If you are lucky enough to attend San Diego Comic-Con then you’ll know that along with access to amazing panels you also get given some pretty cool swag including a lanyard, a large bag/backpack, a reference booklet of the events on all weekend and a very high quality souvenir brochure that is packed with interviews and amazing photos. That souvenir brochure is really the only book type of correspondence about San Diego Comic-Con. Back in 2009 Chronicle did publish a hardback, and very large, book about the 40th anniversary of San Diego Comic-Con. An enjoyable read, however the book was mainly photographs through the years. What was really missing from that book, and any other media output, that was looking at San Diego Comic-Con was the history of it. The origins of what is now considered the biggest and most celebrated Comic-Con around the world.
Step forward screenwriter, playwright, journalist and author Mathew Klickstein. Who, along with some friends and colleagues along the way, has put together a book about the origins of San Diego Comic-Con. Coming in at nearly 500 pages, this book is a comprehensive chronicle of San Diego Comic-Con and modern geekdom itself, as told through countless intimate, hilarious, at times heart-breaking and often thought-provoking stories by nearly fifty of the most integral members of today’s convention and fandom community.
I decided to have a chat with Mathew about his new book, how it came to be,
San Diego Comic-Con is such a huge topic to undertake writing a book about. How did you start it? Why did you start it? When did you start it?
Yeah, those are always the first questions [laughs] For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet it is a massive book. It’s 500 pages, it’s in full colour and double columns too. So technically it’s almost a thousand pages because every page is double columns because we had to do that… it’s like a yellow pages. In fact, I really love the design of the book. The designer Johnathan Barli is amazing. When I finally saw a copy I said: “we should have designed it almost like a Yellow Pages/phone book” [laughs]. It’s huge. It’s an encyclopaedia. I knew it was going to be big and I knew there was going to be a lot we had to address. It’s not just about Comic-Con. It’s not just about San Diego. It’s really about fandom. It goes back all the way back to the 1930s. Mentions of HG Wells and Jules Vern.
In some ways it was fairly easy for me to arrive at this because of the network I had built over the years. The short version of how I arrived at this book is that in 2014 I was working on a similar book on “nerd/geek culture” and that was right when Big Bang Theory was getting really big and there were certain movies coming out. That was more when it [fandom] was really taking off and social media was taking off. People were paying attention to tech and more people were playing video games. All these things were going on and it felt time to do a real analysis of what this thing is. I was talking to loads of people at that time and one of the people I got to talk to was Wendy All, who was one of the original committee members for Comic-Con back in the day. She was sort of my Comic-Conperson and we were going to talk about that in the project. Long story short, the project kind of fell apart. However, The book did ultimately come out in a much attenuated version solely in another country, due to a series of odd circumstances. However, Wendy and I stayed in touch. We are both fans and geeks so we would just talk to each other about films we saw. We never actually met though. She was almost like a pen pal. I enjoyed speaking with her and she grew up around Ray Bradbury and people like that. It was cool to hear her stories of growing up around those types of people. In late 2019/early 2020 I was with a literary agent and we were talking about a few different projects and I realised that the 50th anniversary of Comic-Con had just happened. Unfortunately we missed that but I said that was a big deal and that maybe we could get something together. I told my agent that I was friends with one of the original members of Comic-Con and what would they think to me putting together an oral history? He said “absolutely.” I talked to Wendy and she said “I love it. Let me connect you to all my people.” She connected me to about thirty of the original Comic-Con folks. We got stuff moving along pretty quickly and then [laughs]… it was late 2019/early 2020 and so a couple of months later as we are developing this stuff something very large happened that we are still dealing with now [global pandemic] and by March 2020 it was pretty clear we were going to have extra complications including the publishers we were all talking with in New York were fleeing the buildings and leaving New York [laughs]. The whole thing fell apart. However, I had established some good relationships with these people and had long conversations with them. I wanted to still really make it work. Some of these people are elderly and I wanted to get their stories on record before they were gone. I said we got to keep this project moving forward otherwise we are going to miss people because they are passing away.
A friend of mine who works at Sirius XM… they were one of the first companies to see they could make more content during the pandemic from people being stuck at home with nothing else to do. We were able to bring the project over there and to do it as a podcast series. It’s called: A Comic-Con Begins. It’s six parts. I don’t really like calling it a podcast because it isn’t a typical conversation. It really is an audio documentary. That happened, thankfully. Once the podcast happened and it was a fair success, I was able to go over to Gary Groth at Fantagraphics and say that we want to do it as a book. Gary listened to the podcast, loved it and within a couple of weeks we had a deal. Essentially we repurposed a lot of the materials I had acquired. I got about 70 hours of original interviews and some archival stuff as well. The hardest thing was getting the art and photos.
Where did you get those photos from? Were they from people’s private archives?
