They say not all superheroes wear capes. But they do all now wear masks.
This weekend, thousands of people flocked to San Diego for the city's first in-person Comic-Con — the beloved geekfest for all things science fiction, superhero and fantasy — in two and a half years.
The cosplayers squeezed into their spandex, strapped on their plastic weapons and secured their brightly colored wigs.
But with great power comes great responsibility. So, in a pandemic twist, they all donned face masks and red wristbands after proving they had either been vaccinated against or had recently tested negative for the greatest villain of all: COVID-19.
"I wouldn't say it's normal. But if you want to come, it's what you've got to do," said William McElligott, a steampunk Santa whose white beard was obscured by a green plaid cloth mask.
McElligott, a 63-year-old Lockheed Martin aircraft maintenance manager from Phoenix, wore a leather bandoleer loaded with candy canes, a long velvet jacket and gold goggles on his red top hat.
He called himself Jolly Saint Ridiculous — perhaps the perfect hero for Comic-Con's comeback on Thanksgiving weekend.
The scaled-down, three-day Comic-Con Special Edition at the waterfront San Diego Convention Center did not bring the usual crush of summer crowds — estimated to top 160,000 in past years — but superfans rejoiced at the return of the first in-person gathering since 2019.
"There seems to be a general sense of excitement among attendees, volunteers, exhibitors and all involved. ... I think everyone is relieved to be returning to a sense of normal, even if it is a somewhat smaller version of the typical Comic-Con event," said David Glanzer, a Comic-Con spokesman.
In 2020, the annual pop-culture behemoth was held virtually as Comic-Con@Home, as the pandemic forced the first cancellation of the live gathering since its launch in 1970.
The in-person event was so deeply mourned that fans set up an altar for it near the convention center, with flowers, memorabilia and handwritten messages: "I Love You. I Miss You. ... Just Wear a Mask" and “#NerdsUnite."
The virtual event returned this summer as coronavirus case numbers were rising with the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
This weekend's gathering, which organizers expected to draw between 40,000 and 50,000 attendees, took place as large-scale events are making a comeback in California.
After a year of creepy cardboard cutouts, human fans returned to the stands at Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres games. The Los Angeles Marathon hit the streets last month. The Rose Parade is a few weeks away. And if you hear euphoric screaming this week from SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, it's probably because the powerhouse South Korean boy band BTS is returning to the stage there.
At Comic-Con Special Edition, attendees had to prove they were fully vaccinated or had tested negative for the virus within the previous three days. Everyone had to wear a face mask, which could not be covered by, well, a superhero mask.
The pandemic may have changed the event. But by the hammer of Thor, it did not change the self-proclaimed geeks, many of whom were still endearingly shy and awkward as they appeared in public in their eye-catching garb after so much time had passed.
As hundreds of people queued outside the vaccine verification tent — a scene that would have seemed dystopian not all that long ago — the sun shone, and temperatures were summer-like, in the mid-70s.
"It's just nice to come back," said Dequane Moss, 34, a self-described "big nerd" from San Diego, as he stood in line with his family.
Moss and his wife, Brittany, 33, waited with their 6-month-old son, Memphis, a pandemic baby attending his first Comic-Con, and 4-year-old son Raiden, dressed as his namesake "Mortal Kombat" character, Raiden the god of thunder. Their 5-year-old daughter, Arya, was decked out as Mileena, the mask-wearing female "Mortal Kombat" ninja. Around her mouth, she wore sharp teeth that Brittany had fashioned from cut and painted acrylic fingernails.
Before the pandemic, Arya and Raiden had been dressing up and coming to Comic-Con their whole lives. Mom and Dad had been coming since 2006.
They did not attend the virtual Comic-Cons, which just did not feel the same.
"We told the kids the germ put it on pause," Brittany said. This week, she and her husband waited until the last second to tell the children the event was happening. They figured it would be canceled again.
Ferna Puga, 23, of Tijuana, took a trolley early Friday from the U.S.-Mexico border to downtown San Diego with her 22-year-old triplet sisters. They were dressed as the Ghostbusters, in tan jumpsuits with prop proton packs, and couldn't wait to be back at Comic-Con for a fifth time.
Clutching a stuffed Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and a Slimer, Puga shrugged when asked about her bright-pink face mask.
"It's not a big deal," she said. "Right now, it feels normal."
Christopher Canole, a 74-year-old artist, actor and screenwriter from La Jolla, cosplayed as his original steampunk character, Dude Vader, a take on Darth Vader.
Dude Vader is gold from head to toe, with gears, tubes and arm plates crafted from painted carpet padding. He usually wears a heavy, elaborate helmet, made with a 3D printer, that encompasses his entire head.
But this year, Canole redesigned the costume so he could have a visible, unobscured face mask. He wore a gold-painted straw hat covered in gold burlap, goggles and a cloth mask that he had printed with a photo of a grill.
Dude Vader, who has "had enough of the dark side," is easier on the eyes for kids, explained Canole, who does scores of charity events in costume, including at hospitals.
"After two years of green-screen charity events, being back, I feed off the energy," Canole said. "Everyone is a kid at Comic-Con."
Randall Langit, 33, of San Diego, was Captain Spider America, a Spider-Man who carried a Captain America shield and a star-spangled banner.
A Marine veteran who works at FedEx, he has been coming to Comic-Con, a place that "gives you a chance to nerd out," for about 20 years. It was "heart-crushing," he said, to see the convention — and Padres games — go away last year.
"You won't be able to see my emotions behind this mask," he said.
Suffice to say he was thrilled to be back.
Dressed as the superhero Hawkman, Andy Holt, a 54-year-old database administrator from Irvine, said Comic-Con was the perfect place to be the day after Thanksgiving — and way more fun than a family dinner.
He wore a giant pair of mechanical, remote-controlled wings that he said were "made from the skins of my vanquished enemies. And craft foam, also. From the finest Hobby Lobbys and Michaels."
After a year and a half of what felt, to him, "like house arrest" during the pandemic, Holt was soaking up the attention, happily posing for photos with passersby.
"These are my people," he said. "They get my geeky references. When I talk to people here? They understand what I'm saying."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.