My Life in Comics, Part 12: Comic-Con Director of Publications …

In the winter of 2005, my boss (Fae Desmond, the executive director of Comic-Con) and I went to San Francisco for a site check for Comic-Con’s sister shows, WonderCon and APE, the Alternative Press Expo. We were looking at various hotels, in addition to stopping in at Moscone Center for a pre-WonderCon meeting. When not dealing with dueling Russian cab drivers (seriously … these two guys wanted to kill each other while we were in the back of one of their cabs), my boss took me out to dinner. I remember this distinctly, because it was warm enough to eat outside on the deck of the Cheesecake Factory at Macy’s in Union Square … it was unseasonable weather for winter in San Francisco.

At dinner, she said to me, “I sense you’re burning out on doing programming. What else would you like to do at Comic-Con? Would you like to take over our website?” In 2005, the Comic-Con website was becoming an increasingly important part of getting the word out to the event’s attendees, and I was regularly providing content for it … in fact, I was pretty much the only person providing content. But I’m not really a website guy; coding, HTML, and every other platform scared the bejesus out of me. So I very confidently said, “I’d like to do our publications.”

For many years, Comic-Con had used mailed publications as a means to communicate with their attendees. Dating back to the beginning of the show with simple “Progress Reports,” these publications became more and more elaborate each year, with some amazing fan and pro cover art (by the likes of Dave Stevens, very early in his career). Eventually these booklets of various sizes and page-counts were mailed quarterly. By the late 1990s, they had evolved into a black and white, digest-sized publication called Update, and in 2004, Update became comic book-sized and full-color.

A selection of Comic-Con mailed publications over the years from 1977, 1984, 1996, 1998, 2002, and 2004, when the first full-color, comic book-sized Update magazine appeared. Click on the images to see them larger on your screen. Artwork © Respective Owners; Publications © SDCC

By the time I started as director of print and publications in 2007, Comic-Con still had a very robust yearly slate of publications, in spite of the growing presence of the internet. In addition to the onsite books for all three events (Comic-Con had two: the Souvenir Book and the Events Guide, and both WonderCon and APE had Program Books that contained content, like the guest bios and site maps, in addition to the show schedules), Comic-Con still published Update three times a year. The magazine was the main way the organization communicated with its mailing list of attendees, exhibitors, and professionals, not to mention volunteers and staff. It was a full-color, comic book sized publication and contained information such as how to buy badges, how to reserve a hotel room, parking and downtown maps, exhibitor lists, and announcements of special guests scheduled to appear at the shows. I had seen how my boss’s work life came to a standstill when it was Update time. While the magazine was edited and designed by a pair of guys in Northern California, Fae still had to work with them to get it put together and ready for the printers, in addition to being the person in charge of the day-to-day operations of Comic-Con.

My career path was in design. I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and my first job after I graduated (with a spiffy Associates Degree in Visual Communications) was designing a weekly newspaper in my hometown of Tamaqua, PA. I then became a graphic designer in Pittsburgh at KDKA-TV, dealing primarily with television news. And while Comic-Con had hired me to be its director of programming, I immediately started to design things for them: I did the 2000 Events Guide cover, the cover for the Pro Mailer (a publication sent to attending professionals) that year, the Exhibitor Newswire (another “private” publication sent to exhibitors), and eventually took over editing and designing the APE Program Book, very early on, in 2002. I also did mailer graphics, like postcards, and posters and promotional pieces for APE and WonderCon, including DC Comics ads for the latter show. It was extremely advantageous for Comic-Con to have a person in-house who could do both his regular job—the programming schedule—and design work. As for me: What is this “life” thing you talk about?

So I pitched myself as a one-stop shop for publications: I could write and edit them, and I could also do all the design and production work on them, plus deal with the printers and the mailing house. In addition to that, I would be available to mentor and train my successor as director of programming, something that was unusual for the paid staff at Comic-Con. Most people left their positions—for whatever reason—and left behind little or no information about their job duties. When I took over as director of programming in 2000, I pretty much started from scratch. In addition, the new person would continue to have access to my seven years (at that point in time, I held the record for longest-running programming director) of institutional knowledge and I would continue to be a sounding board for him or her for as long as was needed. Fae thought about my pitch overnight, and on the way to the airport the next day, she called her boss, John Rogers, the president of Comic-Con’s Board of Directors and pitched the idea to him. John begrudgingly let it happen, but it took a while.

There used to be a joke (maybe there still is) that said it took three years for anything to happen internally at Comic-Con, and I continued to be director of programming for 2005 and 2006. At the end of 2006, my pitch about publications finally came true, and myself and the new guy, longtime volunteer Eddie Ibrahim, was hired as the new director of programming. We worked together on the programming schedule for all three shows in 2007. I sort of shaved a year off of that three-year timespan prediction. But it wasn’t easy in the beginning.

I asked my boss what she was going to do about the two guys currently editing and designing the publications (which they had been doing for years) and she said she was going to talk to them and phase them out gradually through 2007, and I would work with them and learn how they did things. To which I replied, “And what’s the plan if they say, ‘Fuck you, we’re not training our successor,’” and she replied, “They won’t do that.”

And basically, that’s what they did.

I ended 2006 with the first issue of Update magazine for 2007 that had to be put together over the holiday break and sent to our printer in Canada to be out in the mail by the end of January, with nothing to go on but past printed issues of the magazine. No files, no helpful hints or tips, no guidance, no nothin.’

Just a quick aside here … the person who edited the Comic-Con publications previous to me stopped me at a show soon after I took over the reins and complimented me on what I was doing. He told me that I did a great job on the Update magazine and the Souvenir Book and he guessed that being in the Comic-Con office on a daily basis probably made the job easier, since communication was so much more immediate. I really appreciated that.

