San Diego Comic Fest ’17: 25th Anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series with Arlen Schumer

San Diego Comic Fest ’17: 25th Anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series with Arlen Schumer
02170220sdcf_0027
Arlene Schumer and his book “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art”

As a cartoon loving kid of the 90’s, chances are the Batman: The Animated Series was on your “must-watch list.” It’s hard to believe that the iconic show is hitting its 25th year anniversary. But what really made this show stand out so much in our minds, even now as adults? Aside from the writing that didn’t belittle the intelligence of its Saturday-morning audience, Arlen Schumer decided to discuss the show’s elements at this year’s San Diego Comic Fest. He spent a great deal praising the artwork of Bruce Timm, who gave us a look for the iconic Batman that still perpetuates to this day, and much more.

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is what’s known as Murphy’s Law, which Schumer invoked as he watched the convention’s technical support trying to get his laptop to display on the projector. Fortunately, a friend of his who has worked as an animator for twenty-some years and who I only caught the first name of Lance, entertained the audience with talks of the lack of quality-diversity in that of superhero cartoons. “In the early 90’s, even in the business, there was a massive revolution [in animation]. To see a cartoon that you not only wanted to work on, but you wanted to watch, didn’t exist… In my opinion Johnny Quest was the greatest, until this show… Batman, well I’m not going to step on Arlen’s toes. In his lecture he’s going to tell you how it was such a great show-“

“No I’m not!” interrupted Schumer just as his computer woes were almost solved. “Don’t put your words in my mouth,” he added cheekily.

Lance continued. “I’m just going to leave off with that when I first saw Bruce Timm’s art, I didn’t say ‘This is a great artist,’ but instead ‘This is an important artist.’ Bruce has influenced so much that has followed, but he still hasn’t been equaled.”

Now in full control of his laptop thanks to the “techie gods,” Schumer urged the audience to give his friend a round of applause (to which they did) and dove right in to “visualecture.” He began by showing the opening animation for the Batman cartoon (which still gives me goosebumps to this day). Schumer pointed out the first instance of the cartoon’s version of the Batmobile and the connection to the late 80’s movie adaption.

02170220sdcf_0022“And of course we have the animated series’ Batmobile in full color, from the opening that we just saw. That was actually more-or-less based on the Anton Furst design for the 1989 Batman film, which really was because of the success was the impetus for the animated series to be given the green light.” Adam West’s 1960’s Batman television show was a large part to why it took the success of a major-motion picture to get the cartoon approved. The “caped-crusader’s” image was overshadowed by the early show, making it hard for people to take the character of Batman seriously for some time.

To dissociate from the 60’s television show, Schumer pointed out the similarities to past superhero cartoons and the Bruce Timm Batman. “Look how different Bruce Timm’s animated Batman was [compared to the live-action show]. But again, if you know your comics and you know your Alex Toth, and you know your animation, Space Ghost which appeared in the fall of 66… you have Batman in space,” pointed out Schumer as he compares an early sketch of the Space Ghost character compared to Bruce Timm’s Batman. “The dictum [Toth] was given by Hanna-Barbera was, ‘Give us Batman in space.’ And that’s what Space Ghost is.”

Another large reason to why the animated series is still firm in our minds and can even stand up to the likes of even today’s cartoons is the visual architecture displayed in the shows premise of Gotham City. Arlen Schumer attributed the art-style used by Bruce Timm to that of “Russian Constructivism”. “If you look at early production art by Bruce Timm or some of his other artists that are working to his style, you can see all of the influences in these early images that [he] did,” said Schumer as he pointed to sketches and artists renderings of Gotham skyline and building architecture. Another reoccurring theme in the series is Bruce Timm’s use of red sky throughout the series, which Schumer also points out, “The whole red/black motif itself comes out of Russian Constructivism.”

It would be safe to say it’s hard to imagine the cartoon without Bruce Timm’s influence. But where did the artist come from? “[Timm] was an animator in the late 80’s,” explains Schumer. “Working for Warner Bros. Animation, working on Tiny Toons. But he was a big Batman fan. Perhaps for years, maybe even a decade, before he got the Batman job, he had [Batman] sketches posted around his cubicle… From his early sketches, you can already see the influences that would make it into the show; the more exaggerated and more extreme characteristics… You can see how much of it survived in the version ten years later that made it to the screen… And here’s the show, where it’s tone down and more stylish/polished, but it’s there!”

02170220sdcf_0030
Arlen Schumer (right) and his buddy “Lance” (left)

Soon after the green light was given for the animated series, Jean MacCurdy who was president of Warner Bros. Animation from 1989 to 2001 began looking for someone to head the cartoon. “She sees those sketches by Bruce Timm, and he and his partner Eric Radomski are asked to put together a pilot.” The original pilot, once redone with the shows “polished” look, became most of what the opening sequence was.

