WonderCon 2011 marks its 25th anniversary

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“In case you were wondering, Ryan Reynolds is in the next room over,” jokes Robert Kirkman, referring to the Green Lantern star and promotional panel somewhere else in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. He seats himself in one of the half dozen empty chairs for his panel at WonderCon 2011, as the next hour of sarcastic banter and sneak peaks at his authored titles, as well as those under his new imprint, Image-Skybound, gets underway.

Since 2003, the success of Kirkman’s landmark series, The Walking Dead, has propelled him up to and among the ranks of comic book auteurism, situating him with contemporaries like Mark Millar, Grant Morrison and Jeff Smith. The Eisner award-winning The Walking Dead, a brutal, pessimistic chronicling of humanity’s coping with the zombie apocalypse, just concluded the first season of its television adaptation. Kirkman is currently working with developer Telltale Games for a videogame adaptation to be released at the end of this year.

He also spoke of his more tongue-in-cheek, April 20-released title, Super Dinosaur, which Kirkman wrote for his son.

“There’s going to be lots of drama and intrigue, and you’ll probably cry at some point,” he jested. “It’ll be all depressing like The Walking Dead, so you guys will hopefully like it. But for the most part it will just be a dinosaur shooting missiles at things, so hopefully it’ll be pretty good.”

WonderCon 2011 marks its 25th anniversary. It was started in 1987 by Joe Field of Concord, CA’s Flying Colors Comics and Other Cool Stuff, along with other local retailers and comic book, sci-fi, and fantasy fans, as the Wonderful World of Comics Convention. Long-since shortened to WonderCon, the once underground annual has grown into a pseudo-mainstream locus for both geek-related industry giants, the underdogs, and their fans alike.

Booths and events for big names like Nintendo, Marvel, DC, and Capcom tower over the floor, all but overshadowing the smaller retailers and imprints like Image and Dark Horse. Massive gaps are filled to capacity by tens of thousands of conned-out enthusiasts, often decked in homemade costumes, aping their favorite videogame, comic, or anime characters. This phenomenon is known as “cosplaying.” And where there’s a con to be found, cosplayers are right at the frontlines.

Local gawkers and passersby stare in shock, contempt, or some combination of the two at the parade of nerd culture, either expressing their confusion or curiosity, or just cracking jokes. While an extreme aesthetic may merit an extreme response (Solid Snake and Yuffie Kisaragi holding hands, trailed by Princess Peach and Dr. Girlfriend from Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros., what the hell is going on here?), this also speaks to the stigma that shrouds the multiple genres under this cultural umbrella.

The term “genre” had its roots in 16th century northern European art, concerning certain kinds of subject matter related to “the scenes and subjects of common life.” In other words, it referred to the otherwise realistic, non-classical style of painting emerging alongside the rise of mercantilism and what would become modern economics and social structure.

When the term moved to literature, it meant anything but realism, and was stuck onto fictions whose subject matters strayed from the realities of modern life (sci-fi, westerns, or noir, for example). Realism, at least as far as critics and academics are concerned, is the most exalted form of modern literature, with the marginalized “genre” in a place of inferiority.

But realistic fiction itself is a genre with its own rules and limitations. According to sci-fi/fantasy author, Ursula K. Le Guin, “re-fi” is plagued with incredibly narrow and conventional subject matter. Given such a condition of content, “realism is quite incapable of describing the complexity of contemporary existence,” says Le Guin.

Inherent to post-modern art is its ability hide the meatiest content under the works’ mass appeal, the “popcorn-factor.” Over the past four decades, genre-pieces across mediums have occupied such a space. This has afforded the “genre” a few extra points of literary and artistic prestige since the early 1980s. Films like The Matrix or Blade Runner or comics like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen have layers upon layers of philosophy running beneath the reels, or the panels, often touching on ideas of intellectual autonomy and Descartes, gender politics, the nature of authorship, and even being so playfully self-referential as to comment on or redefine the genre itself.

This moves these films, shows, or comics far beyond their pulp-status and into the realm of great literature, their poetic strokes and statements on art and society too significant to be ignored. By re-envisioning the common threads running through the superhero/action or horror genres, as in the cases of Moore’s Watchmen and Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, the cultural significance of these works, along with their favorable mass and critical reception, brought them out from the underground to create high-revenue multimedia franchises with reissues, cinema/television events, and video games.

Artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Barbara Kruger are known for their appropriation of cultural iconography in their art, and while not using the motifs or paradigms of the genres relevant to WonderCon 2011, they do serve a similar function. Works like the former’s “Leonardo di Vinci’s Greatest Hits” or lifts from Grey’s Anatomy or the latter’s use of Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X’s visages under bold, highlighted texts (“Not stupid enough,” and “Not angry enough,” respectively) call to attention the way we perceive, commodify, and perpetuate abstract understandings of art and beauty, either by juxtaposing them with subversive text, as Kruger modus operandi would dictate, or in Basquiat’s case, distorting and cluttering the reproduction altogether.

Both Moore and Gaiman offer depictions of superheroes that might not fit into the paradigms laid out in the gold and silver ages of comic books. Moore emasculated Watchmen protagonist, Night Owl, who, while still as fascistic and authoritarian as any take on Batman, is incredibly melancholic, self-conscious, and impotent. Gaiman took a discarded DC crime-fighter and turned him into the undying personification of dreams and human imagination in Sandman, using him as a lens through which the reader can view cross-cultural mythos and their place throughout human history.

The undertones are heavy, but ultimately it is left up to the reader to discern these stories’ meaning, especially if these are archetypal tales with which the we already familiar, a la Batman or the nerdy teen-cum-superhero. Joseph Campbell purported that similar tales and the need for their existence transcends culture and time. Participating in these “myths” and metaphors, according to Campbell, leads one to truths that cannot be expressed in plain, direct words, so long as these stores continually adapt to modern life. As Gaiman states, “We have the right, and the obligation, to tell old stories in our own ways, because they are our stories.”