The History of Comic Con is, like most histories, both a fascinating drama and a banal tale about hard work and good luck. This week marks the 50th Anniversary of a small gathering of niche fans that went on to become the biggest week in popular entertainment. Before there was Comic-Con International in San Diego, fan events were small with only a few hundred people at any given convention. Fast forward half a century, and now Comic-Con is the biggest week in entertainment. This gathering of the giants of geek culture was once easily overlooked, but now they can make or break an upcoming big-budget blockbuster. How did this happen?
For decades, even well into the 1990s, comic books and its nerdy cousins, science fiction and fantasy, media were all looked down upon. People “in the know” believed this was a strange niche just for children and adults who refused to grow up that could never be a success in the mainstream. The history of Comic-Con International is full of people who didn’t believe it would ever be anything more than a small fan gathering. In fact, even the men who founded the non-profit organization weren’t sure it would be a success. Propelled simply by a love of the art form, they worked and volunteered their time in order to get it off the ground.
Shel Dorf and Jack Kirby: The Two Most Important Men in the History of Comic-Con
Shel Dorf was a man enamored with comics, specifically comic strips that appeared in the daily newspaper. He clipped the best comics and arranged them in a binder, long before anyone ever dreamed of publishing a collection of comics. Dorf didn’t have skill in drawing or writing, but he did eventually work as a letterer. After helping to organize a small convention in Detroit, he moved to California to start a similar convention in sunny San Diego. He linked up with a group of teenagers who also loved comics, enlisting their help in his crazy idea thanks to a call to Jack Kirby. The kids were all familiar with the titan of comic artistry, so Dorf arranged a field trip to his home. The history of Comic-Con would be very different had this not happened.
A gracious host, Kirby and his wife Roz entertained Dorf and the teenagers, telling stories, signing art, and taking photos. Kirby agreed to attend their convention, then he suggested that Dorf expand his effort to include sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. Kirby posited “it would be a lot more fun and a richer experience if we included these other things, like film and science fiction and whatnot,” Mike Towry, one of the teens, told Rolling Stone. Later, Dorf approached author Ray Bradbury to appear at the convention. When Bradbury asked for a $5,000 fee (about $30,000 adjusted for inflation), Dorf had a moment of inspiration and told him it was a non-profit. It wasn’t anything yet, but this suggestion convinced Bradbury to waive his fee and set the ethos for the event for the decades to come.
Richard Alf, the Money
The early days of Comic-Con were very fly-by-night, and Dorf depended on one of the teenagers more than others. Richard Alf, a business-minded kid, both had a car and the cash to pay up-front for the venue. When those early cons were finished, he’d end up reimbursed, though it was never a guarantee. Alf recognized the profits available in comics. He loved them as much as the rest of them, but while his friends bought, sold, and traded comics on a small scale, Alf turned it into a full-fledged business. In fact, classified ads placed in DC and Marvel comics are how Dorf found Alf and his friends in order to enlist their help in kicking off Comic-Con.
The first Comic-Con took place in a local hotel ballroom, but it was a seedy place. Tucked away in the basement, the streets around it were full of drug pushers, prostitutes, and panhandlers. It was not a great place to bring the children who were thought of as the biggest comics fans. So, Alf figured out a way to host the second Con at his school, the University of California San Diego. This was also a bit of a disaster, because the rowdy conventioneers roomed next to nuns and study groups in the dorms. Still, Alf was only a teenager during the early history of Comic-Con, and the group needed someone else on the team for it to grow.
Ken Krueger and the Business of Geek Culture
Despite Alf’s natural business sense, no one in the group knew the first thing about drawing up contracts for venues, managing a budget, or even how to actually become a non-profit. For this, they turned to Ken Krueger, a publisher and bookseller in San Diego. Krueger loved comics just like the rest of them, though it wasn’t that profitable for him. In order to keep his business going, along with comics Krueger published and sold printed pornography. Even though he sold “roughly equal amounts” of both, it was the porn that helped him stay in business. Yes, the history of Comic-Con would have ended before it began if not for a man who loved both comics and skin magazines.
Still, despite his efforts, Krueger remained skeptical about the chances for success. He expected the three-day convention (after a one-day trial run earlier in the summer) to draw a few dozen people. So, both he and the rest of the group were astounded when more than 300 people turned out for the first event. Of course, today, hundreds of thousands of people show up for Comic-Con International, but at the time of its founding this was more than they hoped for. During that convention, Kreuger and the others realized that an entire sub-culture existed below the surface of pop culture at the time. They knew it would grow. They just never dreamed it would become as big as it did.
The Modern History of Comic Con Begins as Hollywood Takes Notice
Despite the big business comic books did in the 1970s and 1980s, the history of Comic-Con is also the history of geek cinema. When George Lucas risked it all to make the first Star Wars, no one believed it would be anything but a farce. The studio tapped Marvel Comics to work up a comic book series around the film as a way of bolstering the box office and hyping kids up for the film. So, the artists who worked on that book presented a panel at the 1976 Comic-Con to generate hype. Showing only stills from the film, a small crowd listened and grew intrigued. Still, the director nor the stars of the film didn’t show up to the panel but were there to sign autographs. In fact, even when the movies were based on existing comics, they barely showed up at all.
If Richard Donner’s Superman film appeared at Comic-Con, no record of the panel remains. Ten years later, Tim Burton’s Batman cast and crew were also no-shows. The studio did send Batman co-creator Bob Kane to Comic-Con to quell fan concerns that Michael Keaton would make a farce of the character. No, the first modern comic book film to make a big showing at Comic-Con International was 2002’s Spider-Man. Director Sam Raimi, a cult-classic director very familiar with the convention circuit, brought the first footage of the movie to show to assembled fans. The history of Comic-Con, at least the modern version of big budget movie panels and exclusive footage, began here. It’s no accident that Spider-Man went on to become one of the biggest box office smashes of its time. Raimi got the True Believers hyped up for the film, and other studios looking to make money on superheroes got the hint.
San Diego Comic Con 2019: The Heroes of Hall H
In the years since that Spider-Man debut, it seemed that comic book movies were on the decline. Spider-Man 3 made more money than its predecessors, but the fans were not happy with the product. Save for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the comic book films that came out between 2002 and 2007 left fans wanting. So, when Marvel Entertainment made the surprise announcement that it would produce its own films starting with Iron Man, it seemed like a bad idea. Jon Favreau, whose most recent hit was the kids’ movie Elf, and Robert Downey, Jr., a man with his own demons, took the stage at Hall H to try to convince the world Iron Man would be something special. When he showed a surprise teaser for the film, the assembled crowd in the 65,000-square-foot space erupted like a volcano. That’s when the director knew the film would be a hit.
Since then films like Twilight, Batman v. Superman, and television shows like Game of Thrones, Heroes, and Lost used the Hall H stage to present the work to the fans. While many panels are successful and packed with crowds, the Hall H experience is next-level. Dozens of people who’ve experienced it say appearing on a panel in Hall H is like headlining an arena concert. Along with the hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, fans who can’t make the convention follow along with live-streams for their favorite projects. The history of Comic-Con started with just a group of guys in a dingy hotel basement, but today it truly is the greatest entertainment event in the entire world.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.