Three Days That Changed Comic Book Convention Security Forever

Stormtrooper cosplayers at Phoenix Comicon
Credit: Brian Pulido

Matt Solberg’s professional life changed on May 25. That was the day Matthew Sterling, a 29-year-old Mesa, Ariz. man was arrested at the Phoenix Comicon while carrying four loaded guns and a knife. Sterling claimed to be a real-life version of the Marvel Comics character The Punisher. He was making threatening comments on social media, and was reportedly looking for a “showdown” with police.

Just two days earlier, Martha Donato’s professional life changed on May 23. That was the day after 22-year-old Salman Ramadan Abedi detonated a homemade bomb at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England in which 23 people died and more than 200 were injured.

Solberg and Donato are not law-enforcement officials or terrorism experts, but rather, owner/operators of comic conventions. And over the span of three days, the world of security at events—especially events where people are invited to come dressed in elaborate costumes that include weapons—changed drastically.

Credit: Jim McLauchlin

On the Phoenix end, a ban on prop weapons was immediately put into place - no easy feat for a convention that was already underway. Matt Solberg and his team at Phoenix Comicon also limited points of entry into the Phoenix Convention Center, and set up additional screening outside the building.

Martha Donato’s Long Beach Comic Con is upcoming on Sep. 2-3, but she knows changes will have to be made. The same management company that operates the Manchester Arena also operates the Long Beach Convention Center.

“The very next day [after the Grande concert], we got a call from SMG and they said, ‘This is going to require some pretty significant re-thinking of our security policies.’ I talked to them again two weeks later, and we are going to have to do some things,” Donato says.

SMG is no joke. The company manages 55 arenas and 70 convention centers in the U.S. alone, including the Louisiana Superdome and Chicago’s sprawling McCormick Place. They manage venues that host thousands of sporting events and concerts a year, and the new face of comic convention security will look similar to going to an NFL game or a concert.

“We aren’t going to be able to allow prop weapons,” Donato says. “We don’t have the official directive form the management company on that yet, but it is coming. We want and we need to let people know that they are safe. And they are; they will be. These measures will make everyone safer.”

There is a huge feeling of having just dodged a metaphorical—and thankfully not literal—bullet.

“This is the nightmare that comic con organizers and fans have been afraid of,” Solberg says. “We’ve been afraid that there would be a shooting or a bombing at one of our conventions. No one got hurt here, but enhanced screening procedures, metal detectors, backpack checks, prop weapon restrictions, all that is now going to be the norm. It’s going to be the same as going to a concert. And the end result is, the shows are going to be safer.”

Fans may not be happy with the potential of longer lines, additional screening, or a directive to leave their sword at home. But those decisions are largely no longer in the hands of the convention promoters—they’re now being made by facilities and law enforcement. Within minutes of the Phoenix incident, Solberg was in a meeting with those powers-that be.

“As far as the enhanced screening procedures that got put into place, that was predominantly managed and controlled by the convention center and the Phoenix Police Department,” he says. “They are the ones who came up with, ‘In light of what took place, here’s the new process, and here’s what we’d like to do.’ These meetings started Thursday afternoon, and we needed to do this beginning Friday morning.”

The cost, alas, fell to Solberg and the con.

“It was a significant amount of money we had to spend in basically a 12-hour period,” he says. “We had to add more security personnel, barricades, traffic control. We had to source and rent magnetic wands.”

Donato sees that kind of expenditure as another change in the game.

Credit: Jim McLauchlin

“Expenses will go up,” she says. “It’s a serious burden on the large conventions. New York Comic Con, San Diego…their expenses will get much higher. It will be less so for the smaller cons. And that will fall to the convention owners. All that expense is ours. Period. And we will have to examine our prices. It’s a real-world, hard cost, bottom-line expense.”

