From its humble beginnings at the U.S. Grant Hotel to the modern, sprawling celebration of all things nerdy across the city, Comic-Con International: San Diego (originally San Diego’s Golden Star Comic-Con) is an annual tradition many plan their entire year around. It is a convention like no other – some would say to its detriment – as film, television, games, and even comics bring their top talent and offer exclusive first looks at upcoming products. But more than being a giant pop-up shopping mall, Comic-Con is an experience filled with unexpected moments.
The show is celebrating its 50th year this week and we could not help but be nostalgic about its past and some of the biggest moments in its wild history. Or, at least, the biggest moments in regard to the convention’s relationship with film and television. Though there was always a media presence at the show, it really solidified its power in the 1990s, becoming a driving force in the new century. Naturally, though, the connection between comic books and other media will permeate this list as there would be no Comic-Con experiences without them. With that in mind, these are the 21 Comic-Con moments we remember most from 50 years of an awesome con.
Comic-Con first moved to the San Diego Convention Center in 1991. At the time, it comprised halls A-C. After the Convention Center expanded in the early part of the century, the show moved into hall D in 2001 and halls E-G the next year. The added space allowed media companies to put out big displays – like the Time Machine prop from the 2002 remake and an early Masters of the Universe toy revival – while leaving halls A-C as the domain of comics and collectables traders. The completed 2002 expansion gave us the current size of the exhibition floor, but 2004 would prove to be one of the most important years in terms of the convention’s overall size with the debut of Hall H. At the time, it was just a 6,000-seat event space, but it would soon become one of the keys area of the entire venue.
In 1999, studios were still getting their footing in bringing talent to Comic-Con in an organized way. In the case of 20th Century Fox, this meant bringing some footage from their upcoming X-Men feature to Room 6AB (the Hall H of its day) along with director Bryan Singer and producer Lauren Shuler Donner. The room was full of excited fans, but after a brief shot of the White House on the projection screen, a Comic-Con staffer announced the panel had been canceled. This was before Singer’s alleged improprieties became public, but it may be an example of his legendary tardiness. It also highlights how recently the convention became a highly regimented publicity machine. Cancelling a panel after its scheduled start time would never happen today.
Off-site activations made it possible for those not going to Comic-Con to still enjoy some of the fun. And in a number of ways, 2009’s Flynn’s Arcade – a promotion for the then-upcoming Tron: Legacy – set the tone for the most successful pop-ups. Designed to recreate the arcade from the original Tron film, guests could play classic arcade games like Galaga before the Tron arcade cabinet lit up, revealing a whole new area of the exhibit. Inside, guests saw concept sketches for the film and a full-scale lightcycle prop. They also walked away from the hip event with Flynn’s Arcade t-shirts and a memory of something genuinely unexpected from Comic-Con. The immersiveness and quality freebies of Flynn’s Arcade continue to influence activations, such as 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 experience.
For a time, Comic-Con published a free comic book in association with Dark Horse Comics. The second yearly issue featured Mike Mignola’s first sketch of Hellboy. The character was mostly formed, even if his dark destiny and the BPRD were still a year or so from debuting in the pages of Dark Horse’s first Hellboy series, which would eventually become the basis for Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 Hellboy feature film. The character’s debut, however, illustrates how big Comic-Con things can happen literally in the pages of a comic book.
Setting off a tradition of sorts – though there were some precursors – Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston surprised fans in 2013 when he revealed he was roaming the exhibition floor ahead of his panel dressed as the show’s lead character, Walter White. Decked out in khakis and a plaid shirt, Cranston completed his disguise with a disturbingly life-like pull-over mask of his own face. Since he had a video crew with him, you would think more people would’ve guessed what was happening, but he correctly surmised most con-goers would assume it was a YouTube thing. Since that time, plenty of stars have used disguises to get some shopping done or experience the crowd. But few have pulled it off with such panache. Well, except maybe Matt Smith and his use of a Bart Simpson mask during the same convention.
If there was one hot topic following the 2004 Comic-Con, it was the screening of the Lost pilot. In an early attempt to bring a wider cross-section of genre shows to Comic-Con, ABC screened the first episode to a crowd of people vaguely aware of J.J. Abrams and/or Matthew Fox. It started a buzz which led the early adopters to make Lost one of the greatest Comic-Con success stories thanks to their talk of polar bears and potential dinosaurs. Granted, the dinosaurs turned out to be Jacob in the end. This was the moment television really took hold at Comic-Con, a mutually beneficial relationship which continues to this day.
A more recent big moment came during the 2015 Comic-Con when Abrams made a triumphant return to the show as the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While he played coy about plot details with the panel moderator, he wowed the Hall H audience by inviting them to a concert of Star Wars music performed by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Most of the 6,000 attendees (with lightsabers in hand) followed Abrams to a nearby concert stage on one of the jetties behind the convention center. But anyone still inside Comic-Con for Friday night programming – like, say, the Klingon Lifestyles Presentation – could still hear the event and the fireworks following the performance.
