THE ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION OF THE “COMIC CON”
How Comic Conventions Began and Helped Shape the Industry
THE CULTURAL PHENOMENON of the “comic convention,” or, as it is now termed, the “comic con,” has its origins in the 1960s and early 1970s. To some extent, comic cons were an outgrowth of science fiction fandom, which had fostered sf conventions for some years by the mid-sixties. Comic book fans were often science fiction fans, too.
About such generalities, most comics fans and chroniclers agree. They also agree that the San Diego Comic-Con is the most successful of the phenomenon (even if it seems these days more Hollywood movies than funnybooks). But the devil is in the details, one of which is where the first comic con took place.
Casual history gives the credit to New York. As we’ll see, that’s not quite true, and in this edition of Harv’s Hindsight, we hope to resolve all the differences and disputations (chiefly by separating myth from fact), but for the sheer sake of chronology, we begin with an antique article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the New York Comic Con.
SURVIVORS OF THE FIRST COMIC CON GATHER
AT NEW YORK CONVENTION CENTER
By Brigid Alverson in Comic News Comment, October 19, 2014
The event that most comics historians agree was the first true comics convention occurred just over 50 years ago, on July 27, 1964, in New York City. In 2014, New York Comic Con celebrated that gathering with the “Survivors of the First Comic Con” panel. The original show’s organizers sat in a massive room and reminisced about pulling together the very first comics convention, the summer when they were 16, little realizing what they had wrought.
An ad hoc affair, Bernie Bubnis, who was the lead organizer, admitted that he had to fire the first organizing committee and start all over again. If he hadn’t done so, there might not have ever been a first comic con — or a second one.
It wasn’t a big event, but it held the seeds of much of what was to come. There were 43 attendees, and only of three of those were comics creators. It was Steve Ditko’s first and only convention. Marvel and DC gave the organizers comics and original art to give to the attendees, and Stan Lee’s secretary, Flo Steinberg, went to the con to see what it was like; she was one of three women in attendance.
Among the five dealers were Phil Seuling, who would go on to reshape the comics industry, and his partner, Len Berman. Len Wein, later one of the creators of Swamp Thing and Wolverine, was a member of the organizing committee, although at one point he was thrown off. Nonetheless, everyone credits him with inventing the term “comic con.” And the first person to buy a badge for the first comic con was George Martin, better known in later years as George R.R. Martin, the creator of “Game of Thrones.”
In addition to Bubnis and Wein, the panel included two other members of the organizing committee, Ethan Roberts and Art Tripp, as well as attendee Rick Bierman, dealer Howard Rogofsky and Flo Steinberg herself, who still does proofreading for Marvel. [“Fabulous Flo,” as she was known far and wide, died just last summer, on Sunday, July 23.] Another member of the organizing committee, Ron Fradkin, was unable to attend, but he made a cassette tape with some comments for the panel.
Contrary to what Dr. Frederic Wertham would have predicted, none of the panelists ended up in a life of crime, and contrary to stereotype, most of them not only dated but managed to get married. What’s more, Roberts, who worked for the Veterans Administration for 30 years, pointed out that all the organizers were Vietnam combat vets, and that Tripp holds the purple heart, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star.
Bubnis was the chairman of the organizing committee, almost by default. A friend of the organizers, he realized they weren’t making any progress. “I went along with them on this one trip to Penn Station where all these comics were set up, and nothing was getting done,” he said. “There was no question, there was never going to be a convention with this group at all.”
“We were 16 years old!” Wien retorted.
“That’s being young and not knowing you can’t accomplish something,” said Bubnis. “We had no idea we couldn’t pull this thing off. We left there and we took a subway train to Sixth Avenue. We bought some comic books, and we left there thinking we were going to fire the original committee and start this thing all over again, and that’s really what we did.”
The group put a deposit on a YMCA meeting room in Newark, New Jersey, because they used to go to meetings of the Eastern Science Fiction Association there. (Although no one on the panel mentioned it explicitly, the ESFA may have been the inspiration for the comic con, as it had been holding science fiction conventions for several years at that point.)
“We were just so screwed up, it wasn’t funny,” said Bubnis. “If Ethan didn’t rescue us, Ron and I would have been sitting in a room all by ourselves in Newark.”
