The Story Behind Comic-Con

The San Diego Comic-Con is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. will once again be attending to bring you all the news, happenings and reactions to what we see (Avatar scenes, anyone?), so we thought we'd kick a week's coverage off with a brief history of the event itself...

1. Humble beginnings

While it actually launched in 1970, the first year featured two events, neither of which were actually labelled San Diego Comic-Con.

Dreamt up by comics fanatic Shelton Dorf, what was known as a minicon (or as the event team like to call it in true comics lexicon, "Comic-Con zero") landed at the US Grant hotel on March 21st in San Diego.

As opposed to the thousands that throng the event these days, just 145 die hard comics fans turned up to hear the likes of legendary mag publisher and monster movie expert Forrest J Ackerman talk.

The tiny event was actually organised to raise money for the first official Con, known as the Golden State Comic Con, which was held at the same venue between August 1st and 3rd that year.

The guests this time were sci-fi based, including Ray "Fahrenheit 451" Bradbury and writer AE Van Vogt, though comics craftsman Jack Kirby was also among the big speakers.

300 people turned up for the event, which comics and TV writer Mark Evanier remembers as "mobbed" and squeezed into locale he describes thus: "The hotel was undergoing a massive renovation then as well, but was merely upgrading from Extremely Shabby to merely Somewhat Shabby."

How things change...

Next: The 1970s


2. The 1970s

During the early 70s, Comic-Con changed both name and location several times.

1971 saw the event shift to the UC San Diego Muir campus, where it was advertised as San Diego's 2nd Annual Golden State Comic-Con.

Bradbury and Akerman (above) were back, alongside fellow early guests Jack Kirby and Mike Royer.

It's also possible to see how other forms of entertainment would begin to creep on to the schedule, beyond Ackerman's obvious passion for movies, as that year also featured an appearance by Kirk Alyn, who was the first screen Superman in 1948.

1972 saw a location shift to the El Cortez hotel, and a name change to San Diego's West Coast Comic Convention (quite a mouthful).

Mark Evanier again describes the locale: "The place I still miss is the El Cortez, where the con was held for several years in the seventies.

"I'd say the place was a dump but that would be demeaning to dumps. Still, it was a fun dump, run by a management that didn't seem to care all that much what we did to it."

Yes, while these days the Con is a swarming mass of attendees, the smaller functions (1972's attendance is estimated at around 900), were often hotbeds of wild parties, copious alcohol consumption and lurid tales.

Jumping from hotel to hotel (though usually to be found at the El Cortez), the event slowly grew in size from those quiet beginnings in the hundreds to more than 6,000 in 1979.

In 1973, at the Sheraton Hotel, the name San Diego Comic-Con was coined and has stuck to this day. The year's also significant as it debuted the first five-day convention.

As it grew, the Con attracted more and more guests from various fields of genre entertainment, including actors and writers from Star Trek, cartoon stalwarts Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc and even the mighty Chuck Norris.

But it was 1976 where things really got shaken up...

The Star Wars effect


3. The Star Wars Effect

In 1976, there was plenty to keep the fans occupied, including Superman co-creator Joel Shuster and Mel Blanc.

But while the comics side continued to dominate, something else would arrive at the El Cortez that would change how the convention was viewed forever.

Its name? Star Wars.

Ahead of the game as he often is, George Lucas virtually invented viral marketing, sending Lucasfilm's PR bod, Charlie Lippincott, to promote his new film.

A full year before the world would see the finished print, fans at Comic-Con were treated to an exclusive look at the movie - slides only folks, no exclusive videos in those days - with the first-ever Star Wars panel.

In addition, writer Roy Thomas and artist Howard Chaykin were on hand to talk about Marvel's Star Wars comic book, and Lucasfilm sold (for $1.50) preview movie posters drawn by Chaykin.

"While we had invited guests to come and speak, it was really Lucasfilm Ltd, the studio, who approached us to see about interacting with the fans in a way that wasn't really considered at the time," recalls Comic-Con marketing director David Glanzer.

"With their purchase of a booth, they were able to interact individually with fans, and distribute promotional items which brought awareness of Star Wars on a very grass roots level - promotional items which are now very sought after collectibles."

Lucasfilm would return to the event in subsequent years to pimp Empire and Return Of The Jedi, and also organised screenings of the previous films for fans.

It had such an impact, that Friday of the convention is usually known as "Star Wars Day", with Lucasfilm announcing Revenge Of The Sith's title in 2004.

Next: The 1980s


4. The 1980s

The Con continued to grow, and attracted yet more top talent from several fields.

In 1979, the event moved to a new regular home, the Convention and Performing Arts Centre, with a changing roster of hotels backing it up.

Notable 1980s guests included Matt Groening, then writing and illustrating his Life In Hell comics, years before he'd pitch The Simpsons, and the '60s incarnation of Batman himself, Adam West.

Hollywood would make another splash in 1981 when the team behind Blade Runner brought one of the earliest behind-the-scenes video peeks at a film that would arrive the following year.

While the event had settled into either a July or August date by that point, real-world events could still change things: the convention was held in June in 1985 when the Los Angeles Summer Olympics clashed with the usual timing.

Also in 1985, the Con scored a coup by nabbing notoriously appearance-shy Alan Moore for his only US appearance that year. If only he knew what lay ahead for his work...

And the Con geared itself towards becoming a professional brand, acquiring a new logo designed by Rick Geary and a general manager.

Aside from those early blips, the '80s were largely quiet in terms of Hollywood presence.

1988 would, however, be remembered for two notable arrivals - jokey supergroup Seduction Of The Innocent (listing among its members original Lost In Space actor Bill Mumy and Robocop co-star Miguel Ferrer), and the first time that Japanese animation had a real presence.

