The San Diego Comic-Con will reach its golden 50th year anniversary, this year. I am super excited, not just for being the surely amazing extravaganza of this yearly event…
2019 is personally exciting for marking my silver 25th anniversary in attendance for the annual Comic-Con, since 1994.
I proudly think back to each wonderful year being special and well worth the travel costs (with setbacks at times). I always look forward to the SDCC, being my shared megacenter on converged passions in creative print and digital media routed in deep, imaginary levels of far-out storytelling. Thus, I share many personal moments with friends, interact with and cheer on creative talent, embark on crazy treasure hunts, panel-hop, discover new properties, promote my projects, do a lot of presswork, help retailers, and much more.
The SDCC is now more important to me than all the holidays, and birthday. I love this show, with all that connects to it. And with all that, comes the growth and constant changes it brings. Now that means lotteries everywhere, more outside events, grander cosplay meetups, more art commissions, creator interactions, celebs, and the chance for comic companies to really stand out (getting more difficult now).
But it wasn’t always that way. Comic-Con had its simple carefree years slowly escalating to its maxed-out frenzy now. You could walk in, buy a ticket, and do regular convention things like shop and meet some artistic creators or B-tier celebs, admiring the cosplay in between. San Diego Comic Con just offered more of it, which was my impression between 1994-1999, my first five years in attendance.
The Exhibit Hall in 1998, picture credit – the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con Souvenir Guide
Conventions focusing on collectibles and fandom would become my jam throughout the 90s, starting with my first Star Trek convention in 1991, then a few small local comic conventions in San Francisco. I regularly attended a quasi-convention that occurred twice-a-week, east of Los Angeles (Frank and Sons). My euphoria bloomed from treasure hunts among dealer tables, usually obtaining cheap comics, anime VHS tapes, odd trinkets, and cards.
On with the show!
I would learn of the San Diego Comic-Con through early comic book mags including Wizard, Comics Buyers Guide, and similar zines. It seemed like an important big deal and bigger than anything I attended before. Eventually, my time to see for myself would come for the first time in 1994, with a ride offered to San Diego along with an extra ticket, by a very good friend.
My time there was short, and my wallet small. I purchased a stack worth of bargain comics adding to a pile of promo freebies (lots of ashcans) from the various booths. I also missed out on a lot of great programming…
Above: The Friday and Saturday Schedule from the 1994 Comic-Con Event Guide.
I would return to buy my own ticket for 1995 and 1996, but only a day for each. For 1997, I would buy a full pass but only attend three days. Then for 1998-1999, I come as a retailer representing my comic book store worked in Diamond Bar, California (Comics and Stuff), to engage on the more business side of the industry.
Comic books, everywhere!
Comic books were my main focus in attending, branching off as a buyer and having an interest in meeting creators or listening to them talk. Throughout the 90s, comic books and graphic novels were the center focus of the show for most attendees. Bargain bins were everywhere, vintage and rare books were plenty, and all the main companies were present.
The crazes were a mixed bag. Indie comics were on the rise, with Image taking the lead (but then Wildstorm, Top Cow sub-publishers beginning to splinter off). The bad girl craze was in full effect, where scantily clad warrior women would take charge with Lady Death, Vampirella, Shi, Witchblade, Fathom in the lead. Marvel Comics presence weakened a little since their record-breaking boost in the early ’90s, but still showing strength with its many X-Men and Spider-man titles,. DC Comics also hit some trouble spots but grabbed new attention with some very different series including JLA, Kingdom Come, Preacher.
Page clip from the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con Souvenir Guide
Plentiful presence of creative talent!
Best of all at the SDCC, nearly all the creators of the popular books were there. If there was someone you admired, just bring your books or buy some at a booth, then find out which spot that person was at for a good signing. Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, J. Scott Campbell, Mike Turner with many more were around!
Sketchbooks were a common thing to bring, and essential for the best personal interaction with artists. Many artists were often happy to provide a little doodle or something grand for commission price. I would just pull out a backboard from a bagged comic. I would go for pretty much anyone, but finding someone I admired by chance.
Six-Pack from the Hitman series by John McCrea…not exactly the late 90s, but definitely a favorite artist of the time.
There’s more than comics at Comic-Con, right?!
1995 San Diego Comic-Con event guide
Right, and plenty around. But, not front and center.
The Hollywood presence was small, using the Comic-Con to promote with some grand display or large props including the train from Mystery Men or the Time Machine from The Time Machine. Such things were visually cool but wouldn’t attract much in lines unless there was signing or swag (usually a poster) given out. When there were movie panels promoting wide-release, usually the director, some staff, and some co-stars would show up. The top-billed cast to a major film would be unheard at this con, at the time.
Pop-culture presence outside of comic books was dependant on fan and cult popularity. Xena, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, X-Files were often discussed and sought in collectible merch, plentiful on the Exhibit floor. The Star Trek franchise remained strong, with plenty of fans dressed as Klingons and Starfleet crew proud to represent.