Tripp described his role as “chief cook and bottle washer.” Before the convention, he went over to DC, where Carmine Infantino gave him a stack of original art, and to Marvel, where Stan Lee gave him some Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics. He printed up the buttons for the con, but he forgot to get copyright clearance to put any comics characters on them. And on the day of the show, he sat on Tom Gill’s car to make sure no one stole it.
“I was the firebrand,” said Wien. Although the others kicked him off the committee, for reasons he claimed not to remember, his grandfather, an attorney, insisted he had the right to go to the show, and he did in fact attend. His chief contribution to posterity seems to be that he coined the term “comic con.” “If only I had trademarked it!”
Fradkin was responsible for lining up the guests. Besides Ditko, who never went to another comics convention — “We must have scared the hell out of him,” Roberts said — the professionals at the show were Tom Gill, the artist for the The Lone Ranger and other Dell comics, and writer Larry Ivie.
Roberts came late to the planning process, but his contribution was an important one—the venue. “It happened that my family was associated with a Jewish fraternal organization called The Workmen’s Circle, the 1001 English-speaking branch,” he said. “They had a small hall on Fourth Avenue and 12th Street.”
The convention took place on the second floor, where the air conditioning was no match for the heat of the day. “Phil Seuling and Len Berman brought in soda with ice; it melted all over the floor, and I got blamed,” said Roberts.
Steinberg was sent to the convention by her boss, Stan Lee, who didn’t really understand what it was but wanted someone to check it out.
“Stan was always very busy — he had to write all those scripts, do all that work — he did everything,” she said. “So he said, ‘Well, do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess, okay, a few hours. Union Square is nice.’ So I showed up. Of course in those days, you had on your little dress and pearls — different, different — and it was a nice bunch of people. It was very hot, and everybody was sort of sweating.”
“You were glowing,” Roberts interjected.
“It was a very pleasant few hours, chit chatting and this and that, and that was it,” Steinberg said. “I’m sorry I don’t have more detail.”
“I used to have a huge collection of underground comics from the ’70s and ’80s, and I just got rid of that,” she said. Ironically, she never collected Marvel comics, nor did it ever occur to her to hold on to some of the original art that was regularly thrown out to make space in the Marvel offices.
Bierman did remember, in detail, that two hours before the con, he and some friends paid a visit to DC’s offices at 575 Lexington Avenue.
“We met with Julie Schwartz and the entire bullpen, every editor,” he said. “We met with artists, we were there for two hours, and then we left to go to the con. Julie had no interest in coming to the convention. Neither did Bob Kane. They didn’t even understand what this concept was. They thought it was a bunch of kids trading comic books.”
Although he was one of the dealers at the show, Rogofsky, who was still a teenager at the time, didn’t bring any comics to sell; he was looking to buy some comics from Malcolm Willits, who had come out to the show from California.
“When he quoted me a price, I said his prices were too high and he hated my guts for the next 50 years,” Rogofsky said.
“I have to mention that when I talked to Malcolm Willits, he doesn’t hate Howard’s guts,” said Roberts. “He’s old, he probably forgot.”
Most of the panelists still collect comics. Tripp reminisced about getting care packages with Kool-Aid, gum, and comics from his father when he was in Vietnam; they would get passed from unit to unit, with each one signing them, and eventually come back to him.
When his daughter was born, a few years later, he sold his copies of Wonder Woman No.1 and Sensation No.1 to pay the medical bills. “My daughter is my Wonder Woman,” he said, to applause from the crowd.
Bubnis said he is currently selling off his collection to benefit the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, but every time he takes some out to sell, he admits, he ends up sitting down and reading a few.
“I started reading comic books because I had to hide from my parents, who were a little tough to live with,” he said. “It was great to close the door and travel to the fortress of solitude and another dimension.
“Back in those days, we didn’t make any money on this thing at all,” Bubnis concluded. “It was a love affair that we all had with comics.”
THE POINT OF CONTENTION arises with the word “true” in the phrase “the first true comics convention” with which Brigid Alverson begins her account. But about Bubnis’ concluding assertion that “it was a love affair we all had with comics” there is no dispute. The love affair began with Marvel Comics.
While Jack Kirby was plotting and drawing superhero adventure comics (sometimes working from Stan Lee's ideas; sometimes, we suppose, not), Lee secured a place for himself in the history of comics by scripting Kirby's creations, lacing the editorial pages as well as the captions with outrageous alliterations and unabashed hyperbole. Lee's was no small accomplishment: his extravagant verbal gyrations gave the books a tongue-in-cheek tone, and this attracted a new readership for funnybooks. Kirby created the visual excitement — the characters and the adventures; Lee created the marching minions of Marvel fandom.
