My Life in Comics, Part 13: Comic-Con Souvenir Books, Part 1 …

When I started my new position of Director of Print and Publications at San Diego Comic-Con in 2007, one of the things that fell into my lap was the event’s annual Souvenir Book. I had been a fan of the book for many years, and at one of my very last visits to Comic-Con as an attendee, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of back issues, hidden away under someone’s table. I ended up buying most of them (I already had most of the 1990s books, having attended from 1992 on) and lugging them home. It was both an honor and a daunting challenge to find myself in charge of this publication I had very much enjoyed over the years.

1970 and 1971 Souvenir Book covers by Jack Kirby (left) and Carmine Infantino. Art © Jack Kirby Estate and © DCProgram Books © SDCC

When the Souvenir Book started it was known more simply as the Program Book and included—often as separately printed items—the show’s schedule. From the beginning it contained artwork and in the 1970s the bulk of that art was by comics professionals, especially those that drew comic strips. Comic-Con co-founder Shel Dorf was a huge fan of strip artists such as Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon), Charles Schulz (Peanuts), and many more, and regularly got them to produce congratulatory drawings for the books, along with comic book artists such as Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, and Carmine Infantino (all of whom did early cover art). Over the years, the Program Book evolved into the Souvenir Book and started to feature themes. One of the first such books was in 1983 and featured a salute to the 1960s with a cover by Rick Geary (this is also the first book to use the term “Souvenir Program Book” on the cover). The themes ticked a number of different boxes for Comic-Con: They provided a framework for both programming and the book, and offered a reason to invite specific guests. By the time 1988 rolled around with the 50th anniversary of Superman, the Souvenir Book featured a cover by 1950s Man of Steel artist Wayne Boring, and the interior featured art and articles by fans. Gone were the days of “Congratulations Comic-Con!” art procured by Shel Dorf (who left the show he co-founded in 1984 and began a career editing comic strip reprint books with San Diego-based publisher Blackthorne, including a long run of Dick Tracy strip reprints). Fan contributions—some times by people who eventually became professionals—became the norm, with articles that reflected the history of comics characters and fan art that was surprisingly well-done.

Three interior drawings from 1970s Program Books, including Superman by Curt Swan, Snoopy and Woodstock by Charles Schulz and Captain America by Jack Kirby, inked by Dave Stevens. Art © DC, © United Media, and © MARVEL

This is what I inherited in 2007. By the time “Souvenir Book Season” (as I began to call it) rolled around, I was already knee-deep in two issues of Comic-Con’s Update magazine (click here to read about that) and had done my very first WonderCon Program Book (more on WC and APE books in a future post), but all of those publications were much smaller (the WC book had the most pages at 64). This was the first real BOOK I did, and at 192 pages, the largest such project I ever tackled. The books were still printed in black and white in 2007 and 2008 and in all my years that we printed books, we printed them in Canada, so the lead time of getting them to the printer was about six weeks before the actual event. They had to be prepped, proofed, printed, bound, and shipped from Canada to our decorator’s warehouse for delivery to the San Diego Convention Center when we moved in the week of the event. This meant the book went to the printer in late May or early June, something some of our vendors just didn’t understand. The Souvenir Book was meant to be just that: A souvenir of the show. It did not contain any schedule or any kind of actual event info; all of that was reserved for the Events Guide and (eventually) the Quick Guide. It also contained bios and photos (or self-portraits) of each year’s Special Guests, an almanac-type section that recapped the previous years awards, including the Eisners, Inkpots, and others, and the “In Memoriam” section, edited by Jackie Estrada, which featured tributes to creators and members of the extended Comic-Con family that had passed away in the previous year.