Exactly right. What was nice was everyone who was involved in the podcast really loved it. Then when I explained to them that the next step was the book they were very gung-ho about it. Nobody has done anything quite like this, even Comic-Con itself. They have their souvenir books and they have their museum. But the reality is that Comic-Con has been around for 50+ years, it is the largest pop culture gathering worldwide. Nobody has done a project like this, be it a book or documentary. So they were kind of waiting for me to do it. And because the podcast worked and they could hear it and be into it and I said it is a book next they say what do you need? Everything came from private archives. People were sending me stuff. The problem was I was getting too much stuff. I got over a thousand assets. There is over four hundred in the book, but I couldn’t put everything in it. There is a guy named Dave Miller who had hundreds of pictures from a guy called Clay Geardis, who was one of the very few photographers at the con and other places through the years. So Dave had all of these photos from the Geardis family because Clay had passed away. So when I contacted him it wasn’t that I was begging him to use the photos but more than he was relieved someone had come for the photos to be published. He had been trying to go to museums with them. He had been trying to go to other publications with them. For whatever stupid reason, nobody wanted these photos. Clay’s family were ready to throw them away. All of a sudden I got one hundred and fifty pictures from this guy and we are talking Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, Crumb and Harvey Kurtzman and anyone and everyone you could imagine were in these amazing pictures. Plus they were very well done because this guy [Geardis] was a photo journalist. So we got a ton from that. We got a ton from Alan Light, who is the founder of the comic book buyers guide, and he just has his stuff up on the internet. I talked with him and he knew I was going to be doing this [book] and he was very excited about it. He was all in. So nearly all the photos came from private archives. That was really the main part of the book was getting the art.
What was the one photo that took you by surprise?
My favourite one is the Francis Ford Coppola one. People wouldn’t realise that someone like him would go to Comic-Con, especially not in the early days. They have a picture of Frank Capra there too because he went in the early days. That’s one of the things that comes up in the book is that people complain Comic-Con isn’t about comics anymore. The deep, dark secret is that it never was. Star Trek had its own space there as early as 1973 and that was Comic-Con number 4. There was always Hollywood and TV and other things. Chuck Norris was a special guest as early as 1975 too. The Francis Ford Coppola one is cool because not only is it a cool picture – he’s wearing a white suit and looks like Fitzcarraldo or something [laughs]. This is before Godfather Part II and before Apocalypse Now. The cool story is that the guy who got it for me, Dave Miller via Clay Geardis estate, said that it was a mislabelled negative. He didn’t know what it was at first. He didn’t know who it was and he almost passed it by until he decided to look at his name tag with a magnifying glass, which thankfully he did [laughs] and he went “OH MY GOD IT’S FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA!” [laughs]. When he sent that to me, and this is true of a lot of the photos he sent me, they had never been processed before. Nobody had seen these pictures before. It was a mislabelled negative and now we have a photo of Francis Ford Coppola at Comic-Con from 1974. It’s a great picture and it’s cool that that happened.
What is your personal favourite picture in the book?
Oooooo, really good question. It’s actually a series [of photos]. I really like the pictures of the younger folks. You can really see that these were teenagers who were making it. That’s something else that people don’t understand. Barry Alfonso, who was one of the founders, was twelve-years-old. He wasn’t getting coffee for people; he was doing publicity. A lot of people in the book, not only were they very young – high school students – it was their only output of their own local comic book/AV club/geek club that grew and they just wanted to bring more people together to celebrate the people they loved and to try and bring them out [to San Diego] if they could. They were kids really. A lot of the early guys and gals got out when they went to college. They were growing up in San Diego and that’s where they did it and it grew exponentially every year – hundred to a few hundred to a few thousand to the craziness it is now. But they were just kids and some of those pictures were just… particularly Richard Alf, who was one of the co-founders, and you see him with the long hippie hair and glasses and his yellow VW bug [car] and him munching on a hamburger [laughs] and you can see that these are kids doing this. They had no idea what they were doing that many years later it would be this multi-million franchise that takes over the city and the state and the country and the world. They did not know that was ever going to happen. None of them ever got paid. It’s always been a non-profit so none of them got paid. But none of them are that bitter about it. I asked them about it, and it’s in the book, and said to them what do they think that they created this and now it brings in millions of dollars each year for the city etc and you guys don’t get a penny of it. All of them, and I believe this to be true, were basically like “we helped make geeks and nerds cool.” Almost all these people are not egotistical in any way. None of them are diva-ish. So they aren’t saying this with like a cavalier arrogance. They are saying it on a very practical level. To them, that’s the joy of it. I think that’s amazing.
Did you speak to the current team at Comic-Con International for the book?
