Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

April 5, 2010

Notes On WonderCon, 2010


By Tom Spurgeon

* This is a series of notes about or inspired by WonderCon 2010, which took place April 2-4 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. WonderCon is a comics and related media show that's been going about 20 years constructed mostly along the lines of mainstream North American comics, taking place in one of the world's hot spots for alternative culture. Notes on other comics-related events taking place outside of the convention center but scheduled for WonderCon weekend to take advantage of the extra folks in town are included here, at least as much as I was able to attend them.

* Just to be as clear as possible, I was flown out as a media guest for this show and given a hotel room. Although why the offer was tendered wasn't discussed, I imagine the Comic-Con staff made the offer in order to help bring greater attention to this specific show. As much as it has its passionate devotees, WonderCon has been odd man out in terms of media coverage the last few years. As I would not be able to afford to attend the show otherwise, and because the show interests me, I was happy to take them up on their offer. There was absolutely no suggestion on their end as to how I should cover the show or, frankly, whether I should cover the show at all! Had I been of the mind to do so, I could have spent the entire weekend squirreled away at the hotel watching filthy pay-per-view.

* Comic-Con is also an advertiser on this site. I usually don't mention that because it's, you know, right there for you to see. Anyway, I guess there's a big chance for biased, compromised nonsense this time out. Read carefully.


* No one really wants to hear another person's travel horror stories, but I'll give you mine: I showed up at the airport Thursday morning to take the first of three segmented flights. The first flight was canceled for mechanical reasons. I couldn't make it by car in time to pick up the second flight, so the folks at the first airport offered to re-book me through Tucson, 3.5 hours away. Flying from Tucson would still get me to San Francisco that day. They even showed me paperwork and gave me a code. Turns out that while this flight existed, the nice folks at the first airport didn't do any of the actual re-booking. To have them re-do the flight in Tucson would cost $500. I don't know about you, but that was my entire Thunderstrike back-issues buying budget. The guy at the next desk eventually felt sorry enough for me he booked me an entirely new flight on his own authority. But thanks, original airport people, for several moments of stomach-churning dread.

* It probably wouldn't be classy to name the offending airline, but I will say it rhymes with "Montier."

* The cab driver I used from SFO hadn't heard of WonderCon. I thought that was an interesting enough contrast with the bemused groans I usually get from San Diego's taxi-driving legions that I'd mention it here.

* One thing I saw on the highway was a big Iron Man billboard for Oracle. Don't know exactly what for, but it was definitely ol' Shellhead. I flashed on the kind of thought that writers with a greater sense of what mainstream comics mean tend to make routinely and with a lot more verve: as much as our first reaction would be to pooh-pooh it, it must be cool on some level to work near the creative fulcrum for such iconic characters, these temporary avatars of cultural shorthand. I concentrate so much on the downside of that kind of work that it probably behooves me to address the positives every now and then.

* We passed by the new stadium, where the Giants were having an exhibition game with the Oakland A's. I would learn later that evening that somewhere in that stadium was a very cold Jim Chadwick.

* My WonderCon-ignorant cab driver did say he'd never seen that much activity at the Marriott Marquis on a weekday evening. Any number of cabs and cars were crowding their short driveway. In fact, I walked in just as a short line of DC power players barreled past me, on their way to dinner. Comics-town!

* That's a fine hotel, by the way. I have no idea where it rests in the constellation of WonderCon hotels, but it's nice. It's also huge, with a lot of rooms. My room was very comfortable, with a large desk pressed up against the window. Most writers love most hotel rooms, and this definitely had many of the reasons why. The lobby is airport terminal spacious, with a bar that feels like the place you might get a last drink before taking off. The concierge desk hosts up to three such service providers at a time.

* Did anyone ever figure out what those ladies in the similar floral dresses were all about?

* I fully intended to walk to the Walgreens and come back and go to bed. But instead I enjoyed a three-hour lobby bar conversation with IDW's Scott Dunbier, who was hoping to catch some people coming back from dinner to transfer some original art to one of them. That original art? An entire comic book by an old master, which was about as ridiculously gorgeous to look at as you'd imagine. (Here's a clue: black gutters.) Most people that stopped by took the time to take at least a peek, oohing and aahing all the way.

* Coming in and out of our vicinity were a variety of comics folks and convention regulars: Mark Evanier, Sergio Aragones, James Robinson, Pam Noles, AnnaMaria White, Heidi MacDonald and a number of folks whose names I'm way too terrified to wing. I saw Joe Kubert in the lobby proper, at one point talking to I believe Dan DiDio. I saw Team Isotope on the other side of the bar. The reason I mention all this is because a) it's always a lot of fun to talk about comics face to face with other people when you spend nearly all of your time typing about them at home, b) this is a very mainstream comics-focused show, and I don't know a lot of mainstream comics people. These would be my personal themes for the weekend.

* As many people as were roaming about, a few expressed nostalgia for WonderCon's original, Oakland-area potency as a bar con, as in "best bar con ever." There wasn't a lot of what we in college called "shuttling" in term of expressing a series of old memories, but there was definitely some fondness in the air for the original hotel's bar and the shenanigans that developed there. (It occurs to me that with the Petunia Cons of the mid-1980s, you might be able to say the Bay Area locked into place the two-tiered con set-up with which San Diego flirted: where you have this public show during the day and an intense series of social engagements at night.) Smaller shows have more intimate backstage scenes generally, and while this show is a bit too big for there to be one single area of commiseration, it came close: in whatever circle you traveled, you tended to see those people over and over.


