Matthew Klickstein explains what it takes to tell the oral history of San Diego Comic-Con
The man behind See You at San Diego talks about the interviews, people, and stories behind the exhaustive new book
Fantagraphics’ new release See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture is a treasure trove for anyone interested in how pop culture came to be what it is today, and just how nerds managed to take over the world.
Across more than 400 pages, author Matthew Klickstein talks to significant figures both in pop culture in general – including Kevin Smith, Felicia Day, Scott Aukerman, and Avengers: Endgame directors the Russo Brothers – and comic book and convention culture in particular (Hi, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman) in uncovering the origins of fandom as it exists today, and specifically the roots of San Diego Comic-Con, one of the biggest comic and pop culture conventions in the world. It makes for a dizzying, informative read filled with anecdotes and information that have to be seen to be believed.
To celebrate the book’s September 6 release, Popverse talked to Klickstein about the origins of the project, what he learned during his research, and why the combination of cartoonist Scott Shaw! and peanut butter can be bad for your plumbing. (No, really.)
The obvious place to start is, how did this project begin? I know that it spins out of the podcast series, but before that, there was the idea for the book. What made you think, 'I’m going to write a book that tracks down the lineage of fandom, and specifically west coast fandom, using San Diego Comic-Con as the lens?'
Over the past two decades or so, I've fallen deeply into a kind of niche of 'pop culture history' projects. As such, it seemed time to bring it all together in the culmination of pop culture nostalgia/fandom over the past century or so itself, and I realized the best way to do that was by tracking the prehistory, history, and expansion of the largest pop culture gathering worldwide: Comic-Con.
You mention in your acknowledgements at the back of the book that you hadn’t actually attended a Comic-Con until 2021’s Special Edition, outside of a quick visit in 2016. That really leads me to ask what it was that attracted you to the idea. You’re not a lifer at the show, you don’t have that kind of long-term nostalgic connection to it. You even joke that, when you went in 2021, you had a reaction along the lines of, 'it’s real.' Did Comic-Con just seem like this weird pop culture Oz before that point?
My initial experience at San Diego Comic-Con was in 2016 when I had an extremely singular time, being that I was there solely as director/producer running a small crew for a feature-length documentary about TV's Marc Summers (Nickelodeon's Double Dare, Food Network's Unwrapped, etc.) that followed the man around for festivities/events at the Con related to the 30th anniversary of Double Dare. It was quite a wild adventure for multiple (and understandable) reasons. So, that was really my only primary first-person experience at the Con before going to the Nov 2021 Special Edition which in and of itself was unique for what it was as well.
I had attended other cons around the country before, particularly smaller, more independent ones with my dad as a kid. He was a true-blue geek – still is – and would bring me to small cons focusing on trading cards, comics, action figures, video games, and the like. It was a very special bonding time between my dad and I where we were less father and son, and more just two friends running around, digging on all the same nerd culture stuff.
I suppose those experiences with him especially, and my own fascination with early geek culture/nostalgia at an even younger age – binging the Twilight Zone marathons every Thanksgiving and New Year's with my mom, obsessing over old Universal monster movies through those fantastic Crestwood House photobook series that came out in the mid-80s right when I was in elementary school, etc. – just instilled in me at an extremely foundational time an indelible sense of connection to all of this eclectic material.
That’s something that’s clear from your past work: in addition to writing comic books and movies of your own, you’ve also written an oral history of Nickelodeon, you’ve written about the Simpsons, as well… What was different about tracking down the true story – or maybe that should be stories, plural – of Comic-Con, beyond the scale?
Each project is of course very distinct from the next. But in the end my audio doc series and now book on Comic-Con and modern fandom as a whole was essentially a similar process... but, yes, at a much, much higher level over a much, much lengthier amount of time. My Nickelodeon book focused on the 80s and early 90s. My Simpsons book with lifetime series writer Mike Reiss focused really on the formative years of the series which in the end has "only" been a thirty-plus year run.
