A guard from Squid Game shuffles quietly down the halls of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for Fan Expo.
Scarlet Witch from WandaVision looks back and forth at the branching alleyways to shop for goodies. A live-action Ahsoka Tano from The Mandalorian strolls along Front Street, cradling her lightsabres in one arm and a Baby Yoda doll in the other. A warrior from the Predator franchise looms over a staff member to scan a plastic pass. Shang-Chi makes a slow, but welcome entrance down the escalators to join other Marvel icons in the South Hall.
It’s a familiar sight for many Torontonians seeing these characters at home. Returning guests for Fan Expo 2021 were transported back two years ago, when the last in-person convention ran without a mention of social distancing or glass panels.
This year’s Limited Edition Fan Expo didn’t stop guests from making Toronto’s biggest pop culture gathering feel traditional. Starting with a mix of casual visitors and costumed fans coming in-person for the first time since 2019. Comic book vendors opened hundreds of boxes for sale as collectors flipped through new and vintage prints.
It also fills a gap left by Fan Expo’s cancellation in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic increased lockdown and distancing measures. Organizers ultimately cancelled the Limited Edition event for 2020, transferring tickets to the next possible Expo. After nearly two years, guests had the opportunity to show up as anyone they wanted.
“It’s just so amazing to be here,” said Richard Baccari, who waited two years to bring himself back to Fan Expo. But he didn’t just attend the event as himself. He instead, roamed the halls as a Borg from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series. The fully modelled costume would assimilate Baccari into a culture of cosplaying—becoming characters which inspired him.
Like other cosplayers, his Borg costume was kept under wraps until Fan Expo. Across the lockdown, Baccari would spend three to four hours a day adding new details to the iconic Star Trek enemy, first introduced in 1989. This was also something younger and bewildered Fan Expo guests asked him more about.
“They’re awestruck by it. And they want to know how it was made,” Baccari said.
“It’s nice to be able for them to see something that they can look to, aspire to and have some ideas about their future creativity and for them to know that anybody can have something like this,” he added.
Baccari was among other cosplayers coming into a different kind of Fan Expo. Guests still followed a tradition of passing through the alleyways of traffic. But under the event’s new social distancing measures, Fan Expo 2021 would open the entire lower hall for spacing. Though thousands poured into Fan Expo’s two main halls, only guests with proof of vaccination could attend. This would help guests, including Benjamin McEachrane settle back into the convention life, one lifted restriction at a time.
“Not having it (Fan Expo) for a year, I was really missing out,” said McEachrane, who traditionally attends with a three-day cosplay plan. Since 2011, he has been familiar with the floors of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which has regularly hosted Fan Expo.
“But it’s really cool to see how the space has changed and how they’re accommodating COVID and I think everybody’s been pretty safe so far. And I’m really excited to sort of ease my way back,“ he added.
The Limited Edition Fan Expo makes a few cuts to its program, starting with digital-only tickets which quickly sold out before Day One. Other participating venues, including Hasbro, EB Games, Nintendo and Ubisoft are also be missing from the 2021 edition. This adds a void for guests looking forward to trying upcoming video games and buying them on-site. Games would be a bigger sacrifice for Fan Expo organizers this year, following the Ontario Government’s guidelines.
A smaller number of businesses would also form up Fan Expo’s iconic alleys for shopping. Most notably, the comic stands, which let customers buy vintage comics and find new interests by meeting independent authors. The event gives guests a variety of toys, media and collectibles to find. Going deeper into the alley would uncover the Expo’s more exclusive, but easier to access items such as prop weapons, custom costumes and rare Funko Pop bobbleheads.
Selina Muriel greeted guests from her booth Carmico, which hosts a mix of wearable and home antiquities. Fan Expo 2021 brought Muriel back with a recharged presence. This venture would be fuelled by annual visits, which would help her discover the interests of potential customers. It would also grow her follower base, which moved operations from a basement to an online fulfillment.
“You can’t see people smile and have that kind of connection. But honestly it’s not that different,” said Muriel, referring to every guest having vaccinations and excitement in common.
“As something that I’ve done since I was 15. This is something that’s just so pivotal to my being as a person,” she added. “I just feel so alive and myself being here again. And I do miss having done it last year, but I think that gap really helped to show me how much I love these shows.”
Muriel, also a graduate of Sheridan’s Game Design program in 2021, added she shared some gripes about its cancelled video game attractions, for the second year in a row since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You could try out so many different games that were yet to come out, which I really missed,” Muriel said, calling back to League of Legends and Valorant studio Riot Games drawing in Fan Expo gamers in 2014 and 2015. “So you’re just missing out on those big exhibitions because it’s more of like just the marketplace that’s here right now.”
“I was really worried that there weren’t going to be gaming booths and honestly that’s the biggest thing I’m missing,” said Brandon Clark, who cosplayed as Mario from Super Mario Sunshine and hoped to click with fellow gamers there.
Fan Expo’s lack of gaming attractions, including the EB Games pop-up shop, would be a contrast to its 2018 edition. It was a special time Clark hoped to re-experience as a Mega Man cosplayer playing the demo for Mega Man 11.
This year, Clark would still work through Fan Expo’s compromises. The most notable changes include a lack of chairs for main events featuring Q&A’s with actors like William Shatner, Stephen Amell and Ray Fisher. Starting with a meticulously crafted Mario head inspired by the character’s first 3D appearance in 1996’s Super Mario 64. He also stood near Fan Expo’s main stage, which would still give audiences the chance to hear from notable actors. Given they could stand for hours or sit on the floor without chairs provided this year.
“I’m just making the best of it. I mean, it’s been a long time,” Clark said.
“The staff here is doing their best to try and put on the best show they can. So I’m trying to think less about the things disappointing me and just being happy with what we get to do.”
For McEachrane, connecting with other cosplayers would be a special vibe only felt outside of home. More importantly, it was his Black Panther costume on Day One which would highlight his trip with other cosplayers.
“It’s really exciting as well, because there’s been a whole year of content that we haven’t really been able to talk or gush about,” he said, referring to millions of Torontonians and pop culture aficionados streaming new films and series at home for a year.
“Then come back to everybody’s excitement not only for the con, but you have a whole bunch of new things to talk about, right? And so it’s a lot easier to make new friends. And that’s the best part about conventions,” he added.
“This kind of energy. You can’t beat it and it’s so nice to be back.”