* Yet another thing that makes this con different from Comic-Con is that walking over to the show the street didn't begin to coalesce into a WonderCon crowd until about 40 yards from the front door. At Comic-Con I always get a sense I've entered the convention center's sphere of influence about three blocks away, like Peter Weller getting joined by the other Buckaroo Banazai cast members in the end credits.

* Downtown San Francisco seems to have some sort of Walgreens problem. One of the neighborhoods where I lived in Seattle offered two Starbucks within 40 yards of one another. Market Street was kind of like that, only with the opportunity to buy two-liters of Sunkist and a rotary fan rather than espresso. I always like walking around San Francisco, though. Even more than New York it offers the sight of people absolutely put together right next to people absolutely falling apart. I come from a town where the mayor is just as likely as anyone else to be standing in line in his sweatpants and wifebeater at 12 PM on Sunday holding an 18-pack of Bud Ice, so the sharp distinction the big cities bring between haves and have-nots always fascinates.

* Registration was great. Christopher whose last name I don't remember and who takes care of that for Comic-Con said they get about 650 pre-registered press members and about 800 total (the walk-up addition may have only been Friday's). The lines for individual registration looked long but survivable.

* I caught a glimpse of David Glanzer going the other way up the world's longest escalator. When I tried to go up and see him I couldn't find him. I went down the escalator again and noticed he was in this open air little circular lounge behind the registration area and over the outside of the hall. It was like a little Star Wars social space. I really liked it. Best staff-only area ever.

* The convention hall is pretty big, appropriate to the show: I'm thinking maybe 2.5 times the size of a Heroes Con? Between a third or fourth of Comic-Con International? In the size-sense the show really is like San Diego from 15-18 years ago. I thought it looked fairly crowded on Friday, although maybe not so much at the far ends of Artist's Alley, the lanes against the walls where folks like cartoonist Justin Thompson and the writer Matt Maxwell were located. They actually had some of the bigger AA names on the ends of rows rather than in the rows -- I don't know if that's a typical thing or not -- guys like Ethan Van Sciver and David Finch and Frank Cho.

* I saw a couple of my core convention buddies. By convention buddies I mean guys with whom I'm friendly that I only ever seem to see at conventions. Joel Meadows is readying another print issue of his handsome Tripwire for release in July. Justin Norman is in the midst of a hopefully long, ongoing run on DC's The Spirit, first issue to come out soon. He admitted that the pedigree of creators to work on that character gave him some pause. Norman's one of my favorite people in comics and it's great to see him work his way into this new opportunity. It's been a long time coming and I hope he kills it. He's working with writer Mark Schultz on the initial issues and Editor Joey Cavalieri generally.

* I saw only two celebrities; and only one of them was a sure thing. I swear I saw Jeff Garlin there, although I haven't double-checked yet and pretty much 17 percent of all dudes at a convention look like Jeff Garlin (Ian Brill has since confirmed). I definitely saw Michael Chiklis at his signing, which was big enough to cause Bob Schreck to do that ambulatory scarecrow thing where you slowly walk into a crowd waving your arms gently to get people to scatter. There were a lot of young men at the Chiklis signing. You could do much worse than emulate the determination he's displayed in shaping his career. For what it's worth, I felt almost none of the Hollywood presence, even less than the 10 percent of it that I feel in San Diego.

* By celebrity I mean the kind there to do a panel or maybe even buy some stuff, not working the show at a booth. There were a lot of folks signing autographs and the like, although I didn't spend much time in their section. I saw an actor who apparently played an African-American sheriff on Dukes of Hazzard, a character I couldn't remember at all (my dad, inexplicably, was a fan of the show; he also loved Hee-Haw). My favorite show business related thing on the floor was a booth in which sat a fan club for the small town community-affirming, post-domestic nuclear terrorism show Jericho. I loved watching Jericho when I could remember to go look for it because it was so terribly, terribly weird. The ladies at the booth were selling show-related clothing.

* Most improved booth: IDW. Booth I didn't really understand: Aspen. Booth that wasn't actually their real booth: DC Comics. Company I didn't expect to be here that wasn't: Marvel. Company I had sort of expected to be here for some reason but wasn't: Top Shelf.

* People talk about the graying of the comics readership, but it felt to me like very few people in attendance happened to be my age or older. Most looked like they came from the same age group -- 25-35 year olds -- that to my memory dominated convention crowds 15 years ago. I felt old more than a few times. There seemed like a lot of women there, including a number attending on their own, which maybe wasn't the case when I started going to these things. I also saw a lot of kids, including kids that seemed just as into this stuff as the parent, if not outright escorted by one. Also, the crowd seemed quite diverse. It's nice to see different ethnic groups represented, and gay couples.

