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Comic-Con

50 Shades of Comic-Con: What we’ve gained and lost in five decades of pop culture celebrations

Pictured at a Kearny Mesa comics store, Mike Towry, a co-founder of Comic-Con, has attended most of the San Diego conventions.
Pictured at a Kearny Mesa comics store, Mike Towry, a co-founder of Comic-Con, has attended most of the San Diego conventions.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

From its tiny infancy (attendance the first year: 300) Comic-Con has grown to become the Godzilla of pop culture gatherings. Massive and exhausting, it somehow retains an aura of manic magic.

From its inception, Comic-Con had intergalactic ambitions.

The initial show, then called San Diego’ Golden State Comic Con, featured science fiction writers Ray Bradbury and A.E. Van Vogt; Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America, X-Men and other iconic superheroes; vintage films; an art auction; and dozens of dealers peddling mountains of new and used comics.

An unforgettable event — for the 300 attendees. Few others noticed and even they dismissed this as a juvenile jamboree. For instance:

On the show’s first day, Aug. 1, 1970, the author of “Fahrenheit 451" and “The Martian Chronicles” granted an interview to The San Diego Union. Yet Bradbury’s spirited defense of comics was buried on page B-11, under articles about a flower show, the repainting of the White House East Room and a medical brief with the headline “Fat Men More Tipsy.”

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“The convention was so small,” said comics historian Greg Koudoulian, “the dealers all had time to deal with each other.”

That was then. There’s no time for that now.

FINAL SDCC-50-YEAR-TIMELINE.jpg

For the 50th annual Comic-Con, which opens Wednesday and continues through next Sunday, press credentials were issued to network correspondents, national magazine scribes, Japanese photographers. More 135,000 people gained admission via an online lottery that took less than an hour. Downtown streets will be jammed with Storm Troopers and Klingons, princesses and wizards, the “Game of Thrones” cast, Samuel L. Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Conan O’Brien (he’ll broadcast his syndicated TV show here this week) and other greats, near-greats and wanna-be greats.

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There’s also a Who’s Who of comics: Frank Miller, known for “Sin City” and “300"; J. Michael Straczynski, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and one of the few writers to script DC’s Superman and Marvel’s Spider-Man; Raina Telgemeier, whose graphic novels enchant tweens of all ages; Sergio Aragonés, a MAD magazine fixture since the 1960s; Mary Fleener, an underground comix pioneer; and countless more.

While there are as many rival comics conventions as super-villains in Gotham City, few can match this show’s enduring appeal. Massive and exhausting, it somehow retains an aura of manic magic. Random moments of amazement spill out of the San Diego Convention Center, into the Gaslamp Quarter and even San Diego Bay.

“Last year,” said Heidi MacDonald, creator of The Beat, a blog devoted to comics, “I’m on a boat in the harbor with Weird Al Yankovich. How do you top that? You don’t.”

For better or for worse, though, Comic-Con ain’t what it used to be. As the 50th edition of this ever-changing, ever-expanding show debuts, what have we gained and lost at Comic-Con?

Lost: Intimacy

Neil Kendricks is a writer, filmmaker and teacher who recently led a San Diego State course on comics and sequential art. In the early 1980s, though, he was a high school student at his first Comic-Con. In the dealer’s room, he bumped into a white-haired gentleman flipping through the cardboard boxes full of used comics.

“Mr. Bradbury,” he stammered, “will you be here for awhile?”

When Ray Bradbury nodded yes, Kendricks dashed out of Golden Hall and ran the half-mile to Wahrenbrock’s Book House.

“I went upstairs to the science fiction section and bought as many of his books and I could find. Then I ran all the way back and he signed them. That,” Kendricks said, “could never happen now.”

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Bradbury is gone (2012, RIP). Ditto, Wahrenbrock’s (2010). So are the days of celebrities following their own whims without being followed by a pack of autograph-seekers.

While Comic-Con attracts countless stars, schedules and security are tighter, making can-you-believe-that? encounters less common.

Mark Evanier, Jack Kirby’s biographer, has attended every Comic-Con and moderated hundreds of panels at the annual show. Still, his memorable moment may have come in the 1974, when he was buttonholed by Shel Dorf, one of the creators of Comic-Con.

