Kleefeld’s Fanthropology #19: The History Of San Diego Comic-Con

Well, San Diego Comic-Con just wrapped up so it’s almost mandatory that I devote this week’s column to it. It’s been called “Nerd Prom” and the “Geek Mecca” and all sorts of other things that evoke the basic idea that it’s a large gathering of fandom. The largest, in fact, in North America drawing 130,000 visitors every year.

The first comic-specific “convention” was held in March 1964 at Jerry Bails’ house. Bails was the editor/publisher of the fanzine Alter-Ego, where he and co-editor Roy Thomas had decided to hand out awards to their favorite comics and creators based on votes from their readers. The votes for these Alley Awards (named after the comic strip character Alley Oop) were counted at Bails’ home by a dozen or so big name fans of the era, including Ronn Foss, Maggie Thompson and Mike Vosburg. The gathering was dubbed the Alley Tally and included viewings of original comic art and rare collectible issues (primarily from Bails’ personal collection).

The first formal comic convention occured a few years later in Detroit. In 1964, Robert Brosch and Dave Szurek began trying to put the con together, and soon called in the assistance of Bails. The following year, Bails teamed up with Detroit native Shel Dorf to make it an annual event, and they dubbed it the Detroit Triple Fan Fair (for its focus on fantasy literature, fantasy films and comic art). The show featured a room screeing classic films 24 hours a day, discussion panels, vendors… nearly everything that you would see at a modern convention.

Except guests. Though many who attended those early shows went on to become comic creators, the first year there were no professionals in attendance. Dorf recognized the interest in hearing from the creators, though, and had gone to the Marvel Comics offices some time beforehand, and was able to tape record some interviews that were then played back during the show. By 1970, however, he had managed to line up guests such as Neal Adams, Jim Steranko and Gene Roddenberry.

That year, though, Dorf handed over the reins (Bails had already moved on to other projects) and relocated to southern California. He almost immediately founded — with the help of Richard Alf, Ken Krueger and Mike Towry — the Golden State Comic Book Convention. It was three days long and had an attendance of roughly 300 people.  Dorf had already seen the significance of including notable talents and had managed to secure appearances by Ray Bradbury and recent-California-transplant Jack Kirby.

It was this small convention at the U.S. Grant Hotel that would later become the huge event San Diego Comic-Con.

That Bradbury was there from the start points to how the show has always been about more than comic books, despite its name. While Bradbury’s work has been adapted into comics as far back as the 1950s, he himself never wrote any. This cross-media emphasis continues year after year as other early guests included Kirk Alyn (the actor who portrayed Superman in the early serials), Bob Clampett (an animator who directed some of Warner Brothers’ earliest cartoons), June Foray (the voice actress who’s perhaps best known as Rocky the Flying Squirrel), and Frank Capra (the director of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”). So by the time George Lucas showed up to promote “Star Wars” in 1976, no one batted an eye.

(Technically, Lucas himself didn’t attend. The Star Wars booth was manned by Lucasfilm’s marketing director Charley Lippincott. None of the film’s actors were present, and the movie’s screening was sparsely attended. They were, however, selling limited edition posters exclusive to that show.)

The convention had been maxing out at around 5,000 attendees while it was being held in the El Cortez Hotel due to space limitations. They tried multiple locations throughout the 1980s before landing at the San Diego Convention Center in 1991. By then, attendance had grown to around 15,000 and they had been looking for a space large enough that they could expand from that. (Anecdotally, I seem to recall that they had wanted to get into the Convention Center for some years before, but ’91 was the first year they were able to get it booked.) From there, the show exploded, roughly doubling in size every five years or so.

The convention is now one of San Diego’s biggest money-makers. Estimates put all the revenue generated from food, hotels, transportation, etc. at over $160 million during the extended weekend. It no longer gets the quaint human interest spot on the local news channel, but noticeable coverage by the likes of CNN and NPR.

In recent years, people speculate that it will have to move to another, larger venue or complain that the show has lost the spirit that it was founded on. But given it’s trajectory since Day One, with media guests and an ever-growing group of attendees, one realizes that those foundations have never really changed. The convention has changed, to be sure, but the basic ideas that Dorf injected into the show in 1970 are still there, just at a magnified scale. People are still going there to celebrate their favorite fandoms and connect with other fans, whether they’re in comic book circles or science fiction circles or something else entirely.

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