In 2003, Quentin Tarantino planned to regale fans with tales of his then-upcoming Kill Bill. His old pal Michael Madsen would be with him and they would show the audience assembled in Ballroom 20 the trailer for Volume 1. But one thing Tarantino did not plan for was an accident on the southbound Interstate 5 Highway earlier that day involving a truck filled with fiberglass insulation. It took hours to clean up and Tarantino missed the panel entirely, leaving a bewildered Madsen to answer questions from the audience. Over the years, the southbound I-5 has bedeviled con-goers thanks to exotic spills of crude oil, mattresses, and even meat formerly ready for store shelves. This moment is in honor of all the people who brave the roadways to get to Comic-Con. Tarantino, meanwhile, made sure to book extra travel time for subsequent Comic-Con panels promoting Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.
While Flynn’s Arcade may be the most memorable off-site activation, Universal’s 2009 domination of Comic-Con to promote Scott Pilgrim vs. The World may be the biggest film rollout ever executed at the event. Utilizing exhibit space next to the Hilton Gaslamp, the pop-up offered a look at the film, a really awkward standee of star Michael Cera, and a bar where fans could get custom-made t-shirts. There was even ice cream at certain parts of the day. The movie poster was painted onto the tower of the nearby Hilton Bayfront and, in a show of strength, the studio arranged for the film to be screened over three evenings at the Balboa Theater up the road – though the first night was a surprise for all those who attended the Hall H panel. Considering the film’s origins and tone, Comic-Con was its key market and the studio made a tremendous effort to treat con-goers like royalty. The film itself may have faded from the public consciousness, but Universal’s attempt to court the Comic-Con crowd will always be remembered.
Thankfully, video exists of a 2006 Marvel Studios panel in which Kevin Feige was asked about a potential crossover between its characters. This was still before any of the grand designs were known beyond the planned films based on Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor. Nonetheless, Feige offered this response: “There’s no coincidence that that may, someday, equal the Avengers. Having that possibility on the horizon is something that excites all of us.” Little did anyone know at the time that it would all become a reality, although those in attendance cheered at the mere suggestion. In hindsight, his stumbling through the response suggests he knew he was giving the game away. It would be the last time Feige would ever offer such a straightforward answer in public.
The Dark Knight’s marketing campaign was one for the ages with Harvey Dent rallies and fans getting phone calls to see the first nine minutes of the film. But one of the best stunts involved a scavenger hunt across San Diego’s Gaslamp district. Clues were literally written in the sky and handed out by people in Joker attire – the alleged perpetrator of the scavenger hunt. In the end, participants were awarded a link to The Dark Knight‘s online teaser, but for those ordered by the Joker to adopt his signature make-up, it was one of the best Comic-Con publicity stunts ever executed.
In another case of best laid plans going awry, Harrison Ford’s first Comic-Con appearance was overshadowed by one of the most infamous moments to ever occur in Hall H. Shortly before Ford’s panel – a promotion for the in-production Cowboys and Aliens – was set to start, an argument over a seat at the back of Hall H turned into a violent scene with one man stabbing another in the eye with a pen-knife. The hall was locked down and programming delayed while San Diego police rushed in. The perpetrator was taken into the custody, the victim went to the hospital, and when the panel finally began, director Jon Favreau and Ford went ahead with a joke they planned long before the incident – Ford came onto stage in handcuffs and escorted by security. The idea: Ford had to be dragged from the set to make his first Comic-Con appearance. But thanks to the stabbing, the moment read in a very different light. It also eased the brewing tension in the hall that night.
The 2011 Green Lantern film is little more than a punchline star Ryan Reynolds uses in other, better comic book movies. But before the film’s fate was decided, it had its Comic-Con moment during a 2010 Hall H presentation when a little boy asked Reynolds what it felt like to recite the Green Lantern oath. After taking a moment compose himself, Reynolds said, “it sounds a little something like this” and recited the oath from memory. The boy, visibly moved by the performance, showed Reynolds his child-sized Green Lantern ring. The actor responded by showing off its big budget movie counterpart. Over the years, questions from children have led to man memorable moments, but few are as pure as this.
Back before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice divided online fandom, director Zack Snyder was happy to share a first look with fans in Hall H during the 2016 Warner Bros. Pictures presentation. The scene featured Ben Affleck’s Batman in an armored suit ready to go 10 rounds with the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill). The scene, heavily influenced by a similar sequence in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns suggested a certain tone for the movie and a wish-fulfillment for the director. And for those in attendance, it sparked a hope about DC’s film universe which never quite came to fruition. But in that moment, all things seemed possible.
