With Further Ado #158: Comic-Con Begins: Five-and-a-Half Questions with Mathew Klickstein

The latest comic from Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, Groo Meets Tarzan, is brilliant.  Tom Yeates is also along for the ride, and if you, like me, are ravenous for more of his artwork beyond the weekly Prince Valiant Sunday strip, his contributions to this one won’t disappoint you.  The first issue kicks off with a double page spread showcasing the main floor of San Diego Comic-Con and it had me laughing out loud and missing it all -both at the same time.

To be sure, San Diego Comic-Con, or Comic-Con International, has grown to become a sprawling, wonderous event. It will be fantastic when things ‘get back to normal’ for this annual celebration.  So… while we’re waiting for that, maybe now is the perfect time to learn a little about the origins of this event?

The new podcast Comic-Con Begins, is informative, illuminating and just plain fun.  I had the pleasure of catching up with Mathew Klickstein to get the lowdown on it all.

Question 1:

Ed Catto: Why do you think there is such an interest in comic cons and specifically in the history of comic cons?

Mathew Klickstein: One of the many reasons we thought a history of “the” Comic-Con would be something worth investing massive amounts of blood-sweat-n-tears into is that there really hadn’t been a history like this put together before, at least not in such an extensive, extremely deep-dive investigative/exploratory way. Certainly not involving the entire force of folks who made it all happen back in the day.

There’ve been some great books – mostly academic/scholarly or personal memoir – about cons and fandom over the years, along with a handful of well-crafted documentaries and the like. But we just hadn’t seen too much in the way of such a long-form history, which again, was a principal motivator for us to plunge into the project with such breakneck insane passion, and certainly a major factor in why we wanted to do all we could to get it done “right.”

We wanted to fill in that lacuna, the gap in our shared cultural history. We aspired throughout the process to achieve that with Comic-Con Begins.

As for interest in the conventions themselves? I’m hoping too that that interest has been, if anything, bolstered by this past year+ of the lack of their happening in-person (or, in many cases, at all).

That this last year+, I hope and believe, has reminded people why a true in-person, “I’m there with the rest of the fans all together in a finite space” singular experience of being at a con is something we truly need as fans, as geeks, as “misfits” or whatnot who connect with members of their “tribe” through certain pop culture and creative/artistic entities and that going to conventions to see old friends and enjoy these experiences together, in person, is not simply a luxury. It’s something we desperately require as a social species. (Fan or otherwise!)

Question 2:

EC: And even though it’s not the biggest comic convention, many would argue that San Diego Comic-Con is still the most important. Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?

MK: Actually, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, at least, the San Diego Comic-Con was indeed the largest such convention in both 2010 and 2015. I could be mistaken, but I don’t believe that record has yet been broken. As recently as 2019 and 2020, major media outlets were still referring to San Diego as the largest worldwide and will often refer in particular to the 2015 record.

Unless, of course, you meant “biggest” using the metric of physical space covered or something along the lines of how much is going on during the con. But for me, for those working on Comic-Con Begins, “biggest” will always be in reference to the number of people who attend, because the core of the whole thing is the community it brings together, the people who are there.

Which is why we focused most of our efforts on helping the people, the “community members” who helped create and run the Con in the early days, tell their stories of how such an enormous, eventually international community was built.

Obviously, with the past two SDCC events being virtual, it would be tough to say which is the “biggest” regarding attendance numbers at this very moment. But fingers crossed that in 2022, they come back with a bang. I would imagine they very well might.

And that is, to answer the main part of your question, because its very brand exudes the “gold standard” of cons, the “mecca,” as so many people we interviewed call it. It’s where the Eisner’s take place, for goodness’ sake; and has been since the earliest days of what has become the most prestigious award ceremony in comics.

It was not the first. It may no longer be the biggest (regardless of metric used). But it’s the San Diego Comic-Con. And not only do they now legally own that hyphen, but they’ve earned it!

Perhaps because it’s so close to Hollywood? Perhaps because San Diego has long been a place everyone in the industry wants to go to for a few days of fun at the Con and fun in the sun?

Whatever the case may be, of the 50 or so people we spoke with – current high-profile industrial professionals and original Con founders alike – they all made it clear that there is indeed something unique about SDCC in the global convention constellation. Who are we to argue?

Question 3:

EC: What other comic conventions do you like? Which ones get it right? 

MK: This is always a slightly awkward question for me, and it seems to come up in every interview! Sorry to say I’ve only ever been to SDCC once.

But I always add that it was a doozy and a half, and I got to experience way more than the typical attendee, by simple merit of my being there on a job. I was tasked with running the production team capturing Marc Summers taking part in various panels, interviews, and activities to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Nickelodeon mainstay Double Dare, all for the Summers bio-doc we were making at the time.

Traveling with that clustered entourage, I traveled in the underground corridors, went behind the velvet rope; the after-parties. A bit of the red carpet, etc. Not to mention experiencing all the hectic madcap craziness of actually working at the dang thing (morning noon and night, for sure!). It was probably like packing in at least ten SDCC experiences into one.

That all said, I’ve been to a few others, but mostly much smaller ones. And those I feel much more comfortable attending. I’m not big into crowds, certainly not into all the cacophonous noises, and blinking lights, and bright colors flashing all the time. People handing out flyers and press materials etc. Makes me think of that Mitch Hedberg joke, “Here, you throw this away.” Or the scene in the Fear & Loathing movie when Johnny Depp as Hunter Thompson is shoving through the crush of carnival barker-esque hucksters like Penn Jillette trying to sell him things: “Nothing! I want nothing!”

