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Comic-Con 2020 was entirely virtual — but was it still magical?

How well Comic-Con At Home worked depends on what you go to Comic-Con for.

San Diego Comic-Con took place online in 2020.
Emily VanDerWerff
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

No Hall H. No artist alley. No cosplay. No swank elite parties. No endless convention exhibit space teeming with swag.

Without all the trappings, is Comic-Con still really Comic-Con?

Geeks the world over asked themselves this question as they experienced Comic-Con At Home last week, the virtual pandemic-proof iteration of the nation’s biggest annual fan convention, San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC).

Comic-Con has become a cultural juggernaut since its founding in 1970; this year was the first in the convention’s history that did not take place as planned.

But online, a version of Comic-Con still happened: Stripped of most of its in-person events and spectacle, the virtual SDCC focused on presenting free livestreamed panels to guests, all of which are still available to view afterward through Comic-Con’s YouTube channel. The con ran for its typical five-day stretch (Wednesday, July 22, through Sunday, July 26). But even this salvageable aspect of the convention was scrawnier than usual: Far fewer panels and participants populated the schedule, and none of them had the hooplah of, say, a star-studded Marvel panel in Hall H (the San Diego Convention Center’s biggest and most famous panel room).

Many of the convention’s other events also moved online, from movie nights to staples like cosplay.

You might think this would all lead to a much less exciting convention. But that might be underestimating the power of Comic-Con.

How do you recreate the important elements of the convention?

Tony Kim would have been spending his 15th year at San Diego Comic-Con this year. Kim, who runs the geek fashion store The Hero Within, brings his wares to the exhibitor’s alley each year. “There’s a million people and the booth’s typically super jam-packed,” he told me. “For us, it’s this crazy whirlwind experience where we’re climbing all over each other and checking out customers and pushing inventory — so it’s such a crazy experience doing a booth at Comic-Con.”

This year, however, Kim’s exhibitor booth was entirely virtual. In an attempt to simulate the exhibitor and artist alley experience for Comic-Con At Home, the convention built an interactive online version of its typical floor plan map.

“They’re calling it a virtual exhibit hall,” Kim explained. The floor plan, which is still online after the con, lets you browse vendor booths, studio exhibits, and fan organizations, with an extra interactive component that links out to the websites of everyone who’s participating. That way “visitors” can still shop their favorite booths — just online. The customary Comic-Con art show also still happened. But in 2020, it was on Tumblr, not in a convention hall.

“This is quite the change because we’re just looking at monitors, and I’m just sitting here in my backyard,” Kim told me. “So it’s certainly more peaceful.”

It wasn’t the same, but it did seem effective: At one point on Wednesday, the day the virtual exhibit hall launched, Kim reported having 80 people shopping his store at one time, and several of his Comic-Con exclusives quickly sold out. The boost was a much-needed boon to Kim’s business, which he says was “decimated” by Covid-19.

“Fortunately, we’ve had the internet,” he told me. “You can imagine, 20 years ago if this happened, then no one would have had a chance to even survive. The internet is what’s allowing us to keep pushing sales. But with everyone driving all of their experiences online now, with no live events, for a customer, it’s like trying to drink water out of a fire hydrant.

“In reality, there’s no real difference between today and yesterday,” he told me on the first day of the convention, “because people can just go online ... the basic shopping experience is still the same. We didn’t really expect it to be a tremendous change. But [so far at the convention], it’s been great — we had a really great day in sales. Fans have been very responsive, very interactive.”

Kim said he had participated in other virtual events in the past and hadn’t really seen much impact on his business. But there was something about Comic-Con in this pandemic, he told me, that made a difference.

“You can tell that after being cooped up for five or six months, and the stress [and] anxiety of whatever is going on, you can just see that people are really just dying to engage in a sort of time-and-space event experience.”

That much is clear just from thumbing through social media. Across Instagram and Twitter, Comic-Con fans posted nostalgic photos from previous convention years — particularly cosplay.

Some people tried to recreate cosplay at home, in whatever creative ways they could:

So, to some degree, the most familiar aspects of the convention — the panels and fan experiences, the cosplay, the artistry, the cool merch — were recreated. For corporations and studios trying to bring their content to the con, however, things were trickier.

Comic-Con programming would have been odd this year anyway. But the online component has made it even odder.

Comic-Con in 2020 probably would have seen a lull in main-event programming no matter what. Last year, Marvel and Star Wars each wrapped up major franchise series, and both studios are in the middle of a regroup. After a triumphant return to Hall H in 2019, Marvel Studios opted to sit out this year’s Comic-Con, while the only Star Wars panel on the schedule was about audiobooks.

DC’s movie branch also scaled back, perhaps saving its main movie programming for its own upcoming con, August’s DC Fandome. Instead, at Comic-Con proper, Marvel’s and DC’s main panels focused on their comic books instead of any film and TV offerings. In a year where movie premieres have been postponed and movie production has ground to a halt, there’s just not much else to talk about.