The people at Comic-Con International are not the same people who started Comic-Con. It’s a very different organisation in a lot of ways. I was interested in the origins stories and certainly there is a lot [in the book] about how things have changed over the years. I was interviewing people during Covid so was talking about digital stuff and virtual stuff. It goes up until very recently. But I did not actually talk to anyone involved in Comic-Con now at an administrative level. I spoke to the people who made it. I spoke to people like Neil Gaiman and Kevin Smith and Felicia Day and Bruce Campbell and the Russo brothers, who could talk about modern times at Comic-Con and in the fandom community at large. I spoke to over fifty people and it would have been very difficult to keep getting more [in the book]. I didn’t want it to be an advertisement or a commercial. It’s not an attack in any way. But there are warts & all parts that I could see they might be aggrieved. They might have wanted it cut out or changed and wanted to have put stuff in that would have tweaked the narrative in a way. I didn’t want to do that. A lot of the great oral history books are not official accounts. So I did not work with the current administration at Comic-Con on this at all. I wanted it to be objective and I wanted it to be more about the early days and how it impacted culture without it going through a more corporate filter. Even though Comic-Con is still non-profit, it still operates as a corporate… it’s a very different thing now than it was. Before it was a group of kids getting together with their friends, and their heroes, and hanging out in a rinky-dink hotel by the pool and digging on comic books and Science Fiction back in the 70s and 80s. Now, it is what it is and it’s a different thing now. So, yes I didn’t involve the current Comic-Con people. However, the people that were involved were VERY involved. There were people I was talking to multiple times a day. They wanted this thing done right.
You mentioned earlier that the book also takes a look at fandom. At what point did you notice while writing the book that San Diego Comic-Con was becoming a huge deal within fandoms?
Well, the originators were using that term very early on. They were some of the first to actually use phrases like that. They were some of the first to embrace terms like Nerd and Geek. They were proud of it. It’s something that is missing from a lot of books and documentaries etc from that era that basically said a lot of Rock N Roll guys were into comics. They were reading Heavy Metal books and 2000AD. The fact that Donovan was singing about Green Lantern and Superman very early on. There were filmmakers incorporating this stuff into their work very early on. Paul McCartney had someone do a mural of Magneto from X-Men when he was still quite young. Even protestors… also, Second City and John Belushi and the National Lampoon kids. They were always doing the fandom thing. Some of them even talk about going further back to H.P. Lovecraft. Where H.P. Lovecraft got his writing chops was writing for zines at the early turn of the century. He was connecting with people through the letters to editors’ section. So it’s going back as far as that. In fact, I just read something recently that blew my mind. One guy said that the proof of meta-fandom is Dante’s Inferno.
Well… a large part of that story is Dante going through hell and getting to meet his heroes and hang out with them. Virgil is his guide. He gets to meet Homer. That’s fandom! I read that and thought that not only is that crazy but also that he is completely right. I’ve read Dante’s Inferno several times and a lot of that book is him fan-ing out on Virgil and Homer. Even the term “fan” comes out as early as the 1930s when talking about Baseball. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the way we use the word “Fan” now was in a Baseball article from the 1930s. So this [fandom] is nothing new and that’s what I wanted to show and tell about in the book. There are people who think Comic-Con started in the 90s because that’s when things started becoming what it is now. When it became more Comic-Con International. So the fandom thing has always been around. It’s just this little subculture’s deep, dark secret that this group of people and their friends knew about. It just took everyone else till the 90s to figure it out. We have to remember that by the mid-90s Marvel went bankrupt and comics were going out [of fashion]. Video games were struggling in the mid-80s after Atari folded. So there was that transition to where it became as big as it is now that started in the early/mid-90s. But it still very much existed before that.
It’s interesting that you bring up Marvel there. I will always say that the first Blade film saved Marvel movies. Granted it wasn’t made by Marvel studios, but thanks to the huge box office of that film that is how we have now got an entire studio dedicated to Marvel comics. Yet, Marvel studios don’t acknowledge it at all.
That is a whole other thing but I’m not sure if you saw recently that Jennifer Lawrence referred to herself as the first female action star. She had to apologise about it especially as people like Sigourney Weaver were like “erm… no you are not.” Look.. she isn’t the first people to do something like that. I do get a little frustrated when I see people like that say those things. But they really weren’t. I know they are trying to bring attention to the fact that, in this case, females were action protagonists in this case in books or movies. But she [Lawrence] definitely wasn’t the first and in doing that she is doing a disservice to the cause because it’s like she is ignoring or maligning the people who came before you. In a time where so much information is being ignored, is being buried, is being reinvented for various reasons… it comes up in our book that about half of our interviewees are female and a lot of people want to pretend that females getting into fandom and geekdom started yesterday, and it didn’t! Some people are in our book saying “Hey, don’t ignore us. We were there with the boys too and we were working hard too.” When you talk about someone like Trina Robbins, she is one of the key people and it’s important that we tell her story. There maybe were enough women or people of colour in the early days. But there were people who were there and let’s not ignore them. Things like that are very important and a big part of the reason why we did the book.
See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture by Mathew Klickstein is available from all good bookstores. It’s also available as an audiobook. It features a forward by Stan Sakai & Jeff Smith and an afterword by RZA.