WonderCon Wanderings …

I will be attending WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center this weekend (April 1-3, if you’re reading this later), and it will be the first time I’ve attended the event as a “civilian.” I’ve been going to the show for twenty years, in four different cities: Oakland, San Francisco, Anaheim, and Los Angeles, and for the time between 2001 and 2019 (the last year the event was held), I had been an employee of Comic-Con International, which owns and operates the show. (I also participated in 2020’s WonderCon@Home online event.)

WonderCon started as the Wonderful World of Comics Convention back in 1987, put on by a group of comics enthusiasts in the Bay Area. For many years it was in a small convention center/hotel in Oakland. By the time WonderCon changed hands in 2001, the show was down to two of its original owners, Bay Area retailer Joe Field and comics writer/publisher/agent Mike Friedrich. Comic-Con purchased the show in 2001 and held its first event in 2002, keeping it at the Oakland Convention Center for that first year. At that point in time, I was Comic-Con’s Director of Programming, and one of the highlights of that year was that both John Romita and John Romita Jr. were guests, and they talked about Sam Raimi’s upcoming Spider-Man movie, which was released about a month later, in May 2002.

WonderCon was always known as a great comics show, and Comic-Con did it’s best to keep that going throughout the years with a plethora of amazing creators as guests. Its position in the early spring each year made it the first big show of the year. The Overstreet Price Guide was scheduled to come out around WonderCon time, making it a must-attend event for comics dealers because comic book values were about to change. Hollywood was a little slow to grasp WonderCon’s appeal, but they eventually came around, especially once the event moved to San Francisco’s Moscone Center (in 2002), which was Comic-Con’s game plan from the beginning. The show had Tobey Maguire in 2004 for Spider-Man 2, a very rare convention appearance by Christian Bale for Batman Begins in 2005, J.J. Abrams for Mission Impossible III (he premiered the bridge sequence from that film, where Tom Cruise and company are attacked by the bad guys rescuing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character), and Bryan Singer, who introduced a slightly shell-shocked Brandon Routh as the new Superman for Superman Returns. Zack Snyder brought both 300 in 2007 (and Phantom of the Opera star Gerard Butler, much to the pleasure of a larger group of Butler-loving women—not the typical WonderCon attendees at the time—first in line to enter the Embarcadero Room), and Watchmen in 2009. In fact, some fans were treated to previews of both films in a nearby theater, about a week or so before they were released.

The Embarcadero Room at Moscone Center South in San Francisco, around 2005. That’s Kevin Smith holding court during a WonderCon panel.

I loved Moscone Center South, where WonderCon was headquartered for most of its time in San Francisco (the show was also in North and West, but neither building was as good a fit as South). Moscone Center South had a lobby level that overlooked the entrance to the main exhibition halls beneath, and there were “pods” that jutted out over the lower lobby, which management took over; the pods were semi-circular and lined with plush couches that wrapped all the way around, and it was great to sit there and people watch as they went up and down the escalators to the Exhibit Hall. When they remodeled Moscone Center South in 2011, WonderCon moved to Anaheim and while the plan was always to move back, it never happened. Moscone could never seem to find dates for the show.

The show continued to grow in Anaheim and the Hollywood movie and TV studios gravitated towards an event in their backyard. The comics presence always included big booths for DC, IDW, and BOOM Studios!, but Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image (except for Skybound, Robert Kirkman’s imprint) mostly stayed away. Sadly this year, there is no big comics booth presence. I think a lot of the comics publishers are still feeling their way out of the pandemic. DC seems to have put everything they have into their own FanDome online event. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to death of watching stuff on YouTube and seeing multiple tiny Zoom screens. Yes, the content is there, but it’s not the same as a live convention experience. I don’t know that DC, with its every-changing owners, will ever be able to once again embrace the idea of having a gigantic booth at a convention again. To me, it was the end of an era when the DC booth went away at Comic-Con in 2019, only to be absorbed into the Warner Bros. booth and to occupy just a tiny sliver of that. I don’t think the company’s new corporate masters understand the idea of conventions and how they allow fans and creators to interact and fuel both groups’ passions, but that’s probably a long post for another day, post-WonderCon.