Disney’s non-Marvel, non-Star Wars panels were specific to original shows on its Disney+ streaming platform; indeed, the streaming wars, which ostensibly have nothing to do with Comic-Con, were among the most visible aspects of this year’s convention, in part because everything was online. Because they were at the mercy of the internet this year, many of Comic-Con’s biggest presenters were dependent on their streaming partners and platforms.

Did you want to participate in one of the convention’s group-watch parties for cult movies, TV shows, and anime? You could only join if you were subscribed to the right participating streaming platform. To watch every one of this year’s offerings, you’d have needed subscriptions to Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and Funimation — and be located in the US or Canada.

Because Cartoon Network has a hub on the new HBO Max platform, for example, all of its main Comic-Con programming participation was in concert with HBO Max. But that’s not a typical move for the network — and it created the open question of how Cartoon Network could deliver its more typical content, along with the quirkier con vibe it’s known for.

“It’s very different. It’s different for everybody,” said Jill King, who’s been going to Comic-Con for years. King, the senior vice president of marketing for Adult Swim and Cartoon Network, would have normally spent the middle of July running around San Diego to make sure things were in place for the networks’ annual lawn exhibition, Adult Swim on the Green. “In normal Comic-Con time, we’d all obviously be out to San Diego, working day and night setting up. ... Obviously when Covid hit, we immediately had to pivot like everybody else.”

That pivot involved figuring out a way for the network to still deliver some kind of Comic-Con experience to would-be attendees. For Cartoon Network fans, King told me, the appeal of SDCC is about more than panels and big surprise announcements from the network. It also involves events like meet-and-greets with creatives, fun swag, and especially the chance to hang out with fellow fans they only get to see once a year at the convention.

“We wanted to recreate our Adult Swim on the Green experience,” she said. “In thinking about, okay, what does that mean, [we realized] we love bringing our talents to interact with our fans. Obviously, as part of the convention programming, we would always do our panels and have Q&As, but we would also then bring our talent to the Green so they can have a more intimate interaction with our fans. So that was really important to us. So [we asked ourselves], how can we recreate that in a virtual environment?”

For Cartoon Network, like DC, the answer involved designing a special separate virtual con of its own: Adult Swim Con. The separate virtual event also emphasized Toonami and the network’s partnership with anime titan Crunchyroll — all details that cater to its slightly more niche adult fanbase.

“Virtual events now are dime a dozen because of this state that we’re all living in,” King said. “But what we’re trying to do is make sure that we’re really hooking up people. So if they show up, they’re definitely gonna have a really cool experience.”

Amid a more subdued con, the panels were also less star-studded and dramatic. Though there were some attention-getters, like Shudder’s queer horror panel featuring Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller, the scheduled lineup largely failed to make headlines. The big surprise Comic-Con announcements and head-turner star appearances that the convention is known for seemed to get moved to each studio’s individual side con.

Adult Swim saved its big announcement — a partnership with Crunchyroll on an original Toonami series — for its own convention. And a panel focusing on Zack Snyder’s infamous “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, perhaps the one true headlining event, didn’t take place at Comic-Con proper. Instead, Snyder talked about his film’s upcoming re-release at a coinciding fan-run event, Justice Con.

Many of Comic-Con’s panels ended up being about the pandemic itself. Exhibitor Kim annually moderates a panel on building a geek brand. This year, the panel was subtitled, “Surviving a pandemic.”

“There’s kind of a doom and gloom sort of cloud over all the content because of the unknown,” he told me.

The benefits of a virtual Comic-Con may outweigh the gloom

Still, for the most part, the virtual approach seemed to satisfy fans.

There was one striking, huge benefit to this year’s format that can’t be overstated. “I’m so grateful we’re able to continue with Comic-Con this year, even if it looks a little different,” Sam Maggs, a frequent convention-goer and author of a novel titled Con Quest, told me. The advent of virtual panels meant that for the first time ever, Comic-Con was (and still is) accessible to everyone, without having to book a costly hotel or pay for travel, or queue for hours in the event’s notoriously long lines.

“The huge upside to this is that people who never would have had the chance to experience Comic-Con otherwise now get to enjoy all the panels, merch, and art from wherever they may be in the world,” she said. “No more Hall-H FOMO — which I love, too — I could never make it in there!”

Still, some people couldn’t stay away from San Diego last week, even if Comic-Con was DOA. Kim told me that he and many of his friends had already bought their hotels and made travel arrangements before the live convention was formally canceled. So he and a group of friends decided to travel to the city anyway.

“This would have been my 15th year to go,” he said. “And so in an effort to support the city and small business and restaurants, myself and a few others are going to go down — we’ll stay in a hotel and just socially distance and be smart about it. But also just try to, you know, visit and support as many local businesses that we can.”

As for Comic-Con’s famed parties and fan meetups — social aspects of the convention that no virtual gathering can really replace — Kim told me they’d be doing their best to recreate that, too.

“We call it the SDCCM,” he said. “The Socially Distanced Comic Con Meetup.”