My Life in Comics, Part 17: WonderCon—The San Francisco Years …

I have a lot of fond memories of WonderCon, San Diego Comic-Con’s sister show, which I was involved with from 2002 through 2020. I think anyone that goes to this event realizes what a great alternative it is to Comic-Con, with a more laid-back and less crowded vibe to it. Having said that, it has topped close to 70,000 attendees (including professionals and exhibitors) and was on a growth spurt since Comic-Con purchased it in 2001, with its first event in Oakland, CA in 2002, and all through its years in San Francisco at the Moscone Center.

Click all the images in this post to see them full-size on your screen.

The cover of the first Wonderful World of Comics Program Book (from the show’s second year) by Will Eisner; a cartoon by Jeff Smith tweaking the CBLDF Cruise in 2000; and a Mike Mignola multi-character cover for the tenth anniversary of the event, copyrights be damned.

WonderCon started life in 1987 as “The Wonderful World of Comics Convention,” created by a group of Bay Area retailers and comics enthusiasts, including John Barrett, Rory Root, Bob Borden, Mike Friedrich, and Bryan Uhlenbrock. Joe Field, the Concord, CA comics retailer who created Free Comic Book Day, became a partner later.

In its third year, the name of the event was mercifully shortened to WonderCon. Over the years, the show had various slogans, including “Preserving a Sense of Wonder,” “The Crossroads of Popular Culture,” and “The Nexus of All That’s Cool,” and became known as a very comics-oriented event. Its original logo (at left) was designed by Richard Bruning and—quite frankly—was a pain in the butt to work with because of its off-kilter centering. Guests during the original 15-year run of the show included Neil Gaiman, Archie Goodwin, Stan Lee, Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, George Pérez, Alex Ross, Jeff Smith, Roy Thomas, and Bruce Timm, to name just a few; the show also attracted a lot of Golden and Silver Age artists, such as Murphy Anderson, Will Eisner, Craig Flessel, Russ Heath, Bob Kane, Gil Kane, Sheldon Moldoff, Jim Mooney, Mart Nodell, Irv Novick, Dick Sprang, and Julius Schwartz. In fact, Berkeley resident Michael Chabon did a lot of research for his comics industry based Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, at WonderCon. With its usual late winter/early spring date, the show was positioned to be the first major comics convention of the year, and as such it attracted a lot of comics dealers looking to buy and sell books when the new Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide came out and the prices changed. In 2000, the show hosted a bevy of top tier guests (including Eisner, Miller, and Smith, and indy cartoonists Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine) who were part of the CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) Cruise, a fund-raising seven-day trip to Mexico, which left the Sunday of the con from Los Angeles, thus causing that final day to be a bit of a ghost town, creator-wise.

By 2001, the only remaining WonderCon partners were Field and Friedrich, and they were looking to either sell the event or stop doing it. They approached Comic-Con, who agreed to take it over. As Executive Director Fae Desmond told me in an article I compiled for the show’s 25th anniversary in 2011, “We went in with the idea that, as much as possible, we were going to run it the way it had been run in the past, so we could understand it better before making a lot of changes. We all loved it being in Oakland because it did have a very comfortable family feeling in the hotel (the Oakland Marriott City Center, which also had extended convention center space) and the surrounding area. But the lack of program space in the hotel was a limitation we couldn’t get over. Our programs are very important to us and there just wasn’t room for what we wanted to bring to the event. There were so many interesting and worthy panels we had to turn down. We decided to start looking around for another venue and Moscone Center [in San Francisco] was really the only place with enough meeting rooms and enough floor space for WonderCon.”

So 2001 was the 15th and final year for WonderCon under at least some of its original owners. The announcement was made at the 2001 show, with a couple of meetings, one with some of the bigger comics companies that were exhibitors at the event. I remember preparing a one-page info sheet and presenting it to various company representatives at that meeting, only to be screamed at by one executive because their logo was not featured on the page with the other companies. “But you only told us this morning that you were coming,” said my boss to the angry exec. (I later found out that shouting and being just generally belligerent was the standard operating procedure for not only this person, but also his boss, the owner and head of the company.) Another meeting with the comic book dealers and exhibitors was held during the evening after the Exhibit Hall closed and was also met with a certain amount of strife. Most of those exhibitors came back when Comic-Con took over but the lesson learned was simple: Change is hard.

The layout of the Oakland Marriott Convention Center, the site for Comic-Con’s first edition of WonderCon in 2002; that year’s Exhibit Hall map; and Matt Wagner’s Green Arrow cover for the Program Book.

