My Life in Comics, Part 20: The Final Chapter …

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It’s been a good two months since I last graced this website with my reminiscences about “My Life in Comics” … or more specifically “My Life at Comic-Con.” It’s been difficult for me to sit down and arrange my thoughts around how I feel about the final chapter in this ongoing saga, which I began way back in January of 2022 (click here to read that first post, and look for the link at the end of this post for all 20+ parts in this series). I set out to write about my love of comic books and comic art and my 21-year career with the San Diego Comic-Con—not to mention my self-published 1990s comic book series, Innocent Bystander—and for the most part, a lot of that was very easy to tell. This chapter … not so much.

Suffice it to say, Comic-Con was like every other job I’ve ever held—or everyone on the face of the earth has ever held—there were good times and bad times, along with good people and bad people. I’ve always had this belief that when the time came, I would know when to push back from the table and excuse myself. I knew when to do that in 1998 at KDKA-TV after almost 20 years there, and I feel I knew when to do the same in 2021 when I left Comic-Con. In both cases, I left on my own terms, no one asked me to leave. Each time it was my decision.

My reasons for leaving are complicated and personal, but I can tell you that I first started thinking about retiring around 2015. I have always been a bit of a lazy person. If you get me started on a project—like a Comic-Con Souvenir Book, or a gallery show—I’m all in: totally committed to doing the best job I can. It’s ironic that my thoughts turned to retirement in that year, though, since it was one of my busiest—or maybe that was the exact reason why. The previous two parts of this series, Part 19A and Part 19B (click on the links to read them), chronicle that hectic year that included the biggest Souvenir Book I did to date (and the start of a five-year run that I feel—in my not-so-humble opinion—was my best work at Comic-Con, 2015 through 2019 each one bigger and better than the previous one). 2015 was also the year of the first-ever Comic-Con gallery show at the San Diego Central Library, a totally new skill-set for me, and an event that was a portent of things to come. But that lazy side of me … yeah, I admit it … the thought of retirement really appealed to me. I have always viewed retirement as a reward for a lifetime of work, which for me was over 43 years straight; I was lucky enough to hold only five jobs during that long period. But when it came to the end at Comic-Con, I didn’t quit. I retired. It may be a “toe-may-toe”/ “toe-mah-toe” discussion to some people, but to me it’s an extremely important distinction.

Pictures from a career: (Top row) Me in 2000 at a retailers’ lunch at the Comic Book Expo; in 2006, MC-ing the awards presentation for the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival; and in 2015 at Comic-Con. (Bottom row) In front of the mural at “The Art of Comic-Con” gallery show at the San Diego Central Library, also in 2015; in 2017 with my Inkpot Award; launching “The Art of Comic-Con 50” gallery show at Comic-Con Museum in 2019.

There were a number of “warning signs” that convinced me that it was time for me to go. My interpersonal relationships with some of my co-workers was one of them. I have never been the friendliest co-worker in the world, I can honestly admit that. If I like you, you know it, and conversely, if I don’t … well, you know that, too. What I consider to be open and honest, other people consider to be abrupt and mean-spirited, I’m sure. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, I had a couple of minor bumps in the road, but they were large enough to make me think maybe it was time. One co-worker—who I thought I got along with—reported me to HR for typing to them in all caps on Slack, insisting that I had been “shouting at” them and that I had embarrassed them in front of their peers. Another co-worker asked me for an email address for one of the Toucan bloggers and ended the email with “Be nice.” In my mind, I was never anything less than nice to this person in the very few dealings I ever had with them. And finally, I was told one department had a person in it they called “The Gary Whisperer,” whom they sent over when there was bad news to deliver to me, because they thought that I would tend to be nicer to that particular person. Yeah, I was—admittedly—no day at the beach, and the way at least some of my co-workers regarded me had an impact on how I felt about staying at Comic-Con. I started to feel that I had overstayed my welcome, that I was becoming a bit of a dinosaur, and it was time to go.

Another thing that factored in was my health. I had, for the most part, always been able to handle the stress involved with the job, even in the heavy months like June and July leading up to Comic-Con. When I was director of programming, people often asked me how I stayed so calm—one Hollywood publicist once called me “the Yoda of Comic-Con” (not sure if it was due to my calmness or height … or the green tinge to my face); truth was, I wasn’t calm … I was just holding it all in. And while it didn’t result in an ulcer, it eventually got to me mentally more and more, so by the time I was in my 60s and juggling things like the Souvenir Book and the Quick Guide and a gallery show—all in the same few months—it started to take its toll. Having a perennial magnesium deficiency didn’t help, and when, in 2020, I agreed to take on the job of Curatorial Director for the new Comic-Con Museum, while keeping my old duties as director of publications and editor-in-chief of the website, it quite quickly hit home: I ended up in the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack. It was ultimately diagnosed as stress-related (with a helping hand from that magnesium deficiency), but I managed to figure out the bottom line, thanks to a very nice therapist I talked to for about a year. Simply put, I just couldn’t juggle as many chainsaws as before. And then in 2020, during the pandemic, the uncertainty of the world had an effect on me, as it did everyone I knew.