Their combined effort bordered on mocking the very superhero genre Kirby had helped to create before World War II. As it turned out, it was an approach that appealed to an older audience than the traditional comic book reader — namely, college students. This broader, more mature as well as more articulate readership eventually formed itself into a network of fans that became a viable market that fostered economic growth that, in turn, nurtured creativity in the medium.
An informal comics fandom emerged as readers of Marvel and DC Comics wrote letters to the publishers about their favorite characters — and about errors in science or fact or continuity that they spotted in the latest issues of their favorites. When the letter writers began writing to one another, the network began to form. Some fans started publishing newsletters; and some of the newsletters metamorphosed into saddle-stitched magazines. In the spring of 1961, Don and Maggie Thompson produced the mimeographed Comic Art, arguably the first "fanzine" to be devoted to all areas of cartooning — strips, books, animated cartoons, political cartoons. About the same time, Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas published Alter Ego, which concentrated on the superhero in comic books.
Meanwhile, the natural impulse to meet and talk with a pen pal resulted eventually in the first comic book conventions. In April 1964, Robert Brosch convened a gathering of fans of comics, science fiction, and movies in a downtown Detroit hotel. This effort was continued the next year by Jerry Bails and Shel Dorf, who christened the event the "Detroit Triple Fan Fair." Later, in 1970, as we shall see, Dorf took what he had learned about media fan conventions and founded the San Diego Comic Convention, destined to become the nation's largest such event.
I phoned Brosch once, years ago — in the 1990s, I think it was — just to see if he had anything he’d like to say. But as soon as I told him what I was phoning about, he hung up. No fame for him.
The Detroit event, which some termed a “swap meet,” was the actual first comic convention. But not by much.
Three months later, in July 1964, Bubnis and some of his friends conducted in New York the second comic con, or, as Brigid Alverson has it, “the first true comic con.”
A network such as now existed commanded some modicum of respect among publishers: sometimes it seemed there were almost enough such fans to constitute a buying public whose purchases alone could assure the success of various comic book titles. Then in the mid-1970s, a Brooklyn school teacher set out to prove the validity of that supposition.
Phil Seuling, one of the New York pioneers, now proposed a dangerous marketing departure to Marvel and DC. What he invented became known as the direct sale market, and it revolutionized comic book publishing.
Until the direct sale shops came into existence, comic book publishers sold their wares through national distributors of magazines and periodicals. Stores bought their publications from the distributors at a discount — say, 60% of the cover price. But if a store didn't sell all of the copies of a particular title it had purchased, it could return the unsold items for credit against their next order. Because the sale of periodicals is time-bound — that is, this month's issue is theoretically out-dated by next month's issue — there were always a number of unsold copies at the end of the month.
The market was wholly unpredictable: in order to realize a sale of 130,000 copies of a comic book, a publisher might print 250,000 copies. Half of the print run would never be sold, and the unsold copies were, by agreement, destroyed as an act of good faith to assure the publisher that he had received all the revenue that a given issue could produce. (No copies, in other words, were being sold under-the-counter after the retailer had been credited with the returns.) But with the growth of a fan market, a demand for back issues had developed. Seuling's idea depended upon the vitality of that demand.
If the publisher would sell directly to a store at a greater discount off cover price than through a distributor, then the stores would forfeit returns for credit. If they didn't sell all of a month's title, they'd store them for sale eventually to back-issue buyers. The deep discount and the interest in back issues made the plan economically feasible for retailers. The advantage to a publisher was that it would no longer be necessary to print 250,000 copies of a title to sell 130,000 of them. Moreover, once the network of direct sale shops was in place, publishers solicited the shops in advance of publication of all titles, and they set print runs based upon quantities ordered.
The direct sale shops made comic book publishing a money-making venture again. Since publishers no longer had to risk investment in gigantic print runs half of which routinely never sold, they had more financial resources to devote to developing titles that would appeal to the fan market, which, by the mid-1970s, was numerous enough to support the industry almost without general newsstand sales. Before long, many titles were available only through the direct sale network. And many of those were extremely individualistic artistic statements.
