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My father taught me two things in life: 1.) When it’s cold outside, make sure your head, hands and feet are kept as warm as possible, because you lose most of your body heat through your extremities. And 2.) Nobody is indispensable. The latter is true, but in the two major career paths of my life—as a graphic designer for TV news at KDKA in Pittsburgh and in various job titles at Comic-Con International in San Diego—I tried my damndest to make them at least think I was indispensable.
I started freelancing for Comic-Con in 1999, when Jackie Estrada asked me if I could do the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards PowerPoint presentation. “Sure!” I said, “I know PowerPoint.” (I lied, but I learned it.) That got me in the door and when Comic-Con needed a website person, I said, “Sure! I know how to do websites!” I lied again, but I learned how to do a rudimentary, graphics-heavy website that at least looked sort of nice, using some ancient software put out by Adobe, called GoLIve. Lies aren’t really good for your resume (as George Santos found out), but confidence is. And I was—surprisingly—confident in both these instances.
Just a few of the other design projects I did at Comic-Con (left to right): Yearly show promo postcards, show posters for comic book shops, and logo design: the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival, SAM Storytelling Across Media, and the Comic-Con 50th logos, all designed by yours truly.
That year or so of freelance work paid off when it came time to get a nice warm body into the Director of Programming job at literally the last minute to get a Comic-Con 2000 schedule up and running. (You can read more about that here.) But from the very beginning of my two-decade + career at San Diego Comic Convention I tried to do as much as possible. I let them know that they had a built-in designer in me, someone who could work in-house (in other words, for FREE) and quickly started doing covers, postcards, badge and logo designs, and other things in addition to my own workload of creating the programming schedule and dealing with all the people and companies who just had to have a panel on Saturday, because that was “the busy day.”
And Lo, There Shall Be a Quick Guide …
In 2007, I moved away from programming and took over the newly created title of Director of Print and Publications, which in that time period, meant editing and designing just about all the Comic-Con (and WonderCon and APE) program books. The one thing I didn’t oversee was Comic-Con’s Events Guide, which was compiled, edited and designed by Jackie Estrada until Daniel Tideman (who worked with me in the Print & Publications department) took over the design part of it in 2017. I still had my hand in the EG, though (not to be confused with the OC, which is up the road a bit from San Diego). I designed the covers and the color map section in the center of the publication through 2017, which also included the programming schedule grids. At some point, Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim and his team of Tommy Goldbach, Laura Jones, and Adam Neese, kept growing the schedule so much that we ran into significant problems when it came to binding the Events Guide. The book was designed to be stapled, not square-bound; doing the latter would mean a longer lead time in printing and binding it (plus a fairly substantial additional cost), and that was time—and money—we just didn’t have. And to be honest, it wasn’t just the Programming Department’s burgeoning schedule: The popularity of the EG as an advertising vehicle and its cheap ad price ($800 for a black and white ad in a publication with a 130,000+ print-run, given to everyone who walked in the door at Comic-Con) also added significantly to the size of the final product—along with various other articles and schedules—making it clock in at over 200 pages. The maximum page-count for a stapled publication from our printer was around 208 pages.
Event Guide covers I designed (left to right): 2006 by a new artist named Chris Samnee (I colored this cover, too, which salutes the 75th anniversary of the Universal Monsters); Rick Geary’s 2009 40th Anniversary cover; and one of my faves, the 2017 cover which saluted Will Eisner on his 100th birthday, with the traditional comics nine-panel grid layout, filled with Eisner art.
So I came up with the bright idea of doing a separate publication called the Quick Guide, which pulled out all of the material in the center color section and made it its own 48-page (or so) magazine. This included all the Convention Center and hotel maps, the programming schedule grids (including the anime, film, and film festival schedules), a separate games schedule, and a restaurant map and guide to nearby restaurants. The centerfold of the magazine was a chaste and fully-clothed Exhibit Hall map, which folded out to twice the size of the magazine. Yes, it was yet another publication—and more work for me—but it was the only way we could continue to do the Events Guide as a stapled book and maintain the status quo when it came to printing as close to Comic-Con as humanly possible. And hey … you could just roll up the much thinner Quick Guide and pop it in your back pocket or throw it in your backpack and you were good to go. More room for Funko POPS! or comic books or whatever passionate purchases you had going on. (You be you, as they say.) I like to think the Quick Guide was a success … maybe not up there with the discovery of chocolate and peanut butter together, but close.
