Comics fans: get ready for a perfectly normal spectacle this summer. After several years of skipped then scaled-down shows with lowered participation in the pandemic era, San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) is back to full strength. Mask and vaccination mandates are suspended (in accordance with local policies), comics publishers DC and Dark Horse have rejoined as exhibitors, and several key industry players are setting up booths for the first time.

This year’s SDCC will be held Wednesday–Sunday, July 19–23, at the San Diego Convention Center. By November the show was completely sold-out, with more than 135,000 tickets purchased and thousands of additional pop culture scenesters expected to fill the streets around the show, many in cosplay.

“People are a lot more relaxed this year,” says David Glanzer, chief communications and strategy officer of Comic-Con International, the nonprofit organization that runs the con. As at CCI’s other event, April’s WonderCon, the organization will still officially encourage the use of masks, but expects “less criticism or anxiety about it now,” Glanzer adds.

Major players return

Perhaps the biggest news for 2023’s con is the return of DC Comics to the show floor. Much to the dismay of fans (and many employees), in 2019 DC gave up its large central booth for a combined display with Warner Bros.—a change that many found less effective for showcasing the DC brand. After sitting out the 2022 show entirely due to budget cuts at Warner Bros. Discovery, DC will be back in a big way in 2023. Its solo booth is designed to retake the brand’s place as focal point of the media section of the show floor, and it will host signings (the full schedule is yet to be confirmed but is expected to include Becky Cloonan, Tom King, and Jim Lee), photo opportunities, and, for the first time, merchandise sales. DC will partner with McFarlane Toys, which produces Batman collectibles, and trading card company Cartamundi for exclusives.

Publishers need to show that they’re back. —Rob Salkowitz, fan con expert

Dark Horse, another top comics publisher, was also absent last year due to concerns over employee travel during the pandemic. For SDCC 2023, v-p of marketing Cara O’Neill says it will set up its full-size booth with a lineup of exclusives and signings. “It’s important to connect with partners, creators, fans, and friends in person,” she adds, noting, “San Diego is one of our longtime favorites.”

Industry observers aren’t surprised that DC and Dark Horse are returning. “The business has gotten more competitive, and publishers need to show that they’re back and fully participating in industry and fan events,” says consultant Rob Salkowitz, who often writes about conventions for PW and other outlets.

Familiar names will be back. Abrams ComicArts is bringing Bill Griffith to promote Three Rocks, his new Ernie Bushmiller graphic bio (for our q&a with Griffith, see “Weird at the Con,” p. 20). Fantagraphics will host multiple signings, including leading indie cartoonists such as Simon Hanselmann, Jaime Hernandez, and Trina Robbins. And manga publisher Viz will once again have a huge presence, with superstar manga artist Junji Ito making an appearance (for more on Ito, see “Special Guest Spotlight,”).

The writers strike raises questions

The biggest unknown is how the Writers Guild of America strike will impact SDCC. The strike is ongoing as of press time, with no settlement in sight. WGA rules do not allow any member screenwriters to promote projects at SDCC. The typically lavish presentations in Hall H (where studios and streamers promote upcoming media projects) could conceivably go on with reduced participation from writers. But the strike is threatening to spread to the Screen Actors Guild, and that would severely curtail the usual parade of stars hawking their latest nerd-friendly vehicles.

And there could be further complications: Will fans need to cross picket lines to enter? Will any special guests pull their appearances?

The slowdowns in production due to the WGA strike have already reshaped Hall H spectacles. Marvel Studios will skip its regular highlight Saturday afternoon panel, which in past years has featured company president Kevin Feige rolling out phases of Marvel Comics Universe movies, and appearances by such stars as the entire Avengers: Age of Ultron cast and forthcoming Blade lead Mahershala Ali. HBO, Netflix, and Universal, among others, will also take the year off. There’s speculation that this outcome could have a silver lining: more attention focused on actual comic books, which often get lost in the glitz and hype around TV and big-screen celebrity guests.

Glanzer says CCI hopes the matter is settled by the time the show goes on. “We really don’t know yet how a strike will affect it, but the reality is, Comic-Con will happen.” He points out that the con has many moving parts, serving many different fandoms, including fans of books, video games, toys, and costumes. “We hope that the strike ends,” Glanzer adds, “not just for our convention, but so people get back to work. If there’s an element that won’t be there, we’ll make do as best we can.”

