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A Quiet SDCC Still Finds a Way to Give Fans Unique Experiences

This year's SDCC had a weird vibe. Disney decided not to attend, meaning that Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, HBO, Sony Pictures, Universal, and Netflix would not bring their stars for panels. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) dual strikes meant that actors and writers would not be there. Multiple cancellations from press and studios left hotels with vacant rooms. There was even social media criticism of people cosplaying as their favorite actors and some influencers are members of SAG. The panels were shuffled, canceled, and sometimes even put on without the name in the title. On what's usually the busiest day, the one with legions of smelly fans camped out for entry into Hall H, one could easily walk in.

Hall H is usually a four-day affair, with friends and family planning on camping out under the tents, but the tents were mostly empty on Saturday. There were no Hall H panels for Sunday. The convention center lobby was crowded on Saturday but not packed. The big winner was Paramount and its Star Trek properties. My friends who were Star Trek cosplayers and fans, some of who would be attending the Creation Entertainment Star Trek Las Vegas Convention at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in Nevada next month (August 3-6) were delighted, even if the Saturday panel, "William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill" went on without Captain Kirk himself. 

Crunchyroll, which had hosted a large concert at SDCC last year, helped keep attendees fit with one-hour anime-inspired exercise sessions, Crunchyroll's Ultimate Anime Fitness Challenge at Hardcore Fitness, a short walk from the convention center, on Friday and Saturday. Who doesn't need more exercise?  

Even the Comic-Con Museum had a low-key presence. Last year, the main exhibit was for Spider-Man, and Spider-Man's induction to the Comic-Con Museum Character Hall of Fame was a big bash held on preview night (July 20, 2022). This year, the museum's special exhibits that opened with SDCC were modest displays: "Excelsior! The Live and Legacy of Stan Lee," "Cowboy Bebop 25th Anniversary Art Exhibition," "My Hero Academia Installation," and the "Comic-Con Masquerade" expansion. The main exhibit, the interactive "The Animation Academy: From Pencils to Pixels," had opened in February (running until September 10, 2023). 

Some panels still went on, but their stars were the artists, writers of books and comic strips and even scientists. Fans of the HBO TV series "The Last of Us" could learn how Hollywood and the real world differ from an expert or about fungi from expert Justin Schaffer, ecologist Earyn McGee, biomedical engineer Ana Maria Porras, forest ecologist Lindsey Rustad, public health expert Kari Sant, and science education expert Lisa Lundgren in the panel "Fear and Fungi: Science of  'The Last of Us'"

Fungi was also discussed during the panel "Improving Sci-Fi Storytelling Through Science Accuracy." That panel was scheduled for a smaller room and ended up turning people away, included Clifford Johnson (theoretical physicist/Avengers science adviser), Tara Smith (professor of epidemiology), Trevor Valle (paleontologist), Joy Lin (nerdy comedian), and moderators Nikhil Shah and Jose Gonzalez, Jr. Smith who explained how "The Last of Us" portrayed a team searching for the cause of the illness was done really well, saying, "With epidemiology, you would never do it with just one person. That was easier for the story, but you're always on teams." Smith also talked pandemics and zoonotic diseases, saying, "These cross-species jumps happen all the time." But she agreed with Johnson that "Hollywood is not using all the craziness of science." 

Yet what makes SDCC special are the activations, which can be small snippets of immersive theater. While the Living Dead and their annual installment was missed, AMC isn't done with the undead. Instead of zombies, vampires and witches were the inhabitants of Anne Rice's Immortal Universe SDCC Experience, where fans got to walk "The Street of Immortality" on the Hilton Gaslamp Terrace. Last year, AMC Networks hosted an intimate interview for the press with cast members. This year, members of the press and public entered a tavern to perhaps get a dose of immortality, walked down the street to get herbs to help heal one's soul, or listened to the live music. There was swag (posters), drinks and beignets to nourish you before you disappeared into the night.  

While there was a panel on "Asian Representation in Comics and Media," two activations spotlighted Asians and Asian Americans and one panel celebrated its place in history as the first time an Indian film teaser was launched at SDCC.  

FX's annual installation outside of the San Diego Convention Center on the Hilton Bayfront Park highlighted its new miniseries "Shōgun" with a wrap on the Hilton and an augmented reality koi pond, mochi-tsuki pantomime performance by a Pasadena-based taiko group and enactments of a samurai battle that included a woman dressed in white. You could hear the taiko drums outside of the installations.

The other immersive experiences were an igloo-like construction for "A Murder at the End of the World," which included a "trip" on the private plane of a reclusive billionaire and sitting around a campfire in a cold world where the chill also comes from a murder mystery.

"American Horror Story" invited fans into a wellness sanctuary where the nurses provide mysterious drinks and hypodermic needles hover above patients. While those menacing nurses seemed suspiciously like vampires, a visit to "What We Do in the Shadows - A Familiar Weekend" is a pleasant stay in the vampires' Staten Island mansion for popsicles and sunscreen as well as a chance to admire portraits. 

Outside the convention center stood NBC's Quantum Leap HQ, where fans could help the "Quantum Leap" team, represented in video by star Raymond Lee as Doctor Ben Song, rid the main computer, Ziggy, of a virus. Fans time leaped into the TV worlds of "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Organized Crime," "The Voice," and "Chucky," and performed the tasks that would help them time leap until Ziggy was fixed. Guests had to help collect evidence from a scene, sing for the judges and even help get Chucky checked out. 

Inside the convention center at Hall H, "Project K" began its panel with music and a solemn dance performance. The burning question was: What is Project K"? The first look poster was up on July 19, 2023 and then deleted after some social media backlashThe trailer also received some criticism on social media.

Kaiju fans got a glimpse of a new iteration of Gamera, which will be on Netflix. Director Hiroyuki Seshita and kaiju designer Kan Takahama were at a press conference and then the Sunday afternoon panel where they released the trailer for "Gamera - Rebirth." This Gamera remains the protector of children and is more reflective of the Shōwa era (昭和, 1926-1989) Gamera than the Heisei (平成, 1989-2019). Japan is currently in the Reiwa (令和) era (1 May 2019 to present). 

Not really Asian American, but evidence of the infiltration of East Asian culture into American culture, the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" panel in Hall H gave people the opportunity for a first look and an explanation about the development of this new animated feature. Presented by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies, the film will be in theaters 2 August 2023. TMNT began as a self-published black-and-white comic by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Eastman appeared on stage during the panel, which was moderated by filmmaker Charles Hood and The Wrap reporter Drew Taylor and included director Jeff Rowe. Rowe noted that they depended upon the cast to help the script sound more like normal teenage banter. After showing four clips that set up the origin story and the adversaries that the TMNT face, Eastman announced that Nickelodeon and Paramount had secured the rights to the original TMNT animated series, which will begin airing on Nickelodeon in the near future.

Disney wasn't totally away from SDCC. On Sunday, it hosted a well-attended sing-along screening of its live-action "The Little Mermaid." It was one of several kid-friendly events at SDCC. 

On the floor of the exhibition hall, the big winners were the artists and the merchants. The rise of the cinematic scenario selfie allowed fans to be in a variety of fun and scary situations, from fleeing on a Star Wars motorcycle to being eaten by a shark to being attacked by an unearthly monster. The last hour of the exhibition hall was crowded with people looking for deals, photo ops, and for cosplayers to photograph before heading home.

This year's SDCC may have been weird, but it was still wonderful. 

All photos by Jana Monji.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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