Once again, WonderCon has returned to Anaheim, California and with COVID restrictions pretty much gone now (though I still wear masks), things feel a bit more back to normal. This year also saw a surprising championing of smaller or lesser-known movies and TV projects than in years’ past. Instead of a DC or Marvel banner streaming across the front of the Anaheim Convention Center, there was a banner for “Knights of the Zodiac,” a US/Japanese coproduction action-fantasy being released this spring. Not the usual Marvel, DC or Disney space-epic one typically expects to see plastered all over the convention site.
I’m assuming (?) the bigger productions either didn’t have material ready for the convention, or they were saving their big guns for other events (such as Disney’s own D23 Expo, for example). Either way, Disney’s influence was still keenly felt at the convention (fair enough, since Disneyland is right across the street), but there was also room for smaller projects to breathe, as well.
The Dealer Hall.
The Dealer Hall is a sprawling multi-booth combination of carnival and bazaar, with merchants both professional and amateur renting spaces to sell their wares and entertain the crowds. There are also actors offering their autographs to fans, as well. The professional booths, like Funko Pop, Bandai, and the various comic book/graphic novel vendors compete openly with small press and fan-made items in a truly democratic marketplace.
This year, the big winner for overall popularity was the Funko Funhouse; an exhibit that took my earlier carnival example to the Nth degree. Outside was a giant clown face as attendees formed a long snaking line through the side of the exhibit, patiently waiting their turn to try the rides (my understanding is that there were rides) and other activities inside. I didn’t go in, largely because my patience for long lines is rapidly dissipating at my age, and I’m also not as big a fan of Funko vinyl figures anymore (I have a few, but I’m not much of a collector these days). To those who do still collect and enjoy them? I sincerely wish you could’ve been here this past weekend.
On Friday evening of the convention, I managed to catch a pair of late evening panels, which were held ‘after hours’; the Dealer Hall closes at 7 pm, so the convention is a lot less crowded for these events, and security more actively escorts you to them to prevent stragglers later on, after the venue closes for the night.
The first panel was the “Most Extreme Ranking Challenge,” and it was moderated by Tyler McPhail. Panelists included Diana Toshiko, Ana Mendoza, Lemar Harris, and Matthew Johnson. Unfortunately we arrived late on this one, but got there in time for the hilarious “Worst Sidekick” challenge. Panelist Harris jokingly had to “turn in (his) Black card” to cast his vote for Mike Pence, who, despite Harris’s personal revulsion for the man, ‘failed’ Trump during his desperate (and illegal) bid to reclaim the White House (a good sidekick always has the other guy’s back, of course…). A surprising number of votes also came for “Grogu,” the creature formerly known as “Baby Yoda” in Disney’s “The Mandalorian”; the reason was the 50-year old alien baby’s wildly inconsistent use of his powers to help his ward, Mando, out of dangerous scraps. Overall, the panel was hilarious, and I’d wished we’d seen the whole thing.
The next panel was “Yippee Ki-Yay or Nay? Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?” Well, longtime readers of this site may already be familiar with my own opinions on the subject, but the first-time convention panelists came largely from a Christian fan group, who were evenly split on the subject when the panel began, but eventually ended the discussion with only one “Nay” holdout remaining. Given the fact that I’ve devoted a column of my own to the topic, I chimed in on the discussion as well, along with other audience members, in the event’s less-structured Q&A format. Also briefly discussed were whether or not “Gremlins” and “Batman Returns” qualify as Christmas movies. My personal opinion: “Gremlins” does, as Christmas is central to its story, but “Batman Returns” does not, since Christmas was merely set dressing for a story that could’ve easily taken place at any other time during the year.
Into the Arena…
On Saturday, typically the busiest day of the convention, I wanted very badly to cover the “Quantum Leap” panel (2022 version) that was being held in the Arena auditorium of the convention center. However, to get a good seat—a struggle, even with a press pass—the strategy is typically to ‘squat’ through other events in order to see your event. This is something I’ve learned from my earliest days of attending conventions over twenty years ago (hard to remember a time when I didn’t go to conventions). My wife had her own agenda at the con, and was going to Disneyland (across the street) with a friend later on, so I was on my own.
