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As Comic-Con, the country's premier pop culture event turns 50, comics are overshadowed by movies based on them. It's a loss — and a win

Tracy Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

With custom-built pop-ups that mirror scenes from movies and high-rise hotels transformed into giant billboards for upcoming TV shows, Hollywood looms large in the heart of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter during Comic-Con.

Officially referred to as Comic-Con International: San Diego, this year's event, which commemorates the convention's 50th year, will run through Sunday and is expected to once again attract at least 135,000 comic book and pop culture enthusiasts in and around the San Diego Convention Center.

Attendees will have a chance to test their potential as police recruits at a "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" experience, learn how to throw axes at a "Vikings"-themed training day and even get a taste of "Snowpiercer"-branded bug protein bars. Fans more interested in Comic-Con's programming will have a chance to catch Marvel Studios and "Game of Thrones," routine headliners who sat out last year's convention, as they make their return to the venerable Hall H.

But Comic-Con wasn't always like this.

The show's transformation into what it is today is emblematic of the evolution of comics and genre fandom over the years. The changing attitudes about comics and comic book-based entertainment have given rise to a multitude of ways for all kinds of fans to celebrate what was once a niche form of storytelling.

Comic-Con's own origin story involves San Diego transplant Shel Dorf rallying a few young comic book fans into organizing Southern California's first comic book convention in 1969.

 

"We were four teenagers, one preteen and an unemployed graphic artist. And we started this thing, Comic-Con," said Mike Towry, one of Comic-Con's teen founders. "We did it because we wanted to do it. We weren't trying to make money from it. We just did it for the fun."

The original organizers -- Towry, Dorf, Richard Alf, Bob Sourk, Barry Alfonso and Dan Stewart -- put together the one-day San Diego Golden State Comic-Minicon in March 1970 at the U.S. Grant Hotel. Its success led to a three-day convention that August, which boasted 300 attendees plus comics great Jack Kirby as well as author Ray Bradbury among its guests.

The early shows were "all about (comic book) collectors," Bud Plant, a longtime Comic-Con exhibitor, recently told the Times. "We were there both to sell some of our duplicate things that we picked up and also to go out and scout for comics. It was all about back issues of comics going back to the 1940s. I probably spent as much time out looking for books as I did selling them."

At the time, comics fandom was primarily about buying and reading comics and fanzines, and fans were frequently looked down on as immature by mainstream culture. Comic-Con then was a gathering place where comic and sci-fi fans could engage with like-minded people and meet some of their favorite creators.

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