The prospect of realizing a reasonable financial return on a relatively small investment stimulated the formation of several small publishing houses, often called "alternative publishers." The more publishers, the more outlets for creative expression. With a ready market for relatively personal works and a growing number of publishers willing to publish such products, the comic book industry became receptive to artistic enterprise as never before. It is perhaps not too wild a speculation to say that all of this can be traced to Jack Kirby's inspiration. It was he who laid the groundwork for superheroes with human rather than archetypal personalities. And superheroes with human failings attracted — and held — an older audience, and that continuing interest lead to direct sale comics shops as well as adult readership.
The success of the revitalized superhero comic books at DC and at Marvel assured the supremacy of superheroes in the four-color format. Before too many years, the two major companies were producing no other kinds of comic book. No more monster tales or television-based books. Not even, after a while, any westerns (the last of the vintage genres to fold). At the dawn of the 1980s, everything was superheroic, and nothing was anything else. By the end of the decade, that would begin to change, and by the dawn of the next century, comic books were telling many different kinds of stories, from cops and robbers to zombies, science fiction to slice-of-life. At the same time, Hollywood became interested in producing movies about superheroes, and mutants in colorful longjohns were suddenly big business.
And all of this can be traced, as we have just demonstrated, to the emergence of the comic con.
A SOMEWHAT SKEWED HISTORY
OF THE FOUNDING OF THE SAN DIEGO CON
In the midst of what was doubtless another pleasantly frantic summer of comic cons, someone decided to rehearse the history of the origins of the founding of the biggest one of all. What follows is that history, verbatim, from Chris Chafin at rollingstone.com, the date of which I unaccountably neglected to record. I warn you that part of this so-called history is seriously out-of-whack with the facts — namely, the part purporting to represent to us the personality of the man who founded the San Diego Comic-Con, Shel Dorf. Despite this flaw, the over-all treatment reflects with reasonable accuracy the origins of the Comic-Con in the hands of a few teenagers, and for that reason, we’re posting it all here. We’ll deal with the errors later; for now, here’s Chafin — :
ONE FALL AFTERNOON IN 1969, a heavyset 36-year old man in a toupee named Sheldon Dorf sat at the dinner table of his parents' house in San Diego, California. He was unemployed and living with them, having tagged along when they decided to sell their Detroit candy factory and retire somewhere nice.
Gathered around him were five scruffy teenage boys: Richard Alf, a 17-year-old former fireworks dealer who sold comic books through the mail; Mike Towry and Bob Sourk, fellow teenage mail-order comics businessmen; Barry Alfonso, a skinny kid who was actually only 12; and Dan Stewart, a comics customer of Alf's.
This group, who barely knew each other at the time, was there as part of the very beginning of a project that would change their lives, fandom and the broader culture forever: they were inventing Comic-Con, this week beginning its 47th annual iteration. They, and those who would join them in planning the early conventions, were all outsiders who worked together to make a place where outsiders could feel at home.
By any measure, they were massively successful. Today, Comic-Con is one of the biggest cultural gatherings in the world, with events in all 50 states, Canada and the U.K. It draws an average of about 300,000 people combined to just its New York and San Diego outposts every year. In San Diego alone, it completely fills (and spills beyond) the 11 acres of the San Diego Convention Center and contributes a whopping $150 million annually in economic impact to the city. This is to say nothing of the multiple, multi-billion-dollar superhero, science fiction, video game and fantasy franchises which rely on exposure at Comic-Con, and whom the convention relies on to create new fans.
In the late 1960s, the landscape was very different.
"In those days, you were an oddball or an outcast if you were into that stuff," says Mike Towry, who now runs his own convention, San Diego Comic Fest. "Society looked down on science fiction fans, but even science fiction fans looked down on [comics fans]. We were at the bottom – unless you were into outright pornography, we were as low as you could get."
In this embattled environment, it was easy for fans to feel a kinship to each other. Alf and Towry's business selling comics in the mail was more than transactional; they traded letters and developed relationships with people of all ages from all over the country, asking for comic books, swapping personal updates, developing in-jokes and always apologizing for how long they'd taken to reply.
So when they met an older comics fan like Dorf, they were open to hearing what he had to say; each could sense a fellow outcast.
By 1969, Dorf was out of step with society, a square in a culture getting rapidly cooler. He had spent most of his life in Detroit, where he was born, living with his parents on and off. Comics – particularly newspaper comic strips like Terry and the Pirates and Dick Tracy, a particular object of obsession – had been his passion since he was a child.