“Mark,” Dorf said, “do you want to come to lunch with me and Frank Capra?”

Silly question. To this day, Evanier can’t believe he dined with the director of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Gained: Professionalism

The first Comic-Con and its predecessor, a “Mini-Con” fundraiser held March 21, 1970, were organized by a dozen teens and two adults, Ken Krueger and Dorf.

In his native state of Michigan, Dorf had been a force behind the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, a multi-day celebration of comics, science fiction and movies. Krueger, as the owner of an Ocean Beach book store, had business savvy. Both men had checking accounts, drivers licenses and other trappings of adulthood.

Yet the convention relied on adolescents,. With predictable results.

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“You literally had no idea what you were doing,” said Roger Freedman, who was one of those clueless teens. (He recovered. Now 66, Freedman is a U.C. Santa Barbara physics professor.)

During one early show, Freedman remembers, the entire board went out to dinner.

“Who’s back at the convention?” one asked.

“It’s probably OK,” someone replied.

Around that time, a fuse blew at the show, plunging the entire convention into darkness.

Today, the Con is run by more than 50 paid staffers and 3,400 volunteers. With more than $35 million in assets, it’s a professional organization.

“They know what they are doing,” Evanier said.

Still, there are the occasional hiccups. Just ask film director and comic book fan Kevin Smith. In 2006, crowds were so thick the fire marshal temporarily blocked admission to the San Diego Convention Center. Among those shut out: Smith.

Lost: Golden Age

For years, Comic-Con hosted a panel of artists and writers from the 1930s and ‘40s, comics’ Golden Age.

“I took over moderating it and did it for about 15 years,” Evanier said. “But eventually we just ran out of them. The few who are still alive are just too old or frail to come to the convention.”

Kirby died in 1994. Other giants in this field passed away more recently. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, two titanic figures at Marvel Comics, died last year. Comic-Con’s long-time president, John Rogers, died in November, followed in January by San Diego-based cartoonist and Comic-Con regular Batton Lash.

One happy exception: Joyce Murchison Kelly, who was a vigorous 94 when she came to her first Comic-Con last year. There, she was applauded for her uncredited authorship of many “Wonder Woman” comics in the 1940s.

“Imagine,” Evanier said, “having the best weekend of your life when you’re 94.”

Gained: Representation

Meet the Faithful Five, the only individuals who have attended every Comic-Con: Evanier, Pasadena-based artist William Stout, comics dealer Terry Stroud, super fan Gene Henderson and the lone woman, Jackie Estrada.

Now the director of the annual Eisner awards, honoring the year’s best comics and graphic novels, Estrada has always been a Comic-Con powerhouse. For years, though, she was the exception in a testosterone-soaked environment.

Stout recalls an early show, when a solitary woman wandered into the comic dealers’ room.

“She was followed by a whole train of guys,” he said.

Today, the Con draws roughly even numbers of men and women. Mary Fleener, author of a graphic-in-more-ways-than-one memoir, “Life of the Party,” and a new graphic novel for kids, “Billie the Bee,” believes there’s a higher estrogen quotient among the younger convention-goers.

“I’ve heard that 60 percent of the people under 30 are women,” she said.

Fleener witnessed other barriers crumble at Comic-Con. At her first Con, in the 1980s, she found her work scorned by the fans of superheroes.

“People like us were looked at with real disdain by the DC/Marvel people,” said Fleener. “They thought if you didn’t draw like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, you didn’t know how to draw.”

That changed in the 1990s, Fleener said, as publishers like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics gave platforms and credibility to a new generation of cartoonists, reflecting the full range of gender, ethnicities, nationalities — welcome, Japanese manga! hello, Korean manhwa! — political and sexual orientations.

To grasp the scope of comics in 2019, check out these panels scheduled for this year’s Comic-Con: “A Long Story Short: Mexican Comic Books,” “Diversity in Manga,” “Entertainment is LGBTQ,” “Mormons Making Comics.”

That’s all available on one day, Thursday, at one time, noon.

Lost: Old School Spontaneity

Kirby flinging cherry bombs down a hotel stairwell.