My first three issues of Comic-Con’s Update magazine from 2007.

Somehow I made it through that first Update magazine and came out the other side on time and on budget with a 40-page full-color mag. It even had some actual content in it, beyond show info for the 2007 Comic-Con, WonderCon, and APE events: An article on the 100th birthday of comic strip master Milton Caniff and an interview with comics writer Roy Thomas. My second Update in spring of 2007 grew to 56 pages, and the cover featured art by comic artist Tim Sale from the hit TV series Heroes, with articles inside devoted to that show. There were also interviews with cartoonist Darwyn Cooke, who had just launched his new DC Comics series based on Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and author Laurell K. Hamilton. This issue was heavy on Comic-Con, as the 2007 event was only a couple of months away. And my third Update of the year (another 56-pager) featured a photo-filled wrap-up of Comic-Con 2007 and a look ahead at WonderCon 2008, including a Darwyn Cooke cover featuring the announcement of the world premiere of the animated film Justice League: The New Frontier, at WonderCon in February 2008 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA.

A funny thing happened on the way to the printer on these early publications, though. Evidently in the past, all the info was sent to the editor and designer and the books were put together rather quickly and sent directly to the printer. So the first time anyone at Comic-Con got a first look at any publication was when the printer sent back a proof. And that’s when the avalanche of corrections began, something that drove the printer nuts. When I sent in my first Update, they sent me the proof, I checked it and showed it to my boss, and found a few minor corrections and sent off the corrected pages with a “good-to-go once you make these changes” message. Our printer rep—someone who I was lucky to have with me for my entire journey as editor/designer at Comic-Con, from 2007 through 2019—immediately called me and asked, “This is it? Are you sure? Because they normally have a ton of corrections …” And I said, “Yes, I’m sure. Print it.” It took a couple of books to make our rep feel secure that I was really ready to print each time I said I’m ready to print.

Comic-Con Magazine issues edited and designed by me for 2008, 2009, and 2010. Click on the images to see them larger on your screen.

After the three 2007 issues of Update, I was ready to take the publication to the next level, so I pitched a magazine-sized book called Comic-Con Magazine. Comic-Cons were sprouting up all over the country—and the world—due to San Diego’s incredible success and I felt we needed something to give us some additional ownership of that brand. Many people felt all the Comic-Cons—wherever they were held—were all shows put on by us, but they weren’t. Comic-Con had trademarked that term around this time and at least one show eventually came out on the losing end of a lengthy court battle, claiming the term Comic-Con was generic. Having a magazine with the term Comic-Con in the title certainly didn’t hurt.

I did six issues of Comic-Con Magazine over the next two years, from early 2008 through early 2010. They were all 48-pagers in full-color. In 2009, I fought the good fight (gently and respectfully) with John Rogers over the paper stock. I wanted to switch from drab, dull newsprint (where the ink just muddied up) to slick magazine stock. To John, paper was paper, but to his credit, he acquiesced and for 2009, Comic-Con Magazine felt like a true magazine and looked much better. And here’s the most amazing part of all this: Comic-Con was printing 250,000 copies of these magazines and distributing them for FREE. If you were on the Comic-Con mailing list, you got a copy. We even distributed copies free to comic shops through Diamond Distributors. Each issue was a huge undertaking to put together and get them out the door to the printer, and from the printer to the mailing house and Diamond, and finally into the hot little hands of everyone who wanted them. Content was key in these books, and there was a lot of special features created specifically for each magazine, beyond just coverage of upcoming Comic-Con, WonderCon, and APE shows. I was particularly pleased with the annual Comic-Con photo issues (2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012), which recapped the event with tons of photos by the great army of volunteer photographers who selflessly gave their time to document this massive show each year, but all-in-all, I was very proud of all the publications I did in my 15-year stint.

The final two mailed magazines I did for Comic-Con, in 2011 and 2012. I feel the Annuals were the high-point of my work on these magazines, in both content and design.

Comic-Con Magazine eventually became Comic-Con Annual in 2011 and 2012. The increasing costs of printing and postage—combined with the rise of the internet as a way of communicating with attendees—made the magazines more and more outdated and cumbersome, not to mention the amount of poor, innocent trees we were destroying. Gone were the days of using the magazine to sell badges and to reserve hotel rooms. All of that—for better or worse—moved online. In 2012, my title “Director of Print and Publications” became “Director of Print and Digital Media,” as I added editor-in-chief of the Comic-Con website to my CV. In the Annuals—the final two mailed pieces I produced for Comic-Con—I got to interview the likes of Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), actress Emma Stone, and director Mark Webb (for the Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man movies), so that was fun. I highly recommend spending a half-hour talking to Emma Stone during the Christmas break … or anytime! No, I don’t have her number.

In addition to these mailed magazines, I also did all the show books, too, with the exception of Comic-Con’s Events Guide, which was edited and—for a time—designed by Jackie Estrada. I did the APE and WonderCon Program Books each year and the Comic-Con Souvenir Book. In 2010, I created a full-color, standalone supplement to the Comic-Con Events Guide called the Quick Guide, which moved all the maps, schedule grids, and more out of the EG and into this publication. Plus I was still putting together internal publications such as the Pro Mailer and Exhibitor Newswire for both Comic-Con and WonderCon. Again, what is this life thing you talk about?

Next time we’ll take a look at my favorite Comic-Con publication, the yearly Souvenir Books, which I edited and designed from 2007 through 2020, and the big 40th anniversary book, Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans & Friends!, published by Chronicle Books in 2009, a project that occupied a year and a half of my life. Join us, won’t you?

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