A Comic-Book Legend Talks Comic-Con Then and Now
Maggie Thompson thinks we’re living in a golden age of comics fandom — and she should know. The 71-year-old writer, editor, and radio personality has been a major influencer of fan culture since the ’60s, when she and her husband Don began publishing some of the first comic fanzines. In the years that followed, she became a longtime editor of the Comics Buyer’s Guide, won many awards for her writing and outreach, and, of course, attended many comic conventions. As the San Diego Comic-Con kicks off tomorrow, we talked to Thompson (who’s moderating a panel on strong female comic-book characters) about how the convention has changed over the years, and how fan culture has changed with it. At heart, she says, it’s still the same as ever: “It was a big party for the few of us back in the day, and it’s a big party now for lots more people.”
Thompson has been attending science fiction gatherings and conventions since the 1950s. In fact, she says, fan culture is older than most people realize — and the Internet has just brought out what was there all along.
I would say that the comics fan culture grew out of the science fiction fan culture to a huge extent. The pulp magazines had letter columns which printed names and addresses, so the readers could get in touch with each other. The first World Science Fiction Convention was before World War II, and actually there are people alive today who attended that first convention; they’re called First Fandom-ites. And all the things we see now on the Internet were the [same] things then. You could be anonymous — you could work under a pseudonym. There were feuds. There were people who hated each other.
Now it’s a weird nerd jealousy. “Oh, you can’t be a nerd! You don’t love it the way I do!” And it’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, give everybody a break.’ I got interested in a British science fiction show that I found out about at a convention, so I had buddies who would tape it in England and send it. And so I watched Doctor Who fandom grow and flourish organically, from that thing where nobody cares about it but you, into it being a small pond, then growing into ‘Well, I like my fish food better than your fish food and you better stay the heck out of my portion of this pond!’ It’s just this weird humanity that will take over and own something that nobody else cares about at all, and then protect it! Which is how you get, “Oh, you’re not a true nerd because you don’t love what I love the way I love it,” and that’s just silly.
The San Diego Comic-Con was founded in 1970, but Maggie Thompson first attended the 1976 convention at the El Cortez Hotel. She and her husband Don were being honored with the Inkpot Award, and brought along their kids: Valerie, 9, and Stephen, 4. The convention was small, but still on the pulse of popular culture — particularly when it came to a little movie called Star Wars.
The very first San Diego Comic-Con, which we did not attend, was one hotel, with a banquet, a breakfast, and a dealers’ room. And basically, everybody got to know everybody else. The challenge today is if you’ve got 150,000 people, you’re probably not going to spend a lot of time hanging around with celebrities. The advantage for me is, I know more of them just because I was hanging around so long!