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San Diego Comic-Con 2019 Analysis

As usual, I viewed the San Diego Comic-Con’s 2019 edition as an opportunity to get a barometer on the next year in high-profile genre films and television shows, along with pop culture in general. Besides attending the convention in person, I waded through Twitter, online panel recaps, and videos of the various panels to pull together what I found to be the highlights.

Winners

Marvel Studios

Is anyone really surprised that Marvel would again walk away with the signature panel of the entire weekend?  Well, maybe I was, as the upcoming Disney D23 convention in August would have seemed a prime time to roll out the various announcements that Marvel instead brought to San Diego.  The Russo brothers had already had their ‘victory lap’ panel earlier in the week and Marvel needed to announce something…

And they delivered – there were five films revealed.  “Black Widow” for May 1, 2020 and then Jack Kirby’s “The Eternals” with Angelina Jolie (of all people) for November 6, 2020.  February 12, 2021 brings “The Master of Kung-Fu” and the ‘real’ Mandarin as villain.  “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” comes on May 7, 2021.  “Thor: Love and Thunder” for November 5, 2021 perhaps had the most talking points, with the return of Taika Waititi as director and Natalie Portman teasing her Jane Foster character getting to take on the role of a female Thor.  Tessa Thompson also talked up a lesbian romance for her Valkyrie character.

Some of the Disney+ television announcements were further out than I realized though.  “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” open up for Disney+ in fall of 2020.  “Wanda Vision” and “Loki” in spring of 2021.  An animated “What If” with many of the film actors returning to voice their characters would hit in summer of 2021.  “Hawkeye” would be coming in fall of 2021.

Batman

Batman rarely loses and this year he had a big “The Gathering” retrospective with memorabilia on display at San Diego’s Balboa Park, an event that coincided with the character’s induction into the Comic-Con “Hall of Fame.”

Star Wars Fans

Despite having no hall H mega-panel, Star Wars fan had little to complain about, as Star Wars did have a giant booth in the exhibit hall with everything from upcoming film costumes to elaborate toy displays that rotated daily.  There was even a nook for a home arcade cabinet with the classic early-1980s “Star Wars” game by Atari soon available for purchase.  Oh, and there were smaller panels for such things as comics or book announcements.

Star Trek Fans

Hope springs eternal, right?  Maybe this should be wait-and-see but the “Picard” series preview surprised fans with the involvement of other “Next Generation”-era cast members, most-notably Data.  There was even an unexpected appearance by the Seven of Nine character from “Voyager.”  All told, the series seemed to be Borg-centric, also a surprise.  “Picard” wasn’t the only “Trek” news though, as the “Lower Decks” animated series was also teased.

Kevin Smith

Smith held court on Saturday evening, promoting his upcoming “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot”… a sequel to the old Viewaskew films that started Smith’s career.  The trailer – with an angle that involved Jay Mewes having an adult love child – included cameos from past Viewaskew regulars.  Perhaps no cameo was more shocking than that of Ben Affleck, with Smith later detailing how he had Affleck had recently reconciled their friendship after nearly a decade.  Affleck’s scenes would apparently continue his character’s story from “Chasing Amy.”

Off-Site Attractions

The off-site attractions were bigger than ever, a trend that continued to grow.  Amazon’s new genre series “Carnival Row” had a Victorian street recreation from the show that took up most of a city block.  The usual field of tents covered the area south of Petco Park.  “South Park” had its annual off-site spot by a San Diego trolley stop at the convention center.  “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” had an elaborate building structure greeting fans getting off of trolley rides.  The Batman exhibit at Balboa Park featured the single largest collection of Batman memorabilia at one such show in history.  Even if you didn’t have a pass to get into the show, you could easily spend a day or two wandering around at events throughout downtown San Diego.

Panel Lines

Panel lines were well managed and minimal.  I only had one case where I was shut out of a panel that was on my list and it seemed like a fluke involving Jim Starlin.  I was otherwise able to easily get into some panels that I had anticipated might be crowded.  Hall H, with perhaps a less-flashy line-up than in prior years, had times where lines weren’t an issue at all.  Of course, for the marquee Marvel panel there was the usual camping outside overnight but less of a Hollywood profile than in past years made access generally easier.

Alien Fans

No, there wasn’t another movie coming out soon (maybe that alone was a win?) but there was a cool new book of note.  J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Alien” rolled out at the convention, the latest of Rinzler’s “Making Of…” books that have included “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.”  If you’re familiar with those books – and you should be – you know why this new volume will be special.