Fortunately, as luck would have it, I made friends with a fellow press-badge attendee named Libya, who was waiting for the “Walking Dead” panels. I saw her looking for a seat, and offered the empty one next to me, in the third row. After sharing convention war stories (hers were far more interesting), we realized we had a lot in common. As the first panel dispersed, some of the earlier crowd left, and we both moved up to the front row! My first time in the front row of the Arena. It’s the conventioneering equivalent of having your economy-class plane ticket bumped up to first class—no heads in your way for photos, and no need to crane your neck looking at large monitors. This was more like it…
The first panel was for “Legend of the White Dragon” (2023), and, to be frank, I expected it to be a waste of time. “Legend of the White Dragon” is a crowd-funded, big screen continuation of the Power Rangers kids’ adventure series from the 1990s (which I have zero interest in). That said, I found the panel surprisingly interesting, and even moving. The movie’s star, former “Green Power Ranger” actor Jason David Frank (1973-2022), tragically took his own life after the production wrapped last year. The film’s director, Aaron Schoenke, wore dark sunglasses to hide tears whenever he spoke of his star, who was shown in clips and behind-the-scenes clowning around videos that endeared him to me (yes, me … a non-Power Rangers fan). Other panelists included producer Sean Schoenke (Aaron’s father) and executive producer Chris Jay, a Power Rangers’ super-fan who lovingly teased his late star’s on-set shenanigans, as well. Later, they invited Frank’s best friend up onto the stage, who called Frank’s daughter Jenna (who costars in the movie) for a live video chat with the audience. It was a moving tribute to an action star who gave his all for one last shot to be seen as a genuine actor. From the clips, he succeeded.
The next panel was for the new “The Walking Dead” spinoff series from AMC, “The Walking Dead: Dead City,” starring legacy actors (and now-producers) Lauren Cohan (“Maggie”), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Negan”), along with newcomer Gaius Charles (“Perlie”). The series will follow Maggie reluctantly agreeing to take baseball bat-wielding bad guy Negan up to a zombie-overrun New York City in search of her kidnapped son, Herschel (named after Maggie’s late father). The panel was moderated by comedian and AMC’s “Talking Dead” after-show host, Chris Hardwick. What surprised me most during the panel was learning that this new series was filmed in actual New York City locations, which were converted to their onscreen post-apocalyptic states using largely practical means—though writer/producer Eli Horne admits to copious amounts of CGI, as well.
Note: Full disclosure: I used to be a big “Walking Dead” fan (the TV series and the original graphic novels), but I fell out of love with the show during late 2017, when Negan came in and brought an element of sadism and unnecessary brutality to the series that it seemed to revel in. I know a lot’s changed since then, including Negan becoming a hero of sorts, but I’ve moved on. To those who still enjoy it, my opinion should not be taken as anything more than personal preference. My reasons for quitting the show are here: “The Walking Dead”; where rigor mortis set in for me.
The next panel, also moderated by Chris Hardwick, was for the 8th and final season of “Fear the Walking Dead” (2015-2023), which I also gave up on after a year or so (one can also take so many zombie apocalypses in one’s entertainment). The panelists included producers Ian Goldberg and Michael Satrazemis, along returning cast members Kim Dickens (“Madison”), Jenna Elfman (“June”) and Christine Evangelista (“Sherry”). Over the course of its eight seasons, the show has killed off several main characters, as its action has migrated from Los Angeles back to Savannah, Georgia, where the original series (and Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels) began. TV comedy veteran Jenna Elfman, well-known for the 1990s sitcom “Dharma & Greg,” was asked during the Q&A if she had any challenges switching from comedy to drama, or whether she was ever inclined to add a touch more humor to her character; she answered in the affirmative to both. The cast also offered teasing, non-spoiler clues about where their characters might end up. After the panel, the cast graciously hung around for a few minutes to pose for pictures before the next panel…
The next panel was the one I’d patiently waited for nearly the entire day; NBC/Peacock’s new reboot/sequel of “Quantum Leap” a resurrection of the classic TV show which starred Scott Bakula and the late Dean Stockwell. The new series continues some plot threads of the old, but with an all-new ensemble cast, instead of the original’s ‘dynamic duo.’ Quantum Leap 2022 sees Dr. Ben Song (Raymond Lee) taking an unscheduled leap back in time for mysterious reasons that are slowly revealed to his freshly-amnesiac self (a side-effect of ‘leaping‘), as well as the coordinators of the top-secret government time-travel project, which include Ben’s ‘guide’ and fiancée Addison Augustine (Caitlin Bassett), project leader “Magic” Williams (Ernie Hudson), computer AI specialist Ian Wright (Mason Alexander Park) and project security chief Jenn Chu (Nanrisa Lee). The series is being overseen by Martin Gero (who moderated the panel) and coproduced by Dean Georgaris and Deborah Pratt, who were also in attendance. Pratt also coproduced the 1989-1993 original series, and she also voiced that show’s version of supercomputer/artificial intelligence “Ziggy” as well. Ziggy is an element still used in the new series, though without Pratt’s voice (so far…).
