The First Comic-Con
Thursday, July 22, 2010
This week, Comic-Con International, the largest comics and pop culture convention in the world, begins at the San Diego Convention Center. Back in the early 70s, Comic-Con was a much more focused and intimate affair, started by San Diegans who love comic books and science fiction. We'll talk with three of the original founders of Comic-Con.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. Huge sci-fi posters drape downtown buildings, the streets are filled with people in costume and celebrities are arriving. There is no doubt that Comic-Con 2010 is underway in San Diego. But this massive convention did not spring fully-formed into the cultural universe. It had to created and nurtured and, at times, trained to behave. Joining me are two of the original founders of San Diego’s Comic Convention, Mike Towry and Richard Alf. Mike and Richard, welcome to These Days.
MIKE TOWRY (Co-Founder, Comic-Con): Oh, thanks.
RICHARD ALF (Co-Founder, Comic-Con): Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Now take us back to those early days. I’m going to start with you, Richard. How did the idea for a comic book convention come about?
ALF: Well, actually it wasn’t my idea. It was the idea of a man named Sheldon L. Dorf. He was an east coast resident who happened to be here in the summer of 1969 because he helped his parents move here from Detroit. He was running short of money at the time and I was a mail order dealer, buying and selling comic books, and he got ahold of me and told me that he’d like to sell me some comic books and could I come and take a look at them. And it was during that initial visit that he talked to me about how when he was living on the east coast he’d been involved in these comic book conventions, wondered if we had anything like that going out here. I told him we did not. He wondered if there were any clubs in town that dealt with comic books. I told him I didn’t know of any. He asked if there were any stores in town that sold…
ALF: …used comic books. I could only tell him of one, Lanning’s Bookstore down on Broadway, which had coverless comics for sale. And so at that point he said, boy, he says, you know, I would really like to start another comic book convention and he says I’d like to do it here in San Diego. But, he says, I don’t know anybody, I’m just out here living with my – staying with my family right now and I don’t have a car.
ALF: But, he says, I was wondering, you seem like a pleasant young man, a businessman, you’ve got a car, you’ve got some income coming in, you’ve got some ambition, would you be willing to help me do this? And I told him, you know, sure, I’d take a look at it. I mean, I already had a lot of things going. I was a high school student, I had my own mail order business, I had a lot of family here. I mean, my life wasn’t dull but I said, sure, you know, I’ll…
CAVANAUGH: I’ll give it a try.
ALF: I – I’ll give it a try. And the first thing I did is I called a couple of close friends of mine who were also comic book collectors, Mike Towry, who’s with us today…
ALF: It’s kind of funny to think that at the time Mike was 14, I was 17. Another good friend of ours, Bob Sourk was 16. And I called them up and I said, hey, I met this guy from – he’s out here from Detroit, he’s 35 years old and he says he’s an expert at doing comic book conventions and he wants to know if we’d like to work with him to do one here in San Diego? I said what do you think?
CAVANAUGH: And, Mike, what did you say?
TOWRY: Oh, well, we said, sure, we’d go talk to him. It was – I mean, that was the era of the generation gap and he was actually like twice as old as any of the rest of us.
CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah.
TOWRY: The youngest of us was 12, actually, and as Richard mentioned, he was the elder statesman at 17 and then Shel was about twice our age. So, you know, we had to kind of like come to understand what we were talking about and – but it – We were interviewed last year by Pete Rowe, a reporter for the Union-Tribune…
TOWRY: …and we just told him, when I told him that, well, it was five of us kids, you know, and then Shel and he said, well, what made you think a bunch of kids could put on something like that?
TOWRY: And I hadn’t really thought of that before because we didn’t doubt ourselves in those days and Shel was put a – you know, we had a lot of confidence after speaking with Shel and, you know, he knew what he was doing. And then what really sealed it for us was one day after we’d shortly met Shel we were over at his parents’ apartment in Clairemont where they’d retired to and Shel was staying, and he said, well, boys, you know, how many of you are familiar with Jack Kirby? Well, Jack Kirby was known as Jack “King” Kirby to us, the king of comic creators. He…
CAVANAUGH: Right, a great comic book artist.
