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The Wonders of WonderCon

In between moderating panels and hosting fundraisers, the intrepid Andrew Farago reports on this year's San Francisco event.

Hollywood's presence grew again this year at WonderCon, bringing a host of premieres, exclusive footage and celebrity guests. Courtesy of Andrew Farago. 

Hollywood's presence grew again this year at WonderCon, bringing a host of premieres, exclusive footage and celebrity guests. Courtesy of Andrew Farago. 

WonderCon, the first major comics and pop cultural convention of 2008, stormed into San Francisco last weekend and celebrated its 22nd year in the San Francisco Bay Area. As has been the trend since the convention moved from the Oakland Convention Center to San Francisco's Moscone Center in 2003, Hollywood's presence has grown again this year, bringing a host of premieres, exclusive footage and celebrity guests. Comic books remain the primary focus of the convention, however, as the all-star roster featuring many of the industry's top stars can attest.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday, as usual, was the most relaxed day of the convention. People with jobs outside of the comics industry and those children whose parents aren't willing to pull them out of school for the opportunity to spend an extra day hunting down Yu-Gi-Oh! cards are nowhere to be seen, leaving an audience consisting primarily of those in and around the industry and the diehard fans who refuse to miss a minute of northern California's largest comic convention.

This was the eighth consecutive WonderCon I've attended, so I had little difficulty filling the day just catching up with artists and friends that I've met over the past decade. I've worked nearly 50 conventions since 2001, and it's always a bit unsettling to me that I see original series Battlestar Galactica alum Herbert "Boomer" Jefferson more times in any given year than I see my sister, but that's the comics biz in a nutshell.

DC Comics offered up individual spotlight panels on popular creators Becky Cloonan, Darwyn Cooke, Terry Dodson and Bill Willingham, as well as The Adventures of Superman television series' Lois Lane, Noel Neill. The major premieres and panels from Hollywood are generally reserved for Saturday programming, but Universal gave attendees advance looks at Forgetting Sarah Marshall (along with special guests Jason Segel and Kristen Bell) and Wanted (with special guest James McAvoy), which is adapted from Mark Millar and J.G. Jones' comic book of the same name.

Plenty of programming for fans of Japanese comics and animation was on tap throughout the weekend as well, including two presentations by Jason Thompson, author of the essential guidebook Manga: The Complete Guide, multiple panels from Los Angeles-based publisher TokyoPop, and round-the-clock anime screenings all three days of the convention. San Francisco-based manga publisher Viz was once again M.I.A., although many of its editors and staff attended WonderCon in an unofficial capacity.

Doctor Who and a Dalek patrol the grounds. Courtesy of Andrew Farago.

Doctor Who and a Dalek patrol the grounds. Courtesy of Andrew Farago.

Friday evening programming offered something for everyone, as well. The Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge returned for its seventh year, allowing amateur filmmakers an opportunity to screen their movies for an appreciative audience. Anime fans saw the premiere of Appleseed: Ex Machina prior to its release on DVD. New Line Cinema trotted out footage from the upcoming live-action digital 3D movie Journey to the Center of the Earth, and its star, Brendan Fraser, was on hand to discuss the film. And one of the world's most respected and admired cartoonists was on hand for a special screening of Steven-Charles Jaffe and Robert Jaffe's documentary Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird, a lively and entertaining portrait of the man whom Mexican director Guillermo del Toro honors with the title "the poster child of disenfranchised children."

At the close of the day, visitors had easy access to San Francisco's bustling nightlife, from the restaurants of Chinatown to the clubs of North Beach and The Castro, as well as a variety of cartoon- and comic-related parties and book signings throughout the city. The nearby Cartoon Art Museum held its annual WonderCon Friday fundraiser, allowing visitors an opportunity to view its gallery space outside of convention hours, while visiting cartoonist Dan Piraro, creator of the syndicated panel Bizarro, performed his one-man Bizarro Bologna Show at the legendary Purple Onion comedy club.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Saturday was definitely my busiest day at the convention, and every exhibitor that I spoke with had a similar experience. Exhibitors once again lined up around the block on Saturday morning, hoping to gain entry to the convention hall as soon after 10:00 am as possible. And once again, armed Stormtroopers were on hand to maintain the peace, like Hell's Angels at a much geekier version of Altamont.

