I’ve been dropping a number of hints over the past few months on this blog and on my Instagram account (@gg92118) about an impending big change in my life in 2021 … and now it can finally be revealed.
After more than 20 years (2 decades!) with Comic-Con International: San Diego, I’m retiring.
Comic-Con was always a legendary convention to me. I first attended it in 1992 and was blown away by its size and scope. I went back every year through 1998, when I had my first booth, selling my self-published comic series, Innocent Bystander. While attending Comic-Con, I fell in love with the city of San Diego, and in late ’98, I moved here.
Even then I didn’t realize what the future would hold. In 1999 I was hired to do freelance work for the convention, primarily on their website and the PowerPoint presentation for the Eisner Awards ceremony. My career as a television news graphic designer continued in San Diego; I worked for local station KUSI as a graphic designer, starting in 1999. When the Director of Programming job opened in early 2000, I interviewed for the spot, and lo and behold, got it.
I was Comic-Con’s Director of Programming from 2000-2007 (sharing the last year of my tenure with current programming director Eddie Ibrahim). During my 8 years in that position, I doubled the amount of programs we did and added both Ballroom 20 (2001) and Hall H (2005) to the schedule. I also served as programming director for APE (Alternative Press Expo) and WonderCon, which the Comic-Con organization purchased in 2001 (with their first show in 2002). Both of those shows were located in San Francisco during my time as programming director.
I went on to become the Director of Print and Publications in 2007, in charge of all of the organization’s publications and printed material, including Update magazine, Comic-Con Magazine, and Comic-Con Annual, plus the various show-related books, such as the Comic-Con Souvenir Book and the WonderCon and APE Program Books. I both edited and designed these publications, working with artists on our exclusive covers, which I restarted in 2009 at Comic-Con (2010 at WonderCon; APE had exclusive covers starting in 2003). I was the main author (along with Jackie Estrada) and in-house editor of the 40th anniversary book, Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans & Friends, published by Chronicle Books in 2009, including picking all the photos and art in it (and scanning most of them, to boot), and working with Chronicle’s editor and designer. In 2012, we revamped the Comic-Con website (www.comic-con.org) and I became editor-in-chief of that along with being the designer. (The look that is currently on the website was designed by me and implemented by a lot of other people who understand all that HTML stuff.)
In 2014, I was one of the founders of the Comic-Con Graphic Novel Book Clubs (along with Fae Desmond, Erwin Magbanau, and Laura Jones), which started with two local library groups and has since grown to 11 separate clubs scattered throughout San Diego County. In 2015, I curated the first-ever Comic-Con gallery show, “The Art of Comic-Con” at the San Diego Central Library downtown (aided and abetted by the gallery’s manager, Kara West), which became one of the most-attended exhibits in the gallery’s history.
I think the one thing I’m most proud of over the years is my work on Comic-Con’s yearly Souvenir Books. While my early efforts (2007 and 2008) are a bit cringe-worthy, in 2009—for Comic-Con’s 40th anniversary—I persuaded management to go full-color with the book, which was liberating for me from a design standpoint. Over the next 10 years, the book became better and better (in my humble opinion), showcasing anniversary celebrations of comics and pop culture milestones, from Superman and Batman to the Marvel Age of Comics, from Mickey Spillane to Gasoline Alley, from Frankenstein to the X-Files. The annual editions from 2015 through 2019 are my personal favorites, with 2019 devoted to the 50th anniversary of Comic-Con itself (you can see the decade-by-decade sections from that edition here). Working with artists such as Jim Lee, Michael Cho, Bruce Timm, Babs Tarr, Ivan Reis, William Stout, and Matt Taylor were high-points of my career. If I had to choose, I think 2018 (with Taylor’s Marvel Cinematic Universe cover, designed in conjunction with Mondo, which we also offered as a 24″ x 36″ limited edition silk-screen print) is my favorite, especially content-wise, but I’m proud of all of them.
In late 2019, I was offered the position of Curatorial Director of the Comic-Con Museum, which I readily and hopefully accepted. I had already done one Comic-Con-related gallery show for the event’s 50th anniversary in 2019, “Cover Story: The Art of Comic-Con 50,” at the Museum in the spring and summer of that year. It featured numerous original cover art pieces from the 50-year history of Comic-Con’s Souvenir Books. In February 2020, we launched “Sense of Wonder: The Art of WonderCon,” and brought in artist Jen Bartel as a special guest to premiere her cover for the WonderCon 2020 Program Book.
And then the world changed. The Museum closed to the public and moved to a virtual model, I did one last Souvenir Book (this one a downloadable PDF available only online; it had over 160,000 downloads, reaching a larger audience than any of our print editions ever did), and like everyone else, I stayed at home and worried about the future.
That enforced lockdown forced me to think a lot about a number of things. In 2018, John Rogers, the president of the Board of Directors of Comic-Con died after a short illness. Beyond being one of the guiding forces of the organization for over 30 years, he was only 57 years old, proving once again to me that you never know how much time you have in this world. 2020 started for me with my own health problems (unrelated to COVID). With all this time alone, I came to the realization that I wasn’t getting any younger and maybe now was the time to think more seriously about that “R” word.
I worked for close to 20 years in the TV news industry and I regularly saw—and worked with—people who should have retired years ago, a few of which anchored the news one night and were dead the next day. I always told myself that I would know when it would be time to leave the table, and the end of 2020 seemed to me to be the right time. I told my employers at the end of summer what my plans were and they were kind enough to let me continue working through the end of that most difficult year, while I got my retirement act together, which is a bit of a process.
And now 2021 has dawned and it’s time for a fresh start. I’ve been lucky in my life to have a number of acts: from growing up to art school to TV news to Comic-Con and now to retirement. It’s good to stop and reinvent yourself every once in a while, to start over and figure out what really matters and what is best for YOU. I will always fondly remember my time at Comic-Con, involved with something I never imagined I would be a part of, working alongside a team of dedicated people who love comics and pop culture.
And now, I’ll just be a fan again. Hopefully soon, we’ll get back to being able to travel and visit those places and things we love. I know I’ll always look forward to going to Comic-Con and WonderCon and I hope we all can do those things again SOON.
Here’s the official press release from Comic-Con about my retirement:
STATEMENT FROM SAN DIEGO COMIC CONVENTION
Gary Sassaman Curatorial Director of Comic-Con Museum Announces His Retirement
SAN DIEGO, CA – For 20 years Gary Sassaman has been a part of the Comic-Con family. His responsibilities over the years have included Director of Programming, Director of Print and Digital Media (which includes overseeing publications and the Comic-Con website), and of course, Curatorial Director for the Comic-Con Museum.
“When I first started attending Comic-Con in 1992, I never dreamed I would eventually be a part of the team behind this great event” said Sassaman. “It’s been an incredible experience over the past two decades and being involved with Comic-Con and WonderCon is something I will always treasure. While retirement is on the horizon, I will always look forward to attending these wonderful events.”
The challenges of the worldwide pandemic have affected San Diego Comic Convention (SDCC), parent organization to Comic-Con, WonderCon, SAM Storytelling Across Media, and the Comic-Con Museum and currently the organization is on a reduced workweek. For this reason, a replacement for Sassaman is not being considered at this time. Covid-19 has made most of 2020 a difficult time for many organizations, including SDCC, which pivoted their in-person conventions to online events last year.
“Gary has been a key player in so many aspects of our organization,” said David Glanzer, spokesperson for the organization. “His knowledge, expertise, and passion for comics and pop culture will be sorely missed, though we are very happy that he has agreed to stay on for at least a couple of months to make the transition easier for all of us.”