Fan Expo Chicago 2022 Photos, Part 4 of 4: Stargirl and the Hobbits

Hobbits jazz hands!

Frodo! Pippin! Merry! Sam! And two humans searching the Shire for pizzazz!

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

This past weekend Anne and I attended the inaugural Fan Expo Chicago, the comics/entertainment convention formerly known as Wizard World Chicago, and before that the unbranded Chicago Comic Con. As a proud continuation of that chain of comic-con provenance, a 50th-anniversary logo featured in their decor and con souvenirs. Their initial guest-list game was strong enough to lure us back to the suburb of Rosemont for our first time in four years to see what we could make of this latest iteration. Would it be an all-new all-different Chicago Comic Con, or Wizard World under a bed sheet with two eye-holes poked in it?

It all comes down to this: Saturday, July 9th, our final day at the all-star four-day show. At least, we hoped it would be our final day. We had to work Monday. We didn’t want to come back Sunday. We’re getting old and we need more recuperation time after these super fun pop-culture endurance tests. Conventions are the one place where we can hang out with fellow geeks who get our interests. Back home, people like us seem like an extinct species. But after a while hanging around with the hobbyist crowds, and walking for miles up and down the geek habitat of exhibit hall aisles, is wearying. Also, there’s that pandemic thingamabob people worry about sometimes.

Our primary objective is spoiled in our lead photo: Meet the Hobbits. The Lord of the Rings heroes have been on a reunion tour at cons across America in 2022, an exciting prospect unlikely to happen again unless all their careers take a hard nosedive, and even then, all it takes is one of them to do solid retirement planning and we’ll never see all four in the same room again. I already had two of their autographs on my copy of the Return of the King Extended Edition, after meeting Billy Boyd at Wizard World Chicago 2017 and Sean Astin two weeks later at HorrorHound Indianapolis. Two down, two to go.

Sean Astin C2E2 2012!

File photo time! Anne also got Astin’s autograph at C2E2 2012, which we attended before this site was launched. Someday I should go back and post those pics.

That left me with two autograph lines to hit, for world-famous Elijah Wood and Lost costar Dominic Monaghan. Odds were high they’d still be popular and beloved by millions. I was not excited about the prospect of spending hours waiting for them, but the split-seconds of actually meeting them might be keen. And it’d be nice to have another Complete Autograph Set for my collection, which isn’t expanding much because I do more photo ops than autograph lines at cons nowadays, because the latter tend to be more of a protracted ordeal than the former. But these were the Hobbits. It was a special occasion. I hoped their lines wouldn’t consume all nine hours of the show day and force me to miss out on everything else.

When we have this kind of to-do list at a show like this, procedure mandates we arrive at the front doors two hours early. The exhibit hall was scheduled to open at 10 a.m. Our plan was to grab breakfast at the McDonald’s down the street, loiter in their lobby for a while, then show up at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center around 8 a.m. to claim our place at the starting line. We both woke up far earlier than intended (blame the time zone difference between Indiana and Illinois, and on comic-con enthusiasm), showed up at McD’s a few minutes before the lobby was supposed to open at 7, stood around outside in vain till 7:05, went through the drive-thru instead, headed over to the parking garage, walked down the blocks-long Skybridge that connects the garage to the convention center, found the doors at the end locked (unlike on Friday, when we’d waltzed through with no trouble), walked all the blocks back to the garage, descended to ground level, trudged over to the convention center again, and before 7:30 joined the small line already in progress.

So Phase 1 was a success. We hung out for a while and passed the time chatting with cosplayers dressed as a Spider-Man variant, a Tolkien elf, and whatever an “American Dragon” is. A security guard walked around and graciously pre-checked our bags so we’d have one less concern when the doors were unlocked. Good folks, all.

Saturday line!

This was the line behind us at 8:15.

The guards debated back and forth about what time they were supposed to let us inside. Around 9-ish, whichever guard was in favor of “around 9-ish” won the debate and, per every convention’s custom, we proceeded from The Line to Get Into the Line to Get Into the Con, and we joined The Line to Get Into the Con, where we chatted for a bit with one of the roughly 700,000 fans excited to meet special guest Kevin Smith in person all at the same time.

On Friday the showrunners had been feeling lucky and opened the show floor early at 9:40. Saturday, they unleashed us shortly after 9:30. We appreciated their generosity. I headed directly to the Hobbit autograph section, traded in my pre-purchased QR codes for physical tickets (a special requirement for the Hobbit signings only), mentally flipped a coin to decide where to start, settled into Wood’s zone, and hoped for the best. I was 16th in line. Meanwhile, Anne was free to go wander the hall at her discretion rather than be shackled to me. We had big plans later, depending on how things went in Hobbiton.