Eric Radomski was the one largely responsible for the cityscapes in the show. “They called them “dark-deco,” instructed Schumer as he pointed to a paused section from the pilot. “Again, we see that red sky in the background.” It was more than the sky that made the look unique. Radomski was influenced a great deal by the look of the 1989 movie in which at first greenlighted the animated series. However, the movie’s long, dark, and foreboding look came from that of the 1927 black-and-white movie Metropolis.

“Now influenced who first?” asked Schumer. “It was the American architect Hugh Ferriss. With these monumental images of buildings that are just literally the blueprint of everything to come… Look how [Bruce] Timm in his early presentation production artwork took a Hugh Ferriss drawing and look at how he adds Batman directly to that Hugh Ferriss background. Look how this Hugh Ferriss typical, monolithic building is echoed in one of Eric Radomski’s background images for the animated series.”

Unfortunately, Schumer wasn’t able to go through his full presentation due to time constraints. What he was able to go through however spoke volumes about the animated series, its artists, their influences, and how it all came to be a great show that would forever mark itself among Batman and cartoon fans for perhaps as long as its comic predecessor. The show is a subject that could be analyzed and discussed in the likes of a college course.

To learn more about the lecturer, artist Arlen Schumer, visit his website at www.arlenschumer.com. Also, check out his 2003 released book “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art.”

San Diego Comic Fest ’17: Interview with SDCF’s Founder, Mike Towry, covers Jack Kirby and the Future of the Convention

San Diego Comic Fest ’17: Interview with SDCF’s Founder, Mike Towry, covers Jack Kirby and the Future of the Convention
20170217sdcf_0044
Found Mike Towry (right) and Chairman Matt Dunford (right) on opening night.

For this year’s San Diego Comic Fest, it had a great deal on its plate; A fifth year, a new venue, the announcement of a new Chairman for next year, unseasonal rain, leaking roofs, Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday, X-Men: The Animated Series 25th anniversary, and more. Amid all this, the convention is chugging along. Not only that, but Founder Mike Towry allowed me to pull him away from his busy schedule and sit down for a quick chat.

For your first time in a new venue, since all the previous years have been at the San Diego Town and Country, I feel really bad that it’s been raining so much this weekend. That aside, how do you think Comic Fest is going?

It’s going really well. People seem to be having a great time, we like the new venue, and it’s nice to have everything more together. It’s our first time here, so there are some learning things like where things work best [at the venue] and the hotel also is learning how to “deal” with us. The convention seems to be working out really well.

I know parking has also been an issue for convention goers.

It was actually a surprise that we filled the parking lot. Yesterday some people were able to park at the “National University” across the street, but today they’re having an event there, so the hotel actually helped us out with a parallel street where there’s a lot of parking, so they’re running a shuttle actually from the hotel and picking people up as sort of an “ad-hoc” solution. That’s something we’ll definitely look at for next year if we’re here, where we would get in contact with National University and see if we could use their parking, and also set up the shuttle with the street parking an all that. But you know what, it’s a good problem to have if it means that we are having all these people coming.

What kind of fan would you say you are? What are your interests?

I love comics and science fiction. I read a lot of science fiction, when I can. It’s funny; I spend so much time doing Comic Fest things that I don’t feel like reading the things that I like as much.

Are there any writers or artists that you would call your favoites?

Well Jack Kirby as a comic artist is without question my favorite, but also as a person. I met him when [I was a] kid. We had just moved to Southern California and he was so nice to us and always willing to spend so much time when we came to visit. He would just take the day off and talk, which was amazing because he had this terrific work ethic that he would just work days and days in; day after day doing his comics. He would stop just because some fans were there to talk to him. He was a wonderful person, as well as an amazing artist.

Look at the things that have been in Heavy Metal recently, The Lord of Light stuff that he did; it’s just amazing. Mike Royer, who was his favorite inker, is here [at Comic Fest] this year and was at a panel yesterday. [He] said that that was the best inking he had ever done, The Lord of Light, and he was just thinking about why that was. He said that he thought it was because it had meant a lot to Kirby and that Jack Kirby was approaching it really seriously; Putting so much into it that [Royer] just felt like “Oh, I better not mess this up.”

But you know there have been so many great comic artists. We’re having a Wally Wood program tomorrow. He was a great artist. Neal Adams a couple years ago was our Guest of Honor. He saved Batman, you know, when he started doing those great Batman covers. After the 60’s Batman show with Adam West, which was fun, it kind of made Batman a joke. Neal Adams just brought back the “Dark Knight.”

With science fiction, two of our guests this year are Greg Bear and David Brin. I’ve heard a great deal about their work. Jonathan Mabery is a local writer. He didn’t get to come this year, but he came last year. I read a lot of his stuff.

