(Up top: The Comic-Con Exhibit Hall from up above in 1997. Photo © SDCC)
While my comics career was waxing and waning with Innocent Bystander, my con-going took a decided upturn when I started attending San Diego Comic-Con in 1992. My first comic convention was Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Art Convention in 1971 (read all about it here), a con my brother and I attended faithfully until its demise in 1983 (we even went to Philadelphia in 1977, when Phil had to move the con from the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love due to a scheduling conflict). But for that almost decade-long period from 1983 to 1992, I didn’t really go to any major cons. And San Diego proved to be a revelation to me, just as my original trip to Seuling’s New York Con was in 1971, once I finally made it out to the left coast.
My brother had attended San Diego Comic-Con in 1975 and 1976, when it was headquartered at the fabled El Cortez Hotel in downtown San Diego. He’s fond of telling the tale of how his plane landed late one night before the con started and he crept into an all-but-empty hotel to be greeted by a lonely desk clerk who checked him in. “Do you need the bellman to help you with your bags?”, the clerk asked. “Um, sure,” my brother replied, to which the clerk came out from behind the front desk and escorted him to his room. A little while later, my brother, unable to sleep, turned on the TV only to find it wasn’t working, so he called the front desk. “I’ll send someone right up,” the clerk said. Five minutes later, the same front desk clerk appeared with a spare TV on a cart. Job security, I guess.
I missed joining him those two years in San Diego. I was in art school in Pittsburgh (you can read about that here), and while I managed to slip away to go to New York for a few days, a plane trip to sunny San Diego was not in the cards during those busy summer months. I wish I could have seen Comic-Con at the El Cortez, because many people regard it as the Golden Age of the convention. In fact, the years at that somewhat (from what I’ve heard) dowdy, old-school, resort hotel cemented the reputation of San Diego as THE con to go to, one that would continue to grow through the 1980s as Seuling’s premier event in New York City faded.
It would be 1992 until I first visited San Diego. At that point, it was still known as just “San Diego Comic-Con,” the International added to its name in 1995 when the convention managers revealed the new iconic “eye” logo. It was a bid to put the convention on an international map, and it certainly succeeded. My brother and his new wife and son had visited the Con in 1991, the event’s first year in the new San Diego Convention Center, a huge and impressive structure on the bay. (For much of the 1980s, the Con had “lived” at the Civic Center, a collection of buildings that acted as San Diego’s convention center before the behemoth on the bay was opened.) A number of new hotels had popped up around it, and my brother recommended the new Embassy Suites a few blocks from the Convention Center, which offered rooms with a bedroom and sitting room, and free breakfasts and afternoon happy hours. He and his family had a layover in Pittsburgh when they flew back after the con, so I went out and met them at the gate, something you could still do in those pre-9/11 days. He gave me a copy of the 1991 Souvenir Book, even then an impressive publication, filled with art and articles. I subscribed to the convention’s quarterly Update publication, where I learned how to register for a badge, how to book a hotel room, and who the special guests were for 1992. I sent in my check for my badge, reserved my hotel room and invited a friend down from Los Angeles to visit with me while I was making a rare West Coast appearance. And then, of course, disaster struck.
Okay, I exaggerate; I have a flair for the melodramatic. But a week or two before the con, I got a check flagged for “insufficient funds” from my bank. That check was, of course, the one I had sent months earlier to purchase my four-day badge for Comic-Con. Seems the Con held off cashing checks until the last minute, and I, low level accounting genius that I was, lost track of it. I panicked (I do that, too), so I called the San Diego Hotline late one night after work (after work being for me post-midnight), and lo and behold someone answered. I explained the situation to the nice lady on the other end of the line and she said, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll still have a badge, and we’ll straighten it out when you get here.” That nice lady was Fae Desmond, the Executive Director of Comic-Con, someone who would play a huge role in my future, but for now I am here to confess … I never did straighten out that check. I basically attended Comic-Con 1992 for free.
Confession is good for the soul.
Bus ads were the big form of advertising in the mid-1990s at Comic-Con, along with banners near the Convention Center. The Spider-Man bus ad is from 1994, the “San Diego Comic Convention” and Batman banners were from 1995. Photos by me.
If I remember correctly, I flew in on a Tuesday and my friend drove down from LA and visited with me for a couple of days. I had purchased a four-day badge for Comic-Con (no Preview Night in those days), but I told myself I wouldn’t be going all four days; there just wouldn’t be enough to interest me for that long, right? Well, I was wrong. I was blown away by a number of things: The sheer size of the convention, which at that point occupied Exhibit Halls A, B, and C on the ground floor of the Center, and had programming rooms above it on the second level. I went back every day, constantly finding new things to see and do. I remember one of the big panels I attended was a preview screening of two episodes of the new Batman: The Animated Series, which was set to premiere on the Fox Kids’s Network in September of 1992. I also learned that there was a show before Comic-Con, called Comic Book Expo, which was for retailers and industry workers. (There was also ProCon, for comics professionals.) I vowed to come back the following year and somehow, some way, sneak into that event too. (I got in through the graces of Greg Eide, who owned the Pittsburgh-based comics shop I frequented, and was willing to say I was still an employee.) In those days, programming wasn’t as large and as all-encompassing as it became over the years. In fact, comics publishers like DC and Marvel gave out variant cover comics as incentives to get people to attend their panels. The trick was, you had to be there for the whole panel, and you got the comic when you left. I vaguely recall getting an Adventures of Superman #500 (the issue where Superman returned from the dead) at a panel that focused on the various Super-books, which at that point in time were all interconnected and coming off the “Death of Superman” mega-event.
