Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: The “Secret Origin” of San Diego’s Comic-Con International
Columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
This article originally appeared on Jim Hill Media in 2005. With the October 19th debut of San Diego Comic Fest, an event intended to bring back the original feel and spirit of Comic-Con in the 1970s, we thought it was a perfect occasion to revisit the origins of North America’s biggest celebration of comic books: Comic-Con International.
From July 14th through 17th , the city of San Diego will once again play host to Comic-Con International. Over the years, I’ve read and overheard a number of accounts relating how the annual event — once known as the “San Diego Comic-Con” — came into existence in the first place. Well, I was one of the small group of people who were there at the very start, and I’m one of the only remaining original organizers still involved with SoCal’s annual media-fest. So, to the best of my memory, here are the actual events — as I experienced them — which led to the formation of what has become the nation’s biggest annual geek-gathering of its type.
Growing up in San Diego, I was lucky enough to become friends with a few similarly-inclined young weirdos during my junior high and high school years in the 1960s. These included: Greg Bear (who’s since become a Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer); John Pound (who’s since become a well-known fantasy painter and humorous illustrator who’s created hundreds of images for Topps Cards’ infamous “Garbage Pail Kids” trading cards); and Roger Freedman (who’s since become an award-winning physics professor and textbook author who teaches college courses on “Science Fiction for Scientists”). Other members of our oddball gang were H.P. Lovecraft aficionado Dave Clark and actor and horror movie maven/actor “Bilzo” Richardson. Working together, we formed our own “Underground Film Society,” we published hand-lettered mimeographed fanzines with goofy titles like Worlds of Wow and Fan Attic and we occasionally ventured northward to Los Angeles for visits to Forrest J Ackerman’s fabled “Ackermansion”. There, we first met “big name” fans like Donald F. Glut and Bill and Beverly Warren, their names already familiar to us through Forry’s classic Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. These contacts led to attending my first convention, BayCon, the 1968 World Science Fiction Convention, held in Berkeley, California. There, my pals Greg and Dave and I met fellow fans (some soon to become pros) like Larry Ivie, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Rob and Jeff Gluckson, and Keith Tucker. Remember, this was 1968 Berkeley; I can’t imagine a more mind-blowing introduction to fandom-at-large. And after BayCon 68, nothing seemed the same to our little fan contingent from San Diego.
Back in San Diego, we soon fell in with publisher/retailer Ken Krueger (an attendee of the very first “scientifiction” convention held in 1939, officially making him a member of the elite-if-obscure group known as “First Fandom”) and collectible book dealer John Hull. We formed our own sci-fi fan club, “The ProFanests” (the group consisted of pros and fans and we were certainly profane at times), quaffed beer and ate raw hamburger cocktails (don’t ask) and hung out at Ken’s flyblown Ocean Beach bookstore where we discussed the latest batch of “Ace Doubles” with the walk-in locals who frequented the place.
At that same time, I was working as a floor clerk at the newly opened B. Dalton, Bookseller retail store in San Diego’s then-newly-opened Fashion Valley shopping center. (To my impressionable eyes, it seemed like a very sophisticated bookshop; I was particularly fascinated by the shop’s window-display of a pyramid of paperbacks of Grove Press’ adaptation of the controversial, semi-pornographic Swedish art-film I Am Curious (Yellow).) One night, a fellow named Bob Sourke came in, looking for a then-current series of Prince Valiant reprints thinly disguised as children’s books. When he learned I was an aspiring cartoonist and general funnybook fiend, Bob invited me to a get-together of comic book fans he knew. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was always interested in meeting other people who loved comics and cartooning.
A few weeks later, I showed up for the informal meeting at a small apartment one Sunday afternoon. There, I met San Diego’s “other” fan group, which included: Shel Dorf (then in his mid-thirties and recently relocated from Detroit, where he was one of the organizers of its “Triple Fan Fair“), Richard Alf (a local teenager who was one of the first — and most successful — mail-order back-issue comics dealers), and other fans, including Bill Lund, Mike Towry, Barry Alfonso, and the aforementioned Bob Sourke. Shel was running a slideshow of Golden Age comic books covers. (I recall his expression of surprise when I, a mere teenage hippie, correctly identified a vintage cover as having been drawn by Bernard Baily.)
In 1969, Shel arranged trips for many of us to visit cartoonist Jack Kirby and his wife Roz at their home in Thousand Oaks, California. (The warmth, hospitality, generosity and interest that the Kirbys showed us cannot possibly be overstated; Jack mentored me over the next three decades, until his death in 1994.) That’s where we met Jack’s assistants (and my friends now for over three decades) Mark Evanier and Steve and Gary Sherman. During one visit, Jack even volunteered to give five of us — Bill Lund, Mike Towry, Roger Freedman, John Pound, Barry Alfonso and myself — cameo roles in an issue of one of the “Fourth World” comics he’d recently begun doing for DC. Sure enough, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen No. 144 (December, 1972) introduced “The San Diego Five-String Mob”, a rock band of evil assassins from the Darkseid-ruled planet, Apokolips, sent to Earth gunning for the Man Of Steel! (One of us, Barry Alfonso actually inspired two different Kirby creations: the Five-Stringers’ “Barri-Boy,” and later, “Klarion The Witchboy” in The Demon. Recently, Klarion received his own comic book series and the real Barry received a Grammy Award for his CD liner notes!)
