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The best part about Comic-Con? The celebrity encounters and fandom-affirming stories

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Jul 23, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

In a normal world, this column would have been written on my flight from Miami to San Diego as I journeyed to my 14th consecutive San Diego Comic-Con. Of course, nothing about our world is "normal" right now.

Thankfully, the tireless people who run SDCC have made lemonade out of the basket of lemons 2020 has delivered with Comic-Con@Home. However, I am still severely bummed to not be in the Gaslamp District this year. That's partially for selfish reasons, as I would have been hosting a panel linked to the debut of SYFY WIRE's first original documentary, Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won't, which drops Saturday at 11PM ET on SYFY (shameless plug, I know. But I'm a producer on the film and hey, we've all got bills to pay). I would have also been doing publicity for my next book, which was due to come out this fall.

Sometimes, life happens. All you can do is try to keep up.

I used to dream about going to San Diego back in the days when all I knew about it were the brief mentions in the Bullpen Bulletins in Marvel Comics. It took me four years to convince my boss at WNBC-TV in New York City to send me out West to cover Comic-Con. I've been back every year since, and along the way, I've been fortunate to score some unforgettable memories and stories that have earned me at least one or two courtesy chuckles, and even the occasional "attaboy!" Here are a few that come to mind:

Credit: Mike Avila

Two years ago, I had my daughters jump out of the Hilton Bayfront pool and run up soaking wet to meet Dove Cameron outside the SYFY WIRE studio suite. She was in San Diego promoting the Marvel Rising animated series, and she's awesome as Ghost Spider. But to my girls, she was and always will be Mal from The Descendants. Miss Cameron, thanks for being cool with my girls and earning me Cool Dad points that will never expire.

My first year attending SDCC was 2007, and I was inside Hall H when Jon Favreau showed that now-legendary first look at Iron Man. To me, the excitement inside that room after the footage was shown marked the birth of the MCU. But the moment that gave me legit goosebumps came later on that day during that legendary Paramount panel when it was revealed Leonard Nimoy would return as Spock in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. I was standing just offstage thanks to dumb luck and a friendly security guard, and Nimoy himself brushed right past me on his way to the stage. The cheers from the crowd after he said, "Live long and prosper" may be the purest form of fandom affection I've ever witnessed.

Credit: Mike Avila

The next year, a publicist for Race to Witch Mountain wanted to strangle me with my mic cable after I wrecked the timing of her press line by trash-talking Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson about University of Miami football (I went to Florida State University, Miami's arch-rival school). He went full "People's Champ" on me and dropped a verbal smackdown that included at least one good-natured "candy ass," all while Carla Gugino stood there laughing at us.

Then there was the time in 2015 I was able to cross "get photobombed by an NBA All-Star" off my bucket list. Who knew Dwight Howard liked to get his Nerd on?

I was lucky enough to talk with NFL icon Joe Namath in 2018 as he helped relaunch the fabled Mego toy line. When he left our interview room, there were about 20 veteran tech guys from the other interview suites at the Hilton waiting just to say "hi" to him. Decades later, Broadway Joe was still the center of attention.

I shared this one on Twitter recently, but in 2011 I was scrambling to get to some post-Hall H interviews (back when they still happened in the outdoor space of the convention center) and I had to crowd into an elevator full of huge dudes who did not want me inside. Thankfully, the skinny guy with great hair standing in the middle said it was fine. That skinny guy was Robert Pattinson. The vampire genre seems to bring me luck at Comic-Con (more on that later).

Then there are the interviews. I've done a couple of those in San Diego.

In 2012, I talked with Mark Hamill and Stan Lee in the same press room, and I can't for the life of me remember what they were promoting. I just recall Hamill laughing as I told him about my hard-fought negotiations with my wife to get Leia for our daughter's middle name.

I've been lucky to meet lots of actors whose work I love, but meeting Lee Majors in 2016 was something special. This guy was not only a superstar from my childhood, but he inspired one of my favorite action figures! Sorry Stone Cold, but this is the only Steve Austin I recognize.

Credit: Tara Bennett

Sundays are always tough in San Diego because you're fried from four straight days of press, parties, and other nonsense. The first time I ever interviewed The Wicked + The Divine creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie was on a Sunday, the last day of SDCC 2017. Our suite was, as usual, in the Hilton Bayfront. Gillen arrived first, and as he entered the room, said out loud, "You know what happiness is? Waking up after a night of too much drinking, remembering you have a morning interview, and then realizing it's in your hotel!"

