San Diego Comic-Con: The Untold History

One fall afternoon in 1969, a heavyset 36-year old man in a toupee named Sheldon Dorf sat at the dinner table of his parents’ house in San Diego, California. He was unemployed and living with them, having tagged along when they decided to sell their Detroit candy factory and retire somewhere nice.

Gathered around him were five scruffy teenage boys: Richard Alf, a 17-year-old former fireworks dealer who sold comic books through the mail; Mike Towry and Bob Sourk, fellow teenage mail-order comics businessmen; Barry Alfonso, a skinny kid who was actually only 12; and Dan Stewart, a comics customer of Alf’s.

This group, who barely knew each other at the time, was there as part of the very beginning of a project that would change their lives, fandom and the broader culture forever: they were inventing Comic-Con, this week beginning its 47th annual iteration. They, and those who would join them in planning the early conventions, were all outsiders who worked together to make a place where outsiders could feel at home.

By any measure, they were massively successful. Today, Comic-Con is one of the biggest cultural gatherings in the world, with events in all 50 states, Canada and the U.K. It draws an average of about 300,000 people combined to just its New York and San Diego outposts every year. In San Diego alone, it completely fills (and spills beyond) the 11 acres of the San Diego Convention Center and contributes a whopping $150 million annually in economic impact to the city. This is to say nothing of the multiple, multi-billion-dollar superhero, science fiction, video game and fantasy franchises which rely on exposure at Comic-Con, and whom the convention relies on to create new fans.

In the late 1960s, the landscape was very different.

“In those days, you were an oddball or an outcast if you were into that stuff,” says Mike Towry, who now runs his own convention, San Diego Comic Fest. “Society looked down on science fiction fans, but even science fiction fans looked down on [comics fans]. We were at the bottom – unless you were into outright pornography, we were as low as you could get.”

In this embattled environment, it was easy for fans to feel a kinship to each other. Alf and Towry’s business selling comics in the mail was more than transactional; they traded letters and developed relationships with people of all ages from all over the country, asking for comic books, swapping personal updates, developing in-jokes and always apologizing for how long they’d taken to reply.

So when they met an older comics fan like Dorf, they were open to hearing what he had to say; each could sense a fellow outcast.

By 1969, Dorf was out of step with society, a square in a culture getting rapidly cooler. He had spent most of his life in Detroit, where he was born, living with his parents on and off. Comics – particularly newspaper comic strips like Terry and the Pirates andDick Tracy, a particular object of obsession – had been his passion since he was a child. When he was 16, he convinced his father to drive 60 miles to a rural Illinois farmhouse so that he could meet Chester Gould, Tracy’s creator. In 1965, Dorf was on the cover of theDetroit Free Press for his massive collection of Tracy memorabilia, including 162 comic books and all 12,479 strips dating back to 1932. Dorf would cut out the strips a put them in huge binders, something he did with many other comics throughout his life.

“I felt they were too good to throw away,” he told the Free Press.

As he got older, Dorf decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to working in comics. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the skills in writing or drawing.

“Shel was always looking for a place in comics,” says Mark Evanier, another person involved in the founding of Comic-Con. He would become a television and comics writer, working on shows like Scooby-Doo, Garfield and Friends, and Richard Pryor’s short-lived Saturday morning show, Pryor’s Place. “But there really wasn’t one for him. He wanted to be paid, he wanted to make a living in comics, but he wasn’t going to write anything, he wasn’t going to draw anything, he wasn’t going to edit anything.”

What he was good at, however, was networking and unabashedly using his connections – no matter how tenuous – to advance himself and accomplish things.

This all came to the fore at that 1969 meeting. Dorf had worked on a fan convention in Detroit, and wanted to do something similar in San Diego. So he was trying to get this group of kids interested in putting on a comic convention with him – and in some sense, for him.

“Boys,” Dorf said to the group in a booming, melodramatic voice. “Who of you is familiar with the work of Jack Kirby?” All fans of comics, they of course knew Jack Kirby, the man who co-created basically every notable Marvel superhero, from Captain America to the X-Men. They all silently raised their hands.

Dorf continued, “How many of you have ever met Jack Kirby?” All of the hands dropped.

“It seemed to us like kind of a weird question – like how would you do that?” says Towry. “These were far-off people on some comics Mount Olympus or whatever.

Without saying a word, Dorf picked up a rotary telephone, and began ceremoniously spinning the dial.

“Hello, Roz?” he said into the receiver, addressing Jack Kirby’s wife. “I’m here with the boys! Is Jack there? Oh, OK, put him on!” And with that, he began passing the phone around the table, from one dumbstruck boy to the next.