J. Michael Straczynski

Straczynski kept a promise from a couple of years ago when his new biography “Becoming Superman” hit shelves around the time of the convention.  Straczynski was at the convention to promote that book via a number of appearances, amid news that he had seemingly un-retired from writing comics.  He will supposedly be writing for former Marvel executive Bill Jemas in a new venture.

Hideo Kojima

This was arguably the biggest videogames-related panel at the convention given Kojima’s rockstar status.  Visual auteur director guy Nicolas Winding Refn appeared with Kojima to discuss the slow roll to the release of Kojima’s hotly-anticipated new game “Death Stranding.”  Refn apparently had an acting role in the game, as did frequent Refn collaborator Mads Mikkelsen.

Frank Miller

Miller should probably get an award for simply being alive given recent health scares.  He was very present at the convention this year, appearing at multiple signings and on multiple panels to promote his new “Superman: Year One” project.  I caught a glimpse of Miller while he was resting in the upper level of the Warner Bros. booth, sitting in a chair that made him look like a super-villain that was lording over his domain.  Given Miller’s influence on comics and how comics have impacted modern films, maybe that isn’t far from the truth?

Karate Kid/Cobra Kai Fans

I was able to get into Ballroom 20 to see the cast of the Youtube “Cobra Kai” show, a real treat given that key “Karate Kid” actors Ralph ‘Daniel’ Macchio, William ‘Johnny’ Zabka, and Martin ‘John Kreese’ Kove were all there.  It says something about how effective the sequel series has been at developing those characters that the biggest crowd reaction was for Zabka.

“V” Fans

I had fond memories of this classic 1980s alien invasion mini-series and later single season show that aired on NBC.  The show’s creator, Kenneth Johnson, was on hand with star Marc Singer to promote a new blu-ray release from Warner Archive.  The panel also included claims of a sequel film to the 1980s series, but we’ll wait to see if it really ever gets into production.

Halloween Fans

There was not a formal presentation for the “Halloween” films but news did get releases on the convention’s first day that Blumhouse was planning two sequels to the 2018 hit film, seemingly with the same creative team.

Losers

Disney Fans

The upcoming D23 expo looming in August largely left Disney fans on the sidelines in terms of news.  That said, the Comic-Con rule of ‘anything can happen’ was validated in a panel for the new “Ducktales” series, with superstar and “Ducktales” voice actor Lin-Manuel Miranda showing up unannounced.

Warner Bros Fans

A Warner Bros/DC panel on Saturday had become a staple in Hall H over recent years and there was no such event this year.

Stranger Things Fans

Fans just got a well-received third season of the show and probably don’t have much to complain about.  That said, there was no ‘victory lap’ panel to promote the series, although there was some series branding on the local light rail line.

Doctor Who

Compared to past years, there was not much of a “Doctor Who” presence, despite the upcoming new series (season) in early 2020.

Universal Studios

Universal had nothing to share, as their upcoming slate is largely devoid of ‘genre’ films.

Sony Pictures

Unlike Universal, Sony’s absence from Hall H was somewhat perplexing.  Sony does have the upcoming “Zombieland 2” film on their schedule and that might have been a fit but the film wasn’t promoted at the convention.

Night Owls

The closure of the Hyatt’s main bar for remodeling led to the splintering of what had annually been an evening networking hotspot.  Some tried to suggest alternate venues but herding cats is always difficult.

Film Music Fans

The first panel that I attended at the convention was supposed to be on film music and feature the composer Wendy Carlos (of “Tron” and “The Shining” fame), an early electronic music pioneer.  That panel, so far as I know, never happened and the room was booked with a LGBTQ-related panel instead.  As of this writing, I had found no information regarding if it had been rescheduled.

Robotech Fans

Another year of teases with fans needing to make due with new comic book announcements and talk of the animated series being on streaming TV.  The multi-year hints of a Sony Pictures big-screen adaptation of “Robotech” remained unclear.

Jim Steranko Fans

Steranko held his first spotlight panel in a few years.  While he arrive ten minutes early and caused some fan confusion – and delight – by randomly being out in the hallway as fans were arriving, his panel itself was a bit of a bust.  He told several stories about his time as an escape artist.  The stories were not un-entertaining, but poor clock management by the moderator (who was in a tricky spot with guiding Steranko) meant no comics stories nor any fan Q&A.