Hopes rose high around 9:50 when Monaghan showed up at his table with a podcasting rig and headset, and began telling tales for his fans at home. The line was not yet invited to step toward him. After a few minutes he disappeared. Such a tease. Meanwhile, Anne texted to confirm the aforementioned Kevin Smith fan had made it near the front of that line. He was among the lucky ones.

Shortly after 10, con volunteers set up plastic shields in front of each of the Hobbitses’ signing stations to protect them from COVID and/or poorly armed forces of evil. Astin emerged at 10:15; Wood popped in six minutes later. Monaghan and Boyd showed up moments after, and personally took down their respective shields.

Wood signed at lightning speed — no rambling anecdotes, doctoral dissertations, or fans trying to monopolize everyone’s time with same. In my moment, I recounted how I remember seeing The Good Son way back when, which ended with him letting Evil Macaulay Culkin fall off a cliff, and cheering him on in the theater. Wood laughed as he signed. That’d do. I exited his line at 10:30 and stepped over to Monaghan’s. He likewise was on a roll and whipping through 8-x-10 photos and coveted objects with the quickness. By 10:40 I was 10th in line.

Right around 10:45, Monaghan and his handlers stepped away from his table. My inside voices screamed. I’d totally forgotten he was supposed to do a solo Q&A in the Main Theater at 10:45. He’d be gone at least an hour, maybe more for all I knew. Some fans are more than happy to continue waiting at a star’s table while they’re off performing other scheduled duties. I’m not one of them. I knew this was a highly risky move, but I abandoned the line with the intent to keep checking back throughout the day and hopefully acquire that precious signature from the Final Hobbit.

Elsewhere on the show floor, fans were divvied up among the dozens of other autograph tables. Hundreds (I mean, at least hundreds) flocked to the table of Kevin Smith (with BFF Jason Mewes there for spells as a buddy-duo signing), while even more established a new area code in Charlie Hunnam’s massive line. The star of Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim proved quite the draw, possibly bigger than Elvis if he’d emerged from the grave and had begun signing and swiveling.

This was the point at which we began seeing drawbacks in Fan Expo’s handling of what they’d inherited from Wizard World. According to Facebook posts from official show reps, Wizard World attendance had shrunken so much that when it came time for them to make their annual deal with the Stephens Center for 2022, they’d only reserved the one exhibit hall, not multiple halls as they’d done in years past. Fan Expo had acquired their shows after that deal was struck and, for whatever reason, were beholden to it and unable to acquire any more space. So for this show they tried to do the best they could with the square footage they were given. Some actors had more space allotted to them than others. Smith and Hunnam could’ve used more. A lot more. A. LOT. MORE.

Then there were other guests. Since my Hobbit quest was on pause, I had time to upgrade one of the “maybe” names on my to-do list to a “definitely”. I was happy to meet Boyd Holbrook, who’s not yet a household name to ordinary viewers. He was main villain Donald Pierce chasing elderly mutants in Logan, the Best X-Men Film Ever. For better or worse, he was Our Hero in Shane Black’s The Predator and got his own ripoff Iron Man suit in the final scene. He costarred with The Mandalorian‘s Pedro Pascal in the Netflix series Narcos, which has been in my queue for a while. (Someday I’ll pull that trigger! Maybe sooner rather than later!) I’m also excitedly anticipating Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (coming August 5th!), in which he’ll play the famously creepy nightmare known as the Corinthian. Later down the road, he reunited with Logan director James Mangold for an as-yet-unknown role in the fifth Indiana Jones film, which completed filming in February and is scheduled for release in summer 2023.

Despite these noteworthy credits past and future, Holbrook had arrived at his table before 10:00 and…as of 10:45 he had no line. At all. Whatsoever. His table was next to Jon Bernthal’s, which had a considerable population. I’d already met him at Wizard World Chicago 2015, so I was okay there, but I checked to make sure the folks on his outer perimeter were indeed all there for him and weren’t merely an adjacent Holbrook line in danger of being consumed whole. But nope, no line for Holbrook. I was actively upset with everyone else in the exhibit hall for a while after that.

Boyd Holbrook!

Holbrook confirmed there should be more Sandman footage coming up next weekend at San Diego Comic Con. I’ve never been there, but I’ll be online clicking “refresh” constantly on my news feed.

