My wildest Comic-Con moments: Stan Lee sang to me, George R.R. Martin hugged me
With SDCC virtual this year, author and former Lucasfilm employee Bonnie Burton gets nostalgic about her most memorable in-person experiences at the con.
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
I've been attending San Diego Comic-Con for over 20 years -- as an author, Lucasfilm employee and hard-core comics and pop culture fan -- and every year seems crazier than the last. Sadly, this year's Comic-Con is virtual due to coronavirus concerns, so I'm feeling a little nostalgic recalling some of the wackiest things that have happened to me in person at the convention. Ready? Here we go…
1. Stan Lee and Mark Hamill singing me happy birthday
My birthday falls in July, so I've often spent it at SDCC. One time, a waiter dressed like Batman brought me a birthday cake, and another time I used a lightsaber replica to hit a pinata shaped like Darth Vader on a friend's houseboat. But one of my favorite birthday memories from Comic-Con involves Star Wars actor Mark Hamill and the late, great Marvel superhero comics creator Stan Lee.
During our World of Heroes press tour, I was on a Comic-Con panel in one of the biggest convention rooms, Hall H, with Lee, Mark Hamill, and a few others who had shows on Lee's network. I was anxious about talking in front of a room full of comic book fans and thrilled to be breathing the same air as Lee and Hamill.
As fate would have it, it was my 40th birthday that day, and when I told Lee he gave me a huge hug and urged me not to be nervous. We took the stage and sat down. Then Lee winked at me and told the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to me. Both Lee and Hamill led the audience in a very special happy birthday sing-a-long, which still can't be beat as one of my best SDCC memories ever.
2. Meeting the real Loki by accident
At Comic-Con, it's not uncommon to see cosplayers looking like such dead ringers for Tony Stark, Wonder Woman, Shazam or Thor you do a double-take and think they're the very characters you've seen on screen.
In 2013, I found myself enthralled with a cosplayer dressed as Loki. Everyone was just starting to catch Avengers fever with Marvel superhero movies like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Thor: The Dark World was about to come out, and fans were buzzing with excitement at Comic-Con.
I was in the secret labyrinth of hallways inside the San Diego Convention Center trying my best to get to a panel. Sometimes, if you know the right security people, they'll let you take a shortcut through these halls, which are often used by celebrities avoiding crowded hallways full of fans jostling for autographs or coveted selfies.
As I was rushing behind the stage, I almost ran right into an impressive cosplayer dressed as Loki -- the Asgardian god of mischief and adopted half-brother of Thor. The cosplayer not only had the perfect Loki costume, he could have been the twin of Tom Hiddleston, who portrayed him in the movies. He even had the actor's British accent down perfectly.
I said, "Wow, your Loki cosplay is killer!"
He responded, "Thank you. That's very kind of you to say." Then he walked off toward Hall H with a few people around him, hurrying him away.
After my panel, I found out Hiddleston had stormed the Hall H stage dressed like Loki as a surprise for fans. It was during Marvel's panel to promote Thor: The Dark World.
Turns out I didn't compliment a random Loki cosplayer. I complimented Hiddleston himself! Loki probably would have found that amusing.
SDCC cosplay: The very best Comic-Con costumes from years past
3. Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew saying hi to my Chewbacca puppet
When I worked at Lucasfilm as a senior editor for StarWars.com, I always felt honored when my path crossed with that of late Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew. Whenever he visited Lucasfilm headquarters or attended one of the many comic book conventions I went to, Mayhew always said hello and gave me one of his famous Wookiee hugs.
When I was doing the first book signing for my Star Wars Craft Book at SDCC in 2011, I was super nervous about meeting fans as an author. Mayhew stopped by to say hello and pose for a photo holding my Chewbacca sock puppet. His visit to my signing gave me the much-needed confidence boost I needed to chat with fellow fans who wanted my signature.