IT: Part 2

The sequel to the horror hit didn’t need much promotion but the release of a detailed new trailer largely got forgotten due to debuting right as the convention was getting underway.

Game of Thrones Fans

The usually-annual “Game of Thrones” panel was always a victory lap due to the timing of the show’s season airings.  That was the case this year after the show’s controversial last season.  Matters were complicated when the showrunners dropped out of the panel on the eve of the convention.  Fans in the panel were told by a moderator to ‘be nice’ and they seemed to cooperate, although no time was left for any fan Q&A.

Guillermo del Toro

Del Toro had an interesting ‘master class’ panel for fans who won a ticket lottery, the panel seemingly in support of the film “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”  The chance to hype that film on the eve of its release in a couple of weeks was largely lost though, as the panel took place on Saturday evening at an out-of-the-way location just as Marvel was about to begin its Hall H run.

Walking Dead Fans

It was a strange time to be a “Walking Dead” fan.  The long-running comic book series had abruptly ended with Robert Kirkman intentionally issuing no forewarning.  A third television series was announced but it didn’t seem to be something that fans really wanted.  The announcement of three upcoming theatrical films were met with a tepid (at best) response.

Unclear, Ask Later

Netflix

They had a big win with the “Dark Crystal” panel showing the first episode to rave reviews while also having an interesting exhibit hall attraction for that show.  “The Witcher” series tease got a good reaction but it wasn’t clear how this monster-hunting show might pay off on the “Game of Thrones” comparisons.  Frank Miller’s “Cursed” series was also a wildcard.

Marvel Comics

The annual trend of what is old is new again continued.  “X-Men” relaunching (again) was perhaps the primary talker but a return of the 2099 line and other Marvel 80ths anniversary items were announced – such as a repurposing of the 1986 25th anniversary Marvel cover dressings.

As I said, that “X-Men” reboot seemed to be a primary topic, as Marvel found itself again rebooting the franchise, this time with Jonathan Hickman at the helm.  Hickman’s involvement seemed promising, as he’d turned “Fantastic Four” and “Avengers” to gold for Marvel in recent years.  Hopefully he could bring renewed interest to “X-Men.”

DC Comics

It’s been an odd year for DC, as their various reboots from past years had seemingly created some fan fatigue.  The ‘Black Label’ line that had been announced last year had a rocky start.  The retiring of the Vertigo line and the seeming cancellation of “Mad Magazine” amid some odd rumors just added to the sense that the publisher was not in great shape.  This year’s ‘Year of the Villain’ mantra hasn’t had game-changing heat and hints of a new “Crisis” in 2020 – maybe tipped by the release of a $500 edition of the 1980s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” comics threatened to just add to that reboot fatigue.

Legendary TV

Noted comics writer Ed Brubaker signed a deal with Legendary TV, with his creator owned crime-related properties likely being their adaptation intent.  Brubaker has a solid pedigree and hopefully Legendary delivers.

DC Animated

Jim Lee’s “Batman: Hush” had a big world premiere as DC’s latest animated direct-to-video film and reaction was tepid at best.  A new “Harley Quinn” animated series with some adult language in the trailer garnered some buzz, so maybe that balances out the reaction?

Comics Shrinkage

Diamond Distributors owner Steve Gippi appeared in a few panels – including a notable one that accused AT&T and DC of racism against black creators – and pronounced the Comics medium to be healthy.  Gippi’s argument was somewhat misdirection though, as he was proud of Hollywood seemingly having been ‘saved’ by super-hero films but sales of actual comic books featuring those super-heroes were dwindling.

Spawn, Blumhouse, & Todd McFarlane

Todd McFarlane was on several panels and available for several signing sessions, all in support of the upcoming issue #300 of “Spawn.”  McFarlane commented on the now-long-gestating Blumhouse “Spawn” film and cast blame on production partners for no action thus far with that film amid squabbling over his proposed approach to the film.

Rob Liefeld

The mischief prince of comics again found himself generating all kinds of publicity, this in spite of the fact that there wasn’t any “Deadpool”-related promotion going on this year.  Liefeld had recently made waves blasting DC Comics management on Twitter and Marvel featured him in a number of promotional signings or panels related to his new hit creation:  “Major X.”  All that said, it remained to be seen if “Major X” would be more than a flash of popularity.  Curiously little news came out regarding Liefeld’s long-gestating Hollywood projects.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” comic book from Mirage Studios was somehow adding up to an issue #100 and news of the debut of a new female turtle was generating fan buzz but it remained to be seen how this character might be used.