2002 was the first WonderCon held under Comic-Con ownership (on Friday through Sunday, April 19-21), and, as you can see from the programming schedule grids down below, the immediate takeaway was “we’re going to need a bigger boat.” I was the Director of Programming for those first six WonderCons put on by Comic-Con and you can see how slight that schedule is for a three-day event. There were really only three viable rooms for programming at the Oakland Convention Center, and one of those was carved out of the Exhibit Hall space. Guests included John Romita and John Romita Jr. who gamely talked about the new Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man movie that was scheduled to come out in just a couple of weeks. That first WonderCon also saw the debut of a Comic-Con programming staple, “Quick … Draw!” hosted by Mark Evanier. It was a concept I came up with and pitched to Mark, loosely based on the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway; basically it can be summed up as cartoonist improv. Mark would come up with funny situations and artists would draw them live, projected on a big screen. That first event included the absolute master of “Quick … Draw!,” Sergio Aragonés, along with Batton Lash and John Romita Jr., and according to Mark via a recent email exchange, we did it with easels and big drawing pads for the first few appearances at WC, not with projectors, a fact that I had forgotten. The projectors and additional screens were used at Comic-Con and eventually became the norm for the event, but were a few years away at WonderCon, due to budgetary restrictions. (By the way, Mark recently started posting his own memories of the panels he did at Comic-Con each year, posting his full panel schedules. Click here for an example.)

The programming schedule grids for WonderCon 2002 … slim pickins’ to say the least, due to the size of the Oakland facility

A sales brochure I wrote and designed to help sell exhibitors on coming to WonderCon after it moved to San Francisco.

In 2003, Comic-Con moved WonderCon across the bay to the Moscone Center in center city San Francisco and basically started over. A lot of WonderCon stalwarts—including author Michael Chabon—never quite forgave us (although Chabon did appear with writer Matt Fraction for a memorable panel while the show was still in San Francisco). I don’t have my original files or Program Books for 2003 and 2004, but the front of the tri-fold brochure I created (shown above) to help sell the show to prospective exhibitors explains it pretty well: Moving to San Francisco caused the show to be reborn. (Incidentally, that brochure was created to hand out at a comic convention in Las Vegas in 2004, which was nicknamed—by its company—the “Extrosion,” and which was an unmitigated disaster, even with that catchy if incomprehensible subtitle. Promising over 20,000 attendees, the event barely managed 2,000 and when the show decorators came around with freight bills on Sunday afternoon for exhibitors, I saw grown men openly weeping in their booths, getting a bill they didn’t expect for a show they had little or no sales at.) Early on, WonderCon struck a nerve with Hollywood, and 2004 continued the Spidey movie programming with an actual in-person appearance—his one and only—by Tobey Maguire for Spider-Man 2.

WonderCon’s explosive growth in 2005 can be summed up in the photo on the left; a look at the Exhibit Hall from the Mezzanine; and Kevin Smith onstage in the “big room,” the Esplanade Ballroom in 2005. Sadly, the AV techs at Moscone could never get the sound right in that room … it was fine if you were in the center of the room, but horrible on the sides.

I’ve often felt that 2005 was the turning point for WonderCon, and as you can see from that (sadly, black & white) photo above, the crowds certainly showed up that year. Comics guests included Neal Adams, John Cassaday, Harvey Pekar, Gail Simone, and Jeff Smith. That other Smith boy, Kevin, made his first appearance at the show, and WonderCon scored a major coup with an unannounced appearance by Christian Bale for Batman Begins, the first film in the Christopher Nolan directed trilogy. As you can see from the Onsite Newsletter below, Warner Bros. allowed us to announce the Batman Begins panel but not Bale’s appearance (a practice they would carry over to Comic-Con in subsequent years, much to our frustration; you say you want a full room, but you won’t allow us to promote who’s coming to fill it). Also present—after a lot of back and forth / will they or won’t they be there with 20th Century Fox—in other words, business as usual with that particular studio—Julian McMahon, Doctor Doom in the first Fantastic Four movie (after Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans were announced as appearing and featured in San Francisco newspaper ads), and Joss Whedon—much more popular and likable then than now—along with Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, and Adam Baldwin from the Firefly movie, Serenity. I remember Whedon going AWOL when it came time for his panel with artist John Cassaday, with whom he was then doing Astonishing X-Men for Marvel and causing me to panic; the two were out and about, roaming around San Francisco. (I also remember having to interrupt Whedon’s Serenity panel to have to tell people that they couldn’t stand along the walls in the room, and to please find a seat if possible or the fire marshal would shut down the panel. He wasn’t pleased, but neither was I, so I guess we were even.) Lucasfilm’s Director of Fan Relations Steve Sansweet brought footage from the last prequel Star Wars movie, Chapter III: Revenge of the Sith. As you can see from the 2005 program schedule grids below, the programs had grown to four rooms, plus an anime room, and a smaller meeting room for local fan groups to meet in. The first-ever WonderCon Masquerade was held on Saturday night, bringing one of Comic-Con’s most popular events to the show. Other Comic-Con events such as the Robert A. Heinlein Blood Drive, the multi-day, multi-panel Comic Arts Conference, “Secret Origins of Good Readers,” “That 70’s Panel” (another TV title suggestion by yours truly to Mark Evanier, when we sadly realized there really weren’t that many Golden and Silver Age creators left to invite and do the traditional “Golden Age” panel), Evanier’s “Jack Kirby Tribute” panel, and Mark A. Altman and company’s “Starship Smackdown,” pitting movie and TV spaceships against each other in a hilarious bracket game, featuring pop culture writers and creators, also transferred over to popular WonderCon editions each year.