TOWRY: …co-created Captain America…
CAVANAUGH: Right. Right.
TOWRY: …the Fantastic Four, so many of these great characters and so we all, you know, put our hands up and said, sure, we all know, you know, the King.
TOWRY: And so then – and then Shel said, well, how many of you have ever spoken to him. And all our hands went down because we didn’t even know you could speak to these people. They were like on Olympus, some sort of remote godlike figures and – and so then Shel like kind of dropped the bomb and said, well, would you like me to call him now and let you speak to him? And it turned out that Jack had just moved out from New York and he was living up in Irvine and Shel had visited him. So we all got on the phone and he passed the phone around to us and we, you know, shyly, hesitantly, spoke to him and, oh, Mr. Kirby, you know…
TOWRY: …I love your stuff and meeting – But, you know, and then after that Shel arranged for a trip for us to visit Jack and, you know…
CAVANAUGH: So this is all in the process leading up to the very first Comic-Con.
CAVANAUGH: Now it wasn’t even called Comic-Con. Let me invite our listeners to join the conversation because we would really love to hear from all the Comic-Con alumni. When did you first go to Comic-Con? What is your favorite Comic-Con memory? You can join us with your questions and your comments. The phone number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. And my guests are Mike Towry and Richard Alf, two of the original founders of San Diego’s Comic-Con. Now it wasn’t called Comic-Con back then. Richard, what was it called?
ALF: Well, we actually called it San Diego’s Golden State Comic Con, and the reason we did that is that in 1969 San Diego was not very well known.
CAVANAUGH: So the Golden State, it’s in California, right?
ALF: Right. So we felt that because the majority of the industry was on the east coast, the largest comic con in the country at that time was in New York, probably one of the second largest was in Detroit. Los Angeles, for whatever reason, and San Francisco, there was really not much of anything going on down – out here in California at all. And then suddenly here we are at the very bottom of the state, one of the smallest cities at the time, and we’re saying, well, we’re going to put on another national comic book convention. So we felt that one of our first tasks was to let people know that, hey, we’re on the west coast and not the east coast. So we originally called it San Diego’s Golden State Comic Con and I actually have a flyer here of the first convention we did and it shows a map of California on it, and this little dot here down in the lower corner is…
ALF/CAVANAUGH: …San Diego.
ALF: So, again, just to emphasize that, hey, we’re right here, right just above Mexico, just south of Los Angeles, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the very first gathering, Mike.
TOWRY: Well, the very first gathering was actually a mini-con. It was in March of 1970 and it was in the basement at the U.S. Grant Hotel. And we got the Convention and Visitors Bureau of San Diego, they were helpful. And Shel had gone to see them and put us in contact with the U.S. Grant and they arranged a deal to where they’d let us use their basement for the first mini-con if we’d have the three-day con there in August. And I remember going in and they – the manager of it kind of looked at us, I think, like a little slightly lower form of life, these kids, these comic fans and…
CAVANAUGH: How many people attended?
TOWRY: The first con was probably – it – Numbers vary but it wasn’t any more than about 100 at most and, of course, now you have more than that in any line at Comic-Con.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, in any line at any time. I’m wondering, though, back in those days, did you think 100, was that a success for you?
ALF: Oh, absolutely.
TOWRY: Yeah, it was.
ALF: I mean, personally, in our entire universe within San Diego, we maybe knew five people that collected comic books. In fact, one of the things that we did, and a lot of people don’t realize this, is that even though Shel and the five of us started a comic book club, we very early realized that there weren’t enough comic book people in town to make this thing work right away and so we went out and we met science fiction people and we met film people and so the first convention was actually composed of those three different groups, the comic book people, the science fiction people and the film people. And even with all that going for us, we only pulled 100, but when you’re starting from zero…
ALF: …a hundred’s 100%.
