San Diego Comic-Con: The Pros of Comic-Con

A gathering of SDCC professionals discuss their early experiences at the con.

On Thursday at the San Diego Comic-Con at 1:30 a group of professionals met. They are not only professionals in their contributions to comics, but they are professionals who have attended many comic-cons in San Diego. Moderated by Bob Wayne, this gathering produced one of the most enjoyable panels I attended at this year’s convention. Participants included Lee Marrs, Diana Schutz, Bob Schutz, Mike Friedrich, Phil Yeh, Dan Vado, Larry Niven, and David Brin.

Mr. Wayne asked every participant if they could repeat their favorite memory of attending the San Diego Con.

Ms. Marrs began by telling the tale of how she asked Harvey Kurtzman to come to the convention because she was helping him write Little Annie Fanny for Playboy. The day after their arrival, Marrs asked how Kurtzman and his wife were enjoying the convention. Mr. Kurtzman complained that he and his wife had to change rooms because of a boisterous couple next to them, of which Ms. Marrs was intimately aware of the couple’s identities.

Ms. Schultz declined to share because of a youngster in the room, but if there was time she would discuss her story at the end of the panel.

Mr. Schreck stated that he’d been to a lot of conventions in San Diego, but the move to the current, massive convention center in ’91 didn’t sit well with everyone. He and some other professionals, among them Dave Stewart and William Kaluta, were outside smoking. Mr. Kaluta was not happy about the change in locations. He said there were too many people and that it just wouldn’t find the same love as the previous location. As he was continuing to voice his displeasure, Schreck turned to look at the scene behind him taht looked like Norman Rockwell had created a painting of three boys on the stairs with a long box of comics. They were Oohing and Ahhing at what they had and were sharing their spoils with each other. Mr. Schreck said, “Hey, Mike. Look…” Mr. Kaluta looked at the boys and turned back to the group to say, “I’ll shut up.”

“I first came in 1971,” Mr. Friedrich said. “All that I got was a pass into the show. I had to sleep on the floor of a dorm room for that con.” He went on to say that he was a Guest of Honor at the 1973 Convention at Harbor Island. He had to write a speech and he decided to focus on how the future of comics was that they would be independently owned. Carmine Infantino, the then Publisher of DC Comics, was sitting next to me at that reading. He wasn’t very happy. Mr. Friedrich wanted to add a second story for Ms. Marrs: she was the babysitter for five-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio.

Mr. Yeh said he was twenty-five when he interviewed Jerry Siegel, one of the famous creators of Superman. He was sixty-two, “Which is younger than I am now.” Jerry said he and Joe Shuster, the artist of Superman, sold the rights to DC Comics for $130. Yeh said he helped the pair get the money they were due by writing a story about this that was picked up in other media. When the story came out, other artists jumped on to support the Superman creators, such as Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams. He’s most proud of helping these creators get more money for their iconic creation. He then went on to recount how he had Carol Kalish at his house when he got a call from Marvel Comics wanting to buy Frank the Unicorn, his creation. Yeh told this person that they could license the character, but not own it. The person at Marvel said they couldn’t do that — they had to own the character, so he declined.

Ms. Schultz jumped in to say she knew why Siegel and Shuster were only paid $130. “It was a thirteen paged story and they got ten dollars a page.” There were gasps from the audience. “And they had to split that between them,” she added.

“Some of my favorite stories are still prosecutable,” began Mr. Vado who told two stories. He was out one night with Friedrich at the hotel bar talking away and looked outside the window and saw the sun. “Mike, how late have we been out?” He couldn’t believe they had spent the whole night talking. Another time he had a distributor come up to him fuming over the move from Golden Hall. “They’ll never be able to fill this place.” This person has obviously been proven wrong over time.

