Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Comic Fest Oct. 19- 21: '70s Comic Con founders launch new/old convention
“Comic-Con International [administrators] may have been leery at first about where we’re coming from, since there are people out there who complain quite a bit about how Comic-Con has changed,” says Mike Towry, one of several original San Diego Comic-Con operators who plan to launch an alternative convention, Comic Fest, running October 19 through 21.
“However, we always try to make it clear that we’re not on some kind of anti-Comic-Con crusade. We just miss the kind of event we had back in the early days of Comic-Con and decided this was a good time to bring it back.”
Towry was 17 when he and five other local funnybook fans organized their first San Diego Comic-Con at the El Cortez Hotel in 1972. Launched two years earlier at the U.S. Grant Hotel as the San Diego Golden State Comic-Con (“We put in ‘Golden State’ because people in other cities might not have heard of San Diego”), its El Cortez debut was attended by around a thousand collectors and dealers.
Forty years later, the event has morphed into the massive pop culture juggernaut now known as Comic-Con International, attracting over 130,000 attendees annually and generating a regional economic impact of $162.8 million, according to the San Diego Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Many in the cliquish comic book community publicly bitch about how the Hollywood publicity machine has co-opted the event, the ten-hour panel lineups, and how it’s nearly impossible to get tickets unless you buy up to a year in advance. There’s also resentment about CCI’s dwindling focus on actual comic books, and rumors that the show plans to relocate to Anaheim.
“Comic Fest is intended as a recreation of that 1972 El Cortez Con, for those who miss the early, intimate Con experience or who never got to enjoy it,” says Towry.
Two of the six ’72 Comic-Con operators have passed away (Shel Dorf and Richard Alf), and Dan Stewart is currently MIA (“Hopefully he’ll Google Comic-Con someday and contact someone”), leaving Towry, Barry Alfonso, and Bob Sourk to head up their retro revival.
In addition, “Mark Stadler, our programming coordinator, was on the Comic-Con committee and then their board for fifteen years and is still friends with [CCI President] John Rogers.”
The attempt to recreate 1972 includes an attendance limit of 1,000. “That includes staff, volunteers, guests, dealers, and attendees,” says Towry. Unlike 1972, three-day ticket prices are $50 for adults, $25 for ages 11 to 15, and free tix for anyone under 11 (with paid adult admission), with single day tickets available for $25 (or $15 for Sunday-only). Says Towry, “We expect to be sold out before the Fest.” By comparison, Comic-Con admission runs $75 to $175 for four-day passes, and $12 to $42 for single-day tickets.
“I’m concerned whether Comic Fest will be able to get a thousand people,” says Jamie Ralph Gardner, who in the 1990s promoted local comic-themed events like San Diego’s Monthly Mini-Con. He notes that San Diego, despite being home to the much-ballyhooed CCI, has otherwise seen its own comic marketplace dwindle.
“There were two branches of Comic Gallery that I would deliver flyers to in the 1990s, but they’re all gone. They had been around since 1980…I delivered to Amazing Al’s Comics and Cards, Comic Book Paradise, Discount Comics, and Over the Edge Comics in El Cajon; they’re gone. Star Force Collectibles, a Star Wars store I delivered to in El Cajon, closed down. Years later, I was surprised to see the owner working as a manager at Blockbuster Video.”
Gardner points out that the 2009 San Diego Quarterly Comic Convention, promoted by Paul Martinez at the Scottish Rite Event Center, failed to take off. “He was shocked at the lack of attendees. Paul thought the success of Comic-Con [International] would carry over to his convention."
Notes Gardner, "As much of a struggle as it was to get attendees into the conventions, it’s much more difficult now. The number of comic book stores to help promote is so much less now.”
Towry is hoping that booking well-known creators for Comic Fest will help sell tickets. Guests include 80 year-old political provocateur Paul Krassner (whose comic cred includes a 1950s stint at Mad Magazine), 86 year-old artist Murphy Anderson (revered for his 1960s work on the Flash, the Atom, Batman, and Superman), underground comic publisher Ron Turner (whose Last Gasp imprint debuted in 1970), comic writer Mark Evanier (best known for Groo the Wanderer, launched by Miramar-based Pacific Comics in 1982), and locally-bred creators like sci-fi author Greg Bear (age 61) and Image Comics co-founder Jim Valentino (59).
Original Twilight Zone/Logan’s Run writer George Clayton Johnson, now 83 years old, will serve as Storyteller in Residence at an on-site recreation of Café Frankenstein, a beatnik lounge he operated in Laguna Beach during the late 1950s, where local Folk Arts Rare Records owner Lou Curtiss (who performed at the original Café) will play a set.
As opposed to 1972, Comic Fest won’t be staged at the El Cortez, which now houses condos and uses its Don Room banquet hall for wedding receptions and the like. The Town and Country Resort and Convention Center on Hotel Circle has hosted other geek-centric events, such as last year’s World Fantasy Convention.
“We’re going old school with the dealers room too, and doing plain tables with no mega-booths,” says Towry, taking a mild swipe at Comic-Con’s abundance of theme park constructions and towering multimedia displays right out of Times Square.
“I haven’t heard any direct commentary from CCI about the Fest,” says Towry, who downplays his event as competing for attendees and attention. “Comic-Con would be the big stadium show with lots of pyrotechnics, while Comic Fest would be the intimate club date where you get to hang out backstage with the band.”
“There’s no need for it to be an either/or situation.”
Panel discussions will include a look back at San Diego publisher Pacific Comics, which in the 1980s launched such comics as the Rocketeer, Groo the Wanderer, Starslayer, and two titles created by Jack Kirby: Captain Victory and Silver Star (see link to separate article below, "This Rise and Fall of Pacific Comics")
Music performers appearing in Café Frankenstein will be covered in this week’s Blurt column (on the stands and online Oct. 17). One of the players is '60s survivor Barry McGuire. Says Towry, “Barry even has an indirect Comic-Con connection since his song ‘Eve of Destruction’ was Darkseid's favorite song.”
“The San Diego Five String Mob, which appeared in a couple of Kirby's Fourth World comics for DC, was based on the Comic-Con committee members whose photos were on the facing page in the program book,” says Towry. “There will be at least four members of the Five String Mob at the Comic Fest: me, Scott Shaw!, Roger Freedman, and Barry Alfonso, who as Barri Boy was the secret sixth-member of the Five String Mob. It's possible that Bill Lund might be able to make it down to the Fest as well.”
The Comic Fest guests of honor are:
Jackie Estrada, guest of honor, a writer and editor who has attended every San Diego Comic-Con and has been a Comic-Con committee member since 1975. She has been the administrator of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, comics’ most prestigious awards program, since 1990.
Mark Evanier, fan guest of honor, a comics fan since the 1950s, a comics writer since the 1960s and a television writer since the 1970s. He probably is best known in comics for writing Groo the Wanderer, an award-winning humor title created by Evanier’s friend, Sergio Aragonés, in 1982.
Murphy Anderson, comics guest of honor, one of the premier artists of the comic book silver age who helped to define the look of such super-heroes as Adam Strange, Flash, Atom, Batman, and Superman.
Ron Turner, comix guest of honor, who began publishing underground comics (known as comix) under the Last Gasp imprint in 1970, the same year as the first San Diego Comic-Con. Last Gasp continues to publish “unusual and extraordinary high quality books” to this day.
Tim Powers, science fiction guest of honor, the author of 13 novels, including The Anubis Gates, one of the core steampunk novels; On Stranger Tides, the basis for the Disney movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; and Hide Me Among the Graves, his most recent novel.
For more information, see http://www.sdcomicfest.org/
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