* Never in my life will I understand the costume impulse, even less so in terms of people my age and older wearing them (nearly all teenager activities are designed around sex; jumping in and out of costumes and acting out a bit while in them is not the worst idea to push young people in that direction). I was surprised to see only a modest amount of them on the floor this first day. My favorite was a Dove costume, as 1) it's weird, 2) that one doesn't make a whole lot of sense once you see someone actually wearing it, 3) it cracks me up when someone does a costume where you're paired with someone else and decides not to do the other costume.

* one thing that's different now: almost everyone is more media savvy in the sense that they operate as if anything they say can be considered media fodder. I heard a lot of "This isn't for publication" before a lot of conversations I would never dream of making public because there would be absolutely no interest in what was said except maybe from the American Boring Institute. Didn't stop the people talking from seeing such things in that light, though.

* Saw two folks from the Pacific Northwest with cons of their own: Jim Demonakos of Emerald City and Shannon Stewart from Stumptown. Demonakos seemed pleased with the success of his 2010 show, and from all reports -- including unsolicited raves from three pros I talked to -- he should be. Emerald Con passed that threshold this year where it's going to be hard not to have it now, if that makes any sense. It should be interesting how they make the transition to being a three-day show: that's an underrated move in terms of degree of difficulty, because it changes the tenor of a convention. Stewart said that Portland's finest indy comics show just announced Paul Pope as its last special guest, and that the mayor has named April comics month in that great funnybook city for the fourth year in a row. I haven't been to Emerald City yet, but Stumptown is a fine show of that type, and I encourage you to attend if it sounds appealing in any way.

* Watching Jeremy Atkins of Dark Horse and AnnaMaria White at IDW operate a little bit, it struck me how the publicity operations in comics might have changed in recent years, without our really noticing, to more significantly favor people that are personable and presentable along with those able to carry out media relations duties. This is the kind of thing that might only matter to me, I admit. And it's not like there was ever a time when PR in comics was run by disagreeable, beastly folk. Still, the current generation seems slightly more telegenic, if that makes any sense.

* I watched some of the Dark Horse panel; it was fun to gauge the various contrasts between Atkins and Dark Horse/comics old guard member Randy Stradley. They had presentational tool malfunctions that would have sent me screaming from the building and into a new career. One thing they mentioned that I hadn't noticed is that Joss Whedon's brother whose name I can't remember (Zack?) is doing more and more writing for the company. Also: Ron Glass anecdote, and you can't have enough of those.

image* a fit-looking, earnest and personable Geoff Johns ran his moderator-less panel like he was hosting an MTV special; appropriate to that comparison, three or four questions were about how good-looking he is (he deflected these questions). Johns had to negotiate not being able to discuss Blackest Night #8, as a significant number of people in the audience had yet to read it. His new corporate position brought with it a bunch of questions that helped compensate. Johns said he worked very closely with the writer on the Green Lantern film script, and rattled off a significant number of weird alien things that we're likely to see in the movie, now filming. The crowd, maybe three times the size of the Dark Horse panel, seemed to enjoy the heck out of themselves.

* Back on the floor, I saw the writer Joe Casey, who refused to let me take his photo because he said his new look afforded him a disguise for conventions. By the time you read this, they will have announced a new title for Casey at Image Comics called Officer Down.

* I ran into Charles Brownstein, who informed me that the wire services had picked up on the death of Burton Joseph, the lawyer and free speech activist who lent his energy and prestige to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in some of its most important cases. A full obituary will appear at CR soon. He was right around 80 years old.

* The general health of Generation Direct Market -- the first group of shop owners, now aging and in some cases passing on -- was a recurring topic throughout the weekend. I also talked to a number of people about the mounting costs of the Recession on businesses within comics and on individual careers. One basic idea that seemed to form during the discussions about money was that just because the last 18 months were not as apocalyptically bad as we thought they might be, a lot of people still took major hits.

* Personal note: it would be nice to go through an entire convention season where I didn't have to say to at least one person: "Wow, I totally screwed you on that. I'm sorry."

* A lot of folks expressed enthusiasm for the $2 Darwyn Cooke Parker preview; it was also by far the single item that people mentioned when I asked what I should go see. I ran into a couple of people that gushed over being able to catch up with Long Tail Kitty. After that, opinion fractured markedly.

* I stopped in for some of two company panels: the DC Nation panel -- which is somehow different from the DC Universe panel in a way I don't care enough to understand -- and IDW's. The DC Nation panel featured three of the new company executives in Dan DiDio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns, and all were enthusiastic about their new roles although not in a way that extended past general platitudes. Apparently, the desire to make great comics is a brand-new one. They also all wore baseball caps, which I trace back, likely in improper fashion, to being one of Image Comics enduring gifts to the funnybook world. The IDW guys struggled through their visual accompaniment. Fog kept the rest of the IDW editorial team from getting on planes early that day. This left those in the room without their cheat sheets. There were 22 people in attendance, most of who got to laugh at the enthusiastic, earnest musings of Max Brooks on his GI Joe work.

* My sampling consists of exactly two people, but if Brooks and Johns are representative of the slightly younger creators coming to the fore now, that kind of earnestness may be on the rise while the slightly snarky remove of the older creators may be on the decline. That's a ridiculously broad statement, of course, but I wonder if there isn't perhaps a trend of some sort there.

