Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Look at Comic-Cons Past, Part II: Comic-Con Explodes (1991-2000)

1995 Comic-Con (photo by Jackie Estrada*)
Second in a series. See Part I here.

The 1990s was the decade when the San Diego Comic-Con exploded. 1991 was the first year Comic-Con was held at the newly-opened San Diego Comics Convention. The new modern venue gave the show a more professional sheen and more breathing room. Attendance hit a new high of 15,000+ that year—compared to 6,500 the first year I attended in 1986. (The convention first reached capacity and sold out in 2007 with an attendance of 125,000. In 2008, all badges for the first time sold out prior to the event. It's now estimated that, along with Comic-Con-related activities in the area, more than 165,000 visit the area during the show.)

Comic-Con did not take up the entire convention center that first year. If memory serves me right, I recall that there were other shows/conferences going on concurrently, one involving primarily elderly women (I think it was some kind of knitting show) and another that seemed to involve a lot of bikers! Afterwards, however, Comic-Con would take up the entire venue every year, even after the convention center doubled its size in 2001.

That year, 1991, proved to be another whirlwind visit—my brother flew down from his home in Northern California to attend the show on Saturday, but we drove back to L.A. that night so that he could catch his flight home. Though I didn’t plan to, I had so much fun and unfinished business, I drove back down with other friends and my girlfriend (now wife) the following day!

Cover to 1992 souvenir program
That Comic-Con brought me into contact with cartoonist and comics historian and essayist R.C. Harvey; Comic-Con co-founder Shel Dorf; and cartoonist Gil Kane, to whom I handed a copy of my self-published zines (I recall him leafing through it while he sat on a discussion panel!). Thanks to a friend, I also got cartoonist Will Eisner to autograph my edition of his graphic novel, To the Heart of the Storm; scored a Sgt. Rock drawing by cartoonist Joe Kubert, one of my favorite cartoonists growing up; and purchased my first pieces of original art, two pieces by Howard Chaykin from his Blackhawk mini-series. That year’s show also featured a special performance of the play, “American Splendor,” starring Dan Castellaneta (The Simpsons)—highlighted by an appearance by Harvey Pekar, the writer whose comics were the source of the play. (In case you’re wondering, the 2003 American Splendor movie, an outstanding work in its own right, was an original screenplay adaptation and not based on the play.)

The 1992 show was another landmark, with Batman, the Animated Series, and Image Comics exploding on the scene that summer.

Exhibiting at Comic-Con
The series began as a photocopied zine
The real watershed for me, personally, was 1993, the year the San Diego Comic-Con introduced its Small Press Area, which was my debut as an exhibitor. (The cost for a table that year in the Small Press was $75!) Since then, to date, I’ve exhibited at 18 San Diego Comic-Cons, as well as 3 Alternative Press Expos (APE), 3 WonderCons, 1 Chicago Comicon, a show in Toronto, and a Spirit of Independent Tour stop in Seattle.

For some context, let me provide a little bit of my publishing/comics history: it wasn’t until after college, in the mid-’80s, that I became serious about doing comics. Though I had done “home-made comics” and kept sketchbooks, it wasn’t until this time I began to seriously produce full-length stories at a professional, print-ready level. As one can imagine, those earliest efforts were pretty crude (and cartoony). In fact, I ended up not publishing those early stories in the regular series until I released them in a separate “special edition” series for non-canon work just recently (Rob Hanes Adventures Special Edition #2).

Nevertheless, I began showing the work around and, as this was the dawn of the self-publishing/independent movement, got a few bites that never materialized (usually because the company went under just after the first issue was solicited!) It was at this time I discovered the small press zine movement, complete with their own newsletters and reviewzines, which was a DIY route I found very fun and appealing, and gave me an outlet to publish my work in zine/ashcan format (printed at my local Kinko’s/copy shop) while I developed.

I soon gained some recognition and even a few minor awards for my work – I also began sending copies of my zine to publishers and industry professionals and got attention that way as well.

First time exhibitor – 1993
So, yes, I was there for the debut of Comic-Con’s Small Press Area in 1993, with ashcan copies of Adventure Strip Digest on hand. That first year, I got to meet fellow pros like Karl Kesel, Scott McCloud, Kurt Busiek (who discovered my work early on and even re-designed my Adventure Strip Digest logo), and Don McGregor. Jeff Smith was also in the Small Press Area that first year, with his earliest copies of the great Bone.

I even participated in my first panel at that show, along with, among others, Dave Sim (Cerebus) and Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man). (At one point during the panel discussion, Sim held up one of my zines and said that although it was “pro-level quality, Randy is willing to take his time and play Triple-A ball for awhile. There’s no rush.”) Boy, in retrospect, he sure wasn’t kidding! (I participated on panels again in 1994 and 1998).

Pro badge 1993
It was also a bit of a cheap thrill to be recognized at events by people who were fans of my work, simply by my name badge when out and about.

