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San Diego Comic-Con is back in person (and character!)

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

San Diego Comic-Con came back this past week with its first in-person convention since the pandemic began. And it wasn't just Spider-Man and Batman who wore masks - and you know everybody was in costumes because that's what everyone does there. Along with proof of vaccination, masks were mandatory for all the superheroes and everybody else, as coronavirus cases rise across the country. Stephen Thompson is at the event that ends today in San Diego. He's a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and joins us now. Welcome.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: You know, just to start off, I want everyone to know that I've always wanted to go to Comic-Con, and it seems like it's Disney World for me. I just want to get that out the way. But this year, there are mask and vaccine requirements. Does that make the Comic-Con convention feel different?

THOMPSON: I think so. You know, you walk around and you say that everybody's there in costume - I mean, mostly it's just a bunch of enthusiastic people in T-shirts with...

RASCOE: Maybe T-shirts with characters on it 'cause I've been to some cons and I just wear, like, the Scooby Doo T-shirt.

THOMPSON: Exactly, and I think that's kind of what you see. Mostly what they are is just incredibly excited fans of all different kinds of pop culture.

RASCOE: And how crowded was it this year?

THOMPSON: Extraordinarily crowded. It was good to see most everybody wearing masks. They certainly required them. But they still, you know, wound up selling out. They're at capacity. So you go into the exhibitors hall and you're wading through crowds of people. These are the most crowds I've been in in the last 2 1/2 years. So you have the mixture of the excitement and enthusiasm of sharing all these pop cultural joys mixed with the low-grade panic attack of being in large crowds full of people.

RASCOE: Yeah. And, I mean, the cons I've been to, which are locally around the D.C. area - the big part of it is being able to, like, buy all sorts of gear and comics and whatever you're into. Like, is that the way it is at Comic-Con?

THOMPSON: Yeah, there's this massive exhibitors hall. And, yeah, you have a mix of people selling rare comic books and artwork but also a lot of booths promoting different brands - toy lines, you'll see a 15-foot-tall statue of Bowser made of Legos.

RASCOE: OK, I want to talk about that because I've seen this Bowser Lego giant. And first of all, Bowser is one of my favorite characters. Bowser is Super Mario's big bad guy. He's the guy you fight at the end of the games. When I play Smash Brothers, my kids will tell you, I'm always Bowser. And at first I was really dominant, but then my son learned how to play it and I can't beat him anymore. But tell me about the Bowser. Like, he could move?

THOMPSON: (Laughter) The thing is, they're trying to promote these Lego lines. And you're a parent, Ayesha. You know how much Legos cost, (laughter) you know?

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh. Oh, my goodness.

THOMPSON: You know, they're trying to make a splash. You know, you've got roughly a hundred and fifty thousand people attending Comic-Con. You know, they're trying to get the word out. The fact is, you and I, right now, are talking about a 15-foot-tall statue of Bowser made out of Legos, so somebody somewhere did their job.

RASCOE: They did their job with me. Like, I'm so easy to sell to with stuff like this. I mean, like, what shows were people go on crazy over? I've seen so many trailers. I know it was, like, "Dungeon & Dragons" and the "Lord Of The Rings" show and the - all sorts of shows. Like, what were the trailers and stuff that people were going crazy over this year?

THOMPSON: You know, it's a pop culture convention that extends way, way, way beyond comic books.

RASCOE: Yeah.

THOMPSON: You know, it's called Comic-Con. You know, there's the comic book industry awards - the Eisners are held. They're kind of the Oscars of the comic book industry. There's a lot of comic book representation. But it's a pop culture convention. It's a TV convention. It's a movie convention. It's just tons of different kinds of pop culture all kind of bound up together. So sometimes there's the excitement for these big, big, big brands, like "Game Of Thrones" and "Lord Of The Rings." But there's also, like, a big panel with the cast of "Abbott Elementary," you know, a big, you know, panel with the cast of "Ghosts."

You know, there's a lot of different TV shows represented where fans of these TV shows come and, you know, watch the casts, you know, tell stories and laugh. And then the guests at Comic-Con come up and ask incredibly awkward questions about the tiniest minutiae of the shows in question. What's really exciting is just kind of the assembly of all these things in one place.

RASCOE: I mean, do you think it's become too commercial or do you think it has some of that original authenticity?

THOMPSON: If you can't embrace commercialism, this isn't the convention for you because there's just advertising everywhere. There are brands everywhere. Everybody's promoting something. So if you kind of are able to give yourself over to that and just find the things that you're already excited about, find things that you've always been curious about, I don't think it's necessarily a festival of discovery so much as a festival of reveling in things you already love and trying to go deeper in your fandom with things you already love.

RASCOE: That is Stephen Thompson, one of the hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METERS' "CARDOVA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)