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WonderCon 2007: Bay Area Goes Geeky

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WonderCon returned to the San Francisco Bay Area for its 21st year at its largest venue to date, the Moscone Center. Courtesy of WonderCon.

The first weekend of March saw the return of WonderCon to the San Francisco Bay Area for its 21st year as Northern Californias largest celebration of comics and popular culture. This year's convention took place at San Francisco's Moscone Center South, the largest venue to date for WonderCon, which originated across the Bay in Oakland in 1987.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The first day of the convention, as usual, was for the comic fans. Crowds are a bit thinner on Day One, allowing Con-goers shorter lines for registration and entrance, easier access to the visiting artists, less hectic browsing and shopping and more comics-centric programming than the other two days of the convention. Individual artist spotlight panels focused on DC Comics creators Tony Harris, Phil Jimenez, Brian K. Vaughan and Judd Winick; small press superstars Linda Medley and Terry Moore; legendary EC Comics creator Al Feldstein, and a host of other panels geared toward longtime comic fans and would-be comic creators.

In addition to the more relaxed convention experience and first crack at the bargain bins and toy shelves, each of Fridays visitors was eligible to win one of 300 tickets to see a sneak preview of Frank Millers latest film, 300, a full week before its nationwide premiere. As with last years V for Vendetta premiere, news of this advance screening received a fair amount of mainstream local press coverage, which brought a large number of first-time attendees to WonderCon.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

As always, Saturday was the largest day in terms of both attendance and in convention programming. Hundreds of attendees arrived at Moscone South more than an hour before the 10:00 am opening, and the line for entry stretched out the front door and around the block as thousands of eager visitors patiently waited to enter the hall. WonderCon volunteers and Stormtroopers worked the line as well, attending to any problems or special needs (and, presumably, to vaporize any troublemakers). Despite a record number of pre-registered guests, the Comic-Con International (CCI) registration staff processed incoming visitors quickly and efficiently, dealing with thousands of con-goers over the course of their 12-hour workday.

WonderCon volunteers and Stormtroopers answered the call of duty by attending to the special needs of the record number of pre-registered guests. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Andrew Farago.

One of the big draws for this year's WonderCon, as it has been for the past three years, was the presence of Hollywood, in the form of sneak previews, teaser trailers, film clips, visiting movie stars, actors and a full slate of exclusive programming. The Moscone Centers Esplanade Ballroom was packed for seven straight hours with movie buffs eager for up-to-the-minute information on this summers upcoming blockbusters. Special guests included writer/director Brad Bird and voice actor Patton Oswalt discussing their upcoming Disney-Pixar film, Ratatouille (see below for details on the panel); producer Joel Silver and stars Hilary Swank and Idris Elba promoting Warner Bros. film The Reaping; 300 director Zack Snyder and stars Gerard Butler and Lena Headey; a sneak peek at never-before-seen footage from Spider-Man 3; plus a DC Comics animation panel promoting their upcoming direct-to-DVD specials based on classic DC comics and graphic novels.

The ever-increasing Hollywood presence has resulted in a major upswing in attendance both at WonderCon and at the nation's largest convention over the past several years, the San Diego Comic-Con International, but many artists and comic fans have mixed feelings about the trend toward more of a pop-cultural catch-all convention and less toward the promotion of the comics medium. Debbie Huey, creator of the all-ages comic Bumperboy noted that the weekend was billed as "Big Movie Saturday and "Big TV Sunday," driving home the new popular-arts-driven version of WonderCon. "What happened to focusing on comics?" Huey wonders. "I'm not complaining about this, however, only because I think the movies and TV shows that are featured at the con bring in more people. If this helps get more people into comics, then it's a good thing."

One wrong turn at the end of the Small Press area brings you to yet another aspect of the Hollywood/comics intersection, the Autograph Area. This was the most heavily and consistently congested area of the convention hall, with fans blocking the aisles while chatting with Ernie "Ghostbusters" Hudson, Noel "Lois Lane" Neill, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson, former WWF superstar Virgil, Peter "Chewbacca" Mayhew and over a dozen other former stars of science-fiction TV and movies.

