My Life in Comics, Part 19B: Everything Else, Chapter 2 …

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In the first chapter of “Everything Else,” (click here to read it), I mentioned 2015 was my favorite year. It was certainly my busiest. In addition to all the publication and website work I was doing, I also did a special 15-page section in the Comic-Con 2015 Souvenir Book called “The Craft of Comics,” which was comprised of 2-page spreads, each devoted to a particular area of making comics. There were seven of them: Editor, Writer, Artist, Color Artist, Lettering Artist, Designer, and Cover Artist. This also had a panel component at Comic-Con, with most of the talent I utilized in the Souvenir Book appearing to discuss what they did in a series of panels. Those included editor Lauren Sankovitch, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Steve Lieber, color artist Laura Martin, letterer Richard Starkings, designer Chip Kidd, and cover artist Michael Cho. This was a fun and time-consuming series to put together, but I was very pleased with the way it turned out.

The promotional postcard I designed for the 2015 “Art of Comic-Con” gallery exhibition at the San Diego Central Library in downtown San Diego, featuring art by (left to right): Jim Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, Gilbert Hernandez, and Babs Tarr. Images & characters TM & © respective copyright-holders.

Also in 2015 I added yet another “not on my job description” job to my Comic-Con resume: curator. In early 2015 we were approached once again by San Diego Public Library special events coordinator Erwin Magbanua, with whom we had started up the Comic-Con International Graphic Novel Book Clubs the previous year. San Diego had a brand-spanking-new Central Library near Petco Park in downtown. The top floor of the library had a gallery and he brought along Kara West, the gallery manager, to talk to my boss, Fae Desmond, the executive director of Comic-Con, and me about an opening in the gallery’s exhibition schedule from June through September, and if Comic-Con would be interested in doing some kind of exhibit. We batted around various ideas, none of which pleased anyone. At the very end of the meeting, I casually mentioned, “Well, we could do the Art of Comic-Con …” never suspecting anyone would bite, but Kara did. I explained that since we restarted doing specially-commissioned covers in 2009, I had gotten most of the original art, plus a lot of the process art for each piece, showing it in various stages: concept sketches, pencils, inks, colors, finished and printed covers. We also had a ton of art from previous Souvenir Books and other publications, including the WonderCon and APE program books. Both Erwin and Kara liked that idea and we were off and running. We had numerous meetings to look at various pieces of art, shooting for a mid-June opening date; the exhibit would run until after Labor Day in September and be up and running during Comic-Con in late July. Archival, museum-quality framing was done, along with glass cases made by the library, and we set about to write all the material that appeared with the art; as a bonus, Kara had it translated into Spanish. It was all a huge undertaking, done in my busiest time of year, right before Comic-Con.

Top row: Me with Library gallery manager Kara West; a framed example from the exhibit (Jim Lee’s 2011 Souvenir Book cover featuring the new Justice League), with both English and Spanish explanatory cards; the “waterfall” display of covers created by Kara. Bottom row: The street banners and one of the cases filled with older Souvenir Book art; opening reception guest Sergio Aragonés and I looking over some of the art; and more of the cases. These photos were taken by Kevin Green © 2023 SDCC.

The gallery space at the Central Library was awesome and the first time I saw it, I knew immediately what I wanted to do with the back wall. We had that amazing piece of art (below) that cartoonist Sergio Aragonés drew for the 40th anniversary book, Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans & Friends, which was published by Chronicle Books in 2009 (click here to read more about it). I wanted to blow that up and cover the back wall with it. I don’t remember what the exact dimensions were, eight years later, but it fit the wall space really well, and became a great photo drop for visitors. Kara was a godsend to work with. She came up with the idea of a “waterfall” showing as many publication covers we could find at the start of the exhibit, which she both designed and constructed. She also laid out the entire show based on the art I picked to include.

The cover for Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans & Friends by Sergio Aragonés. The art (minus the title type) was the basis for the giant mural at the Central Library Gallery exhibition.

As you came into the gallery, it was right next to a large blowup of the logo I created for the official name of the show, “The Art of Comic-Con.” After a brief history of the show and a group of framed original Toucan drawings by Rick Geary, the covers—from not only Comic-Con, but also WonderCon and APE—followed around the room in chronological order.There were also glass cases in the middle of the room which featured original art that had only recently been found from early Comic-Con books, small specialty pieces created by great comic strip artists and sent to Comic-Con co-founder Shel Dorf; each congratulated Comic-Con on another year. There were also special features on how a cover was printed (we had the CMYK plates for the 1976 Will Eisner cover with The Spirit, extremely appropriate since 2015 marked the 75th anniversary of the character featured on that year’s Souvenir Book cover by Michael Cho), a large LEGO Comic-Con logo, an assortment of street banners that appeared in the city during Comic-Con from a number of different years, and a look at Rick Geary’s redesign of the Inkpot Award, including an actual award statue.

