40th-Anniversary Secret Origins of Comic-Con Panel

October 10, 2009

This year’s Comic-Con International (July 22-26, 2009), was the 40th Comic-Con. In celebration of this anniversary, the convention committee generously invited several members of the first-year’s Comic-Con committee to be guests at this year’s event.

On the morning of Thursday, July 23rd – the first regular day of the convention – these guests appeared on a panel discussion titled, “Secret Origins of Comic-Con.” The panelists were Richard Alf, Barry Alfonso, Greg Bear, Dave Clark, Roger Freedman, Ken Krueger, Bill Lund, Scott Shaw!, and Mike Towry. It was a lot of fun for the panelists, who all enjoyed seeing one another again.

Comic-Con Secret Origins Panelists Richard Alf, Barry Alfonso, Mike Towry, Bill Lund, Scott Shaw!, Ken Krueger, Greg Bear, Dave Clark, and Roger Freedman

Comic-Con Secret Origins Panelists (left to right): Richard Alf, Barry Alfonso, Mike Towry, Bill Lund, Scott Shaw!, Ken Krueger, Greg Bear, Dave Clark, and Roger Freedman

Recently, Mr. Jamie Coville emailed this site to let us know that he had recorded this panel and put it on the Web. Since there was much talk of Shel Dorf at the panel, Jamie thought we might want to publish a link to the recording and kindly invited us to do so. Here it is:
http://www.thecomicbooks.com/Audio/2009-07-23-SD-SecretOriginsOfComicCon.mp3

In the course of this panel, Richard Alf in particular took some time to provide examples of the sorts of things that Shel did as founder of Comic-Con. Here is a transcript of one especially informative segment:

Richard Alf: I have a story to tell that a lot of the other guys may not know because I spent a lot of time with Shel that other people didn’t spend. But I wanted to tell everybody exactly what we did in the very beginning and how Shel helped us do that. One of Shel’s particular talents when he was dealing with us as young guys is he, I later realized, he knew everything that we were going to do but he only showed us a little bit at a time.

And I think the day that we really began to trust Shel was the day when we showed up at his house one day and he started asking us questions like “How many of you guys know Jack Kirby’s artwork?” and we all raised our hands of course and he said “How many of you guys have actually talked to Jack Kirby?” and none of us had. And then he asked the key question: “How many of you guys would like to talk to Jack Kirby if given the opportunity?” and you know, there were just a few of us there and we were all pretty young and we were all Fantastic Four fans and Avengers fans and we said, “Sure, we’d love to talk to Jack Kirby but how in the world are we ever going to get the opportunity to do that?” And so Shel said, “What if I called Jack right now and passed the phone around the table and we can all say hello to him?” and we didn’t quite know what to say at that point. We kind of looked at Shel and said, “Is this guy on the level or what?”

So, I remember, Shel dialed the number and he’s on the phone and he says, uh, “Hi, Roz. Uh, yeah, this is Shel Dorf down here in San Diego. Is Jack there, please? Hi Jack, yeah, how you doing? Shel Dorf, San Diego. Hey, I’ve got a bunch of your fans here that would like to say hello to you.” And he just hands the phone to the first guy at the table, I forget who it was, was it you Barry or Mike?

Barry Alfonso: Don’t remember, could have been.

Richard Alf: And we just passed the phone around and that was our first contact with Jack Kirby. Now, I later learned that Shel had only known Jack for about two or three months but he didn’t tell us that. He pulled these things out of the hat. And that’s what led to our first Jack Kirby trip.

Another thing that impressed me about Shel is the way he handled the whole convention issue. He talked to us about doing a Comic-Con, got us to the point where we kind of liked the idea and then he started running us through an exercise. He says, “Well, let’s debate this issue.” He says, “First of all, do you think there’s room on the national scene for another comic book convention?” And, uh, you know, we had the Comic Arts Convention in New York and we had the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, I think there was a Chicago Con going, some things in Texas and I remember one of the people at the table, one of the points that was raised is, somebody actually said, “Are we too late? Are there already too many other conventions going?” I mean it’s really incredible when you think back on it, that we weren’t sure but we decided, well, we’ll give it a try.

And then Shel said, “Well, then do you think that San Diego is an appropriate place for this kind of convention?”, keeping in mind that the bulk of the industry was on the East Coast at that time and if we had guests we had to fly most of them out. Phil Seuling in New York, he could just pick them up in a cab and take them to lunch. It was a very different situation for us. But we again felt that we would like a convention in San Diego regardless of whether it could work or not.

And then he asked us the third question, which was the key question, that is, did we as a group feel that we were capable of putting on this convention. And I think at that point we all said, “Yes. We’d like to go ahead with it.” So that was one little session with Shel.

And then a later session with Shel began like this: he says, “OK, now that we’ve decided to do this convention, the first thing we need to do is set a date.” And I had never been into long range planning like that before, the idea of committing ourselves to a date was a little frightening, but we eventually, I think this was in late 1969, we decided that August of 1970 would be a good time to do the convention.

Then we had to come up with a name. I mean it was just a step by step process that Shel took us through to come up with a name and because San Diego was not that well known at the time, we labeled it the Golden State Comic-Con because we figured people knew where California was but they didn’t know where San Diego was. And, so, it was a way of first showing that we’re on the West Coast, and then on our logo we put a little dot down at the bottom where San Diego is to say, “Hey, we’re over here, down at the bottom of the state.”

And, then after that we had to come up with a logo and I remember Shel with his experience with the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, they had a focus on comic books, films, and science fiction and so we just followed Shel’s lead and we said, “Well, we’re going to have comic books, and science fiction, and films as part of our basic set up as well.” We called it a “Comic-Con” because we were a comic-book group and we didn’t understand that you weren’t supposed to have science fiction and films in there. I mean, this is kind of a blueprint we were given and we ran with it and that’s why it has this triple focus that it had but it was called a “Comic-Con” because it originated from comic fans primarily.

And then after that, another thing that amazed me about Shel, and I was talking about this with Mike Towry the other night, is Shel really knew no fear. He said, “OK, guys, the next step is, we need to go down to the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and let them know what we’re going to do.” And it was like we didn’t have anything at that time. We hadn’t even printed our first flyer yet, we had absolutely nothing, but we still went down there, we introduced ourselves, and we said we’re going to be doing this, we’d like their help, and they not only gave us help for the Mini-Con but they’ve been helping the convention. I understand, ever since. But that’s where that relationship started when Shel took the initiative to go through the front door of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and just introduced himself and us as a group of kids who were going to do this thing called a “Comic-Con” and I remember people were constantly asking us, “Well what is a ‘Comic-Con?’ Is that like for stand-up comics or what is this thing? And we were constantly having to explain ourselves.

And then the next step, which I think really scared me, I don’t know how Mike felt about this, but he says, “OK, guys, now that we’ve made our minds up, we’ve got to let the world know what we’re going to do. So, we’re going to go down to the San Diego Union and we’re going to tell them that we’re going to make history and we want to talk to a reporter.” And I said, “Shel, we don’t have anything to show.” He says, “It doesn’t matter. These people have to print something. They’re always looking for news.” And so he took us down to the paper and we gave our story and they printed it. And then he said, “OK, now we have to go after the television stations.” And I remember driving Shel to Channel 10 and that’s where he met Bob White, uh, not Bob White, Jack White for the first time, and another fellow by the name of Gil Martinez, I think it was, who was in production.

And we did that and then he said we have to start going to the radio stations announcing ourselves. And we’re literally doing this with nothing: we didn’t even have our first flyer printed yet and yet we’re out there acting like we’ve got this big deal going.

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