* One thing I like about comics conventions is you can pepper your conversation with li living sight gags. Two different people with whom I discussed my forthcoming plans were treated to me saying, "or maybe I'll just stand here and watch Erik Larsen read a comic book." And as we all looked up not 20 feet away was Erik Larsen reading a comic book. I could do stuff like that all day.

* I ran into retailer and Direct Market industry advocate Brian Hibbs on the convention's main floor. He's someone with whom I've been dealing since 1994 -- almost always in friendly fashion; sometimes on different ends of an issue, never angrily -- but hadn't met face to face, so that was a joy. He was still beaming from the recent ComicsPro meeting in Memphis, particularly in how responsive the companies in attendance were to hearing back from Direct Market retailers in terms of things they were doing. I remain a big Direct Market guy, although I'm cognizant of their failings. If comic shops didn't exist we would dream about them. I really like when Brian writes about hanging out with his little kid, so I was glad to hear they made it to WonderCon together and went toy shopping. Hibbs doesn't exhibit at shows, which never occurred to me before but of course he doesn't. I wonder if there's any significant about a generational shift in retailers -- Hibbs being a transitional figure, starting his shop in 1989 -- and if we might lose comics retailers at shows by a change in practices on the retail end of things rather than the by conventions' doing. As a matter of fact, there's a broad range of issues that comes up when you think of DM Generation One entering their golden years. Item one: who gets their stores?


* Went to the Ed Hannigan benefit at the Cartoon Art Museum. I hadn't been to CAM since I went to an Ed Gorey exhibit there in the mid- to late-1990s (with soon-to-be birthday boy Greg Stump). It's very different space: first floor (rather than a higher one), bigger shop, four largish rooms and a fifth, smaller one furthest away from the street with a small hallway (and bathrooms) sticking out from that. It's a good space: not as big as some small museums I've been to over the years, but certainly half again the size of a strong gallery's showing area.

* I quite liked the variety of art on display. There was some sort of Batman exhibit that had original pages from Paul Pope, Frank Miller and Jiro Kuwata. The Kuwatas were stunning, imagery presented with a confidence that made their inexplicable oddities stand out that much more: I felt an urge to own every third page. The Millers brought on feelings of nostalgia more than any appreciation for the works as original art pages, although that was probably just my mood. For some reason, it was heartening to see the whiteout Miller employed. The Paul Pope pages were ridiculously huge.

* As far as I know, the Museum failed to raise enough money to make Andrew Farago shave a 1989-style Batman logo into the back of his head. I wondered if his wife, the writer and cartoonist Shaenon Garrity, was relieved, but I was told she was filming a public access TV show with Phil Foglio, which is the kind of thing you end up doing on a comics convention weekend.

* The Ed Hannigan stuff was fine. If you're near my age, you probably bought a lot of comic books with Ed Hannigan covers. With the 40 or so pieces on hand, they managed to snag what I think of as his best design -- an issue of Batman looking down on an alley way where the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder have just beaten down a whole crowd of typical-era punks, with a second grouping on the way. When I think of Hannigan's interior work I think of the first Cloak and Dagger story, which opens with this snazzy, one-panel street setting and contains some fine minimalist cartooning featuring the visually contrasting guest stars. They had that whole story there, so a good job in representing Hannigan's better work, I think.

* A few pieces of art from the more general part of the exhibit offered several obvious highlights. I'd never seen a Jack Kent (it looked like an original Pogo, naturally) or a William Steig original before (that one baffled me; it looked like no human hands had touched it). I'd seen some Bill Mauldin but I liked the ones they had on display quite a bit. The usual cartoon art show suspects -- Crane, Caniff, Kelly, King/Moores, Arriola were all well represented.

* Random factoid: the Cartoon Art Museum has about 6000 pieces of original art in a permanent collection. They are stored in a different, higher-security part of their property.

* I met Albert Moy later that evening, which I thought a bit humorous given the original art theme to the evening. He's been working in that field since 1982, which is long for any career in comics let alone a ruthlessly commercial one like that. He seemed like a cool guy.

* My one "This isn't like 15 years at San Diego at all" moment was watching Mark Evanier check his portable device to see if a business-related download he was doing in his hotel room was completed. Don't remember that from 1995.

* I've been given figures ranging from 20-25 people to 125-150 people going on Friday's Tiki Bar tour. No matter the bottom-line number, several went in full pirate garb.


* Saturday: way different than Friday crowds-wise. There were more people stepping away from the convention center Saturday early afternoon than had been heading there the same time Friday. Most of the tables in the center of the show were jammed with people seeking something. By mid-afternoon I began to collect a wide array of stories about who was making money that tended as a group to trend towards the "things are going very well." The more elaborate costumes had come out, too.

* The crowds didn't go everywhere, though. Like San Diego, like various iterations of the Chicago Con, like Heroes Con 2008 and therefore I imagine like most shows, there were dead spots: one such at WonderCon was the outside row of small press artists. I don't know that there's anything that can be done about that -- people are going to go where they're gong to go -- but I always feel sorry for someone who for reasons of flow not aesthetics is seeing most people chug by without a second look.

* Someone told me a few hours after the fact that the Q&A-driven DCU Editorial panel was "the longest experience" of their life. Just saying.