20170217sdcf_0072
Founder Mike Towry having a laugh while surrounded by Jack Kirby covers in the makeshift Jack Kirby cafe. 

For San Diego Comic Fest, where would you like to take it going forward? Are there any special plans in the works?

There’s a lot of work that I would like to see get [done]. Matt [Dunford] is going to be our new Chairman for the next Comic Fest, so I hope that with his help this will free me up to look at some other things. It’s our nonprofit organization that puts on the fest and there are some other things that I wanted to do through that, which I think would be helpful [in time] to Comic Fest. There are some things with international appeal that I want to see happen with international comic book fans, like more connections to Mexico since we’re here in San Diego. It just makes sense because we already bring up other comic book artists from Mexico and I would like to do more of that, because comics is a world wide phenomenon. Everybody likes comics, of one sort or another.

It’s wonderful to see all the hard work that yourself and all the volunteers have put into Comic Fest. I can really see how much everyone cares for the convention and are real fans themselves.

Like I said, we’re nonprofit and nobody here is getting a salary. Everybody is doing it, as you just said, because we just love this stuff. We even have our wonderful registration staff here; They like science fiction and such, but they sit at the registration table the whole convention. They don’t even get to see the programs. [They do it] just to serve their fellow fans so that they can get their badges and all that. It’s a special and different thing. I’m not going to knock anyone else’s convention, but we’re a nonprofit convention where people are doing it out of love of the comics and the science fiction, and just because they’re fans. It gives a completely different vibe, I think, to the event.

Is there anything else we should know?

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so that will be our theme for the next Comic Fest. Also, since Frankenstein was the first major “undead” character, the zombie aspect too will be present. We’re going to be developing both of those for the comics, the writings, the novels, films, and animations featured here; That should be a lot of fun.

On behalf of The Beat and fans, thank you Mike Towry for talking to us, and for putting on another year of San Diego Comic Fest.

If you wish to learn more about SDCF and their nonprofit organization, visit www.sdcomicfest.org

San Diego Comic Fest ’17: Up and Early for Social Fandom for Geek Properties

San Diego Comic Fest ’17: Up and Early for Social Fandom for Geek Properties
20170219sdcf_0002
(Left to right) Jonathan Tavss, Jenny Stiven, Matt Dunford, and Anina Bennett.

Bright and early on a Sunday morning, collected in San Diego Comic Fest’s make shift “Kirby Café” panelists Jenny Stiven, Jonathan Tavss (working in digital and social fandoms for over 20 years), Anina Bennett (once editor at First Comics and co-author and co-creator of Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel and the science fiction series Heartbreakers), and Matt Dunford (Comic Fest Chairman and President of Little Fish Comics) gathered to discuss the ever present and growing area of social media in regards to creators and fans.

Stiven began by recapping what was discussed during last year’s Comic Fest as to where the concept of “social fandom” came from; “…From the late 80’s where people gather on bulletin boards and talk about what their favorite creation was,” she said. “It was a great way for geeks to get together and talk online from around the world.”

Nowadays, the options are plentiful for this “social-fandom culture” to connect, share interests, and for better or for worse give their own comments. This growth in connectivity has given rise to what wasn’t possible before; Creators and intellectual property (I.P.) owners are now taking extreme notice to what fans are saying. Shocking, right? In the same realm, these creators are also reaching out to fans to let them know they are being heard.

“The power shift has really gone to the fans online,” continued Stiven. “The fans really started to drive some of the conversation for the publishers, for the studios with their ‘geek’ properties in a way that hadn’t happened before.” Of such examples, the Dealpool movies is one of the most recent and strongest. “That is a fan driven movie that came to be after a multitude of times that FOX said ‘no.’”

“I think what social [fandom] really does well is fill a number of huge gaps,” said Tavss. “One is that there can be feedback now for creators as an opportunity for those ‘2nd and 3rd tier’ creators to connect it a way that they couldn’t before because they couldn’t get the support of the major publishers.”

The power of these fan-driven conversations fueled by social media has also allowed the “smaller presses” to find fans, connect, and gain traction. For a time, only the “first-tier” presses and recognizable names were getting notoriety and winning awards. Now, we are seeing a greater diversity in what and who are getting nominated for awards, as Bennett discussed. “It used to be that way more superhero tales were getting nominated, and today it’s much more likely to be creator owned and creator driven comics that are nominated for the Eisner’s.”

20170219_101157

No one can deny the power of social media and thus the social fandom that has risen from it. The internet has provided a great platform for fans and creators to stand on. However, the panel also warned against creators delving too precariously into it. There are a great many social platforms now; Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to name a few. “When you’re getting too concerned with finding the time to consistently post, no one is going to care,” warns Stiven. This means that creators should first focus on creating. From there, they should then find that fine-balance when they should post to social media as to keep their communities involved and interested.

