Friday, April 12, 2013

Anaheim WonderCon 2013

Friends, readers, straggling passersby!  Anaheim WonderCon ended twelve days ago, and twelve days is an awfully long time to hold off on writing about it.  If I were a journalist or something, I'd have some 'splaining to do.  But forget all that: we all just want to see words and pictures, right?
Yours truly, looking less intimidating than Aquaman.
I've been a stranger from the convention scene in recent years.  My last San Diego Comic Con was back in 2010, and my most recent con was a small affair in Seattle two years ago called Sakura-Con.  Conventions, being generally held far away from where I live and designed to part me from my funds, are a demanding hobby, but they are usually worth it for the memories and the swag.  This year I've had plenty of both, thanks to my girlfriend Tara, whose idea this trip was.

And yes, it was trip.  Last year I told myself I was done driving all the way from Oregon to Southern California and back.  I was clearly wrong about that, as Tara and I found ourselves barreling down the 5 in the Mighty Muskrat once more.  I taught her to drive stick for the trip, and honestly it probably saved my sanity.  Which I needed, because cons are nuts.

So, a bit of background.  WonderCon is much like Comic Con; in fact, they are put on by the same company.  The difference is primarily of scale.  While San Diego Comic Con hosts roughly the entire population of Hollywood alongside an uncountable host of nerds with the wherewithal to buy impossibly scarce passes, WonderCon exists within finite dimensions and can be thoroughly explored even by a relative newcomer to the convention scene.

We reached Anaheim on March 29th, and as a Southern Californian, Anaheim means primarily two things to me.  One, the Angels play there (regardless of what they might want you to think).  Two, Disneyland is there (and going there would cost nearly as much as the whole trip).
Seriously, we walked past it every day, and never went.  Ten year old me would never understand.
But inside the Anaheim Convention Center were pleasures of another kind altogether.  At last I was reunited with my people, the nerds, and it felt good.  This was Tara's first convention, and I wanted her to share in its atmospheric joys: the sounds, the costumes, the swag, and the myriad opportunities for events hitherto thought impossible.

It certainly helped matters that within hours of arriving, we had met Amber Benson (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tara's favorite show) and had secured an autograph and a photo opportunity.  I don't want to say the con peaked for us on the first day, but it was definitely a highlight.
On the left, Tara quietly freaks out.  On the right, I try not to act like a dork.
As I mentioned before, WonderCon is a smaller to-do than Comic Con.  It's evident from the exhibit hall alone.  The last time I was at SDCC, the exhibit hall was packed to capacity with booths and the accompanying throng.  In Anaheim there was room to spare; enough even to use part of the floor as a queuing area for panels in the arena.  As much as I used to love going to Comic Con, WonderCon's (comparatively) more relaxed style suited me (and Tara) far better.  The sheer size and spectacle wasn't there, but the heart of nerd-dom beat fully on display in Anaheim that weekend.
Tara gives the order, and my joy goes to warp nine.
It's not quite right to say that WonderCon is less commercial than its sell-out sibling to the south, even though it is undoubtedly true.  It's a moneymaking operation and entertainment, rather than "art," is the key component.  But it's just so much easier to breathe in an environment like WonderCon, and with fewer noisy stimuli it's easier to focus in on the really worthwhile moments that come your way.

Like when a fully mobile R2-D2 rolls out of your childhood and validates your life.
WonderCon is small, but it isn't tiny.  On three separate occasions we missed getting into panels we wanted to see on account of lines, not to mention seat-holders who didn't leave when the events they were watching had ended.  We stood, and sat, and did our best to simply exist in a lot of lines.  When we missed out, we cursed our luck, but we got smarter as the weekend passed and tried to keep ourselves happy.
Reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while waiting for a panel to start.
 One particular source of joy was the artist's alley, where the real stars of the show were selling their wares and generally validating every experience we had.  It kind of sucked that we missed out on the over-stuffed Adventure Time panel (on account of every con-goer's nemesis, the Fire Marshall), but I did purchase an awesome print from an artist by the name of Nicole Sloan, and what could make me happier?  Nothing, really; it's a beautiful picture, and it's that thrilling sense of meeting genuine creative people and having conversations with them that helped make this one of the most special conventions I'd ever been to.

In fact, mainly due to Tara's influence, I approached more "famous people" this time around than I've ever dared to do in the past.  We had two honest-to-goodness conversations in two days with writer Frank Beddor, author of The Looking Glass Wars.  And we met Jane Espenson, writer and producer of just about every awesome TV show.  She signed Tara's Buffy poster, and drew a heart with a stake through it.  She might be the best person ever.

Oh and also, we got to sit in the same (enormous) room as Joss Whedon and the cast of Much Ado About Nothing.  There was much rejoicing, and the fact that Nathan Fillion cancelled at the last minute hardly seemed to matter.  Well, it made us very sad, but we were really too nerd-thrilled to mind.
A small fraction of what was clearly the best panel at the show.
Celebrities get the headlines, but of course they aren't the best thing to look at in a nerd convention, no matter what their egos may tell them.  Cons are the land of cos-play, and cos-play is a wealthy source of awesome times and brilliant, slightly-unhinged people.  Our award for best-executed costume would have to go to the fellow who gave up visibility and freedom of motion to walk around sideways all day behind an articulated Paper Mario costume.  Mostly because he took the best pictures with us.

Shine on, you paper diamond.
All our dreams fulfilled, we departed Anaheim on the 31st, staying with my mom in San Diego for a few days before returning home, swag bags in tow.  Our mission, such as it was, was a resounding success.  Tara had enjoyed her first con, and I was already looking forward to the next.

Putting on a successful convention is tricky business.  San Diego Comic Con is memorable and astonishingly well-executed for all that's going on (at least it was three years ago), but its sheer size means that you can end up feeling lost and over-stimulated.  On the other end, a smaller show like Sakura-Con can have a lot of heart, but waste its potential due to frustratingly low production values and amateur management.  WonderCon's balance was beautiful, and I know part of me is just happy to have gotten to share it with the girl I love, but even so I have to say I had a fantastic time.  I don't know if we'll be back next year, but it would definitely be worthwhile.

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