Comic-Con International got underway Wednesday with the annual preview evening ahead of four full days of events and happenings at and around San Diego's Convention Center.
Anticipation and excitement were the order of the night as die-hard fans and merchandise hunters jostled with wide-eyed first-timers and seasoned attendees.
The big takeaways: "Star Wars" is the early standout franchise, exclusive merchandise is a must, there's a growing awareness and interest in LGBT content and panels, and the only grumblings heard were about the thronging crowds on what has traditionally been a more low-key start to the annual pop culture and comic book hype-fest.
Costumed crusaders were scarce (garbed attendees will be omnipresent Saturday, the busiest day of the convention) as serious shoppers eager to snap up limited edition merchandise exclusive to Comic-Con swarmed exhibitor stands.
Already a major draw on the convention floor is a life-size Stormtrooper created entirely of LEGO blocks – perfect for selfies (but remember, no selfie sticks allowed this year!), and a miniature collectible version of the revamped black-and-white soldier from the upcoming "Star Wars" movie sequel, "The Force Awakens."
A friendly employee at the Hasbro stall (the toy maker produces the limited edition Stormtrooper figurine released exclusively at the con) explained that purchasing for the evening was now closed, and he expected a long line in advance of the 7 a.m. ticketing number handout the following morning for those wishing to ensure they did not miss out on the sought-after toy on the first full day of the convention. If you question the seriousness of said shoppers, note the convention floor is not open until 9 a.m.
Jackie Nguyen, a first-time attendee from Los Angeles was waiting patiently 20-deep at the Peanuts booth alongside a friend who was eager to nab one the convention-exclusive Snoopy T-shirts produced annually. "It's something else!" was Nguyen's take on the event. "I'm really overwhelmed," she said before proudly displaying a set of con-exclusive "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" key chains she purchased.
Jimmy Jay, founder of Jay Company Comics based in San Diego and a regular booth holder since 1996, said Wednesday he expects the majority of sales at this year's convention will be "fans picking up comics based on the movies and TV shows that they love." Jay says sales overall have been up in the last year and he has witnessed an increasing interest in "Star Wars"-related titles.
"'Star Wars' has been a great shot in the arm and brings in a lot of new fans," he explained amidst shoppers flipping through boxes of comic books. "People that dug the old-school movies just like I did are now picking up the comics, because the comics are bridging the gap between the original trilogy and what's to come later this year."
Jay is referring to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" – a movie sequel to "Return of the Jedi" featuring the original characters and actors from the first three films of the franchise. It won't hit the big screen until December but a panel Friday featuring J.J. Abrams, the film's director, and "surprise guests" is one of the hottest happenings on a packed convention schedule. (Even Comic-Con International Director of Marketing and Public Relations, David Glanzer, listed the panel in his top three events not to miss.)
Just as optimistic for a successful convention is Ted Abenheim, President of Prism Comics – a volunteer LGBT organization dedicated to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender graphic novelists, artists and readers.
Prism first set up a stall at Comic-Con International in 2003, which Abenheim describes as a time when LGBT comics, creators and fans "were kind of marginalized." Now, he says, it's changed a lot. Abenheim notes there are at least six LGBT panels on the schedule this year, a major change from previous years where only one or two would exist.
"There is so much more awareness out there now," Abenheim says. "It's going to be a great convention this year."