the legions of volunteers, security guards, and hotel workers that make it possible. In fact, workers at the Bayfront Hilton — where many high-profile studio press events take place — went on strike on Wednesday night, with their demands quickly being met by Thursday. For Danny, a security guard from Ontario, California, who was stationed outside the waterfront hotel, the show had been fun but not without its challenges. “It’s pretty cool. There’s a lot of people… I try to get them to use the crosswalk but they don’t listen, they just cross anyway.” A highlight of the convention was working by the elevators and getting to see Danny DeVito (who was on site to promote Little Demon). But if he returns, Danny hopes that it’s as an attendee. “I’d like to come here just to be here. That would be a lot better.”