My Life in Comics, Part 10: Comic-Con Director of Programming …

(Up top: Yours truly breathlessly introducing Jeff Smith as the keynote speaker at Comic Book Expo 2000, alongside that year’s Comic-Con Events Guide, which featured my first-ever program schedule; I also designed the cover, one of my first for Comic-Con).

As 1999 began, I was jobless and—after almost two decades in Pittsburgh—I was now living in sunny San Diego, California. On a cold and rainy December 1, 1998, I and my lone remaining cat, Ollie, boarded a USAir flight to a fresh start. I had no job prospects, and I knew just two people in San Diego: Batton Lash and Jackie Estrada, the husband and wife team behind Exhibit A Press, which published Bat’s comic book series Supernatural Law (aka Wolff & Byrd: Counselors of the Macabre). I met them through my own self-published series, Innocent Bystander, and through my tables at various conventions such as SPX (Small Press Expo) and San Diego Comic-Con. Batton liked IB a lot, and was a big supporter of my comics, offering pull-quotes for me to use when marketing the series. The feeling was mutual: Bat was a real cartoonist. He had a studio in an old building in the Gaslamp Quarter, next to Croce’s restaurant and above a porno shop, and he was madly in love with comics. He and I had a lot in common, including being of similar age and growing up within the orbit of New York-based independent TV stations, not to mention the Marvel Comics of the 1960s. Eventually, I did some work for and with him, including coloring a run of covers for his Supernatural Law series and a group of comic strips he did, called the “InterGnat,” which was done for a pair of local brothers who had ambitions to supplant Google as THE Internet browser (spoiler alert: it didn’t work). Bat died in 2019 after a battle with brain cancer. He was always the best-dressed person at any booth at any comic convention, a cartoonist/salesman who made sure you left his table with one of his comics. For a while, I also did the Exhibit A Press website, which begat some additional jobs, such as the late Bill Schelly’s website (Schelly was a writer/historian who specialized in comics fandom and wrote the seminal biography Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America, which won the Eisner Award for Best Comics-Related Book).

Jackie Estrada and Batton Lash at their Comic-Con booth in 2000; I did a number of coloring jobs for Bat, and had the extreme honor of not only coloring his work but that of Marie Severin (Supernatural Law #29) and Dan De Carlo (Mavis #3). We also collaborated on the “Intergnat” comic strip for a local San Diego would-be web entrepreneur. Photo courtesy Jackie Estrada.

Jackie Estrada was also a bit of a legend, even twenty years ago. She was deeply involved with San Diego Comic-Con, having edited their Souvenir Book for many years and she went on to become the Eisner Awards Administrator (Jackie would admonish me for capitalizing the A in that word, as the strict editor/proofreader she had built her “civilian” career on). She was hand-picked by Will Eisner himself to oversee the awards when the Kirby Awards became the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.

It was Jackie who brought me into the Comic-Con fold when she asked if I could help out with the Eisner Awards. She was looking for someone to create the graphics for the awards ceremony, so I dutifully learned PowerPoint (supplied by the Comic-Con office) and became the unofficial official graphic designer for the awards. I also called up the presentation live during the ceremony, a job function that was very similar to my old career in television news, where I called up graphics for multiple live news shows and events (including Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games) five days a week. In June of 1999, after six months of no job, living in a much more expensive city than Pittsburgh (my rent alone was triple what I paid back in the ‘burgh), I suddenly found myself with two jobs: A full-time one at San Diego TV station KUSI as a graphic designer and a freelance one for Comic-Con. In addition to the Eisner Awards presentation, I took over Comic-Con’s website, providing both graphics and content for this then-new form of marketing. It would be a job that I would hold, more or less—eventually MORE—for the next twenty years.

