With Further Ado #256: The Not-So-Secret Origin of San Diego Comic-Con

San Diego Comic-Con, also called Comic-Con International, is just about upon us. Like every other year, I’m sure it will be a celebration of creativity and marketing, of sincerity and flim-flammery, of personal triumphs and corporate chest-thumping. The industry of comics can be inclusive and supportive -more so than so many other industries. It’s no secret that it’s been good to me, and I love so many of the folks involved.

Are you going? Hope to see you there! My panel schedule is at the end of this week’s column.

In the meantime, I wanted to take another bite of the apple from Mat Klickstein and his amazing book – See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture. You might also know Mat from his recent AfterShock comic, You Are Obsolete (which was creepy & fun).

We devoted a With Further Ado column to this book months ago so you might remember how this excellent book detailed the early days of San Diego Comic-Con. He’s been getting recent fan press about it all, so here’s a few more thoughts from Mat Klickstein on his book:

The book is not me. It’s not my analysis or speculation or opinion of the story of Comic-Con and the larger fandom community that it helped to launch out into the stratosphere the way that it is now.

I was merely the facilitator, because putting together this history is something that has been talked about for years – maybe decades now – but there hasn’t before now been the resources or the time or personnel needed to get it done and done as correctly as possible.

That’s why there’s been no major book or podcast or documentary yet that focuses on said story from the mouths and minds of those who made it happen.

I happen to be in the right place at the right time and had the right background to assist the many, many people who wanted their stories and the story told before it was too late to get it done by primary sources.

I let them guide me through the process and was really there more as a technician in a way, similar to field recordists and archivists such as Alan Lomax, Studs Terkel, George Plimpton and Jean Stein — or more current oral historians/archivists such as Legs McNeil, Sara Marcus, Charlie Ahearn, Michael Azerrad, Elizabeth Goodman, and James Andrew Miller.

This book, as with the audio doc podcast series (Comic-Con Begins) of which it is an expansion of sorts, is the collection and story of all of the memories and anecdotes and emotional experiences of more than 50 people who helped to create Comic-Con and the contemporary fandom scene itself, or what some people might call “geek” or “nerd culture.”

The book too includes those more high-profile figures who really helped to expand this community over the years, as well. Folks like Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller and Felicia Day, Jeff Smith, Stan Sakai, the Russo Bros., Lloyd Kaufman, Bruce Campbell, Trina Robbins, and Bill Mumy who weren’t necessarily originators of the Con but were very present there and very involved in the rapid expansion of the scene. It’s their story. I’m merely the superintendent of that, the steward, because somebody needed to put it all together, and they needed to do it before it was too late and before more and more of these expert voices would be gone forevermore. We’ve already lost two primary sources along the way, including Con co-founder and science fiction bestselling godhead Greg Bear. Thank goodness we got him in on this in time and that his lovely wife (and fandom royalty herself) Astrid has been so contributive throughout as well.

We don’t want there to be any friction between the current administration and what we’re doing. There shouldn’t be. That shouldn’t exist. There’s no reason for that aside from egos or personality clashes, of which I have no interest in being a part. There’s simply no energy nor time for that right now. We need to keep getting this work done before more folks are gone and their stories gone with them.

We would love to get in there with the current administration, partner with them and collaborate with them on helping to tell their organization’s story and helping to showcase people like Scott Shaw! and Trina Robbins, along with those whose names you might not know but who were quite essential to the early days of all of this like Wendy All and Barry Alfonso, Mike Towry and Roger Freedman.

We have access to all this great material we’ve spent years now gathering on our own and collecting from donations from all sorts of fantastic sources – people all over the country and continent and even world at large who have been sitting around with this stuff in their storage lockers and in old dusty boxes in their basements or attics just waiting for someone to finally come through and say, “Now’s the time! Let’s get it done!”, and we would love to do more with it. We’ve proven we can do it. Twice now. Once during Covid and the madness of 2020, no less!

We can do it, we’ve done it, and we’re ready to do more.

And now we have contributors and supporters and educators and creators and artists and allies all over the place who continue to encourage us and push us onward. We’re not going to stop, and it’s a shame that the current Con admin continues to be quite literally our only barrier to this.

We’re even doing it all with almost no money! I’m personally in debt over all of this, and almost everyone else involved has been helping out even when they’re dealing with their own financial issues or personal issues or medical issues. They’re taking time out of their day to help us continue to build this thing. They’re giving us their time and resources to make it happen and they’re not asking for anything in return except to get it done right and get it done soon before, yet again, it’s too late.

So, yes, we need help not hindrance nor dismissal. Which means, yes, we would love to work with Comic-Con, helping to tell their story, especially during a time when also, as we all know, it’s been very clear they’re having their problems right now with budgets and with keeping the Con going and with operational issues and with large entities pulling out and everything else, including issues still stemming from the Covid years and their still playing catch up from John Rogers passing away.