Eventually, I got into a rhythm with the Souvenir Book, and the season for it started—for me, at least—in the fall of the previous year when I started to work on ideas for the cover. A small group of people at Comic-Con, including myself, Jackie Estrada, and the programming department, discussed anniversary themes for the next year, and from there I decided what would work for a cover. In 2010, I started to get the Souvenir Book cover to be used as the con’s official T-shirt, working with Bob Chapman of Graphitti Designs. Most times from that year on the same art was used, but Bob and his designer, Josh Beatman of Brainchild Studios, usually utilized different type treatments and sometimes made adjustments to the art due to the nature of T-shirt design and printing. But the cover art—and permission from the publishers to use it, along with their approval of an artist—was always my starting point, and for the most part, I dealt exclusively with both the artist and the companies involved. From there, Comic-Con would establish the anniversary themes and I would figure out which ones lent themselves to Souvenir Book coverage. Most times this was a very simple process: 2007 was the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, so there was a cover, as was the 75th anniversary of DC Comics in 2010, the 50th of the Marvel Age of Comics in 2012, the 75th of Batman in 2014, and so on. Working with the artists was the best part, although some of them were … let’s just say a little lax in the deadline department (twice I got the art on the absolute last day it had to go to the printer; I had a number of sleepless nights, but I was pretty sure no one would want a coverless book).

Once the anniversaries were decided, I would write up a list of them with an explanatory paragraph or two and put them up on the Comic-Con website, usually in mid to late January in a “Call for Submissions” post. This included art and articles, and it was usually open until mid-April. To say that I was constantly amazed by the quality of the submissions would be a gross understatement. Sure, there were a few dogs, there were a few off-color ones that I could never use in an all-ages book (the Souvenir Book had a print-run of 130,000+ copies and was given free to all attendees), but there was so much good stuff—from literally all around the world—that it was sometimes hard to pick what to use and what had to unfortunately be set aside. Making that final cut, article and art wise, was always difficult. And while the fan artwork certainly made the biggest splash each year, especially when we went to full-color printing, the articles were often very heartfelt, very personal explorations of why a particular anniversary theme touched someone or why they had such fond memories for them. I tried to keep a balance of pop culture touchstones in each issue, not just comics, although that topic was always the core of each book. As for the art and artists … well, how often do you get the chance to have your work seen by over 130,000 people in a professionally designed and printed showcase?

Eventually, everyone wanted to get into the act: “Hey, it’s our 17th anniversary! Can you feature us in the Souvenir Book this year?” And while sometimes the subject was certainly worthy, I had to make the decision to limit the anniversary themes to major ones: 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, and 100th. (We even did a 200th once … the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) This made for slim pickings some years—and it was a rule often broken, especially for a worthy 20th, 30th, 40th or 60th anniversary, as you’ll see by the list below—but some years we had more than enough material to fill more than one book.

It also constantly amazed me that Comic-Con gave me a very substantial budget to produce this book, printed so many copies, and gave it out for FREE. On the one hand, it certainly fulfilled their mission statement, in “creating the general public’s awareness of and appreciation for comics and related popular art forms, including participation in and support of public presentations, conventions, exhibits, museums and other public outreach activities which celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.” On the other hand, no other convention did this level of publication. Most just did a Program Book which featured maps and schedules and little else.

As I worked my way through the years on this (I edited and designed the books from 2007 through 2020, which was presented as an online PDF download only), my philosophy on how to do it changed, as did my skill-set. The early volumes are a bit cringe-worthy, design-wise, as I felt my way around to come up with a style and a readability factor I was satisfied with; as someone who worked in TV news graphics for almost 20 years, readability was always a priority for me, much more important than “cool” or trendy design. But I quickly realized what a gift I was given: Here was a chance for me to do an annual book on comics and pop culture history. And by the time I got totally comfortable with doing it (that wasn’t until around 2015), I loved it. It’s the only thing I miss about my old job (besides seeing some of my workmates every day): this giant blue-ocean-and-sky jigsaw puzzle that I got to shape, mold, and put together each year over about six months. And the day that package arrived with my sample copies in it, weeks before the con, I opened it with shaking hands, and a small sigh of relief … until I cracked open a copy and found a spelling error on page 174—or worse, my boss did. But all in all, it was an incredibly gratifying experience, one made all the better for having an actual printed piece to hold and keep after it was all said and done. For as much satisfaction as being in charge of the programming schedule gave me from 2000 through 2007, it was ephemeral, gone with the wind after Comic-Con ended, even though it impacted a lot of people’s experiences at the show. The Souvenir Book was a concrete piece, a proof of performance for me, and I loved it. I felt it was what I was meant to do at Comic-Con.

