Every year, a handful of people see every sword, spear, gun, and hammer that makes it to the floor of Comic-Con – and a few that don't. Halfway down the convention center, at a small booth labeled "costume weapons check," a steady trickle of characters from every conceivable fandom wait for security to give them the all-clear. Most cosplayers won’t go through it, but if you’re carrying anything that looks like it could hurt someone, it goes to weapons check. If it's deadly in fiction but safe in real life, it gets a small, shiny blue band. If there's a significant chance of injuring a fellow con-goer with it, it doesn't go in — and making the call isn’t as easy as just sifting out real-world weapons.
"We look at thousands of different types of weapons."
Weapons check supervisor Jaime Limon is closing in on his fourth year of Comic-Con security, and he remains surprisingly excited about essentially being the cosplay TSA. "We look at thousands of different types of weapons," he said. "We get a lot of simulated guns, knives and stuff, but people take apart computers, take the components off, add them to different tubes – it's kind of hard to explain in one sentence what the most interesting thing we've seen is."
When I showed up at the weapons check, there was a short line of attendees waiting patiently to hand over their weapons. Hawkeye's quiver: tagged. Captain America's water pistol: tagged. Indiana Jones' whip: tagged, along with his son's child-sized katana. A lot of ornamental swords and daggers: mostly tagged. In light of their overwhelming popularity, you can in fact bring sharpened blades onto the show floor, but only after some necessary compromises. Weapon checkers will add a protective wrapping to sharp edges, Limon said, and after that, all swords have to be strapped firmly into their scabbards.
In reality, those two precautions seem a little scattershot. Nobody else I talked to mentioned the covering, so protection basically amounted to a row of zip ties around the hilt and scabbard. "Is that thing sharp?" I asked one T-shirt-clad fan with a purple and black katana slung across his arm. "Yeah," he answered, demonstrating the ties by trying to pull it out. The hilt cracked and the blade came loose from its scabbard. He looked down sheepishly, turning slightly away from the weapons check. "I didn’t do that."
The weapons check didn't include a locked back room full of lethal props
By mid-morning on Friday, one Tolkienesque short sword hadn't made the cut — the guard said it couldn’t be tied into its scabbard. It sat under a table, hidden from view until its owner left the hall. But to my slight disappointment, the weapons check didn't include a locked back room full of lethal props. The only other confiscated item I saw was a large, metal-bladed shovel, shoved haphazardly into the back of the booth. And the actual screenings don't take long, both because Comic-Con is meant for fans and because, simply put, most prop weapons aren't more dangerous than any other hard object. "We had an assault one time where somebody stabbed a guy with a pen," Limon said. "So anything can be used as a weapon."
There's a list of basic prohibited items at Comic-Con: the convention website tells cosplayers not to bring anything that can fire a projectile, and weapon inspectors named specific objects like metal replica grenades as forbidden. One year, Limon said a fan brought a nearly-functional AK-47, hoping it would be admissible with the firing pin removed. (It wasn't.) Beyond the most obvious cases, though, it comes down to making a call on strange, beautiful, and potentially dangerous props, plenty of which look like nothing the weapons police or security guards usually deal with – though the inspectors usually have some kind of law enforcement background.
One year, a fan brought a nearly-functional AK-47, hoping it would be admissible with the firing pin removed
"We had a guy that took a Volkswagen bug and chopped it into different areas, and then he put the parts on: the front bumpers, different types of radiators, and so on, to make him look like one of the Transformers," said Limon. In another case, "this girl took a porcelain sink, and she used the components of it to make this kind of futuristic weapon. I would never have identified it as being pieces of plumbing if she hadn't pointed it out – and apparently she spent almost three and a half months to create this kind of... staff... futuristic time warp machine."
At least a few fans chafe at the system. A mallet-wielding Harley Quinn posed for me as she got out of line, one hand strategically placed over the tag. "Yeah, I always have to cover it up," she said. The katana bearer was annoyed that they’d been vague about sword policy. Most people, though, took it in stride. A three-person tactical team said offhandedly they’d tagged at least 10 weapons between them.
Good cosplay always prompts a bit of a double-take, giving you the feeling that your world has been momentarily invaded by something weird. The critical mass of characters at Comic-Con adds another layer, exposing a giant cross-section of the nerd collective unconscious where Batwoman is friends with Solid Snake and a thousand Deadpools roam San Diego's Gaslamp district. And the weapons check is like some kind of surreal bureaucratic stopgap, designed to let these fictional worlds converge. Are you a world-warping demigod? Fine. But you're going to have to tag your staff just like everybody else.