I have often retold the story of how I became a professional comic book artist and writer and publisher in my teens and it always starts when my dad took me down to that first San Diego Comic-Con. I was too young to drive and was living in a tough section of Los Angeles where I really didn’t know very many comic book fans. I had never even met a professional artist and didn’t have a clue what steps to take to get into this field. I really had to convince my Chinese-born dad that this was a drive worth taking. (My father probably regrets this trip to this day since he had hoped that I would become an engineer.)
I met Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury that year and I was able to ask them how to get into the field of creating comics and writing books. I was not a very good speller and I recall that Ray told me that there were editors. It didn’t even matter if you typed perfectly! Jack was very warm and direct as he told me to just do it. I remember thinking that Jack was a giant of a man and that I now had the permission from these two giants to do what I had always dreamed of as a very young kid. Both of these men were completely humble and you could see that they loved what they did for a living.
I was still in high school in the fall of 1970 when I started my own publishing company and now more than 86 books later, I can say that being at that Comic-Con really changed my life in so many ways. Our little publishing company will turn 40 in 2010 and I really credit that first meeting with Jack and Ray as the inspiration I needed to just “do it.”
I find more and more these days I am making sure that everyone in the world who sees me painting murals on our Cartoonists Across America & The World tour or hears me speak in my public speaking engagements and through the media interviews I give knows this story of that very first Comic-Con and that it was the incredible dedication and love for the cartoon arts and all related fields of popular culture from one man that really made this possible.
I was a special guest at this year’s Comic-Con for the very first time in celebration of the 40th anniversary and, at the special party for the old timers, I had a chance to talk to many of the “kids” who were there at the start of the Comic-Con. These young people who helped Shel get the whole thing started all had their own unique tales of those early days and how it changed their own lives. We shared stories about those early conventions and talked about how Shel was able to get so many incredible guests to attend the convention when it was still small enough where a fan or young professional could pretty much talk with the greats of our field. I suggested that night that San Diego needs to name a street for Shel since the Comic-Con played such a major role in putting downtown San Diego on the map.
Over the years Shel would drop me occasional notes about my tour promoting literacy and the arts using comics that I started back in 1985. In one letter in 2001, he signed a photo of Ray Bradbury and himself at a 1997 book signing. In the photo Shel is wearing my “Read. Avoid Extinction.” dinosaur t-shirt next to Ray surrounded by books. I have this photo hanging right above my computer to remind me how a few rare people can seriously change the lives of one kid from L.A. As I get older, I am forever reminded that every one of us has to remember that we all touch lives in both positive and negative ways. Shel Dorf is one person who really made a positive difference to a whole generation of creative people and their fans.
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