See You at San Diego focuses on an entire century's worth of fandom going all the way back to the 1930s or so, and therefore the scale of it all – particularly since now that I wasn't chronicling one main subject but many pop culture fandoms – was daunting though absolutely rewarding.
Talking about daunting, I’m curious: how long did a book like this take to put together, factoring in the work on the podcast Comic-Con Begins? I can only imagine the number of interviews that went into it, never mind how long some of those interviews would have ended up being…!
In a way, this book goes all the way back to 2014 when I was originally developing a book about the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds.
That book transitioned into a lengthier concept about nerd/geek culture itself, and through that process I was introduced to early Comic-Con committee member Wendy All who remained a close friend over the years. In early 2020, I talked with Wendy about doing an oral history of Comic-Con since the 50th anniversary of SDCC had just happened, she agreed, helped me get in touch with all the sources I would need, and we were ready to go... until Covid lockdowns and the rest of the madness of 2020 completely diverted everything.
Luckily, I had helped out a friend in the rise of his career who had become a producer at SiriusXM, he suggested we switch gears to making the story into an original audio doc for that company. We did so, it did great, and when things calmed down a bit about a year ago, we went back to the book concept, hit up Fantagraphics who jumped at the opportunity, and now here we are.
In the end, I culled together about 70 hours of interviews with more than 50 people, and yes, some of the interviews went on for well over two hours or more. It was certainly a lot, but at this point in my career, it's what I'm used to. It's what I do. All part of the game!
How did you come up with the list of interviewees?
Wendy All really helped out tremendously in this regard. She got me a list of virtually all of our interviewees, explaining to me meticulously who each person was and why they needed to be in the story. She was also extremely useful by explaining to each of them who I was so that they would want to talk with and work with me.
A few of them, like SDCC co-originator and comics/comix/animation godhead Scott Shaw!, had already been familiar with some of my earlier work, so it wasn't too challenging getting them to play ball. Though there were a small handful who needed some extra coaxing. But, again, I've gotten quite adept at getting folks onboard my projects over the years.
I also pulled every lever in my arsenal to get onboard a number of the high-profile 'celebrity guests,' all of whom came in through various means. Kevin Smith had just been in a documentary I had helped some friends produce that was on Hulu, and my buddies on that project helped me connect to him, for example.
Were there people that you ended up speaking with that you didn’t expect?
My favorite story is how we got Frank Miller. I had been bugging Leonardo DiCaprio's publicist for months about getting him onboard to talk about his childhood experiences at the Con and his dad George DiCaprio who was a major underground comix figure back in the day (we have plenty of stories about and pictures of him in the book). I kept getting nothing there, but finally the publicist relented and explained to me that she just didn't understand why I would want Leo for a project about Comic-Con ... but, hey, she also repped Frank Miller; would I want him?
Funnily enough, I had been trying to get Frank for months too through other reps who never got back to me, and now here he was served up on a platter! Talk about beshert!
Lloyd Kaufman was a joy to see popping up again and again, from my point of view.
Ah, and good ol' Uncle Lloyd. I've been a Team Troma member for years and have been close with Lloyd since college. He's always great for interviews and I always do whatever I can to involve him in projects like this. I was actually originally connected to Tim Seeley some years back through a mutual friend at Troma since Tim had done some art for them in the past. And that's how Tim got involved in this project, too!
Is there anyone that you spoke to that stood out as being particularly interesting or informative?
I had originally reached out to RZA to mainly talk about his obsession with kung fu movies and Bruce Lee, etc. I thought it would help explain why those films and martial arts etc. were an early part of both the Con and fandom itself. But when I started talking with him, he started waxing poetic about Gene Roddenberry and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee ... to a point where I stopped him at a point and asked if he in fact considered himself a nerd. He said that not only did he, but that he had just written about his nerdtastic qualities for WIRED!
Similarly, when SiriusXM helped us get in touch with Scott Aukerman, I was so excited to talk with him about podcasts and his nerdily hilarious comedy work on series like Mr. Show and Between Two Ferns... But, as it turned out, Scott had been going to SDCC since he was a kid back in 1985. He had so much to say that at one point my producers and I were trying to 'let him off the hook,' and free him up: 'Well, Scott, we've probably taken up so much of your time...' but he wanted to keep talking, so we let him! He was so into it! He couldn't stop talking about his geekiness, geek culture, and Comic-Con!