* A bunch of people enthused over Greg Rucka's spotlight for its long, full and specific answers to questions asked. Rucka had just terminated his partnership with DC Comics, and was not shy in unpacking exactly why he thought this happened.

* If I had enough money to cover conventions more thoroughly, I swear my first hire wouldn't be another person to run around the con but someone to stay home and monitor the various news feeds coming out of it. Being so close up I have little idea as to what's going on, and feel I'll have some work to do on Tuesday of this week catching up with some announcement-based news for sure.


* My favorite new recurring panel is the CBLDF Live Art Jam, which I think is a great idea: a group of artists make sketches to auction off on behalf of the CBLDF while answering questions about what they're drawing or the industry generally. They switch places so that one of them is always working on the overhead. I greatly enjoyed this at San Diego and except for the fact that at CCI the table set-up made it an endearing lunchtime panel (it's the future as I once envisioned it to see dozens of teens staring at Mike Mignola drawing while eating from Bento Boxes) I had a better time at this version. When Emily Procter is done with CSI: Miami, they should hire her to play Colleen Doran drawing in public while at the same time sticking it to dumb editors and the stupidities of work-for-hire production in a southern lilt. I'd watch that show every week. Darick Robertson even told a pretty great Peter Bagge anecdote. Good panel.

* The two funny things about the Boom! panel were 1) its bizarre mix of new comics readers and super-old and jazzed up Disney comics enthusiasts, 2) the fact that Darkwing Duck is so far outside the bounds of any definition of my own childhood/adolescence that I have no attachment to it at all and the names of places and characters that thrilled some in attendance bounced off my forehead like water from a shower head. They had about 30 people there.

image* The Gail Simone spotlight panel was more packed in the same room as the Boom! panel: bunches of people that seemed genuinely pleased to meet the comics writer. Simone told a funny story about nearly blowing off an early opportunity to work for Bongo. In fact, she was generally funny, although that's hardly a surprise. I thought smart her statement on Wonder Woman that it wasn't so much about figuring out the one or two things that character did really well but creating a vehicle through which multiple interpretations could be valid.

* The video is Simone talking about her entry into comics. One thing I didn't know about Simone is that her move into comics writing was basically from the on-line writing that she did about comics. I was aware of her on-line writing but when she started showing up in the credits of different books I assumed there was another track to her work to which I was not privy.

* Simone wasn't one of them, but there seemed like a lot of mainstream people talking about forthcoming independent projects, albeit in vague terms. That may just be a function of events like this one, but the sentiment that you'd want to do something of your own seemed genuine and present. The writer Geoff Johns was one person who talked about doing his own characters (which might be his first such project -- I don't follow him closely enough to know -- and might be worth noting just in terms of his being able to do so given his current corporate responsibilities); the Amanda Conner/Jimmy Palmiotti team was another.


* I attended a fine Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators panels, despite the fact that so much time was lost to trying to get the video to work. The one time the video did work, it showed a funny video by Jerry Craft where he basically yells at the black superheroes from the '70s for various offenses related to their sucking. The best line was after pointing out that Black Goliath was routinely beaten up on the cover of his own comic books, the Craft stand-in suggests that BG has to be the only superhero whose utility belt contained nothing but first aid items. The funny thing is, that video had little to do with what was great about the panel, which was hearing Darrin Bell and Keith Knight talk not about their careers, or self-publishing, or a try-anything ethos, but about the content of their work and how people had reacted to it positively and negatively over the years. I don't know Bell's work as well as I might, but I've already put aside time to go and re-examine a bunch of it. Both guys were smart and funny and despite time restraints had trenchant stories to tell. This is exactly the kind of panel I hope to see at a comics show.

* One cool thing about that panel is they had a professional moderator whose name I can't remember, a guy that was seemingly used to doing interviews on TV. He seemed completely out of place, but he was absolutely brutal in terms of shutting down questions from the audience. He should train other moderators.

* If I had greater capability to travel to do comics news stories, I'd love to go with Keith Knight when he hits Slippery Rock to speak about a cartoon that outraged the black students there. Knight spoke with great sympathy about how his cartoon, brutally misunderstood, nonetheless may have been a final straw for many of the students facing some real issues on that campus.

* I went to speak to Shaenon Garrity on the floor after the Knight/Bell panel; she was helping Phil Foglio at the show. I don't know all that many folks at WonderCon, so I kind of relished visiting the few I did. This probably isn't the best way to orient one's self towards a show like this one, but there it is.


* The Darwyn Cooke presentation was nearly packed, and even more so in its concluding moments when Star Trek people eager to see the next panel crowded into the few remaining seats. There was no A/V. Cooke's a forthright speaker.

* It was interesting to me how many more of the questions at this show focused on his Parker work as opposed to focusing on superheroes through his work on books like New Frontier. Cooke expressed some general frustration with the amount of time it takes works to be approved in the mainstream comics milieu, and admitted to outright fear shopping the Parker stuff around. He was also it seemed to me honest and funny about the primary/sole motivating factor for potentially doing occasional mainstream projects if any were to be offered -- money, and a lot of it -- while noting that most artists live in a way that they can avoid taking this kind of work. One thing that was interesting to me is that he spoke of letting his personal reaction to the Parker books set him on a new career path when that was necessary, but that he also still plans to do the original work he was shopping around a couple of years ago. One of them (a romance?) may happen sooner than later. The other (a fantasy) may wait until he feels more creatively confident taking it on.