We scheduled an opening reception for a Saturday in June and brought down Sergio Aragonés as a special guest for it. The event was packed and a huge success, and Sergio seeing that mural we created from his book cover is a memory I will treasure forever. He was simply blown away by it. We ran a separate special reception during Comic-Con in July for book club members and special guests of the 2015 show. The exhibit ran until sometime in September, and at the time, it was the most successful event the gallery had ever had. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work.

When I think back on it now, I have no idea how I did that along with everything else I was doing for Comic-Con in 2015—including that year’s Souvenir Book and Quick Guide, plus almost daily content for the website—but then I realize I had Kara helping me with the gallery show and doing a lot of the heavy lifting. I learned a lot from her during this exhibit, including how (and where) to get art framed for museum quality exhibitions and what makes a show like this look good; how it flows and how it should be set up to be pleasing for the attendee. But this wasn’t my first and only gallery show …

In 2017, Comic-Con was approached by the city of San Diego about the possibility of opening a museum in Balboa Park. Following the Chargers leaving San Diego for Los Angeles, it seemed that the Hall of Champions, a sports-oriented facility, was going to close down, thus leaving an empty building in the park. Comic-Con ultimately decided to do this, and I’m happy to say the Museum is finally up and running (since last summer), with two amazing anchor exhibits so far: “Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing” (which ended in January), and a new one dedicated to the art of animation called “Animation Academy,” which runs through September. If you live in the greater San Diego area—or plan to visit—this is a wonderful exhibit exploring both the history of cartoon animation and its craft. There are a lot of hands-on things to do for kids of all ages. Running concurrently with Animation Academy is another exhibit called “Cover Story: Five Decades of Comic-Con” which celebrates 50 years of Comic-Con Souvenir Book covers and also has a special room dedicated to my old pal, the Toucan, and the art of Rick Geary.

The promotional postcard I created for 2019’s “Cover Story: The Art of Comic-Con 50” exhibition at the Comic-Con Museum, held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the event.

If this exhibit seems a little familiar, I curated a similar one in the summer of 2019, called “Cover Story: The Art of Comic-Con 50.” It was the Museum’s first-ever Comic-Con oriented exhibit, shown during a time when the space was still evolving. I worked with then Museum director Adam Smith and director of programming Keegan Chetwynd (along with Kara offering invaluable advice) in mounting this show, which was a part of the Museum’s first-ever fund-raising gala during Comic-Con’s 50th anniversary in July. It was solely devoted to the art from the Souvenir Books, and included a dedicated area where kids (and not-so much kids) could draw their own covers. I came up with this idea and created a blue-line template with a logo on it for kids to use for their own cover drawings. We soon needed a much bigger room to hang them all on the wall, and some of them were truly special. I’m sure for as many drawings that we had hanging on the gallery walls, just as many went home to be proudly hung on the family fridge.

Top row: Me at the opening reception for “Cover Story;” the doors outside the gallery; some of the framed art showing the 2017 Souvenir Book cover featuring Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday by Bruce Timm. Middle row: items in glass cases for the exhibit and the blue-line template I created for the “Create Your Own Souvenir Book Cover” drawing area. Bottom row: some art created at the Museum and the wall covered with drawings.

Once again, we had an opening night reception which was a huge success and the exhibition continued for a number of months, beyond the Museum gala during Comic-Con in July. For a while it was the only exhibit going on in the building, alongside some educational programs and monthly book club meetings. This was before construction began on the renovation of the space (including removing an America’s Cup yacht from the basement, which—much to the surprise of the previous tenant—didn’t quite fit in a pop culture museum). Construction was delayed by the pandemic, causing the Museum to not officially open until summer 2022. But first, there was one more gallery show for me and a new title to add to my CV, if only for a short time.

