Among my few regrets in life is that I never went to any of the early Comic-Cons. I couldn’t have attended the very first one — held in March of 1970 in the basement of the El Cortez Hotel — because it took place four years before I moved to San Diego. But I was here in 1974, when filmmaker Frank Capra, science fiction luminary Ray Bradbury, and “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz were among the 1,900 attendees. If I’d attended the convention in 1977 (by which point I was already working full-time on the staff of the Reader), I could have bumped into Robert Heinlein and/or Timothy Leary, who was making his first public appearance after being released from prison. Now that the San Diego Comic-Con has grown into its current monstrous stature — biggest annual comic book and pop arts convention in the world, biggest cheese in the fromagerie of all the meetings held in San Diego annually — it would have been great to be able to boast about how presciently cool I was.
Alas, I wasn’t. So with this year’s Comic-Con getting under way today, I made a point of stopping in the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park, which is displaying some memorabilia from the early years. It’s a disappointingly modest installation, just three glass cases in the center’s central courtyard. But apparently the meagerness of the current exhibition is not for want of materials. The San Diego Comic-Con’s late founder, a commercial artist and comic/sci fi fan named Shel Dorf, donated his lifetime collection of memorabilia to the history center in 2005. Among the pieces on display are programs from and flyers promoting those first affairs. Hand-typed, they’re eloquent testimony to the modesty of the gatherings. They also make it clear that right from the beginning, comics weren’t the only draw. The first day-long program included a feature-length screening of an early Flash Gordon serial, “The Rocket Ship,” as well as a 1925 silent film, “Lost World.” The programs also reminded me of something else: those first attendees appeared to have been almost exclusively male.
The current exhibition at the center also includes a scrapbook. It’s chained to one of the cases, so it’s not comfortable or convenient to digest its contents. I flipped through it quickly and noted that it contains extensive history, as well as page after page of comic art created by attendees throughout the years, saluting the San Diego setting and event. It would be great to see these and more of the memorabilia mounted someplace where everything could be savored. I’ll make a point not to miss that, should it ever happen.