My talks with the cast of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have never not been fun, because those actors make the most of their Comic-Con time. In 2016, Liz Henstridge and Chloe Bennet decided to carry random props during the interview... just because they could.

Credit: Mike Avila

The Saturday night Entertainment Weekly party was and remains the crown jewel of the Con party circuit. It's been the source of a few notable Con moments for me and I'm sure many others.

The guest list for that bash has always been next-level tough to get on. But back when SYFY co-hosted the event, I was running a movie show for NBCUniversal, so I had a smidgen of pull. I used every bit of it to get into that party. That led me to having drinks one year with Admiral Adama himself, Edward James Olmos, regaling Joe Morton (then of Eureka, always from Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and myself with stories from his days on Miami Vice and how his inadvertent hardball negotiating tactics with Michael Mann scored him a big payday and creative control of his character.

At the EW party in 2009, I was talking to an actor I knew well from various Broadway shows and asked him what he was doing at Comic-Con. Matthew Morrison laughed and said, "I have no idea! I'm starring on a new show on Fox called Glee and they told us to come here to promote it!"

At that same party, I and several PR folks cornered Lost star Matthew Fox and took him from the party to one of the hotel suites that border the pool at the Solamar (the hotel where the bash used to be held before it moved to the Hard Rock Hotel) so he could sing "Happy Birthday" to one of SYFY's top PR folks, Maureen Granados. Thanks for being a good sport, Matthew!

(Note: I could have filled this entire column with embarrassing stories of famous people who got too inebriated at Comic-Con parties, but I will save those for another time when I'm feeling pettier and more vindictive.)

Two more Comic-Con Dad stories. Where else but Comic-Con could I interview Neil Gaiman (in 2013) and then sit down and listen to him read me his new children's book, Chu's Day, in honor of the recent birth of my second daughter?

My oldest daughter Alexia inherited the collector gene from me. In 2017, I took her to one of my favorite Comic-Con traditions, the Hasbro breakfast on the first day of the Con. The Hasbro staff are always nice to everyone, but they treated Alexia like a queen. They gave her so many My Little Pony toys she had something for every kid in her class. She definitely got some jealous side-eye from the Bronies at that year's breakfast.

The 2010 Con had its good and bad moments. The bad? My iPhone literally blew up during an interview I was doing with Matt Reeves about Let Me In. Like, sparks actually shot out of it because I was using one of the portable batteries that had become a popular convention party giveaway. I had to scramble to the Apple store to get a replacement, and it took so long I missed the Green Lantern panel. Actually, in hindsight, it doesn't seem so bad.

I made it back to Hall H later that same day to watch the Avengers assemble onstage. I don't cover Hall H anymore because that's a young man's game, but that day, I was there in a sea of humanity waiting for the geek version of The Beatles to come together. We all went bonkers. Holy repulsor rays, the vibe inside that room was incredible. It remains my favorite Hall H moment — and my last. I've literally not stepped foot in there since.

For me personally, no show has provided more fun Comic-Con memories than Game of Thrones. There was the year I had a beer with the Red Viper, Pedro Pascal...

credit: Mike Avila

And the half-dozen photos I've taken looking ridiculous on the Iron Throne at the annual GOT exhibit in the Gaslamp District.

Which reminds me of 2012. I somehow wound up behind the velvet rope in the VIP area of the HBO/Playboy party with the cast of True Blood and Thrones. Yes, there actually was a velvet rope, presumably to keep all the women from attacking Joe Manganiello, who was decked out in skin-tight stone-washed denim. Then, Emilia Clarke and Rose Leslie showed up a bit later.

Later on, I saw Seth MacFarlane standing not far away, and it looked like he had been cornered by a couple of Family Guy super-fans, so I threw him a lifeline and said something like, "Yo, Seth! Come here! Someone wants to meet you," and got him into our little VIP section. He came on over and then I made a joke like, "Wouldn't you much rather be here with Emilia Clarke?"

Instagram: @MikeAvila

And that's how I became a celebrity matchmaker and *kinda/sorta/maybe/not really at all* helped set up Emilia Clarke and Seth MacFarlane for their brief romance. Of course, I didn't know until weeks later that they had actually started dating. But it began that night in San Diego, so I'm taking the damn credit.

Those are some of my favorite Comic-Con memories. Who's got some good stories? Find me on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram and spill the beans.

Don't forget that Behind the Panel is a multi-platform series that can help keep you entertained during these strange and stressful times we're in. Our video series is loaded with my in-depth interviews with amazing comic book creators. The Behind the Panel podcast is an audio documentary series that provides unique insight into your favorite creators and stories. Check 'em out, we think you'll enjoy them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.