My Life in Comics, Part 14: Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans & Friends …

Soon after I edited and designed my first major book for Comic-Con, the 2007 Souvenir Book (click here for details), I was contacted by Andrea Fernandes, the business development sales manager of Chronicle Books’ Custom Division. a San Francisco-based publisher that specialized in pop culture and well, just plain ol’ culture-in-general books. “We want to do your Souvenir Book each year,” she said, to which I promptly replied, “No, you don’t.” And then I very politely told her how the Souvenir Book was put together, what it all entailed, and what the deadlines were like, and after a short pause, she said, “You’re right. That would not be a book we’d want to do. Is there something else we can work on with you?”

Chronicle Books was a publisher I had admired for many years. I had some of their earliest books, including a book that reproduced vintage postcards, called Hooray for Hollywood, edited by pop culture and architectural historian Jim Heimann, from 1993, and their set of comics history books devoted to the DC Comics “Trinity”: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, titled The Complete History, written by Les Daniels and designed by Chip Kidd with photos of vintage comics, toys, posters, and memorabilia by Geoff Spears, which were published in the late ‘90s. Chronicle did beautifully designed and sumptuously printed books, and I was very excited to be talking to them. But the person I was talking to represented what I’ll call their “vanity” publishing division—what they called their “Custom” division—a group that produced high-end books for major companies that could be given away or sold as premium gift items at sales meetings or conventions to major clients and vendors.

So to answer Andrea’s question, I told her Comic-Con had its 40th anniversary coming up in 2009 and that might be something we could talk about. Little did I know that I just had committed myself—and Comic-Con—to a process that would take over a large portion of my work life for the next year and a half. Chronicle was an exhibitor at Comic-Con, so they knew the show; this wasn’t just a shot in the dark. And they were definitely interested in doing a 40th anniversary book.

My first order of business was to come up with a proposal for the book, one that I could sell to both Chronicle Books (which wasn’t very difficult, since this was originally intended to be a book for Comic-Con to solely distribute and sell, and one that we would pay Chronicle to produce) and to the Comic-Con Board of Directors. The earliest documents I can find along those lines is this written proposal and a small PowerPoint presentation that included some visual elements from Comic-Con’s history (two of which are reproduced below).

Chronicle Books Proposal

Comic-Con 40th Anniversary Book

208 pages, 9×12” hardbound book with dust jacket

Publication date:
July 2009, to coincide with the 40th Comic-Con International San Diego

• A pictorial celebration of who we are and what we’ve accomplished

• To further our mission statement of bringing comics and the popular arts to a wider audience

• To further align the Comic-Con name and brand with San Diego

Possible contents:
• Introduction (and possible Afterword) by someone famous in pop culture who has
been a part of Comic-Con

• Short Comic-Con history essay

• Pictorial history of the event, utilizing photos, Souvenir Book contents (covers and
art), and other items (bus ads, comic books, magazine coverage) within the
Comic-Con archives

• Year-by-year history, divided into sections by decade

• Sidebar articles on various aspects of the show, including some of the people (Jack
Kirby, Will Eisner, Ray Bradbury) who have been important parts of the event

• Appendices listing awards (Eisners, Inkpots, Finger, Retailer, Icon)

Part of a PowerPoint presentation I did to sell the concept of the book to both the publisher (Chronicle Books) and the Comic-Con Board of Directors.

All of this came to pass in the final book but in a much larger way. That “short Comic-Con history essay” became four separate essays, one for each decade, which introduced large sections of photos, art, and even some article and art reprints from Comic-Con’s Souvenir Books. Each decade’s section included covers, black and white comic art, posters, limited edition prints … you name it, if it was a great piece of art or a wonderful photo, we scanned it and sent it along for consideration. In fact, this book contained over 600 separate photos and pieces of art in its 208 pages. There were special sidebar sections regarding what I like to call “Comic-Con royalty,” including Ray Bradbury, Will Eisner, Mark Evanier, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kirby, Jim Lee, Frank Miller, and Dave Stevens. Other sections delved into the Volunteers aspect of Comic-Con, its publications, T-shirts, the Masquerade, the Comics Arts Conference, the meaning of “International” in the event’s name, and its sister shows, WonderCon and APE, the Alternative Press Expo, still a part of the family in 2009, and former events like Comic Book Expo, Con-Fusion, and Pro/Con which had fallen by the wayside.