Those who preferred to focus their attention on comics were far from forgotten, however, with more than 20 comics-centric panel discussions scheduled throughout the day and literally dozens of notable comic book creators and cartoonists signing autographs, selling their wares and chatting with fans. The only comic creator that seemed to generate long lines with each appearance was Brian K. Vaughan, writer of the hit series, Y: The Last Man, and critical favorites Ex Machina and Runaways. Nearly every other artist and exhibitor was readily accessible to fans, creating an oddly relaxed atmosphere despite the large number of attendees.

Anime fans enjoyed non-stop screenings and a plethora of manga collections, action figures and DVDs for sale throughout the convention hall, but TOKYOPOP and VIZ Media were both MIA.

Saturday night saw the return of the WonderCon Masquerade, hosted once again by Phil Foglio, creator of the popular webcomic, Girl Genius. Pirates, superheroes, space cadets, vampire slayers and monsters prowled the convention floor throughout the day, and they all converged on the Moscone Centers Esplanade Ballroom for the big event. "All of the costumes were pretty competent," said Foglio. "However, I must say that the only one that I really remember was the one that won, and deservedly so, the Best In Show" award, which was the giant Lego Star Wars guys. [CCI staffer] Martin Jaquish and his crew did a great job this year, there weren't any technical difficulties at all. I didn't even have to tell any jokes."

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sunday, also known as "Big TV Sunday," was busier than Friday, and most retailers reported an increase in sales from 2006. Said comics dealer Steve Wyatt, "Sales are always good! I bring merchandise to the San Diego Comic-Con, Super-Con and WonderCon that I only make available at those conventions, and my customers expect it." Local retailers Comic Relief, Bud Plant and Last Gasp were also a major presence at the convention, selling a wide array of graphic novels, rare and out-of-print items, artist sketchbooks and other convention exclusives. Al Kizziah, proprietor of Al's Comics says that despite the expense of exhibiting at the convention, its a necessary part of his business. "If you're a local retailer, it's a no-brainer. You've got to get your name out there, and make people aware of your business. Its a great opportunity to bring more customers into your shop long after the convention's over."

Artists in the small press section, however, were displeased with the layout of the convention hall and its effect on business. Major publishers and retailers were positioned at the main entrance of the exhibition hall, with individual artists and small publishers relegated to the far side of the hall. "I'd rather the small and independent publishers were more centrally located instead of the big booths selling the same old crap," said Foglio. "On the other hand, that section of the floor was choked solid, whereas we folks out in the hinterlands had a steady but relaxed flow of traffic."

Debbie Huey also felt that artists would have benefited from a better distribution of the larger publishers amidst the smaller ones. "Getting more traffic into Artists' Alley would've been nice," she said. "Artists' Alley was frequently deserted, or many patrons were simply walking through rather than slowing down to look at tables. It felt like a ghost town at times, and didn't feel very inviting."

Avatar from The Last Airbender and Scorpion from Mortal Kombat come together at WonderCon.

Also puzzling to attendees was the absence of three major comics publishers, Marvel, TOKYOPOP and VIZ Media. Marvel has scaled back its presence at conventions considerably over the past five years, so their absence was not particularly noteworthy, but given the rapid expansion of the manga industry during that same period, the nonappearance of Americas two largest manga publishers was surprising, especially considering that VIZ Media is located in San Francisco.

VIZ's official presence at the convention was limited to a single Saturday-afternoon panel discussion, which was among the best-attended non-Hollywood programs. Fans of Japanese culture seemed fairly content with WonderCon's offerings, which included non-stop anime screenings and a plethora of manga collections, action figures and DVDs for sale throughout the convention hall. Oddly enough, VIZ was among the largest exhibitors at the preceding weekends New York City Comic-Con, some 3,000 miles away from their home offices.

Despite the occasional slow periods punctuated by periodic traffic jams, the convention hall remained busy until closing time on Sunday, with many exhibitors closing last-minute deals with customers as security began their efforts to clear the exhibition hall.

Disney-Pixar Presents: Ratatouille

Eddie Ibrahim, Comic-Con Internationals new director of programming, kicked off WonderCon's "Big Movie Saturday" lineup by thanking the convention attendees and Hollywood studios for their continued and increasing involvement in CCIs convention programming. An informal "applause" poll seemed to indicate that about one-third of the audience had never been to a comic convention before, suggesting the success of Hollywood programming in luring new attendees to WonderCon. Addressing piracy concerns, Ibrahim warned the audience not to photograph or record any of the film previews or exclusive footage that would be shown throughout the weekend, as any footage leaked to Internet sources would likely discourage Hollywood's continued participation in CCI programming.

