SAN DIEGO — How big is author Mathew Klickstein's new oral history of San Diego Comic-Con? As big as it needs to be.
Released earlier this month on Fantagraphics Books, the epically titled "See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture" is nearly 500 pages long and features more than 400 photos and graphics.
It has a massive cast of interviewees filled with such bold-type names as author Neil Gaiman, actress and web-series creator Felicia Day and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman.
Its decades'-spanning story — which was also rich fodder for Klickstein's 2021 "Comic-Con Begins" SiriusXM podcast — includes pivotal guest appearances by author Ray Bradbury, counterculture guru Timothy Leary and animation giant Chuck Jones.
But for Klickstein, the biggest stars in his book about one of pop-culture's biggest events are San Diego Comic-Con's founders and original organizers. You may not know, say, Barry Alfonso, Wendy All and Mike Towry, but San Diego Comic-Con as you know it would not exist without these pioneers and their youthful enthusiasm.
"These were the people who made Comic-Con. They knew the deep and intimate stories that hadn't been told before," the Dayton, Ohio-based Klickstein said of the crew of Con pioneers who are some of the most prominent voices in the book.
"I didn't want this book to be a confirmation or affirmation of what people already know or could find somewhere else. I wanted it to be revelatory and blow people's minds."
After being held online in the summers of 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Comic-Con was back at full strength this past July, bringing more than 130,000 people to the San Diego Convention Center to immerse themselves in superhero movies, supernatural TV shows and super-awesome comic books and graphic novels.
They came, they saw and they bonded with members of their various pop-culture tribes. And in the process, the Marvel fans, the Dungeons & Dragons obsessives and the Middle-earth faithful tapped into the grassroots spirit of a movement that started with a bunch of sci-fi and comic-book devotees bonding over their favorite stuff at Ken Krueger's Ocean Beach bookstore.
In vivid quotes taken from the 70-plus hours of phone interviews he conducted during the COVID-19 shutdown, along with archived interviews from such sources as KPBS and SDSU, Klickstein follows the long and colorful journey that began when the kids who hung out at Krueger's overstuffed bookstore helped Krueger and comic-book collector Sheldon "Shel" Dorf launch the inaugural San Diego's Golden State Comic-Con, held at the U.S. Grant Hotel in August of 1970.
Worried that there weren't enough comic-book fans to keep their first convention from being their last, the organizers also invited movie people and science-fiction writers to participate, which made Comic-Con about more than comics from the very beginning, although it took a while for the legions of fans to materialize.
"But even with all that going for us, we only pulled a hundred (attendees)," co-founder Richard Alf says in one of the book's archival interviews. (Alf was co-chairman of that first convention as a 17-year-old volunteer and became chairman in 1971. He died in 2012 at the age of 59.)
"And, of course, now you have more than that at the Con in any line alone! But you know what?: When you're starting from zero, a hundred's a hundred percent."
It took San Diego Comic-Con more than a few years to become the phenomenon it is today, but as Klickstein's cast of characters is happy to remind you, it was always an adventure.
Like the time Alf and Dorf convinced Bradbury to appear at the first San Diego Comic-Con for free by declaring on the spot that, yes, they were a nonprofit group. (They weren't. Yet.) Or the ingenious ways publicity director Alfonso and guest coordinator All dealt with their high-level responsibilities while they were still in (or barely out of) their teens.
Or the crazy days and crazier nights when Comic-Con was held at the El Cortez Hotel, and suddenly, there was shark repellant in the pool, nude swimmers diving from the balconies and Roman candles rocketing off the roof.
If you go to San Diego Comic-Con for the star sightings, the world-premiere sneak peeks and the Mattel exclusives, Klickstein hopes you'll come to "See You in San Diego" for these and other stories of the everyday fans whose dedication to all things wild, weird and socially questionable helped change everything.
They loved what they loved, and they started a revolution.
"In the past, when you read comic books, maybe you were embarrassed about it. You might get beat up. People of the opposite sex may not be interested in you. If you wrote about Narnia or "The Lord of the Rings" in your English class, you would get an F," said Klickstein, whose list of pop-culture history books includes an oral history of the Nickelodeon channel and a deep dive on "The Simpsons," which he co-wrote with writer, producer and showrunner Mike Reiss.
"Fifty years later, if you want to be cool, if you want to make money in Hollywood or if you want to do anything to stand out in the pop-culture world, you'd better know about Stan Lee or the Fantastic Four. It's going to come up at pitch meetings and music festivals. It's not geek culture. It's not even pop culture. It's culture."
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This story was originally published September 28, 2022 4:30 AM.