Related to this idea of “too much” is deciding what platforms to use. Stiven said on the matter that, “It really comes down to the creator and what they’re comfortable with.” She also added, “Fans are the best people to have test these platforms as they have nothing to lose… Also, look to other creators and see what is successful to them.” Also, never underestimate the power of a traditional website. Fans will still want to see what you are up to and what you are currently creating.

The dangers of social fandom also extends to the very fans that keep it running. Matt Dunford discussed a story from a creator he knew that could have turned ugly. “He was about to confront someone that said his work was crap.” As Dunford explained it well, the best thing that a creator can do is to simply thank the commenter for reading and to ask what they didn’t like. “Be the bigger man… The trick really is being nice… You do not want to be that one person that someone says you’re a jerk… You cannot believe how fast a story can spread that can sabotage your career.” And you never know, valuable commentary might lead out of being the nice guy.

There’s no denying the power of social media and the power that it has given to fans, allowing social fandoms that can take the helms of conversations regarding major I.P.s. As a creator, you need to keep your fingers on the pulse of what fans are saying about you and also to you. Try to engage with them, listen to them (with a grain of salt) and be ever courteous. If you disrespect your fans, you may not like the wraith the internet can enact.

San Diego Comic Fest ’17: Arlen Schumer Pays Tribute to Jack Kirby and Denounces Stan Lee

San Diego Comic Fest ’17: Arlen Schumer Pays Tribute to Jack Kirby and Denounces Stan Lee
mattdunfordheadshots201650
Lecturer Alren Schumer with his book The Silver Age of Comic Book Art

Artist, illustrator, writer, and in a way Jack Kirby historian are a few of the titles that Arlen Schumer would claim for himself. The man of many talents is hard at work at this year’s San Diego Comic Fest, giving four “visualectures” throughout the convention weekend. Since SDCF is paying special tribute to the 100th birthday of the famous comic artist and writer Jack Kirby this year, it’s only fitting that one of Schumer’s lectures entirely revolves around Mr. Kirby.

The lecture was very comprehensive and chalked-full of Kirby history and facts. Before he began, Schumer apologized and said that to do Jack Kirby justice it would take more than the one-hour allotted time. In fact, the lecture ran to an hour and thirty minutes, where Schumer afterward admitted he still rushed through some parts. This indulgence was only permitted because Chairman of Comic Fest, Matt Dunford, was in the audience. “I’ll allow this,” said Dunford. “I’m the Chairman!”

“Fifty-years ago in the Fall of 1966, in Esquire Magazine, it was the first time a major magazine featured Jack Kirby’s Marvel characters,” says Schumer in his opening lines. “And [in the center] is Captain America, the character that Kirby most enjoyed drawing over his career.” What’s important about these lines, aside from that a majorly publicized magazine acknowledged a comic artist and his characters, is the fact that Captain America is front row and center in the image. In a large way, the character created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon embodies much of Jack Kirby’s early life and his hopes for this country.

mattdunfordheadshots201651Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, grew up in the lower-eastside of New York city, an educated son of Jewish immigrants. Early in his career, Kirby was a cartoonist for the black and white Popeye. Not satisfied with being an “in-between cell drawer,” Kirby sought to join the growing market of comics and began to contribute to the growing pool of “superheroes” after fledgling DC Comics debuted Superman. Jacob Kurtzberg and his partner Hymie Simon, who changed their names to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon respectively, began to produce their own “Superman knockoffs” as lecturer Schumer put it.

Their focus however was not entirely centered on the Superman clones. “They were more concerned with what was happening in Europe in the late 30’s and early 40’s,” points out Schumer. “They were two-young Jews who wanted to raise the consciousness of America, on what was happening. America didn’t want to fight Europe’s war; We were very isolationists… So what were two Jews to do? They created the most recognized American icon with Captain America.”

The “iconic-captain” became a sensation among readers in a time of war. Many kids and adults bought comics just so they could see the “evil-forces of Europe” getting their teeth knocked in. “Before you know it, punching Nazis’ and Hitler was a thing,” point out Schumer remarking on both the trend in copycat comics at the time surrounding the legendary image of Captain America punching Hitler, as well as the recent political and social climate within our own country at this moment.

capuncheshitler

After the war, comic books began to lull in their sales and content. “There were no more Nazis to punch,” pointed out Schumer. Jack Kirby had to work on projects that he wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about, ranging from romances, to mysteries, to westerns. Not only did the content become questionable, but Kirby was fighting some battles in his own career. He had left Marvel comics and jumped over to rival DC Comics, a startling change that upset many comic fans even to the point of giving up comics altogether. This was not permanent though, as Kirby jumped between the two companies a number of times over the span of a few decades.

