ItÂ’s that time of year again (22-25 July) when tens of thousands of fans descend on the San Diego Convention Center to revel in all things comic book, anime, sci-fi and fantasy (among other things) at the San Diego Comic-Con International (aka Comic-Con). How did this once-underground event grow from a small gathering of Â“true believersÂ” to the 4-day festival it has become, and what impact does it have today?
It’s that time of year again (22-25 July) when tens of thousands of fans descend on the San Diego Convention Center to revel in all things comic book, anime, sci-fi and fantasy (among other things) at the San Diego Comic-Con International (aka Comic-Con). How did this once-underground event grow from a small gathering of “true believers” to the 4-day festival it has become, and what impact does it have today?
Comic book aficionado Shel Dorf moved from Detroit to California in 1970, and organized the three-day Golden State Comic-Con, which drew roughly 300 visitors to the U.S. Grant Hotel that August. The event would bounce around a bit before predominantly settling in the El Cortez Hotel from 1972-78, then at the Convention and Performing Arts Center (plus additional hotels as satellite sites) through 1990.
During these years attendance grew steadily, climbing from a few hundred in the early 70s to a few thousand in the late 70s, to over 15,000 by the time organizers moved the event to the San Diego Convention Center in 1991.
Attendance at Comic-Con grew rapidly through the end of the 20th century, until it pushed toward 50,000 in 2000, and spiked upward near 100,000 by 2004, when the event expanded to occupy all the available exhibit space at the San Diego Convention Center. From 2006 on many sessions would sell out, nearly “maxing-out” the facility, with attendance hovering in the 123-126,000 range, causing periodic entrance delays.
Much of this growth was driven by the guests invited to speak during discussion panels, keynote addresses, etc., and by special events tied to upcoming movie and video game releases. Some of the notable speakers/events through the years included:
1970 – Author Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)––the first of his seven appearances, Marvel Comics legend Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk, etc.)––the first of his five appearances.
1972 – Warner Bros. Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampett
1973 – DC Comics artist Neal Adams (Batman, Superman)
1974 – Legendary Warner Bros. Animator Chuck Jones (Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, etc.), Charles Schulz (Peanuts), director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life). First year of the Masquerade, hosted by voice actress June Foray ("Rocky the Flying Squirrel").
1975 – Comic book pioneer Will Eisner (The Spirit), actor Chuck Norris, Jerry Siegel (co-creator of Superman), Stan Lee (Marvel Comics founder)—the first of his four appearances. There was also a follow-up show in November.
1976 – Joe Shuster (co-creator of Superman), world-famous voice actor Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, etc.)
1977 – Author Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land). 1977 also marks the first time a major sci-fi movie is promoted when George Lucas made a point of attending the Con to increase Star Wars’ profile. This began a trend that has continued throughout the years, most notably before the release of Alien in 1979 and X-Men and The Lord of the Rings in 2000.
1978 – Fantasy artist Boris Vallejo
1979 – John Romita Sr. (Spiderman artist), Harvey Kurtzman (founder of Mad Magazine), Len Wein (creator of Wolverine)
1980 – John Byrne (major artist at both DC and Marvel), authors Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Jerry Pournelle (Byte magazine)
1981 – Award-winning artist Bill Sienkiewicz, Bil Keane (Family Circus)
1982 – Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), artist/writer Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City)
1983 – Author Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
1984 – Legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas
1985 – Sci-fi author/editor Ben Bova, graphic novelist Alan Moore (Watchmen); this marks Moore’s only appearance at a U.S. convention.
