The year after humans walked on the Moon, a small gathering called the West Coast Comic Book Convention met in a California hotel. Now called Comic-Con, it packs in crowds of over 100 thousand and launches careers. What happened?
Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer told us that from its beginnings in 1970, the Con was always a place for all kinds of pop culture, and not just comic books. This openness to many forms of media might have poised it to enter the mainstream right from the start. One of the earliest guests of the Con was literary SF author Ray Bradbury, who was a guest of honor right beside comics legend Jack Kirby.
Early incarnations of the Con attracted at most a few thousand people. As you can see from some of the art in the newsletters and booklets handed out at the Con, there was a distinctly DiY feeling to the event. Sort of like the indie days before the major labels came in and scooped up all the talent.
Variety's Brian Lowry remembers the 1970s Comic-Con as being mostly comics-focused, and he describes how the comic-dominated convention slowly became more focused on all aspects of pop culture:
Back then Comic-Con was truly about comic books and the only stars one was likely to see there were the artists and writers who created them. The confab itself was so strapped for cash that each year the artists donated work — which they dutifully sketched out on easels as a small crowd watched — that were auctioned to help support the gathering.
In those early days, the entire convention of a couple thousand people could be held in a single hotel. One large ballroom functioned as a dealers' room, where vendors displayed their wares, and an adjacent space housed panel discussions. Gradually, studios began to preview movies there, but as often as not those events were disasters, irritating fans as opposed to whetting their appetites.
Although it was more than 30 years ago, for example, I keenly recall a preview of the 1978 feature "Superman," where the studio rep described the campy villain Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman, as a real-estate mogul, not a master criminal. He was practically hooted off the stage.
Gradually, the studios started to wise up, hiring publicists specifically trained to handle Comic-Con's savvy but easily riled audience. When Ridley Scott's space-horror film "Alien" was showcased — using little more than a slide show of surrealist H.R. Giger's jaw-dropping conceptual art — the crowd was blown away.
As Lowry hints here, the movie biz is part of what turned the small, friendly West Coast Comics Convention into the massive media juggernaut of today's Comic-Con. George Lucas knew this early on, and brought Star Wars to the Con in 1977.
Because the Con is located very near Los Angeles, the heart of the US culture industry, it was inevitable that there would be cross-pollination between Hollywood and the Con. With movie and TV creators courting Comic-Con attendees' attention, the event was pushed further into the mainstream. The event attracted thousands in the 1980s, but then it really began to bust out of its seams in the 1990s.
As music critic Darryl Morden recalls:
As big as I thought it had become in 1993, it was even bigger when I came back in 1998 and it's seemed to be bursting at the seams every year since, with Movie and TV taking over, video games playing a part, along with card/role-playing games, giant booths for the major comics companies and major indies, plus screenings, previews, fine art, erotic art, dozens of small publishers in books and comics, fanzines, professional magazines, trinkets, toys . . .
These days, gaming is an integral part of the Con, especially with so many games functioning as crossover projects with movies and comics.
Diversity and location paved the way for the Con's monster success, but ultimately its staying power has a lot to do with its founders and organizers too. Despite the hordes of media and fancy-pants execs cruising around the massive San Diego Convention Center, the organizers have kept the Con fan-centric. There are few special privileges for press (yes, we have to wait in line with everybody else), and even the biggest stars will entertain goofy questions from average fans.
It may be that this democratic fan spirit is ultimately what has made the Con so important. Where else can average people rub shoulders with literary, cinematic and TV mega-stars? San Diego Comic-Con is one of the few public events where creators and fans come together to share the glory of escapism - and the beauty of speculative art.
Additional reporting by Stephen Goldmeier.
Comic-Con entrance, 1986. via studio_qt
The Yubba, a newsletter of the West Coast Comics Convention, in 1972. via twomets
Comic-Con Masquerade, 1987, via brengibble
Comic-Con 1992, via roadkillbuddha
Women in comics panel, 1982. via Alan Light
Ray Bradbury at a mid-1970s convention.