Becoming a Fan Again at San Diego Comic Fest 2020

In December 2019 I decided I was going to attend San Diego Comic Fest (SDCF) the following March. It had been decades since I attended a fan convention of any sort. I first got into comics in 1985 with Marvel’s Epic reprints of Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest (EQ). I discovered EQ on a rainy day during a family camping trip on a summer vacation. To escape from the rain, we stopped into a drug store. The store had a large magazine and comic section. My mom told me to pick out a few things to occupy my time while it continued to rain. I picked up EQ #2 & 3. I was hooked from that point on. From EQ I moved into a lot of b+w indie comics and later dabbled in Marvel’s mutant titles. I became a regular at my local comic shop, Fat Cat Books in Johnson City, NY. I attended a number of local comic conventions throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as FantaCon and various Star Trek conventions. I always dreamed of going to San Diego Comic Con as a sort of crescendo to my involvement in fandom.

Between 1988 to 1992 I was an active member of over a dozen EQ fan groups, called holts. From 1988 to 1990 I also ran the fan art page for the Elflord Fan Club newsletter, Adventures Beyond Greenhaven. I didn’t have a significant role in fandom, but I was involved. From what I remember, there were always EQ events planned for Comic Con, particularly for 1988: EQ’s tenth anniversary. I never made it to Comic Con. I was 13 in 1988. I never met the Pinis though they lived only a few hours from where I grew up, and they were regular guests at comic conventions around upstate NY.

Elflord fan art from the Adventures Beyond Greenhaven Newsletter.
Artwork © Roger Hawkins.

As a kid, I collected comics with my allowance, and when I got older, I didn’t have money for comics much less comic conventions. While I collected Elfquest sporadically throughout the later 1990s and 2000s, I only checked out other titles occasionally, dipping into manga for a short time when I would borrow graphic novels from a co-worker at Barnes and Noble. Recently, I have gotten back into comics: now that I have a stable job—a career even, I have money to do so. And the comics I’ve started with aren’t those penned by the hot writers or artists du jour. They’re the comics that I wanted to check out in my youth, but that I couldn’t afford or find, such as Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits, Donna Barr’s The Desert Peach, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, Drew Hayes’ Poison Elves, and Teri Wood’s Wandering Star, among others.

Bill Schelly and his the cover of his revised memoir, Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom.

My past involvement in fandom got me interested in whether or not anyone had documented the work that comic fans had done to popularize the art form before the internet. Being familiar with fan studies, I knew that a lot of work had been done about how online fan participation had changed pop culture. More specifically, I wondered if anyone had written anything about EQ holts. I couldn’t find anything about holts, but I found Bill Schelly’s work. I read Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom, and I loved it. While Schelly wrote about a different generation of comic fandom and fans, I connected with the underlying sentiments. Comic fandom inspired fans to connect with one another and to create work of their own. I dug more deeply into Schelly’s work and was crestfallen when I learned that he had died shortly before I read Sense of Wonder. Still, Schelly’s influence lingered. His book spurred my interest in connecting with other fans and attending conventions again, but Comic Con has changed. It’s not the same convention that I longed to attend in the 1980s.

When I saw that EQ’s creators, the Pinis, billed as featured guests at SDCF, I decided to find out more about the event. In reading through the information on the SDCF website, I noted how the organization behind it, the International Popular Arts and Comics Education League, wants to rekindle the spirit of Comic Con’s early years. It is what I was looking for, a convention focused on comics and comic fans. I made my travel arrangements. Throughout January and February 2020, I counted the days until SDCF. I picked up a number of books by guests who I had heard of but whose work I was unfamiliar with. I also ordered a few comics and graphic novels that I wanted to take with me to get signed. While I built up anticipation for the event, I hadn’t counted on the coronavirus.

The Early Days of Covid-19

My trip to SDCF 2020 started at 3:30 am on Thursday, March 5. At that point, the virus had emerged in the US, but seemed mainly focused in Washington. On January 20, the first person to test positive lived in Snohomish County, WA. While I use past tense here, I cannot find information about whether that person lived or died. Prior to my trip, I had heard little about the virus hitting California. On March 4, the first California resident with the virus died. They lived in Placer County outside of Sacramento, about 600 miles from San Diego. I didn’t learn about their death until after I arrived. Still, exposure during SDCF seemed like a remote possibility. I was less worried about my health than I was about others and the potential of bringing the virus back home to rural Mississippi. I worried about all the comic creators that I got so excited about seeing at the event. Many of them are over 60 years old—a high-risk demographic for the virus. A few of the older guests canceled, such as Sergio Aragonés, J. Michael Straczynski, Bud Plant, and some of the animators: everyone else attended.

The virus’ impact could be felt in small ways throughout the festival—from how attendees greeted one another with waves rather than hugs or handshakes to the ubiquitous bottles of hand-sanitizer and sporadic face masks. On the tables at the front of each room where the panels took place sat containers of Clorox wipes labelled “Con Crud Killer.” Every man I saw in the bathrooms washed his hands before exiting, which isn’t often the case. Some featured guests, like Marv Wolfman, displayed rules for interaction. Wolfman’s sign read:

For the most part though, the virus didn’t stop attendees from enjoying themselves and engaging in the festivities. It simply altered our behavior.

