The San Diego Convention Center was packed with people as soon as it opened its doors for Comic-Con.
Fans with four-day passes to the annual pop-culture convention were treated to a preview of the showroom floor Wednesday night: 460,000 square feet of TV, film and video game displays, along with toys, art and comic books for sale. Panels, presentations, screenings and celebrity appearances begin Thursday and continue through Sunday.
Forty-nine-year-old Tony Saxon bee-lined it for the Hasbro booth, where he loaded up on two massive bags of collectible toys.
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"I spent $700, and that's just the beginning," said Saxon, who has been coming to Comic-Con since 1993. "I'm going to be broke by Sunday."
Besides being packed with thousands of fans, Comic-Con's showroom floor was alight with flashing screens and giant character displays touting the latest shows, movies, games and toys. The Mattel booth boasted a life-size replica of the new Batmobile from "Justice League," which looks like a tank crossed with a sports car. Sanrio's booth showed Hello Kitty reimagined as Sonic the Hedgehog. "The Walking Dead" booth was crawling with zombies. And players were so engrossed in their games at the Yu-Gi-Oh! booth, it was like they couldn't tell Comic-Con was happening all around them.
"I just got here and it's crowded," said Miles Messenger, 35, as he waited in line to buy an exclusive toy at the Nickelodeon booth. "But I keep coming back because I really enjoy the atmosphere and the community, and being with people who share the same interests."
What started as a comic-book convention with 300 participants in 1970 has grown into a corporate-heavy media showcase that draws more than 130,000 attendees. Netflix, Warner Bros., Fox, HBO and Marvel Studios are among the companies hosting large-scale presentations with top-name talent. But while Hollywood has raised Comic-Con's profile, comic book enthusiasts say it keeps edging out the book buyers and sellers at the heart of the event.
"I think the biggest story about Comic-Con this year is that Chuck Rozanski and Mile High Comics isn't attending... He is THE guy in terms of retail comics and he cannot afford to do the setup that he would usually do because he just doesn't get the sales that he used to get at Comic-Con," said Harry Knowles, founder of the fan site Ain't It Cool News and a Comic-Con regular since 1971. "The sadness that's going on is the people that really made Comic-Con worth going to from the very beginning are being squeezed out by the entire corporate structure of Hollywood, of the industry that is creating so much awesome stuff for us to obsess about."
Among the fan obsessions on view this year: "Stranger Things 2" and "Marvel's The Defenders" from Netflix, which also promises a surprise screening Thursday night; HBO's "Game of Thrones" and "Westworld"; "Justice League" and "Blade Runner 2049" from Warner Bros., along with an anticipated appearance by Steven Spielberg showcasing his adaptation of "Ready Player One."
Jamie Newbold, who's been attending Comic-Con since 1972 and selling comic books there for more than 20 years, said that as big entertainment companies have seized on the convention's fan base, the cost of exhibit space on the showroom floor has become prohibitive for small vendors.
The owner of Southern California Comics in San Diego still plans to bring about 15,000 books to the convention, but he used to take triple that.
"I have a lot of friends who do what I do, and when they look around and see the booths on either side of them are corporate booths, they're big businesses, and we're just little guys from LA or Colorado or New Orleans," Newbold said. "It would be nice for us to see some form of compensation to keep us there since we're the seeds that sprouted this massive tree."
His wish? That Comic-Con would make its 50th anniversary a celebration of rare and vintage comic books.
Jud Meyers, co-founder of Blastoff Comics in Los Angeles, remembers when comic book sellers dominated the convention center showroom. Now big studio and video game exhibits are front and center, with booksellers are in the back.
"I don't think we can blame Hollywood," he said. "Dedicated comic book stores are at a low we've never seen... The comic book world is not just about comic books."
That may be most clear at Comic-Con, where fans of sci-fi, superheroes and other genre fare can connect with their favorite characters through movies, TV, toys or cosplay, as well as comics.
Knowles, also a producer of the 2011 documentary "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope," said Comic-Con isn't a battle between Hollywood and comic books.
"It's not about who's out to win Comic-Con," he said. "The people who are going to win Comic-Con are the ones who paid for tickets to arrive to Comic-Con. They're going to have the greatest time ever."