If the fifth Indiana Jones film ends with Harrison Ford dying of old age and passing his fedora and bullwhip on to Holbrook, I promise you I will never, ever let the internet forget what happened here on this very day, when they had their chance and they blew it. If he’s a memorable villain instead, that will hardly diminish my bragging rights. Ditto if The Sandman does huge secret viewing numbers and Netflix doesn’t cancel it hours after its premiere.

From there I went to track down Anne, who hadn’t told me explicitly where she’d gone, but I know her and there was only one guess: the line for John de Lancie, a.k.a. TV’s Q from the Star Trek universe. Remember that time she had so many thoughts about what happened to Q in season 2 of Picard that she guest-wrote an entire MCC entry about it? She’s kind of a huge fan. Sure, she’d already met him in 1991, in 1996, in 2001 two months after 9/11, at Wizard World Chicago 2010, and, yes, we just saw him at Indiana Comic Con back in April. But he was here, and she was here, so she figured sixth time’s the charm.

John de Lancie 2010!

File photo time again! Anne meeting John de Lancie at Wizard World Chicago 2010, which definitely predated MCC’s existence. Another set of photos to revisit someday.

John de Lancie!

Their second 2022 reunion. She’s not even supposed to be here today.

This time he revealed unto her his appreciation for historical podcasts and highly praised the BBC’s In Our Time, which delves into subjects so esoteric that even Anne the deep history aficionado was stumped by a few of them. Also while in line, a Fan Expo volunteer complimented her Q shirt, which you can see in our lead photo and which, unlike 99.9% of all Trek merchandise ever, confirms Q sported plenty of other outfits besides those tired space-judge robes.

Meanwhile, I headed upstairs to the Main Theater for a panel we both really wanted to see at 11:45. As of 11:10 there was no line for that panel, so the volunteers cheerfully let me into Monaghan’s Q&A, now in progress and entertaining some hundreds. I didn’t take notes because I was fatigued after having spent the last four hours on my feet, but I recall one question referenced the Beatles and another (“Do you have any favorite LOTR memes?”) led to a long anecdote with a pretty funny punchline.

Monaghan panel!

Meriadoc Brandybuck holds court.

At 11:25 Anne arrived on the second floor only to find now there was a line for that 11:45 panel. I presumed she’d come in and join me when the time came, but at 11:30 Monaghan’s time concluded and — unlike our two Friday Q&As — all non-VIPs like me were ordered to clear the room. My seat sucked anyway, so it was just as well. But by missing out on the early half of the line, Anne was handed a free poster and I wasn’t. On my way out of the Theater, I was shocked that the gentleman at the front of the VIP line recognized me and yelled hi — a friend-of-a-friend I’d never had the chance to meet in person. We chatted briefly, but it was a rather awkward place to hold a conversation, so I had to excuse myself. Sadly, we never caught up again. Another time, hopefully.

While we waited and waited some more, a volunteer walked around and passed out raffle tickets to, like, every fifth or tenth fan holding a poster. I could see her counting off to herself, but couldn’t quite catch the number. Whatever her eeny-meeny-miney-mo system was, she landed on Anne and gave her a ticket. We’d been tipped off in advance what this meant and tried not to shout with glee.

Sometime after 11:45, our special guests entered: folks from TV’s Stargirl! The DC Comics series will have its third-season premiere on The CW on August 31st, and has been a delight for the two of us to watch together. Anne enjoys the show’s old-fashioned cheery heroism and their respectful approach to the venerated Justice Society of America, and I love seeing them doing justice to characters from such great comics as James Robinson and Tony Harris’ Starman and Roy Thomas’ Infinity Inc. And I try to keep my DC-splaining to a minimum after each episode ends.

Stargirl panel!

The panel begins! For justice!

Seated, left to right: costar/moderator Joel McHale, who plays Sylvester Pemberton a.k.a. Starman (a conflation of two characters); Stargirl creator/comics superstar Geoff Johns, who’s intensely involved with the show; Brec Bassinger, Stargirl herself; and Yvette Monreal (no ‘T’), who plays Wildcat, one of several characters dealing with the legacy of the heroes and villains whose mantles they inherited. Anne took copious notes while they spoke.

Geoff Johns!

Geoff Johns was among several big-name comics creators who had autograph sessions throughout the weekend. I bypassed those for this.