What becomes a heated point in Schumer’s lecture is that of the “Stan Lee vs. Jack Kirby” debate. Schumer himself didn’t hide that he is entirely in Jack Kirby’s corner, which ultimately makes sense. As an artist, Schumer symptomizes and relates more with the legendary Kirby. Where I stand in the issue, which still continues to this day, I won’t remark because this article isn’t about me. What I will say is that I agree with Schumer in that Kirby deserved more credit (in a legal standpoint) with creations of very iconic Marvel characters. It may be the writer who gives the character a soul, but it’s the artist who gives them a body.

mattdunfordheadshots201652The remainder of the lecture surrounded that of Kirby’s influences in both comics and other popular media. Whether intentional or not, Kirby’s clean and highly intricate art style can be seen mirrored in comics that are to follow, one of which being the “Kirby Krackle” that has become a staple in the industry. In Disney fashion, Kirby designed and proposed a theme park that was to rival that of Disneyland, featuring in the proposed renderings large structures based on the many gods that lived in in the artist’s mind. When it was apparent that that idea wasn’t going to be, Kirby decided to take what he had already made and adapt it for a movie, a movie with a script that was to rival the then popular Starwars; it was called Argo. In an odd twist of fate, the movie was purchased by the U.S. government in a plot to rescue U.S. citizens during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. As made known in the 2012 movie also named Argo, the U.S. faked a mission to scout for proposed sites to film a movie using the real script and Jack Kirby’s renderings to help the fictitious story. Though they did help to save American lives, which I’m sure the Captain America creator would be proud of, sadly Kirby’s movie ideas would never see the silver screen.

I feel bad that I can’t fit everything that Schumer discussed into one article unless I want it to be the size of a novella. The one thing to ultimately take away from the lecture is that this legend among comic book artists stretched his hands into many fields, and though he passed more than two-decades ago his presence and memory still lingers in the world of comics and if you look close enough, the world at large. To read more in-depth comic history check out Arlen Schumer’s 2003 book, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art. Also, check out his website at www.arlenschumer.com

San Diego Comic Fest Kicks Off with a Heavy Storm and Jack Kirby

San Diego Comic Fest Kicks Off with a Heavy Storm and Jack Kirby
20170217sdcf_0044
Founder Mike Towry (right) with Chairman Matt Dunford (left) dealing with last minute preparations.

As the winds howled outside and rain beat against the roof of the Four Points hotel by Sheraton, one thing was blatantly obvious: bad weather won’t stop dedicated comic book fans.

You’d think San Diego Comic Fest organizers and staff would have been disheartened by a stormy opening night, but everyone seemed to be in positive (albeit frantic) moods. Of course, there were the typical last minute hiccups; Registration staff searching frantically through their rolodexes for names while still setting up computer equipment, the promises of start times going thirty minutes beyond when they were intend, artist alley booths trying to find that fine line of where to set their tables far from the outer walls as the building informed them all while staying out of range from the leaking sunroofs above.

20170217sdcf_0012
Moai statue that greets everyone who enters the lobby.

After some preliminary photos, I waited in the registration line only to find that my pass was somewhere upstairs. “We don’t have the names yet for press. You’ll have to find Mike.” After a run upstairs (Oh, Mike isn’t here. He’s running around somewhere downstairs), then a run back downstairs (Hey, I’m Mike. I need to go upstairs to get the press stuff), I found myself going back up and then down again to the front desk registration with the elusive Mike where I finally got my badge. *Link’s obtaining of item music plays in background*

The great thing, however, is that none of this mattered. Waiting attendees merely waived off all the road bumps while they resumed their talks how they felt there was no need to adapt their favorite cartoon into a movie or how a good story and practical effects trumps CGI every time. Amidst this comradery of fandom, even I couldn’t stay upset.

As one enters the main lobby, the large “Moai” statue greets everyone. Off to the left of that there are signs pointing to the outside pavilion for vendors, which will be open as of the next day. The right offers much more; a bar area converted into the “Jack Kirby Café,” not yet opened at the intended 7 PM time as they put on some finishing touches. Beyond that, we have the all ages gaming area, the artist alley guarded by a T-Rex head, a live-art demonstration area guarded by “King Kong,” and (my personal favorite) artist alley.

Once the Jack Kirby Café is finally opened, we are greeted by walls plastered with covers of his comics. The bar features Jack Kirby inspired drinks such as “The Darkseid,” all created by Little Fish Comics founder Alonso Nunez.

20170217sdcf_0127
Alonso Nunez of Little Fish Comics discussing his drinks as Mike Towry looks on with thirst.