1986 – Award-winning authors Poul Anderson (Operation Chaos), and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Mists of Avalon)
1987 – Author Harlan Ellison (A Boy and His Dog), actor Bill Mumy (Lost in Space, Babylon 5)
1988 – Writer/cartoonist Matt Groening (The Simpsons)
1989 – Actor Mark Hamill (Star Wars), indie comic creators Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets)
1990 – Author and comic book writer Peter David (multiple DC & Marvel titles and Star Wars novels), cartoonist Mel Lazarus (Momma, Miss Peach)
1991 – Director Clive Barker (Hellraiser), author/illustrator Janny Wurts (Empire Trilogy)
1992 – Director Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), writer/artist/toy designer Todd McFarlane (Spawn), actor William Shatner (Star Trek). The Con also hosted Jack Kirby’s 75th birthday this year, and cartoonist/artist Phil Foglio (Magic: The Gathering) took over as emcee of the Masquerade.
1993 – Cartoonist Don Martin (Mad Magazine), illustrator Michael Whelan (Dragonriders of Pern)
1994 – “Silver age” inker/colorist Stan Goldberg (various Marvel titles, Archie Comics), actor Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek), Babylon 5 creator/writer J. Michael Straczynski––the first of his six appearances.
1995 – Cartoonist Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo), Marvel Comics artist Joe Sinnott (Fantastic Four)
1996 – Cartoonist Mort Drucker (Mad Magazine), comic book writer/artist Ben Edlund (The Tick)
1997 – Author Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melniboné), filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks)
1998 – Long-time comic book writer Paul S. Newman (Turok), manga artist Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon)
1999 – Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman (Sandman), comic book writer/artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book writer/artist/editor Art Spiegelman (Maus)
2000 – Artist/editor Al Feldstein (EC Comics, Mad Magazine), “Golden age” cartoonist Harry Lampert (Betty Boop, Popeye), comic book artist William Elder (Mad Magazine)
2001 – Marvel comic book artist John Buscema (Conan, Silver Surfer), comic book creator/animator Jhonen Vasquez (Invader Zim)
2002 – Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), animator Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls)
2003 – Game designer Steve Jackson (Car Wars, GURPS), Marvel comic book artist Sal Buscema (The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk), fantasy author R. A. Salvatore (The DemonWars Saga)
2004 – Cartoonist Aaron McGruder (Boondocks), animator Bill Plympton (Your Face), illustrator John Totleben (Swamp Thing)
2005 – Archie Comics writer and artist Bob Bolling, legendary special effects creator Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), actor Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead series)
2006 – Author Peter Beagle (The Last Unicorn), cartoonist Sergio Aragonés (Mad Magazine), pioneering French comic book artist/writer Jean-Claude Mézières (Valérian series)
2007 – Director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), Australian comic book artist Ben Templesmith (Hellspawn, Fell), Warner Bros. TV producer Paul Dini (Tiny Toon Adventures, Justice League)
2008 – Influential sci-fi editor and collector Forrest Ackerman, manga writer/artist Tite Kubo (Bleach), director Ralph Bakshi (Wizards, Fritz the Cat)
2009 – Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Pat Oliphant, animator John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy), graphic novelist Gene Yang (American Born Chinese), Denis Kitchen (founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund)
2010 – Over 60 guest speaker/panelists are scheduled to appear at this year’s Con, including: Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County), Robert Overstreet (creator of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide), Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians series), shojo manga pioneer Moto Hagio (They Were Eleven). Tron: Legacy will be introduced as well.
As the largest convention of its type in the Western Hemisphere, and second only to France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival, Comic-Con has become the must-see (and “must-be-seen-at”) event for a whole range of pop culture genres, involving action figures, trading card and video game roll-outs, upcoming TV and movie production panels, and Q&As. In fact Fox Television’s whole suite of animated shows, along with series like CBS’ Big Bang Theory are considered cornerstones of the event, and no major sci-fi/fantasy movie would think of rolling out without making a stop by the Con to gauge their core audiences’ reactions.
Even if the Con has become somewhat less “underground” and more commercial as the decades have gone by, it is still an essential pilgrimage for the “fan boys” and true believers, decked-out in their best costumes or sporting obscure t-shirts, crowding in with 125,000-plus of their fellow-travelers. And if the Con’s success to-date is any indication, they will be doing so for many years to come.