The Jack Kirby sidebar article, one of the “Comic-Con Royalty” pieces featured in the book.

After the proposal was accepted, the next step was to “find” the book. Chronicle sent down the two people they assigned to the project, their in-house editor Kevin Toyama and the designer, Michael Morris. Both these guys reported to Beth Weber, who was their boss on this project. We pulled out everything we had in the Comic-Con archives and Kevin and Michael sat with me over a couple of days as we went through all the stuff and eventually they decided that yes, even based on that rather vague and sketchy proposal I came up with, there was definitely a book here.

To be honest, I don’t remember the exact dates on most of this stuff. But I remember the initial contact from Andrea and the visit with Kevin and Michael occurring in—I THINK—late 2007. So I’m guessing that in between then and the contract being signed, we had to convince the Comic-Con Board to back this project, because it was still a book that we had to pay to publish. But you only have one 40th anniversary, and the Board approved the project and we were off to the races.

A spread from the 1970s section, showcasing the incredible selection of art that was featured throughout the book.

This was my project from the start, and I spent almost a year and a half seeing it through from contact to conception to manuscript to design to final approval, all while doing my “normal” job of editing and designing all of our 2008 and 2009 publications: three Update magazines each year, the 2008 and 2009 Comic-Con Souvenir Books, the WonderCon Program Books for 2008 and 2009 and the APE Program Book for 2008 (APE was in the fall, after Comic-Con, so the book was out before the 2009 edition of that show). Comic-Con was contractually bound to provide the manuscript for the book, along with all the images. The bulk of the writing for the book was done by myself and Jackie Estrada, who is one of a handful of people that attended every Comic-Con since the show’s inception in 1970. Jackie was an invaluable source of information when it came to the history of the event and provided a lot of the photos from her personal archive, since for many years she was the “unofficial official” photographer of the show. Beyond dealing with Chronicle Books’s editor and designer, and their boss to keep the project on track, I also helped decide which images we selected and scanned the majority of them for the book, along with Tommy Goldbach, who helped out with scanning when he wasn’t working as an assistant to Eddie Ibrahim, the director of programming. Certain special articles were written by other people, such as the Masquerade article by Martin Jaquish, long-time head of that Comic-Con event, and Bob Chapman, who wrote the short article on the T-shirts, whose company, Graphitti Designs, having been the event’s exclusive merchandise provider for almost 30 years in 2009, something he would continue to do through the 50th anniversary in 2019.

This is where I will cry in my beer a bit and confess to having one of what I call “The 3 Regrets” of my career at Comic-Con (and having written that phrase, I realize it sounds like some awful 1950s vocal trio who sings only very sad, very weepy songs). While both Jackie and I were credited with “Written by” credits in the back of the book, I wasn’t allowed to be credited as Comic-Con’s “editor” even though I had spent so much time on this project and it had originated with me, and I was Comic-Con’s official point person on it. I was told that if people involved with the show didn’t like the book, they would “come after me,” which made me envision an angry mob with pitchforks chanting my name, chasing me through some backlot Bavarian village in a Universal Monsters movie from the 1930s. I deeply regret not fighting for that title, because in the long run, the simple reason I didn’t get it was office politics. (As for the other two regrets … well, you’ll just have to come back and see what they are in later posts.)

The 1980s decade title spread. Yes, Archie was there, as horny a teenager as ever.

During the design process we hit a few snags in the beginning in trying to find the look of the book. The original page design represented an artist’s drawing board, with photos and illustrations “taped” to the board. There was an occasional spread with a green grid cutting mat as a background image instead of a wooden drawing board. While it was a great idea, tying in with the word “artists” in the title, it just didn’t work, and it made the presentation more important than the actual content. We eventually settled on a simple, straight-forward grid layout which featured the art and photos in the prominent manner it deserved. Occasionally I would ask the designer to give a piece of art or a photo a larger spot on the page and shrink another one accordingly, because certain images were more historically important than others.