As my plane approached the San Diego International Airport, I saw the El Cortez Hotel sign; the hotel hosted Comic Con throughout most of the 1970s. Catching a glimpse of the sign felt portentous. When I arrived at the SDCF hotel—Sheraton’s Four Points on Aero Drive—on Thursday afternoon, a troop of volunteers was busy setting up displays, tables, and artwork. They had already set up Artist Alley. My room was located in the heart of it. My excitement increased as I thought about being immersed in the event throughout the weekend. SDCF kicked off Thursday evening with an opening event at 7:30 pm in The Rays’ Cafe—named and decorated in honor of Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen. The cafe was packed by the time I arrived. I snapped a few pictures, but I didn’t venture into the crowd. I heard a snippet of a recording of Ray Bradbury speaking from the first Comic Con. I couldn’t make out much of it from my spot by the doors, but the message was clear: SDCF honored a long tradition in San Diego’s and comics’ history. This appeal to history permeated the weekend.

The Panels

When I left my room on Friday morning, the event was already in full swing. I made my way around the Artist Alley, briefly checking out a lot of amazing work. I wanted to get the lay of the land before I made it to my first panel of the day. The creators who produce the Accidental Aliens were situated across the hall from my hotel room door. After seeing a tweet about their work prior to SDCF, I checked them out online. I’d be back to pick up a few or their anthologies, but I needed to make it to the panels.

First, I hit “The Writer’s Block” panel at noon, which featured Wendy & Richard Pini, Buzz Dixon, Barbara Kesel, and Jim Krueger. The panelists spoke about how their creative processes meant that writer’s block wasn’t much of an issue; instead, they described how these processes shifted based on the medium they were working on or the demands of particular employers. Next, I attended the “That’s not for girls!” panel featuring Donna Barr and Diana Leto. The panelists discussed how nothing is off limits to women creators despite what our culture might have you believe, and they led the audience through a slideshow of their work. At 3 pm, I attended the Bill Schelly Tribute panel featuring Jeff Gelb, Michelle Nolan, John Lustig, and Mike Catron. Jeff led the group in discussing Schelly’s work and lasting impact on fandom. Panelists also recounted personal memories of Bill. It was a touching moment and a panel that I felt strongly about despite never having met Bill Schelly. After all, Bill’s book was part of what got me back into fandom and

Bill Schelly Tribute Panel

interested in SDCF. The final panel I attended Friday, “They Called Us Underground,” featured Trina Robbins, Mary Fleener, Roberta Gregory, Donna Barr, and Bruce Simon. Robbins detailed the origins of underground comix and how her work emerged in spite of it. She was locked out of the “boys’ comix” and found a home publishing in alternative newspapers in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Other panelists talked about how their work related to those early years and presses and how it contrasted to the superhero titles that dominated the direct market.

Overall, these panels added another dimension to SDCF that I hadn’t anticipated. I am not sure if early Comic Con attendees and organizers knew they were making history. It’s clear that they knew they were breaking new ground and making space for comic fans. At SDCF, many of the creators who had put in years and years of work into creating comics and supporting fandom eagerly described the lasting significance of their work. They took the credit they deserve. This sentiment continued in the panels that I attended throughout the weekend, including the “Stories from The Early Comic-Con Years & How Comic Fest Brings Back the Original Essence!” panel, which featured Eugene Henderson, Anthony Keith, Clayton Moore, William R. Lund, Dina Kelso, Ray Alley, and Jackie Estrada; the

It Ain’t Me Babe Panel

“50th Anniversary of It Ain’t Me Babe, the First All-Women Comic” panel, which featured Trina Robbins, Barbara “Willy” Mendes, and Anina Bennett; and “The Crossroads of Science Fiction, Rock Music & Fandom in the 1960s” panel, which featured Gregory Benford, Paul Sammon, Cindy Lee Berryhill, and William Stout.

4 Decades of Elfquest Panel

In between these panels, I attended others that paid tribute to comic creators and their long-standing creations, such as the “4 Decades of Elfquest” panel where moderator Joe Phillips led Wendy & Richard Pini through a discussion of how they met, how they work together, and how EQ has lasted all these years; the “Remembering Howard Cruise” panel

where Trina Robbins and Roberta Gregory talked about Cruse’s work and the significance of Gay Comix, the anthology series that he started in 1980; and the “Frank the Unicorn, 40 Years of Creativity” panel where Phil Yeh traced the history some of his work. I have only recently discovered Yeh’s comics; however, I have known of his arts magazine, Uncle Jam, for years. As a gay man, I have long admired how Howard Cruse and others (like Gregory) who paved the way for out LGBTQ+ creators. I also adore his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, which is being rereleased in May 2020. As for the Pinis’ tribute panel, words cannot describe how elated I was to see them in person talking about my favorite comic book. I waited 35 years for it.

