Comic-Con: 21 Years Ago …

There is no live San Diego Comic-Con this year, and by “live” I mean that living, breathing organism that seems to mystically appear inside the San Diego Convention Center, transforming it into a whole new city by the bay for four and a half days. There is an online component again this year, with some pretty great content, but I think by this point in time we’re all a little tired of the whole “let’s watch a YouTube panel video,” because let’s face it … it’s not the same as being there. Go to a panel, shop in the Exhibit Hall, buy a soft pretzel, go buy that over-priced doodad you’re pining for (comic, toy, book, poster, T-shirt), go to another panel … lather, rinse, repeat. That’s the Comic-Con experience, and for many of us (myself included), that’s Nirvana. And since this is the traditional week of that singular experience, I will confess to missing it a bit right now.

When Comic-Con returns later this year, with a “Special Edition” tentatively scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, or (hopefully) next July in it’s normal large-sized time slot, it’ll be the first live show in two decades without me as an employee. I started working for Comic-Con in March 2000, after doing a bit of freelancing for them in 1999 (specifically their website and the Eisner Awards PowerPoint presentation). I jumped right into the deep end of the pool in 2000 as their Director of Programming, the person in charge of setting up all the panels, seminars, and workshops for the event. In addition, the company was still doing Comic Book Expo, a trade industry show for two days preceding the con. (This was before Preview Night debuted on the Wednesday before the con.) The Expo had its own programming schedule.

When Comic-Con rolled around in 2000, I was still very wet behind the ears in this whole programming thing. I think my bosses at the time had the attitude of sink or swim for me: I was a warm body to get them through that year’s show, and if it didn’t work out, they could fire me and find someone else, hopefully more than three months out from the 2001 show. Well, I didn’t sink, and I stayed the Director of Programming for seven more years, before moving on to the job of Director of Print and Digital Media, in charge of all of Comic-Con’s publications and their website, something that fit me much better, due to my career path as a designer, my love of comics (and pop culture), and my decidedly anti-social bent. Comic-Con in 2000 was a much different show, at least in size and scope. I believe 48,000 people attended that year. The Exhibit Hall consisted of Halls A, B, and C, and the “new” section of the San Diego Convention Center was still under construction (it opened in 2001).

Once the schedule started in 2000, it—like the rest of Comic-Con—pretty much became a runaway train, but in a good way. Comic-Con is an incredibly large entity and it has its own momentum, as do all the smaller parts of it. Sometimes it runs like clockwork, sometimes not, but that first year with my first program schedule ran relatively smoothly. But sometimes something comes up at the most final of last minutes that’s just too good to pass up.

I remember walking through the Sails Pavilion upstairs on Thursday, the first day of the show (this was pre-Preview Night) and getting a phone call from an unfamiliar number on my ancient Sprint cellphone (hey … it was cool at the time) from a Los Angeles area code. Since, even at that time, we were doing some Hollywood-based programming (something Comic-Con has featured since its inception in 1970), I picked up. The voice at the other end introduced himself as Cliff from I had no idea how he got my number, or what was. But he had a most interesting offer …

He told me that Sir Ian McKellen was flying to New Zealand to continue filming his part as Gandalf in the new Lord of the Rings Trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson, and that he would have a 9-hour layover in L.A. before continuing his journey on the Saturday of Comic-Con. Would we be interested in bringing him down to San Diego to be featured at Comic-Con?

A few weeks (or days—I don’t quite remember which it was) before Comic-Con, New Line Cinema had debuted a six-minute featurette on LoTR on the Internet. It quickly became (for a short while) the most-watched thing that had ever appeared online. We had made arrangements with New Line to show that video in Room 6 on Saturday, the largest room Comic-Con had at the time. (I believe it may have been the first time it was shown on a big screen.) On Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, Room 6 was divided into smaller rooms, but overnight on Friday into Saturday, the Convention Center staff rebuilt it, combining all the smaller rooms into one giant room for the Saturday night Masquerade. The combined room sat close to 3,000 people, I believe, including an elaborate set of bleachers that were constructed at the back of the room. (The large stage needed for the Masquerade kept the seating capacity down a bit).

So we already had a venue for Sir Ian to speak in: He could tie into the LoTR footage as a surprise guest. Also, by another divine stroke of providence, Comic-Con 2000’s dates was just a week after the opening weekend of X-Men, the new film featuring Sir Ian as Magneto, alongside Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as Professor X (among many others). Double bonus! All we would have to do is pay for a limo for Sir Ian go come down from L.A. and take him back.

And therein was the problem. I wasn’t of a high-enough pay grade to approve that kind of expenditure. But I had an idea … Marvel had a huge booth on the floor and maybe they would like Sir Ian to sign at their booth for an hour or so on Saturday, before he was our surprise guest in Room 6 as part of the LoTR footage event?