Johns recounted to newcomers how he created Stargirl, his first published comics work, as a tribute to his sister Courtney, who died in a tragic airplane accident in 1996. When he saw Bassinger’s audition tape, he watched it twenty times because she stood out so well. He confirmed season 3 will be a murder mystery, deal with the heroes and villains struggling to figure out how to coexist in Blue Valley after last season’s bipartisan catastrophe, and have fun as Starman (who’s been promoted to full-on cast member) begins offering Courtney advanced lessons in heroing and in tapping the potential of the Cosmic Staff.

Joel McHale!

Yes, that Joel McHale, star of The Soup, Community, and “the drama Spy Kids 4“.

If you’ve seen Joel McHale in anything ever, rest assured he was pretty much “on” all day long, exactly as you’d imagine. He was proud to reveal he wears deodorant while filming, yet non-jokingly would fly home to spend weekends with his family in between weekday shoots. Johns has seen him so worn out that he’s fallen asleep in his trailer in his Starman costume. He marveled at how the show might cost millions to film in L.A., but in rural Georgia costs “about $80”. His kids like to critique his work and tell him he sucks.

He describes costar Luke Wilson as “the youngest oldest man ever” and joked about him occasionally joining McHale and Johns for dinner at steakhouses and only ordering a glass of milk. To release the tension they have to play between Starman and Stripesy, one time they watched The Outlaw Josey Wales, which he revealed will make a cameo this season. He enjoys twirling the $7,000 Cosmic Staffs around recklessly in front of the horrified on-set prop-masters, who well remember that time Jason Momoa once broke an $11,000 trident on the set of Aquaman. Near the end of the panel he allowed fans to step up to the microphones if they wanted to ask “specific questions that don’t go on and on and on.”

Brec Bassinger!

Brec Bassinger, a.k.a. Courtney Whitmore, a.k.a. Stargirl.

Bassinger was asked as a little girl what she wanted to do when she grow up. She would answer, “I don’t want to be anything. I’m going to be an actress!” Becoming not just an actress, but an actress playing a superhero, to her was “like getting 10 home runs.” Possibly because McHale is the biggest prankster on set (big surprise!) her giggling ruins a lot of takes. She once tried on Wildcat’s costume for fun. She has so much fun wrangling the Cosmic Staffs that she could basically add puppetry to her resume.

Yvette Monreal!

Yvette Monreal was the quietest of the bunch.

Monreal recorded her first Wildcat audition while she was in Bulgaria filming her costarring role in Rambo: Last Blood. Other actresses who were up for the part included Meg DeLacy (The Fosters), who ended up playing Courtney’s nemesis Cindy, a.k.a. Shiv. She’s enjoyed getting to know Bassinger more as the show’s gone on and likes the acting challenge of “pretend[ing] to dislike someone you really like.”

A few minutes before the end of the panel, joining the stage was the fifth and final guest: Anjelika Washington, who plays Beth Chapel, a.k.a. the new Dr. Mid-Nite. According to McHale, her flight had been rerouted to Chicago’s Midway Airport, “the worst airport ever.” (She wasn’t alone. Current airline industry challenges wrecked schedules for a few other guests, including Billy West. This is why Anne and I have almost never taken planes anywhere and why it’s been six years since our last flight.)

Stargirl panel with Anjelika!

Now its a full-on DC panel!

She joined the group for the final minutes of the panel, but it was cool to see her. She added her two cents and her memories of making the first two seasons during the pandemic (which meant they never really had traditional end-of-season parties) and recalls the time tech issues interfered with a particular Zoom meeting so badly that everyone on the call thought she sounded like Charlie Brown’s mom.

Anjelika Washington!

Fun trivia: her character was co-created by a youngster named Todd McFarlane, who’d go on to become a millions-selling comics superstar.

After the panel came the “surprise” that we’d known about: anyone who got a ticket was cordially invited to a special table down on the first floor, where all five panelists would autograph their free Stargirl posters. Because Monreal and Washington were at Fan Expo only for the panel and no other functions, this was the only way to get their autographs this weekend. Fantastic news for ticket holders, not so much for their plus-ones, who, if they attempted to join in, were asked to stand behind their ticket holder as they walked along the table and weren’t allowed to butt in. Anne’s plus-one was disappointed but couldn’t argue. Their prizes, their rules.

While I thought quietly to myself about some of Geoff Johns’ contributions to the medium — including Green Lantern: Rebirth, one of my favorite Hal Jordan stories — Anne said hi and thanks to him, and he responded in kind, because she knew nothing about him.