Big Movie Saturday opened with the upcoming Disney-Pixar feature, Ratatouille, about a gourmand rat named Remy who lives in a Parisian restaurant and dreams of becoming a chef. "I like good food" is Remy's justification for all of the trouble that his obsession causes.

Longtime WonderCon exhibitor Keith Knight chats with fans.

After a screening of the already-released trailer, Ibrahim introduced the film's director, Brad Bird, who received an enthusiastic ovation from the nearly 3,000 attendees in the crowded Esplanade Ballroom. Addressing the stiff competition that his film faces this summer from film sequels like Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Bird stated, "We're thinking of re-titling it, Ratatouille 1. It's the prequel to the sequel. That's the best way to get attention for the film. Ive heard that the fifth Alien movie is going to fight the third Predator movie this year, too, so theres a lot of good stuff coming out this summer."

Bird continued with his own synopsis of Ratatouille. "It's all about a rat who aspires to the higher echelon of fine cooking. The other rats just want to eat as much food as possible, but Remy's a gourmet. He's the one skinny rat in the movie."

The audience was then treated to a slideshow of behind-the-scenes material, including character sketches, pencil roughs, maquettes and other pre-production artwork. The first images focused on Remy, who is voiced by stand-up comedian/actor/writer Patton Oswalt. "Remy's very volatile and excitable, just like Patton," said Bird. We heard one of Pattons stand-up routines about steakhouses, and with that as our soundtrack, we knew wed found the right actor for the part."

The other characters include Remy's brother Emile, voiced by Pixar animator Pete Sohn; Remy's father, Django, voiced by veteran character actor Brian Dennehy; Chef Skinner, voiced by British actor Ian Holm; a restaurant critic voiced by Peter O'Toole; and Linguini, a hapless garbage boy-turned chef, voiced by Pixar artist Lou Romano. Brad Garrett and Janeane Garofalo round out the primary cast.

"The key to this movie is the relationship between Remy and Linguini," said Bird. "Remy wants to be a chef, but he can't go into kitchens. A rat in a kitchen equals death in the restaurant business, so rats are dealt with very harshly."

Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell and Cartoon Art Museum founder Malcolm Whyte at the Cartoon Art Museum's booth.

The second clip of the afternoon featured Remy receiving guidance from the spirit of Chef Auguste Gusteau, his culinary hero. Accidental entry into a restaurant kitchen provides Remy with his big break, allowing him to prepare a meal for one of the city's most esteemed restaurant critics -- although Linguini mistakenly receives all of the credit. When Linguini discovers that Remy is indeed a master chef, the two realize that they need each other, and a bond is formed.

After the clip, Bird introduced Oswalt, who arrived to a loud and spirited ovation. Bird then opened the discussion to questions from the audience.

Audience Question: Will John Ratzenberger have a role in this film?

Brad Bird: Hmm Weve had seven hit movies in a row from Pixar, all with John Ratzenberger in them What do the rest of you think? Should we mess with that formula?

Patton Oswalt: Come on, the first syllable in his last name is "rat." How can he not be in it?

Audience Question: Is Randy Newman doing the music this time?

BB: No. Michael Giacchino, from The Incredibles is doing the score (loud applause from the audience.)

Audience Question: What did you like least and what did you like the most about working on this movie?

PO: I'd have to say that what I liked the least was Brad Bird (laughter). Actually, I loved everything about this movie. Even the audition, just interviewing for the part, was better than most jobs that I've had. And the studios great. It's like Willy Wonka's factory without the creepiness (laughter)

BB: My least favorite thing is the short schedule that we were given to work on the film. It's taken a lot of long hours to get everything ready for the summer release date, but I think you guys will like it.

Brad Bird (left) and Patton Oswalt opened

PO: Did we keep the scene I pitched with all the ninjas and the robot attack (laughter)? (Bird shakes his head.) They never use any of my ideas.

Audience Question: Where did you get the concept for this movie?

BB: Jan Pinkava, who created the Pixar short Geri's Game, came up with the concept.

PO: (in a "nerd voice"): Ahem. The old man from Geri's Game was actually in Toy Story 2, as the toy repairman who was hired by Al, of Al's Toy Barn, to repair Woody (laughter).