4. Star Wars Revenge of the Sith movie title reveal
In 2004, I was backstage when Lucasfilm made a big announcement -- the name of its next Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith. Back then internet spoilers weren't a thing; and social media hadn't taken over our lives. So it was still a big deal when a movie name -- especially for something as big as Star Wars -- was revealed.
Back in 2004, Saturdays at Comic-Con were called "Star Wars Saturdays" and everyone in Hall H expected surprises. Fans in Hall H that day were treated to video montages of behind-the-scenes moments during filming with actors Ewan McGregor playing Obi-Wan Kenobi and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker.
Finally, after the last montage video, the movie's title was revealed to the world and the crowd went wild. Over 6,000 fans screamed the name of the movie over and over.
Watch this: The best San Diego Comic-Con celebrity disguises
When the house lights came up, the panel's host wore a black T-shirt with the movie's new title in red. The second he said the limited-edition T-shirt was on sale at the Star Wars store on the show floor, people jumped from their chairs and ran for the doors to get theirs.
I ended up volunteering at the store to make sure the excited mob of Star Wars fans didn't trample anyone in the process. It was both terrifying and thrilling.
5. Partying with Adam Savage
These days, celebrity-infested parties are common, but in the mid-2000s it was pretty rare to see TV and movie stars mingle with fans at SDCC social functions.
One of my favorite parties was thrown annually by MythBusters co-host Adam Savage. I had worked with Savage when he was at ILM and I was at Lucasfilm. We became fast friends, and when he became a MythBusters megastar, he would invite his pals to his hotel room for a small, friendly gathering over the years.
At these private parties, I would meet fellow geeks, but also the original cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Star Trek actors, beloved voice actors, prominent scientists and popular comedians.
But soon his intimate gatherings started to get bigger and he couldn't accommodate all the guests in his hotel room. He moved his party to a slightly bigger hotel room, then later to a conference room, then to a restaurant and eventually a nightclub.
The last time I attended one of Savage's Comic-Con parties, it was in a packed nightclub where all his past cosplay costumes were on display. I was in a VIP area surrounded by fans and a few celebrities like director Guillermo del Toro. Savage's parties are a good way to see your favorite geeky celebs in one place, if you can get in.
Pro tip: If you really want to see celebs in party mode, hang around outside the Hard Rock Hotel on Saturday nights for the Entertainment Weekly party. It's usually the hottest ticket for celebs who want to let loose without the paparazzi harassing them. The year I attended the party, I sat at one of the outdoor fire pits next to The X-Files star Gillian Anderson and Sherlock co-creator and actor Mark Gatiss.
Watch this: Mighty Morphin Red Ranger Helmet unboxing
6. Slave Leia photoshoot brings Comic-Con to a standstill
Every year, at the Lucasfilm area on the convention floor, cosplayers will gather to take an epic group shot. Usually, it's Stormtroopers or all the Jedi Masters posing en masse for fans to snap photos.
But in 2009, there seemed to be a record number of Slave Leia cosplayers. Not just women but men donning the sexy costume made famous by Carrie Fisher in Return of the Jedi.
Almost 100 Slave Leias gathered to pose with a giant Jabba the Hutt statue proudly standing inside the Lucasfilm area. When that many Slave Leia cosplayers show up in one small area for a photo op, you can imagine how many fans refused to budge. Not only were no fans moving, more of them were rushing to the spot to see if they could get the best angle for a photo.
Watch this: The best San Diego Comic-Con celebrity disguises
This created a massive problem for Comic-Con's security team and fire marshals. An enormous crowd of people that should have been moving like normal was now standing completely still, and all the exits were being blocked by fans trying to get through this terrifying wall of human flesh.
The photo op only lasted a few minutes before security broke it up. So even though many of us snapped a few photos, it was impossible to get the full shot of all the Leias at once. Now if you want to get photos of massive meet-ups between Marvel superheroes, Star Wars Stormtroopers, and everything in between, Comic-Con makes it a rule to have these cosplayer photo ops happen outside the building.