Joel McHale complimented her Q shirt and asked if de Lancie was nice. She recommended he go say hi: “Yeah, he’s a great guy. Isn’t it good when someone can say about a person that they are great? I’ll say that about you if anyone asks.” McHale responds, “Nah, I’m a dick.”

Ms. Bassinger couldn’t help admiring the pins on Anne’s lanyard. At first her eye was drawn to the newest one, a TARDIS with Starry Night in the background, then exclaimed as she saw her Stargirl pin, made by the good people at FanSets. As we previously witnessed with the Picard cast at Mission Chicago, actors who are new to geek fandom can get wildly excited when they learn someone’s making merchandise of their characters. (Nobody does that for, say, Law & Order guest stars.) On the spur of the moment, Anne took it off her lanyard and gifted it to her.

To Ms. Monreal, Anne said hi and thanks. As I said: quietest of the bunch.

To Ms Washington, Anne expressed sympathy and solidarity with Beth, a cheery character with parents who don’t really pay much attention to what she’s doing and are too wrapped up in their own selfish issues to listen to her. Anne absolutely relates.

Stargirl poster!

As for me? I got a minority ownership stake in her autographed poster.

We headed back to the exhibit hall, where Dominic Monaghan wasn’t at his table. My Hobbit quest remained on hold. Since we were in the vicinity anyway, we popped over to the nearest Hot Flips table (one of three around the place) and bought a giant plastic protector for the Stargirl poster. It might be awkward to carry, easy to forget somewhere over the next several hours, and totally in the way of anyone trying to use both hands to steady a camera and take cosplayer photos, but at least this way it wouldn’t be trashed by the end of the day. The garage was much too far away to simply drop it off in the trunk. My feet were already killing me as it was. All of this is why I hate, hate, HATE carrying posters around a con. But this one was a special occasion.

We wandered over to the photo op area for our first appointment of the weekend, ostensibly at 1:50. Chaos reigned.

photo op madness!

The worst was yet to come.

Between Kevin Smith’s 700,000 fans and Charlie Hunnam’s nation of millions (who by this time were up to six “groups”), they literally ran out of space to assign all the lines they needed, and the triage process among the three photo booths and the 30 floor-tape lines was killing them. Apparently no one in charge had entertained the notion that maybe, just maybe, there are times when a photo op should be declared SOLD OUT and ticket sales should cease for the sake of fire marshal regulations and the sanity of all involved, not necessarily in that order. Once again, Wizard World’s chintzy ways during their death-throes had booby-trapped Fan Expo’s good-faith efforts, and no one on site had a Lockpicking skill high enough to defuse the situation quickly.

Somehow, though, a cranny was dug out for our op and we were permitted to line up. Shooting miraculously began only a few minutes late, and we were reunited with Stargirl.

Brec Bassinger!

Our request reminded her happily of Bring It On, which I have indeed seen. (“Spirit fingers!”)

We escaped the photo-op jungle shortly after 2:00. If you’re an ordinary human, you may notice we’ve missed something here: lunch. That was next. Their food court had exactly three choices: Robinson’s barbecued meats (which was our lunch Friday when there was no line), $17 tacos, and $17 poke bowls. Because all three lines were ridiculous and we are adults and no Saturday morning cartoon characters were around to sing to us about nutrition, our lunch was instead small, yummy cakes from Nothing Bundt Cakes. They have a storefront in Central Indiana (my boss brings them in occasionally to reward our team), but we’d never seen them do a convention before. We welcomed their table with open arms. For lack of table seating or an empty wall to sit down next to, we leaned against a load-bearing convention center pillar and nibbled away.

Nothing Bundt Cake!

I got white chocolate raspberry, which contains a fruit in the name and therefore by my rules qualifies as an honorary salad.

Next stop: autograph time again, but not at Monaghan’s. As I recall he was there, but the line was king-sized. But I had one other must-see non-Hobbit on my list: the aforementioned Mr. McHale. Much farther down the autograph area, a couple dozen fans were ahead of us in his line. To our relief, McHale himself arrived a few minutes later.

McHale meets Frakes!

We barely caught this fun moment in comic-con history: McHale (behind the fan at left) meeting his next-booth neighbor Jonathan Frakes.

