Each day of the four-day pop culture confab, congoers trudging across the train tracks separating downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp district from the massive Convention Center passed by Sanders himself—well, in the form of a cardboard cut-out.
“I’m sure he would love Comic-Con. He likes being with people,” said Mike Thaller, a member of the local San Diego For Bernie Sanders 2016. “And where else can you meet 130,000 people at once but Comic-Con?
Cardboard Bernie was flanked by a small but passionate group of stumpers preaching the Bernie gospel to anyone who would listen, including a Princess Leia cosplayer. Like their wild-haired leader, the Bernie boosters thought outside of the box when they started planning their Con appearance two weeks ago.
To connect with the geek masses, they even created a poster of Sanders as Doc Brown from Back to the Future, whom he resembles so closely many a meme has been wrought from the likeness.
Alas, the group left Doc Bernie at home and attempted to capture the zeitgeist with a Mad Max-themed Bernie graphic. “It didn’t go over that well,” Thaller sighed. They did however issue 1,500 Bernie stickers and posters along with Sanders’s 12-point plan—although it’s worth noting that anyone will take just about anything handed to them while slogging through the crowds at Comic-Con.
Still, Team Sanders was satisfied with their work. “It’s been very, very positive. Everybody is upbeat and cheerful, a lot of Bernie fans and very few anti-Bernie people,” Thaller reported, adding that the Bern-man would totally have come down to San Diego himself if not for his schedule. “His people said he would be here, but he’s got to concentrate on New Hampshire and stuff. But sooner or later we’ll get him.”
I’ll say this for Bernie: You didn’t hear a single peep about Hillary at Comic-Con.
Meanwhile, the contingent of Christian activists that descend on Comic-Con with signs and bullhorns every year to save the geeks seemed bigger than usual. A&E took note with a savvy viral stunt, sending its own army of Satanic proselytizers into the Gaslamp armed with signs promoting the upcoming antichrist series Damien.
They disseminated into the crowds, taking up posts next to Christians holding yellow Jesus signs with their own red-and-black posters. Handing out 666 buttons, they led passersby in a chant: “From flame, Damien will rise! From flame, Damien will rise!”
Richard, a stoic octogenarian from South Dakota with the yellow sign-bearers—LA-based Bible Distribution League—was holding down the most heavily trafficked post in the crossing when I approached him Sunday.
“It shows this world is coming to an end real fast,” he said of Damien and its Comic-Con street team. “It’ll be fire and brimstone. This world is going to be judged quickly.”
What about iconic comics heroes like Batman and Superman, two of the most cosplayed characters at the Con? “They too will be judged,” he told me, speaking through the megaphone affixed to his belt. “They make it easy for the Devil to manipulate people.”
Jeff, a congenial San Diegan peacefully holding two large signs featuring blown-up pictures of aborted fetuses, concurred.
“I would say 80 percent of this venue is about fantasy, the supernatural, blood, and murder,” he said. “Satan is real. Have you seen people walking around with the bags with Lucifer holding a cocktail of blood? That’s what Satan makes himself to be, a hero. That’s how he deludes men who love darkness. He makes himself out to be cool.”
Like most of Comic-Con’s Christian sign-bearers, Jeff does not own a television. But like most of America he had heard of Sansa Stark’s rape—not that he’d ever watch Game of Thrones.
I go back to DC’s iconic character Superman, created in 1938 as a superhuman alien protector that gives hope to the world while saving its people from peril. “And that’s what Jesus Christ did,” he says. “He is the greatest superhero, because he’s actually alive. He walked the earth like you and me.”
Jeff does, on occasion, watch movies. “I just watched a fascinating documentary about the Harry Potter series,” he enthused. “It told about what Harry Potter is about and how it’s teaching little children how to cast spells and is indoctrinating children into playing with demons.”
Ten broomsticks’ length away from Jeff stands Douglas, a campus preacher who usually rocks his “Don’t Be Comic-Conned: Your Life Is Not Fiction, Get Right With Jesus” sign at the annual confab. This year he’s wielding a sign proclaiming to have proof that God created the planets.
As the Sunday crowds swelled, I find him arguing with a blonde Tomb Raider cosplayer dressed like Lara Croft who eventually stamps off in frustration.
Like most of the Christian activists at the Con, he’s not a film or television watcher. A massive Heroes: Reborn activation looms 100 feet away from where Douglas has been holding his sign for days. “I don’t know what that is,” he admits. “I’m almost completely ignorant of what these people do.”