Terminator: Dark Fate

The upcoming film had a Hall H panel on Thursday with a video introduction by James Cameron and news of an ‘R’ rating.  Oddly enough, the biggest story out of the panel ended up being a stray mention that Cameron made of “Terminator 2” actor Edward Furlong returning as John Connor in this sequel.

HBO

The premium network had a loser in the “Game of Thrones” panel but it also had a couple of panels that fit into the ‘check back later’ category.  The first and riskiest proposition was the new Damon Lindelof-led “Watchmen” series.  Despite multiple trailers, it still wasn’t clear what was going on with this series and how it either remakes or reimagines the 2009 feature film adaptation.

Also having a presence, “Westworld” continued to hold my attention despite some fans feeling frustrated by the show.  They had key cast members at the convention to promote the upcoming Season 3, despite the fact that the show didn’t have an announced release date and wouldn’t likely appear until perhaps the middle of 2020.

CW DC Heroes

The CW network seemed to have “Batwoman” as a headliner and seemed to get a mostly-positive reaction.  One oddity to mention was talk of Brandon Routh re-appearing on screen as Superman for the first time since 2006’s “Superman Returns” as part of some sort of “Crisis” event.

Top Gun: Maverick

Tom Cruise surprised the crowd at Paramount’s “Terminator” panel with the trailer for his “Top Gun” sequel.  The trailer hit all of the nostalgia notes from the original film, with later analysis suggesting near-parody.  It was unclear how the film would fare when it comes out next summer.

Oddities & Miscellanea

Stan Lee

It was with a heavy heart that fans observed their first Comic-Con in a world without Stan Lee.  The convention hosted several memorial panels in his honor.

Miracleman

Marvel and Neil Gaiman continued a now-annual tease of the return and conclusion of this character’s story.  The latest news involved his appearing in a brief story associated with Mavel’s oddly numbered ‘1000’ special that was compiling together a collection of top talents in short stories.

Jeff Smith

The Cartoon Books booth looked busy every time that I passed it but I never spotted Jeff Smith there and he didn’t have a panel this year.  There have been some relatively-new “Bone” children’s books from him but little else of note.

1970s Comics Creators

We’re now at the point where the comics creators who started to become of note in the 1970s – Marv Wolfman, Walter Simonson, and others, are the oldest relatively-active comics professionals.  Many are moving into the 70 year old age bracket sooner than later and, just as the Golden and Silver age creators faded out from being regulars at the show, so too will the bronze age crew over the next decade or so.

Comic-Con Turns 50

It was the 50th anniversary of the San Diego Comic-Con, a fact that was hard to miss between the signage and retrospective panels.  A theme in those panels was how the show has changed, for better or worse.  Also in discussion was how the show was largely becoming a new generation’s ‘thing’ and how that new generation would be the next caretakers of this tradition.

Fantastic Four by Scioli

I’d highlighted Tom Scioli’s offbeat work in the past on “Transformers vs. G.I. Joe”… a truly weird book.  He’s had a similar style to Ed Piskor, who had recently wrapped up his wonderful “X-Men: Grand Design” summation of “X-Men” history up to the end of Chris Claremont’s run.  Also Priskor’s future plans were not know, Marvel was continuing the “Grand Design” approach, but with Scioli sliding over to take on “Fantastic Four.”

Russo Brothers

The Russo brothers appeared for an “Avengers: Endgame” victory lap panel, with some teases about potential future projects.  It remained to be seen how the brothers fared outside of Marvel – fans might recall (or not) their promotion of “Assassination Nation” last year.

EC at 75

EC Comics had a 75th anniversary panel with news of a new Dark Horse ‘greatest hits’-style 500-page story collection.  Art book publisher Taschen also had a retrospective book in the works.

One related note was the announcement of a new “Creepshow” series on the small streamer Shudder.  While not directly tied to EC, the original 1980s “Creepshow” films were largely inspired by EC Comics, but curiously not formally licensed.

Artists Editions

A Bill Sienkiewicz book in this line won the Eisner award for best archival reprint.

Home Video Releases

Buyers of physical media had plenty to celebrate.  The success of last year’s “Batman: The Animated Series” blu-ray rollout led to a “Batman Beyond” rollout this year.  Besides the “V: The Mini-Series” release that I’d previously mentioned, some other classic series releases announced or previewed included the 1960s “The Jetsons” season (with a panel featuring a key writer) and a re-mastered 1960s “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” release.  Shout! and Scream Factory also announced an interesting slate of new releases over the next year.

