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April 6, 2011

A Look at WonderCon

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WonderCon, held at San Francisco’s Moscone Center April 1-3, 2011, celebrated its 25th birthday with 40,000 of its closest friends. Before blowing out the candles, attendees snaked through lines of animated comic, sci-fi, and pop culture fans as flash bulbs blinded even the most intrepid. Costumed superheroes posed with mere mortals creating postcards of Captain America, Wolverine, and the Bay Area Ghostbusters, or pinup calendars of Poison Ivy, Elektra, and Batgirl. But before heading out to the exhibition floor, a birthday cake needed cutting.

WonderCon is more than just comic books, toys, and T-shirt booths; it’s also the world’s greatest trade show featuring panels of the best and the brightest in the pop culture industry.
 
WonderCon’s 25th Anniversary panel featured its three founding fathers, Joe Field, owner of the Eisner Spirit Award Winning comic store Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California; Mike Friedrich, who in the 1980s ran a talent agency and organized trade shows for retailers; and Bryan Uhlenbrock, former branch manager of the comics distributor Capital City. The panel also included David Glanzer, the show’s director of marketing and publicity, and was moderated by the (in)famous Mark Evanier, writer and director for comics and television.
 
In 1987, the Wonderful World of Comics kicked off its inaugural season at the Oakland Convention Center, where 1,800 comic book fans turned out. Early WonderCons included appearances by Stan Lee, who came to celebrate Spider-Man’s bachelor party, a party crashed by the Green Goblin as he popped out of a present to attack his archrival. After a choreographed brawl, the two decided they could be pals for a night. Other early guests included Will Eisner, Jim Salicrup, Marvel’s editor of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter David, writer of The Incredible Hulk, and a young Todd McFarlane, who was also working on The Hulk.
 
When asked about the best moments of their WonderCon tenure, Friedrich reminisced about meeting Michael Chabon, whose Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay begins at WonderCon. Chabon, also a writer of Golem comics, agreed to appear at the 2001 WonderCon, but four days prior won the Pulitzer Prize. A worried Friedrich thought the award-winning author would cancel, but instead Chabon made his first post-Pulitzer appearance at WonderCon. On the other hand, Uhlenbrock’s favorite moments consisted of playing in the Saturday night geek rock-and-roll band made up of artists, writers, and promoters, while Field enjoyed the warm feeling he got from being around people who like what they’re doing. Field recently posted a twelve-minute video on YouTube entitled 1988 WonderCon Review, which includes footage of Stan Lee and Will Eisner. The founders agreed their low point occurred during the Cherry Pop Tart look-alike contest, a contest that was demeaning to women, and everyone else for that matter, sparking one reporter to ask, “This is what your kids are reading?”
 
During that first year, Richard Brunnin, then a Midwestern graphic designer and now a vice president at DC Comics, developed the star and tornado logo where the comics are the “star” and everything else spins out from that. According to Field, the star is “the nexus of all that’s cool.”
 
ComicCon’s David Glanzer said the comic giant purchased WonderCon 10 years ago because of its relaxed, friendly, and intimate atmosphere, as well as its bellweather showcase quality for the comics industry in general. The promoters didn’t want a comic convention to drop from the circuit and consolidating promotions for ComicCon, WonderCon, and the Alternative Press Expo enabled promoters to maintain a full-time staff of 15. He denied rumors that ComicCon was moving, saying they had signed a contract until 2015, and there are no current plans for an international ComicCon.
 
After blowing out the birthday cake candles, “The Sergio and Mark Show” heated up with Mad Magazine’s Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier. Evanier has worked with Aragonés on Groo the Wanderer “for more years than either will admit or can believe.” Dark Horse’s Groo vs. Conan takes place in Groo’s universe, which occasionally includes the naked “healthy, not obscene,” Sergio. According to Evanier, Aragonés is the only artist who draws himself looking worse than he really does, “stupid and unattractive.” His 1967 Viva Mad sold more than 1,200,000 copies and Evanier believes that Aragonés personally signed every copy ever sold—even Evanier’s mailman has one. The good-natured Aragonés is still going Mad, currently working on a “Hoarders” strip after watching a televisionmarathon of the same name and becoming depressed. Why? He discovered he too is a hoarder of “comics, newspapers, and figurines.” His next projects include “A Mad Look at Famous People’s Living Styles”, a national yogurt campaign, and Mad’s TV show for children. Mark Evanier is working on The Garfield Show, appearing on the Cartoon Network (the world’s most watched television show), a new Jack Kirby-inspired comic, and, oddly enough, serves as an expert witness.
 
At the “Creator Rights” panel, Mike Friedrich, Marv Wolfman, Joe Field, Michael Lovitz, and Mark Evanier reminded artists and authors that publishing is a “dog-eat-dog world.” Evanier led off with a quote from the late, great Jack Kirby, “I’ve done about as well as you can do in comics. It ain’t that great.” Newbie authors and writers are especially susceptible because they just want to break into the industry and are willing to allow certain unscrupulous houses (too bad they didn’t name names) to publish a piece, if only for their portfolio. Evanier reminded audience members that there is a thriving market for people who exploit newcomers in the pop culture market, whether it is an unscrupulous publisher or a voice coach. “Beware of unfinanced producers. They should have the money; writers and artists supply the talent.” Lovitz talked about piracy and how it is costing the entertainment industry billions, and while it has been severely curtailed, it is still a huge problem.
 
