WonderCon this year was a unique experience for me for several reasons. Firstly, I’d never been to this con before, and though, truth be told, I would’ve enjoyed if it’d been held in San Francisco, since I’ve never been there either, the fact that it was held in Anaheim meant that I got to hang out with two of my best geek friends Michele Brittany (a pop culture scholar and photographer) and Nick Diak (another pop culture scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of film and strange music) who are local to Anaheim. That gave me a little more confidence in tackling the new. It had also been several years since I’d made it out to the West Coast, but the occasion that inspired me to get on a plane was being invited by my comics scholar friend Chris Angel, one of the founders of the Denver Comic Con (which I’ll also be checking out this year) to participated in a Comics Studies Conference panel on publishing comics scholarship these days. With Chris and I in the panel was another prominent and groundbreaking scholar Rob Weiner, editor of a vast array of scholarly books on comics, music, and film, and really a pioneer in publishing on those subjects in the world of academia (his most recent book is Web-Spinning Heroics, on Spider-Man).
That’s the comics scholarship side of things, and enough motivation to go to a con, since I don’t need that much of a push, but as for WonderCon, I also ended up being the only Comics Beat reporter to make it out, and that gave me pause. It meant that I had a lot of strange freedom- I could cover anything I wanted to cover- but also a kind of overwhelming choice in what to pick out for coverage. In the end, I tried to push myself to attend some events that I might not normally pick out to attend, but also follow my instincts and inclinations, because if you can’t have fun at a comic con, that kind of defeats the purpose, in my estimation. When I arrived on a Thursday evening, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my hotel room overlooked the con, and I got to watch the banner being hung, and preparations underway. When I picked up my pass, I was impressed by the space itself, on all points really appropriate for a con of this size, and able to accommodate the numbers and needs of the fans.
Things kicked off for me on Friday, when I presented with Chris and Rob, the very first panel of the con. We expected limited numbers in the audience for this reason, but it was alarmingly packed despite the gigantic room. Rob talked about sticking to your dreams when it comes to publishing books, and not just hanging around assuming in despair that someone else is going to beat you to it. He provided some insights into the book publishing process and working as an editor with lots of contributors, and ended on a high note about the wide open field right now in scholarly book publication, particularly in comics scholarship.
Chris gave a truly illuminating walk through of her experiences using comics in the classroom, providing different models for use depending on the types of texts you’re teaching (she’s a medieval/renaissance professor) and the students themselves. She’s a classic example of how experimenting, introducing comics as a side-line to test the waters, can achieve great results for students, and lead you to bring comics more fully into the curriculum of literary study. My talk was on comics scholarship and social media, in particular, the scholarly online sites and semi-scholarly sites available right now, from Sequart Research and Literacy Organization (who I write for), to the Culture Gutter and Comics Forum, all great venues. I also gave a bit of a pep talk on using social media and tried to guilt everyone into setting up their own scholarly blogs (which, alas, even I do not update enough, but I believe in blogging strongly). We got great responses from the panel, and it was a very affirmative experience. Comics scholarship really is on the rise, folks, in very big ways.
Then it was time to get my mind together for some reporting. Not before I’d run around the con floor a little, grabbing freebies from the really affable Dark Horse Booth and scoping out the good back issue vendors for future reference (I ended up with a large set of The Dreaming for my collection/research later on and plenty of Walking Dead for my husband Russ Shannon, a massive fan of the comics and the show). Panel-wise, I liked the thematic approach of the “Icons”, (“What Makes an Icon?”) panel so checked it out. If nothing else, it consisted of some all-star names in comics from Mark Waid (moderator), to Ann Nocenti, J. M. DeMatteis, Dan Slott, and Doug Mahnke. It was an excellent way to start off the con proper, hearing about comics history and comics future from these experienced creators talking from the heart about their views on handling long-lived character. You can find my round up here, with plenty of quotes. Photos for most of these panels from WonderCon were taken by the fabulous Michele Brittany. I spent the rest of the afternoon running around the con floor getting a general sense of layout and planning my next moves. I made a last-minute decision to what turned out to be a brain-download of great advice in an Indie Marketing panel with Dark Horse (Jeremy Atkins), Archaia (Mel Caylo), comiXology (Chip Mosher), IDW (Dirk Wood), and Valiant (Hunter Gorin). Their blunt and honest approach to what has worked for them, or not, in social media yielded some of the most practical information I heard at WonderCon and it says a lot about these guys and their companies that they were so willing to share their lessons learned. You can read about that great panel here. That night I also wrote up some general impressions of how the con was working at this Anaheim location, including the building, staff, and comfort of fans, with some images. You can read that here, my claim that WonderCon had not “lost its Mojo” despite the move in location.
Saturday I took on a little more, trying to cover at least a few panels as well as keeping up with a scheduled interview with Matt Kindt about his work with Dark Horse, including the extremely alluring psychic spy series MIND MGMT. In the morning, I indulged my fannish curiosity and went to the VIKINGS panel, featuring the stars from the new History Channel show set in the early medieval period (if you know me, you’ll know this is right up my scholarly alley and I spent the first couple of episodes critiquing historical accuracy before being won over by the spirit of the show). I expected a few curious people like myself, not a rabid sea of enthusiasm. What a way to start the day after a late night. I attempted not to spill my coffee while eating a pastry and taking pictures and notes. To my delight, they showed a preview of on a massive screen of an upcoming episode and it looked gorgeous. The landscapes alone in the show are enough to warrant a cinematic experience. But enough gushing- check out my photos and write up here for The Beat.