For the cover, there was really only one choice. Sergio Aragonés had been associated with Comic-Con since the mid-1970s and was—and is—one of the most beloved cartoonists in the business. His busy, crowded, intense (all meant in a good way) cover perfectly summed up the frenetic atmosphere of the event, and provided a small history lesson along the way. If you look at the cover opened up, you can see how it progresses from the days of Comic-Con being held at the fabled El Cortez Hotel over into the familiar architecture of the San Diego Convention Center, home of the show since 1991. Sergio and his amigo, Mark Evanier are even there—in a pedicab, no less—on the front cover. (Channel your inner “Where’s Waldo?” to find them.) It was my idea to reproduce Sergio’s line art on the front of the hardcover under the dust jacket. Tom Luth, who colored Sergio’s Groo the Wanderer comic book series, was the colorist and he did an amazing job. Sergio also did the lettering on the cover, even though he insisted he was not a letterer, and to be honest, I have to agree. I’ve never been fond of the title of the book (but no one—including myself—had a better idea), and I really didn’t like the lettering, but my boss wanted something more “organic” than set type and that was a battle I lost. Chronicle’s designer (Michael Morris) came up with a more elegant title treatment on the cover, one that included the much-overused shorthand of a word balloon, and nonetheless I much preferred that, but we stuck with Sergio’s hand-lettering for Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans and Friends. But this cover would turn out to be problematic for me—in a very different way—later on … more on that at the end of this post.

Sergio’s dust jacket art, colored by Tom Luth, minus the cover text, but with the hand-lettered title.

Everything was sent to Chronicle Books by the deadline and we waited breathlessly to see their first draft of the book. When the first PDFs came back, they were heavily oriented towards cosplay and Masquerade photos. That’s definitely part of Comic-Con’s appeal, but it’s not the ONLY part of the event and it definitely downplayed the historical aspect of the book. I sat down with the editor and designer and went through the entire book page-by-page, and we redid a lot of it, utilizing the incredible trove of photos and art we scanned and sent (well over 1,000 images). I was careful to make It as easy as possible, picking photos and art that fit the space already on the page, and ones that belonged in each decade. We eventually got there, with a great looking book, chock full of a lot of incredible images. After the book was finished, we had a celebratory lunch in San Francisco with our co-workers from Chronicle, and we were told this book held the—dubious, I guess—“honor” of having the most amount of changes (I think the term “project hours” was used) for any book they ever produced to-date. Yay, me! Thank god they didn’t bill us for those hours, like attorneys do.

I think it went to the printer in early March 2009, just a few short months before Comic-Con’s 40th in late July. That seems almost impossible from the viewpoint of 2022, but we weren’t dealing with a shipping crisis caused by a pandemic then (the book was printed—vaguely—in “Asia”). I remember the day it arrived. I was on the phone with my boss and we were arguing about something I did, and the receptionist came into my office with a box and left it on the couch. I could see the printing on the side and I said, “We just got the 40th anniversary book,” and she told me to bring one over so she could see it. It was one of those moments that took me back a decade or so to when I was publishing my own comic book series, Innocent Bystander, with the silent thrill of opening a box and seeing the finished project for the very first time. Hands shaking, I opened it and pulled out one shrink-wrapped copy (we paid the extra money to have them wrapped in plastic, and I’m so glad we did, it kept the dust jackets free of tears and dings). It turned out beautifully. Both Kevin and Michael did an amazing job on it and to this day, I’m still very proud of it. I tried to emulate this book when I edited and designed the Comic-Con 2019 Souvenir Book, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the book, but I took more of a year-by-year format with that one and went with one long history article by noted comics historian, the late Bill Schelly. I also tried my hardest to not repeat any photos or art, other than the Souvenir Book covers and the T-shirts for each year. More on that book next time.

A spread from the 2000s section of the book, showing the slow influx of Hollywood to Comic-Con, with Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie, and Hugh Jackman (with Wolverine co-creator Len Wein).