In early 2020, I agreed to become the curatorial director of the Comic-Con Museum, and I was for a hot minute or so until the pandemic changed everything. It is the third of my “3 Regrets,” which I have been chronicling as I write these posts, but this one is totally on me, not caused by someone else. It’s a job I felt horribly unqualified for (two gallery shows do not a curator make) and taking this on—and immediately having a new show dumped on me which had to open in less than six weeks time—had a detrimental effect on both my physical and mental health, which—blind fool that I was—was compounded by the fact that I thought I could do both the curator job for the Museum along with my regular job (or jobs) of overseeing, editing, and designing most of the Comic-Con publications and the Comic-Con website.

And finally … the promotional postcard I created for the “Sense of Wonder: The Art of WonderCon” exhibition at the Comic-Con Museum in 2020. Sadly, it was only open for a few days before pandemic protocols forced it to close down. Art and characters TM & © DC.

In early 2020, we were gearing up for WonderCon in late March in Anaheim, CA. I had contacted artist Jen Bartel to do a Wonder Woman cover for the 2020 Program Book and also some T-shirt designs and everything was moving along smoothly. Her cover was one of the best pieces of art we had in my tenure as director of print and publications from 2007 through 2020. Someone came up with the bright idea of “Hey, kids … let’s put on a show!” at the Museum and that entailed a new gallery exhibition, which I oh-so-cleverly called “Sense of Wonder: The Art of WonderCon.” We wanted it to launch at least a month out from WonderCon, which was scheduled for late March. A lot of the art had to be framed, all the explanatory text next to each cover had to be written, and some special blow-up art had to be created, including a giant version of Jim Lee’s Superman dynamic WonderCon 2013 cover for the back wall of the gallery, and special art for the doors and outside area. It was a lot of work in a short period of time.

The doors leading into the gallery at the Comic-Con Museum, showcasing all the WonderCon Program Book covers from 1988 through 2020. Below are three of the covers displayed in the exhibit: Superman by Jim Lee from the 2013 Program Book cover, Batman by Lee Weeks from the 2019 book, and Wonder Woman by Jen Bartel, from (eventually) the 2022 book. Art and characters TM and © DC.

The Museum was still in pre-construction mode at this time, so once again—as we did with the Cover Story exhibit in 2019—we utilized the glass doors and the space on either side of them for graphics, leading into the actual exhibit, which was contained in what is now the Museum Store. I fought for—and got—the ability to fly Jen Bartel out for the opening reception, scheduled for late February. It was a dark and stormy night, and turnout was not what I hoped it would be, but Jen was a wonderful guest, signing numerous posters we had printed for the reception, and I was very happy she was able to join us. We did a Facebook Live broadcast in which I interviewed her, and you can still see that, thanks to the wonders of the internet; I’ve linked it below.

There is also a deep-dive into the “Sense of Wonder” exhibition, narrated and designed by me, also on YouTube.

The exhibit was scheduled to be open for select days in March, mainly on weekends, and then, of course, Covid-19 hit and the entire world shut down. WonderCon 2020 was cancelled; Jen’s amazing Wonder Woman cover finally saw the light of day on the WonderCon 2022 Program Book. And me? Well, I was the Comic-Con Museum curatorial director in name only. There was no curation to direct as the pandemic continued through 2020 and into 2021. Comic-Con finally bounced back in 2022 with its normal schedule of events, but everything had changed, including me.

To be honest, the strain of doing two big jobs was just too much for me. In January of 2020, I had two visits to the emergency room of my local hospital with two unrelated problems, one of which was diagnosed as being totally stress-related. I started going to therapy to discuss my issues, which were pretty evenly split between my work-life and my own habit of beating myself up (purely mentally, I assure you … no flogging in my hair-shirt for this pentinent) when I felt I didn’t perform to my own ridiculously high standards. I learned a lot from this, including that it was time for me to retire. If I had been offered the Museum job five years earlier, I think I would have been much better at it and willing to make it my single full-time job. But my ego got in the way and my eyes were much bigger than my stomach—or whatever that cliche is when you order too much food in a restaurant and can’t eat it all. I regret not being able to actually be the curatorial director of the Comic-Con Museum, which, incidentally, just won USA Today’s Best Pop Culture Museum honor. It was too much for me, but in a sense I owe it a debt of thanks. It cleared the road—and my mind—for my next act: retirement. More on that next time, as my year-long trip down memory lane comes to an end in the final chapter of “My Life in Comics,” coming soon.

The Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park, circa summer of 2019 right before the first-ever fund-raising gala, which inducted Batman into the Museum’s Character Hall of Fame. Photo by me.

You can become a member of the Comic-Con Museum! Click here for more info.

Click here to read all the other parts of “My Life in Comics.”

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