CAVANAUGH: But that kind of diversity, that all-inclusiveness that you just talked about, the movie people, the sci-fi people, and the comic book people, that’s remained a staple of the Comic-Con all through the years.
TOWRY: Right, and that was following, really, the template that was sort of set down by the convention that Shel did in Detroit, the Triple Fanfare, which was sort of the first what you might call multi-media popularized convention, which combined the science fiction, comics and film, though we were comic fans that started it which is why it’s called Comic-Con but following that same model, we included films and science fiction from the beginning.
CAVANAUGH: Right. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 about your Comic-Con memories. And John is on the line from Normal Heights. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days.
JOHN (Caller, Normal Heights): Hey, good morning. Thanks, you guys, for starting this great event. It’s really an awesome event. And I grew up in the seventies like you, reading comic books and enjoying all of the great things we had. My favorite memory – I moved to San Diego 25 years ago and started going to Comic-Con probably not long after that. I don’t remember exactly. It wasn’t when I first got here because I was in the Navy. But my ultimate, favorite memory at Comic-Con was meeting the great artist Jim Mooney and being able to conduct an interview with him for the paper I write for, the Irish Herald. And he was such a gracious, wonderful man and he is the artist of “Supergirl” from the sixties. He did “Batman and Robin” and many different – “Spiderman.” He created “Omega: The Unknown.” He did Marvel – Miss Marvel. Just a great artist, a wonderful man, and he died a couple years ago and he’s greatly missed and his art was just a great influence to many of us today.
CAVANAUGH: John, thank you so much for the call. Thanks for sharing that memory. We are taking your Comic-Con memories at 1-888-895-5727. Now from what I understand, Mike, the Comic-Con grew out of the U.S. Grant Hotel and went into a number of different locations around San Diego, is that right?
TOWRY: Right. Well, the second year, Richard was chairman of it, and he was a student at UCSD…
TOWRY: …and so he was able to arrange for the convention to actually be held during the summer on the UCSD campus and the empty dorm rooms we got to use at very low cost rooms. And of course comic fans, we never had any money and any money we did have was for buying comics, so it was a big draw for people that year to be able to have these cheap rooms and come and stay out there, and so the attendance went from 300 up to 800 that year.
CAVANAUGH: But, Richard, I hear that you were not asked back.
ALF: Well, that is true. I – You know, it was an unfortunate situation that we became too successful too quickly in some ways. Our first 3-day convention in 1970, we had 300 people, that was an increase from 100 at our one-day convention. We estimate 600 maybe tops at UCSD and they just kept coming.
ALF: And before we knew it we were over 800 and the university didn’t plan for that many, we didn’t plan for that many. And although we were able to get everybody in there, it created a little bit of a crowding situation, it ran 24 hours a day for three days and, unfortunately, they had booked us in with other study groups. There was a Montessori study group there, there were some other study groups there in the same dorms with us, and they’d interspersed us on different floors. And so it was just a matter of people couldn’t get to sleep at night because there were – this constant activity going 24 hours a day.
CAVANAUGH: These crazy comic book guys running up and down the hall.
ALF: They just don’t sleep. You know, and, you know, it’s amazing. When you go to one of these things, you think, oh, I’m just going to come down here for the day. And if you start meeting people, you start making new friends, you start running into programs you enjoy and start hearing about future episodes that you wouldn’t normally hear about and you suddenly forget what time it is.
ALF: All you want to do is keep going to these things. And somebody says, hey, there’s an after party over here and there’s a special guest here, and before you know it you’re running 24 hours a day. It just happens.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Mike, I hear that in the early days of Comic-Con there were a lot more pranks going on. Maybe the attendance age was younger. There were instances of heavy partying. Do you remember any of that?