A funny thing happened along the way with Chronicle Books on this project. They liked the finished book so much, they decided to distribute it to bookstores and even did a small second printing. It was a kick to walk into Barnes & Noble or Warwick’s here in San Diego and see it on their shelves. Eventually Comic-Con bought the remaining second print run from them, in order to control the fate of the book (none of us wanted to see it remaindered in bookstores for $9.95, although ironically, Comic-Con was selling copies of it for $20.00—half-price—at WonderCon this year, so there you go.) If you see one, I urge you to snap it up. It really is an amazing package, a wonderful pictorial history of Comic-Con and something I am still intensely proud of to this day. It’s a project that might not have happened without me trying my best to be a force of nature—which one sometimes has to be to get things done at Comic-Con. That probably makes me sound like an egotistical asshole, but I truly look at this as one of my shining moments during my 20+ year career at Comic-Con, so … call me what you want, I don’t care. I have that book on my bookshelf to keep me warm.

Sergio’s original art for the dust jacket (minus the interior flaps), which had its very own adventure post-Comic-Con.

Now, about that cover … We agreed to buy the giant original from Sergio and he and I made arrangements for me to pick it up at Comic-Con 2009. It was a pricey purchase and as my boss was signing the check and handing it to me, she said, “Now you’re responsible for this, so if there’s a fire at the hotel, this goes out the window before you do.” I picked up the art from Sergio and took it back to my hotel room—I was staying at the brand new (in 2009) Hilton Bayfront hotel, opposite Hall H—and stuck it on a shelf in the closet.

The show ended and it was time to check out on Monday, and I took all my luggage down to the bellman’s station in the lobby, but left the art in the closet on purpose, because I didn’t want to risk it being damaged in the luggage storage room. I did NOT check out of the hotel. I went to a special breakfast we had each year with one of our biggest clients and then went home and got my car and drove back to the Hilton to pick up my luggage and the art. I went back up to the room first and tried my card key and the lock blinked red. I tried again. Still red. I jiggled the handle and knocked on the door. No answer. I went down to the front desk and told them how I couldn’t get back into my room and how I had left an important—and expensive—piece of art in there and I had to get it. The clerk told me I had checked out (again—I purposely didn’t—but evidently one of the maids saw me take my luggage out and marked the room as empty) and they had cleaned the room and someone else had checked in. I told them I know exactly where the art is and could they just go in and get it or talk to the person in the room and allow me to get it and they said absolutely not.

Well, at this point, visions of the unemployment line started dancing in my head. My boss’s “out the window” comment gained new meaning. But then I remembered I had the phone number for our contact at the Hilton and I called her. She met me in the lobby and I told her the whole story. She was able to ascertain that the art was no longer in the room. She tracked down the maid who cleaned the room and the maid insisted nothing was left behind and she didn’t throw out any kind of artwork. My contact came back and told me that and things suddenly seemed darker, but then she said, “Let me try one more thing,” and she went off for an interminable amount of time (it seemed like hours). I was sitting in the lobby doom-and-glooming it, when I spied her reflection in a mirror across the way, walking down the hallway that separated the lobby from the meeting rooms. She was carrying a large white slab of paper. She had gone dumpster-diving and found the art, intact. The maid, probably fearful of her job in what was still a relatively new hotel, had lied and had thrown the art out. Luckily she didn’t rip it up and the only damage on it was a very slight coffee stain in the upper right-hand corner. My life suddenly rushed back to me, no jumping out of windows required, and as someone once said, “All’s well that ends well.”

Next time: Back to the land of Comic-Con Souvenir Books, and my personal favorite quintet, the books from 2015 through 2019, the 50th anniversary of Comic-Con.

To read my complete “My Life in Comics” series, please click here.

One of the funkier pieces of art included in the book, from the 1970s: A “jam” piece featuring Jack Kirby’s Demon battling it out with Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda with Charles Schulz’s Snoopy and Linus caught in the middle. Only at Comic-Con.

4 thoughts on “My Life in Comics, Part 14: Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans & Friends …

Add yours

  1. Those of us who worked on the book know that it would not exist w/o all your blood/sweat/tears, Gary!

    (Also, you forgot to mention how handsome that Chronicle editor was. . . .)

    Liked by 1 person

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