And while it was Jackie who introduced me to Comic-Con management, something I am eternally grateful for, it was me who made the job my own and who became the right person in the right place at the right time. In early 2000, Comic-Con parted ways with their first paid Director of Programming, Charles Brownstein. With Comic-Con 2000 looming in the very near future (less than four months away), they needed someone to step in and fill the void left by Charles leaving. I interviewed for the job and passed the first hurdles. I remember the final one was interviewing with Robin Doig (now Donlan), then the Vice President in charge of the Events Division, who oversaw the Programming Department. I had passed muster with Fae Desmond, the Executive Director of the event since 1985, when she and John Rogers, who was President of the Board of Directors, took over. The two of them would run Comic-Con during its period of greatest growth, when it became one of the most recognized pop culture brand names in the world. (John died in 2018; Fae is still Executive Director). I remember I was exhibiting at APE, the Alternative Press Expo, a smaller comics-only show that Comic-Con was running in the Bay Area. In an effort to jumpstart the show’s appeal, they had moved it from San Jose, where founder Dan Vado of SLG Publishing had started it, to San Francisco on a test basis as a one-day event in 2000 at Fort Mason Center, a former military base on the bay that had been repurposed as an arts and cultural center. We went to lunch at a famous vegetarian restaurant called Greens (which is still there) and I passed the final hurdle to being hired. I was now officially the Director of Programming for Comic-Con International: San Diego.

And I had absolutely no clue as to what I was doing.

Comic-Con 2000’s big theme was the 50th anniversary of EC Comics. The Souvenir Book cover featured an extremely EC-esque piece by artist William Stout; at right are some of the legendary EC crew, including (rear) Jack Davis, Adele Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Angelo Torres, Will Elder, and Marie Severin. Missing from the photo are fellow guests Annie Gaines, Jack Kamen, and Al Williamson.

I started the first week of March 2000 and I was promptly told, “Oh, by the way … you’re responsible for a publication called the Pro Mailer and it’s late, so get started on that.” I looked through copies from previous years and cobbled together a new edition that was sent off to be designed by someone else (I did the cover, though, offering my design skills as a hopefully-noticed plus for my new job). The Pro Mailer was sent out to all comics industry professionals on Comic-Con’s mailing list in order to get them registered for the upcoming show. It also featured information and forms on how to pitch panel and presentation ideas. That was the first step in planning the programming side of the con for me. Another part was starting to talk to companies that were exhibitors, like the big comics publishers, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, etc. Both DC and Marvel had numerous panels during the four-day event. Another piece of the Comic-Con programming puzzle was the special guests panels; each year the convention invited a number of creators to come to the show on the Con’s dime. These creators—primarily comic writers and artists, and sci-fi, fantasy, and horror authors—figured prominently into the schedule, anchoring “Spotlight” panels that were dedicated exclusively to them, and also appearing on panels with companies they worked for, and group panels wrapped around other comics or book oriented topics. All of these things were the building blocks of the Comic-Con programming schedule. Pulling them altogether an organizing them in a way where they didn’t interfere with each other was another thing entirely, including the guests’ own personal schedules—and quirks.

In that first year, my bosses (made up of three people who were actually my boss—Fae, John, and Robin—and one or two who THOUGHT they were my boss), pretty much left me alone. I felt like it was sink or swim for me. On one hand, I realized their dilemma: They needed a warm body to get a schedule together. Comic-Con was a very small operation when it came to paid staff. During the actual week of the event, a hoard of volunteers descended on the Convention Center to help out, doing everything from running programming rooms to unpacking Souvenir Book boxes. Many of them had their own specialized positions in pre-designated departments and those that didn’t ended up as daily volunteers, helping out where needed. But putting together a schedule over four days utilizing between 11 to 14 rooms upstairs at the Convention Center and combining all the different disparate individuals, companies, and groups who wanted to participate in programming, took a very organized and disciplined person. So, I either had it or I didn’t. And there weren’t a lot of people—then and now—with large scale convention experience to draw from. In a lot of ways, being an absolute newbie helped me and being a bit of a control freak was an asset. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and ultimately I was all alone.

But I have to admit, this was an incredibly rough time for me. Anyone that knows me knows I am decidedly NOT a people-person. I can be friendly and even charming when I want to be and—more importantly—when I have to be, but I was feeling the effects of being thrown into this. It was a very bumpy ride at first, and it took me a number of years until I felt I had assimilated the Comic-Con way of doing things. There was definitely an attitude of “I know how to do this, why don’t you?” At one point, I asked one of my bosses one too many questions and was told, “You’re asking too many questions; figure it out.”

So, for better or worse, I did.

A selection of panel blurbs from my first Comic-Con program schedule in 2000. Click on the images to see the full blurb larger on your screen.