TOWRY: Well, sure. It’s – Comic-Con actually, in the first several years, was really largely put on by kids, teenagers, pre-teens, some people in their early twenties. And at the El Cortez Hotel, that really, really came into evidence. We were young long-hairs and we were kind of putting on our own convention there and so there was, oh, shark repellent in the pool of the El Cortez, turned it yellow, and setting off huge firecrackers and, oh, the lights went out one night and it was a pretty crazy event down there. But it was a lot of fun and it kind of set the scene for the rest of the conventions at the El Cortez for the rest of the decade and that’s really kind of – For a lot of people, that’s the golden age of Comic-Con. Of course we were young then and you tend to remember…
TOWRY: …when you were young as the golden age. But that was kind of a special time for Comic-Con.
CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners we’re asking them to call in and share their Comic-Con memories at 1-888-895-5727. Is that the golden age for you, Richard?
ALF: Oh, absolutely. I think the El Cortez years are the years that people fondly remember the best. The El Cortez had a fairly large complex, you know, up on Ash Street. It was one block just for the hotel plus it had several other hotels around it with connecting ramps and its own convention center. So as the convention grew up into several thousand attendees, we were able to be contained within this area. And it – and we didn’t have to deal with other people being there. We took over the whole thing.
ALF: And so we were really able to cut loose, kind of be ourselves. I think one of the incidences I think of is, you know, a lot of people associate the glass elevator and the Starlight room with the El Cortez, you know that room that was at the very top. Well, we would have people, as a prank, that would get out there and go climb outside up the sign and onto the roof and even send off skyrockets at times. I mean, they – this was just one of the normal events that would kind of happen during each year.
CAVANAUGH: It was a really young convention back in those days.
ALF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was pretty wild. It was pretty wild.
CAVANAUGH: Now when did you basically go on and live the rest of your lives and move away from Comic-Con, Mike?
TOWRY: Actively working on it, Richard and I, after the ’73 convention, which took a lot out of us putting that convention on.
ALF: ’72, actually.
TOWRY: I mean, I’m sorry, after the ’72 convention, then from ’73 on we didn’t actively work in the convention anymore, though we’ve continued to attend it.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
TOWRY: And Shel Dorf stayed with the convention, though, for – all the way through 1984 and, you know, shepherded the convention and brought in a new group of people and taught them how to put on the convention, a new group of young people, Richard Buttner and some others. And they did a great job. And then, of course, since, you know, you can see now the people there down – John Rogers, Faye Desmond, Jackie Estrada, a lot of the other people, Gary Sassman, our friends who put the Comic-Con on now. You can see the incredible job they’ve done to build it into the monster it is now. And, of course, the size it is now, kids couldn’t do that like it was back in our day and so it’s a different experience but it’s still a great one and we’re happy that we had a, you know, a share in getting the thing going and founding it and we’re proud of what it’s become.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Richard, I’m wondering, as you see what Comic-Con has begun, what are your feelings?
ALF: Well, I actually find it a little bit awe inspiring. But I always have to think back and – and because I feel like Mike and I, because we were there at the very beginning, we have to take that larger view of what’s really going on and my feeling is, is that when we first met Shel Dorf, Mike Towry and I never knew anything about comic book conventions. Within one year of meeting Shel, we had both built one and were getting ready to run them ourselves. And one thing that Shel said from the beginning is he said, I want everybody in our group to be chairman at least once because, he says, I want that experience in depth. And he says, and I also want to keep trying different locations every year until we find a location that we’re really happy with. And so I see Shel as having started a process, not just an event but a process that is in two parts, one is the administrative process and the production process that spends all year planning this thing out, putting it together, and then the second process is the convention itself where aspiring artists and writers and people that are looking to getting involved with the popular arts can meet with the professionals that actually produce the products. And both of those processes involve self-development and self-improvement.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Yeah.
ALF: Mike and I were businessmen. We were not aspiring comic book artists or writers, and so the administration and production process of the convention gave us a lot of life experience.
CAVANAUGH: There are a couple of people who want to share their Comic-Con memories with us. Jackie’s on the line from Lake Morena. Good morning, Jackie. Welcome to These Days.