I know from insiders and fellow scholars of the scene that that really disrupted a lot of what they were doing as well, even before Covid.

We’re freaking here to help, but we need them to listen not only to us, but to a lot of the people who are going to Comic-Con every year, and who are having similar kinds of issues with the organization and with how things are run, and again, with things like accountability, with things like transparency. This isn’t their Con. It’s all of ours. That was the whole point of Comic-Con from the days when Shel Dorf – love him or lump him – explained fandom is about a shared experience and about building this all up together and about interactivity, about listening to each other.

This isn’t just Jackie Estrada’s Con nor David Glanzer’s Con nor Robin Donlan’s Con. It’s our Con. All together. It makes no sense they’re not listening to anyone about what’s going on, going even beyond just this growing group of people doing all they can to maintain and showcase their own freaking historical legacy … by the people who made that legacy happen!

The people working with us so tirelessly are those who were there. They’re not speculating or guessing or reading about it on Wikipedia or on some blog or listening to two twenty-somethings jabbering about it on a podcast or YouTube video.

Yes, of course, sometimes they remember things incorrectly, sometimes they exaggerate, sometimes they contradict one another. They can get emotional about it, certainly: it’s their LIVES! But that’s why we’re doing all of this as various forms of oral history. That’s why I love oral histories ; because you really get multiple versions and angles on these stories, which can be especially helpful when there was little to no actual documentation back in the day.

Hardly anyone was taking pictures or writing this stuff down while this was happening. They didn’t know it would become all of this. Besides, they were busy making it all happen! Putting it all together! No one realized it would become what it became (except for maybe prescient visionary Jack Kirby; but that’s a whole other story – though one certainly told throughout the course of our narrative).

You think if they knew this would all happen they wouldn’t have figured out a way to get some kind of stock options or some kind of financial shares in the organization early on? They were too busy making the dang thing and, frankly, having way too much while doing it to worry about that.

They were kids of the sixties and seventies, of the counterculture, influenced by underground comix and imaginative minds of Gene Roddenberry and Chuck Jones and June Foray and Bob Clampett and the Marx Bros. and the Three Stooges and JRR Tolkien and Alex Raymond and Ray Bradbury and Forry Ackerman and Merian C. Cooper and Rod Serling and Harvey Kurtzman and William Gains and Charles Schulz and Jack Kirby – those people who really made all of this happen nearly a century ago!

This was a group of kids who just wanted to get together and have fun with each other and celebrate their fandoms and celebrate their heroes. They didn’t know this was all going to happen. If they did, they probably would have figured out a way to get paid later on when they needed it. I mean, these are people who helped to create a $1 billion industry. Not just Comic-Con, but all these blockbuster comic book movies and sci-fi shows and fantasy video games and RPGs and tabletop games and all this social media hubbub and all of it. They’re my fucking heroes, man. And I’ve been lucky enough to become friends – in some cases very close friends – with these people and their families, and goddamn it they deserve to be heard if nothing else. Their voices deserve to be amplified, especially over all the white noise and nonsensical gibberish and misinformation that exists out there about all this stuff.

So, we’re not going to stop, and I’m not going to stop, and we really hope that little committee of people who run the nonprofit known as Comic-Con International at this current time can open up a bit, drop the egos, stop worrying so much about their own needs and the needs of their personal allies and comrades, and do what’s right here and let us help them to help themselves.

No one else is doing it.

We are, and we hope they can at last after almost five years of this and through some of the most tumultuous times our species has seen in modern times can open themselves up a bit and let us in.

Help us to tell this story. It’s too important to lose and time is running out.

This book is available at your favorite comic shop or bookstore (or Amazon).

And by the way – here’s my SDCC panel schedule that I promised a few paragraphs ago:

  • How to Get News Coverage – Thursday 7/20/2023 10:30am – 11:30am ROOM 10
  • Lost Universes Panel – Thursday 7/20/2023, 5:00pm – 6:00pm Room 28DE
  • Captain Action: Introducing New Voices to a Legendary Property – Friday, 7/21/23, 7:00PM – 8:00PM, Room: 23ABC (We’re introducing some cool things at this one!)
  • Comics on Campus: Academia vs. Fandom (Battle or a Collab?) – Saturday, 7/22/23, 1:00PM – 2:00PM, Room: Shiley Special Events Suite, San Diego Central Library
  • Licensed: Overstreet’s Licensed Comics – Saturday 7/22/23 1:00pm – 2:00pm Room 28 DE
  • Admissions Departments Emitting Geek Vibes: College Course Focused on Pop Culture – Sunday, 7/23/23, 10:00AM – 11:00AM, Room: Shiley Special Events Suite, San Diego Central Library