Comic-Con founder recalls its humble, geeky beginning

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"A Comic-Con? What's that -- a comedians' convention?"

That was the sort of response that outsiders often gave us when we told them about the San Diego Comic Convention back in the early 1970s. Some people still called those thin, poorly printed, cheaply priced publications "funny books." We fans seemed a little funny as well.

But comics were serious business to the people who founded Comic-Con in the fall of 1969. I was one of them: a 12-year-old who was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of a now world-famous annual event. Looking back, how it happened seems as unlikely as a superhero origin story.

I was living in San Diego, and I had placed an ad in the local Pennysaver looking to buy old comic books. One of those who responded was Shel Dorf, a 37-year-old Detroit transplant and veteran comics aficionado. I bought some choice back issues from him and, more importantly, I put him in contact with Richard Alf, a teenage comic-book dealer whose ad I'd seen in the back of a Marvel comic. Dorf met with Alf, who in turn introduced him to Mike Towry and other key players in the origins of the convention.

It turned out that Dorf was no ordinary fan -- he had helped to put on the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, a multifaceted comics and science fiction event. He had a vision for launching something similar in San Diego.

I was invited to join the meetings of the group that formed around Dorf and Alf. At first, we debated whether there was room for another convention, especially one far away from the New York-based comics industry. Remember, in 1969 comics fandom was a fairly small and insular world, still considered something of a disreputable hobby for kids.

Despite this opinion, we knew that comic art could achieve high aesthetic value. An example we could point to was the work of Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America, Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk. Dorf knew Kirby, who had recently moved to Southern California. One of the first things we did as a Comic-Con planning group was to arrange a visit with the legendary Kirby, King of the Comics.

Kirby showed us royal hospitality and submitted to our sometimes obsessive questions about his characters. This trip became the first of many to his house. We would sit at the feet of this kindly sage as he puffed on his cigar and discussed the philosophical subtleties behind his latest creations, The New Gods and The Forever People. Kirby went on to immortalize some of us as the villainous San Diego Five-String Mob in an issue of "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen." (He also chose me as the model for Witch Boy, a black-clad imp who bedeviled The Demon and, later, Batman.)

Kirby showed us that our heroes were accessible and even eager to share their artistic secrets. He became the patron saint of the Comic-Con.

After holding a one-day "Mini-Con" in March 1970, we staged the first full-scale San Diego Golden State Comic Convention (as it was known then) at the U.S. Grant Hotel that August. Kirby was one of our guest speakers, along with sci-fi authors Ray Bradbury and A.E. Van Vogt. By that time, the Comic-Con committee had grown to include such key members as Scott Shaw and John Pound, who both went on to noteworthy comic art careers.

Three hundred people came to the first Comic-Con; 800 people came the next year and 1,000 the year after that. After learning the ropes from my elders, I took on the duties of the Con's publicity director, sending out press releases and booking spokespeople on local talk shows. The local media thought we were likable young folks with a somewhat intense interest in trivia. Newsweek came out and did a story on us in 1972, more for the freak value of our event than anything else.

Guests from the film world -- so much a part of today's Comic-Con -- were a lesser element back then. Still, I can remember helping to escort an elderly film director I'd barely heard of from his hotel room to a local TV interview during the 1974 Con. His name was Frank Capra, and he had made a movie with an angel named Clarence in it.

The Comic-Con was becoming a larger phenomenon. Big names such as Charles Schulz, Stan Lee and Robert Heinlein attended. So did Dr. Timothy Leary, newly released from federal custody and eager to promote new, non-chemical methods of mind expansion. At the 1976 Con, I participated in a strange press conference with Dr. Leary, during which I pretended to pass him messages transmitted from outer space as a room full of confused reporters looked on. (It felt like being in the middle of a comic book!)

As fate would have it, I moved on from the Comic-Con committee just before America's love for fantasy adventure exploded into the mainstream. Films such as "Star Wars" revitalized the market for all things fantastic; graphic novels ushered in a new respect for the comic art medium. Meanwhile, I was pursing a career as a songwriter and music journalist. It wouldn't be until the 1990s that I got back in touch with my old Comic-Con friends.

This week, I'll be making my first return visit to a Comic-Con in more than 30 years. An estimated 125,000 fans will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of an institution that began in the heads of a half-dozen funny book addicts. I'll be one of them, mulling over my secret origin story, walking in the shadow of Witch Boy.

Barry Alfonso is a writer in Swissvale ( ). He moved from San Diego in 2001. First Published July 22, 2009 4:00 AM


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