Here in the café is where the kickoff party began for SDCF, first with the introduction of Mike Towry, founder of San Diego Comic Fest and one of the original people responsible for San Diego Comic-Con. He welcomed everyone for attending the Comic Fest’s fifth year. “This year we are celebrating Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday,” he said. “He had a big influence on my life… that’s why we are celebrating him for this year’s Comic Fest.”

20170217sdcf_0158
Digital Lizards of Doom

Afterwards, Towry introduced Alonso Nunez who helped with preparations, and then afterward introduced the incoming Chairman, Matt Dunford (Uncle Dunfy to those who know him best). “As you can see,” said Towry remarking on the suited chairman, “we’re really bringing some class in here.” Dunford laughed it off and talked about the past Comic Fests thus far. “I remember when I attended the first Comic Fest five years ago,” he reminisced. “I thought it was pretty good… last year I felt that the convention had finally found its groove. It was the best so far! And now, I’m really excited for [this year’s].” After applause and cake for Jack Kirby’s 100th, the DJs named “Digital Lizards of Doom” greeted us to an 8-bit rendition of the Indiana Jones theme and other popular tunes with a charming nerdy twist.

Looking passed some “opening-night jitters,” I thought everyone was very charming, giving some promise for the next few days of San Diego Comic Fest. Stay tuned, there’s more to come!

Does San Diego need both San Diego Comic-Con and San Diego Comic Fest?

san_diego_comic-con_international_logo-svgOnce upon a time, there wasn’t a San Diego Comic-Con.

Some would mark this period as “The Dark Ages of Conventions” (those being myself). It was in this “long-long ago” (1970) that a collection of comic, movie, and science fiction fans came together and formed a small and intimate convention that would someday grow to become Comic-Con International.

Why am I speaking in fairytale talk? It’s rather befitting given the grandness of San Diego Comic-Con now. It is hard to imagine one of the largest popular media events of the year, which takes up almost all of downtown San Diego and boasted an attendance of roughly 167,000 people in 2015, as once fitting it’s then 300 attendees into a small section of the U.S. Grant Hotel. The mustard seed that was San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Con since then has sprouted into the gigantic San Diego Comic-Con.

The story doesn’t have an entirely “happy-ending” though, mostly because there isn’t an ending. The convention has indeed prospered and grown, but much of the same fans who have watched it expand over the years have expressed their displeasures with it as well. From complaints ranging anywhere from the heavy “Hollywood” presence to the sheer numbers of attendees, they feel like they have lost something once intimate. To them, the original focus of Comic-Con is long gone.

comicfest-2017-comiccon-posters-18x24-1It was from this pining for the early days of San Diego Comic-Con that Mike Towry (early co-founder of SDCC) and other fans agreed that something was to be done. This something was the beginning of San Diego Comic Fest in 2012. The “second convention”, produced by fans for fans, has placed an emphasis on the personal interface between creators and fans, as well as fans with other fans. Since then, the convention has been growing steadily.

Do we really need a “second – Comic-Con” though? Comic Fest may not boast the large exposure, big names, and huge crowds of Comic-Con, but in the same realm Comic-Con doesn’t have the intimate, personal connection that Comic Fest offers. I’ve been sad to witness over the years the small vendors and artist alley itself shrinking little-by-little at Comic-Con. Each of the conventions provide something that the other lacks. And let’s face it, Comic-Con isn’t for everyone either. That doesn’t mean fans should be turned away from celebrating what they love. Comic Fest is that experience to simply be a fan.

This year marks Comic Fest’s 5th anniversary, and to celebrate the date the fan-run convention has a number of things planned. During SDCF’s days of February 17th to the 20th, the convention will celebrate Jack Kirby’s centennial birthday with special programming and a “Kirby Café”, salute the 25th anniversary of “X-Men: The Animated Series”, feature Guest of Honor Jim Valentino, and more.

Whether you’re a fan of the early-years of Comic-Con, wish to relive how it would have been, or want to connect personally with creators and other fans alike, don’t miss out on this weekend’s 5th annual San Diego Comic Fest (and yes, now we lived happily-ever after).

Visit www.sdcomicfest.org for more information.

San Diego Comic Fest’s Matt Dunford on the Convention, Jack Kirby’s 100th Birthday, and of course Comics.

San Diego Comic Fest’s Matt Dunford on the Convention, Jack Kirby’s 100th Birthday, and of course Comics.
matt-dunford
Matt Dunford, newly appointed chairman of San Diego Comic Fest

2017 will bring us yet another new year of comic conventions. When one thinks of San Diego and comics, it’s not difficult to summon images of San Diego Comic-Con, one of the largest celebrations of comics and popular media in the entire world. But there’s more to San Diego than just Comic-Con.

