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‘See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture’ (review)

Written by by Mathew Klickstein
Foreword by Stan Sakai 
Foreword by Jeff Smith 
Afterword by RZA
Published by Fantatgraphics Books

 

First of all, I should point out that even though my mother’s name was Maggie, I am NOT the son of the Maggie Thompson who is quoted extensively in the new book See You at San Diego.

Although I am often confused with him, her son is STEPHEN, while I’m STEVEN. (I asked him once. He says he’s never once been mistaken for me.)

See You at San Diego is Fantagraphics’ new NSFW oral history of the now legendary San Diego Comic Con. I’ve always enjoyed oral histories. Facts are facts are facts—period. But individual perspectives in a book like this inevitably lead to one person’s TRUTH being different from another person’s. And yet just as valid. While you end up with no linear history, the multitude of perspectives arguably gives you a much better overall feel for what it was really like than just plain cold hard facts could ever have done.

And don’t be misled.

In spite of its intention to be a history of the Con, the book also takes a few steps back to show us the states of both the comics industry and comics fandom, all of which colored what the convention would become in its earliest incarnations. Seminal influences including science fiction fandom, Star Trek fandom, underground comix, feminism, nostalgia, and the general counter-cultural movement are also covered, all from various directions.

A lot of famous folks lend their voices and reminiscences to the project—Mark Evanier, Trina Robbins, Neil Gaiman, Brinke Stevens, Frank Miller, and the late Len Wein amongst them. More interesting to me were the perspectives of many of the lesser-known names associated with the history of Comic Con. (Conspicuously missing is Jackie Estrada, although her name comes up a lot.)

You’ll learn things you never knew—and a few you might wish still didn’t!—about such past con luminaries as Forest J. Ackerman, Robert Heinlein, Kirk (Superman) Alyn, Ray Bradbury, Bob Clampett, and others. There’s a lot about Jack Kirby, too, as Jack embraced the Con from its beginnings.

The behind-the-scenes politics of the event are another major topic. The late Shel Dorf, for example, is perhaps the major player in the book, both in good ways and in bad ways. Jim Valentino says at one point, “There’s Shel stories that you’re going to have to edit out, unfortunately.” Deservedly or not, Shel became the human face of the Con over the years, in spite of being really only one of numerous “fathers” of the San Diego Comic Book Convention.

My own single experience with the SDCC in 1987 saw me helping Shel Dorf track down June Foray who was running late for a panel. I recognized Shel from his pics in The Buyer’s Guide newspaper so when he seemed panicky, I offered to help. (I found June quickly, btw, as she was almost there already.)

Somewhat sadly, though, although I was there that year, this book makes me feel I wasn’t really present at all. Like I’ve NEVER actually had the full convention experience, in spite of attending them regularly between 1975 and 2016! I saw the dealers’ room that year, some panels, some presentations, some movies, met some celebs, attended the Kirby Awards. and the costume contest. I was there for all 5 days. But I didn’t know about the out of the public eye partying and practical joking and the incredible bonding that occurred between all those people year after year away from the Con proper. After reading all their fun memories, I feel as though I was just a stranger, briefly passing through their orbit.

The inventive design of See You at San Diego makes it look like a series of file folders, filled with typed up pages and paper-clipped photos. Quite a few of the photos come from former Comics Buyer’s Guide founder/publisher (back when it was TBG rather than CBG) Alan Light and I’d seen some of those before. Pretty sure I’ve never seen any of the non-Light photos outside of a few ads. Some of the photos and illustrations are what makes the book an adults-only thing. Back in the day, things were more lenient in fandom than they are today. Let’s just say I understand completely why Jack Kirby was reluctant to post a 1970s “tribute” to him drawn by Scott Shaw!

Shaw! also explains in depth why conventions no longer allow edible costumes for cosplayers. You may never think of peanut butter the same way again.

At the back of the book is an extensive section of biographies of contributors which adds quite a bit of background, especially to many of the lesser-known names. There’s also extensive notes on the project explaining various points, including the perfectly reasonable explanation for Jackie Estrada’s absence.

In the end, the book sums itself up by saying, “…the multilayered narrative that has been told in these pages is not so much a history of the San Diego Comic-Con as it is a series of firsthand chronicles regarding the people behind the Con, the national (and in some cases international) convention community, and contemporary ‘geek culture’ today.”

I may never have really had the full, immersive experience of Comic-Con, but I more than feel the contact high of it all after going through this book. That and a longing for those simpler days of fandom.

The “showrunner” of this oral history project was Matthew Klickstein, whose author bio at the end is, surprisingly, one of my favorite things in the whole book!

Booksteve recommends.

 

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