Warren Ellis described San Diego Comic Con as the only place that resembles SECOND LIFE, the mid-2000s virtual world video game that was limited only by your imagination/perversion. The same could be said for any major convention built on the values of chaos and costumes, or at least I had hoped that would be the case for WonderCon, my first non-San Diego convention adventure.
As we lurched and stopped in Anaheim traffic, smoke rose from the car's hood, first in a faint wisp, then in a full-bodied spill. In a video game world, this would mean the car was about to explode. In reality my friend's Scion XB was overheating, so we pulled into a lot to tend to the developing situation. It was maybe our third or fourth hang up in trying to get to WonderCon; there were lost tickets, brothers arguing and forgotten ID cards thus far. It seems that even at smaller conventions, there would always be trouble.
I went to WonderCon last week. In my imagined nerd ecosystem, the convention is the music festival. It represents a higher ranking level of cred and dedication to your hobby. It's the difference between a person that likes Radiohead and a person that likes Radiohead so much they camp out at Coachella to see them. In this system, SDCC is Coachella; it's a mainstream, 100,000 strong convention in the heart of San Diego, where comics, movies, television and general pop culture fandoms collide in one big fire hazard. WonderCon would be like Downtown LA's FYF Fest -- a smaller affair, but if you want a more manageable and intimate experience, it's a worthwhile alternative. This year I convinced myself that FYF was better than Coachella. I thought I could do the same with SDCC.
After all the car trouble and parking pains, we were walking the streets of Anaheim to the convention center. At a crosswalk, I realized we were mixed in with Disneyland visitors. Anaheim is something like 80% Disney. It's an experiment to see if a single corporation can will its own major city into existance. If it weren't for their parks and sports teams, I imagine Anaheim would be as obscure as Reseda or Lakewood.
"The hotel told me about this," said one mother to another. "It's a convention this weekend too, it's where people who are really into cartoons and characters dress up as those cartoons and characters."
A colorful mob of steampunks and video game characters came at us from across the street. There are worse ways to describe it.
From parking offsite, we arrived at the show floor in a reasonable amount of time. My favorite part of any convention is walking through it for the first time. I welcomed the actual open walking lanes. Big conventions are always just walkathons, but at SDCC, the amount of walking -- slow walking -- reaches critical mass. Your parking spot is in Mexico, and if you have to be at the other end of the hall at a certain time, you'd better factor in the time it takes to lurch through a massive crowd. WonderCon had no such hassle, and so we explored freely. Most of the booths were the standard comics retailers, toy sellers and T-shirt emporiums. Nothing I couldn't buy online at a cheaper price. The first disappointment came from the weak showing from the present companies. The DC booth was unexpectedly small while Image and Marvel didn't even have a presence. Despite the 30,000 or so attendees, it apparently wasn't considered a major stop on the circuit.
That was clear after we made our quick lap around and had no idea what to do next. It takes forever to get around at SDCC because people are constantly stopping to bask and gawk at something like a giant golden throne from THOR, or a G4 scaffolding TV set where they're interviewing Simon Pegg, or a giant Domo-Kun. WonderCon's only installation was a spherical helicopter from the upcoming Tom Cruise film, OBLIVION. The encroachment of Hollywood into the convention circuit gets a lot of shit, which I understand, but it also brings a ton of spectacle to the proceedings. They alter a convention to be more like a theme park. Otherwise, if you aren't shopping for deals and rarities, there isn't much else to do.
So we went to a panel. I picked out a DC one, because even though I've jumped off the ship with their recent continuity reboot, I still keep up with the general culture. The best part about this conversation was that I got to sit. I probably could have napped too, because it was peak boring. I liked and followed a lot of the writers present, like Scott Snyder and Ann Nocenti, but this was more of an hour-long advertisement. There was no question and answer session, no insightful conversation, no meaningful preview or notable announcement. It was just a slideshow with each writer providing verbal captions to them, without saying anything concrete, yet trying to convince you to spend $4 on it next month.
Which I guess is par for the course, but something about this new generation of DC writers leaves me wanting. Their talent is fine, but they lack the sheer force of personality that Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Gail Simone, Brad Meltzer and even Dan DiDio had when I last went to a DC panel. They were funny, charismatic, and most importantly, in conversation with one another. They had rapport and enthusiasm for each other's work. Some of these writers didn't even seem all that enthusiastic about their own book.
I decided now would be the time to spend my money. I had an idea of some trades I wanted to buy, Matt Fraction's CASANOVA chief among them. It's not a rare book. Matt Fraction is a top tier writer at Marvel, and CASANOVA is his premiere creator-owned work. There were a ton of retailers and booths with deals, but their stock was terribly narrow. If they weren't selling rarities aimed at collectors, they only carried the popular guaranteed sellers like everything Walking Dead or a pile of canon books like SANDMAN. It was such an elaborate hunt to find any CASANOVA trade that I didn't even bother hunting for Ron Wimberly's PRINCE OF CATS.
The small press section, where the cool hip indies hang out, was just as fruitless. I wanted to find something new, intriguing and reinvigorating. It was hard. Mostly it seemed to be Top Cow aspirants, upper tier DeviantArt users, and empty tables. I'm sure they're all great, and I'm sure they all have their audience, and they absolutley should be here because there should be something for everyone. I just wish there was something for me, too.
I bought Mark Waid's IRREDEEMABLE from Boom! instead and spent the last hour trying to find a souvenir of my thoroughly okay time. Nothing really jumped out at me. My buddy Pua suggested I ask a random cosplayer to take a picture with me in Capcom's free photobooth, but a mixture of social panic and lack of options nixed that idea. I forgot my sketchbook so I couldn't get some original art, and there weren't any names I followed anyway. We started on the way home. I was getting sore in the joints from all the trudging anyway.
It's likely not fair to judge a 3-Day convention based on one 6 to 8 hour session. The problem with WonderCon isn't even really a problem. For people that crave a smaller social experience, it's probably a great and pure convention. But I have a short attention span and a constant need for instant gratification. I want endless spectacle, giant set pieces and the feeling that reality is breaking. I want a goddamn parade that never stops and my amygdala lighting up like Las Vegas.
I know that's a tall order. I had a completely average, un-wonderous time at WonderCon, and most of that fault has to lie with my expectations and needs. I found out what I like about these things is the spectacle, and because of that, I'm just going to have to eat the cost of the hassle.