I spent most of my time roaming the giant Exhibit Hall downstairs, taking photos and buying things. A lot of those photos have gone missing, probably mixed up with photos from Comic-Con’s archive when I was scanning them for the 2019 50th anniversary Souvenir Book. But I do still have this one (above) of Jack Kirby, from either 1992 or 1993 at a booth that was selling prints of his concept art for Hanna-Barbera. You can get a feel for how many people were in line just to talk to him and tell him how much they admired his work. This was probably one of the last years he attended Comic-Con, something he loved to do, as he died in 1994. Mark Evanier is fond of telling the story that Kirby predicted the success of Comic-Con, saying early on that one day this event was where Hollywood would come to get all its ideas. It’s too bad he didn’t live long enough to see so many films based on HIS ideas alone. I snapped a photo of Kirby but was too shy to introduce myself to him. I certainly wish I had.
Comic-Con was like that. Kirby talking in the aisleway … Dave Stevens holding court in his Bulldog Studios booth … Frank Frazetta standing right next to me. One time I had stopped at a booth (I think it was Stevens’s) when I heard someone call my name and turned to see Steve Geppi, the head of Diamond Distributors, the leading (and for many years, one and only) comics distribution company. He remembered me from the Seuling cons of the 1970s, when he was still a Baltimore mailman with a comic collecting hobby. “You know Frank, right?,” he said to me, and he moved to the side to reveal Frank Frazetta standing next to him, who had made an unannounced trip to San Diego. He was just taking in the sights and admiring the work of other artists. Years later—as you’ll read about in subsequent posts—I was able to talk to and work with comic artists that I admired when I was both director of programming and the director of Comic-Con’s publications.
But that summer of ‘92, San Diego became my obsession. I vowed to go back each year and eventually I decided that I wanted to retire there when the time came (I ended up not waiting for retirement to move here and am now in my 23rd year in this far left corner of the country). I did make it into the Comic Book Expo year after year, too, trying my best to masquerade as a retailer. In those days, the Expo booths were built around the bigger publisher areas in the center of the floor, with the rest of the Exhibit Hall closed off. That way the Expo could be run for a limited audience for a few days while the rest of the Con was being built around it. When the time came for Comic-Con to start, the removable walls were folded up, and the big publisher booths became just part of the general Exhibit Hall floor.
The DC booth was the first of the mega-booths to appear at Comic-Con in the early 1990s. It quickly became the center of the Exhibit Hall and lasted until, sadly, the big-wigs at Warner Bros. decided to fold this iconic part of Comic-Con into a corner of the crappy WB booth in 2019.
Photos by me.
These were the years when the major publishers—DC, Marvel, Dark Horse—began really ramping up their presence at San Diego. DC started it with a giant booth dubbed “Wayne’s World,” after direct sales VP Bob Wayne, who was also in charge of DC’s convention presence. Wayne pioneered the concept of the mega-booth, and eventually the DC booth became the focal point of the Exhibit Hall floor, featuring giant movie props and costumes, including the Batmobile from Batman Forever in 1995, and autograph areas for comic creators. Marvel and Dark Horse followed suit and occasionally start-up comics companies such as Techno Comix made big booth splashes, even though their fortunes changed quickly. Marvel was reduced to a two-booth space while weathering bankruptcy in the early 2000s, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed their fortunes dramatically. While some of this big booth madness spilled over into other large conventions such as Chicago Comicon, San Diego remained the king of the hill, a position it would maintain over the next three decades and to this day.
I loved going to Comic-Con each summer, and I planned incessantly for it. My friends back in Pittsburgh where sick of hearing me talk about it, I’m sure. By the mid-1990s, I had gotten to the point where I had enough seniority in my job to grab first pick for my vacation times each year and I dutifully reserved that third week in July as mine, Mine, MINE (except in 1996 when the Republicans took over the place for their national convention, and Comic-Con got bumped to July 4th weekend, a neat nod to the Seuling cons of yore; in 1998 and 1999, the con was held in August for some reason, but by that time I had moved to San Diego full-time).
In 1998, I had a booth at Comic-Con (read more about that here) to promote my Innocent Bystander comic series, which by 1999 had morphed into Geeksville (ditto here). And by 1999 I had started freelancing for Comic-Con. But that’s a story for next time, as I start to chronicle my 20+ year history as an employee of Comic-Con International in Part 10 of “My Life in Comics,” coming soon.
You can read more about the 50-year history of Comic-Con through these excerpts from the 2019 Souvenir Book, edited and designed by me. Click here to get the list of available sections in PDF form!
To read all of the My Life in Comics posts, please click here or on the category in the list on the upper right.