With Further Ado #226: See You at San Diego – A conversation with author Mathew Klickstein

When I say I love history, I don’t just mean I like to read about ancient Rome and the Revolutionary War. There’s so much more out there, and Mathew Klickstein has provided a doozy. His newest book, See You at San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom and the Triumph of Geek Culture is a deep-dive history of San Diego Comic-Con. It’s informative, insightful and great fun. So, as we prepare for the With Further Ado’s Annual Holiday Gift Guide (it’ll be published next Wednesday), let’s use this interview with Mathew as a sort of “Gift Guide Eve” column!

Ed Catto: I’ve really enjoyed your book See You at San Diego Mathew. But then again, I’m really into the history of comics and geek culture. Is this book only for people like me?

Mathew Klickstein: I appreciate it, and also appreciate the question. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “challenge,” but I’ve been doing my best to get the word out not only about the book but the fact that it’s not merely about San Diego Comic-Con, Comic-Con, or even “just” comics or what some people might call “comics culture.”

I think it’s for a much wider audience for the reason that the book is in fact an oral history of fandom and pop culture nostalgia itself – over a century’s time – as told by those who made a lot of it happen. We did focus our narrative on the prehistory, history, and expansion of what turned out to be the largest pop culture convention worldwide according to Guinness: and that’s Comic-Con. Otherwise, the book would’ve been 50,000 pages instead of 500.

Seeing everything through the lens of the rise and conquest of Comic-Con helped narrow the story … but, like Comic-Con itself, it’s really about everything in the geek culture or pop culture scene.

EC: This book has such a unique design. How did it all come about?

MK: The principal praise for our eye-catching, immersive, and dynamic design has to of course first and foremost go to our genius designer, Jonathan Barli. I told him as soon as I saw the first proofs that I would always make sure to mention him and ensure people knew who was most responsible for it.

Gary Groth, our publisher and supervising editor on the project, was generous enough to bring Jonathan on special to focus on what we all knew would be a very baroque and complex design, especially since we were going to have hundreds of pictures and art to integrate along with the tens of thousands of words.

I’ve always been fascinated by zine culture and artwork, particularly of the era revolving around the late 80s hardcore punk and riot grrrl communities. The ascetic but kinetic aesthetic is mesmerizing, eye-catching, and almost interactive. Which is something I really wanted to apply to See You at San Diego and why Jonathan even included clear visual references throughout like the hand-written notes as captions occasionally, or the scotch tape, the paperclips, etc. We wanted it to have almost an archival/scrapbook quality.

Jonathan had, meanwhile, just done work on a DIY/punk book whose design I really liked. We spoke about that as well as Fantagraphics’ own oral history We Told You So, which we also used a lot for shorthand reference along the way.

EC: What’s your favorite chapter of the book and why?

MK: That’s really hard to say. I feel like there’s a sequence in the story – mainly chapters two and three – that together for me is what I think about first in my mind when I begin imaging what Comic-Con is really all about – what geek culture and fandom are really all about. That period in the late 1960s through early 1980s where it seems it really hit its peak from its slow-burn rise from the 1930s through the early 1960s, to its quick rocket ride from the underground to the massive pop culture/mainstream heights it hit starting in the early 2000s.

I just love that “middle period,” if you will when the Comic-Con scene really became big enough to be a huge party that revolved around celebrating geeky things and fandom itself … before it became this whole other entity that’s sometimes hard to disentangle from more corporate or at least mercenary enterprises or mechanisms.

EC: You interviewed so many great people for this book. Were there any surprises? And which interviews were the most memorable for you?

MK: I was surprised how into Comic-Con and the culture surrounding it Scott Aukerman was during our interview. I’ve been a massive fan of Aukerman’s work since the very early days when he was writing and involved in the original run of Mr. Show. Love Comedy Bang! Bang! and of course Between Two Ferns, as well. I thought Aukerman would be great to talk to just as a general “pop culture” guy who’s worked on such a variety of integral projects over the past few decades.

But once we got him on the interview, he just completely nerded out hard on the most specific minutia of the Con, and how he used to go to it as a kid back in 1985 to seek out hard-to-find Fantastic Four issues, and how closely he watched it change over the years. He had all these fantastic, funny, but also very illuminative anecdotes about what it was like as a kind of middle-ground celebrity (as he describes himself) to be at and interact with the Con over the years. I had also not known until I was prepping for his interview that he had written for a number of major comic book titles like Spider-Man and X-Men, and we had a lot to talk to about that as well, from a very insider POV.