I divide my Souvenir Book editing and designing time into two time segments, 2007-2014 and 2015-2019 (2020, sadly, doesn’t count, due to the online nature of it). I really felt I turned the corner in 2015 and started to produce my absolute best work over those last five annual issues. Because of that, I’m going to save 2015 through 2019 for a second post, which will be published later this month.

Here’s a look at the covers for years 2007-2014, with some commentary and notes on each edition’s content. For the most part, unless otherwise noted, all the type treatments on these covers were designed by me.

Art by Adam Hughes • © Lucasfilm Ltd.

2007: 30th Anniversary of Star Wars

(192 pages, black & white interior)

This cover was a “gift” from Lucasfilm’s director of fan relations, Steve Sansweet, and if you look closely at the cover, there’s Steve as Obi-Wan Kenobi at the very far right side, just about trimmed off the cover (that’s his co-worker Mary Franklin to the left of him). Artist Adam Hughes captured a trio of really good cosplayers, didn’t he?

Also in this edition (info taken from Contents page of each edition):
• 100th Anniversary of Milton Caniff
• Hergé at 100 (creator of TinTin)
• 30th Anniversary of the Robert A. Heinlein Blood Drive at Comic-Con
• 25 Years of Matt Wagner’s Grendel
• 25 Years of Sergio Aragonés’s Groo
• 25th Anniversary of Love & Rockets
• 10th Anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Art by Alex Ross • © DC

2008: 50th Anniversary of Legion of the Super-Heroes

(176 pages, black & white interior)

This cover was a pick-up from another source (a Legion print by Ross which was sold exclusively at the Warner Bros. Store … remember those?) and is severely cropped. That image went on forever. I wasn’t a fan of “pick-ups,” where we got a cover from another already or soon-to-be printed source; I much preferred commissioning a new, exclusive cover. The Comic-Con title at the top mirrored the new masthead for Comic-Con Magazine; my plan was to produce that publication on a quarterly basis, with the Comic-Con Souvenir Book being #3 for the year. That lasted one whole year, so obviously it was a great idea.

Also in this edition:
•75th Anniversary of the American Comic Book
•75th Anniversary of Doc Savage
•75th Anniversary of the Original King Kong
•50th Anniversary of Famous Monsters of Filmland
•25th Anniversary of American Flagg!
•Special section on Editorial Cartoons, featuring art by Special Guests for that election year theme

Art and type by Rick Geary • © SDCC

2009: 40th Anniversary of Comic-Con

(224 pages, color interior)

This was a corner-turning issue, not only size-wise, but because I persuaded the powers-that-be to allow me to go full color with this edition, knowing that once we did, we couldn’t turn back. Rick Geary’s cover reunited Comic-Con’s ‘80s and early ‘90s mascots, Toucan and Expo Boy, as ersatz superheroes, standing over the skyline of San Diego, offering an expansive view from the famed El Cortez Hotel, the home of Comic-Con in the 1970s to the Convention Center to the west, a look across the history of the event. Fun fact: Geary also did the cover for the 2009 Events Guide; both covers are done in colored pencil and ink. This book was designed to be a companion piece to the 40th anniversary book published by Chronicle Books, Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans & Friends, and featured a year-by-year look at the con.

Also in this edition:
•50th Anniversary of Silver Age Green Lantern
•50th Anniversary of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle
•25th Anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
•25th Anniversary of Usagi Yojimbo

Art by Ivan Reis and Oclair Albert, color art by Alex Sinclair © DC

2010: 75th Anniversary of DC Comics

(192 pages, color interior)

Luckily I was able to keep the book in full color from 2009 on. This cover featured DC’s Trinity in celebration of the company’s 75th anniversary. Alex Sinclair began a long off-and-on run of coloring covers for Comic-Con and always knocked it out of the park no matter who the artists were. The pretty consistent run of covers as official con T-shirts began here.