When he was 16 [and with his father on a business trip to Chicago], he convinced his father to drive 60 miles to a rural Illinois farmhouse so that he could meet Chester Gould, Tracy's creator. In 1965, Dorf was on the cover of the Detroit Free Press for his massive collection of Tracy memorabilia, including 162 comic books and all 12,479 strips dating back to 1932. Dorf would cut the strips out of the newspaper and put them in huge binders, something he did with many other comics throughout his life.
"I felt they were too good to throw away," he told the Free Press.
As he got older, Dorf decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to working in comics. Unfortunately, he didn't have the skills in writing or drawing.
"Shel was always looking for a place in comics," says Mark Evanier, another person involved in the founding of Comic-Con. He would become a television and comics writer, working on shows like Scooby-Doo, Garfield and Friends, and Richard Pryor's short-lived Saturday morning show, Pryor's Place.
"But there really wasn't one for him. He wanted to be paid, he wanted to make a living in comics, but he wasn't going to write anything, he wasn't going to draw anything, he wasn't going to edit anything."
What he was good at, however, was networking and unabashedly using his connections – no matter how tenuous – to advance himself and accomplish things.
THIS ALL CAME TO THE FORE AT THAT 1969 MEETING. As we’ve noted, Dorf had worked on a comic convention in Detroit, and he wanted to do something similar in San Diego. So he was trying to get this group of kids interested in putting on a comic convention with him – and in some sense, for him.
"Boys," Dorf said to the group in a booming, melodramatic voice. "Who of you is familiar with the work of Jack Kirby?"
All fans of comics, they of course knew Jack Kirby, the man who co-created basically every notable Marvel superhero, from Captain America to the X-Men. They all silently raised their hands.
Dorf continued, "How many of you have ever met Jack Kirby?" All of the hands dropped.
"It seemed to us like kind of a weird question – like how would you do that?" says Towry. "These were far-off people on some comics Mount Olympus or whatever.”
Without saying a word, Dorf picked up a rotary telephone, and began ceremoniously spinning the dial.
"Hello, Roz?" he said into the receiver, addressing Jack Kirby's wife. "I'm here with the boys! Is Jack there? Oh, okay, put him on!" And with that, he began passing the phone around the table, from one dumbstruck boy to the next.
Dorf and Kirby were far from old friends. They'd met just a few months before, when Dorf turned up at his house unannounced in the company of a mutual acquaintance.
"If Charlie Manson had showed up at their door, they probably would have said, 'Hey, come on in!'" says Scott Shaw, a cartoonist and animator involved in planning the early conventions as a 16- and 17-year-old. "They were that friendly to everybody. They weren't naive, they were just great people."
This phone call served its purpose, convincing the teens that Dorf was a connected comics insider who could help them put on a convention. This was bolstered a few months later when Dorf organized a field trip for the teens to Kirby's house.
Kirby met with the boys for hours, despite his reputation as a tireless workaholic. He showed off his artwork, posed for photos, gave advice and patiently answered questions. At a later meeting, he'd even draw the kids into a Superman comic (as villains).
"He never talked down to us," says Towry. "He would have a conversation with us just like he's talking to any adult. He would just tell us what was on his mind, what kinds of things he was thinking of, what inspired him, what kind of stuff he found fascinating, and he would answer our questions."
"He was like an uncle," says Alfonso. "He was just so friendly and so unpretentious and so nice. I never met anybody like that."
At that meeting, Kirby agreed to attend their first convention, and also gave the group a crucial piece of advice. They'd been debating whether to limit the convention to comic books or to take a more expansive view to fandom. Kirby told them that they should include everything that fans like, and that "it would be a lot more fun and a richer experience if we included these other things, like film and science fiction and whatnot," remembers Towry.
This advice is one of the unique factors that has kept Comic-Con flexible and diverse over the years: instead of being focused on one thing, its focus is really on the idea of fandom itself. [Dorf had already latched onto that idea, calling the con he launched in Detroit “Triple Fan Fair,” and it embraced fantasy literature, movies, and comics.]
"After that," says Towry, "it was like, yeah, sure, we'll put on a comic convention. We talked to Jack Kirby – we can do it! We'll do anything, Shel's legit."