Unlike the Hobbits, McHale was chatting away with each guest and having a grand old leisurely time, treating each individual with lovingly snarky respect. One couple slightly older than us graced his presence for a good 3-4 minutes and kept going on and on and on. Normally I’d be cool about it, but we had another photo op coming up at 3:20. Time ticked away as the line slowly inched forward and everyone enjoyed themselves and weren’t checking their watch every two minutes. By 3:10 I didn’t like where the math was going. My two saving graces were that (a) maybe the photo ops would continue being such an unmitigated disaster that it’d be pointless to arrive on time anyway, and (b) maybe McHale would be awesome that we just wouldn’t care.

Prophecy (b) was soon fulfilled. McHale was still very much “on”. We all kept nattering as he signed the front of my Community season-1 set, then — without me asking, mentioning, thinking or even imagining it happening — he signed each individual disc, and even signed the free Kickpuncher comic that came with it. Because he is Joel McHale and he felt like it. This moment was awesome.

We returned to the photo op area and, lo, saw to our horror that prophecy (a) had likewise been fulfilled and very little mitigating had occurred. It’d gotten worse. Crowds filled the purple-carpeted area with the lines in it. An even larger crowd milled around outside of it, frustrated and stymied and dying for their turn onto the carpet. The kindly, sarcastic young lady who was nominally in charge of triage ordered everyone to stop paying attention to the large flatscreen monitor whose photo-op times and statuses had turned into a scoreboard of lies that were only adding to the confusion. She wrested a smidgen of control from the Fates and ordered anyone who hadn’t been specifically ordered into a line to get off the purple carpet back onto the concrete and await actual directions.

Many, many people continued making it hard on her and on the community-at-large by paying attention to the monitor, stepping onto the purple carpet and asking if it was their turn yet. In their defense, she could’ve mitigated this with more frequent announcements rather than walking up every five minutes, which provided large windows of times for attendees who’d missed her previous announcements to barge in as if everything was running smoothly and we, a crowd the size of Times Square New Year’s Eve, were the ones who were lost and ignorant.

This went on for a while. Like, one heck of an interminable while. Everyone waited back-to-back-to-back with intersecting personal spaces for ages. This, in my opinion, would’ve been a perfect place for a super-spreader event.

Eventually through unseen miracles some space was cleared out and additional masses were ushered onto the sacred purple happy place, and that’s when we got our lead photo taken with the Fabulous Furry Frodo Brothers. We exited the photo-op area around 4:10, counted ourselves fortunate and waited for symptoms to appear.

Obviously Monaghan wouldn’t return to his autograph booth for a good while, so instead we wandered to the opposite end of the show floor, where the panel rooms offered sweet, plush carpet and cleared some wall space so we could rest our weary feet, recharge our phones from a wall outlet, and maybe snap pics of another cosplayer or two. By this time I was far more interested in resting. Turning 50 sucks, and recurring foot pain sucks more. It’d been a thing over the past couple months leading up to this. It wasn’t getting better.

We had one last photo op scheduled at 5:50. Shortly before 5:00 we headed yet again toward Monaghan, who had a new flock of dozens to tend to. Once again the math didn’t work out in my head. I was tired of lines, tired of waiting in them, tired of crowding, tired of overexerting, and tired of traversing the same aisles over and over again for our happy fun goals. I procrastinated Monaghan yet again and decided I’d check his table one last time after that one last photo op. If his line was still incredible by then, at that point I’d be willing to rejoin it and wait till past closing time if necessary. If he’d already left for the day, then either we’d have to come back Sunday for him and only him, or we’d have to request a refund and go home with an incomplete Return of the King set. We had it on good authority from others that Fan Expo had been shockingly accommodating with refund requests at all times (possibly the first comic-con in world history to behave so generously), but I didn’t like that contingency, either. So I rolled the dice once again and hobbled away.

By 5:15 the photo op area was a ghost town. I was sort of counting on this, which I’ve seen happen at past shows — though mid-afternoons can turn into hysterical pandemonium, such days often end with only a handful of smaller-scale ops. As their grand finale, they’d added a special emergency session at 6:00 for any Charlie Hunnam fans who’d gotten squeezed out earlier amid all that overpopulated messiness. Quite a few turned up for that session, though thankfully not by the thousands.

Meanwhile at 5:50, once more, with feeling: Joel McHale.

Joel McHale!

Your move, rest of the Community cast.

A dual Stargirl op with Bassinger and McHale could’ve been spectacular, but wasn’t offered. While Bassinger had been on the guest list for months, McHale and the Stargirl panel had been added the Wednesday before the show. I imagine the logistics were impossible. We were just happy he and the others were there at all, in any capacity.