The rest of the panels that I attended weren’t about creators putting their work into historical context or tributes to specific people and their work. Instead, speakers on these panels offered advice for young creators and fans. The “Pop Culture, Comic Cons, and Comics Archives” panel featured Greg Koudoulian, coordinator of the Shel Dorf Archive, and Tom Kraft, who works for the Jack Kirby Museum & Archive, alongside Steve Schanes, co-founder of Pacific Comics and various comic publishing companies since the late 1960s. Koudoulian and Kraft made appeals to the audience to get involved with their archival work. On “The Editors” panel, Chris Ryall, Kevin Dooley, Barbara Kesel, and Anina Bennett described how editors contribute to a comic’s success, how editorial work varies based on publisher’s policies, and what comic book publishers look for in proposals for new titles. Finally, the “Little Fish Book Studio” panel, featuring Alonso Nunez and TJ Shevlin, talked about how the studio teaches would-be creators of all ages how to write and draw comics.

This contrast, between describing comics’ and comic fandom’s past and planning for their futures, sums up the panels. However, the SDCF audience seemed imbalanced. I saw only a few young people during the festival. Where were those folks who would shape the future of comics? Most attendees, from the guests and dealers to the fans, appeared to be my age or older. This disconnect between the content and audience reflects long-standing fears about the comics industry—that it is getting older and not doing a great job to usher in younger folks. Certainly, many of the folks in Artist Alley skewed younger. Most of the artists seemed to be in their 20s and 30s. If SDCF is interested in drawing in more Millennial and Gen Z attendees, then the organizers might want to consider future guests whose work appeals to those generations, particularly guests whose work sells primarily in graphic novel form. However, I am not sure if SDCF wants to move in that direction. There seemed to be a tight knit group at the core of the festival, and based on my interactions with folks over the course of the event, I would say that while this group is more than willing to welcome new folks into the fold, they are happy to focus their attention on older comics creators.

My Loot

Johnny B. Gerardy’s drawing of me as a zombie

Before attending the festival, I worried about how much money I would spend and how I would get all my treasures home. I set a strict budget. Thinking practically, I didn’t have a lot of room in my suitcase, and I had brought a half dozen graphic novels with me in order to get them signed; I didn’t want to chance not being able to find specific things at the festival. After perusing the Artist Alley and vendor area, I decided to stick to things that I might never find again, particularly original art and small press or self-published comic books. I managed to pick up a couple convention sketches of Elfquest characters (Skywise and Leetah) by Wendy Pini. In and of themselves, these sketches made the festival unforgettable. I also picked up original artwork from Phil Yeh and Mary Fleener. Donna Barr and Roberta Gregory drew wonderful sketches in the graphic novels that I brought with me to the festival. Finally, Johnny B. Gerardy was taking commissions where he would draw a zombie version of an attendee. His artwork is fabulous, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to be zombified (see image on the left). In terms of comics, I picked up both collected volumes of Barr’s Stinz, some of Gregory’s minicomics, some Frank the Unicorn trade paperbacks, some Accidental Aliens anthologies, and a few self-published comics.

The Guests & Attendees

In between the panels, I met and spoke with some of the special guests and other attendees. I am not the most social person, and honestly, I often felt like a poser. I have only been getting back into comics for the past six months. Clearly, many folks at SDCF have devoted much of their lives to comics. For the most part, I was very tightlipped when interacting with guests. Before the festival, I had thought a lot about what I wanted to say to the Pinis; in the end, I didn’t say much, but it was wonderful to finally meet them.

In many conversations with guests and other attendees, whomever I was talking to would quickly get into some minutia about the con and specific comic books or creators that I didn’t know much about. Sometimes, these conversations focused on Marvel and DC superheroes, and I’d struggle to say anything. Still, I met some wonderful people, and some of these interactions will stick with me; for example, I will always remember hanging out and smoking cigarettes with Barbara Mendes. In general, guests and attendees were open and welcoming—ready to geek out about their passion for comics at any opportunity.

Coda

The festival ended at 5 pm on Sunday evening. After the final panel session, I left the hotel to get some food. When I returned an hour later, most attendees had left. Festival volunteers were busy breaking down tables, taking down decorations, and loading equipment into vehicles. The Artist Alley had emptied out. The buzz throughout the weekend subsided.

I wasn’t leaving San Diego until late the next morning, but I decided to stick to my hotel room that night. I started reading some of the comics that I picked up. Occasionally, I left my hotel room to grab some sodas or a smoke. Each time I ventured out into the hotel, I saw less evidence that the festival had happened. It was a strange feeling. From my arrival on Thursday, I had been immersed in the festival’s energy. That energy dissipated. I traveled to the festival by myself, but I didn’t feel alone until Sunday evening. I felt a bit melancholy. Initially, I thought about the dumb things I said to folks and things I had missed. But, my thoughts quickly turned to all that I had experienced and enjoyed—m­­­uch of what I have documented here. SDCF served as a wonderful reintroduction to comics fandom. I have no idea if my experience at SDCF reflects what Comic Con used to be like. However, I am already planning to attend again next year.

For more information about San Diego Comic Fest, check out their website.

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