Due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, it’s been three years since the last in-person WonderCon was held at the Anaheim Convention Center (ACC), right across the street from Disneyland. The last two were virtual (i.e. online Zoom panels, prerecorded videos, online buying, etc), but sci-fi/fantasy conventions are one of those things that cannot be adequately conveyed as an online-only experience. The Mardi Gras-meets-Halloween flavor of the event is lost. WonderCon, a smaller offshoot of San Diego Comic Con, typically features live exhibitors, in-person celebrity guests and, best of all, armies of fans in clever and creative cosplays. You just can’t get all of that via at-home Zoom meetings on a 13″ laptop monitor. But now, with some COVID safeguards in place, and slightly fewer attendees (for safety’s sake), WonderCon in Anaheim, California is back.
My wife and I arrived to get our badges early on Thursday evening, which greatly reduced our waiting time to get into the convention on Friday, Day One. After a perfunctory (but delicious) pizza dinner, we walked to the ACC’s registration area, which were sparsely populated, since many attendees already got their badges by mail. However, professional registration status meant that we couldn’t do that, so in-person on Thursday night was our best bet. Before we could pick up our badges and programs, we had to pass through COVID-screening, which required either proof of vaccination to get a ‘safe’ water-resilient wristband (to be worn all weekend), or COVID-testing at one of the testing areas surrounding the ACC. Since my wife and I are fully vaccinated, we had no trouble. We used our online vaccination status record, which we had downloaded from myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov. The QR code from the site can be stored on one’s phone/mobile device as a screenshot or in a digital wallet. Personally, as one who is super-leery of catching COVID, I was pleased to see such precaution taken after three long years…
On the way back to our hotel, we passed by the currently unused “Arena” venue at the ACC; which externally resembles a large, landed flying saucer. The Arena is the largest auditorium space at the ACC, but it was closed for the three day event. The large, somewhat newer North Tower auditoriums, 200A and 200B, took up the slack for most big-ticket panels and gatherings.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure if the Arena was closed due to COVID restrictions (seating inside is fairly close-together, especially in the balconies), or remodeling, or some combination of both. The large Arena’s closure for the weekend was the only thing that seemed unusual about this year’s WonderCon, contrasting with past events That, and a curious lack of celebrities signing autographs for the entire weekend; only a handful were listed in the program guide, though I didn’t personally see any of them in the Dealer Hall, which is the single largest area of the ACC.
The Dealer Hall, or, as Yogurt would say, “Merchandising!”
The primary draw within the Dealer Hall, is, of course, “Merchandising!” as so eloquently stated by Mel Brooks’ “Yogurt” from “Spaceballs.” Within its cavernous spaces and seemingly endless rows of wares, there were action figures, clothing, collectibles, comic books, costume pieces, handmade items, jewelry, model kits, toys, t-shirts, and about a million other things. You could buy the latest issue of your favorite comic, or a treasured back issue from years gone by. A brand new Funko Pop vinyl figure, or a vintage 1940s-issue Superman doll (yes, I did see one, but it was priced way out of my league). At my age, I’m starting to feel a bit too old to continue collecting memorabilia; it’s an expensive hobby, and room in our small home is finite. However, for others to whom age, money, and/or available space aren’t pressing issues? There were many treasures to be found at WonderCon…
In addition to pure commerce, some of the wares sold within the Dealer Hall are for charities, such as children’s hospitals. One cause that is near and dear to my heart is Pop Culture Hero Coalition, a non-profit organization spearheaded by actress Chase Masterson (“Leeta” from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), who began the organization to push back against childhood bullying as well as the venomous bigotry received by discriminated young people of certain races/backgrounds, and/or from within the LGBTQ+ communities.
Masterson, along with her VP Raymond Lister (who writes the group’s comic books) and many others, promote the simple, yet ever-relevant message of “Be Kind”, with proceeds from the sale of t-shirts, comics, masks, bags and other items going directly to their outreach work at schools, conventions and other venues. Having met Masterson many times (and interviewing her once) over the years at various events, I can vouch that she has a deep well of compassion, and I’m proud to know her.
“Jane! Stop this crazy thing! Jaaaaane!”
At the booths, there were also many eye-catching items that, while not necessarily for sale, were certainly worthy of a photo-op or two. Some were huge, some were small, and some might even follow you…
Stargazing: The Panels of WonderCon…
One of the big draws at conventions is the chance to come face-to-face with the talent behind some of our favorite movies and TV shows. Some of these stars are up-and-comers, while others are virtual legends who’ve been around the business for decades. There weren’t quite as many celebrity signings for the entire weekend of WonderCon (only a handful), but there were some limited event signings between areas B and C of the Dealer Hall. Personally, I wasn’t in the mood to go autograph-chasing this time around; in fact, I was more than happy to sit back and enjoy a few panel discussions, instead of waiting in long, leg-numbing autograph queues. It was a welcome change of pace…
The Heart & Soul of Sci-fi/Comics/Fantasy/Horror Conventions: Cosplayers!
Of course, my favorite part of any sci-fi/comics/fantasy/horror convention is the cosplay, and the colorful, creative cosplayers were out in force at WonderCon 2022. While you quickly get used to seeing armies of Supermen, Batmen and Wonder Women at these events, it’s the clever and unexpected cosplays that really stay in your memory. There is an explosion of creativity, color, imagination and a certain freedom from one’s self at conventions that you rarely experience elsewhere in the ordinary 9 to 5 world, which is why I find conventions and cosplay so liberating and delightful. I don’t think we ever fully outgrow our childhood desire to play dress up. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons that Halloween remains my favorite holiday, even in my 50s…
Spoils of WonderCon
While I didn’t blow a lot of money on autographs or much else at this year’s WonderCon, I did make one big purchase, for which I have no regrets whatsoever. In the Dealer Hall, at the Stuart Ng Books booth, my eagle-eyed wife texted me about a book, “The Art of Ralph McQuarrie Archives”, which includes production art from “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,”“Battlestar Galactica”, “Star Trek” (the failed 1975 Star Trek movie “Planet of the Titans”), “Cocoon” and even a never-completed “Forbidden Planet”remake (c. 1994) among others. Needless to say, I rushed over to the booth, and grabbed a copy.
In addition to McQuarrie’s entertainment-based art, there are also sections on his commercial illustrations for Boeing, the Apollo space program, his advertising work, and many other reaches his long career. “The Art of Ralph McQuarrie Archives” is an absolute treasure trove of the late artist’s illustrations (thumbnails and paintings), but it’s also one very heavy book, so right after purchasing it, I waddled back to the hotel room to drop it off. After a day at the convention, I perused it in our hotel room, cover to cover. It was well worth it. I’d advice any fan of McQuarrie’s work to check it out.
Summing It Up.
After three years, in-person WonderCon came back with a vengeance. Wearing masks and following a few necessary COVID protocols wasn’t too much to ask for the return of this mainstay comics/sci-fi/fantasy/horror convention, which has always felt like San Diego Comic Con’s eager kid sibling. In some ways, it’s even more enjoyable for me, in part for its generally smaller crowd sizes and navigational ease. While there was a noticeable reduction in autographing guests over the three-day event, the exciting panels and colorful cosplay were more than compensatory.
All 143 photos of my experience at WonderCon 2022 are in the link below:
With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverance, and that their nightmare ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide) as of this writing. Please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections, though some states are reporting increasing case numbers as a result.
In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong.