My Life in Comics, Part 18: WonderCon—The Anaheim Years …

“And lo, there shall come a time, when the old order shall changeth …” as Stan Lee might have put it in an issue of Thor or The Avengers …

Under Comic-Con’s management, WonderCon lasted from 2003 through 2011 at Moscone Center in San Francisco. During that time, attendance rose steadily, with 2005—to me at least—being the turning point year for the event (click here to read my last post covering WonderCon—The San Francisco Years). By 2007, the event had settled into its “permanent” SF home, Moscone Center South, but when 2011 rolled around, Comic-Con was informed by Moscone management that the facility would not be available in 2012, due to construction. It evidently took them six years, until 2018, to finish their renovation and it looks like an amazing facility, as this PDF shows. Construction, which was concluded in 2018, linked both North and South halls underground to be one giant, 504,000 square foot exhibition hall, which is pretty amazing (San Diego’s halls A through G is 460,00). It also has a huge, 50,000 sq. ft. meeting space, which would be larger than Hall H at the San Diego Convention Center, seating 6,400 people in theater-style (one butt per chair) seating.

But that’s neither here nor there, because despite wanting to go back (at one point I created WonderCon Anaheim and WonderCon San Francisco logos, with the hope that we could do both shows each year), it never happened. My boss tried to get us back there, but each time, Moscone management kept pushing the dates further away … “maybe 2016” became 2018, etc. A lot of Bay Area fans hated that we moved to Anaheim, but the truth of the matter was WonderCon had to either move or die.

One of the toughest things you can do with a comics convention is move. Even the short hop across the bay from Oakland to center city San Francisco was tough. You have to learn the ins and out of a new building. You have to deal with unfamiliar management. You have to teach your attendees how to get around the building, how to go to programming, and help them find dining options outside the convention center … even how to get to the show! It’s not an easy process by any means. And when you get used to being in one building for any length of time (Comic-Con has been in the San Diego Convention Center for over 30 years, since 1991), there’s a learning curve to adapt to a new one.

(Left to right) The area outside the Anaheim Convention Center; the interior lobby of the center; and DC Comics’ booth under construction; while not as large as their booth at Comic-Con, it was still the largest publisher at WonderCon. All photos by me.

Around 2012, a number of cities were vying to have Comic-Con at their convention centers, and Anaheim was one of them. While many people always say “Comic-Con should move to Las Vegas,” I firmly believe that will never happen, and I’m speaking here as an attendee, not a former employee. Las Vegas in July is a very hot place, and I can only imagine the headlines: “Stormtroopers killed by heat exhaustion. Story at 11:00.” Anaheim at least had the foresight to realize that maybe by putting on WonderCon, they’d have a chance to try and get Comic-Con, if the San Diego negotiations every few years ever went south (or north, in the case of Anaheim). That never happened and, for the most part, San Diego seems to appreciate Comic-Con more than it did around 2010.

The original (left) and new versions of the WonderCon logo, with Anaheim added for geographical clarity (I kid).

So WonderCon moved to Anaheim and was christened (duh) WonderCon Anaheim, which was my brilliant idea, to differentiate between the two locations and hopefully keep the torch burning for a return to the Bay Area. We changed the logo slightly, keeping the original graphic swirl and star, but redid the font on “WonderCon” to make it a bit more … well, macho, I guess. That original font was the antithesis of what a comic book convention should look like, wispy and all serif-y. “Anaheim” was added into an oval below WonderCon and the color scheme was changed from magenta to blue. This was all me, and everybody … well, everybody pretty much hated it, but we went with it anyway, because no one else was stepping up and doing anything about it.

The people who ran the Anaheim Convention Center back then (hard to believe over a decade ago now)—in 2012—were very nice and seemed very happy to have us. For that very first year, we took up a small slice of the Convention Center, just Hall D for the Exhibit Hall, and Hall E (below Hall D) for registration and morning lines. I remember that first year in Anaheim very well. We had torrential rain Friday and Saturday, finally stopping on Sunday afternoon around 3:00 PM, two hours shy of closing time. Parking was an absolute fiasco. We shared the Anaheim Convention Center with a college volleyball tournament and a high school cheerleading competition, and—lo and behold—by the time the weekend was over, detente was reached between the nerds and the jocks and it was very commonplace to see cheerleaders posing for photos with Stormtrooper, Chewbacca, and Darth Vader cosplayers. Peace was abundant throughout the land as the sun parted the clouds and shone down on comic book fans, cheerleaders, and volleyball players alike, all existing together in happy harmony.