This year signifies the fifth year of San Diego Comic Fest. Just what is Comic Fest? As their website states, Comic Fest is:

…the friendly comic convention with a casual atmosphere and an intimate scale that allows fans to mingle directly with professionals and exhibitors. It’s the place where you can indulge your love of comics, science fiction, and films, and meet an outstanding array of professional creators without high-priced tickets, crowding, or long lines.

Not only is this “casual, comic-convention” celebrating its fifth year, but also the appointing of their new chairman, Matt Dunford. I had a chance to sit down with the Comic Fest chairman in San Diego’s Lestat’s Café on University avenue, which I might add is appropriately decorated with posters depicting iconic superhero franchises if they were played by legendary Hollywood stars and starlets. We spoke of himself, sharing his background in comics which legitimizes his appointment of chairman, and as well as Comic-Fest itself.

How long would you say you’ve had comics in your life?

I would say all my life. My recollections are that I started off with picture books; mainly the likes of Doctor Seuss type stuff, Little Critter, and a lot of Disney picture books, even before I could read. I remember I was always into the visual aspect of comics. There was this drive in me saying, “I need to see what they are saying… I need to be able to do this on my own… I don’t want my parents to keep reading this for me.”

The thing that really motivated me to read was back when I was about four or five years-old, I was a hardcore “Lego-pirate” fan. There was this comic book that came with a Lego set, called “Captain Redbeard and the Lost Golden Coin.” It was a Lego-pirate story adapted in comic form. I was so excited for it that I literally learned to read just so I could read this comic. Sometime after that, I was in Toys-R-Us with my dad. I think it was 1992. He wanted to find something for my “newly acquired reading abilities.” Then I saw it; This beautiful, shiny-holographic image of “Spider-Man” on this comic set. It was thirty comics that you could buy because it was the thirtieth-anniversary of Spider-Man. I just fell in love with it. It was my first time reading Spider-Man. I just read those issues until they were practically shredded. That’s when you could really say that my true comic book fandom started. All because of Spider-Man.

Over the years, how many comics would you say you’ve acquired?

At my peak, I would say maybe between fifteen and twenty-thousand issues that I’ve had over the years from just buying and buying; From garage sales, to comic stores, just buying on a weekly basis. Though I don’t really have that many in my collection anymore. I’m in the process of donating a lot of them to public facilities like Little Fish Comic Studios and of course to the pop-culture library at “San Diego State University” which is curated by Pamela Jackson. I’ve realized that they’re not doing me much good in storage. I’ve had my fun with them, so I rather that someone else can have their fun with them now.

But I understand your omnibus and absolute collection is still one to be rivaled.

matt-and-powergirl
Matt Dunford next to “Marilyn Monroe is Power Girl,” by Joe Philips

Oh yeah. I’ve been told that I have one of the most impressive hardcover, graphic novel collections out there. The single-issue stuff I just read casually, but I just like the convenience of being able to pull a book off of the shelf and showing it off. I collect all the big-hardcover ones, the hundred-dollar ones, the absolute editions from DC Comics, the omnibuses from Marvel, and all the Dark Horse library editions. For me, those are the books that I want to line my walls. I would say that there’s between seven-hundred and eight-hundred giant, oversized-hardcovers that fill my room and my apartment. They just flood the place. I just can’t tear myself away from these stories.

You spoke earlier of Little Fish Comics. You’re very active with not only them, but you were also involved very much with Club Cosplay, and now of course Comic-Fest. What has motivated you to get so involved?

Little Fish is definitely one of the biggest moments that I had in terms of breakthroughs. It’s really where my activism in comics started. But it really began earlier. It was when I was at UC Santa Barbara and finishing up my degree when I decided to swing down to Meltdown Comics for the day for a talk that they were doing when the “Watchmen” movie was coming out. They had notable writer Len Wein, co-creator of “Wolverine” and “Swamp Thing,” and editor of Watchmen [comic]. He was talking about the editing of Watchmen as a process, and it was the first time I remember hearing what an editor does. I thought, “This is awesome. This is so cool. An editor just has to be a ‘know-it-all’ about comics and just sits there telling the writers and artists how to improve the story?’ It really fascinated me. So I just kind of made that my goal of fixation.

As I researched more about editors, I discovered the career of “comic book historian.” Again, I was like, “Wow. This is really good, too.” This then sparked my interest in comic history; Not just the stories themselves, but what goes into the stories, the people behind them. This was around 2009. At that year’s [San Diego] Comic-Con, at the Jack Kirby tribute panel, there was a professor there named Roger Freedman who was a professor of physics at, oddly enough, UC Santa Barbara. He was talking about how he was one of the founding-fathers of Comic-Con back in 69’ and he spoke of this great history.

