This week nerddom descends on San Diego for the long-awaited return of Comic-Con, after several years away. But what is it that keeps people of all stripes, from comics creatives to actors and directors, coming back year after year — except for all those times we couldn’t in recent years? A new oral history about SDCC’s transformation asked a few luminaries, and Gizmodo has a peek.
Published by Fantagraphics and penned by pop culture historian Mathew Klickstein, See You at San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture charts the history of Comic-Con’s evolution from its roots as a small comics gathering to the premiere event in the nerdy pop culture calendar, a behemoth where the world’s biggest studios and networks sit alongside those comics publishers to reveal the latest news, wild casting announcements, and, of course, maybe a trailer or 16.
SDCC has become a very different beast since its early days, but something that’s not changed for the legions of creatives and fans — and fans who became creatives, now attending the show from both sides of the artist’s alley and beyond — is just what the sense of community means to the people who show up year in, year out. The coronavirus pandemic forced Comic-Con into a virtual-only event in 2020 and 2021, and as fans and creators alike make a tentative return to in-person gatherings this year, Gizmodo has a new look inside Klickstein’s oral history below that looks at just what Comic-Con means to folks like actress Felicia Day, TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman, the legendary Frank Miller, and many more — as they prepare to be back in action this week. Check it out below.
Len Wein: I actually watched an episode of Jeopardy! a couple of nights ago and Comic-Con was the answer to one of the questions. It’s reached that point.
Stan Sakai: We plan our entire year around Comic-Con. I mean, summer is reserved just for Comic-Con. We spend two or three weeks just preparing for this big convention. And it is a big convention! But it’s still special.
Kevin Smith: San Diego Comic-Con functions for me like the start of my calendar year. Most people, you know, start in January. My calendar year begins in the summertime, in July. The “geek year” kicks off at San Diego Comic-Con and goes from con to con. A little comic book show that some cats decided to throw in San Diego has developed into an institution around which I centre the activities of my working year. Isn’t that nuts?
Frank Miller: San Diego is the grand boss. It’s the big one. It’s where I’ve met legends. From all across the world. It’s where I met Jack Kirby and a lot of people of his generation, and learned from them on the spot. They were so generous with their time. Meanwhile, I would walk around the halls and see people in these extraordinary costumes, and realise the depth of the love of fantasy and comics. It’s really like walking through a dreamland or wonderland.
Kevin Eastman: San Diego Comic-Con is like Valhalla or Avalon or something. There are so many other cons these days, but for some reason, San Diego is just the place. Since 1985, I’ve not missed a year. And I only missed it this year, 2020, because we all missed it this year. It’s a place that people plan to come to from all over the world. I think a lot of that status comes from the memories that people have of all these years, and all the people they’ve met there over the years. It’s like the happiest place on earth. I go to so many cons every year, but Comic-Con has always been a step above for me personally because it’s the show that I’ve had some of the greatest experiences and met some of the coolest people and the greatest fans at. Even if it’s not always the biggest, it’s still my favourite. I love that show. And they’ll be pushing me through in a wheelchair one of these days, but I’ll still be there.
Sergio Aragonés: If you’ve never been to the San Diego Con, you have to do it! It’s a memorable experience. And to us cartoonists, it’s essential. It’s essential. I have great memories, and I wish to continue going. And I will. Until I cannot go anymore!
Dave Clark: Comic-Con has had a tremendous effect on me. This small group of friends who were all creative and very bright helped put on this convention. We had access to the top creative minds in the world of film industry, comics, writing. We got to know and meet everybody, talk to them, exchange ideas, talk as equals, really. It gave me the confidence to be able to talk to anybody and not be intimidated by someone’s fame or title or wealth or position.
Felicia Day: Comic-Con has been incredibly informative to my career. I was a homeschooled person, and so, I didn’t ever get surrounded by my contemporaries or my mentors. I was so isolated. Comic-Con really became my social sphere. There was no year that I was like, “No, I don’t want to go.” In fact, it inspired me to do everything every year. When we did The Guild, every year we would be like, “What are we going to dazzle people with at Comic-Con?” That’s why we started doing music videos. Every year, I would see people start companies there, and I was like, “I want my own company! I want my own party for my fans and all the grassroots fans at Comic-Con.” That’s one of the reasons I started Geek & Sundry, my company. I wanted to make cool content, but I also wanted to make a community for people at Comic-Con and carve out my own niche there.
Dave Clark: It also taught me what Ray Bradbury told us early on: embrace the things that you love and be passionate about them. You don’t have to hide your passions. You can go for it, and those things will make you happy. I live here now, as an old guy in my house full of books and comics and posters and art books and the stuff that makes me happy. My circle of friends from that time are still my good friends today. And we’ve been getting together a couple of times a year for over fifty years. It’s far better than a high school reunion, because these are people I really love. And we’ve all grown old together.