The very first Quick Guide was in 2012 (top row, left); the schedule grids in the bottom row are from 2017. The color coding of the panels was a long-time desire of John Rogers, Comic-Con’s Board of Directors president.
Would You Like to Buy a T-shirt?
Around 2010 or so I became more involved with working with Bob Chapman and his company, Graphitti Designs on the official merchandise for Comic-Con and WonderCon. This started because I came up with the idea of using the art for each year’s Comic-Con Souvenir Book and WonderCon Program Book covers as the official T-shirt. This worked most years (especially at WonderCon), but there were a few years that it didn’t work at Comic-Con due to licensing concerns. I also suggested adding some shirt designs that were based on the Toucan art that Rick Geary created for Comic-Con (more on those in just a minute) and some new logo variations, which gave us a much wider range of products if the “official” shirt sold out, which it often quickly did. I also pitched Bob into adding more merchandise for sale at the show; nothing earth-shattering, just stuff like baseball caps and tote bags. When it came time for the 50th anniversary of Comic-Con in 2019, I came up with the idea of doing five separate T-shirts, one for each decade, with the 2010s one being the “concert shirt” design, featuring a list of all the dates and venues for each Comic-Con from 1970 through 2019. I also picked all the images (see above) with the exception of the 2000’s shirt, which is the zip code design. I enjoyed working with Bob and his designer, Josh Beatman on this stuff, but it was another thing that wasn’t really in my job description; it was just something that somehow ended up on my plate, which I was grateful for since I enjoyed doing it.
The Comic-Con 50th anniversary T-shirt line-up from 2019.
Revenge of the Toucan …
Towards the end of my first decade with Comic-Con, we came to the conclusion that producing three 48- to 56-page, full-color, mailed publications each year was no longer viable. More and more of the reasons as to why we did this were fading away. Registration for the events Comic-Con produced had moved online, as had hotel reservations. So in 2010 or so, we decided to move away from printed material (saving a few million trees, no doubt) and into more of an online model. We started with doing just two printed Comic-Con Magazines a year, with a third one appearing as an online-only PDF. That then became one mail publication each year (Comic-Con Annual) in 2011 and 2012. And in 2012, we got to the point where it was decided to move everything onto the Comic-Con website, and lo and behold, I became the new editor-in-chief of that. And I was an ambitious one, too.
The evolution of the Comic-Con website (left to right): the Home Page in 2011; from the launch of the redesigned site in 2012; and from the redesign of the redesign in 2016. While I sucked at the technical end of things, I pretty much designed all the website graphics and was lucky enough to work with people who could make my designs work, and provide great written content.
I had been providing content and graphics for the Comic-Con website since 1999, when I first started freelancing for the organization. At first, I was also doing the design of the website, too, but HTML and other exotic website disciplines (cup of Java anyone? How about CSS?) were just not part of my particular skill-set, so we used a longtime friend of the Comic-Con family, Marc Biagi for that stuff (Marc later became a full-time employee of Comic-Con and worked on website related things with me and other important stuff like the Member ID system). When it came time to relaunching the website in 2012 to be more purpose-driven and to make it easier for me to post content on a regular basis, we went with a content management system called Drupal, and for that we used another freelancer who specialized in that platform. But he wasn’t able to get us to the finish line by the end of 2012, so we went with Sage Tree Solutions, a local San Diego company, who worked very diligently and got us to the magic date of 12/12/12 to launch the newly redesigned Comic-Con.org. We redesigned the website yet again in 2016 or so, to take advantage of some improvements within the Drupal platform, and it’s stayed that way pretty much ever since, even after I left in 2021.