* One thing that stuck with me was that Cooke was complimentary of Daniel Clowes more than once over the weekend, calling him the best letterer in comics at one point (Will Eisner being the best all-time and Gaspar Saladino being his favorite of the old mainstream hand-letterers), citing his work with single colors as a factor in his working on the same in the Parker books, and extolling the virtues of Like A Velvet Glove, Cast In Iron as a horror story.

* I'd like to thank the comics journalism panel for making Douglas Wolk and myself feel 10,000 years old. Graeme McMillan's career was discussed like he was the inspiration for The Front Page and he started his Fanboy Rampage in 2002.

* All of the panelists came across as articulate and engaged and each presented themselves well, including late addition Laura Hudson. I thought David Brothers was a natural moderator; anyone out there who needs one should ask him. I'd never met Kate Dacey before, so that was nice. She was formidable.

* That said, when I stopped feeling old I started feeling like I came from a different planet than most of the panelists. There was a lot of talk about generating hits and reacting to readers' concerns that are flat-out foreign to me. One thing that made me happy was there wasn't a lot of time debating over what journalism is or isn't. All of the panelists clearly practice some form of journalism, even if isn't of the Woodward/Bernstein -- or Groth/Heintjes -- variety.

* The Comics Journalism panel was the last panel of the day, and even ran a bit over.

* I saw the sartorially resplendent Phil Foglio making his way back to the convention, dressed like the mayor in a particularly fancy Dahl story. I really thought about trying to do the masquerade since San Diego's has been such a tough ticket for 10 years now, but I had a couple of verbal commitments. It's nice to know I probably could have, though.

* Walking from the convention center to Comix Experience is a great idea only if you remember that natives don't consider four-and-half blocks of walking uphill walking uphill at all. The walk down Market Street is fascinating, though.

image* Comix Experience is a lovely-looking shop, maybe the paragon of a neighborhood store. I got to talk about the general, flushed state of North American comics conventions with some industry heavy-hitters (including Ron Turner), shoot the shit about Chicago comics retail of days gone by with Larry Marder and discuss what kind of comics hit with audiences and why with Justin Norman, Erik Larsen and Joe Keatinge. That was actually a very engaged discussion for people standing around holding beers and trying not to trip on some of the idiosyncratic parts of the shop's floor, with a sense that there are these really talented people that logic says should have an audience out there and that want to make comics that are absolutely flummoxed by the low sales ceiling for certain kinds of funnybooks right now.

* People at CE were happy to be drinking the fancy beer, and the food truck outside may be the greatest idea for a comics event supplement in the history of comics event supplements. Brian seemed to be enjoying himself, too, which is a great thing. It's nice to be able to see his space, and 21 years in is an accomplishment in terms of comics retail, retail generally and single-proprietor retail all at once.

* Matt Maxwell and I bummed a ride in Justin Norman's cab to the Isotope Party. Thanks, Justin. Norman told a very funny artist talking to his writer after bumping into him in the convention center bathroom story.


* Isotope's party spilled out onto its sidewalk; several folks that looks like neighborhood people out walking dogs or breaking down their bicycles stopped nearby or across the street to gape. It wasn't the biggest party the store has had, James Sime confirmed, but to my eyes it looked very, very respectable. I was frightened to go in.

* That's a lovely space, by the way. High ceilings, comfortable, modern. It seems ideal for social events like this weekend's, but I can imagine being a comics fan in my early 20s and wanting to come and hang out in a space like this one with facilitating my comics buying as a bonus.

* I have no idea why, but the Isotope party's comics-name guests (Palmiotti, Conner, Cooke) and their friends were all dressed in western garb. (I've been reminded since the initial posting that it was a Jonah Hex-related party; I guess I'm glad they didn't go with a scarring motif.) The Canadians were even Mounties. I started having Paul Gross flashbacks. When Palmiotti was giving a couple of the folks in attendance general career advice I imagined him breaking in on a pal's meeting with DC or Marvel, shooting his pistols until the contracts details were conformed.

* I really need to get to know more people on the mainstream side of things.

* I bummed a ride from Douglas Wolk's cab back to the hotel. Thanks, Douglas. Douglas is writing for Techland every week now, and they are at the very least keeping him in cab money.

* The hotel bar was once again hopping. And the Butler Bulldogs won. By the way: comics convention? Worst place to find out a basketball score ever.


* Easter Sunday. Several people at the show asked me if I thought there would be crowds on Easter or not. No one really knows.

* Turns out they didn't have a ton to worry about. The crowds fell safely within general Sunday parameters: not as many as the very crazy Saturday but more it seemed than Friday. The floor felt busy. You mostly noticed the reduction in audience in the non-busy areas of the building. There weren't people resting up against random walls on the mezzanine levels like on Saturday, not as many panels (it seems) in danger of being crowded right out to the hallway, not as long of a line (and by 3:30, none at all!) at the eating centers. It was San Diego of 25 years ago.

* I heard that several exhibitors thought they could get in much earlier than they ended up being let in. Don't know if that's a big deal or not.