WonderCon Anaheim Program Book covers from 2012 through 2020 (which became 2022’s eventual cover). TM & © DC.

By the time WonderCon moved to Anaheim in 2012, I was in my fifth year as the Director of Print and Publications (soon to be the Director of Print and Digital Media, because we fancy … or rather because I was about to become the editor-in-chief and lead designer of the Comic-Con website later that year; more on that next time), so most of my work was done before we got onsite at the show. For WonderCon, we used our local printer in Southern California, Advanced Web Offset (who printed Comic-Con’s Events Guide and Quick Guide each year, and sadly closed down in 2022) to print the WonderCon Program Book. Like at Comic-Con, we had started to use the Program Book cover art for the official T-shirts, which was manufactured by Graphitti Designs, at least through 2019. (Things changed during the pandemic, sadly.) Graphitti’s owner, Bob Chapman, along with his lovely wife, Gina, and their designer, Josh Beatman, usually took the cover art and tweaked it a bit, adding different type treatments than what I designed for the Program Book cover. The shirts—to me and a lot of others—were a symbol of high quality in both their design and material. During the WonderCon Anaheim period, I worked with a number of great artists for the covers (and eventual T-shirts by Chapman and company), including Ryan Sook (2012), Jim Lee and Scott Williams (2013), Cliff Chiang (2014), Babs Tarr (2015), Jason Fabok (2016), Michael Cho (2017), Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund (2018), Lee Weeks (2019), and Jen Bartel (2020, which was eventually used for 2022). Alex Sinclair did the coloring for the covers for 2013 and 2018, with all the other artists involved doing their own color work in the other years. As I’ve mentioned in other installments, working with the artists was one of the most fun parts of my job, and—for all those years—I also worked with Fletcher Chu-Fong of DC Comics. Fletch was in charge of DC’s convention presence at WonderCon and Comic-Con (and numerous other events) and was a huge supporter of our organization. He understood the importance of having DC’s characters front-and-center on both the Program Book cover and the official T-shirts. In addition to using the Program Book art for those two pieces, I continued to create newspaper ads and flyers (in the form of postcards and bookmarks), and posters for the event utilizing this art, which were sent to local comics shops to promote WonderCon, just as we did in San Francisco. Those were a lot of fun to do, too.

The 2012 edition of tthe Program Book debuted a feature called “Cover Story,” which chronicled the making of each year’s cover (it was also the name of an ongoing panel I came up with, hosted by Mark Evanier, where random comic book covers by artists who were WonderCon special guests talked about the process behind them). 2012’s T-shirt is at the far right. Art by Ryan Sook, TM & © DC.

Below, some of the promo art for WonderCon Anaheim 2014, with that amazing Wonder Woman art by Cliff Chiang. Left to right: postcard front, postcard back, bookmark, and comics shop poster. Characters TM & © DC.

WonderCon had been at Anaheim for four years (2012 through 2015) when once again it was forced to move due to construction. But this time Anaheim assured us it was only for one year. So in 2016 WonderCon “loaded up the truck and we moved to Beverly … Hills, that is … swimmin’ pools, movie stars.” Okay, well Los Angeles. Not exactly Beverly Hills, but certainly closer to that star-studded locale. Unfortunately, Los Angeles Convention Center is an abject lesson in how not to plan a convention center. At that point in time (maybe it’s changed since) there was no contiguous Exhibit Hall space like at Anaheim and San Diego, just a collection of halls of varying sizes. So WonderCon’s registration area was in a hall as far away as humanly possible from the Exhibit Hall, at opposite ends of the building, meaning a lot of walking through long hallways. Downtown Los Angeles, where the LA Live complex, which includes the Convention Center, the Microsoft Theater and Staples Arena, wasn’t exactly a day at the beach, either, although there were hotel and restaurant choices in the complex. The Microsoft Theater was used as the large programming room and proved a challenge since it was away from the Convention Center and hard to get to. And to add insult to injury, NBC signed on to place signage at the show to promote a new mini-series called Emerald City, a re-imagining of the Wizard of Oz story, which made the whole convention look like it belonged in Seattle. But there was a small rainbow (in keeping with the whole Emerald City theme,): Doing WonderCon at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 2016 showed how unworkable a place it would be for an event the size of Comic-Con.