THE FIRST SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON was really two conventions, both held at the U.S. Grant hotel in downtown San Diego: a one-day mini-con in March 1970 and a three-day convention the following August. At the time, downtown was a seedy area. The Grant was a once-grand hotel that had fallen on hard times, located just down the road from where sailors from the local navy base would pick up prostitutes.
"It was a fleabag, all right," says Shaw, "kind of desperate" for business.
It was the only place that would agree to host the convention, not just because of comics' bad reputation, but because a bunch of children weren't going to spend any money at the bar, a major source of revenue for a hotel hosting a more traditional convention. And even at that, the planners only got the Grant because a friend in local government recommended them.
For their first convention, in March 1970, they were given the basement, which was under construction at the time. (Dorf described the location choice with typical mythmaking exaggeration in an interview from in a souvenir booklet for Comic-Con in 1982: "I decided to go for the top, and the top hotel I knew of in San Diego was the U.S. Grant.")
Aside from Kirby, the other major guest at the first convention was Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and many other science fiction classics. He's also, inadvertently, the reason Comic-Con is a nonprofit.
Bradbury gave a speech at San Diego State University in late 1969. Dorf and Alf attended, and hung around afterward waiting to chat him up. Eventually, they got his attention by passing him one of Dorf's binders of old comic strips.
They explained that they were holding a convention and they'd love to have him come. Bradbury immediately agreed, but said that he'd need his regular speaking fee, around $5,000 (about $30,000 adjusted for inflation). They didn't have the money.
"Immediately, they were crestfallen," remembers Towry. "Shel said he got this kind of lightbulb that went off in his head, about what to say next. He goes, 'You know, we're just a nonprofit organization of fans, and we're doing this as a public service to educate the public about comics and science fiction.’”
This, of course, was a lie. Comic-Con wasn't a non-profit. It wasn't anything but a bunch of teenagers hanging out to talk to each other.
Hearing this, though, Bradbury said, "'Oh, okay! I'll come for free.'"
Afterward, the organizers quickly began figuring out how to actually become a non-profit.
A KEY FACTOR in making things like this a reality was the logistical help of another group of fans centered around a local publisher and bookseller named Ken Krueger, a level-headed businessman with his eye on the bottom line. [The names of his juvenile cohorts have, alas, slipped forever into obscurity; sorry. — RCH] Krueger’s Ocean Books store sold roughly equal amounts of comics and pornography, a strategy to stay afloat: the pornography was more profitable than the comics. Gregarious and kind, friends remember him in a Hawaiian shirt, smoking a cigar, having a celebratory drink.
It was Krueger who was budget-conscious, signed contracts with venues, and generally led the idea of comic convention from a kitchen table to reality.
Still, it was a shock to everyone what a success both the mini-con and first convention were, with more than 300 people attending the August convention.
"There was a sense of, my god, we got 300 people here, isn't that amazing?" says Evanier. "If you had said at this point, one day there will be 10,000 people at the convention, they'd have said you were crazy. If this thing tripled in size, that would be amazing."
"I was delighted," says Shaw.
In the convention, they'd created an alternate reality for themselves, populated by fans from around the country. For many of them, this was their first time being surrounded by like-minded people.
"It was just wonderful to be in this environment where what you were into was normal and cool," says Towry. "And you met all these other people that liked all the same things that you did – that was a wonderful experience."
Many of the founders would go on to successful careers. Barry Alfonso became a songwriter, writing a number-one hit for country singer Pam Tillis, and lyrics for the title song to early Tom Cruise film All The Right Moves. Mike Towry runs his own comic festival. Richard Alf passed away in 2012 after a stint owning his own comics store. Scott Shaw worked extensively on children's television in the 1980s, writing and producing for shows like Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, Camp Candy, and The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley. They all credit their early work at Comic-Con with giving them the connections and confidence to succeed.
FOR DORF, THINGS WENT LESS SMOOTHLY. In a cruel bit of irony, the man whose primary asset was unabashed fandom and an ability to connect fans with creators – skills which he used to help found the most successful fan convention of all time – lived the bulk of his life feeling slighted by his creation and jealous of the younger people who found the creative and professional success he never had.
Though everyone interviewed for this article had positive things to say about Dorf's involvement in the Con – to a large extent, it was his idea – he was also a prickly personality, hard to get along with for even those who most wanted to support him. He died in 2009, alienated from the convention and having pushed away many of those he worked with.