But there were two big things that helped to convince me that retirement was looming fast. In 2018, John Rogers, the longtime president of the board of directors of Comic-Con, suddenly died. He was six years younger than me when he passed away. He had an aggressive form of brain cancer that he was first diagnosed with in September of that year, and he was gone by mid-November. It was one of those “life is too short” moments, and his passing had an immediate effect on me, causing me to reconsider where I was living, and—more importantly—what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

John Rogers was president of the board of directors of Comic-Con from 1986 until his death in 2018. Photo © SDCC.

I wasn’t close to John, not like other people on staff who knew him and worked with him for decades. He had only been in the office full-time for a few years, having a completely different career before devoting all of his time to Comic-Con. I used to joke that I was the last person on the list of John’s morning visits, kind of a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing. If Fae wasn’t in, or Maija wasn’t there, or Eddie, or Mark, or then-museum director Adam, he’d end up in my office, talking about TV shows (we shared a love of Bosch), or trips to England, or sometimes even Comic-Con stuff. For many years for me, he was very occasionally a “wait til your father gets home” kind of threat at Comic-Con, a “Oh, John is going to be so pissed when he hears what you did, Gary,” threat. But I never saw John angry; he was always very even and fair with me and he gave me a lot of leeway in my job(s) at Comic-Con. He would occasionally question something I did, and I would invariably have an answer that would satisfy him, like the time—in my first year as director of programming—he reminded me that, “You know Smallville is about Superboy, so why did you put it in such a small (500-seat) room?” and I told him they requested a slot at the very last minute and that was the biggest room I had available and I didn’t feel like moving someone else out of a bigger room who had submitted their request in a more timely fashion … and he respected that. (People also sometimes confused me with John; we had a similar look and were of a similar age. One time I asked an editor for a book I bought to be signed by the artist and when the editor handed it back to me, it was signed “To John.” Needless to say, I got a new signed book and John got a gift from me.) He wasn’t the most complimentary person in the world—I remember only one major one from him—but he trusted me enough to let me do my job and left me alone to do it. So even though I wasn’t close friends with him like some people at Comic-Con were (I found out about his death by reading about it online; ten minutes later I got a call: “Can you put something up on our website about John?”), I admired and respected him; he was a good boss, and his death impacted me a great deal. And I knew Comic-Con would change without him at the helm.

If John’s death was the first big thing that signaled retirement for me, the pandemic was the second. I hated the technology of lockdown, specifically Slack and Zoom. While we always had weekly senior management meetings in person and there was always a certain level of “shootin’ the shit” involved with them before we got down to business, on Zoom it just seemed like such a colossal waste of time to sit and talk about non-work things. On Slack it was even worse, especially when you were trying to find an answer to an urgent question that you had asked and you had to wade through line after line of non-work related BS, searching through a long thread of how a co-worker had made sourdough bread for the first time the night before, and hey, you know what, it turned out pretty good, and maybe they’ll try banana bread or even focaccia next time, and oh, that sounds good, maybe I’ll try that, too, and hey, if you want some, I have plenty, I can drive it over and leave it on your porch. Slack also became the bell around all of our necks, like we were stray cats roaming free in the wild. Remember the old “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” philosophical question? Well, if you weren’t on Slack to answer a question at the exact moment it was asked, you apparently didn’t exist, at least to some people. Patience was no one’s strong suit in the pandemic.

My favorite Comic-Con office, in downtown San Diego, from 2015 into 2020.

Pre-pandemic, 2019 had seemed like a year of change at Comic-Con, too. I had been going to the show—both as an attendee and an employee—since 1992, and, in retrospect, 2019 was the perfect year for me to call it quits, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. DC Comics’ booth disappeared that year, something that had been talked about forever, and the way Warner Bros. treated its comics company by just absorbing the con’s biggest exhibitor into a small corner of their big, ugly booth felt like both an insult and the end of the era.