WonderCon programming grew between 2012 and 2017. Here are the schedule grids for both those years, 2012 top two rows, 2017 bottom. As programing grew, I had to be more and more creative with grid design. Superman art by Ryan Sook, TM & DC.

In 2017, WonderCon moved back to Anaheim, where it’s stayed ever since, with the exceptions, of course, of the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. We were in the final throes of putting together 2020’s show in early March when the world fell apart. I remember sitting in a meeting in our conference room and being told to go home. My boss had just heard from Anaheim Convention Center management, which was adhering to the California state rules banning large gatherings and effectively cancelled (we said “postponed,” because at this point no one could envision a two-year gap in holding conventions due to a disease) WonderCon 2020. We all went home, learned new words like “Zoom” and “Slack,” and I didn’t set foot in the Comic-Con office except to pack up my stuff to move to a new office and unpack it there, only to retire in early 2021 (God … has it been TWO YEARS already?). But that’s a story for another time.

The growth of the WonderCon Exhibit Hall and footprint at the Anaheim Convention Center and Hilton Anaheim Hotel, from 2012 (left) to 2017 (middle and right).

But from 2017 until purgatory hit in 2020, WonderCon continued to grow in Anaheim and the show became known as an excellent alternative for the always sold-out Comic-Con. The area around the Anaheim Convention Center is a beautiful space with a fountain right outside and a long expanse leading up to the center, which was perfect for something new for WonderCon attendees: food trucks! The fountain area became a focal point for cosplayers and a popular spot into the evening hours to hang out, especially when the mild Southern California weather complied. I personally think—and this is not based on any kind of scientific study—WonderCon has a much larger per capita percentage of cosplayers, and some of the costumes are just plain amazing. Photographers and cosplayers (and people who appreciate that part of convention-going) all join together in that fountain area. The Anaheim Convention Center also includes two major hotels (a Hilton and a Marriott) flanking it on either side of its long entryway. Ironically, the one thing WonderCon lacked in San Francisco—hotel room nights, an important factor to Moscone Center—became a different story in Anaheim, with the convention offering numerous hotel options within walking distance of the Anaheim Convention Center (and nearby Disneyland). Downtown Disney, the free admission area between Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure theme parks, is a short walk away, as is Anaheim GardenWalk; both offer a lot of restaurant choices. And you can’t deny the appeal of Disneyland nearby; I think a number of attendees made it a combo weekend and come for both WonderCon and the Disney theme parks, making Anaheim a real destination location.

The Anaheim Convention Center’s massive Arena was the home for major movie and TV programming at WonderCon.

WonderCon was unfortunately saddled with Easter dates for a number of years, because it became readily apparent after a few years that the event needed the entire Convention Center to itself (sorry volleyball players and cheerleaders). Sometimes that holiday worked, especially when it coincided with Spring Break for schools, sometimes it didn’t, especially for Hollywood-based panels and presentations. The footprint of WonderCon grew from that original Hall D/Hall E configuration in 2012 to encompass Halls A through D and the giant Arena as a kind of Hall H North. The Arena is a huge, domed building that has hosted concerts and NCAA Basketball tournaments, among other events, and was used by WonderCon for the big movie and TV themed panels. During that year (2016) in Los Angeles, Anaheim added a whole new building, dubbed Anaheim North, which now features additional WonderCon program space, and added another garage to offer more parking.

I loved—well, love—going to WonderCon. It was less crowded and calmer than Comic-Con, easier to move and be able to see things, including programs and Exhibit Hall booths and Artists’ Alley tables. It’s also a fun show, with a lot of happy people and a huge contingent of cosplayers, a solid programming schedule over all three days, and its own version of Comic-Con’s Masquerade on Saturday evening. The hotels are a little pricey, but if you live in the San Diego area like me, it’s an easy train ride (when Amtrak can actually run and doesn’t have to deal with beachfront erosion imperiling its tracks, which is what’s happening right now), which is cheaper than paying parking fees over multiple night at the hotels. I’m going to WonderCon this year and so can you: It’s just two short months away (March 24-26) and you can buy tickets by clicking here. I hope to see you there!

Captain America at WonderCon 2022. Hey, Cap … you know you’re going to have to eventually give that hammer back, right?

Next time: Chapter 1 of “Everything Else” I did over my years at Comic-Con, including the revamped Comic-Con website, helping to start the countywide graphic novel book clubs, design work, the Inkpot Awards, and much more as we hurtle towards the startling conclusion of “My Life in Comics!”

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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