How Star Wars made San Diego Comic-Con (and vice versa) revealed in exclusive See You at San Diego preview
The earliest days of a galaxy far far away are revealed, courtesy of Matthew Klickstein's oral history of fandom
The history of fandom is a wild and complicated one, but a new oral history attempts to tell the whole story from origins to the present day – while also sharing the journey of San Diego Comic-Con from its humble beginnings to its current status as one of the leading pop culture conventions in North America.
Matthew Klickstein’s See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture is, as you might suggest, an exhaustive look at what’s happened across the past half century of fandom and pop culture, featuring many unexpected stories – there’s one about cartoonist Scott Shaw!’s cosplay exploits that has to be read to be believed – and surprise appearances from familiar faces. It’s a book stuffed full of anecdotes, revelations, and everything in between, and a must-read for anyone with an interest in what got us where we are today.
In case you needed more convincing – or if you simply can’t wait until the book’s release next week – here’s a sneak peek at what to expect. In the following excerpt from the book, fans who were regulars at San Diego Comic-Con in the mid-1970s – including former Comic Buyer’s Guide editor Maggie Thompson and editorial director of Pacific Comics David Scroggy! – remember the movie that doubled the show’s attendance in one fell swoop: a little-known thing called Star Wars…
Excerpt from 'The Expansion' from See You at San DiegoPaul M. Sammon: As someone who is a lifelong fan of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comic books, it was a unique experience to be around when all of the strands of the moment came together in the early seventies that resulted in the first Comic-Cons. I had already begun to eat around the edges of working in the film industry, and as we approached the mid-seventies, I was publishing in so-called "pro-zines" that were a cross between a fanzine and a professional magazine. Things like Cinema Fantastique. But also the Los Angeles Times, American Cinematographer, and some other mainstream publications. I was already slowly becoming connected to Hollywood and began bringing more of that down to the Comic-Con.
Lloyd Kaufman: I've been friends with Stan Lee since I got out of Yale. I think he was the one that suggested I check out Comic-Con at the beginning of Troma going there. It was inexpensive in those days, and San Diego is beautiful, and we would have a great time. It was still very fan-fueled then, before it just exploded and became like the Cannes Film Festival. Bigger than the Cannes Film Festival. That was when Hollywood pretty much took it over.
Roger Freedman: Things really got big and the massive expansion began to occur that we see today starting in 1976. And there's one very good reason for that.
Maggie Thompson: One of the challenges that Don and I had in 1976 was that we had a nine-year-old and a four-year-old with us. And what we did was we traded off the evenings.
One of us would be in the hotel room babysitting, and the other one could go out and have fun. I went out, and there in the hall was Roy Thomas, who had been a longtime friend. And he was there with Charlie Lippincott. Now, Charlie was the promotions person for this movie that was going to come out the next year. And the reason that Roy, who was with Marvel, was involved, was that Marvel was going to do an adaptation of this new movie coming together. And so, I ended up in the room with the two of them, helping to sort through slides that they were going to use in their presentation the next day. Meanwhile, Charlie is talking up a storm about how great this movie is going to be. And so, I got back to the room and I said, “Don, this movie sounds really good. We're science fiction fans already, and there's this science fiction movie coming out. There's going to be a comic book. And let's go to this presentation they're doing about it."
Paul M. Sammon: There was a guy named Charlie Lippincott, who recently passed this year last. He was a good friend. I'm sorry to have seen him go. We lost many people in 2020. Charlie was a film guy who targeted fandom. He said, "Hey, George Lucas, there's this amazing, jumbled mass of people who will respond to this film, if we can get the word to them.” This was pre-Internet. It was the age of fanzines. And what Charlie did was he organized a traveling exhibition of props, slides, and occasionally guests that would specifically target these conventions that had anything to do with science fiction, horror, and fantasy.