While Anne tucked our final photo in her bag and doubled back to catch a pair of cosplayers she’d spotted earlier, I shuffled as quickly as I could toward Monaghan’s booth for that one last chance at completing my Hobbit quest.

He was down to the last fan in line. The volunteers were chatting with each other, relaxed and clearly going into wrap-up mode.

Until came barreling toward them a figure in the size, shape and posture of the Rhino but in a Hawaiian shirt, eyes popping as he waved around an autograph ticket with the blank side unhelpfully facing toward them. I turned the ticket around and looked as sincerely desperate as I could. Prepaying for the ticket had made me an effortless last-minute addition. Thus it was easy for them to pity me and invite me to proceed. With very little room left to sign on the DVD’s front, Monaghan asked if I had a preference. I confirmed I wasn’t picky. He signed across the logo, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to impose on him any more than that.

From a distance, Anne watched all this happen, incredulous that it’d actually worked. As of 6:15 p.m. Saturday all my missions were officially accomplished. We wouldn’t have to come back Sunday.

She did request two more stops on our way out. Stop #1: the Heroes in Action booth, whom she’d noticed carried FanSets pins. She picked up three Trek pins that had been sold out on the website, plus a replacement Stargirl pin.

On in impulse, because sugar, we also made time for Chocolate Moonshine, purveyors of chocolate who’ve been frequenting cons lately. We waited patiently as the man-in-charge gave a lesson to one of his lads in the fine art of proper fudge-weighing methods in non-greedy ways in the customer’s favor.

Stop #2: the giant sign out in the lobby. We kept forgetting about it.

Anne and 50th backdrop!

This big con in Chicago wasn’t the only one with an anniversary to celebrate in July…

The con offered more events well into the evening. The four Hobbits’ only joint panel was scheduled at 7:30 and required an additional ticket purchase at indie-band concert prices. Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes likely had their own thing — or at least they would once they extricated themselves from their autograph horde.

We rarely extend our convention days beyond the exhibit hall hours. Far as we were concerned, we were officially finished with Fan Expo Chicago 2022. We made our way back to the garage, dropped off our stuff — including that Stargirl poster, which we proudly and thankfully remembered throughout every line, every photo op, and every bathroom stop. We marched one last time to the restaurants at MB Financial Park on the other side of the garage, ate better than we had for lunch and breakfast combined, got our parking validated, and agreed on our disbelief that the day, for all its endurance testing, had gone as well as it had.

Bub City!

Anne and the ambiance at a barbecue joint called Bub City. In case you’re looking closely, yes, she was well aware she wasn’t my only reason for taking this pic.

Meanwhile back at the Stephens Center, Kevin Smith had continued signing till sometime after 8:30, well past closing time. His upcharge bonus panel began over an hour late and didn’t finish till around 11 p.m., which wasn’t ideal for anyone who’d used Chicago mass transit to get to the show. But props to the dude for sticking it out and doing what he could for every last possible one of those 700,000 fans in the place.

Sunday morning arrived far too soon. A tiny part of me wanted to prolong the magic and return to the exhibit hall one last time even though all our major goals were cleared. A larger part of me was alarmed at breaking news from the show: Sean Astin — one of the plastic shield users, and who’d been looking rather odd in everyone’s photo ops, not just ours — had a sore throat and tested positive for COVID.

He canceled his in-person appearances but made arrangements with the con to set up a Skype session at his table so that fans could still chat with him virtually and pass their item(s) to a volunteer, who’d then run their stuff over to him for signing, then run it back to the owner. Anyone who’d prepaid for Sunday photo ops with the four Hobbits were given a partial refund on his portion and invited to pose with the other three. In honor of their fallen colleague, Monaghan was armed with a sign bearing a photo of Samwise Gamgee’s big, heroic head on it.

We were even less inclined to do a con encore by then. Regardless, we really did yearn to go home and rest for as many hours as possible, even if it meant leaving behind thousands of other geeks and returning to “normal” life. I have the occasional online interaction with other folks like me, but apart from one (1) coworker, I never run across capital-F Fans of anything I like in the wild. I don’t get out often enough and they all live on other sides of the city, far away from our humble abode and our collections. Cons are among our rare opportunities to chat with like-minded folks, and those moments usually end well before they realize that, deep down, we’re pretty square.

Our return to mixed-feelings everyday mundanity was delayed by a major crash on I-80 three miles past the Indiana border. We sat and sat and sat, which was good for resting but not for arriving home. Our return trip dragged on for a good extra hour, minimized by fleeing to the nearest exit and hastily Google Mapping a workaround through unfamiliar small-town streets.

