For four days a year, San Diego transforms into a veritable Mecca of comic book lore and science fiction fandom.
Starting this Thursday and running through Sunday, July 27, the city plays host to Comic-Con International, billed as the largest comic book and popular arts convention in the world. San Diego will be overrun by comic book geeks and the Hollywood elite, with officials expecting more than 125,000 to attend the convention.
Over its 38-year history, Comic-Con has been a playground for comic book fanatics, as devotees flock to Southern California to pore over mint-condition books and dress like their favorite comic characters.
Now featuring panels on video games, feature films and television series, Comic-Con has, in recent years, become much more than a haven for comic book collectors and superhero wannabes.
In the past decade, the convention transformed into a proving ground for the entertainment industry's most buzzed-about television shows and movies, said Mirko Parlevliet, editor in chief of Coming Soon Media, which tracks movie industry releases, in an e-mail.
"It's become so important, because if you can please the Comic-Con crowds, you can expect the general moviegoing public to follow suit," Parlevliet said. "Comic-Con attendees are a tough crowd."
While in the past, attendees were only able to meet the minds behind their favorite comic books, fans can now sit in on exclusive screenings and listen to star-studded panels for Hollywood's most anticipated new releases.
"Fans from all over North America, and, perhaps even, the world, flock to the event to try to get a close-up look at the stars and see new footage," Parlevliet said.
The panel for the 2009 comic book movie "Watchmen" is one of the most highly anticipated events of this year's Comic-Con, said Comicbookresources.com Executive Producer Jonah Weiland.
"This is the movie that is the Holy Grail of comic book films," Weiland said, "It's a remarkable piece of work that has not been matched in 25 years. It transformed the way comics were approached and written."
Parlevliet said audiences have been buzzing about the movie after a "Watchmen" trailer debuted in front of "The Dark Knight" last week.
Weiland said fans are also "eagerly anticipating" the panel for the superpowered NBC show "Heroes."
"The 'Heroes' panel is going to be huge, since the second season was interrupted by the Writers Guild of America strike," he said.
Another highlight: Marvel Comics' Friday panel, "Marvel to the Nth Degree." The panel will introduce a "covert project" the comic book giant has been developing, according to a Marvel press release.
"You just absolutely do not miss their Friday panel -- it's going to be big," Weiland said. "I'm sure Marvel and DC will have surprises on their panel -- you can pretty much count on every comic book publisher to make some big announcement."
This is the 18th year that Comic-Con has been held in the San Diego Convention Center, and the convention now takes up "every inch" of the facility, said Steven Johnson, the center's vice president of public affairs.
A testament to the convention's skyrocketing popularity? Passes for last year's convention sold out right before the event, but this year's convention sold out two weeks in advance, Johnson said.
"The event itself has kind of morphed from what many characterized as a nerd's convention for comic book junkies into a popular culture event in its own right," Johnson said.
Weiland called Comic-Con the "Cannes of the West."
"Pop culture, in general, is being driven by comic books -- we have seven comic book movies out this summer," he said. "If comics continue to drive popular culture and continue to drive the Hollywood engine, Comic-Con is going to grow as a result."
During the week leading up to the convention, Johnson said his office will field calls from Hollywood insiders who are scrambling for last-minute tickets.
"They're in a cocktail party, and half of Hollywood is there, and somebody realizes they don't have a ticket, and then their intern is calling to see how they can get in," Johnson said. "It's pretty funny how you are able to sense the buzz by the number of phone calls and e-mails."
"Obviously, when you have Hollywood putting it into its agenda, then it's really a pretty significant milestone," Johnson said.
At any given time during the event there are 60,000 people in the building, including 45,000 on the exhibition hall floor, Johnson added. "It's an amazing sight to see tens of thousands of people inching their way around, and amongst the crowd are hundreds of people dressed in full-on costumes."
Attendees' comics-inspired garb can be a challenge for organizers who must adapt safety measures to their costumed clientele, Johnson said.
"If somebody brings a sword with them, we have to make sure it stays in their sheath."