JACKIE (Caller, Lake Morena): Thank you for taking my call. I love the Comic-Con. When my youngest son was, oh, maybe 14 I took him to two Comic-Cons. I had to drop him off because he was too young to drive, one at UCSD and one at the El Cortez. His name is Joel Mielke.
JACKIE: Some of the guys there might remember him.
ALF: I know Joel.
JACKIE: Yeah, from the Comic-Con, Joel did his own comic book, only one, but he now does a strip for the North Coast Journal in Eureka and that all started in San Diego at Comic-Con.
CAVANAUGH: Well, fabulous. Thank you for telling us about that, Jackie. Jim’s calling us from Normal Heights. Good morning, Jim. Welcome to These Days.
JIM (Caller, Normal Heights): Good morning, Richard. This is Jim.
ALF: Jim Kennington.
ALF: How are you? How did you get through?
JIM: I called. I don’t know. It’s how synchronicity works. I just want to say from the beginning, it seemed like it was just all stars and, you know, just forward into the future. And we…
CAVANAUGH: And, Jim, tell the rest of us how you’re connected with Comic-Con.
JIM: Oh, I first met Richard at the UCSD Comic-Con in 1970 and we just talked and we had a couple mutual friends and as Richard was saying, it’s just empowering everyone. It’s like, oh, you want to do it, do it. Just get out there and do what you need to do. Get the wheels rolling, give it a kick and let’s see.
CAVANAUGH: Ha, thank you for calling in, Jim. I really appreciate it. There are a lot of people out there who remember those early days. I wanted to make sure that you got to mention something, Mike, that’s a tribute to Shel Dorf.
TOWRY: Right, Shel Dorf passed away last November and he was the founder of Comic-Con and Richard and I and everyone else is really grateful for what he did. A group of artists who were friends of Shel’s are putting on a benefit art show and silent auction, an event from eight to midnight Thursday, Friday and Saturday during Comic-Con at the Suture Gallery, which is down on Tenth and Market. It’s 655 Tenth Avenue, called the AfterCon, and it’s to benefit the Shel Dorf New Talent Encouragement Fund which Shel’s brother, Michael, decided to set up in Shel’s honor to help aspiring artists who are in financial need.
CAVANAUGH: Now I know that both of you are really, on the whole, very, very pleased and even awestruck by how Comic-Con has developed over the years. First of all, Mike, you were telling me that you do get in free.
TOWRY: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: It’s only fair, right?
TOWRY: It’s a small perk but it makes us feel good.
CAVANAUGH: How do you feel about the prospect of Comic-Con moving to another city?
TOWRY: Well, I mean, I’d really miss seeing it go. I understand the problems they’re going through and I know they don’t want to move and so they’ve got good reasons if they do move and it’s a struggle for them to decide. And so I’m not going to second guess them. I know John Rogers and the board’ll do a great job in deciding to move but I would really miss seeing them in San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: And you, Richard.
ALF: Well, I feel the same way. I think when we started Comic-Con in San Diego, San Diego was a very small city. It wasn’t that well known. I think but San Diego has grown with Comic-Con and I think that the people that come to Comic-Con have come to love San Diego as well as Comic-Con. It’s almost the perfect combination in some ways. It’s not uncommon for people to come out here from the east coast and they might do waterskiing during the days and then Comic-Con in the afternoon and maybe the zoo in the evening. I mean, there’s so much here in San Diego that complements Comic-Con that I would personally hate to see it leave.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, I want to thank both of you. To take some time out from your Comic-Con experience 2010 to come in and talk to us, I really do appreciate it. Mike and Richard, thank you.
ALF: Oh, it’s been a wonderful experience.
TOWRY: Oh, you’re welcome.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that our guests run a website and they are gathering stories from the early days of Comic-Con. That website is comicconmemories.com. Comic-Con 2010 is sold out but for your information, it runs through this Sunday. We will have an hour-long Comic-Con wrap up show next Monday right here on These Days. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. And coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.