Audience Question: Is there any chance that we'll see 2D animation in your future?

BB: I'll probably be doing live action for my next project. Lots of animation people use it as a stepping stone to live action, and they leave and never come back. Not me. I hope to do live action, 2D, 3D, whatever comes my way. And 2D's not old-fashioned. I love it (applause).

PO: Why are Hollywood's big-budget movies so bad? The scripts, the plots you can't relate to any of them. I can relate personally to all of the explosions in big-budget movies. "Oooh! That's just like the time I blew up a building!"

Audience Question: Do you plan to do movies that are only available in digital projection?

BB: I'd be interested in that sort of thing, or doing movies in 3D, but we're waiting for the right technology to come along. We wouldn't want it to be cost-prohibitive, or to have any major limitations on what we could do with it.

Audience Question: Will there ever be an Incredibles 2 (applause)?

BB: You know, I really love those characters. The important thing to me is that the story comes first. "Is there another story worth telling with these characters?" is the question that I'd have to ask before even thinking about it. Pixar does not do sequels as part of its financial plan. If I come up with a story as good or better than the first one, I'll think about a sequel (applause).

PO: I pitched a movie called The Awesomeables (laughter). Brad just hates success, though, so he won't do my movie (laughter).

John Ratzenberger, Randy Newman and Brad Bird's voice acting were among fans' concerns at the Ratatouille panel. All Ratatouille images © Disney/Pixar.

Audience Questions: How much of the final product is from what the writer does, and how much is from the storyboard artists?

BB: I'm very hands-on as an animation director, working really closely with the artists to establish things like the camera angles, motion, etc. I let my storyboard artists take the first shot at it, but I'll sketch things out if I want to go another direction with it.

The scenes with Remy, like the kitchen scenes, are all from his point of view, at rat's eye-level. But I'll change the POV a lot, depending on the characters and the scene. Mark Andrews, a really talented Pixar artist, has a lot to do with everything that you end up seeing onscreen.

Audience Question: How many Pixar films are in production at a time?

A screening of the trailer, a clip and a behind-the-scenes slideshow were among the goodies fans were treated to at the Ratatouille presentation.

BB: The studio's gradually getting bigger, and now there are usually five or six movies in various stages of production, and they're all very different from each other. I think we've got time for one more question -- I've got a wedding to go to. The voice of Emile [Pete Sohn] is getting married this afternoon.

Audience Question: What are the best books on writing for animation that are available?

BB: It's really hard to say, because good animation writing is good writing, period. To me, The Simpsons isn't good "animation writing," it's good comedy writing. Ratatouille isnt "animation writing," it's movie writing.

PO: Read a lot of books. Read your favorite books and screenplays, and see what they did right. You have to render a story well told. Pick up Will Eisner's books too (applause). He created the grammar of comics storytelling. He tells you what you need to keep in a story, but he also tells you what you can leave out.

BB: Don't just watch animation, either. Go to plays, watch movies, study television it's all useful.

PO: Re-watch your favorite pieces of animation, and just pay attention to the story, or the writing, or the characters.

Audience Question: Mr. Bird, are you going to be a voice in Ratatouille?

BB: I do have a very small part. Very small. A weaselly, wimpy character. Youll have to watch the movie to see what it is, though.

Thanks for coming out, everybody.

Bird closed the panel by sharing the premiere of the upcoming domestic trailer for Ratatouille. The audience response was enthusiastic throughout the event, and it seems likely that Pixar's streak of hit movies is in no danger of ending with this summer's offering.

Post Convention Notes

Unlike last years convention, which kicked off the official comic convention season, this year's WonderCon arrived on the heels of the previous weekend's New York City Comic-Con. Marvel, DC, VIZ and TOKYOPOP all reserved their big announcements for NYCCC and the upcoming Wizard World Los Angeles from March 16-18, 2007, which makes WonderCon appear to be an afterthought in the eyes of the major publishers. While the lack of "big news" seems to put off the bloggers and other online comics pundits, the lack of hype surrounding the weekends programming was a refreshing change of pace from similar-sized conventions. WonderCon seems content to carve out its own little corner of the convention universe, which suits its attendees just fine.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager/curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, and is the creator of the webcomic The Chronicles of William Bazillion