My producer – who is probably an even bigger fan of Aukerman’s than I am, which is saying a lot – and I felt like we were taking up too much of his time, so at a point I tried to cut us off by saying we had all we need and we thanked him … But he wanted to keep talking and asked if he could! My producer and I are looking at each other over Zoom and didn’t even have to say anything.

Obviously, if Aukerman wanted to keep telling stories, we would stay on and hear as many as he wanted to give us. It was great!

EC: There’s some great Sergio stories and quotes in here. How important is a guy like Sergio Aragonés to the history of Comic-Con?

MK: I was talking to a fairly high-profile journalist friend of mine who covers a lot of arts/culture beats for Vanity Fair, Los Angeles Magazine etc. though he’s not really a big comics or geek culture guy. So, when I first got Sergio onboard for an interview, I didn’t bother telling my friend his name. I just said excitedly that I had one of the MAD Magazine OG’s onboard, and my friend immediately goes, “Sergio?!”

Sergio’s pretty renown, I believe even outside of the comics and comic strip realm. There was that Futurama episode where he voices himself as his own living head kept in a jar. He pops up still in the strangest places. Although, maybe strange for other people but not Sergio. He’s just extremely keyed-in, even these days. You see a certain artistic style and you immediately think of him. Scott Shaw! even produced a really amazing placard that was used as projected backdrop for our Los Angeles book launch event that was held in part at the American Cinematheque, and a few of the blogs and whatnot covered it referring to Scott’s having “channeled his inner Sergio.”

Sergio is one of the last of the legends of the scene, and he’s so inspirational and beloved beyond his work. He’s just a very fascinating guy. He’s an ultimate character, and has terrific stories to tell and is always willing to give people advice and pass along a lot of the many tricks of the trade he’s learned, including on the business side of things, which is very important especially for young up-and-comers to know. He’s a teacher as much as an artist, and he’s taught a lot of people including those who have never met nor talked to him.

EC: Do any other Comic Conventions have backstories that are interesting to you?

MK: Because the book doesn’t just focus on SDCC, we do get a bit into the backgrounds of a few of the other cons that are out there, including some of the ones that SDCC has worked with in some capacity in the past or has become an ancillary component of the organization like WonderCon.

A friend of mine is currently researching and considering putting together some kind of chronicle about more of the east coast conventions, particularly in her Mid-Atlantic region – Baltimore, DC, etc. And I’m sure there’s some great stories behind the history of NYCC. But … I’ve done my work here already, and aside from a few other iterations of the story in development now, I’m ready to move on from the convention scene to what’s next on my plate.

EC: Why do you think there is such an interest in San Diego Comic-Con in particular and comic conventions in particular?

MK: SDCC is still considered the “biggest,” and I think that has a lot to do with it. I’m not even really sure by what metric we’re talking here – Attendance? Does that include ticket buyers and people who are tertiarily attended through after-parties or events happening in the city but not necessarily at the convention center itself though still Con-related, or biggest as far as territory size? “Biggest” metaphorically …? etc.

Nevertheless, I think it may also have something to do with the fact that San Diego is the biggest in Southern California at least on a prestige level as far as being a spot for Hollywood to come down and launch or explode buzz about upcoming projects. At least that was the case until COVID. We’ll see if that continues to diminish over the next few Cons. Still, the fact that San Diego is where so much of that had happened up until COVID also made it something very special.

Kevin Smith refers to SDCC as the “Star of the Geek Year” and explains in our story that he personally schedules his entire year around SDCC and goes from there, including all of the other conventions that happen throughout the summer and early fall.

EC: If you were to ever write a sequel to this book, what do you think the next few years will hold in store for Comic-Con?

MK: I wouldn’t know where to begin on that one. Let the next guy do it!

EC: Do you have any convention appearances coming up?

MK: I’ll be continuing to tour with See You at San Diego around the country and Canada, including a few special guests helping out. I may also do some more stops in the spring such as Ithacon and some speaking engagements at colleges. I also have a new book coming out in late November called The Little Encyclopedia of Jewish Culture, which is a kind of light-hearted, illustrated guide to Jewish culture including a lot of fun pop culture stuff like the Three Stooges, the Marx Bros., and even a section on the intersection of Jewish culture and comic books. More on my website: www.MathewKlickstein.com

EC: Thanks so much, Mathew.