Before we knew how important Taserface (Chris Sullivan) would be to the shape of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – a recurring punchline – Marvel brought Sullivan, along with the rest of the Ravagers, to the Hall H stage in full makeup. Emerging from the back of the hall, the group played at harassing fans and mocked the panel moderator from afar. When they finally made their way to the dais, Sullivan and Sean Gunn answered questions as Taserface and Kraglin in a routine far funnier than it had any right to be. In a presentation which featured the debut of the first footage from Spider-Man: Homecoming and Brie Larson’s first public appearance as a MCU cast member, it stands as the most delightful moment of that year, thanks mainly to Sullivan’s dedication as Taserface.
Beginning a tradition which continues to this year – with a few pauses along the way – Marvel Studios brought its first clip to Comic-Con in 2007: a four minute version of the first Iron Man trailer. Extending some of the scenes in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) built his first suit in a cave with a box of scraps, the silence among the crowd (punctuated along with a few laughs thanks to Tony’s quipping) lingers today as the palpable sense that this movie was different. The audience finally exploded into cheers when the Mark I Iron Man suit made its debut, confirming this was the film almost every comic book fan was waiting for. The intensity only grew as the trailer revealed the Mark III suit and Iron Man flying with an escort of fighter jets. An auspicious beginning to the studio’s near-dominance of the convention in the years to come.
Hall H Q&A sessions are known for awkward questions, the Button Lady, and the Hunter S. Thompson impersonator. But the single best Q&A moment ever came in 2011 when The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield crashed the panel in a cheap Spider-Man costume complete with mask and a fanny pack. Playing the part of an eager fan, he told the crowd it was his dream to be in Hall H – as Spider-Man – with the cast and crew of the new Spider-Man movie. Then, he pulled off the mask to stun the audience. “I always wanted to come here as a fan,” he said after the reveal. “So here I am, as a fan.” But perhaps more affecting was his nervousness as he read a prepared statement about what Spider-Man meant to him. Beyond being a great Comic-Con moment, it may be the best moment in the whole Amazing Spider-Man endeavor.
But a few years later, Garfield’s moment would be superseded by the first of Marvel Studios in-character appearances. With the Hall H lights dimmed, the voice of Tom Hiddleston boomed, “Look how far you’ve fallen.” The cheers quickly rose as fans realized what was happening. And with a flash, Hiddleston was on stage in costume and in character as Loki. Proceeding to give a speech similar to the one in Marvel’s The Avengers, the God of Mischief commanded the Hall H crowd to swear their loyalty to him. In exchange, they would “feast” their eyes on Marvel Studios’ 2013 offerings. The clearly thrilled Hiddleston hammed it up, other key announcements were made during the panel, but Loki’s speech still stands as the studio’s most successful Hall H stunt.
Long before the Hall H spectacles, however, an upcoming film called Star Wars made a modest debut at the 1976 San Diego Comic-Con. Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin appeared to talk up their Marvel Comics adaptation with the movie while Lucasfilm rep Charles Lippincott showed stills from the film. While there were definitely empty seats, it would prove to be an influential hour as the con-goers in attendance witnessed a legit sneak peek of the film that would change everything. And that Comic-Con had it first tells you it was always capable of forecasting the next big pop culture thing; even in its earliest days.
Saturday in Hall H during Comic-Con 2011 stands in memory for so many things. There was the stabbing, Harrison Ford’s appearance, the debut of footage from Cowboys & Aliens, Captain America: The First Avenger – which had only begun shooting four days earlier – and the premiere of the 3D trailer for Thor. Then there came a teaser trailer in which the voice of Samuel L. Jackson told of the day when Earth’s mightiest heroes would stand together as the Avengers. Afterward, the stars of Marvel’s The Avengers – Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo – assembled for the first time ever. Though they did not take questions, the audience was receptive to the moment while photographers blinded everyone in attendance. It was the capstone of the convention that year and the beginning of still so much to come.
But one moment stands above all the others as the moment of Comic-Con. It was the event which changed the show from a celebration of the popular arts to the pop-culture event everyone wanted to be at: the announcement that The Twilight Saga: New Moon and James Cameron’s Avatar would appear back-to-back in Hall H during the 2009 convention. Originally, the Avatar presentation was scheduled first, but memories of the way Twilight fans camped out in Hall H in 2008 left Cameron’s fans in a tizzy, worried the Twilight fans and their dedication would mean missing 25 minutes of Avatar. Comic-Con switched the time slots with New Moon starting before Avatar, but it was indicative of the way the show was changing. Phenomena outside of comics were coming to San Diego and proving to be successful. Securing a Comic-Con badge became more difficult and camp-outs to get into Hall H became the norm. The modern excitement, and occasional frenzy, was born here. From then on, Hall H was really the place to be and line management became a pressing concern for convention organizers. For those of us on the ground, it was an amazing thing to witness and changed the way we planned for Comic-Con forever.