There were added complications. As I mentioned, Comic-Con at that point was also doing a two-day Comic Book Expo, which ran the Tuesday and Wednesday before the actual Con. And on top of that, they were also doing their industry professionals gathering, Pro/Con, on the same two days before Comic-Con. I was also responsible with coordinating additional program schedules for both those events, while doing the larger, four-day Comic-Con schedule. There was a dedicated Expo manager, David Scroggy, but by the time I started working for Comic-Con, he had moved on to a job at Dark Horse Comics. While my Expo and Pro Mailer schedules for 2000 and 2001 are lost to history, I do remember there was a lunch and Jeff Smith was the keynote speaker. I told my boss it would be nice if someone from Comic-Con introduced him and she said, “I agree. Go up there and do it.” I just remember being panicked and literally breathless as I introduced Jeff to a crowded room of comics retailers, resolutely chowing down and all to a man (almost all of them were men at that point) wondering who the hell this guy was and can I have another Coke, please? One one hand it was an honor to introduce Jeff Smith, one of the true success stories of independent comics, and whose book, BONE, I admired intensely; on the other, a little advance warning other than “Go up there and do it,” would have been helpful, at least preparation-wise. I somehow got through it and would eventually get up in front of a room—Hall H—filled with over 6,000 people and introduce panels and the people moderating them. To be honest, I remember nothing about ProCon, other than it had a clever name and the fact that Comic-Con always wanted to revive it as an event through all my years there after it ended in 2001, but could never quite figure out how to do it as a separate show.

My first year as Director of Programming, I did a schedule of over 220 panels. The themes for Comic-Con 2000 were decided before I got there in March; they had to be in order to solicit for articles and artwork for the 2000 Souvenir Book. The main theme was “50 Years of EC Comics,” and the guest list—and subsequent programming—reflected that. Guests included Will Elder, Al Feldstein, Annie Gaines (widow of Bill), Jack Kamen, Adele Kurtzman (widow of Harvey), Marie Severin, Angelo Torres, and Al Williamson. Artist Jack Davis refused Comic-Con’s invitation, but snuck out on his own to see his old pals. Another theme was the 60th anniversary of DC’s Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern characters, and guests included Harry Lampert and Mart Nodell, the original artists on both characters, respectively. Will Eisner’s The Spirit celebrated it’s 60th anniversary also, with Will in attendance. Modern comics creators included Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, hot off their Batman: The Long Halloween and Dark Victory successes, manga star Rumiko Takahashi, and alternative cartoonists Phoebe Gloeckner, Scott McCloud, and Ben Katchor, along with French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim. Macabre gag cartoonist Gahan Wilson was also a guest. One of the best parts of working on Comic-Con was getting to talk to a lot of the guests, writers and artists whose work I enjoyed over my years as a comics fan, something I still am to this day and something I will take to my grave (bury me with my copies of Fantastic Four Annual 1 through 6, please).

I scheduled over 220 panels that year, not bad—I think—for a first effort from someone who had never done the job before. The Events Guide was a svelte 112 pages, far below the back-breaking behemoths they would become within the next decade. The program schedule was heavily weighted towards comics with multiple panels devoted to the EC Comics anniversary. But as you can see from the daily schedule grids (below), there was a fair amount of Hollywood panels, including Bryan Singer’s new X-Men movie, Kevin Smith (who was also a special guest), The Crow: Salvation, a pair of new Disney animated features (Atlantis and The Emperor’s New Groove), Batman Beyond, Futurama, and The Tick from the TV side of animation, plus Chris Carter of The X-Files. The number of program rooms grew and shrunk day-to-day between 11 and 14, with the ballrooms that made up the giant room 6 being the biggest of the rooms (this was pre-Ballroom 20 and Hall H). (One real surprise for me looking at this schedule twenty years later was that we didn’t combine the 6 ballrooms until after 5:30 on Saturday; I had thought that was done overnight.) One of the bigger panels was New Line Cinema and IGN Present, which featured what I believe to be the first screening to a public audience of a 6-minute+ sizzle reel of the first Lord of the Rings trilogy film, The Fellowship of the Ring, which had broken the Internet in the spring of 2000. That film came with an unexpected—and secret—last minute guest, Sir Ian McKellen. I’ve already recounted this story (click here to read it), last year during Comic-Con@Home 2021, and what a profound effect it had on me as a fledgling programming director. It was a pivotal experience in convincing me that this job was worth keeping.