At the time, Marvel had a direct sales chief who was also in charge of their convention appearances. He was an extremely nice guy by the name of Matt Ragone. I went down and asked Matt if they would be interested in having Sir Ian sign at the Marvel booth and he readily agreed. He jumped on the phone with someone at Marvel in New York to have them sign off on it, and then he called someone at 20th Century Fox in L.A. to see if they would foot half the limo bill to bring Sir Ian down to promote the newly-opened X-Men movie. I vividly remember Matt in the noisy Marvel booth, coordinating signings going on at that time, with TWO phones, one at each ear, with Marvel on one and Fox on the other. We got approval from both, so Sir Ian was a go. Now I had to call back the OneRing people and convince them that the only way we could do this was to have Marvel and Fox foot the bill for the limo, and have Sir Ian sign at the Marvel booth for the X-Men movie.

I want to tell you that in my eight years of doing programming for Comic-Con, this was an incredibly rare experience. Sometimes studios and TV networks would show up with a surprise guest (Fox brought Ben Affleck at the last minute for their Daredevil movie when the previously-announced Colin Farrell had a family emergency back in the UK), or sometimes they just wouldn’t tell us who they were bringing in fear that it would leak out in advance and the star would change their mind (which was always a possibility, leak or not), but scheduling something like this onsite during Comic-Con was pretty much unheard of … but no one ever told me that, so I guess me being such a newbie was a blessing in disguise in this case.

Sir Ian McKellen in that gold suit with a Magneto fan at the Marvel Comics booth at Comic-Con 2000.

Saturday came and Sir Ian showed up. He changed into this amazing gold suit; it was practically glowing. He signed at the Marvel booth first. He was able to walk through the Exhibit Hall without being hassled; truth be told, no one recognized him in passing. The X-Men movie was out for one week. Once word got out that he was signing, though, the fans lined up. He signed a special Toy-R-Us X-Men comic book. He finished his signing and came upstairs to the LoTR panel. We had decided to show the six-minute clip first, then have Sir Ian come out afterwards and say a few words.

We had no real mechanism in place to announce his appearance in advance and that actually worked in our favor. A surprise appearance by a major movie star was a wonderful bonus for the people lucky enough to get into the room. I remember Room 6CDEF (which sat about 2,000, Comic-Con’s biggest room at the time) was packed. I was standing backstage with Sir Ian and he said to me, “What would you like me to say to the audience, dear boy?” And I said, “Just go out and tell them you’re about to go on this amazing journey to New Zealand to continue this great adventure.”

But before he came on stage, he wanted to see the footage for himself, so he went out into the dimly-lit room and kneeled in front of the first row of the audience. I don’t think anyone noticed him, they were so enraptured with what was going on on the screen. For six minutes, he wasn’t Ian McKellen, the actor, or Gandalf, the character … he was just like everyone else in the audience: a fan.

I don’t remember if I introduced him (I have a vague recollection that I did, even though I didn’t really start introducing panels until we moved to Hall H, a 6,000-seat room where the stakes seemed much higher, and having an “official” employee of Comic-Con do the actual panel intros made more sense) or if the volunteer in charge of the room did, but the place went nuts when he walked out. He was incredibly gracious and very moved by the audience and he really didn’t need me to tell him what to say, but he pretty much kept it and said he was off on this great adventure and he hoped everyone would come see the first movie in December of 2001. He said that when he got back on set in New Zealand the next day, he would give the cast “all your love.”

Ian McKellen’s appearance that day taught me something that I hadn’t even considered would happen when I took the job as Director of Programming: the power of Comic-Con. The way the show brings together all of these fans from such disparate walks of life and from such different areas of fandom. And how this one galvanizing moment, this total surprise, had made memories for everyone in that audience, even me standing backstage. That’s the power of Comic-Con: It’s a different event for everyone and it’s what YOU experience and what you take home as memories each year that makes it so amazing for each of us. I’ll never forget the fact that if you were in that room on that Saturday in 2000, you went home with a very special memory that very few people were able to experience.

Sir Ian was ready to take the limo back to LAX and get ready for his long flight to New Zealand, where he’d become Gandalf once again. But first he changed out of his amazing gold suit in a curtained-off area backstage. And as the limo pulled out of the garage, the volunteer who was acting as our talent coordinator chased after it, waving Sir Ian’s gold pants above her head. “YOU FORGOT YOUR PANTS!”, she yelled. He had left them behind the stage. Sir Ian and his gold pants were reunited, I had survived my baptism of fire at Comic-Con, and I felt that maybe—just maybe—this programming job would work out for me.

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