(CNN) — There might be no event less conducive to social distancing than Comic-Con, the annual pop-culture gathering that packs 130,000 people into San Diego’s convention center. Granted, there are a lot of masks. But many are of the Captain America or Batman variety. And they cover the wrong part of the face.
Having griped about this largest-of-its-kind event in the past — the long lines, dizzying logistics, cramped crowds, and strange smells associated with all those costumes — it’s hard not to acutely feel its absence. The reasons to complain about Comic-Con are, suddenly, all the reasons to miss it.
The decision to cancel Comic-Con — which organizers called “heartbreaking” — came amid a wave of similar decisions during the early stages of the coronavirus, as the prospect of large gatherings became increasingly untenable. In its place, a virtual version is scheduled to take place over several days beginning July 22 — in practical terms, sacrificing millions of dollars that Comic-Con pumps into the San Diego economy.
Among all the pastimes and pleasures lost, few events more acutely demonstrate the hunger for community, and indeed, the ability to conjure those feelings of connection around entertainment — from collecting comic books or watching niche web shows to the broadest offerings from cultural titans like Marvel, “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”
Comic-Con celebrated its 50th-anniversary last year, having ballooned from a smallish assembly that occupied a couple of hotel ballrooms in the early 1970s into the massive undertaking that spills out of the convention center into nearby hotels filled by its guests.
As the event rapidly grew, Hollywood increasingly took over, recognizing all those avid fans as the ultimate marketing opportunity and eager ambassadors for its products. Enthusiasts once teased for their passions soon found themselves surrounded by newer converts, hanging on every twist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or clamoring for the “Snyder cut” of “Justice League” (and winning that concession, finally, from CNN’s fellow WarnerMedia property HBO Max).
Still, the enthusiasm that permeated the convention offered a lingering connection to its origins, and a sense that many who attended spent all year anticipating the opportunity to assemble in person with those who shared their infatuations, however obscure and arcane some of them might be.
Like most of the virtual events orchestrated in the last several months, Comic-Con is trying to offer a taste of that as a stopgap measure. But it seems more imperfect than most, given how fundamental the immersive aspect of being surrounded by pop culture for several days has always been to the experience.
Although a number of popular franchises are participating, movie studios will largely sit out the exercise, as release dates for major films remain in flux. Highlights of the four-day schedule are available on the Comic-Con website.
The emphasis on fantasy won’t prevent the panels from addressing our current reality, including sessions on whether pop culture can promote mental wellness during the pandemic, and a discussion of what we can learn about dealing with infectious diseases moderated by “World War Z” author Max Brooks.
As someone who has occasionally approached making that drive down Interstate 5 to San Diego with trepidation if not quite dread, getting back to all that the convention has to offer — even the lousier parts — sounds awfully good right now.
Until then, Comic-Con@Home will have to do. And hopefully in the near future — whenever there’s an actual convention again — remembering this time should quiet any grumbling when the impulse to grumble arises.
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