* By the way, the Moscone food stands seem superior in every way to the San Diego Convention Center food stands. I didn't eat at them, but I bought some water near the end of Sunday and they had actual food-looking food behind the counter. I loved the proximity to the panel room areas, too. Why wouldn't you want to grab a bite to eat and then go watch cartoons or see Ian Sattler pontificate or whatever?

* When I walked in today a small circle of journalists had surrounded David Glanzer, including one gentleman absolutely incensed about the performance of Travel Planners during their 2010 hotel lottery a few weeks back. An announcement about CCI's feate should be coming pretty soon. I remain convinced that San Diego is the best spot for the show for now, so I hope it stays there.

* It was good to hear that Heidi MacDonald felt as old as Douglas and I did at that comics journalism panel.

* At least one well-known professional flew home Saturday late to spend Easter with their family and hey, good for them.

* Talked to some of the Artist's Alley folks. Lark Pien was there, holding forth with a table full of stuff that was way more APE and MoCCA than maybe the entire rest of the room combined. I also met Miriam Libicki, which was nice, and she gave me a new comic with a different look to it, a book I have yet to devour.

* I talked to a non-representative mix of about 20 retailers, exhibitors and industry organizations. All seemed pretty positive about the show except two that were in what I would call, looking around, not-prime locations. People with a specific focus -- the retailer that was there to sell newer comics under cost, the artist there to give out cards directing people to their to their web site -- seemed particularly pleased with the outcome. I think that makes a certain amount of sense, to ratchet down your presence and goals at a show if the show is less huge. I love the big-publisher presences, but I also think one editor, one talent, one book strategies might be even better suited to the not-humongous shows.

* I don't think there's a whole lot that can be done about that, incidentally, beyond the kind of baseline realizations that I'm sure shows like this make. For instance: it seems to me that most of the TV and film autograph people leave a couple of hours early -- I'm not certain why -- so you wouldn't want to count on them driving traffic to a general location for an entire day. Convention flow is a mysterious beast. I might suggest for this particular show and this particular convention that the far wall -- the part of the exhibitor groups that are up against an actual wall, be potentially discounted. You're just not going to have people on the ends, and that last row in particular was like an express highway by which people went from one place to another.

* I saw one panel on Sunday. The Pogo panel wasn't Evanier/Kelly-driven, so I took a pass. I was going to go to the Jonathan Ross panel, but it disappeared when I went to the bathroom. I'm not kidding. Not sure what happened there.

* That leaves the one panel I did attend, the SLG editorial panel. It's nice to see a familiar face and hear a friendly voice. Dan Vado was in comics long before I was (SLG's 25th anniversary is next year). I couldn't tell from most of the video presentations if the comics being promoted were of much interest, but it was good to hear that James Turner's Warlord Of Io will have trade collection this summer.

* Dan also reported on the designer and cartoonist Scott Saavedra's health, saying that he had his good periods and bad periods but that he was doing okay. That was good to hear.

* There's no convention experience that can't be improved by buying 10-12 comic books you want to read for $1 apiece.

* The talk of the show I'd say was Greg Rucka's panel and the blunt nature of the statements he made there. I bet that's googleable, but I'll link to it with this sentence when I get back.

* Here's something I never experienced at a comics convention before: publishers giving copies of books to press to take home because they didn't want to pack and ship them back to the home office. That's a very BEA thing, actually. I'd like to encourage this, but the way the airlines are I'm not sure I want any more books, either.

* I missed seeing Ground Zero Of The Direct Market retailer Bob Beerbohm, but the young ladies at the booth said his surgery was successful and that he was roaming around the show somewhere. So that's good news. Given all the time I talked about first generation retailers this weekend, seeing Bob's booth was a particularly nice ending point.

* I left the convention at 4:05, with a promise to try and meet up with some folks for dinner -- on Easter, I'm thinking this might be more difficult than the usual convention dinner, but we'll see. As you're reading this I should be either en route to New Mexico or already there, in time to watch the Butler/Duke game.

* So that was my WonderCon.

* Overall, I think WonderCon's a pretty good show, or at least my experience of it was pleasurable. It seems to have benefited a great deal from the general surge in the public's appetite for conventions. I mean, seriously, think about this. Ten years ago we had like 1.5-2.5 conventions in terms of super-healthy geek-focused mainstream shows. Now we have at least 10 that do okay enough that it doesn't seem ridiculous for a person to spend a weekend reporting on them, and maybe even another 10 if you throw everything of 1998 size and greater into the bucket. My guess is that in an entertainment world driven by geek phenomena, those who like them are encouraged to have their own experience with as many of them that hold interest. It's a very different impulse than why my friends and I visited Chicago in the late '80s -- that was mostly to buy comics we couldn't find anywhere else.

* A number of people asked me if I thought WonderCon was a big regional show or a smaller national. It feels to me like a smaller national show. 1) If I walked into the big room from some sort of magic portal and didn't know what city I was in, I would not be able to guess. 2) Companies with national reach made announcements here. (I asked David Glanzer if conventions encourage publishers and creators to make announcements and he says that while other might Comic-Con does not do this. So even if the announcements were modest, the fact that they existed at all says something about how exhibitors value the show as a press platform.) 3) There were enough guests of high enough quality that it seemed -- barely, but still -- like a national show. It just seemed a smaller version of one.