The programming schedule grids for WonderCon 2005.

Due to the long lead-time needed to print the WonderCon Program Book at our usual printer in Canada, we produced an Onsite Newsletter for the event, which featured programming changes and highlights and the Exhibit Hall map and exhibitors list. This newspaper format publication unfolded into a tabloid size interior page, written and designed by me.

Newspaper ads and postcard flyers for WonderCon 2005 and 2006 designed by me.

The management of Moscone Center didn’t quite know what to do with WonderCon; they were used to much more staid and calm shows like computer and medical conventions, ones not normally open to the public and certainly ones were people didn’t come in costume (scrubs and pocket protectors don’t count as cosplay, sorry folks). Those types of conventions included attendees with deep pockets and multi-night hotel room stays. They moved us around from building to building, starting in Moscone North, then the new Moscone West building in 2006, which was too small and awkwardly designed—you don’t want pillars in your main large programming room and the airwalls that were pulled between rooms did little to keep out the sound from next door—and finally settling us in Moscone South in 2007, where the show stayed until it left San Francisco in 2011. 2006 was memorable, movie-wise, in that Bryan Singer—also much more popular and likable then than now—introduced Brandon Routh as the new Superman for his WB film, Superman Returns; J.J. Abrams brought a completed scene from Mission Impossible III—the scene on the bridge where the bad guys free criminal mastermind Philip Seymour Hoffman; Steve Sansweet returned with some Star Wars stuff, and Kevin Smith was back once more, still as un-PC—and entertaining—as usual.

2007 through 2011 saw WonderCon’s attendance grow each year. By 2009 it was at just under 35,000; by 2011, just under 50,000. I helped program 2007, as myself and incoming Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim did a year of co-programming the event (and Comic-Con in San Diego), while I moved into the Director of Print and Publications position. From 2002 through 2007 we printed the WonderCon Program Book at our usual printer in Canada, where we printed the Comic-Con Souvenir Book and Update magazines each year. This necessitated a long lead time for the book to be printed and shipped from Canada, and we had to do a separate Onsite Newsletter that included the programming schedule and Exhibit Hall map … similar to the Events Guide we did for Comic-Con, although much slimmer. I lobbied for—and got—a local printer to start printing the WonderCon book so we could have a shorter lead time (about two weeks) to include the schedule and exhibitors in one publication. In 2010, after we switched to full-color for the Comic-Con Souvenir Book in honor of its 40th anniversary the previous year, I lobbied for the WonderCon book to be in color, too, and to return to commissioning new cover art.

WonderCon 1999 Program Book cover. Good luck figuring out the copyrights on this one! Art by Bruce Timm.

The original management of WonderCon did new covers each year, but they didn’t exactly respect the whole concept of copyrighted characters; Lara Croft, Spock, and Buffy appeared next to Spider-Man and Sailor Moon on one Bruce Timm painted cover (above), just one of a few multi-character covers which featured numerous pop culture figures. When Comic-Con took over, we worked exclusively with DC on the newly commissioned covers, because they were huge supporters of WonderCon, maintaining a large presence in the Exhibit Hall each year in San Francisco and later in Anaheim.

We utilized their world famous characters for both the covers and official WonderCon T-shirts, which were based on the cover art. I was lucky to work with some amazing artists over the years, including Frank Quitely, Ryan Sook, Jim Lee, Cliff Chiang, Babs Tarr, Jason Fabok, Michael Cho, Dan Jurgens, Lee Weeks, and Jen Bartel (more on some of those artists and covers next time, when we look at the WonderCon Anaheim years). This was one of my favorite parts of the Director of Print and Publications job, which included editing all the publications (except Comic-Con’s Events Guide, where I still worked on the covers each year) and working months in advance with artists who were also convention guests.

WonderCon Program Book Cover Gallery

A gallery of WonderCon Program Book covers from 2003 through 2011, the last year in San Francisco. Art by: 2003: Jill Thompson; 2004: Darwyn Cooke; 2005: Jim Lee and Alex Ross; 2006: 20th anniversary cover montage designed by me; 2007: Tony Harris; 2008: Darwyn Cooke; 2009: Dave Gibbons. Specially commissioned covers begin in 2010 by Ethan Van Sciver and 2011 by Frank Quitely for WonderCon’s 25th anniversary. Art & characters © DC.