The response and sales eventually led me to begin publishing Adventure Strip Digest as a regular comic-book series in 1994, though the first issues did not appear until after that year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Regardless, I made connections with many more fellow pros like Batton Lash (Supernatural Law) and Don Simpson (Megaton Man). (My notes show that I made a little over $400 at the convention, which covered the table, travel and hotel!!)

In 1995, with Adventure Strip Digest now available as a full-sized comic-book, I shared a regular booth with fellow indy publisher B.C. Boyer (Hilly Rose) and had another successful show. At that show, I recall connecting with Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola (Hellboy), and Mike Vosburg (Lori Lovecraft). That year, at that year’s Eisner Awards, I also was in the running for the Russ Manning Award for Most Promising Newcomer, alongside Jason Lutes (Jar of Fools) and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise). Good company to be in!

The series debuted as a regular comic-book
in 1994
The year 1996 was another memorable show, held over the July 4 holiday. One of the highlights was meeting fellow pros like Frank Cho, whose booth that year was located across from me (he had just signed the contract to his syndicated strip, Liberty Meadows), and we often chatted during lulls. Mike Vosburg also brought by one of my idols, Howard Chaykin. Chaykin said kind words about my work and when I told him I was a big fan, he replied, “Why not, we steal from the same people!”

That year, I actually also had a bit of a memorable adventure that fortunately turned out well. At the time, I was using a very small printer who had a rather bad reputation for meeting deadlines and not even fulfilling orders, though he had always come through for me, though with some prodding—I have to admit, I think it's because he liked my stuff. As many printers do, he promised to ship issue 4 of my latest issue, Adventure Strip Digest, to me at San Diego, but on the second day (Friday) of the 4-day show, I still hadn’t received the shipment!

During the Eisner Awards show (and remember, this was in the days before cell phones), I happened to check my messages at the hotel and learned that I had received a message from Northwest Airlines saying my books had arrived at the San Diego airport and were waiting pickup. When I called Northwest’s warehouse, I learned the facility was closed weekends and would close at 10 p.m. at night – I kid you not, it was nearly 9:45 p.m. I was resigned to not getting them, but my girlfriend (now-wife) suggested hopping into a taxi right away. We ran outside, hopped into a taxi, and told the driver I would pay him double the fare if he could make it in 10 minutes – I made it with 5 minutes to spare and got the books!! (When we returned, the driver actually did not want to take the entire tip I had promised, but I told him he deserved it – he was great and I think somewhat enjoyed the adventure as well. It helped that the airport is not far from the convention center and traffic wasn’t like it is today!)

In many ways, this was the heyday of the Comic-Con, when comics were still a central part of the show before it became a broader pop culture phenomenon that became a big umbrella for all kinds of fandom.

It was also a heady time because, as the new kid on the block, in those years I connected with retailers, distributors, editors and publishers, people in the entertainment industry, and others interested in carrying my comics, licensing it for other media, or working with me. These included many of the top studios in Hollywood and numerous production companies.

Though I don't think they're necessarily related, the explosion of Comic-Con in the 1990s coincided with the rise of the small press/indie comics movement of the same period—a trend recognized by Comic-Con when it introduced the small press area.

The small press continues to be a great engine of activity and creativity—new technologies like print on demand and the web (and social media) have vastly democratized the comics industry and lowered the barrier of entry to producing a comic-book. By the same token, as a result, there has been an explosion of product, making it very difficult to be noticed and break through, even for quality comics.

Comic-Con Traditions/After Hours
Although Comic-Con really exploded at that time, it was not yet quite as wide-ranging and fragmented as it is today. As proof of these, there were several years where there was often one big off-site party (at least one of which, if not more, was hosted by Fantagraphics). These technically needed an invitation to enter, but it was fairly easy to get a "ticket"/flyer. They were really nothing more than large kegger parties where people could hang out, relax, mingle, drink and smoke. It was in later years that Comic-Con would expand and fragment, including more exclusive Hollywood parties that were as much a press junket as a party.

One of the great traditions of my buddies and I after the end of the convention back then was to meet up at Anderson's Split Pea Soup, a full-service family restaurant famous, of course, for its famous split pea soup as well as its distinctive windmill that could be seen from quite a distance. Located in Carlsbad, about 35 miles north of San Diego, it was a nice meeting point on the drive home where we'd meet for a late dinner and celebrate the end of another show.

I got married in the year 2000 and, prior to that time, took a hiatus from comics, feeling a little burned out, particularly since several opportunities for the series that I had been pursuing did not pan out. So the combination of having no new product and being on my honeymoon (in Tokyo) led to that year being a natural break for me from both attending and exhibiting at Comic-Con as the '90s came to a close....

Next: The series relaunches and Comic-Con matures.

Comic Book People 2: Photographs from the 1990s by Jackie Estrada (2015)

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