In comic conventions, the 800-pound gorilla is always Comic-Con International: San Diego. Show organizers did not respond directly to questions regarding their 2017 con, offering only written statements that mentioned, among other things, an onsite police command post at the convention center during the con. All indications are that SDCC will allow non-functional props and weapons, subject to their approval. The convention is adding a second costume props inspection desk outside for 2017. And Solberg is careful with his language. Phoenix Comicon banned prop weapons in the immediate following the Thursday incident for 2017. Looking to the future, he uses the term “prop weapon restrictions.”

“It’s still fluid,” he says. “It’s going to be a restriction; we just don’t know all the details yet. Again, the Phoenix Convention Center and Police Department are going to take lead on what they’re comfortable with. And we’re able to provide input, along with examples and background.”

Phoenix immediately banned “weapons of all types including simulated weapons” for the remainder of its 2017 con, but also listed items people could bring, including sonic screwdrivers, fur suits, and umbrellas. The dives went deep: An email from the con sent out the day after the incident noted that “Ghostbuster proton packs are allowed, however the Neutrino wand will need to be disconnected or permanently attached to the pack.”

For 2018, Solberg is looking forward to seeing what will and won’t be allowed at Phoenix Comicon.

“The convention center hasn’t finalized it yet, but I hope it’s soon,” he says. “As soon as they do, we’ll be posting and informing people of what the policy will be. We want people to know, so they can make whatever adjustments they can and enjoy the show.”

Credit where credit is due: In the wake of an immediate prop weapons ban, Star Wars costumers showed up at Phoenix Comicon wielding baguettes instead of blasters.

“The got into the spirit of it as best they could,” Solberg says. “It kind of forced people to be creative, and they had their own fun with it.”

Mike White thinks that’s the way to go. White is a recently retired 24-year veteran of the Bridgewater, N.J. police department. He’s a lifelong comic fan and art collector who, these days, travels to 16-18 conventions a year.

“Cosplay is the norm in comic book conventions, but I think allowing weapons in any form into events like this is a very big mistake,” he says. “Even simulated weapons should not be allowed. It’s too easy to sneak a real weapon into a show. You can’t take that chance.”

Solberg thinks the changing landscape “is going to have an effect on the retail portion of the industry. Some of the vendors selling swords might not be able to do that anymore. The facilities might not allow it, or the organizers might just think it’s not worth it.”

White agrees. He thinks banning weapons from coming in, then selling them on the floor constitutes “an even greater risk.” Some conventions have already responded, well before the events of May, 2017. Wizard World and its dozen-plus shows had already instituted a policy that allowed vendors to sell swords and knives, but purchases had to immediately be handed over to Wizard personnel. Buyers could claim the items with a receipt at the convention center exit upon leaving.

But one retail door closing might open a new window: Easley’s Fun Shop was an exhibitor at Phoenix Comicon, and was doing a very brisk business selling inflatable weapons.

And security means more than just weapons. On May 28, the final day of Megacon Orlando, exhibitors were sent an email warning that the con had intercepted a number of counterfeit exhibitor badges. The email warned that fake badges might be used to access the show floor outside of con hours, and stated that vendors who were reproducing exhibitor badges had already been removed. Similarly, an email sent by San Diego Comic-Con to exhibitors on July 11 cautioned that “Due to heightened security and safety concerns it is more important than ever that all exhibitors only use their Exhibitor badges for those company employees that need them in order to set-up, maintain or dismantle their booth.”

The logistics may be more challenging, but Matt Solberg is sure comic conventions will still exist, largely as they do today.

“I can’t see a convention center saying, ‘We’re not going to do a comic con,’” he says. “It’s too lucrative between floor rent, concession sales, and just the positive image for the city. I can see them saying, ‘We will. We’re just going to have additional procedures and standards in place for that.’ Within a year’s time, this will become the norm. Conventions will make changes to accommodate the facilities’ needs, and attendees will adapt. A year from now, it’s not even going to be a thing. Fans will adapt, and we’ll all still enjoy.”

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