In the past 20 years, WonderCon in San Francisco has become a major event for the Hollywood hype machine to promote films. Andrew Frago shares some of the highlights and a few crowd hassles at this event.
The 2006 convention season kicked off on February 10 at San Franciscos Moscone Center West, home of the 20th annual WonderCon comic (and popular arts) convention. The three-day expo featured all of the class convention fixtures old comicbooks for sale, artists greeting their fans, marathon RPG sessions, guys dressed in Stormtrooper outfits and $10 hot dogs at the concession stand while relative newcomers from the videogame, anime and movie industries once again increased their presence. The comics-only Comic-Con is quickly and quietly disappearing, and, by all accounts, the mass-media extravaganza is here to stay.
Attendance was up from last years total of 14,500, marking yet another record-breaking year since the convention moved from Oakland to San Francisco in 2003. Convention-goers lined up around the block each morning, and the Moscone Center rapidly filled up each day as legions of comic (and movie) fans swarmed downtown San Francisco. WonderCon showed some of its first signs of growing pains on Saturday as fire marshals limited access to the convention hall several times throughout the afternoon. The lines once again stretched out the doors at one point, with only exhibitors and comic professionals permitted to enter and exit the hall without interference.
It was a far cry from the first San Francisco-based WonderCon, at which large sections of the exhibit hall were left empty, roped off and hidden by curtains. As more mainstream media events are added to the programming, and as comicbooks become more mainstream themselves, convention organizers will have their hands full dealing with these issues in years to come.
Comics are still the driving force behind WonderCon, but Hollywoods presence at the convention has grown considerably from the days when Corey Haim and the Lupus from The Bad News Bears were the biggest celebrities in the house. Sure, Peter Chewbacca Mayhew and Herbert Lt. Boomer from Battlestar Galactica Jefferson were hanging out in the autograph area as usual, but the Hollywood hype machine was out in full force at the convention.
This years programming highlights included presentations from LucasFilm, director Bryan Singers sneak peek at the upcoming summer blockbuster Superman Returns (featuring a surprise guest appearance from the films star, Brandon Routh) and an advance screening of the controversial Wachowski Brothers film V for Vendetta, based on the acclaimed DC Comics series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
In recent years, DC Comics has become the major presence at WonderCon, and this year was no exception. DCs biggest guns were in attendance, with Sin City creator Frank Miller on hand to discuss his current and upcoming Batman projects and superstar writer Grant Morrison promoting his current comics, All-Star Superman and Seven Soldiers. Miller and Morrison drew long lines of fans throughout the weekend, with each panel appearance and autograph session pulling in attendees by the dozens. Jim Lee, artist on Frank Millers All-Star Batman and Robin and one of the most popular comic artists of the past 20 years, caused a near-riot with an unannounced appearance in the Artists Alley section of the exhibit hall. Fans filled the narrow walkway to capacity in the hopes of snagging a quick sketch or an autograph. Crowd control was an issue throughout the weekend, but fire marshals and the security staff managed to prevent any major disruptions.
The programming slate boasted several major DC panels throughout the weekend, as writers, artists and editors discussed the impending conclusion of Infinite Crisis, the universe-altering mini-series currently affecting every DC Comics character. Writers Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison and editor DC vp/exec editor Dan Didio discussed upcoming plotlines, answered questions from readers and confirmed rumors concerning new creative teams and projects over the next several months, while managing to keep just enough secrets that readers will only find out everything by you guessed it buying more DC Comics.
DCs chief comic shop rival, Marvel Comics, continues to have a very minimal presence at west coast conventions, and WonderCon was no exception. Artist Chris Bachalo and writer Peter David were among the few major Marvel-exclusive creators to in attendance, and, apart from the world-premiere screening of Marvels first animated movie, Ultimate Avengers, all of the major comics news of the weekend featured DC.
Many publishers took advantage of the power vacuum created by Marvels absence and brought in their own top talents to drum up business. Eric Powell, creator of the hilarious zombie-fighting tough guy The Goon, and Mike Mignola, creator of the superstar demon Hellboy, were among the biggest draws of the weekend for Dark Horse, and Frank Millers presence ensured a successful weekend for the Oregon-based publisher. The Bay Areas own Image Comics also had a strong showing, with publisher and Savage Dragon artist Erik Larsen and incredibly popular Liberty Meadows creator Frank Cho signing and sketching for fans throughout the weekend.
Comics and Hollywood collided at several points throughout the exhibit hall, most notably at the Graphitti Designs booth, where Matt Wagner (creator of the soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture comic Grendel), Mike and Laura Allred (creators of the soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture comic Madman) signed books. Indie-film-auteur-turned-comic-book-writer Kevin Smith created a frenzy each time he appeared to sign autographs and meet with his fans.
Other notable guests included Sergio Aragonés, beloved Mad magazine artist and co-creator of the barbarian adventurer Groo, the Wanderer; Silver Age DC artist Ramona Fradon, best known for her work on Metamorpho and Aquaman; Terry Moore, creator of the award-winning comic series Strangers in Paradise; and Gahan Wilson, master of the macabre, whose cartoons have appeared in publications as diverse as Punch, The New York Times, National Lampoon and Playboy.
Amidst all the major publishers and celebrities, independent artists and small press publishers also enjoyed a successful show. Most artists reported an increase of sales from last years WonderCon, and claim that the move from Oakland to San Francisco has improved sales dramatically. Increased attendance means an increase in potential customers, which keeps the small press publishers returning year after year. The future of the small press at WonderCon, however, is closely tied to the future of the comicbook industry.
Fourteen-year WonderCon exhibitor Batton Lash, creator of the humor/horror series, Supernatural Law, hopes to return next year, but cannot say for certain what the future holds. Id like to [continue exhibiting at WonderCon]. But the business of selling comics is changing and that will determine what my companys business plan for 07 will be. The whole indie/self-publishing aspect of the comics business is shifting rapidly and might have enormous effect on deciding the venues where those comics are sold. There are new markets (and not necessarily comics-oriented ones) opening up to reach new readers. Its all wait-and-see for now.
Convention attendees had no shortage of post-con activities as the Bay Area comics community provided many entertainment options for visitors. The Cartoon Art Museum hosted a late-night reception on Friday evening with special guests Sergio Aragonés, Batton Lash, Bill Morrison (Bongo Comics, The Simpsons), Scott Shaw! (Oddball Comics) and Gahan Wilson. Isotope: The Comics Lounge featured late-night parties with Grant Morrison and Eric Powell on Friday and Saturday night, respectively; and Berkeleys legendary comic bookstore Comic Relief hosted a party on Saturday night and a special reception on Sunday night for the aforementioned Frank Miller.
Miller visited Berkeley on Sunday to host a benefit screening of Sin City, based on Millers comic series. The screening raised money for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization formed 20 years ago to protect the First Amendment of comicbook creators and publishers. Miller discussed the upcoming Sin City sequel and his next project for DC Comics, a Batman vs. Al-Qaeda comicbook entitled, Holy Terror, Batman!
By most accounts, the 20th WonderCon was the most successful yet, and shows no signs of slowing down as it enters its second decade as the Bay Areas premiere comicbook convention.
Andrew Farago is gallery manager and curator of San Franciscos Cartoon Art Museum.
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