Roger Freedman: What I remember sort of being the critical tipping point there was at the 1976 Con, in the dealers room. There was one table set up by these guys from Hollywood who were going to have a new science fiction movie coming out the followa ing year they wanted to publicize, and said, “Oh, well, probably these Comic-Con people would be good people to try this out on.” So, they had this card table off of which they were handing out posters and flyers and stickers for this new movie, the name of which was not even established yet. Which is why the stickers actually said the name of the movie was going to be The Star Wars. And, of course, things have now expanded to the point where today the Star Wars area in the dealers room or now the exhibit hall at Comic-Con is about the same size as the dealers room was at the El Cortez.
David Scroggy: It's no secret that Star Wars and Comic-Con are inextricably linked together. Star Wars used Comic-Con for advanced promotion, which changed a lot of things in the film marketing field. And that is all due to the genius of a man named Charles Lippincott, who was the early marketing head of and licensing director for George Lucas and his forthcoming film, Star Wars. And Charlie knew that Comic-Con was coming up and felt it would be a great venue where he could get fans revved up about this project.
Maggie Thompson: Conversations with Charlie ensued, and among the things that were intriguing about it was that there was this kid in it we might know about. Charlie said, “You don't know that much about the various people involved,” but he said that the kid in it we might know was Mark Hamill. And we said, “We love Mark Hamill!” Mark Hamill had been tremendous in a TV show called The Texas Wheelers. It was one of the first spinoffs that the MTM group did. And it starred Jack Elam. Why we had watched it initially was we liked Jack Elam so much. (Look him up. He's terrific!) And so, we were intrigued by that. And then Charlie said, “You know what? I know you're here from Ohio. But if you happen to be in Los Angeles at some point while you're here for the Con, our offices are at Universal. It's a 20th Century Fox movie, but our offices are at Universal. I can get you into the Universal tour if you'd like, and I'd love to show you stuff for this film at the office.” And we said, “Coincidentally, we're coming up the Coast. We're staying with John and Bjo Trimble. And we would love to go on the Universal tour. And we would love to see you in the office.” So, we got a free VIP Universal tour. So, there we were in Charlie's office where there were things like the American Graffiti poster - the original painting for that - leaning up against a desk. And one of Charlie's big concerns that he expressed to us was, “Look, I'm going to show you all these photos from this movie that's coming out. You can't tell anybody about them. Please, please keep it a secret. But I just want you to get an idea of what it is, because you understand science fiction. I want to show you how inventive this movie is going to be.” And he showed us the Star Wars cantina scene, all that makeup on these different actors, all the aliens. And he said, “I don't want it known, because if Forry Ackerman finds out, he is going to play this movie up as if it's a monster movie. And it is not a monster movie. Please keep that a secret.” And we said, "Absolutely." And we did. We kept our word. We kept it secret.
And, by the way, I have one of those posters that were being handed out at the '76 San Diego Comic-Con, hanging on my wall. Charlie had said, “Well, you can have it free.” We didn't even have to pay for it, as long as we would post it in our house and show it to our guests when they came, to promote Star Wars. That's the kind of guy Charlie was: I'm going to spread the word however I can spread the word. And he did.
David Scroggy: What Charlie had done was licensed the adaptation to Marvel Comics, and the creators were Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin, who were hard at work on a Star Wars comic. So, Charlie came down to see Shel, and Shel introduced me to him and told him I was the program director. And so, after we got Howard Chaykin and Roy Thomas' Comic-Con presentation squared away, Charlie and I set off to go find some press, some publicity for them in San Diego's regular media. And off we went. There was a television program that we knew at least how to approach called Sun Up San Diego. The bar for being a guest on Sun Up San Diego could charitably be described as “low." You could get on this show if you grew a large zucchini, or your mother made an interesting quilt, or your dog did a trick. It came on at like six in the morning. Charlie had not had much press on Star Wars yet, as it was still in the final stages of production. But one thing that had come out was an LA Times Calendar section article, the gist of which was, "Hey, there's this interesting science fiction movie in production.” And it had an early photograph of Chewbacca in it.