The Comic-Con 2000 Programming Schedule … or at least the daily schedules from my first year as Director of Programming. Click on the images to see them larger on your screen.

I had two secret weapons in my programming arsenal, though: Mark Evanier and Jeff Walker. Evanier was a well-known comics, TV, and animation writer, along with being Jack Kirby’s former assistant in the early 1970s, when The King moved from Marvel to DC. Jeff Walker is less well-known outside of convention circles. He’s what is known as a “genre publicist,” someone who helped movie studios and TV networks market their films and shows to a content-hungry, built-in audience at comics and sci-fi conventions around the world. Neither of these two were paid by Comic-Con; Evanier loved comics and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the medium … Walker had been promoting genre films for years, including the first Tim Burton Batman movie, where he helped move the needle from derision for Michael Keaton’s casting to genuine fan excitement before the film was released. He worked ostensibly for the studios as a consultant and the go-between between them and Comic-Con. Not all studios went through him; some (like Lucasfilm) opted to deal directly with Comic-Con, which at the time meant me. But he provided invaluable help in getting Hollywood interested in coming to the event, which in turn, generated a lot more interest in Comic-Con. I learned a lot from Jeff about how to deal with Hollywood and his skill at navigating the studio mindset was an important contribution to the rise of Comic-Con in the 2000s, at least from my point of view.

Evanier had been moderating panels for years at Comic-Con, but I like to think it was me that got him to do more (at one point he did 13 panels with me in one year). I had started sending him (or ambushing him at conventions) copies of Innocent Bystander, and he genuinely liked it. In 1998, I cajoled, pleaded, and begged him to write an introduction for my first trade paperback collection of IB, which he did. In addition to the Golden and Silver Age group and individual Spotlight panels with creators he did at Comic-Con, featuring a lot of unsung writers and artists who toiled in the comics field for many years—most of them not even realizing they had fans or that there was any interest in their work at all—Evanier also brought his extensive animation experience to the event. He started his Cartoon Voices panel early on (the 2000 blurb shown above is probably the third one, according to Mark). And in 2002, for WonderCon, I approached him with an idea stolen from TV’s popular show Whose Line Is it Anyway? It was basically the same idea—comedians riffing on improvised suggestions—but substitute the word cartoonist for comedian and have them draw their responses live, projected onto big screens for the audience to see. While it was my initial idea (albeit a purloined one), Evanier made it sing by adding Sergio Aragonés, Scott Shaw!, and a rotating group of numerous artists over the years, which included Jeff Smith, Kyle Baker, Floyd Norman, and many more, along with his own hosting and suggestion skills. It remains one of the most popular panels at Comic-Con each year, twenty years later.

Mark Evanier (left) and Jeff Walker, two invaluable contributors to Comic-Con’s programming schedule in any given year during my time as Director of Programming. Their relationships with the event would continue long after I moved on to publications.

2000 was a rocky start for me. In subsequent years, my bosses paid a bit more attention to what I was doing. As time passed, I ceased being just the warm body they needed to get them through 2000, and I got better at my job. Comic-Con added an additional larger show with WonderCon in 2002 and continued to put on APE, the Alternative Press Expo, until 2014 when it was turned back to its founder Dan Vado, who promptly moved it back to San Jose and killed it within three years. Putting together the schedule for all of these shows was never an easy or quick thing. I had created these 11×17” blank grids for each day, which included the rooms we used with the timeslots across the top (the grid format they use to this day), and I would take them home at night, where they would lay on my drawing table. It got to the point that I couldn’t walk past them without stopping and fussing with them, moving one panel to another slot so it didn’t interfere with a similar panel, sometimes working until the wee hours of the morning, losing all track of time. After a while I realized that you can’t please everyone—even yourself—and it was an embarrassment of riches to have so many good programs, even if some of them ended up opposite each other. But for the eight years I did it, putting together the Comic-Con program schedule was always one giant jigsaw puzzle, all blue sky and green ocean; confusing as hell at times, but so, so worth it once you got it done.

Next time: Hollywood rises at Comic-Con and let me tell you … some of those people were CR-AAA-ZY.

To read the rest of the posts in “My Life in Comics” series, click here.

For more from Mark Evanier, visit his blog, NEWS FROM me by clicking here.

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