Something most people don’t know about WonderCon, or ComicCon for that matter, is that there is also an academic side to the halls of popular culture called The Comics Arts Conference. In “Life After Trauma—To Be a Superhero or Supervillain?” the panelists questioned how trauma affects superheroes. Robin Rosenberg (Psychology of Superheroes), Andrea Letamendi (UC San Diego), and Travis Langley (Henderson State University), psychologists all, explored trauma’s effect on superheroes and why most failed to manifest PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). They also looked at why some comic book characters choose to become heroes and others villains. According to Rosenberg, the three traumatic events (large scale, unintended, and personal) sometimes lead to manifestations of PTSD, such as intrusive recollection, or heightened startle response and can be seen in characters like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne.
 
Letamendi asked how reasonable is comic book trauma and concluded that it is “fairly realistic.” One superhero quality, and a psychologically realistic result of trauma, is to continue to put oneself in harm’s way for the greater good, as illustrated by some soldiers in Iraq—Letamendi treats returning soldiers with PTSD. But how do superheroes endure routine daily exposure to violence? Is it resilience? Letamendi points to social support and/or empathy and compassion, think Justice League, and also self-efficacy as illustrated by Bruce Wayne. There is a difference between superheroes who are always “on call” and superheroes who get a break from violence like Peter Parker, who can go home after a hard night of web spinning. But what happens when they don’t get a break? Well, for Batman, it depends on who’s writing the comic.
 
But how does trauma transform one into a superhero or a supervillain? Rosenberg points to post-traumatic growth as a catalyst for transformation. This is clearly illustrated by the young Bruce Wayne’s witnessing of his parents’ murder catapulting him into the role of Batman—a warrior against all crime. But even before trauma there is a belief in justice. Tony Stark believes his weapons project keeps world peace, but after his trauma he halts his company’s arms manufacture. Post-trauma individuals believe they are stronger for having survived; they have an increased empathy for others, and an altered philosophy of life (more spiritual, bad things sometimes happen to good people). In other words, Stark finds meaning in life. The trauma progression could be seen as: victim, survivor, superhero…or supervillain. After trauma, supervillians believe life is short, can become greedy, hedonistic, and live life for pure enjoyment.
 
Travis Langley reminded the audience that when you reach tragedy or trauma, you have already developed a certain amount of your personality. The Punisher is a sociopath before the mob kills his family and he begins his quest for vengeance. While most superheroes experience the loss of a parent at the hands of criminals, most supervillians lose a parent or guardian to cops, as exhibited by the anti-Batmen: Prometheus, Owlman, and the Wraith. Some “other” has shaped their being, and comics focus on nurture, not nature. It wouldn’t be as fun to say a supervillain has bad genes. On the other hand, you can’t just say it’s either nature or nurture, because it’s both. As Langley says, there isn’t a DSM definition for “Evil Disorder.” There are predictors of long-term criminal behavior, such as preadolescent antisocial actions, lack of empathy, poor problem-solving skills, impulsivity, and fearlessness. But in comics, it’s the traumatic origin that is the standardized storyline.
 
Speaking of disorders, Marvel’s “Cup O’Joe” panel featuring Joe Quesada showcased the trailer for the upcoming Captain America, in theaters July 22, 2011. Fear Itself, Marvel’s crossover comic featuring Thor, Spider-Man, Cyclops, Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man, showcases heroes who come face-to-face with the god of fear, as he spreads dread. Red Skull: Incarnate will explore the Nazi rise to power and how one becomes a villain and is scheduled to coincide with the release of Fear. Hulk versus Dracula will feature a high body count, while Secret Avengers will be unleashed in August. X-Men anime-style has just been released in Japan (see the trailer on Google) featuring a “hot” Dark Venus, while there is a 2012 possible return of Runaways. Quesada left the audience wondering if there will be a Runaways television show.
 
One of WonderCon’s highlights was the release of the trailer for The Immortals scheduled to hit theaters on 11/11/11. Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh (The Fall), stars Henry Cavill (Superman), Luke Evans, and Isabel Lucas. Drew McQueenie moderated the panel. Singh views immortality in two ways: Mortals can do great deeds that will make one immortal or one can spread their seed. For Singh, his movies are his children and he repeatedly reminded the audience that he wanted to stamp his DNA onto as many films as he could. The immortals choose how they want to live, and they would choose to live youthfully. He describes Immortals as “Caravaggio meets Fight Club” and the visuals as a “Caravaggio painting strip, not a comic strip.” 3D works for him because he tends toward tableaus, not Bourne Supremacy-type action. When asked what it was like to direct Mickey Rourke, Singh replied, “You don’t direct Mickey; he’s a loose cannon with a spear.” Singh’s inspirations, “Everything. Artists—mostly dead, bad TV, porn, and the Discovery Channel.” What’s next? Snow White.
 
Actor Luke Evans saw Zeus as a father/king and lawgiver—a god with flaws and insecurities alongside lots of other layers. The fight sequences were “very exhausting, but exciting—they got the adrenaline pumping without any threat of real death.” Henry Cavill wanted to play Theseus as a man, not a demi-god, “a man with a softer side; not too aggressive or angry,” but able to take out the enemy when needed.
 
Meanwhile, back in the Exhibit Hall, DC was promoting The Green Hornet alongside Dark Horse, Marvel, and plenty of smaller publishing houses. The fan tables featured some long time greats, including Lou Ferrigno, whose biceps still bulge, and Elvira – who looks great! Lee Meriwether (Catwoman, Munsters Today) was indulgent of the 50-year-old who gushed, “I loved you in the Batman movie when I was a kid.” Outside Moscone Center, Jaleen’s birthday party featured pseudo-heroes Sarcasto and Mother Superior, as well as others who were having way too much fun being photographed. It’s like Christmas–I’m already making a list, and I can’t wait until next year.