I love community gatherings. I love social get-togethers. I’m one of those people who prefer doing the bulk of my writing/producerial work at a coffee shop or even bar for the social circle it can sometimes yield (see David Mamet’s Writing in Restaurants collection of essays for further discussion of same).

I used to go to raves with a girl I was close to in college back when people used to still say (and go to) “raves.” But, as with those anachronistic electric-neon bacchanalias from yesteryear, I prefer my cons much, much smaller. Much, much more personal and intimate. Little local ones. Personally, I think those are the best.

And, to bring it back to the history of the SDCC, I know that’s a primary reason Mike Towry – one of the main founders of the Con – created San Diego Comic Fest: to bring back that quieter, calmer, less crazy and less crowded Con experience that harkens back to the Con’s roots when it was such an event in the 70s at the El Cortez Hotel.

I hope to check out San Diego Comic Fest someday, and from everything I’ve heard from people whose opinions I trust, I can highly recommend it.

Question 4:

EC:  How did you ever get the idea for the podcast?  Has it been percolating for a while?

MK: Boy, that’s such a long story, and I fear I’ve already fallen into my typical pattern of saying way too much too soon.

As quickly as I can lay it out: I had developed a book in 2014 that went through various iterations but ultimately was released as a cultural analysis/history of so-called “nerd culture” (or what we might today call “geek culture” or “fandom” itself).

Through that lengthy, grueling two or three years of work on the thing, I became friendly with and interviewed a bunch of different “emissaries” of geek/nerd/fan culture. One of them was Wendy All, an early member of the foundational SDCC scene.

I remained friendly with Wendy over the subsequent years, would hit her up for a quote every now and then as an “expert” in fandom and Con history, and then about two years ago began discussing with her the idea of doing an oral history of SDCC.

She agreed, connected me to the 30 or so surviving early foundational members, I spoke with each of them (some for as long as two hours or more; fascinating fan forebears!), and realized that this story had to be told and told right.

The project morphed through various iterations, due in large part to all the shifting going on in the publishing/media/entertainment industries (along with everything else at the time), as it was the early stages of Covid/lockdown.

A friend of mine name Rob Schulte who I had kicked a lot of work and connections to over the years and with whom I’d brought on to help me with a much smaller podcast I produced for Wired years back, had risen in the ranks at SiriusXM, and he suggested – during the peak of Covid chaos – that maybe the project would find a much more accessible and easygoing home at Sirius, especially since they – along with all the other big media entities – were starting to develop a lot more of their own original audio content.

I agreed, the 30+ folks I had already endeared myself to agreed as well, and we were off. A little more than a year later, here we are!

Question 5:

EC: And it seems like there’s a lot of work that goes into it. Can you describe the process?

MK: Ha. Another extremely complex and lengthy answer … that I’ll condense even more.

The ever-evolving, twisting, turning, undulating, slippery, scaly, serpentine process was exceptionally demanding, in constant need of immediate problem-solving and innovation on every level, and nearly-impossibly time-consuming for our entire team over a year of hard in-the-mineshaft labor.

We were constantly realizing why no one has done something like this on such an intensely extensive level with the SDCC/fandom story before. And, personally, it reminded me why so many people – whether in books or documentary – so infrequently dare to delve so quixotically deep into their subject matter these days. It’s just so much easier to keep things simple, superficial, and quickly produced. That wasn’t what we were doing here with Comic-Con Begins.

We absolutely couldn’t have done it without the ingenuity and dedication of team members at Sirius whom I must shout-out along with Rob who became our executive producer: fellow producer/writer/editor Christopher Tyler, mixer James Bilodeau, music composer Max DeVincenzo, and Wendy who became our primary historical consultant.

Question 5½:

EC: Were there any surprises that bubbled up during the making of this podcast? Anything you didn’t know or were shocked to learn?

MK: I had been researching and developing (hard) this project for six months or so before we even brought it to SiriusXM. So, I was already fairly knowledgeable of the majority of what we’d be talking about in the series. Particularly since, as mentioned, I’d been writing about and researching the Con and certainly the history fandom for years via other projects.

So, for me it was certain individual stories that really knocked me out, things that were hard to fathom at times. I knew right away, after that initial series of discussions with everyone we’d be interviewing for the show that this thing would be very special, very long, and very eclectic in stories being told. That many of them would be hard to believe and just utterly wild.

Scott Shaw! exploding clogged-up toilets at a hotel after washing off his peanut butter “The Turd” costume in the shower. Neil Gaiman being saved from a horde of fans by a phalanx of Klingons brought in by the Con itself specifically to help escort Gaiman out of a particular area without being mobbed. The entire story of Wendy’s going out with acid guru (aka “the Most Dangerous Man in America,” according to Nixon at the time) Timothy Leary whose first stop after getting out of jail … was that year’s Comic-Con.

It was the individual and extremely personal stories that really surprised me.

And that was why we put the history together the way we did. It’s really a concentrated consommé of all these various anecdotes, memories, reflections, realizations, epiphanies of the Con over a 50+ year period, organized and curated thoughtfully to tell the full, compelling, complicated, contradictory story of – yes I’ll say it! – the largest pop culture event on the planet, the San Diego Comic-Con!

EC: I love all those stories. I had a similar adventure to Neil Gaiman & the Klingons when working for Reed Expo at a NYCC show, where I led a phalanx of Storm Troopers to address a security breach.

This has been fantastic, Mat.  Thanks so very much!  I’m up to episode #3 and can’t wait to listen to more episodes of Comic-Con Begins!