7. A fan gets stabbed in the eye
Not everything at Comic-Con is fun. When lines grow longer and the celebrity panels are harder to gain entrance to, fans can find themselves in dangerous situations.
In 2010, I spent a lot of time in Hall H, covering panels for StarWars.com and other geeky news outlets. I took quite a few breaks to leave the giant room, unlike the more hardcore fans who refused to leave their seats.
Fans who decided to stay the full day inside the room found themselves in the middle of a crime scene when one fan stabbed another fan in the eye with a pen over a seat. This room seats over 6,000 people, and usually there are twice that many people waiting in line to get in. So tensions run high.
The attacked man recovered, but the pen stabber was arrested for assault. In true Comic-Con fashion, the next day a few cosplayers decided to dress up as a fan stabbed in the eye. There's no such thing as "too soon" where Comic-Con gallows humor is concerned.
8. Getting a hug from George R.R. Martin
Game of Thrones first aired on HBO in 2011, and author George R.R. Martin was just starting to become a household name back in 2012. I was attending a private party held by Big Bang Theory co-creator Bill Prady at Comic-Con that year and was delighted to learn Martin would be there.
I loved Martin's books long before the TV series came out, but I was also such a diehard fan that I ended up writing a scathing letter to the editor of The New York Times when a TV critic accused Game of Thrones of having romance so women would tune in.
When Martin's publicist found out I was at the party, he came over and said Martin wanted to thank me for writing that letter -- which was pretty amazing considering I didn't have the courage to say hello on my own.
Martin told me he appreciated me standing up for female fans of the show and gave me an Iron Islands copper coin featuring the image of Balon Greyjoy. I also got one heck of a hug.
9. Bringing down the house in Geek Girls panels
Female fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and so many other properties are constantly having to prove their geekdom. In 2012, women at Comic-Con were routinely accused of being "Fake Geek Girls" and, in response, Comic-Con featured quite a few panels focusing on female fandom to remind the guys we weren't going anywhere.
I was honored to be on a few of these panels alongside female actors, writers, directors, comic book creators and celebs. In one of my favorite memories, I sat next to America's Next Top Model winner and avid cosplayer Adrianne Curry, who was dressed as Leeloo from the movie The Fifth Element.
Curry talked at length about her love and knowledge of all things Star Wars, video games and sci-fi in general. It was refreshing to see a woman, who also happened to be a reality TV star, stand up to harassment and wave her geek pride flag for all to see.
Back then, geek girls were treated like a novelty instead of the norm. So these kinds of panels were a great way to remind everyone that female fans knew their stuff. We weren't showing off our fandom to impress the guys, we were celebrating our geeky obsessions as equals.
10. Jane Wiedlin and Milo Ventimiglia become honorary Stormtroopers
When you see celebs geek out over the same things you do, there's a sense of solidarity that can't be matched. At Comic-Con, it's fun to see A-list actors freak out over the latest Star Wars Lego set, or get tongue-tied around their favorite comic book artist.
Over the years at Comic-Con, I helped the official Star Wars Stormtrooper cosplayer group the 501st Legion with a few honorary inductions for celebrities. These are always meant to be a surprise for the celebrity nominated by the group, and can be tricky to pull off at Comic-Con.
Usually, celebrities are ambushed at Comic-Con by a group of Stormtroopers who present them with a 501st Legion plaque and badge. It's a huge honor for any Star Wars fan, and the celebrity in question is always delightfully shocked by the impromptu ceremony.
In 2009, I was at Comic-Con to help present Go-Go's band member Jane Wiedlin and This is Us actor Milo Ventimiglia with their honorary inductions into the 501st Legion. The ceremonies took place on different days during the convention but still managed to surprise Wiedlin and Ventimiglia, who were both gobsmacked.
While not everyone can be honored by Stormtroopers, it's a fun reminder that even the celebs you admire the most love geeky movies or TV shows as much as you do.
Originally published July 18, 2019 9:09 a.m. PT. Updated with coronavirus and virtual Comic-Con info.