The amazing, 35-year-old Comic-Con

First person

“Comics do not ape reality. They transcend it.”

The speaker is the late Jack Kirby, co-creator of most of the Marvel superheroes. The place? The U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego, one historic weekend in 1970. What made it historic was the event itself, the San Diego Golden State Comic Con — the first of the yearly gatherings that would morph into the annual Comic-Con Intl. in that city.

Morphed and grown, actually. That first one seemed packed beyond all expectations: Five hundred people were there. At this year’s con, there’ll be that many people ahead of you in the restroom line.

Kirby was the first prominent comicbook maker to appear, and the high point of the ’70 event was his Saturday afternoon talk. A few hundred of us crammed in around a makeshift stage, a few on chairs, most of us on the floor. Just to hear the man behind many of our friendly funnybooks answer questions about his work.

That’s been the overriding theme of every con since. Some go to buy or sell back issues; others, to exhibit their work and seek employment; some just to breathe in a kind of air thick with imagination. But it all flows from a simple, reflexive synergy: Creators meet consumers, often up close and personal.

Some history: The fan-meets-pro conference more or less began with the first World Science Fiction Con, held in New York in 1939. Top authors of the day showed up and met their readers, many of whom longed to write and sell sci-fi stories themselves. Among the hopefuls was a young kid named Ray Bradbury who’d come all the way from Los Angeles to mingle with mentors and other wanna-bes.

Comicbook conventions began in the mid-’60s, also in New York. They were mostly East Coast affairs until 1970 when cartoonist-historian Shel Dorf decided San Diego would be a dandy locale for one.

Sprouting in San Diego

To many, it seemed an unlikely setting. Most of the comicbook industry was then on the opposite coast, and what little wasn’t there wasn’t in San Diego. But Dorf thought his hometown was a place where people would enjoy vacationing, and there were many local comic fans who could act as support team and pit crew. Jack Kirby and a few others offered encouragement and support … and that’s how the first one came to be.

(Another early supporter, again, was Bradbury, who by then had become perhaps the most important author of science fiction and fantasy. He has remained a booster and frequent guest, and I’ll be interviewing him Saturday afternoon at this year’s convention.)

Slowly but certainly, the San Diego Golden State Comic Con evolved into the Godzilla-sized spectacle of today. For a few years there, attendance leveled off at around 3,000 attendees and we thought that was a lot.

But Kirby, interviewed a few years after the first Con, thought that was nothing. “This will be the epicenter, not just of the comicbook business but of all forms of entertainment,” he said. “This is where Hollywood will come to check out the new trends and see what they’ll be producing next year.”

At the time, we all thought that was a nice but unlikely notion. Turned out, he was right. To Jack, “comics” were not just little pamphlets with drawings and “POW!” sound effects. The word denoted a community of unlimited visual imagination. What its members created on paper, unfettered by budgets, has proved to be fine source material for movies, TV shows, videogames and other media.

Increasingly since then, the so-called “mainstream” forms have looked to comics for inspiration and talent. And perhaps just as desirable are all the properties that have been road-tested and/or well-established in the psyche of consumers in target age groups.

Filmmakers began to cram the aisles — and animators and network execs and game designers. At the same time, many folks who’d attended as wide-eyed fans began to graduate to those jobs. (“What? Miss a chance to go to Comic-Con on someone else’s expense account? Not likely.”)

Hollywood South

So now every year, more and more of Hollywood can be found at the Comic-Con Intl. It truly has become the place to promote anything of a science-fiction, fantasy or animated nature … or if you don’t have one, to find one. And all that star power and heat has swelled attendance levels. In ’03, it topped 70,000, a record that will stand for about another week. It’s only a matter of time till they hit six figures.

Still, one thing remains unchanged since 1970. This year, 6,000 fans will crowd into one of the many auditoriums to hear Sarah Michelle Gellar discuss her upcoming movie, “The Grudge.” And they’ll all have the same through-the-looking-glass look we had back then, sitting on the floor, listening to Jack Kirby talk about Captain America.

(Mark Evanier is a writer of comicbooks and TV shows who has been to every single San Diego Comic-Con.)

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