Since 2004 or so, I had been doing my own personal blog (you’re reading the latest incarnation of it, but you can visit the OG version by clicking here; not to be confused with the OC, which … never mind, I already made that joke). So of course the first thing out of my mouth was, “Let’s do a blog!”, which was soundly shot down by just about everyone, except the one person who got to say, “Yes, let’s do that,” my boss, Fae Desmond, the executive director of Comic-Con. “But what should we call it?” I came up with what I felt—in all modesty—was the perfect name: Toucan. The Toucan was an unofficial Comic-Con mascot who was created by artist Rick Geary in the 1980s for the event. He was kind of forced into retirement in 1995, when Comic-Con underwent a rebranding with a new logo. His last appearance was kind of an angry one (see below), on the cover of the 1995 Souvenir Book. So I brought him back out of retirement with his original artist, Rick Geary, and he became a kind of unofficial spokesmodel for Comic-Con once again. Someone in the office even went so far as to finally give him a name which fit his comics-related job: Stan.
Top row, left to right: The 1995 Souvenir Book cover that signaled the Toucan’s retirement; and the first new image of the bird since 2009, when Rick Geary included him on both the Souvenir Book and Events Guide covers for the show’s 40th anniversary. The bottom two rows show new images—from initial sketch to finished color art—created for the Toucan Blog, and also used in publications and as T-shirt designs.
I am going to take a paragraph here to sing the praises of the extremely talented, self-effacing cartoonist, Rick Geary, whose quirky art style I had adored since I first saw his Fantagraphics book, At Home with Rick Geary, published in 1985. I was also a huge fan of his true crime graphic novels published by NBM over the years, including The Black Dahlia, The Lindbergh Baby, and The Murder of Abraham Lincoln, to name just a few. He also did an illustration for a regular weekly feature in the San Diego-based freebie alternative newspaper, The Reader, and was for many years a San Diego native. Rick was an absolute joy to work with and over the years I did a number of covers with him for various Comic-Con publications. I commissioned him to do probably close to two-dozen new Toucan drawings for the blog in various forms: Superhero Toucan. Astronaut Toucan. Game of Thrones Toucan (shhh … don’t tell HBO or George R.R. Martin!). It was like Christmas morning each time a package from Rick came in the mail, and he had a lot do with the new blog’s identity.
A promotional button I created for a Comic-Con 2013 panel about the Toucan blog; the first Toucan post in 2012; and one of the yearly Toucan Tip of the Day graphics, this one utilizing the “Game of Thrones” Toucan.
When it came to the actual execution of the blog, I knew in advance I didn’t want to have to deal with comments so we immediately decided to turn that function off. And I also knew I wanted to ensure there was at least weekly content, so I came up with a plan to have four separate contributors. I hand-picked them, too (you can read their numerous columns by clicking on their names; they’re still part of the Toucan sub-site on comic-con.org). First up was Maggie Thompson, a comics legend, longtime editor of Comics Buyer’s Guide, and one of the founders of modern comics fandom. She wrote about whatever she wanted to, because … well, she was Maggie; she did 97 “Maggie’s World” posts over just about ten years. I wanted an artist to write about comic art, so I asked Steve Lieber if he’d be interested and he turned in month-after-month of amazing columns about everything from how to prepare a portfolio to examinations of artists to convention etiquette. Steve was the first person to leave, but he did 52 posts of his “The Dilettante” column, and he very wisely picked his own successor, his studio-mate Jesse Hamm, who contributed 33 monthly “Carousel” posts. Jesse sadly died suddenly in 2021, and his talent and dedication to the comics art form is sadly missed. Thirdly I wanted a writer to talk about writing and I asked Marc Bernardin (who has written and edited everything under the sun) to cover that topic, which he did brilliantly in his 64 “Devourer of Words” posts. And finally, I wanted something for the kids, so I asked Katie Cook, a cartoonist whose work I had admired for a long time for its charm and wit, to do a monthly “How to Draw” tutorial, usually in five or six simple steps. Katie contributed 78 “You Can Draw with Katie Cook” posts, teaching kids of all ages how to draw everything from a space cat to a shy monster to … Sushi. My “Fantastic Four” of contributors came through month after month with amazing content that contributed educational and historical information about comics and the craft of making them.