Things would heat up in the 1990s...

Next: The 1990s


5. The 1990s

1990 was a watershed year for the event as it moved to its current home at the San Diego Convention Centre, where it has continued to grow.

The large new digs allowed for more than 15,000 attendees to chat with the likes of comics legends John Romita Jr, and Spirit creator Will Eisner (for whom the event's comic book awards were named).

And it also provided extra rooms for the various panels and discussions, not to mention a bigger Artists' Alley (where creators could interact with fans and sign/sell swag).

Comics creators and cartoonists continued to dominate, but the shift towards film and TV was gathering pace.

Through the 1990s, the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Ray Harryhausen, Leonard Nimoy, Tia Carrera, Paul Verhoeven and even Mr T would show up to pimp their various projects.

1998 was the year that TV began to have a major impact on the Con - with minor riots breaking out over access to the autograph tables for gene favourite Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Also that year, the event hit an all time high, garnering 42,000 visitors.

In 2000, Bryan Singer brought a preview X-Men, and was faced with fan fury over cutting the character of beast from that first X-film.

Then, in 2001, everything changed. Hollywood arrived in force..

Next: 2001: A Hollywood Odyssey


Next: 2001 - 2005


7. 2001 -2004


As well as some of the huge movies, DreamWorks brought down a full-size prop from The Time Machine, hoping to drum up some interest in that December's release. Sadly for the studio, the film itself didn't exactly set the genre world on fire..

Though Lord Of The Rings had a big presence, the film was mostly represented by the fans on site, with pics from the film's set and a trailer - running off a computer.

Kevin Smith continued his long association with the Con by hosting one of his famous, hours-long Q%26As, mostly to promote Jay %26 Silent Bob Strike Back, but mostly so fans can hear him tell stories. It's an experience not to be missed, folks.


Another explosion in size as bigger name actors arrived in the shape of Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bryan Singer was back, this time basking in a little more geek love thanks to a successful presentation for X2.

There were also appearances by Guillermo del Toro (pimping the first Hellboy film) and Ang Lee drumming up anticipation for Hulk.


Marvel movie mogul Avi Arad returned for another run at the crowds, while Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, Andy Serkis, Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood showed up to see the LOTR franchise off.

Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry also showed, while Quentin Tarantino made a surprise turn to promote Kill Bill.

Oh, and Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Jackman touted Van Helsing. Bet they wish they hadn't bothered, now.


The Con increased in size and talent level as the attendance hit 100,000 and events expanded into the convention Centre's gigantic Hall H, which meant the event now occupied the entire building (except for three toilets upstairs).

TV gained more of a foothold as JJ Abrams screened the Lost pilot to rapturous response.

Film-wise, Rob Zombie was promoting The Devil's Rejects, Jude Law tried to convince us that Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow was going to rock and Paris Hilton showed up because she'll show up for anything.

Oh, and because she was promoting House Of Wax.


Next: 2005-2008


8. 2005-2008


An estimated 113,000 showed up for Kevin Smith, Stan Lee, Richard Kelly (previewing Southland Tales), Bruce Campbell and Bryan Singer (Superman Returns).

One of the bigger pimped pics was V For Vendetta, with producer Joel Silver bringing Natalie Portman along for the ride.


Attendance was now at 123,000 and among the talent is Samuel L Jackson, who wows the crowd as he stumped for Snakes On A Plane (the panel includes a live set of the slithery reptiles which ended up draped around willing volunteers).

The Spider-Man 3 gang, including Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Bryce Dallas Howard did the rounds.

But the big surprise was Zack Snyder's 300, with the Hall H crowd reacting wildly to a trailer and demanding to see it again like rowdy children.

It was also the year that TV truly invaded, with Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Jericho and other shows holding big, cast-filled panels to promote new seasons and DVD sets.

The event ended up straining the convention centre's limits - with some fans denied entry during the big Saturday crowds.


Jon Favreau and Iron Man were the undoubted stars of the show, with the movie hitting full speed towards its successful box office launch.

Favreau proved to be a natural raconteur. Must be something to do with his acting background...

Also there? Nic Cage, JJ Abrams, Steve Carell, Dwayne Johnson and loads more.

It's a sell-out crowd for the first time in the event's history, with all multi-day and single-day passes gone by the time Friday rolled around.


Twilight was the sensation of the Con as the fans queued for hours (and in some cases, a day) before the Hall H panel and stripped the paint from the walls with their screams when cast members including Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart took the stage.

Hugh Jackman popped up with a surprise Wolverine trailer and Zack Snyder whips the crowd up into a frenzy with Watchmen material.

JJ Abrams also had a trick up his sleeve, bringing Zachary Quinto on stage with Leonard Nimoy to get the Trek fans talking.

And once more the event was a roaring success, attracting 126,000 people and all passes sold out weeks before the event began.

So to this year...

Next: 2009


9. 2009

This year's event is looking even bigger, though attendance will be capped around the 126,000 mark simply for safety issues.

All passes sold out months in advance, and anticipation is high for what we might see.

Given its accelerated production schedule and late 2009 release date, the Twilight series is expected to feature heavily once more, with New Moon's cast and crew showing up and other events getting quickly out of its way.

If there's a challenger this year, it's undoubtedly Avatar, with James Cameron (alongside Warners and Disney's 3D releases) finally forcing the event to outfit Hall H as a 3D-ready display area.

Talking of Disney, they'll have the Pixar gang back, alongside legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, who is bringing his new movie Ponyo.

And Tim Burton will be previewing scenes from Alice In Wonderland, which we can't wait to see.

Sadly, it looks like they'll be no Edgar Wright touting Scott Pilgrim or Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with their new pic Paul (since they're all still shooting), but don't count them out as surprise guests yet...

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.