Some of my favorite WonderCon program book covers (l to r): Ryan Sook’s “Trinity” cover from 2012, the first year the show was in Anaheim; Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman from 2014; Babs Tarr’s Batgirl from 2015; and Jen Bartel’s Wonder Woman from 2020, finally introduced to the world in 2022. The Chiang and Tarr covers ended up being DC Ominbus covers, but first appeard at WonderCon. Characters ™ & © DC.

By the time the event moved to Anaheim, I was in my sixth year as Director of Print and Digital Media. My job responsibilities included editing and designing the WonderCon program books and I had the opportunity from 2007 through 2020 to work with some amazing comic artists, including Ryan Sook, Jim Lee, Cliff Chiang, Babs Tarr, Michael Cho, Dan Jurgens, and Lee Weeks. The 2022 program book cover is by Jen Bartel and features Wonder Woman. That was the last cover I worked on and it was originally for WonderCon 2020, which was cancelled due to the pandemic. Thankfully, they’re using that cover for the 2022 show, and it’s truly my favorite of all the covers I worked on.

Anaheim is a great place to hold a show. The Anaheim Convention Center, with a new North Hall added in 2019, is the largest facility on the West Coast and its proximity to Disneyland, California Adventure Park, and other Anaheim attractions, makes it somewhat like downtown San Diego: There are a lot of hotel options and restaurant choices when you walk out the door at the end of the day. The ACC also offers that beautiful fountain area out front, which is ideal (weather permitting) for cosplay photo opportunities, and a long plaza that features some of the best in Southern California food trucks for the run of the show. WonderCon has prospered in Anaheim (despite a one-year construction-enforced exile to the god-forsaken Los Angeles Convention Center) and the show is a fun, smaller version of Comic-Con. While this will definitely be a year that’s still influenced by the pandemic, there’s still a lot to offer, including a great programming schedule with a number of big TV-oriented programs (Naomi, Superman and Lois, Fear the Walking Dead, Kung Fu, WB TV Showrunners) and a lot of the mainstays of both CCI and WC: the Comic Arts Conference, Comic and Game Creator Connection, Comic Book Law School (but sadly no Quick Draw or other Mark Evanier-moderated panels), spotlights on some great guests (including my friends Tula Lotay and Michael Cho), and much more. No Arena this year, the big, domed building adjacent to Halls A through D, which in previous years housed the larger movie and TV events and the WonderCon Masquerade, but there will be a big room in the North Hall that will seat a lot of people, and also play host to the Masquerade on Saturday night.

This will be the first major Comic-Con show that I’ve attended as a “civilian” in 22 years. While I did go to Comic-Con Special Edition last November, that show was an anomaly for me, a veritable new kid on the block. I don’t know that anyone quite knew what to expect from that, and while it was fun and nice to visit, it certainly didn’t have the feeling of a “normal” Comic-Con or WonderCon (if any normal thing exists these days). It was more like a training wheels type of show, designed to get both attendees and staff back into the show-going mood. WonderCon has always been a smaller, calmer alternative to the Comic-Con madness, kind of a good way to dip your toe back into the con scene before the big event in July, God willing. I’ll be roaming around, digging through back issue bins, feeding my nostalgia for the comics of my youth, seeing some old friends, and attending some programs … in short, all the things I couldn’t do when I was working the show. I hope you’ll visit WonderCon 2022 and if you know me (even masked), please say hello.

I couldn’t resist this shot of Hannibal daintily dabbing his lips while eyeing one of the food trucks in the courtyard at WonderCon. Bon appéit!

All photos are by Gary Sassaman (that’s me).

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