When Comic-Con took over WonderCon, it was also doing APE, the Alternative Press Expo, in San Francisco (click here for my reminiscences about that show), and the two rubbed up against each other with WC in late winter and APE in early spring, with the shows sometimes being just a month to six weeks apart. In 2008, APE moved to the fall, giving the staff a bit more breathing room between WonderCon and that constantly growing behemoth, Comic-Con. WonderCon had many memorable events from 2007 through 2011, including early screenings of Zack Snyder’s movies 300 in 2007 and Watchmen in 2009, weeks before they came out. One of my favorite events was the world premiere of the DC Animated Movie, Justice League: The New Frontier in 2008, which included executive producer Bruce Timm, writer Stan Berkowitz, director David Bullock, voice director Andrea Romano, and the creator of DC: The New Frontier, writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. DC Animated Movie premieres would become a fixture at both WonderCon and Comic-Con to this day, often with cast and crew members in tow.

At left, my autographed copy of the WonderCon 2008 Program Book cover. This was art from the DVD release of Justice League: The New Frontier, but now something everyone would ever see, so it seemed like an original cover and is one of my favorites from the San Francisco year. Signatures include Andrea Romano (upper right), Darwyn Cooke (right side below center), Stan Betkowitz (left side below center), and Bruce Timm (lower center). At right, a poster for the 2008 event designed by me, which was sent out to Bay Area comic book shops to promote the show. Local shops also sold passes for WonderCon, with a percentage of ticket sales going to each shop. Art & characters TM & © DC.

Once we settled in Moscone Center South, we finally got a big room for programming, the Esplanade Ballroom, along with smaller rooms (see a facility map below). In 2007, there were five dedicated program rooms; by 2011, the final year in Moscone South, there were eight, plus an anime room and a room dedicated to a weekend-long Children’s Film Festival, brought to us by an outside company. 2011 was the 25th anniversary of WonderCon and a great year for the event, with some first-time guests such as Berkeley Breathed, Tony Daniel, Robert Kirkman, Paul Levitz, Joe Quesada, Frank Quitely (who did the 25th anniversary Program Book cover), and Canadian cartoonist Seth. BBC America held a Doctor Who panel on Sunday, April 3, and brought a special surprise guest, Neil Gaiman, to talk about the episode he wrote. Imagine our surprise when he showed up backstage prior to the panel.

The WonderCon 2011 programming schedule grids show how much the event had grown in San Francisco from 2002.

I loved Moscone South. It had a narrow but long lobby, and long escalators leading to the Exhibit Hall on the lower floor, which connected under the street to Moscone North. The lobby had these pods that extended out over the lower floor’s lobby. One of the pods was commandeered by show management and the other by the programming staff. They had plush chairs in them and were a great place to people—and costume—watch while attendees went up and down the escalators to the Exhibit Hall and program rooms. And I loved being in San Francisco twice a year. Like San Diego, there was a whole other world outside the doors of the convention center, including shopping, museums, entertainment and first-class (and not-so first class) dining. The city was a lot more vibrant and exciting then, before the boom of social media companies taking over—and then vacating during the pandemic—all available office space and restaurant seating. It was a great decade to be in that city.

Moscone Center South from the top of the jukebox-looking Marriott Hotel in Downtown San Francisco; the layout of WonderCon at Moscone South; and the legendary pods in the Moscone South lobbies that are so fondly remembered (at least by yours truly).

All photos in this post by me.

Sadly, there came a time where WonderCon had to leave San Francisco. Moscone Center closed the South building in 2012 for a massive remodel, and when we kept asking when we could come back, the date kept being pushed farther and farther away. Comic-Con decided to move the show to Anaheim for 2012, with the plan to eventually do a second show in San Francisco each year, maybe some kind of hybrid WC/APE event. At this point in time, a number of cities were vying for Comic-Con to move to their convention centers, including Anaheim, which had the largest contiguous floor space on the West Coast. The popularity of Comic-Con—continually selling out in San Diego and bringing huge economic rewards to the city in terms of dollars spent—seemed lost on Moscone Center though, and they almost seemed relieved to be rid of us. In their defense, a lot of Moscone’s funding came from a hotel room tax and WonderCon sadly filled very few hotel rooms during its nine-year stay at the center. Eventually we all came to the realization that WonderCon was going to be a Southern California show and not a Bay Area one.

But boy, I sure miss hanging out in those posh little pods.

Next time: WonderCon Anaheim 2012-2015, WonderCon Los Angeles 2016, WonderCon Anaheim 2017-2019.

To read my complete “My Life in Comics” series, please click here.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a like or a comment and follow me here and on Instagram@gg92118!

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