In the beginning of the new website (which launched on 12/12/12), I was much more ambitious and did a number of interviews with Comic-Con, WonderCon, and APE guests … you can read those by clicking here. That sadly only lasted a couple of years; it quickly became apparent that with everything else I was doing, publication-wise (which also included various in-house informational PDFs distributed to exhibitors and pros), producing and transcribing long interviews was a little out of my wheelhouse. The purpose of the Toucan blog was both content- and information-driven. Maggie, Steve, Jesse, Marc, and Katie kept us going year-round, content-wise, but in the days leading up to Comic-Con and WonderCon there was a lot of information that had to be conveyed to the attendees. I came up with the “Toucan Tip of the Day,” which ran for the 30 days preceding each show and concentrated on as much info as possible to help you navigate whichever show you were planning to attend. Maija Gates and her registration staff handled all the informational posts year-round to get people ready for the much-dreaded “will I or won’t I get a badge” times for Comic-Con—and what to do when you got there, badge-wise, expertly handling a topic with humor and pop culture references that could have made any insomniac fall asleep if done the wrong way. Thank god I didn’t have to write—or even edit—that stuff. It was handed to me on a silver platter and they even learned Drupal and did their own posts.
When we first started Toucan someone wrote on a message board, “Yeah, but we’ll see if they ever actually update it.” I’m happy to say from 2013 through 2021 when I retired, Toucan was updated A LOT … at one point in 2018 or so (the last time I counted them), I believe we had done over 7,000 separate posts. I’m sure we probably got close to—if not surpassed—10,000 by the time I retired in 2021. While I sorta/kinda missed doing those quarterly magazines (it’s always nice to have something to hold in your hands—that’s what she said), I think the new and (hopefully) improved Comic-Con website certainly lived up to its potential. I’m very proud of the almost ten years I was in charge of it and everything we produced on an almost-daily basis.
Join the Club!
Way back when—around 2004 or so—my boss came to me and said, “I want us to have a book club that reads comics. Figure out how to do that.” Well, ten years or so later, in 2014, I was roaming around downtown San Diego and came across the startling new Central Library, an impressive new building near Petco Park, the home of the Padres baseball team. When that stadium was built—with the usual San Diego acrimony and drama that seems to come with every major construction project in this town (Note: we still don’t have a Convention Center expansion, construction of which was to start in 2014)—it wasn’t unusual to see bumper stickers that read something like “I already have a stadium. I need a new library.” For once people actually listened and lo and behold, San Diego got a gleaming new, state-of-the-art library. It was then and there I decided it was time for a graphic novel book club (hey, I was only ten years late!). My boss introduced me to Erwin Magbanua, who was in charge of special events at the time at the city libraries, and along with Programming Department associate Laura Jones and Communications and Strategy department member Michelle Lew Peterson, we came up with the first two Comic-Con International Graphic Novel Book Clubs, located at the Downtown Central Library and the Mission Valley Library (located right next to IKEA … Swedish meatballs and comic books, a winning combination!). In 2015, we added clubs in North Park and La Jolla; eventually the clubs expanded to cover most of San Diego County from the northern part to South Bay, with monthly meetings at Balboa Park (two groups, including one called the Comic-Con Museum group), Chula Vista, Encinitas, Escondido (also two groups), and Oceanside, in addition to the four original ones: Downtown, La Jolla, Mission Valley, and North Park. There was even an Educators Group for teachers. Each club supported up to twenty members; any more and it got too difficult for discussion purposes. The groups quickly bonded and stayed together. We had yearly book club meet-ups at Comic-Con and WonderCon (sometimes with special guests, like artists Tula Lotay and Jim Lee) and a giant potluck Christmas party at the Downtown Central Library, which later moved to the Comic-Con Museum. The clubs were comprised of both hardcore, longtime comics fans and total newbies and it was amazing to see how all of these people from diverse walks of life took to the art form and loved getting together and talking comics. (You can read some of the Book Club monthly reports on Toucan by clicking here.) When the pandemic hit, the book clubs moved online via Zoom in what we cleverly called “Zook Club.” I was extremely proud of being part of this community outreach program that was so much fun, and once again, supported Comic-Con’s Mission Statement of furthering the general public’s awareness of and appreciation for comics and related popular art forms.
Book Club graphics I created for the various Facebook groups; (second row): the San Diego Central Library; (third row): the 2016 Christmas Party held at the Library; and Rick Geary’s Toucan reading comics drawing that became the key art for the clubs.
My Favorite Year ...