Stories of his bad and inexplicable behavior are numerous, from personally handing out hundreds of free tickets to the convention at a San Diego shopping center in the days when tens of thousands of people were regularly attending, to sending an original founder a note on the birth of his child which said, "If you didn't lose weight, your son will grow up ashamed of you."
To some extent, he even grated on the unflappably magnanimous Kirby, frequently bringing large groups to the house without really letting on what he was up to.
"One time, my then-partner Steve and I get this panicked call from Roz on a Saturday morning," remembers Evanier, who worked as Kirby's assistant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "She says, 'Shel Dorf's here, and he's brought an army with him. Please come out and help me.'"
Evanier and his partner arrived at Kirby's house to find five cars parked outside and 20 people inside, peppering Kirby with questions, asking for drawings and refusing to leave.
Eventually, Kirby, attempting to gently push everyone toward the exit, said, "Listen guys, we gotta wrap this up, it's almost lunch time."
"Oh, good, what are we having?" Dorf replied.
"And the next thing I knew, Roz is sending Steve and me to Jack-in-the-Box to buy hamburgers for 20 people!" says Evanier.
Another visit was even more pointed, remembers Shaw. A group had been talking with Kirby for hours, and it became obvious that it was time to go. Kirby, a famous workaholic, had been neglecting work on his new D.C. project the New Gods and needed to get back to the drawing board.
Again, trying to tactfully get everyone to leave, Kirby said, "Well, boys, is there anything else I can do for you?"
"And Shel pulls out, I'm not making this up, a stack of those New Gods comics, and a tape recorder," said Shaw. "He says, 'Jack, what I'd like you to do is, could you read the copy, the dialogue from all the first few issues, and read the dialogue in the voice that you imagine they have, and annotate anything along the way as to why you did things one way or the other.’
And Jack just looks at him and says, 'No.'"
TODAY, COMIC-CON TRANSCENDS ITS ORIGINS in a thousand ways: every trailer which premieres there, every cosplay gallery that gets published, every time you see a celebrity's Wikipedia photo taken there, every time it's referenced or made fun of in movies or tv reminds you of how central the convention and the particular kind of admirably obsessive fandom it's helped bring into the mainstream is to the current state of pop culture.
Even given its phenomenal growth, it remains an intimate experience for many attendees.
"Comic-Con is that kind of a place where you can go around a corner and see or meet somebody that might change your life," says Shaw. "You may meet a friend that you have forever, or somebody that you have a romantic relationship with, or a publisher that says, 'Boy, I like your stuff, I'd like to do this or that with it.'"
The thing that makes Comic-Con so vital today goes all the way back to its founding. A small group of people wanted to take some existing relationships with far-flung people they only knew through writing, and bring it into reality. They wanted to be in the same room with the people who created the things they loved. They wanted a place where they could just be themselves, loving the things they loved in passionate, uncool, over-the-top ways. And they didn't really care what anybody else thought about that. Throughout all the changes in the past four decades, that instinct, born at a kitchen table with one adult and a few teens, has hardly changed at all.
What’s Wrong? For another version of this Sandy Eggo Comic-Con origin tale, visit Opus 251 (November 2009), which we wrote and posted soon after the death of Shel Dorf. According to that version, several things in the foregoing recitation are probably wrong.
First, Dorf was living in his own apartment, not in his parents’ apartment, when it all started. And he was not unemployed. Dorf freelanced as a commercial artist. He may have been “between assignments,” but a freelancer is never unemployed — almost by definition.
Chafin works hard to make Dorf look like a total misfit, a loser who could do nothing to make a living for himself. So he invented the Comic-Con instead — a place for other losers like himself (saith Chafin).
Making Dorf a walking failure fits into the picture Chafin wants to paint of a comic convention as being a haven for all sorts of popular culture misfits and wannabes. Chafin may be right in a general sort of way, but he’s bending facts to fit his preconception, and Dorf emerges more bent than anyone else.
Dorf at one time wore a toupee, but I don’t think he was wearing one in 1969. I don’t think he needed one in 1969. Chafin, acting, no doubt, upon one of his interviewee’s assertions, says Dorf lacked drawing skills. I am not particularly fond of Dorf’s drawing style, but he could most definitely draw, and I have posted examples of his comic strips at Opus 251. He also had considerable skill at design and layout, useful in his freelancing endeavors.