Regardless, CCI will once again profit from ticket sales, after a decline in income over the past three years. Tickets for the canceled 2020 show were honored for the 2022 edition. Tax filings reveal CCI’s assets shrank from $28 million in 2019 to $12 million by 2022. The immediate sellout of the November 2022 release of July 2023 tickets certainly augurs better times.

“Losing two years of income was an eye opener for all of us,” Glanzer says. “But it looks like we’re back on our feet, and after this show, on stable ground.”

Still, budget cuts are evident in dropped cosmetic niceties: the hall will remain uncarpeted, and badges are no longer mailed out in cute collector’s boxes.

Usual shuffle plus a sideshow

As always, attendees can expect show floor shuffles as the fortunes of companies shift. But one move this year came as a particular surprise: Sideshow Collectibles, which makes deluxe statues and collectibles, announced it would forgo its impressive, centrally located SDCC booth and instead launched a branded concurrent online-only Sideshow Con.

Neither CCI nor Sideshow would comment on the action, but in a blog post, Sideshow CEO Greg Anzalone stated the company’s goal is “transcending the physical limitations of the convention and reaching out to a global audience.”

The move rankled some. Salkowitz notes that the absence of fan-favorite exhibitors on the show floor and in the program is unfortunate at a time when SDCC is trying to bounce back from a couple of tough years.

Another departed exhibitor is Comixology, previously the leading digital comics platform, which was absorbed into parent company Amazon last year. However, Dstlry, a new venture run by former Comixology principles David Steinberger and Chip Mosher, will set up its inaugural booth, which will distribute its debut book release—a limited-edition one-shot comics anthology titled The Devil’s Cut, with creators including Jock, Tula Lotay, and Scott Snyder, who are also founding creators at Dstlry (a concept distinct from cofounders: they are the first creators to join the company, and they also receive equity). It is also releasing a collectible art toy called Mominu, designed by artist Junko Mizuno.

Mosher, an industry veteran, says SDCC was an essential expense in Dstlry’s launch. “We’re very excited and appreciate that we’ve gotten good real estate in the publishers section,” he adds. “It’s the most storied industry event for comics. I can’t imagine being part of a company that publishes comic books and not having a presence.”

Kickstarter is another first-time exhibitor this year, though it has participated in past programming. Bryce Gold, Kickstarter’s newly appointed head of comics, says that the crowdfunding platform “saw an opportunity to match the growth we’re seeing in the category with an expanded presence at SDCC.” Representatives from the platform’s comics, publishing, and games teams will appear on panels, as will creative voices who have funded projects via the platform, such as Amanda Conner, Madeleine Holly-Rosing, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Brian Pulido. The tech company is taking a dedicated booth that will act as an information station for anyone curious about crowdfunding and will host signings and display art.

Back to the future

The 2023 edition of SDCC will mark a return of the elements that made it a worldwide phenomenon, but future planning remains tentative, Glanzer says. We’re very cautious,” he adds. An ongoing key project remains the Comic-Con Museum, a year-round venue showcasing the comics medium in Balboa Park. An interactive exhibit on animation will be on display during the con, and shuttles will run from the convention center to the museum.

For now, CCI’s focus is ensuring the return to normalcy with a smooth roll-out, particularly given the fact that the pandemic period has included significant staff turnover at many stakeholders. “There are new people at companies that we’ve dealt with for a long time,” Glanzer says. “A lot of our job is to bring them up to speed on the value of the show. It’s better to understand something fully and commit to it than just do something because that’s the way it’s always been done.”

Whatever the changes, SDCC remains both an exhausting extravaganza and an intimate space to reconnect with fans and colleagues. “Conventions give fans, creators, partners, and our own staff a chance to interact, and to celebrate our long-standing partnerships,” says Dark Horse’s O’Neill. “It takes a great deal of time and effort to put together the type of major presence that we have at SDCC, but it’s worth it.”

Read more from our San Diego Comic-Con preview:

San Diego Comic-Con 2023: Special Guest Spotlight Junji Ito
Junji Ito won the Eisner Award for best cartoonist in 2022 and is making his first appearance as a special guest at San Diego Comic-Con 2023. Ito will have a spotlight panel and is expected to make time for (limited) signings.

Weird at the Con: PW Talks with Bill Griffith
Bill Griffith’s 'Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller: The Man Who Created Nancy' (Abrams ComicArts, Aug.) is a graphic biography of one of the unsung heroes of newspaper comics.

San Diego Comic-Con 2023: Comics for Kids and YA
San Diego Comic-Con sets aside Sunday as Kids Day, but there will be plenty of young readers’ and YA content every day of the show.

This article has been updated for clarity.