Mr. Wayne introduced Larry Niven by saying his “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” ruined his opinion of Superman. Mr. Niven shared that he had been invited to the first few conventions, but didn’t go. “I skipped them. I’m a science fiction writer. They won’t know me.” When he finally came he saw that the comic book writers got a lot of inspiration from science fiction. He said that the creation of his famous essay began with a conversation at a poker table. “I wrote it up, sold it, and added to it later.” He said he was very pleased when at a convention Chris Claremont and John Byrne presented him with two pages from The Uncanny X-Men that featured characters named after some of his own. “That stroked my ego. I like having my ego stroked,” he smiled.

“My first taste of fandoms came late,” Mr. Brin said. “For graduate school I went to UCSD and I and some friends would go to the El Cortez.” He said he would gush at the people he saw there and hoped everyone in attendance at the panel would have people hush and then go “It’s him” as he’s received at conventions. Brin thanked Yeh for his help in establishing the 1978 Copyright Act that benefited Siegel and Shuster. Because of that law Brin says he gets the rights back to his books after thirty-five years.

It was as this point that Mr. Wayne saw that Mike Lake was in the audience. Wayne recounted how a group of people went to Tijuana for a great dinner. One the way back — “It was much easier to cross the border back then” — everyone was asked for their country of origin. Everyone said America, but Mike said he was British. Because of his response, he was asked to produce his passport, which he had forgotten. He was then taken to jail. Wayne asked if he was telling the story correctly and Mr. Lake said from the audience, “No. It was a horrible dinner and you told me to leave my passport at the hotel.” Lake continued that his passport was locked in his hotel safe and that the manager had to be called to get it. It was 4 am at this point and the manager wouldn’t get to work early on a Sunday morning. “I didn’t get out until 11 am and my key broke in the lock of the hotel safe.” Ms. Schutz added, “Everyone asked ‘Where’s Mike?’ We had to tell everyone ‘He’s in jail in Tijuana.'”

Schreck added that he no longer introduces people at Comic-Con because of the two times he introduced Frank Miller to an actor and a cover artist and neither behaved well.

Schutz said that the Hotel San Diego, which no longer exists and was infamous for being a dive, became the main base for the con. “We all stayed there.” At the time it was decided that Johnny Quest would be licensed and someone thought that it would be a good idea to get Doug Wildey, the creator of the series, to do a story or cover. “Doug and Ellen, his wife, were in their late sixties at the time. They were a very gentle couple. The first morning we find them in the lobby and Doug says, “J—- C—–, Bobby (Schreck), what are you doing booking us in this hotel?'”

Schreck added that Doug would ask if there was any place that he could recommend to eat. When he did, Doug would say, “You’re coming with me.” Doug insisted that Schreck go with him if he was going to recommend a place. Schreck loved dinning with Wildey. He recounted the story when he, Schreck, first started working for DC was in 1987. At the convention he asked if Wildey wanted to meet Alex Toth, and he did. “We walk over to Alex, who takes my hand and says, ‘I hope DC doesn’t —- you as much as they —— me.'” Schreck also added that Toth was going to do a Jonny Quest cover and that Schreck saw a (still) popular artist at the convention and asked if he wanted to join him, Toth, Wildey, and others for dinner. This artist says he does and shows up with nine other people in tow. There ended up being thirty people at this dinner party. At the dinner, Toth said he wanted three times the money that Comico could offer. When Toth found out it was a wraparound cover he wanted twice the three times offered. Doug Wildey turned to Schreck after this and said, “Sorry, Bobby.” They then left to go to Jack Kirby’s birthday party back at the Hotel San Diego, but Jack had already left. “That was a miserable evening.”

Though a sad ending, the passing of time made this conclusion to the panel laughable.

Again, if you ever get the chance to listen to any of these individuals speak, do so. I was lost in their tales.

Photo description: Top row, left to right, Lee Marrs, Bob Wayne, Diana Schutz, and David Brin. Front row, left to right, Bob Schreck, Mike Friedrich, Phil Yeh, Dan Vado, and Larry Niven.

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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