Chafin says Dorf spent most of his life feeling jealous and slighted by the Comic-Con he more-or-less invented. I’m pretty sure Dorf felt that way towards the end of his life, when diabetes had so severely limited his scope. But I don’t think he felt jealous and slighted “most of his life.” I never detected any such feeling in him when I first met him or in the first few years thereafter when we were acquainted and in touch with each other regularly.
The stories about Dorf’s pushing himself onto the Kirbys are doubtless true. But I think Chafin exaggerated Dorf’s behavior. Shel was more gentle than pushy, and that doesn’t come out in these stories, recounted to Chafin by some of those who were there but perhaps in the telling overlooked aspects of Dorf’s personality that made his behavior a little less overbearing and presumptuous.
Chafin says the San Diego Comic-Con was “to a large extent” Dorf’s idea. It was, in fact, his idea that resulted in the first SDCCs. Not “to a large extent”: it was all his idea. He was aided and abetted by others, but the idea was his.
For years, the Comic-Con was reluctant to give Dorf credit for this creation. Officials noted that others — the teenagers Chafin names, and Krueger — were as responsible for the success of the Con as Dorf was. To a great extent, that’s true. I’m sure others were involved. And Shel never claimed otherwise.
But I suspect that Con officials’ reluctance to grant Dorf his founder’s status while he was still alive stemmed from the animosity that festered between them and Dorf. As I say in Opus 251, Shel could be difficult. And that trait doubtless perpetuated that feeling of animosity that hovered over the relationship.
It may have begun as the Con drifted more towards Hollywood and left newspaper comic strip cartoonists behind, cartoonists that Shel knew and admired. But he couldn’t get anyone to listen to him about that. And so, he stormed out, out of the Comic-Con orbit. By then, the Con was bigger than anything Shel could control or contribute to. And he doubtless knew that.
Once, or so I heard, the Con offered him an annual stipend as a gesture recognizing what he’d done. But Shel, a proud man, disdained the idea. What he wanted most in those years he effectively turned his back on.
Whatever the relationship and its causes, it wasn’t all Shel’s fault.
Once towards the end of his life, the Con celebrated its founding and its founder with a “anniversary party” at the Con. Shel went to the party but left in a hurry. He entered a ballroom where there was a birthday cake. And nothing else. No one was there. The Con apparently forgot to mention the event in the program. It was an insult, and it confirmed Shel’s opinion about the Con management.
If the “party” was an effort at reconciliation, it failed miserably.
It’s gratifying that Chafin has chosen the 47th San Diego Comic-Con to remember its founding. But I wish he’d paid a little less attention to Shel Dorf’s idiosyncracies than to his genuine achievement. Given his sources, that may have been difficult. But it shouldn’t have been impossible.
I know how this “history” came about: Chafin’s sources, many of whom knew Shel and helped him on the first conventions, were reluctant to give him all the credit. Others, after all, were involved, too. True. But it was his idea that sparked the creation of the Comic-Con.
Those who Chafin interviewed are all stand-up guys. But they wanted Chafin to know the whole Shel Dorf story. And that included instances of his peculiar personality in action. I don’t doubt that he treated the Kirbys in the ways described. That was Shel some of the time — in the grip of an arrogant presumptuousness.
Chafin’s sources wanted him to know Dorf’s flaws as well as his record. And they wanted those faults to be on display. Chafin’s error was in giving too much emphasis to those faults. He was being misguided by his journalistic instincts. Shel was, after all, a somewhat picturesque personality, just what every journalist hopes to encounter. Particularly, in this case, when that personality fits so snugly into Chafin’s narrative — that comic cons were invented by misfits and losers as a way of creating a comfortable “home” for themselves.
Shel’s fate is ironic in a cruel way. The comics industry doesn’t have a good record on how it’s treated those who invented it. Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bill Finger — all, for a time, denied their rightful place in the history of the medium. And now we have Shel Dorf, whom many want to deny his just desserts.
In the on-going atmosphere of the animosity bred between Dorf and the Con management, no one at the Con wanted to give him his due. In the last years, the Comic-Con neglected him and ignored his contributions to its founding; and now that he’s dead, some of the survivors are maligning him, painting him as a loser who somehow had the chutzpah to inveigle others into pulling together to make the Con. Meanwhile, the Con itself has more-or-less formally recognized Dorf’s contribution and now lists him as “founder.”
For the whole Shel Dorf story with its many nuances and manifestations, now’s a good time to visit Opus 251.