During the panel, some clips were shown from the penultimate episode of season one, while the cast teased some interesting hints about how the season finale will wrap up some plot threads while creating all-new ones, as well. Producer Pratt also seemed unerringly optimistic that, at some point, original series star Scott Bakula could return (Bakula has made no public statement committing to the new series so far, only wishing the new cast luck). Actor Ernie Hudson (“Ghostbusters”) half-joked that his character always seems to have no idea what’s going on; a sentiment partly shared with star Raymond Lee, who prefers to be surprised with each new script as it comes in (usually dictated by an exotic new wardrobe, such as a pencil skirt…). Caitlin Bassett spoke of her US Army career, with several tours in Afghanistan and Qatar, as well as a stint in Army Intelligence (many fans thanked her for her service). With the help of a Disney new actors’ program, Bassett was able to pursue her lifelong passion for the craft (Quantum Leap is her first TV series).
Actress Nanrisa Lee remarked that she’d like to see more of her character’s hinted-at wild side, while costar Mason Alexander Park joked that they’d love for their character to be shown just having a hobby that’s not work-related (Park’s father also worked for the government, with a specialty in computers). Park also had much to say about their non-binary character’s representational importance, especially in today’s increasing hostile political climate for LGBTQ+ persons. Several fans during the Q&A (and afterward) remarked that Ian is their favorite character of the series. After the panel, most of the cast took their personalized name placeholders (a tradition at conventions), while cast members Park and Bassett graciously remained behind onstage for a few more minutes to pose for selfies with fans and sign autographs (they both signed my program as well).
My favorite part of conventions is the colorful cosplay. The sheer imagination poured into these lovingly-detailed fan costumes is staggering. I’ve seen many screen-used costumes up close, and all I can say is that these fan creations—made without the budget crunches or time-constraints of the film industry—sometimes exceed film/TV standards. Let’s begin the show…
While taking my stroll through the Dealer Hall, I once again saw actor Herb Jefferson Jr. (Lt. Boomer from 1978’s original version of “Battlestar Galactica”) and we enjoyed a nice chat over some stunts he’d done in the TV series “The Bionic Woman” (which I’m currently re-watching for a future retrospective). In the scene, bionic woman Jamie Sommers hurls heavy laundry bags at Jefferson (playing a rare villain), who did the stunt himself. Jefferson told me he often did his own stunts for multiple reasons—the prime of which was that he enjoyed doing them, but also because he took umbrage at seeing a “blonde, blue-eyed stuntman” in black makeup doing the job. Often Jefferson would slyly recommend a Black stuntman—who would still get work as his double—while doing the actual stunt himself (he rode his own horses, did his own fights and many other such feats for the camera). This was a story I’d never heard before, and it was fascinating.
I’d first met Jefferson nearly 20 years ago at a convention in Pasadena, and he’s just as cool a guy now as he was then. Still fit, and wearing a Tuskegee Airmen jacket (commemorating the heroic, all-Black fighter pilot squadron of World War 2), Jefferson takes great pride in all of his work, which includes roles in TV shows like Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery,” “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and “The Immortal,” as well as feature films like “Apollo 13” (1995). It’s always a pleasure to drop by and say ‘hi’ to him, whenever I get the chance. If I were a filmmaker, I’d jump at the opportunity to work with him.
Summing It Up
Despite an unfortunate last-minute cancellation by actor Mark Jackson (“The Orville”) who was scheduled to be autographing at the convention, WonderCon 2023 greatly exceeded my expectations. Of course, my favorite draws remain the same; the colorful cosplayers and the chance to meet and get some face-time with the celebrity guests…either purposefully, or by fortunate circumstances (the Quantum Leap cast’s impromptu signing/photo session, for example).
Less congested than San Diego Comic Con, WonderCon offers a bit more breathing room than other large-scale conventions. While my press pass didn’t exactly give me carte blanché at the event, it was still nice to meet and share war stories with another press attendee as well (thanks Libya!). This year’s focus on lesser-known, less franchise-ish projects was refreshing as well. For those fans who live within reach of WonderCon, it is well worth the time, and it’s also great ‘practice’ for those who hope to tackle San Diego Comic Con someday–the Mt. Everest of fandom conventions.
Until WonderCon 2024…