Jim Valentino: About a year ago, a friend of mine who used to go to the convention with her husband every year posted a picture on Facebook, and I’m in it and Dave Scroggy is in it and a few other people from those days are in it. It was taken something like twenty-five or thirty years ago. And we’re all still good friends with one another to this day. I was looking at it and thinking that Comic-Con was my “college.” Those were my “college years.” When Greg Preston put out his book of comics artists in their studios and everybody signed their pages together in the book, Stan Sakai said to me: “It’s just like everybody signing your yearbook.” So, yeah, it was very much like our “college experience.” You remember these people. Some you were close to then. Some you’re closer to now. I do think Comic-Con was the closest thing to that. These friendships, these acquaintanceships became really solid. As time passes, even if there were skirmishes, they were small and forgettable and forgivable. And as we’ve grown older with one another, I think there’s a bond there that doesn’t go away.
Rick Geary: 2019 was a very special summer, because it was the 50th Comic-Con. It was a reunion of all the people who were there at the beginning who were still around. That’s when I got to see John Pound again, and there were other people like Fae Desmond and Richard Butner — people who were really instrumental in the founding of the Con, some of whom have drifted away over the years. I was never really that involved in the actual functioning of the Comic-Con, but over the years, I became one of the artists who had a table there and would sell his work, and I helped with some of the logo and graphic design and badges for the Con over the years, too. It was a very special summer, because I got to present a slideshow of my career over the past decades. And I got to attend several functions in which I mingled with some of the old crowd and the old faces. I just thought it was a great time.
Richard Butner: It was great. And we’ve all gotten a little grayer and a little more decrepit, but we were all still the kind of people we always were — fans who enjoy what we enjoy and are still young at heart. So, it was good seeing those people. Bill Lund, Barry Alfonso. Everybody who came. I just wished that Vicky Kelso and Ken Krueger and Shel Dorf had been around to see it. They’d have been so proud to see how it has grown and how it got to be what it is. Those guys, in the beginning, helped make the Con a success. So, it was good that we thought about them, and hopefully they were there in spirit, along with everyone else who was there. Seeing Clayton Moore and Brinke Stevens and Gene Henderson. Unfortunately, his wife Mary Henderson passed away a few years ago — another really terrific woman.
Maeheah Alzmann: Yeah, the only bad part was that there were a few people who were missing, because we all age and we all pass away eventually. So, there were some people that were obviously missing, but other than that, there was a whole new generation of people there that were doing the same things that we used to do. So, it was good.
Jim Means: During high school, I think you develop some very deep friendships with people, ones that can outlast even the separation of years and distance. With Igor Goldkind and Wendy All, I had really lost touch with both of them until a few years ago. With Wendy, I had had a little bit of contact with her over the years, but really not much, probably in decades. Igor had been living in London, working with Neil Gaiman. And then he moved back to San Diego, and I got back in touch with him. It was interesting, because we could pick things up very much like it was from forty years earlier since we’d last seen each other. I hadn’t been to Comic-Con in decades, until last year, and Igor was involved in a panel for the 50th Anniversary. And the panel also had Jackie Estrada and Greg Bear and Barry Alfonso, and all those people like that from the early days. It’s gotten a lot more difficult to get through Comic-Con these days, but I still got there, I got to the panel, and afterward I went to the bar at the hotel next door to have lunch with Igor and Wendy. We were probably there for two-and-a-half or three hours, just talking and re-connecting. And it was interesting to make those connections again, after so long. I’m glad I’m back in touch with them. They’re still very relatable. We’ve had completely separate lives over the decades, but still we have the connection that we made in Comic-Con times.
Maeheah Alzmann: The first year I ever went to Comic-Con was because they were my friends and they said I’d have a good time. And so, I went. But after that first year — 1975 — I think the one thing that drew me to the convention every single year was that it was a large group of people all gathered together in one place and were of a single mind. And there were no outcasts at the convention. There were no “nerds.” There were no anything. Everybody got along. It was a group of people all going for the same outcome and the same end. They were all interested in the same thing. And I liked that.
Richard Butner: Back then, it was easy to think you were the only one who watches Star Trek, when there were millions of people who watched Star Trek. And we were all the same, you know? We read the Freak Brothers and MAD Magazine and comic books. We all could relate to one another. Even though we had these different jobs, different stations in life, different educational backgrounds, it was a chance to bond with other people. For a short time while you were there at Comic-Con, it felt like the convention was the reality, and the “real world” was just some weird dream that we had to put up with. I won’t say nightmare, but just strange. It became strange, and the Con became normal.
Brinke Stevens: It’s just amazing to me that this little group of teenagers had created something that is so huge, so world-famous now. It’s astounding to me that we didn’t know what we were doing. We just wanted to do something. And this is what happened.
Bill Mumy: Long live the Comic-Con. Peace.
Shel Dorf: You and I know that the “fan” is a special creature who, after enjoying something, has just got to share it with someone. Right? If the sharing’s not accomplished, God knows what the consequences could be. There’s that story about the fan who, after seeing Godzilla, couldn’t find a single soul to tell it to, and just exploded. So, here we’ve taken the opposite approach. We have created this yearly event, with the specific object of sharing in mind. This is one place where you can feel at home, sharing your likes and dislikes. During the next three days, many of you will make new friends, and perhaps lifelong friendships will be formed right here at this convention. It’s happened before.
See You at San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture is set to release September 6, 2022.
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