2015 was a banner year for me. In March, we revealed the Comic-Con Souvenir Book cover at a special Will Eisner Day event at the Society of Illustrators in New York City, that we co-hosted with the CBLDF. Charles Brownstein moderated a panel that included artists Michael Cho, John Cassaday, Paul Pope, and Abrams ComicArts editor Charles Kochman, discussing the ongoing influence of Eisner, one of the masters of comic art. It was a dark and stormy night in March in New York City (it was the first time I saw snow in over 15 years!), appropriate enough for Eisner’s noir-ish detective character, The Spirit, whose 75th anniversary was featured on the new cover by Michael Cho. Also in 2015 I oversaw Comic-Con’s first-ever gallery show, “The Art of Comic-Con” at the San Diego Central Library’s Gallery (more on that next time) and we partnered with the CBLDF yet again for a special evening on the Tuesday before Comic-Con 2015 with Raina Telgemeier, the super-popular creator of teen graphic novels such as Ghosts, Smile, and Drama. Raina did a live reading from her latest graphic novel, Sisters, some live sketching, and she signed books and autographs for the huge crowd that flooded the San Diego Central Library’s auditorium. (This event was open to the public.)
Cartoonist Raina Telgemeier filled the San Diego Central Library Auditorium with her live reading and signing in 2015.
And the Inkpot Goes to …
Comic-Con’s own achievement award, the Inkpot Award, was given out pretty much since the show’s inception. It was given to individuals for their contributions to the worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation, and fandom services. In the early 2000s, Fae Desmond had Rick Geary redesign the award from a simple plaque with an Oscar-like gold figure on it to an actual inkpot, a charming, anthropomorphic, black statue with gold highlights that had a lot of attitude. For many years, the giving out of these awards was part of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, but it contributed to making the presentation longer and longer each year. It was decided in the early 2000s to instead give out the Inkpot Awards at each recipient’s Spotlight panel, and that honor fell on me as Director of Programming. Some recipients were truly moved by receiving the award, others … well, not so much. One even said to me onstage, “Well, what am I supposed to do with this?” And another, after I presented him with the award, remarked to the audience, “I guess all the big wigs at Comic-Con are still in bed.” Such is life. (You can click here to see an almost-complete list of all the Inkpot Award winners over the years … it’s mighty impressive.)
Rick Geary’s original sketch for the new—and vastly improved—Inkpot Award. Executive Director Fae Desmond fought with the award’s sculptor to keep that little curve in the bottom of the inkpot; it wasn’t a flaw, it was character. Oh, and me with my award.
In 2017, I was awarded a Comic-Con Inkpot Award for Achievement in Fandom Services. This was a huge surprise to me and something I was told—by various people—would never happen, due to the fact that I was never a volunteer. (Comic-Con gave out one award each year to members of its staff, most often to long-time volunteers.) It’s also the second of what I call “My Three Regrets” of working at Comic-Con (click here for the first regret; look for the paragraph beginning “This is where I’m will cry in my beer …”), because I wasn’t there in person to accept the award; in fact, I found out about it when I walked into work the next morning and Justin Dutta, Comic-Con’s Director of Exhibits said to me, “There he is, Comic-Con’s newest Inkpot Award winner!” My annoyed reply was “WTF are you talking about, Justin?” (minus the polite abbreviation shown here) and he told me I had won the award at the annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner the day before. I had picked that weekend to go on a short trip to Portland, OR, but I had returned home on the day before the dinner. On that day, board president John Rogers (the big boss at Comic-Con) called me and said, “Hey, are you coming to the dinner today?” And I said no, because, bitter recluse that I am, I avoided stuff like that, but also my Print and Publications department didn’t utilize volunteers and space at the dinner was limited. “Okay,” he said, but didn’t tell me to be there or why I should consider going. At least he tried. The next day, I was told I wasn’t told about the award because I was known for not wanting to call attention to myself and known for not liking to give speeches. And while that’s all true, I feel like I was shut out of accepting an award—for whatever reason—that acknowledged my contribution to Comic-Con. I, of course, still have the Inkpot Award, and proudly display it in my home, but it sure would have been nice to accept it in person. I feel for whatever reason—good or bad—that wasn’t an option for me.
Next time: Chapter 2 of “Everything Else,” where I talk about the gallery shows I worked on and my hot minute as Curatorial Director of the Comic-Con Museum in 2020, right before the world—and my life—changed.
To read my complete “My Life in Comics” series, please click here.