By that time, most of my group of high school fan-friends, the ProFanests and Shel’s group had become amalgamated into the ever-growing social blob that was San Diego’s core of funnybook fandom. It wasn’t long before we decided to stage our very first one-day comic convention. (San Diego’s Mission Valley had already hosted the WesterCon science fiction convention a few years earlier.) We all eagerly agreed that a comic book convention was just what we — and San Diego — needed.
(Strangely enough, it never occurred to any of us that — since in those days, the majority of the talents involved in the comic book industry lived in or near New York City — San Diego was the perfect place to combine business and pleasure, and to take a tax-deductible family vacation, to boot!)
We plunged blindly ahead. Shel Dorf provided his list of professional contacts and potential guests, Richard Alf provided the vital seed-money for our initial operating expenses, and Ken Krueger provided his valuable savvy and know-how from a lifetime in fandom, conventions, publishing, and retail sales. The rest of us provided the raw enthusiasm to do whatever it took to get the con off the ground and running, if not flying. As for my role in the proceedings, I served as one of the first con’s five committee chairmen and designed the convention’s first logos and drew its advertising posters. I also hosted many of our early con-planning meetings on the patio at my parents’ house in the College Grove area. (Hey, I was only 17 or so at the time!)
Shel enlisted our first pro guests for both the March one-day mini-con and August’s first, full-blown, three-day “San Diego Comic-Con”: Forry Ackerman, Mike Royer, Jack Kirby, Ray Bradbury, San Diego Evening Tribune editorial cartoonist Bob Stevens, and science fiction author A. E. Van Vogt. That first con, held in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel, was, for its day, a rousing success. (The U.S. Grant Hotel wasn’t the snazziest of venues, but it was the only one made available to us; in fact, no other hotel in town was willing to risk hosting an event that would garner such a low bar-attendance. Fortunately, we had Ken and Shel to sign the contract; the rest of us were under-age!) Other than young Jackie Estrada (now co-publisher of Exhibit A Press and administrator of the prestigious Eisner Awards), the only females attending the 300-attendee event were fans’ mothers!
My involvement with the convention continued. Its second year, saddled with the exhausting title of “The San Diego Golden State Comic-Con” (>Phew!<), the growing event was held on the campus of the University Of California At San Diego, and the one after that was hosted by the Sheraton Hotel located on San Diego’s Shelter Island. Then the con moved to downtown San Diego, with its exhibition hall at the Community Concourse, and with lodging and most of the programming at the nearby El Cortez Hotel (the swimming pool of which was often clouded with fan-dispensed shark repellant.) It was early during this period that the convention’s committee wisely voted to apply for a “not-for-profit” business status. Years later, the San Diego Comic-Con finally relocated to its current venue, San Diego’s ocean-side Convention Center. (In fact, this will be the first year in which the con estimated to have a total attendance near 100,000 people — will occupy the entire available space of the Convention Center; from now on, there’s nowhere to extend its domain — except upwards!) Now known as “Comic-Con International” (a name that oughtta keep San Diego’s tourist bureau in a continual state of cooperative fear), the little 300-person basement-gathering has grown, over the past thirty-seven years, into the United States’ largest event of its kind. In fact, it’s San Diego’s single biggest annual tourist event, its presence accompanied by a mind-blowing ballyhoo of TV and radio ads, street-banners and bus-posters.
Of course, the term “Comic-Con” doesn’t even begin to describe the diversity of SDCCI’s wall-to-wall programming. Aside from comic books, the convention’s schedule includes events devoted to contemporary comic books (and their creators), vintage comic books (and their creators), original artwork (from both categories), science fiction and fantasy literature, animation (both domestic and foreign), genre television shows, pulp magazines, weaponry (both real and faux), genre theatrical (and direct-to-DVD) films, role-playing games, action figures, vintage toys, old time radio shows, video games, glamour art, costumes — and, oh, I give up (in much the same way I’m now forced to give up my hopes of navigating the con’s entire exhibit hall.) Let’s just say that, if a topic is considered to be somewhat dispensable and silly in real life, chances are, it’s considered to be of primary importance at SDCCI.
Over the past thirty-seven years, some of my personal high points at the con have included: hosting the Inkpot Awards presentations, where I was able to shake the hands of so many notable creators; meeting cartoonists for the first time who would become some of my best friends, including Sergio Aragones, Stan Sakai, Dan Nakrosis, Mike Kazaleh, Dave Thorne, William Stout, Bill Morrison, Batton Lash and Don Dougherty, among many others; performing on-stage during the con masquerade with “Raoul Duke And His All-Human Orchestra”; befriending Sam Glanzman, the artist behind one of my childhood’s favorite comic books, Dell’s Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle; presenting my Oddball Comics slideshow over the last four decades; and introducing our infant son Kirby to his namesake, Jack Kirby.