I kicked off the day moderating a panel discussion on The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, the original art exhibition that my wife, Shaenon K. Garrity, and I curated for the Cartoon Art Museum. Panelists Karl Cohen (president of ASIFA-San Francisco and professor of animation history at San Francisco State University) and Ralph Eggleston (production designer, Pixar Animation Studios) regaled the audience with stories about the life and career of the legendary animation designer, while I did my best to keep the whole thing on schedule.

Sunday spotlighted the hit series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. © 2007 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Sunday spotlighted the hit series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. © 2007 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Hollywood programming was very well attended throughout the day and, fortunately for convention-goers, WonderCon is still small enough that no one was turned away from Hall A throughout the weekend's programming, meaning that, at least in theory, a well-organized visitor had the ability to see every panel on his itinerary. Warner Bros. trotted out sneak peeks at Get Smart (with special guests Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway) and 10,000 BC; Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny were on hand to promote Fox's new X-Files movie; New Line Cinema hosted a panel on Harold & Kumar featuring Harold himself, John Cho; and Kids' WB! premiered the first episode of The Spectacular Spider-Man, set to debut on the CW network on March 8.

Greg Weisman, co-creator and producer of Gargoyles (and writer of SLG's Gargoyles comic book), is the supervising producer of The Spectacular Spider-Man, and I spoke with him briefly about the new series. "I'm the editor and showrunner on the cartoon. Vic Cook is responsible for the visual elements, and I'm handling the writing and voice work. Both of us handle the stories together." With over a half-dozen other Spider-Man cartoons produced since the mid-'60s, I asked Weisman what sets this latest version apart from the rest. "It's very contemporary, but very iconic at the same time. From the outset, we wanted to create the classic Spider-Man cartoon. It's got action, it's got humor, it's got romance, and it's got all the classic characters. This show will be exciting for kids of any age, whether or not they've ever seen Spider-Man before."

In between other obligations, I managed to catch Disney-Pixar's WALL•E panel, with director Andrew Stanton presenting clips from the eagerly awaited film. This is the first science-fiction feature from Pixar, and Stanton couldn't be happier about it. "I grew up in a golden age of sci-fi, from the late '60s to the mid-'70s. We had 2001, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien..."

Director Andrew Stanton introduced four exclusive clips from WALL•E that seem to ensure Pixar's continuing success. © Disney/Pixar.

Director Andrew Stanton introduced four exclusive clips from WALL•E that seem to ensure Pixar's continuing success. © Disney/Pixar.

"This story takes place in the distant future. Earth is covered in trash, and mankind has left the planet on a mandatory five-year trip while robots clean up. Our story asks, 'What if mankind had to leave the earth, and someone forgot to turn that last robot off?'" Stanton then presented four exclusive clips from the film. The first showed WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) at work, gathering garbage at the dump and compacting it for easy storage and disposal. Having little context for these cast-offs, WALL•E examines bras, car keys, paddleballs, jewelry and fire extinguishers with curiosity, attempting to determine the purpose of each item.

The second clip revealed WALL•E's love interest, a probe droid named EVE. In an attempt to impress her, WALL•E gives her a guided tour of his home, a modified truck. The truck's interior is decorated with trash, all of which is fascinating to EVE. From the singing fish on the wall to WALL•E's prized eggbeater, Rubik's Cube, light bulb and (EVE's favorite) bubble wrap, the two take great delight in the garbage that all of us take for granted.

The remaining clips ventured further into sci-fi territory, with space cruisers, escape pods, explosions, and some awe-inspiring scenes of the cosmos. One particularly amazing scene depicts WALL•E floating through space, dragging his hand through a star-trail behind him, resulting in some absolutely beautiful animation.

Stanton's clips were human-free, although it's been rumored that some barely-recognizable-as-human characters will play a role in the feature. WALLE and EVE's scenes were almost entirely dialogue free, but the handful of scenes we witnessed displayed an incredible amount of character and personality, which is a testament to the skill of Pixar's animators. No other animation studio has consistently matched the quality of Pixar's feature films over the past 15 years, and WALLE looks like a safe bet to continue their long run of classic animated features.

Following the WALLE panel, I moderated the Cartoon Art Museum's Spotlight on Local Cartoonists, featuring Bay Area Cartoonists MariNaomi, Lloyd Dangle, Justin Hall, Debbie Huey, Michael Jantze and Fred Noland. We discussed the local creative community and their own careers in a lively 90-minute discussion, then I was off to the press room for coverage of Paramount's Iron Man. (See sidebar.)