* So what does that mean? Many folks have asserted the virtues of WonderCon being a smaller show. Many of those good things are obvious, I think: greater ease of access to certain creators and experiences, more cohesions amongst the pros in attendance, a general reduction in hassle and cost, a greater opportunity to make a splash with a project that would be denied the stage at an established, larger show.

* In doing a final analysis, however, you also have to take into consideration the down side of a smaller show. There were two big ones for me. The first is that the show was focused primarily on the expression of mainstream comics and the pop culture that resembles mainstream comics. There was very little in the way of comics of the kind I tend to regularly buy on hand, and no natural programming I would follow. This wasn't a hassle because I have broad tastes and it's fun to try all sorts of thing on a comics weekend. But I really couldn't recommend the show to my friend Bob Levin, say, or the vast majority of my Seattle comics reading friends, or even my other family members. It might be nice if the con forged a relationship with one of the bigger art-comics publishers just to have a more pronounced presence like that at the show. The legendary Ron Turner was there, and so was Last Gasp, but he didn't feel there-there. Another strategy might be to focus on a specific release rather than a cartoonist or kind of cartooning and have someone there supporting that: like the new Jaime Hernandez art book, or the new James Sturm book from D&Q. Very focused presentations seemed to do pretty well in Artist's Alley in terms of moving books, and would maybe have more of a chance to make an impression on the show than a gaggle of small-pressers might. Given San Francisco's big presence on the art comics scene and identity as the underground comix capital, it seems like a wasted opportunity not to have a small presence.

* And guys, I know they do APE, but that's a very different kind of show, a type that calls for a specific focus. I think of WonderCon as a national show instead of a focused one, and while I think the general vibe will remain capes and cowls, I think some attention should be paid to comics of all types.

* Ditto manga. It's weird that the biggest publisher in town doesn't have a focused, meaningful presence. It shouldn't have to be feast or famine at these things, and again, a focus on a single book or publishing effort might be the way to approach things in the future.

* The other thing about a smaller show is that there are fewer surprises. The show's just not big enough for there to be this gigantic pool of undiscovered things and people and talents for you to stumble into by accident -- at least not without a super- super-broad screening process. If you don't see something in the announced guests and the announced programming for a show like this one, I'll suggest you may not enjoy yourself. While I might make initial plans to attend on the strength of past shows, I can't see making final plans until I double-checked to make sure I had enough to do. For instance, I went to a couple of Darwyn Cooke-related panels this year, as he's an artist that interests me. I can't imagine a lot of people in his kind of guest slot would from year to year. If Cooke or someone like Cooke weren't a guest I'm not sure how I would have spent that time.

* I thought there were elements of the show that just weren't sharp, which is sort of surprising given how the show's been around for 20 years or so. For instance, there was an awful lot of malfunctioning equipment. I saw maybe eight panels over the three days and five of them had significant A/V problems, and in two cases the visual presentation never worked. Considering how smoothly executed the show managed to be otherwise -- the security people were pretty great, I thought -- the constant stream of friendly guys swarming different podiums proved to be extremely disappointing. There were other things, too, some of which I already mentioned. I thought some of the panels had an awful lot of chatty people in the audience. It might be nice if major announcements and news were posted broadsheet form by the convention organizers; I know I missed a ton of stuff. Little touches could mean a lot.

* Much more importantly, the general identity of the show could use some fine-tuning: "We're like Comic-Con but smaller" works in some ways but doesn't in others. It assures quality, but may not convince someone to attend on the unique features of the Bay Area show. I would love to see WonderCon distinguish itself from other shows in some public way -- the way that HeroesCon has established itself as a drawing show, or Chicago used to function as a mainstream comics beachhead. Not only that, I think they should do so with greater definition and more force. If there were only five-six shows out there, being a good one -- or a modest version of a great one -- might be enough for people to make room for it in their schedules. With 20 shows out there you have to be a good show and you have to be a unique show, too, I think. There has to be some way to conceptualize this show where there's some drama and interest in how it turns out. If they can't figure anything else out, they should go with "We're like Comic-Con but better," and see where that challenge takes them.

* One thing a number of people expressed to me is that the con needs to settle in on firm dates; if it's a convention center problem and it could very well be a convention problem, they need to play hardball until those dates firm up. Easter is probably not the best idea, and will likely keep this show from exceeding to any great extent past last year's attendance figures. But the general time of the year seems to work just fine.

* I think it was a strong show. I think there's a sturdy base from which to build a much stronger show. WonderCon has natural advantages: a great city with a convention center right in a traversable neighborhood, strong retailers, a location people want to visit and access to the CCI Rolodex with a pre-summer slot to offer film people. It's still way, way, mainstream comics, though, and I don't see it like a mini-San Diego as much as a truncated one. To put the whole thing to you another way, C2E2 will have to be significantly formidable right out of the gate to be considered the Spring show, at least for now. But there's work to be done.

Thanks to the good folks of WonderCon and all of my friends and colleagues who were generous with their time and assistance; my apologies to the drunken man I enraged over by Glide Memorial United Methodist.

posted 5:00 am PST | Permalink

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