Mark Hamill

The “Star Wars” legend was given a Comic-Con ‘Icon” award after the “Dark Crystal” panel.

Protestors

A staple for years outside of the convention center had been extremely conservative Christian protestors, with signs proclaiming that attendees very well might be going to Hell.  This year, that didn’t seem to be out en masse, although I did still catch a glimpse of such a group huddled in the Gaslamp Quarter.  There were some lower-key Christians who were taking a different tact, with offers of Christian comic books and a more inviting tone.

The most present protest group was anti-vaccine activists who had signs and Guy Fawkes masks on.  The outfits made the protestors seem downright creepy and it was hard to figure out the intent of this approach.  I’d call it a misfire.

Sesame Street at 50

Yet another anniversary observation, with “Sesame Street” turning 50 year old.  The show had some familiar characters and creative staff in attendance for a panel.

NASA

NASA continued, oddly enough, to have a booth presence on the exhibit floor.  This year, it was to promote – wait for it – the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing.

Troma’s Birthday

Yep, another anniversary celebration, this time Troma-style with a 45th anniversary panel.

Cosplay

Cosplay was certainly a thing, albeit down slightly after a peak in such activity a few years ago.  Perhaps not a surprise, “Game of Thrones” cosplay was very nearly dead.  The costumes that stuck out seemed to be particularly elaborate – an Austin Powers gender swap with a crew of characters from that film series, an ALF outfit, and some 1980s-style Transformers on stilts being a few prime examples.

Television Domination

The success and profile of Marvel’s panel made some observers overlook a multi-year trend in which movie pushes at the convention have continued to diminish.  This was by no means a new trend, but the stark reality was in full effect this year.  Keep in mind that half of Marvel’s announced slate was actually streaming television shows and not films.  Beyond “Terminator: Dark Fate” and cameos by “Top Gun: Maverick” and “IT,” the show was more than a little low on high-profile film representation.

Dealer Sales & Observations

Predictably, the number of comics-only dealers in the exhibit hall seemed to be declining.  The answer to the question of what was taking their place was more complicated.  Anecdotally, it seemed as if toy sellers were more plentiful than ever before though, as was the presence of higher-end costume and accessory dealers.

I was at an exhibitor retrospective panel in which Chuck Rozanski attended for the first time since pulling his multiple Mile High Comics booths out of the convention three years ago amid declining sales.  He blamed his quitting the show on the convention organizers discontinuing the badge renewal system.  The lottery system that everyone must enter led to his former, loyal customers not getting into the show and revenue drop.

(One aside on Rozanski:  He appeared as Chuck at the panel but spent afternoons at the convention in drag as ‘Bettie Pages.’  His appearance at the convention coincided with his essentially coming out publically with this activity, a transition that he attributed to happening in the aftermath of a West Nile Virus health battle in 2008).

Mystery Boxes

The sale of mystery boxes – i.e. boxes full of random things – was not a new sales tactic, but by 2019 it was shocking just how omnipresent this trend had become.  A dealer or company seemed to be selling them literally around every corner.  The appeal baffled me but the huge presence of them as offerings made a case that they must be selling to someone.

The ‘New’ Zombies

Our annual hunt for the thing that would replace zombie was again inconclusive.

Conclusions

The convention in 2019 was typical of how the convention has been over the past several years.  There is an ebb and flow to the panels; reruns from past years and some new panels that fans might never see again.

Personally, I didn’t luck into as many chance encounters with past heroes or celebrities as I had in recent years (seeing Fred Savage a few feet away had to count for something though, right?).  The convention was still exciting to attend and seemed as vibrant as ever.  While the attendee lottery system had been decried by some and might have led to laziness with certain exhibits repeating, the fans remained as enthusiastic as ever and the ‘new blood’ might account for that energy.

Marvel’s domination of the conversation from late Saturday afternoon until the end of the show the next day has become status quo.  It would be news if they didn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat and this year was an easy one insofar as their slate had largely been empty.

In the end, it was a very reflective show, particularly given the 50th anniversary context.  The old guard leadership and fans were in their late teens or twenties when the show started.  That group was now in their later sixties or into their seventies.  In various panels, some talked about the convention having passed them by but the vast nature of the convention meant that a niche for just about anyone could still be found.

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