Skinny dippers enjoying nearby hotel pools.

Bargain-priced lodgings.

Lining up at Seaport Village to buy a ticket to that day’s Comic-Con.

Once upon a time in Comic-Con, you might have seen or done — no judgment! — all of that. In 1987, you even might have wandered down a hotel corridor and, through an open door, spied an unknown artist sprawled on the carpet, pencils flying across a sketch pad.

“Fans would walk in and we would be sitting on the floor, sketching, catching up on our commission work,” said that rookie artist, Jim Lee, now co-publisher and chief creative officer at DC Comics.

Lee had won his first comics contract that January, when Marvel hired him to work on a single book. Only 6,500 attended the ’87 Comic-Con, but Lee was overwhelmed.

“I spent all day sitting at my booth or the Marvel booth, signing sketchings,” he said. “At the same time, it was incredibly electric and I loved it. I had made it! This is what I wanted to do. And here were people coming up with books that I had drawn, people who liked my work well enough to stand in line to see me.”

Lee still gets a thrill, autographing books for fans. At night, though, he shuts his hotel room door.

Gained: A Kingdom

“I miss the informality of the old Comic-Con where anything could happen. There’s more structure now,” Stout said. “But it’s certainly much safer now.”

Except 1971 and 1973, when the convention was held at UC San Diego and Harbor Island, respectively, the show has always been downtown. For years, that was an, er, interesting locale.

“Broadway was till funky,” Fleener said of 1987, her first year at the Con. “On one block you could get a tattoo and then pick up a male hooker.”

By 1991, when Comic-Con moved to its current location in the bayfront convention center, the neighboring Gaslamp Quarter had been made safe for amateur Darth Vaders and Supergirls. There were upscale hotels and fine dining spots within easy walking distance. Banners celebrating the convention hung from lightpoles.

“When I drive into San Diego every year,” said Evanier, a Los Angeles resident, “I am two miles from the convention center and I still see signs welcoming you to the Con.”

For a week, downtown becomes a magical, although nightmarishly crowded, realm. Hotels are wrapped in billboard-sized ads for Hollywood’s hottest properties. Restaurants and clubs are transformed into Con-themed hangouts. Traffic is re-routed so “zombies” can stagger down Gaslamp boulevards. Waiters don Superman capes. Petco Park is taken over by interactive Twilight Zone and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! attractions. On the Embarcadero and the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade, carnival-like installations promote video games, TV shows and movies.

This convention is too big for the San Diego Convention Center — maybe any convention center — to hold.

“You’d never get that in any other city,” Evanier said. “Comic-Con makes San Diego a better place and San Diego makes Comic-Con more important.”

Retained: Spectacle

For the pros who attend, Comic-Con has always been a fabulous bazaar, a place where art and commerce rub shoulders. One of the world’s leading dinosaur artists — a phrase you’ll hear in few places outside Comic-Con — Stout once sold several canvases to an admirer who asked if the painter could clear his calendar for an upcoming project.

The admirer: Guillermo del Toro.

The project: “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro’s 2006 Oscar-winner.

“I was really proud to work on that one,” Stout said.

As fantastic as the images were in “Labyrinth,” Comic-Con ‘s spectacle drops even more jaws. Saturday’s masquerade may be a costume maker’s nirvana, but every day at the Con is chockablock with gonzo wardrobes, seductive graphics, stunning animations.

For DC’s Lee, the Con is the comic industry’s Mardi Gras, an exuberant, out-of-control celebration. For Evanier, who moderates 15 panels this year, it’s a Brigadoon for the creative class, magically appearing for its all-too-brief five days.

For The Beat’s MacDonald, the Con is a joy and a challenge. “It’s just a very intense experience,” she said. “The bigger it gets, the more mind-boggling it gets.”

If Comic-Con doesn’t look exactly as it did five decades ago, who does?

“You’ve still got to love it,” said Greg Koudoulian, who will host Saturday’s panel on comics and comic convention historians. “You get married, you move, you get divorced, your collections come and come and go, your house burns down, whatever. But Comic-Con is like your external hard drive, it’s the one constant in everybody’s life.”


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