We walked in the door around 3:00, but my travels weren’t done yet. I had two errands in mind to run before going back to work Monday. First stop was at the nearest shoe store. My shoes had already been a bit shabby, but the Fan Expo marathon had destroyed the left one. I came away with replacements far superior, using up some of the remaining funds I hadn’t spent in the exhibit hall. Within days, all traces of foot pain vanished. Like any given video game, it’s all about acquiring the right armor and accessories.

Next stop was a haircut chain that has four locations within five minutes of our house. I’d kept it tousled and long specifically for these photo ops, but was overdue. My hairstylist had purple hair, a nose ring, a name shared with an ’80s X-Men character, insight into what do with my naturally curly hair that was so extremely detailed, instead of my “usual” she gave me the best haircut I’ve had since the 1990s. We spent the entire time discussing the pros and cons of attending Hogwarts versus attending Xavier’s School. And she’d clearly played the original ’90s X-Men video game way more times than I ever had. I’ve never in my life had the same stylist twice, so I may never see her again, Just in case, I may have overtipped her.

People like us are everywhere. It’s pretty cool when you can run into them in person, whether by accident or by a comic-con’s mass summons.

Well…that is, as long as you can do so safely. Over the course of the following week, fans checked in with Fan Expo Chicago’s dedicated Facebook fan-group (the old Wizard World Chicago fan group, renamed) and compared notes on who tested positive after the show. An alarming number raised their virtual hands. The show’s COVID protocols had amounted to “use your best judgment”, which isn’t an actual protocol so much as it’s washing their hands (metaphorically and hopefully literally) and putting up a tiny metal sign reading “Comic-Con at Your Own Risk”. Indiana Comic Con had done the same back in April, but I hadn’t seen these sorts of post-con health updates from it. Regardless, a few group members remarked that if they had to catch COVID sooner or later, how cool would it have been to be able to say you got it from the Sean Astin?

Eight days out, Anne and I are still fine. Two shots and double boosted, though many folks have found that doesn’t equate to flawless invulnerability. I’m afraid to jinx it with any real hubris by speculating on why we’re among eight Americans who’ve yet to (knowingly) suffer COVID to date. Maybe it’s our seclusion away from most ordinary citizens and their large, contaminated crowds. Maybe it’s the vitamin D pills we’ve been taking on doctors’ orders for years since before the pandemic. Maybe we’re blessed for some higher purpose as yet unrevealed.

Or maybe that’s our weirdly specific shared superpower. If so, we’ll take it, but nobody’s ever gonna make merchandise of us because of it.

The End. Thanks for reading! Lord willing, we’ll see you next con.

UPDATED 7/18/2022, 8:20 a.m.: This entry wasn’t even 24 hours old when we learned of breaking news in follow-up to the above:

  1. FanSets announced on Instagram that DC Comics has pulled their license and asked that they take down all related merch effective immediately. FanSets still has other universes to offer (including a wide assortment of Trek characters), but plan to liquidate their DC stock to a third party in the near future. Good luck finding your own Stargirl pin out there.
  2. Tupelo Con in Mississippi announced Clerks costar Brian O’Halloran, who was just at Fan Expo Chicago the previous weekend, had to cancel because he tested positive for COVID. His costar/booth-mate Jeff Anderson was “also not feeling well.” The effects of the non-protocol protocol keep right on rippling.

More updates as they occur! But hopefully they don’t!

* * * * * *

Other chapters in this very special MCC miniseries:

Part 1: A Dash of Cosplay
Part 2: Fandom Artifacts
Part 3: Apollo and the Clone Wars

autographed DVDs!

Those autograph line results.

2 responses

  1. I was actually in the front of the premium line for the Stargirl panel (not VIP) but it was good to actually meet you in person.
    Nobody at the Stargirl panel said anything about having a ticket for the signing. We didn’t learn about the ticket until we were halfway through the line. I kept my temper, and when we got home binged season 2 as we were a season behind. Looking forward to season 3 starting at the end of the month.


    • Hi, Tony! Sorry, I keep forgetting VIP and Premium were two different badges. When Fan Expo first added the Stargirl panel to the schedule on the Wednesday before the con, the announcement on their official Facebook page (as opposed to the Fan Expo private FB group) carried the info about the posters and autograph tickets. I hadn’t been watching their official page, but Anne was, so she saw it and we lucked out.


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