One other thing that happened during the pandemic was that Comic-Con moved its office yet again. In my 21 years at Comic-Con, we were in six different offices and the last one (for me at least), which was in the former NBC building downtown, was really special, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a 360-degree view of the city as you went around the floor from office to office. An added bonus was that building was literally a block away from where I lived downtown from 1998 into 2017. I went through the motions of setting up an office in the new building, when the organization moved in mid-2020, but I hated it. The air in that building was so dry and stale, and my office was so tiny and depressing, that I was glad I never really had to spend any time there. Comic-Con had us continue to work at home from March 2020 into 2021, and I retired on February 12 of that year, so—thankfully—I never had to work in that building.

One of my favorite “extracurricular” projects at Comic-Con: The 24×36″ silk-screened print we did with Mondo in 2018, which celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was my baby from start to finish and it was also the cover of that year’s Souvenir Book. Working with artist Matt Taylor (shown above while he signed all 1,000 copies) was a career high point for me and a project that gave me a great deal of satisfaction. And hey! I was finally able to get a Mondo print!

When I first started working full-time at Comic-Con in 2000 and I’d meet someone new and they’d ask me what I did for a living, their immediate response to my answer was, “Is that a full-time job?” They thought it was a once a year event lasting just one week, so how much time could it take? And then when I explained to them what it all entailed, that—even in the early 2000s—we literally built a city that had four times the amount of people visiting it than lived in my hometown, they would begrudgingly admit, “Oh, year … I guess that takes a lot of planning,” not to mention the fact that we did two other events each year, WonderCon and APE, the Alternative Press Expo. When I retired, my neighbor asked me repeatedly, “When are you going back … don’t you miss it?” And to be honest, I missed some of the people I worked with, especially the daily interaction with those who I regarded as friends, but I didn’t miss the job itself. The pandemic showed me how to pace my days—with work or without—and how to keep myself entertained and content. I missed certain aspects of the job, like doing the Comic-Con Souvenir Book each year, and working with artists and writers, and seeing all of the amazing art that came in devoted to the anniversaries we were celebrating in any given year. I missed the back-and-forth with the cover artists, sometimes a little tense when deadlines—and egos—were involved, but the outcome was almost always incredibly satisfying. I still miss the complicated and intricate work of editing and designing the Souvenir Books; I was intensely proud of all the publications I did, because I felt for many years the publications had been an afterthought, something that was put together at the last minute, only because it had to be done. I hope my work on those books changed that and the finished product showed it. And I really missed those mornings in late June when I would walk into my office and find a FedEx box from the printer waiting for me, with a stack of sample copies of that year’s Souvenir Book.

Photos of the first sample copies of the Comic-Con Souvenir Book to roll off the press became a staple of my own personal social media posts starting in 2015; bottom far right: a photo of me taken by Eisner Award-winning letterer Todd Klein, holding the 2017 book, for which he had done the cover lettering.

I’m into my third year of retirement now, and Comic-Con is still—on a certain level—part of my life. I recently did two different panel discussions at the Comic-Con Museum, one on the “Cover Story” exhibit they currently have on display (which is based on the 2019 show I curated), and the other with Rick Geary, one of my favorite artists to work with in my 14-year career as director of print and publications (and as editor-in-chief of the Toucan blog, for which Rick did numerous illustrations). I thought I’d miss being involved in the cons themselves, but after visiting two WonderCons (2022 and 2023) and one Comic-Con (2022), I didn’t miss that at all; it was wonderful to go to those shows as just an attendee once again, getting lost looking through white boxes, searching for old comic books, attending programs, and visiting with friends, especially when they bought me lunch or dinner!

Top: Me with Jim Lee at a 2019 special event where I interviewed him for an audience comprised of Comic-Con Graphic Novel Book Club members. Bottom: Me with artist Tula Lotay, who was the focus of another Book Club interview I did at WonderCon in 2019, and with Rick Geary at the Comic-Con Museum in April of this year.

I’ll always have extremely fond memories of my 21 years with Comic-Con, years that passed in a heartbeat. I can’t believe how fast it all went by and I can’t believe I was involved with an event that means so much to so many people. I have memories to fill much more than twenty blog posts—in truth, more than I could ever imagine. I am proud to have been a part of Comic-Con and I hope the things I did—when I was in charge of programming, publications and the website, and the gallery shows, and helped create the Comic-Con Graphic Novel Book Clubs—and everything that I accomplished with them, made someone’s experience at a Comic-Con event a little better or more special. I still remember walking back to my hotel during Comic-Con in 2015 and seeing a young woman “hug” the giant logo sign in front of Hall D, loudly proclaiming, “I love you Comic-Con!” I love you too, Comic-Con, even if it’s chaste and from afar these days. My years with this event were the high-point of my working life, something never expected but endlessly appreciated.

Since my retirement, I have been honored with having a hall at the San Diego Convention Center named after me.

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

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