I made what ended up being a good, but challenging decision to attend a Spotlight panel on Matt Kindt just before interviewing him. This 90 minute juggernaut, where Matt was interviewed by comics scholar Travis Langley, was so wide-ranging that it blew any questions I had drafted already out of the water and I then had about 20 minutes to come up with some news ones. On the plus side, I heard all about Matt’s life and work in detail, and it was a very moving story of artistic vision and tenacity, and it helped me understand his work far better than any other research could have. Please read my lengthy write-up with photos of that panel here, since it’s a real circumnavigation of comics creating right now, and lets you in on Matt’s psychology.
We held our interview shortly after, and it turned out to be so lengthy (thanks to his open attitude and kindness) that it turned into what I could only call a “Mega-interview” at the Beat once I’d finally written it up. In my scramble to think of new questions, I actually kicked off by asking him why we need stories (how impudent was that!) and his answers were amazing. Check out that interview when you get a chance.
I’m sure I would have liked to collapse at my hotel at that point, and though I was able to take all my con loot back to the room pretty easily, Michele and I marched ourselves to another Spotlight panel, this time on Ann Nocenti, who’s verve the previous day had so impressed me. I wanted to hear about her long Marvel history and her current work for DC.
She and Jim Lee (bonus!) showed us sketches for upcoming works and she revealed a lot about her varied life in film and comics, always conversational and entertaining in style. My interest was piqued in her new series Katana, which I’ve since checked out and really like. Highly recommend this samurai/yakusa tale of revenge with a heroine at the helm. It was a mellow, engaging way to end my reporting for the day, and left a big impression on me concerning women in comics. You can read about the panel here, and it’s quite a fun recap.
I was getting a little broken down by Sunday, and expected a little quieter time at the con compared to the well-attended and high-energy days on Friday and Saturday, so I wandered along, again with the spilling coffee, for a little panel with Nerdist Industries. I should’ve realized by then that any time I expected a low key panel it would be massive and full of screaming. And it was. Joss Whedon’s panel on his new Shakespeare movie was just letting out of a totally full stadium-sized venue and I muddled through crowds and found a convenient seat with several thousand others (but thankfully near the front) to hear what Chris Hardwick and Nerdist had to say.
I’d heard Hardwick speak before about the future of Youtube and had been very impressed. Whether you’re a fan or not, the man is deeply intelligent if you pose complex questions about media and has plenty to say. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the con for me. As Nerdist rolled out previews of future channels and plans, the repartee was so funny I could hardly breathe. Again, not how I expected to spend my morning, but it was a great surprise. Michele was a newbie to Nerdist and loved it too, taking some fabulous photos. You can see the write up and her photos here. There was also a pretty inspiring message at work throughout the talk and Q and A about fan empowerment and creation- here here!
I had two other “assignments” for the day, attending a Spotlight panel on Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, and also interviewing DC Comics’ Dustin Nguyen about his new series Li’l Gotham. My other informal assignment was to buy a lot of comics, which I did. Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner presented an informal panel in their trademark conversational style that made fans feel like part of the conversation, fielding questions throughout, from Amanda’s driven workload on Silk Spectre to Jimmy’s upcoming work Captain Brooklyn. It was the sort of panel that mid-sized cons really specialize in, bringing in fans to get a sense of the personalities of inspiring creators, and giving them insights into future projects. You can read all about that panel here.
Interviewing Dustin Nguyen at the DC booth was initially a bit of a challenge due to the huge traffic the booth was getting, and security at first tried to turn me away until I insisted several times that I had an appointment. When DC realized what was going on, they were horrified and apologetic, and made every effort to get the interview underway. It ended up being a fantastic experience. If you’re familiar with Dustin’s work, you know that he brings many fine art traits to his painterly style, and on top of that he’s passionate about the Batman mythology. He’s created a visual sense in Li’l Gotham that wows readers from the start, and presents an all-ages comic in a very inspiring way. Talking to Dustin was like talking to a fellow fan, and I couldn’t have asked for a more humble, enthusiastic artist to talk to about their work on such a major project. Find my interview with Dustin here, and check out Li’l Gotham- you won’t regret it.
In the last few hours of the con, I actually felt rather energized from all these positive experiences and wondered what else I should do with my time. I decided to check out several of the mid-sized publisher booths and chat, from Dark Horse, to Valiant, Archaia, and Top Cow. At each booth, the people I talked to were simply lovely and had a lot to say about what works they were most excited about. I picked up lots of great books to try to lug home on the plane, and it was another really positive note for me at the con. When the con wrapped up, I felt like it could have kept on going another few hours at least, or another day, even, a sign that a con is going strong, rather than fizzling out.
I wrote a wrap-up of my impressions of the con, comparing it to my opening article, and included with it is Michele’s excellent photo gallery of the cosplay and scenes from the con. I ended up staying another day to go to Disneyland, but that’s a whole other story of observing the strange phenomena behind pop culture. WonderCon itself was a kind of perception-changing experience for me, in all honesty, my first con alone as a reporter, though I was never really alone thanks to Michele and my other friends. It gave me insights into how cons work, what fans are looking for, and the place of con culture in society right now. Along with that, I had my first con-interview experiences and they were so remarkably illuminating and fun that it has set a high standard for future experiences. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who helped me out at the con and made it such an encouraging experience; you know who you are. Viva WonderCon. I think it’s a very important contribution to pop culture with plenty to offer fans, scholars, and creators alike.
Photo Credits: The photos in this article were taken by pop culture photographer Michele Brittany. You can learn more about her work here.