Down to Sun Up San Diego we went, and we walked in there, and as soon as we said, “Oh, we're Comic-Con and we we're here to talk about getting some comic creators associated with this science fiction movie on your show," their suspicions were immediate. They didn't believe us. They thought that even though I could get my Aunt Matilda on this show, that we were somehow not worth consideration. Charlie was an excellent sales person and presenter of himself and of Star Wars. And, fortunately for him, he had that LA Times Calendar section with him, which gave him enough credibility with the show for them to hem and haw a little bit, and finally say, "Okay,” and that they could put Howard Chaykin and Roy Thomas on Sun Up San Diego to talk about Star Wars. I didn't see that episode of the show. I don't know anybody who did see it, but it did happen. And I believe Howard Chaykin is cursing Charlie Lippincott's bones to this very day for having to get up at five in the morning to go do it during Comic-Con. But it's also an example of how Comic-Con really had to sell itself. I mean just how little regard and respect Comic-Con was given by San Diego in the early days. It was just really hard for them to believe that we were a viable and economically solvent organization.
Gene Henderson: We couldn't even get on the front page of the local papers. We were put back in the sections talking about things like Boy Scouts or something. I was working publicity at the time, and my job was to talk to the press, and I ended up talking to a reporter as we were going through one of the halls. And she seemed about as interested as some people would be about having borscht for dinner. Anyway, I said, “Well, it's a good thing that 20th Century Fox isn't here." And she says, “Oh, why is that?" I said, “Because of all the bootlegged Star Wars material that's here.” The next day on the front page of the paper, there was the article headlined “Bootleg Material at Comic-Con.” So, that's how we got on the front page, and that's how we doubled our attendance.
Barry Alfonso: I don't think we realized what would happen with Star Wars. I didn't. We thought it was just a really promising science fiction film. But we'd premiered other science fiction films earlier. Though, they weren't really good and didn't become famous. I mean, they were all just, you know, feeble in some way. And Star Wars was not feeble. I didn't realize the impact that it would have at the time.
Paul M. Sammon: A lot of it has to do not only with what age you were and the circumstances you saw those movies in, but it's also a qualitative measurement. For instance, Star Wars versus Disney's The Black Hole, which came out around the same time. Some people were overwhelmed by the look of The Black Hole, which is this Victorian beautiful glass and steel spacecraft look. It almost looks like a giant horizontal chandelier and these beautiful starscapes. So, it's visually arresting, but the content is very thin in The Black Hole.
Gregory Benford: Star Wars was pulp science fiction, gaudily produced. But there's also a family story embedded in it. People turn out to be related to each other and didn't know it and so on. And I can remember the gasp in the audience when Darth says, “I am your father.” And I thought, This is actually, in a weird way, almost Faulknerian science fiction. Because Faulkner was all about family and famously said, “The past isn't over. It isn't even past." And it's because the series has that subplot that makes it hang together as a social narrative. After all, who knows (or cares) who Flash Gordon's mother was, right? I think that was the special ingredient that made Star Wars work so well. For the same reason that Trek is successful. The crew on the enterprise becomes like a family. And always the question is: Who's Spock having sex with? Who is the Captain having sex with? Or can they? So, it's also a social narrative that happens to be set in the future. You get the future plus a social narrative that grounds you in the human experience. When it comes down to it, people are actually most interested in people. It's all about us.
Brinke Stevens: Things were slightly different when Star Wars came out, because what impressed us the most was the new technology where things just looked so amazing. It just blew everyone's mind. It wasn't just a little model of the Enterprise hanging there in Space. It was these astoundingly beautiful visuals. And we were just totally in love with that.
Paul M. Sammon: The Black Hole's got those stupid two robots during that transitional Disney phase. They haven't quite gotten out of the Mickey Mouse mentality and into the new one. On the other hand, Star Wars has got that zip and that energy and that forward momentum and that real primal American entertainment vibe going on. Americans have very little patience. Americans won't sit for long. They want things to move on. And Star Wars was that kind of movie. There was so much energy in that.
See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture will be released September 6 by Fantagraphics Books.
In the mood for some more comic history? Perhaps you should check out a brief history of the multiverse to get the skinny on the fictional construct that’s having a moment right now.