Shel Dorf greatly impacted my life and steered my art career in an exciting new direction even years before I had even had the honor of knowing him. I attended my first San Diego Comic-Con in 1989 at the age of 14. As an aspiring artist, I attend this very inspirational Mecca every year. I always considered myself lucky that this event occurred in my hometown, as I saw the countries of Japan, New Zealand, among others around the globe written on the badges of attendees. It was at Comic-Con that I discovered Jeff Watts’ Art Instruction booth, which advertised the drawing classes by Jeff, Ron Lemen, and Joe Chiodo. Most importantly, it was at this school in 1995 where I met Rod Mojica, Phil Ermino, Ed Roeder, Stephen Silver, Steve Fishwick, and Ariel Terre who are all talented and great friends of mine to this day.
Three years later I became part of the Southern California Cartoonists Society (SCCS) through my caricaturing boss John Wismont. At my first meeting, one of the members pointed out some of the cartooning luminaries in the room: Greg Evans, George Gladir, Steve Kelly, Jim Whiting, Paul Norris, Jack Dempsey, and Shel Dorf. I was well aware that Shel had founded the Comic-Con and stopped by to say, “Thanks!”
Shel asked me to bring my portfolio to the next meeting the following month, which I did, but he seemed to forget that he had asked me to. Shel asked if I was looking for his sugar-coated opinion or the brutal truth. I replied, “The brutal truth!”
One week later Shel had arranged a meeting with character designer Jeff Ranjo at the Disney Studios and a visit to Forry Ackerman’s famed Ackermansion. I was stoked that the founder of the Comic-Con thought so highly of my artwork. Unfortunately my car broke down as we were driving around LA with Forry (how surreal is that?) so we missed our Disney visit. Shel was determined though and never gave up. A month later Shel, Wardell Brown, and I were at Disney visiting Howard Green and Jeff Ranjo had invited Wardell and I to attend the character design class he taught at Cal Arts.
Shel arranged for many trips throughout Southern California with Wardell, Andy Mitchell, Rod Mojica, and I to the homes and studios of Bill Lignante, Roger Armstrong, Jim Whiting, Paul Norris, Mel Lazarus, Mark Evanier, and Forry. We even visited his friend and my idol since childhood Chuck Jones in Laguna Beach and attended a lecture by Ray Bradbury at UCSD!
I’ll always remember Shel’s address book that was completely filled with names and addresses on every page. It was THE Who’s Who in the field of comics. Shel opened doors of great opportunity for aspiring artists, fans, and anyone who wanted to meet professional artists and writers and always introduced everyone as equals. He had been doing this since that first trip to Jack Kirby’s house with the Comic-Con’s co-founders in 1969.
Shel loved to interact and draw caricatures of blood donors every year at the San Diego Blood Bank’s Cartoonists Day. He was an invaluable ambassador to SCCS. Shel always brought along newcomers to our dinner meetings and most members joined because of an invite through him. Shel’s table was always the most lively and sought after! He was always seen entering the room with an armload of books, DVDs, posters, and sketches
that he gave to everyone. He encouraged me to become the President of the SCCS and to join the NCS (National Cartoonists Society). I attended the Reuben Awards in 2001 and got to meet more of Shel’s friends…Will Eisner, Mike Peters, Frank Springer, and Jack Davis. I still pinch myself.
San Diego based artists Rod Mojica, Wardell Brown, Mark Richmond, James Garrovillas, and I had been attending local figure-drawing classes every Tuesday and invited Shel to go with us. Shel in the early 90s was part of a group called TAG (
Tuesday Art Group), which Jeff Ranjo and Joe Chiodo were members of, and insisted we all get dinner afterwards as he did with TAG each week. This became a tradition and a highlight of everyone’s week. By this time Shel had become a great friend and mentor to all five of us. He taught us about the business, talked shop, and shared many laughs, while we feasted at Ruby’s Diner or Denny’s in Mission Valley. Even Denny’s food tasted somewhat good when you hung out with this group! It was great to see Shel return to creating art again.
In 2000 Shel attended what I think was his last tour through Comic-Con. Our art group along with fellow SCCSers all took turns pushing a wheelchair for Shel, so he could see more people and not be on his feet all day. You couldn’t push him past two booths without someone in the aisle or behind a booth yelling “Shel!!” Shel also introduced me to Rick Geary, RC Harvey, Kevin Eastman, and Phil Yeh, whom I paint murals with to promote literacy and the arts through Cartoonists Across America, which was a cause Shel highly endorsed.
This past year was the 40th Anniversary of Comic-Con, and Charlie Roberts asked if I would design a poster-size card for Shel. “GREETINGS FROM SAN DIEGO, SHEL!” it proclaimed. Shel’s photo had recently been reprinted in the Union-Tribune, so I cut it out and placed Rick Geary’s Comic-Con Toucan character next to it and drew a frame around it with one of my Tony Hawk characters carrying the frame as he skated away. I took the poster around the Con to have everyone I knew or that I knew Shel knew to sign and draw on it. Some of the names were: Charlie, Wardell, Rod, Mark, Rick, Greg, George, Phil, Dean LeCrone, Michael Aushenker, Ted Washington, Phil Ortiz, Dave and Doreen Dotson, George Clayton Johnston, Robert Beerbohm, Dave Scroggy, Chad Frye, Jay Wing, Karyl Miller, and Werner Wejp-Olsen.
Shel celebrated Thanksgiving one year with my family, which we all consider one of our favorites. We’ll always be thankful for Shel. Reflecting on Shel’s life, my
sister Christa put it best, “Shel was a great example that one person really can make a difference!”
Shel was a dedicated life-long promoter of comic books, comic strips, and animation. Through Comic-Con and his published writings Shel helped elevate these art forms to higher and more respected status. After his involvement with Comic-Con, he focused on being a connector and served as a mentor to many. One of the aspiring artists on this long list was the talented Michael Turner, who Shel made sure he attended his first Con and was quickly hired on the spot. Before the internet, there was Shel.
Shel was extremely giving in helping countless people reach their goals, discover their potential, and realize their dream jobs. Shel was a great friend to many and left all of us with more friends than we had before we knew him or attended the Con. He truly lived by the Golden Rule. Shel set an example of how to be a teacher, through his gift of selflessness and giving, and that along with his thriving Comic-Con, will be his everlasting legacy.