The next year I went back as the author of a book of comics history about to be published, with copies of the cover in hand. The year after that I went as a somewhat well-known member of the industry's "fan press." In 1987 I went as what we called a "pro" or "creator," specifically as the cowriter of a low-profile comic book called The Trouble with Girls, which made me feel like a member of an exclusive club. The next year I went and discovered I had fans. In 1989 I went as the writer of a DC superhero series, with more projects in the works to brag about, and it was at the con, in the lobby between the two big rooms, that I learned that The Trouble with Girls had been picked up by 20th Century-Fox. I could plausibly pose as a big shot.
The convention had its own experience with big-shotism in those years. Comics got hip. Dark Knight, Watchmen, Maus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and finally the Tim Burton Batman. Attendance soared suddenly to 11,000. Two years later, the con moved to the colossal new convention center by the harbor, with its interlocking halls and absurdly high ceilings, and the bigger publishers started setting up towering, flashing, booming displays as if they were at a real trade show. The video game business jumped on board, then Hollywood. By its second year at the new location, attendance had broken 20,000, two years later 30,000. The comic book business itself suffered a bubble-popping and cataclysmic decline in the mid-'90s, but by then comics were a small enough part of Comic Con that it was easy not to notice.
My own career didn't follow the same upward trajectory. I found myself much in demand, took on too much, burned out, started doing mediocre work, and became pretty negative about the whole industry. In the lean years it took a lot of work just to find work, and I didn't have the stomach for it anymore. By the end of the '90s I was happy to move my career back to nonfiction, where it had started.
Still, I kept going to the con. It was getting pretty unpleasant in a many ways by the time attendance broke 50,000 around the turn of the century (and I probably wouldn't have hung in if I hadn't had a good friend in San Diego to stay with and hang around the con with), but I never stopped wanting to go. By then, what kept me most connected to the thing was just what had brought me there in the first place: my love for the medium and its history. I went there to research another book about comics history, Men of Tomorrow, then again to promote it, then again to accept an Eisner Award for it, and several times since to join various esoteric panel discussions of how comics came to be.
In the past few years, most of my appearances have been about a new book I'm working on with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, the biography of her grandfather, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who pretty much founded the American comics industry as we know it. And so it was this year. About 130,000 people attend that thing every year now. I'd guess that the great majority of them have little or no interest in comic books themselves. Even of the many thousands who do love comics, I'd say that only a few hundred are willing to go out of their way to attend a panel on the early history of the field. But those are the few hundred I want to be among.
This year, our "Twisted Roots of Comics" panel was subtitled "Pulp Magazines and the Birth of the Modern Comics." I moderated, with my cowriter, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, to one side and three experts in their fields on the other: Nathan Vernon Madison, a historian of the pulps and author of Anti-Foreign Imagery in Pulps and Comic Books 1920-1960, Brad Ricca, author of the superbly researched and written Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Creators of Superman, and Michael Uslan, writer, producer, teacher, and a boy who still loves Batman. Here's the audio. If you get a chance to listen, I hope you enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed doing it (even if it doesn't look like it in the pictures).