As for the low points? Being told, as an aspiring cartoonist, by Neal Adams to “give it up”? (Years later, he swears he was just kidding — and supposedly said the same thing to Frank Miller!) Getting physically threatened by a muscle-bound contestant who was furious that, while hosting the annual masquerade, I dared refer to his costume of the mighty Thor’s immortal enemy, the Destroyer as “the Michelin Man”? (Hey, he really did look like he was made out of radial tires!) Or perhaps it was facing an angry crowd of blood-donors who were misinformed that I’d do a complimentary drawing for each and every one of them? (For the life of me, I can’t possibly think of a less appropriate time or place to donate blood than at a funnybook convention.) Considering that I’ve attended every single day of every single San Diego Comic-Con — International and otherwise — that really ain’t such a bad track record.
(Y’know, William Shatner was right — I’ve really gotta get a life.)
As I look back at those early days of the Comic-Con and attempt to compare them to its current incarnation, I’m stymied — there’s really no comparison at all! As I mentioned, attendance is huge, and bigger with every coming year. (I understand that the staff of the world-famous San Diego Zoo is justifiably jealous, they no longer can boast having the town’s largest collection of exotic critters.) If comic book sales reflected this sort of public interest, the funnybook industry would be booming (which, by all counts — except those of the publishers’ PR flacks — definitely ain’t.) At times — usually on Saturdays — its exhibit hall’s aisles are jammed with shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian gridlock, and there’s “standing room only” for many of the con’s individual programs upstairs. The con’s also become surprisingly diverse, with Kevin Smith-lookalike males barely outnumbering the females. (Where, oh where were you when I was 19, single and desperate for the companionship of a cute girl-geek?) Even entire families visit the con; in fact, some of their kids have literally grown up there, attending every year of their young lives!) By now, Hollywood’s presence is unavoidable; it’s hard to walk a few yards without tripping over Angelina Jolie or Keanu Reeves or a full-scale model of the Millennium Falcon. In general, big business seems to exert amazing influence over the convention — why else would otherwise intelligent individuals stand in line for hours on end for the privilege of purchasing a special, limited “variant edition” of a Muppet toy? Among all of these conspicuous displays of marketing and branding, old comic books and their fans seem to have actually become something of a minority at this crowded “comic-con.” Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed by all the Hollywood hype and corporate chest-beating, I can’t help but miss the heady days of the U.S. Grant’s moldering basement. But when I consider that Comic-Con International allows me the opportunity to reconnect with friends I’ve known for decades, at the world’s biggest “class reunion,” it’s easy to shrug off whatever misgivings I may foster regarding the con’s ever-mutating size and tone.
Still, there remain two aspects of the convention that haven’t changed an iota. Despite advancements in the field, convention-hall food is just as rotten and overpriced as ever. And, as before, approximately one out of every thirty convention-goers seems to allocate their personal budgets toward the purchase of comic books rather than items of personal hygiene. (One of these days, I’m gonna invent “collectible deodorant” and make a financial killing — while simultaneously earning the undying thanks of the other four-fifths of the crowd. But with my luck, the buyers will probably refuse to remove my collectible deodorants from their wrappers to actually use it so they can keep ‘em in minty-fresh mint condition!)
Due to the initial efforts of Richard, Shel, Ken and all of the others who worked on that first San Diego Comic-Con committee — as well as the hundreds of people who’ve served on all the San Diego con committees ever since then — Comic-Con International has become the biggest and best celebration of cartoonery in the United States. I’ll always be justifiably proud of the small part I had in its inception, over thirty-seven years ago.
So, who’s got a nice copy of DC’s Showcase No. 71 (November – December, 1967) — featuring “The Maniaks” and guest-starring Woody Allen — for sale, cheap?
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comic, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become…The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for Ka-Boom. He’s currently writing and drawing on the first Annoying Orange graphic novel – split with Mike Kazaleh – for Papercutz. Scott will be a guest at the San Diego Comic Fest. And he finally found a nice copy of DC’s Showcase No. 71.
Posted on October 1, 2012, in Columns, Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist and tagged A. E. van Vogt, Barry Alfonso, BayCon, Bill Lund, Bill Warren, Bilzo Richardson, Bob Sourke, Bob Stevens, Comic-Con International, Dave Clark, Detroit Triple Fan Fair, Donald F. Glut, First Fandom, Forrest J Ackerman, Gary Sherman, Greg Bear, Jack Kirby, Jackie Estrada, Jeff Gluckson, John Hull, John Pound, Keith Tucker, Ken Krueger, Klarion the Witchboy, Larry Ivie, Len Wein, Mark Evanier, Marv Wolfman, Mike Royer, Mike Towry, Ray Bradbury, Richard Alf, Rob Gluckson, Roger Freedman, Roz Kirby, San Diego Comic-Con, San Diego Golden State Comic-Con, Scott Shaw!, Shel Dorf, Steve Sherman, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, The ProFanest, The San Diego Five-String Mob, U.S. Grant Hotel, WesterCon. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.