Saturday evening programming included the world premiere of Justice League: The New Frontier and the Fourth Annual WonderCon Masquerade, hosted by Master of Ceremonies Phil Foglio. Activities outside of the convention hall included the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's fundraising party and art auction at local gallery 111 Minna, and the Queer Comics Reading & Mixer at the Three Dollar Bill Cafe, located in San Francisco's LGBT Center. Both events were very well attended, and it appears that the after-hours outside-of-WonderCon programming is becoming more plentiful each year.

Director Jon Favreau held a roundtable with journalists to talk about the highly anticipated Iron Man. Photo credit: T.Gill © SDCC 2008.

Director Jon Favreau held a roundtable with journalists to talk about the highly anticipated Iron Man. Photo credit: T.Gill © SDCC 2008.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The convention wrapped up on Sunday with a variety of programs, including spotlights on Japanese superheroes, publishers SLG and TokyoPop, hit series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and cult favorite Jericho, and artists including Tim Sale, Fables creative team members Bill Willingham and Steve Leialoha, and Golden Age comic book artist Creig Flessel.

Traffic on the convention floor wasn't as heavy as it was on Saturday, but exhibitors were pleased with the overall turnout. Eric Shanower, creator of the Eisner Award-winning Age of Bronze said that sales were up significantly from 2003, the last year that he exhibited at WonderCon. "I haven't decided yet if I'll be back again next year. I did okay financially this year. I'm not sure about publicity, though. Exposing my work to new readers is an important part of exhibiting at any convention, whether those people purchase my work at the convention or not. Networking is also an important aspect of conventions to me, and not a lot of that happened as far as I can tell a few days afterward. Of course, seeds may have been sewn which will bear fruit down the line in a way that I can't anticipate."

Debbie Huey, creator of the all-ages comic Bumperboy feels that WonderCon is growing and evolving as a convention, and sees the recent changes as a good thing. "It seems as though the focus of the Con is shifting toward the film and TV industry, much like what San Diego Comic-Con has evolved into. Part of me thinks that the selling point of the convention should be comics, but at the same time, I think all the pop-culture aspects of the Con bring in the attendees. The more that the general public is exposed to comics, the better it is for us in the comics industry. I also like the fact that it is an event that parents can bring their children to; I've noticed that the adults-only content throughout the convention has decreased in recent years."

WonderCon offered advanced looks at Justice League: The New Frontier (left) and Batman: Gotham Knight. © Warner Bros. Home Video.

WonderCon offered advanced looks at Justice League: The New Frontier (left) and Batman: Gotham Knight. © Warner Bros. Home Video.

Many exhibitors reported strong sales, and popular artists such as Keith Knight, Mike Mignola, Herb Trimpe and Sergio Aragones had a consistent and steady stream of visitors throughout the weekend. Phil Foglio reported that while sales were good, this year's totals marked a downturn from his previous appearance at the convention. Despite the decrease in revenue, Foglio enjoyed the convention and plans to return next year. "I believe that the downturn in sales is due to outside economics, and not related to WonderCon per se. I expect this downturn to affect all conventions for perhaps the next two years."

Veteran comic book inker Al Gordon has been in the Artists Alley section of WonderCon every year since the show's inception. He enjoys the social aspects of the convention, but would prefer to see a shift away from the "pop culture and comics" direction and see a renewed focus on comic books and creators. "It needs to be more local-friendly and a little more like [San Francisco's Alternative Press Expo] in terms of self-published folk, for it to be completely cool for me."

David Glanzer, Comic-Con International's director of marketing and public relations, is pleased with the direction that WonderCon has taken in the past five years, and looks forward to further establishing the convention as one of the premiere destinations for fans of all forms of popular culture. "We have spent many years making sure that each of our events are fun, educational and diverse enough to attract a wide array of attendees. It is in this way that we are best able to promote our mission statement that tasks us in '... creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular art forms.' And it's a task we take on happily." (See sidebar for full interview.)

Anecdotal evidence from fans and professionals alike indicates that this was one of the most enjoyable WonderCons in years, and nearly everyone that I interviewed has a favorable attitude toward the convention and plans to return in 2009, which is the mark of a successful production.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.