Having spent years, if not decades, as the top dog of comic conventions, and largely recognized by the hoi polloi as the de facto pop culture happening for well over a decade now, it's surprising that a big book on the history of the San Diego Comic-Con hasn’t been published sooner. See You at San Diego, a whopping 480-page(!!) oral history of the show’s creation and growth, attempts to detail the origins of the convention and how it became the massive juggernaut it is today, with lots of anecdotes and remembrances from the people that helped shape it.
Unfortunately, while See You at San Diego does contain some engaging and occasionally delightful anecdotes, it’s also more than a bit of a mess, badly in need of an editor that could whittle its massive length down to a leaner and more succinct size, avoid the numerous repetitions, ask some tough questions about inclusion and the dominance of geek culture today, and perhaps even suggest some different page design choices than what’s offered in the final product.
The best part of the book is the first third or so, as the show’s founders and early contributors remember how Comic-Con was formed (the hyphen, we learn, is an important part of the trademark), recounting the problems entailed in keeping it going in those first few years. There are many great details proffered here, like the fact that the initial meetings–mostly attended by high schoolers–were held in organizer Ken Krueger’s bookstore, which made up for the poor sales of its sci-fi stock by selling porn in the back room. Or that the convention became a nonprofit entity on the spur of the moment in the hopes it would convince Ray Bradbury to attend (it did).
The book also does a good job emphasizing the bond between the early organizers and their desire to create an event that celebrated their own unique (and, at the time, largely mocked) interests. There’s a “hey gang, let’s put on a show” vibe to these recitations of the early proceedings that’s easy to appreciate, if not envy, in a you-had-to-be-there sort of way. These early, ramshackle years, with their singalongs, late-night movies and nude swimming, sound like fun.
Certain figures and voices crop up again and again, most notably writer Mark Evanier and cartoonist Scott Shaw! The gossipiest section is “The Conflict”, which is mainly about what a cantankerous and abrasive figure co-founder Shel Dorf could be. Purportedly more gifted at schmoozing than business or organization (and apparently a bit of a prude as well), Dorf comes across as a difficult, combative presence; Shaw! and Jim Valentino are the most acerbic in their recollections.
There’s a rambling, repetitive, start-and-stop nature to the book, however, that becomes less and less charming the further you plow through it. Far too many people keep making the same points again and again. Yes, we know: you really admired Jack Kirby, it was tough being socially ostracized for liking Star Trek. I understand that not everyone reading this book will be aware of the history of the comic book direct market, but do we need so many people reciting that history? Is it that important to know how Groo the Wanderer came into being? Many sections feel like they fall out of order as well, where suddenly a segue or lengthy story or history will pop up that really should have been placed several pages or chapters back. Chapter three, on the early growth of the convention, feels like it should be swapped with chapter two, on the wider culture surrounding the show.
What’s more, past the halfway point, as the convention begins to become more successful, there’s a considerable dearth of participation from contemporary Comic-Con organizers. Folks like Jackie Estrada, for example, are nowhere to be found. In an afterword, author Mathew Klickstein acknowledges that Estrada feared her participation would make it seem like the convention played a role in the book’s production. Likewise, Klickstein states that he was not able to interview current administrators because the convention would have requested edits that would have hurt the book.
To some extent, that concern is understandable (although I wish it had been placed up front and not at the end), but it does lead to an increasingly frustrating and incomplete story. I had a number of questions about how the modern-day Comic-Con operates. How could such a huge event that attracts thousands upon thousands of people keep things running smoothly? What does it take to keep the machine humming? Instead we get actors with “geek cred” like Felicia Day, Bruce Campbell and Scott Aukerman (and, of course, Kevin Smith) talking about how wonderful the Con is and what a great role it has had in shaping their careers. (Aukerman does have an entertaining story about attending with Mr. Show creators Bob Odenkirk and David Cross and cringing as they proceeded to mock everything around them.) If the intention of the book was to stay primarily focused on the early days, it should have said so up front - and been a lot shorter.
While I’m griping, I need to complain about the book design as well. The pages are laid out to resemble a mimeographed zine. Or, perhaps more accurately, a bunch of papers stuffed into folders you might come across in a dusty filing cabinet. To that end, the font is in a sans-serif type that resembles something seen on a Commodore 64, and there’s an odd graying effect one-third or halfway down each page; it took me forever to realize this was supposed to look like the page had been folded and then photographed. Perhaps some poor soul will find this charming, but for me it was incredibly distracting, difficult to read, and wholly unnecessary.
Another concern with See You in San Diego is the way the book elides some of the issues surrounding ethnicity and gender. We hear from very few people of color, for example, underscoring the notion that the sort of hobbies Comic-Con traditionally celebrates were largely the purview of white, middle-class folks. And while a number of the initial early organizers were women, the book dutifully notes that the make-up of the Con for many, many years was mostly male. That’s changed a lot in recent years of course, but Klickstein doesn’t really delve into how or why those changes came about - or, perhaps more negatively, what the Comic-Con experience might have been for someone that wasn’t white and/or male. I kept thinking about the sexual harassment revelations that came out about DC editor Julius Schwartz after he died. Surely similar instances occurred at Comic-Con in the past. How did the Con handle such instances? How has it attempted to become more inclusive in the ensuing years? Do the initial organizers wish they had been more aware and inclusive at the outset?
The hammer that perpetually rings the anvil throughout the book, though, is how different the attitude towards geek culture was in the 1970s and '80s. As someone currently in their 50s, I can attest to the veracity of such statements. At the time Comic-Con began, liking stuff like comic books or Star Trek or sci-fi novels was a sign there might be something wrong with you, or that you were inviting outright mockery. Now the reverse is true; to even suggest that perhaps some of those Marvel movies aren’t very good is met with loud disdain, or worse. There’s a defensiveness to geek culture these days that seems wholly unwarranted given its prominence upon the North American landscape.
Yet Klickstein’s attitude is largely a celebratory one. Sure, the show has become so big and crowded and full of Hollywood types that some of the people interviewed long nostalgically for the golden days. But ultimately there are no questions asked about what this sort of mega-popularity might do to the culture at large; if there might be any downsides beyond not getting into Hall H when you’re the top dog on the pop culture pile. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of this quote from Roger Ebert back in 2009:
Extreme fandom may serve as a security blanket for the socially inept, who use its extreme structure as a substitute for social skills. If you are Luke Skywalker and she is Princess Leia, you already know what to say to each other, which is so much safer than having to ad-lib it. Your fannish obsession is your beard. If you know absolutely all the trivia about your cubbyhole of pop culture, it saves you from having to know anything about anything else. That's why it's excruciatingly boring to talk to such people: They're always asking you questions they know the answer to.
I didn’t expect Klickstein to answer these questions, but I kind of hoped his book would at least sidle up next to them occasionally. Despite the occasional winning anecdote, See You at San Diego falls far short of the definitive history of the convention it clearly aims to be.