1999 was a killer year for movies among the geek culture, with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Matrix, Austin Powers II, Blade, Blair Witch; all bringing new talk and buzz among attendees to help to promote and buy the fresh merch. Movie marketers were definitely taking notes, for the next decade to come.
Meanwhile, I would find a growing love for Japanimation, or as it was growing to be called…anime. The SDCC was a place for such fans to gather and appreciate the growing fandom of Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, and many new imports on their way. Cosplay was well represented, as the anime conventions would raise that craft to new levels.
Indie film companies also had their presence at the SDCC, most notably The Troma booth, where Lloyd Kaufman himself would greet fans and recommend a VHS tape or something called a DVD.
A two-page sampling of events from the 1995 SDCC Event Guide
The show would grow from 34,000-42,000, keeping steady and never selling quite out. The lines to enter first on Wednesday and Thursday morning were absurdly long, leading to bigger crowds and forcing the SDCC organizers to adapt and grow for the coming years.
Throughout the day, one could easily make friends sharing a large table, waiting for a panel to start, or waiting in line; sometimes sharing in treasures gained, or overhearing a discussion of who would win in a with a fight of who, discussing latest storylines in comics. Such social interaction of Comic-Con would remain a cornerstone of its success for every year.
Cosplay was growing, though we referred to that scene as “people dressing up” and less of the sub-culture it’s become today. Craftmanship was appreciated as a surprise, though effort and tribute were worthy enough of a point and shoot of our very limited 35mm cameras.
The Comic-Con nightlife was small, yet available for those willing to stay up. The Saturday night Masquerade and after party at the convention center was the best bonus for attendees there for that night. For many others on Thursday to Saturday, catching a movie in one of many rooms through the late night remained plentiful. I could always count on some random anime or goofy indie film to watch with a few strangers and be very much entertained. Afterward, some fun chit chat among strangers and looking to see what else left for us night owls.
The Exhibit Hall at Comic-Con, a growing thing…
Only a fraction then of what it is now. Here is the layout for 1996:
I recall a giant life-sized Alien queen at the Dark Horse booth, something I wish would come back rebuilt. All the big comic book companies had large signs with big tables of freebies. Next up from comics were toys as McFarlane Toys were highly visible, setting a new standard for other companies to catch up. Moore Creations was popular for a while, taking some daring steps with collectible female-oriented figures…especially Lady Death, Witchblade, then Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some variant colors of figures were around, sometimes con-exclusive. That trend was just beginning.
Overall, the Exhibit Hall had something for everyone, with surprises sometimes. I remember one time waiting in line, and suddenly I met Renee O Conner (Gabrielle from Xena the Warrior Princess). I smile and she smiled back while signing autographs for others, then a security man motioned me to get to the back of a very long line, which I had no time for.
Panels, panels, panels!
Another essential part of a great con is always the panels of presentations, Q and A sessions, and helpful info. The first panel I went to was in 1996, ” Spotlight on Evan Dorkin,” whose cartoonist work I enjoyed in both Dork and Milk & Cheese. I enjoyed every minute of his personal humor, poking fun at audience members. I recall an awesome panel from Troma Studios (not sure on the year), where Lloyd Kaufman enacted a cheap special effect of a head squishing, very inspiring! I would also join Stan Lee briefly in a room showcasing with a short preview, the movie Blade in 1998. No Wesley Snipes present, but I was happy to see Stan Lee in person for the first of many times.
The more time I spent at Comic-Con over the years, the more exploring open rooms, sit down and see what was talked about, then move to another room..sometimes watch a movie. Such great times, that would grow!
Only a small percent of a small percent!
There are more bit to share about the SDCC in its growth throughout its 50 years, from many attendees with varied memorable, often wonderful experiences. Publishers and creatives would come and go, some keep it real, a new trend practically every year. The late 90s’s set many new roots for the next two decades, raising the experiences and possibilities of the show to its grander heights.
Here is the programming in the 1998 event guide for Friday and Saturday, which you can see from the earlier picture, just how much it has grown in that short time…
(click on each to enlarge)
What I miss, are the carefree moments of less pressure in making plans. There was definitely less of the exclusives frenzy and nearly no clamoring for celebrities. Though some lesser famous actors, directors would grow from the fandom interaction, including those notable…Bruce Campbell, Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Lucy Lawless. Comic book creators (especially popular artists including Todd McFarlane, J. Scott Campbell, Michael Turner, Jim Lee, Joe Madureira) of the best-selling books were the biggest draws of the show, for this time.
But for me, the experiences of those early SDCC years were enough to set my dedication in attending for many years forward, into the tradition I would hold, and share in many more write-ups. I would think sometimes if there was a better show for comics and related fandoms out there. Will I ever stop going to this thing? Will the show I have barely known in those old magazines, raise the pop culture of geek entertainment to mainstream status, spreading from comics to other media formats. I won’t wait long to find out, just a lot more lines with fun people.