What was the most surprising thing that you found out during the entire process? My money, personally, might be on Scott Shaw!’s story about destroying the entire plumbing system of a hotel, which is just… amazing.
The story about Scott Shaw! dressing up as his early underground comix character The Turd by covering himself in so much peanut butter that when he cleaned it off in the hotel shower it led to the plumbing throughout the building blowing up a few weeks later was certainly quite the story. (For those who don't believe it: there are pictures in the book!)
But for me, I'd have to say the fact that acid guru and "Most Dangerous Man in America,” according to no less than Richard Nixon, Dr. Timothy Leary ended up as a special guest at Comic-Con one year through a very odd but kismetic series of circumstances was probably my favorite 'WTF?!' story in the whole book. How did that happen? Why did that happen? What did happen when Leary showed up? It's all in there, kids! And, once again, we have photos to prove it!
You touched on it before, but you’ve basically told this story before in the Comic-Con Begins podcast series for Sirius a couple of years back – why return to it with this book? Did the podcast just leave you wanting to do more?
I had always wanted to do a book – especially so that we could show all the great pictures and art that makes the book so special.
The audio doc series was really a stepping stone to that during a very chaotic time in our society (2020) in which it was just impossible to work with any book publisher right then. The audio doc series production allowed us to keep moving forward with the process even during Covid etc. And once it was finished, it was something we were all extremely proud of and that all the interviewees were delighted by. But ... it was also only about seven or so hours (and that's with early Con contributor and scream queen Brinke Stevens' fantastic interstitial narration as well as audio archival materials from various sources).
Remember: We had over 70 hours of original interviews, and so there was still more than ten times the material we had to work with that I very much wanted to get out there even after the audio doc series was done and broadcast. It continues to be available free on all audio platforms for folks who want to check it out!
In researching and, even more so, promoting this book, you’ve now become part of the story. How does that feel, to go from observing and reporting the story to living inside it?
I don't know about being a part of the story itself – I try to avoid that kind of thing if I can… Hence the oral history quality of a lot of my work. My goal is to help other people tell their stories and do what I can to stay out of the way. I know it's impossible to be totally objective as a journalist, author, or documentary, but I aspire toward that Studs Terkel and Alan Lomax style.
For me, the closest I come to becoming a part of the story now I suppose is the intense friendships and relationships I've forged with nearly all of the people in the audio doc/book, and I'm very grateful for that. They're our geek forebears, after all, and I love just chatting with them constantly about all things geek.
When Licorice Pizza came out, we all saw that George DiCaprio was actually in it – he's the bearded mattress salesman – and we were emailing and calling each other about it. It was very exciting! I never talked to or met George, but I got swept up in all of that with the rest of the gang who knew him well, and they made me feel very welcomed about it all.
What’s next? How do you build on a book like this, or is the idea that you’re going to pivot and do something else entirely?
The audiobook version of See You at San Diego will be out the same day as the print book, and I'll also be touring around the country throughout the fall at various stops ranging from bookstores, to comic shops, to museums, colleges, and even movie theaters and record stores.
A few of the folks in the book I'm working with on some future projects, such as Scott Shaw!. I'm in fact doing a project right now with Rick Geary who was an early SDCC contributor and has produced some incredible graphic novels over the years. He's adapting a really wacky novella of mine from almost fifteen years ago called Daisy Goes to the Moon that will also be coming out through Fantagraphics after he's finished.
I also have a book called The Little Encyclopedia of Jewish Culture coming out in late November about all things Jewish food, locales, people, and customs that will be illustrated and both extensive and lighthearted at the same time. There are a few other projects in the works as well that folks can read up on my website, www.MathewKlickstein.com.
If the interview made you want to see more, you’re in luck; Popverse has an exclusive preview of the book, looking back at the origins of Star Wars ready for your eager eyes.