Also in this edition:
•100th Anniversary of Krazy Kat
•60th Anniversary of Beetle Bailey
•60th Anniversary or Peanuts
•Year of the Writer, which included a long panel transcript from WonderCon 2010 featuring comic writers Geoff Johns, Jimmy Palmiotti, James Robinson, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, Judd Winick.

Art by Jim Lee, Scott Williams • Color art by Alex Sinclair • © DC

2011: DC Comics: The New 52

(192 pages, color interior)
This cover was too good to pass up, even though it was purely a promotional piece. DC Comics relaunched their entire line of books in 2011, and this was the first book out of the gate: Justice League by Jim Lee. This cover first appeared on the Souvenir Book, but has since been used by DC on other publications, including as a second printing cover for JL #1, and I believe an Omnibus edition.

Also in this edition:
•50th Anniversary of Comics Fandom
•The Golden Age of Fanzines (one of my personal favorite articles, both content- and design-wise)
•50th Anniversary of Fantastic Four
•50th Anniversary of Spy vs. Spy
•1986: The Year Comics Grew Up (25th Anniversary)
•20th Anniversary of Bone

Art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson • Color art by Dean White • ™ & © MARVEL

2012: 50th Anniversary of the Marvel Age of Comics

(192 pages, color interior)

This cover celebrated the 50th anniversary of 1962, the start of the “Marvel Age of Comics,” with the creation of Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Ant-Man. In this edition, I started two new ongoing features: Exhibitor Spotlight and Program Spotlight.

Also in this edition:
•100 Years of Tarzan and John Carter
•75 Years of Prince Valiant
•20 Years of Image Comics
•Exhibitor Spotlight: 30 Years of Graphitti Designs
•Program Spotlight: 20 Years of the Comic Arts Conference

Art by Dave McKean • © DC

2013: 25th Anniversary of The Sandman

(224 pages, color interior)

This cover was another promotional pick-up from DC/Vertigo and was an alternate cover artist Dave McKean created for a new Sandman mini-series (which, if memory serves me correctly, took forever to come out) and this was the first time it was published. While it’s a beautiful cover, I actually would have preferred to do a Superman 75th Anniversary cover, but I was overruled. C’est la vie. (Actually, Jim Lee had done a new Superman cover for us for WonderCon 2013.)

Also in this—very busy—edition:
•Superman’s 75th
•Doctor Who’s 50th
•Avengers 50th
•Dr. Strange 50th
•X-Men 50th
•ElfQuest 35th
•The Tick 25th
•Eisner Awards 25th
•Bongo Comics 20th
•Milestone Comics 20th
Strangers In Paradise 20th
•TwoMorrows Publishing 20th
•Aspen Comics 10th
•Exhibitor Spotlight: Bud Plant Comic Art
•Program Spotlight: Comic Book Law School

Art by Jim Lee • Color art by Alex Sinclair • © DC

2014: 75th Anniversary of Batman

(224 pages, color interior)

This cover was a last minute addition when the current artist of Batman at the time turned us down. This was a sketch Jim Lee pencilled and inked for a fan commission, and once again Alex Sinclair went the extra mile and added a whole new dimension to it with his color art; it came off as a beautiful, first-time published cover.

Also in this edition:
•Marvel Comics 75th
•1954: The Year Comics Almost Died
Daredevil 50th
Supernatural Law 35th
Mr. Monster 30th
Eightball 25th
Hellboy 20th
•Exhibitor Spotlight: Mile High Comics
•Program Spotlight: Secret Origins of Good Readers

Stay tuned for Part 2 at our look at Comic-Con Souvenir Books, featuring 2015 through 2019, coming soon, but next time: Comic-Con’s 40th Anniversary book, published by Chronicle Books in 2009, a book that I worked on for almost a year and a half.

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