After that, I would go up to his office during office hours at UCSB and just talk his head off all day. He would tell me these great stories from the sixties and the Comic-Cons of the seventies and about hanging out with these great icons and gods of the comic book industry. Eventually when it was my finals week, as I’m scrambling to get all my projects done he emails me and CC’s comic-historian Mark Evanier and cartoonist Scott Shaw, two of these gigantic figures in the realm of comic books. He was asking if we could come up with questions for a student at UC Santa Barbara who was actually getting his PHD in “Superhero-ology.” This thing was unheard of to me. So I took time off of my schedule to come up with some questions. When I sent my questions out in the email correspondence, Mark says, “These are actually spot on. I really wouldn’t change too much about it.” And Mr. Shaw said, “Who the hell is this Matt Dunford guy and why have I never heard of him?” And that’s when Roger first gave me my title of “Matt Dunford: The World’s Youngest, Comic Book Historian.”

comicfest-2017-comiccon-posters-18x24-1Steering towards the topic of Comic-Fest which of you are now the chairman, this is its fifth year, correct?

Yes, this is the fifth year for San Diego Comic-Fest.

How long have you been involved with Comic-Fest?

When they first made the announcement of it five-years ago, it was put together by Mike Towry and Richard Alf, who were in essence the founding-fathers of the San Diego Comic-Con. They wanted to bring a feel of the original Comic-Con way-back from the 1970’s when it was small and intimate. They tell a story often about when they invited Jack Kirby as their first guest of honor back in 1969. The first Comic-Con had about two-hundred and fifty attendees back when it was “San Diego’s Golden-State Comic Convention.” The second year, it attracted about five-hundred people. Jack being “the Da-Vinci” of the comic world said, “Look at how big it got! Look at this, it’s huge now. Soon it will be the place where Hollywood comes to show off the movies that they made last year and find the films that they’re going to make next year.” Everyone just laughed at Jack, saying that it would never get that big.

So, the mission of San Diego Comic-Fest was to bring the small environment of comics and comic-fandom into a place where you could interact with its creators and where it’s just not the hustle and bustle of two-hundred thousand people at a convention, but that small-intimate setting where you can meet the people and interact with them; Just hang out with them. It provides a different dynamic. Of course I do love San Diego Comic-Con in all its huge-glory, but I also think it’s a good change of pace. Where we can have this one-on-one with these creators.

What should we expect for this year’s Comic-Fest?comicfest-2017-comiccon-posters-18x24-2

Oddly enough I’m already planning for the 2018 show. I like to think big. I like to bring in guests that have an established past in the history of comics, but are still working on new contemporary projects, so we may have something for the older-crowds who may not be reading contemporary comics, but can still embrace the old stuff.

What we are going to be mainly doing this year, since 2017 is the centennial birthday of Jack Kirby if he were still alive, is a strong focus with a lot of programming towards him, the “King of Comics.” If you don’t know him, he is the co-creator of “Captain America, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four,” basically the majority of silver-age Marvel; We will be celebrating his history. There are certain other figures in the comic realm who get a little more credit for creating these characters, and I think we should be embracing Jack’s side of it, because he is a real unsung hero.

We also have a lot of other special guests. Since we are not just so focused on comics in general, we also have a science-fiction room. We will be bringing in science-fiction special guest of honor David Brin, who has won Hugo and Nebula awards. We will also be bringing in special guest authors Greg Bear and Gregory Benford.

On the comic side of things, we have Vivek Tiwary, author of the graphic novel “The Fifth Beatle,” which tells about the life of Brian Epstein, the Beatles then manager. Epstein took them from an underground band to the biggest pop-culture sensation on Earth. It’s his tragic story of being a gay, Jewish man in the 1960’s and his struggles with drug addiction and trying to stay in the closet. On the animation spectrum, we will be bringing in John Semper, JR., who is of course the writer of my all-time favorite cartoon, the 1990’s “Spider-Man: The Animated Series,” which pretty much skyrocketed my Spider-Man fandom to levels unknown. We also will have Liam Sharp, a UK comics creator, currently the highlighted artist on the widely-acclaimed “Wonder Woman.” He’s just been doing the best work of his career right now with that comic. With every issue, my jaw basically drops. There will also be Mike Royer, Jack Kirby’s inker for most of his artwork throughout the 1970’s. He’ll talk about those years and then his years as an animator with Disney on the “Winnie the Pooh” cartoon.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “X-Men” cartoon, we will have some of show’s creators, including Eric and Julia Lewald and Larry Houston. An finally to top things off, we will be celebrating our guest of honor Jim Valentino of Image Comics, highlighting Image’s 25th year anniversary.

Thank you, Comic Fest’s chairman Matt Dunford, in taking the time away from your busy comic-laden schedule. San Diego Comic Fest will be next month, February 17th to the 20th. Everyone interested in attending, check out their website: www.sdcomicfest.org