Spider-Man attends as Comic-Con Museum debuts new exhibits and features on Stan Lee alongside
Spider-Man attends as Comic-Con Museum debuts new exhibits and features on Stan Lee alongside "Cowboy Bebop" and "My Hero Academia" at Comic-Con Museum on July 18, 2023 in San Diego, California. Image Credit: Photo by Jerod Harris / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

A-listers are skipping this week's Comic-Con due to a historic Hollywood strike - but while some ticketholders are disappointed, long-standing comic book fans are delighted to have their world-famous event back.

The giant pop culture gathering in San Diego, California often draws headlines for the thousands of cosplaying fans who camp in line for days to see stars from Tom Cruise to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. With actors last week joining writers on strike - and therefore banned from promoting their movies and shows - celebrities and studios from Amazon to Warner Bros have pulled the plug on Comic-Con appearances.

But not everyone is bothered

"I am probably more excited this year than any year in recent memory," said Chris Gore, owner of the "Film Threat" website and director of "Attack of the Doc!" 

"San Diego Comic-Con is gonna get back to its roots - which is celebrating the art of comic books," he said.

The event, which runs Thursday to Sunday, has ballooned to become North America's largest pop culture gathering, drawing 130,000 annual visitors dressed up as everything from superheroes to space monsters. But its first iteration - the brainchild of an unemployed 36-year-old comic collector and his five teenage acolytes - brought just 100 people to a seedy hotel basement in 1970.

The "Golden State Comic-Con," as it was called, was first designed as a way for fans to connect with each other and meet their heroes - the comic book creators. A giant convention floor with countless talks, seminars and signings has continued to allow fans to do just that.

These days, it is normally overshadowed by Comic-Con's famous Hall H auditorium, where massive movie announcements are made to screaming fans. "I look at the schedule for Hall H especially, and it's sparse" this year, said James Witham, host of the "Down & Nerdy Podcast."

But "Comic-Con has never been just Hall H... it's a unique animal, one of the very few events that brings pretty much every fandom and every aspect of fandom together in one place.

"You have movies, television, comics, anime, animation, toys." This year, fans like Gore are excited to watch panels without "baking in the sun in a giant line for hours," attend "smaller parties where you will actually be able to converse with people" and focus more on comics.

Roll with the punches

Of course, the uncertainty over this year's line-up has created logistical headaches for organizers. Talks between Hollywood actors and studios went right down to the wire last week, giving Comic-Con just a few days to pivot since the strike was called. "We're all rolling with the punches," David Glanzer, Comic-Con's marketing chief, told AFP.

"We really wish that a resolution could have been found before this." But sorting the event's sprawling schedule is "like a Rubik's Cube" every year, and organizers always have contingency plans in place, he added.

Hall H will now host its first ever Indian film panel, a giant launch for a new "Spider-Man" video game, and various animated movie showcases, including the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film.

Still, for fans whose priority was to catch a selfie or broadcast an illicit livestream with some of Hollywood's biggest names, the financial cost of Comic-Con may be harder to brush off.

Attendees spend thousands of dollars on travel, hotels and their Comic-Con passes, which are fiercely competitive to obtain and sold out months ago. "There's going to be some disappointment with that lack of Hollywood presence," said Witham.

He hopes that many will discover for themselves the joys of the format that launched Comic-Con more than half a century ago. "Maybe this is the year that somebody who was here for Hollywood goes, 'I can't see a Marvel (film) panel but there are Marvel Comics - maybe I'll go see what's going on over there,'" he said. "Is there gonna be a lot of that? Maybe not. "But this year, maybe you drift over to a place you wouldn't normally drift."