Dorf and Kirby were far from old friends. They’d met just a few months before, when Dorf turned up at his house unannounced in the company of a mutual acquaintance.

“If Charlie Manson had showed up at their door, they probably would have said, ‘Hey, come on in!'” says Scott Shaw, a cartoonist and animator involved in planning the early conventions as a 16- and 17-year-old. “They were that friendly to everybody. They weren’t naive, they were just great people.”

This phone call served its purpose, convincing the teens that Dorf was a connected comics insider who could help them put on a convention. This was bolstered a few months later when Dorf organized a field trip for the teens to Kirby’s house.

Kirby met with the boys for hours, despite his reputation as a tireless workaholic. He showed off his artwork, posed for photos, gave advice and patiently answered questions. At a later meeting, he’d even draw the kids into a Superman comic (as villains).

“He never talked down to us,” says Towry. “He would have a conversation with us just like he’s talking to any adult. He would just tell us what was on his mind, what kinds of things he was thinking of, what inspired him, what kind of stuff he found fascinating, and he would answer our questions.”

“He was like an uncle,” says Alfonso. “He was just so friendly and so unpretentious and so nice. I never met anybody like that.”

At that meeting, Kirby agreed to attend their first convention, and also gave the group a crucial piece of advice. They’d been debating whether to limit the convention to comic books or to take a more expansive view to fandom. Kirby told them that they should include everything that fans like, and that “it would be a lot more fun and a richer experience if we included these other things, like film and science fiction and whatnot,” remembers Towry. This advice is one of the unique factors that has kept Comic-Con flexible and diverse over the years: instead of being focused on one thing, it’s focus is really on the idea of fandom itself.

“After that,” says Towry, “it was like, yeah, sure, we’ll put on a comic convention. We talked to Jack Kirby – we can do it! We’ll do anything, Shel’s legit.”

The first Comic-Con was really two conventions, both held at the U.S. Grant hotel in downtown San Diego: a mini-con in March 1970 and a three-day convention the following August. At the time, downtown was a seedy area. The Grant was a once-grand hotel that had fallen on hard times, located just down the road from where sailors from the local navy base would pick up prostitutes.

“It was a fleabag, all right,” says Shaw, “kind of desperate” for business. It was the only place that would agree to host the convention, not just because of comics’ bad reputation, but because a bunch of children weren’t going to spend any money at the bar, a major source of revenue for a hotel hosting a more traditional convention. And even at that, the planners only got the Grant because a friend in local government recommended them. For their first convention, in March 1970, they were given the basement, which was under construction at the time. (Dorf described the location choice with typical mythmaking exaggeration in an interview from in a souvenir booklet for Comic-Con in 1982: “I decided to go for the top, and the top hotel I knew of in San Diego was the U.S. Grant.”)

Aside from Kirby, the other major guest at the first convention was Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and many other science fiction classics. He’s also, inadvertently, the reason Comic-Con is a nonprofit.

Bradbury gave a speech at San Diego State University in late 1969. Dorf and Alf attended, and hung around afterward waiting to chat him up. Eventually, they got his attention by passing him one of Dorf’s binders of old comic strips. They explained that they were holding a convention and they’d love to have him come. Bradbury immediately agreed, but said that he’d need his regular speaking fee, around $5,000 (about $30,000 adjusted for inflation). They didn’t have the money.

“Immediately, they were crestfallen,” remembers Towry. “Shel said he got this kind of lightbulb that went off in his head, about what to say next. He goes, ‘You know, we’re just a nonprofit organization of fans, and we’re doing this as a public service to educate the public about comics and science fiction.’

This, of course, was a lie. Comic-Con wasn’t a non-profit. It wasn’t anything but a bunch of teenagers hanging out to talk to each other.

Hearing this, though, Bradbury said, “‘Oh, OK! I’ll come for free.'”

Afterward, the organizers quickly began figuring out how to actually become a non-profit.

A key factor in making things like this a reality was the logistical help of another group of fans centered around a local publisher and bookseller named Ken Krueger, a level-headed businessman with his eye on the bottom line. His store Ocean Books sold roughly equal amounts of comics and pornography, a strategy to stay afloat; the pornography was more profitable than the comics. Gregarious and kind, friends remember him in a Hawaiian shirt, smoking a cigar, having a celebratory drink.

It was Krueger who was budget-conscious, signed contracts with venues, and generally led the idea of comic convention from a kitchen table to reality.

Still, it was a shock to everyone what a success both the mini-con and first convention were, with more than 300 people attending the August convention.