Behind him, Game of Thrones banners plaster the train tracks. I explain to him the drama and dragon-filled world of Westeros. “It doesn’t sound like I’m missing much,” he laughs. “I remember Superman from when I was a kid. It was a nice idea, that there was somebody out there who could do that. But it’s fiction. It’s not real. That’s why I stopped reading it when I was 8 years old.”
That didn’t stop 99 percent of the Comic-Con crowd, I point out. “Yeah, it kinda makes me wonder. I think if a person needs escape in fantasy, or escape in anything, it shows that there’s something wrong with their life.”
According to Douglas, the nerd populace at Comic-Con tends to react particularly strongly to his argument that the Big Bang Theory is scientifically unsound. “I say, okay, well what produced that? That’s when they get evasive,” he tells me with a grin.
Decades ago as a student at Orange Coast College, he says, he overheard a cabal of professors plotting the gay agenda. “Their solution to the overpopulation problem was to encourage homosexuality,” he said. “I feel like they were totally successful.”
That’s precisely the hot-button issue Isidro Mendoza is shouting about as a crowd gathers nearby—half of them incensed, the rest watching to see what happens. Two uniformed San Diego police officers stand close by, ready to step in if things get violent.
Mendoza also frequents Hollywood Boulevard and campuses like UCLA with his brand of highly aggressive street preaching. Here, whether or not he realizes it, he’s technically cosplaying: Pacing next to an 8-foot-tall Holy Bible prop, he’s dressed in army fatigues and a combat helmet, armed with his most powerful weapon: a bullhorn. He’s come to Comic-Con not to reach the nerd masses, but because Comic-Con has become such an enormous event.
“As the saying goes, kill two birds with one stone,” he explains. “And there’s more than two birds here.”
The self-described “Soldier for Christ” is dressed for battle today, but he likes to mix it up. “Sometimes when I go to UCLA I put on a doctor’s outfit. Sometimes I change it up and wear an orange prison jumpsuit,” he says. “It all comes down to the same thing: We’re all sick.”
On his bullhorn, encircled by opponents ranging from a guy in a Deadpool suit to a feisty and visibly upset tween girl, Mendoza is hands-down the most aggressive Christian on the block yelling accusations into the crowd with a hostile theatricality.“I’m not familiar with hardly any of them,” he says of the hundreds of comics, movies, and television shows marketed this year at Comic-Con. “But I know what’s going on. They promote idolatry. They promote death. There are demons behind them. Yes, there are demons. That’s what Satan loves. [A comic book] might seem insignificant but there’s power behind it, there are spirits.”
One of Mendoza’s big targets is the celebrity machine; he’s the second proselytizer to name-drop Lady Gaga to me as an example of Hollywood’s most corrupt influencers. (Coincidentally, right after, Glee creator Ryan Murphy dropped a Gaga shout-out during Sunday’s American Horror Story panel.)
“These actors and the movie industry will blatantly say they sold their soul to the Devil. You Google it, it’s in there. Lady Gaga or Michael Jackson, you see them doing this Satanic sign. Most of them have sold their soul to the Devil and that’s how they get stardom. Google it.”
Has he ever seen Game of Thrones? Negative. The Walking Dead? He’s heard of it. What about socially progressive pop properties like The X-Men, which has long been one of comicdom’s more obvious LGBT parallels and outed superhero Iceman in April?
“They’re using these actors, these gimmicks, to get into the mind of the human race and say [same-sex marriage] is okay. The Bible warns of that: False teachers in the last days.”
He points to Gaga’s pride anthem “Born This Way” and “Bruce Jenner, which just had a sex transplant [sic]. All of this is coming down to the last days.”
As Comic-Con attendees filtered away from the Convention Center through Religion Alley like Hunger Games survivors bouncing from one assault on the senses to another, much friendlier throngs gravitated to two college-aged men dressed in Hasidic garb.
Stationed next to a porta potty transformed into a promotional installation for Lionsgate’s sci-fi sequel Insurgent, the young rabbis repping the local Chabad were offering mitzvahs to passersby and hosted a Shabbos dinner for weary congoers.
“As you know, Comic-Con was started by a Jew. A lot of these things—Batman, Superman, Spider-Man—were all created by Jewish people,” said Zalman Abend. “We are here to help find the Jews.”