San Diego Comic-Con is the ultimate mecca of fandom. Superhero cocktail posters go Zap! Boom! Pow! from bar windows, everyone seems to be wearing a cape, and signs with that iconic eye leer at you as you make your way down to the convention center and brave the most menacing line you've ever seen outside Hall H. This is what it takes to get an exclusive first look at that supernatural thriller you and several hundred other con-goers are dying to see.
Comic-Con wasn't always the fan-demonium it is now. Hardcore comic fans Shel Dorf, Ken Krueger, and Richard Alf dreamed it up with a bunch of local teens who just wanted a local slice of nerdvana. The two 1970 events (San Diego's Golden State Minicon and San Diego's Golden State Comic-Con) that merged to form what is now the phenomenon known as Comic-Con International both spawned in hotel basements, with a max of 300 people eager to get close to comic and sci-fi luminaries like Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury — and with no monster crowds, they actually did.
If you wonder what the con to end all cons was like before it evolved into the leviathan it is now, read on …
People actually showed up because it went beyond comics
The founders realized that outside their circle, they knew about five people (if even) around San Diego who were obsessed with comics. You can't really pull off a convention and actually call it that if you're just hanging out with your friends, a couple pizzas and all your issues of Superman in a hotel basement. Shel Dorf and his teenage recruits realized they'd have to allow others into their world of heroes and villains — and so the first Comic-Con was really a mashup of comic fans, sci-fi fans and movie buffs. They had no idea that their decision to include different fandoms wouldn't just draw more con-goers that year, but eventually make this the most epic convention on the planet.
Some creative superpowers convinced VIPs to come
Getting a fan favorite on the Comic-Con stage today often involves a ridiculous back-and-forth with PR — and that's before facing the exorbitant fee. The original founders had no smartphones or iPads to send the usual barrage of emails, so they just knocked on Jack Kirby's door. Literally. Before they knew it, the boys were having an exclusive Q&A with Kirby right in his house (they were later drawn into a Superman comic). By then there was no question about whether the artist they idolized would swoop in. He was the one who convinced them that a viable con should include more than just comics, so next time you’re lucky enough to get into Hall H for a first-look screening of the next potential sci-fi blockbuster, remember who was behind that.
Ray Bradbury had to be approached as a different kind of entity. Dorf and Alf had a scheme in mind when they went to listen to him speak at San Diego State University, but while they did manage to get his attention for several minutes after the event after casually pretending to just hang around, what they weren't prepared for was finding out how much it would cost to have the luminary sci-fi author on the program. Then a genius idea lit on Dorf out of nowhere: he mentioned the con was a nonprofit meant to educate the public about comics and science fiction. That got Bradubury in for free... but the committee then had to scramble to morph the con into an actual nonprofit.
There was such a thing as a Con-mobile
Yes, it existed, though it wasn't anything like the character-plastered vehicles you see zooming past the convention center today. Fueled by co-founder Richard Alf's Marvel and DC ad sales, the vehicle that shuttled the con committee around was a 1954 VW Beetle with a Mickey Mouse sticker on the door that could not possibly go unnoticed.
A really killer horror comic was creeping up on its first issue
Comic-Con was a venue for advertising even then, except instead of majorly hyped movies and TV shoes that may or may not live up to that hype, it was a venue for emerging comics to start building their future fan base. The Gory Story Quarterly commanded fans' attention, and possibly their blood, from the facing page of the program. What's even cooler about this particular comic besides the fangs and screams is that it featured work by con committee members Scott Shaw and John Pound. Ironically, some other faces on the committee weren't even old enough to subscribe: you had to be at least 21.
Hobbit friends supported the con (really!)
You can't make this stuff up. While no one has ever run into a real Hobbit — people who tramp around in hairy rubber feet don't count — the first Comic-Con had some support from the Shire through the Tolkien-obsessed San Diego branch of the Mythopoeic Society: the Society of the Friends of Hobbits. Barely out of high school, founder Ron Cearns and the SOFOH not only gave the con a proverbial ring of power just by showing up, but were some of the featured superfans in the Fandom History section of the show guide, mainly because Cearns had been trying to call forth fans from all corners of Middle-earth for his own Tolkien Convention, which sort of happened.
Ray Bradbury publicly confessed why he stopped wearing contacts
Fans at Bradbury's panel found out the reason the sci-fi master is best remembered with glasses is an unexpected case of his contact popping out and disappearing on the floor when he attended a science fiction convention in that same exact room. As Bradbury recalled, he "vanished suddenly in the middle of the banquet" and was discovered under a table desperately searching for the lens gone MIA. By the time he found it, "it was so covered with hotel debris" that he ditched the other lens and swore he wouldn't part from his glasses ever again. Contacts were "just too much trouble."
Jack Kirby pretty much spilled his reason for living… and free comic advice
The reigning king of comics didn't just talk plot and character, but admitted that what really compelled him to keep drawing comics was the fans. Kirby wanted reactions from his fans, whether they loved him or hated him for creating a comic, because he felt people. What he didn't feel were inanimate objects such has cars or buildings or weapons. It was only when a character was associated with an object that it began to pulse with life, because the way a hero or villain interacted with it would then reflect that his or her actions and emotions and motives. "I take whatever I feel about these things and put it in my drawings," Kirby said.
Kirby was a believer that there was no school that could really teach a writer or artist how to infuse a comic with emotion. He had this advice for anyone looking to get into the comic industry in an era when comics weren't a thing: "Learn to control what you can. Learn to control what you have. Learn to refine what you have. Damn perfection! You don't have to be perfect."
There was a sci-fi panel where everyone could be a panelist
These things just don't happen at Comic-Con anymore. You have to wait in line to ask a question to someone on a panel... that is if you even make the line in the first place before some rando in a Batsuit beats you to it. Then you have to anxiously shuffle down that line and make it to the microphone before time is called. After two or three questions, it usually is, and forget about actually meeting any panelists without elbowing through security.
Now time-warp yourself back to 1970, when chairman Ken Krueger assured the audience that "everyone on the floor" could step up to the mic. Of course, "everyone on the floor" was probably nowhere near Hall H capacity. This panel played out as an actual conversation in which, at least in the audio recording, you can't even tell the difference between the VIPs and attendees. So what did they talk about? Among other things, the 'superman' in science fiction, sex in science fiction, and A.E. van Vogt's work behind his back (he also spoke at the Con). His novels supposedly got away from him.
Even the VIPs were superfans
While you may now hear about stars disguising themselves in masks just to shop the exhibition floor at Comic Con, in 1970 it was much up close and personal. Ray Bradbury spent the first few minutes of his panel gushing over his obsession with comics that made him an outcast among his friends and remembering how he accidentally fell into comics years later when DC adapted one of his stories without permission and he sent them a friendly "reminder" of his adaptation share. He also admitted to his audience that, never mind prices which were astronomical even for him, he had his eye on a few things even though his wife would inevitably make him hear it. Bradbury later caved and bought a few MAD magazines.
It wasn't just Bradbury who was sufficiently starstruck or wanted all the things. Earl Kemp wanted to speed up his own panel so he could check out the vendor scene. Meanwhile, DC Comics rep Mark Hanerfield was so in awe of Jack Kirby he had no words to introduce him other than "he writes a hell of a story."