“There was a sense of, my god, we got 300 people here, isn’t that amazing?” says Evanier. “If you had said at this point, one day there will be 10,000 people at the convention, they’d have said you were crazy. If this thing tripled in size, that would be amazing.”

“I was delighted,” says Shaw.

In the convention, they’d created an alternate reality for themselves, populated by fans from around the country. For many of them, this was their first time being surrounded by like-minded people.

“It was just wonderful to be in this environment where what you were into was normal and cool,” says Towry. “And you met all these other people that liked all the same things that you did – that was a wonderful experience.”

Many of the founders would go on to successful careers. Barry Alfonso became a songwriter, writing a number-one hit for country singer Pam Tillis, and lyrics for the title song to early Tom Cruise film All The Right Moves.Mike Towry runs his own comic festival. Richard Alf passed away in 2012 after a stint owning his own comics store. Scott Shaw worked extensively on children’s television in the 1980s, writing and producing for shows like Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies, Camp Candy,andThe Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley. They all credit their early work at Comic-Con with giving them the connections and confidence to succeed.

For Dorf, things were less smoothly. In a cruel bit of irony, the man whose primary asset was unabashed fandom and an ability to connect fans with creators – skills which he used to help found the most successful fan convention of all time – lived the bulk of his life feeling slighted by his creation and jealous of the younger people who found the creative and professional success he never had.

Though everyone interviewed for this article had positive things to say about Dorf’s involvement in the con – to a large extent, it was his idea – he was also a prickly personality, hard to get along with for even those who most wanted to support him. He died in 2009, alienated from the convention and having pushed away many of those he worked with.

Stories of his bad and inexplicable behavior are numerous, from personally handing out hundreds of free tickets to the convention at a San Diego shopping center in the days when tens of thousands of people were regularly attending, to sending an original founder a note on the birth of his child which said, “If you didn’t lose weight, your son will grow up ashamed of you.”

To some extent, he even grated on the unflappably magnanimous Kirby, frequently bringing large groups to the house without really letting on what he was up to.

“One time, my then-partner Steve and I get this panicked call from Roz on a Saturday morning,” remembers Evanier, who worked as Kirby’s assistant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “She says, ‘Shel Dorf’s here, and he’s brought an army with him. Please come out and help me.'”

Evanier and his partner arrived at Kirby’s house to find five cars parked outside and 20 people inside, peppering Kirby with questions, asking for drawings and refusing to leave.

Eventually, Kirby, attempting to gently push everyone toward the exit, said, “Listen guys, we gotta wrap this up, it’s almost lunch time.”

“Oh, good, what are we having?” Dorf replied.

“And the next thing I knew, Roz is sending Steve and me to Jack in the Box to buy hamburgers for 20 people!” says Evanier.

Another visit was even more pointed, remembers Shaw. A group had been talking with Kirby for hours, and it became obvious that it was time to go. Kirby, a famous workaholic, had been neglecting work on his new D.C. project The New Gods and needed to get back to the drawing board.

Again, trying to tactfully get everyone to leave, Kirby said, “Well, boys, is there anything else I can do for you?”

“And Shel pulls out, I’m not making this up, a stack of those New Gods comics, and a tape recorder,” said Shaw. “He says, ‘Jack, what I’d like you to do is, could you read the copy, the dialogue from all the first few issues, and read the dialogue in the voice that you imagine they have, and annotate anything along the way as to why you did things one way or the other.

And Jack just looks at him and says, ‘No.'”

Today, Comic-Con transcends its origins in a thousand ways: every trailer which premieres there, every cosplay gallery that gets published, every time you see a celebrity’s Wikipedia photo taken there, every time it’s referenced or made fun of in movies or TV reminds you of how central the convention and the particular kind of admirably obsessive fandom it’s helped bring into the mainstream is to the current state of pop culture. 

Even given its phenomenal growth, it remains an intimate experience for many attendees.

“Comic-Con is that kind of a place where you can go around a corner and see or meet somebody that might change your life,” says Shaw. “You may meet a friend that you have forever, or somebody that you have a romantic relationship with, or a publisher that says, ‘Boy, I like your stuff, I’d like to do this or that with it.'”

The thing that makes Comic-Con so vital today goes all the way back to its founding. A small group of people wanted to take some existing relationships with far-flung people they only knew through writing, and bring it into reality. They wanted to be in the same room with the people who created the things they loved. They wanted a place where they could just be themselves, loving the things they loved in passionately, uncool, over-the-top ways. And they didn’t really care what anybody else thought about that. Throughout all the changes in the past four decades, that instinct, born at a kitchen table with one adult and a few teens, has hardly changed at all.