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A Comic-Book Legend Talks Comic-Con Then and Now

Gwynne Watkins
July 23, 2014

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!

Even back then, there were entertainment people like Mel Blanc, who is the voice artist behind characters like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. I remember that we led the kids up to Mel Blanc and he asked us what we wanted him to say! I asked for the Rubber Band. My daughter, Valerie asked him for Sylvester, and he said, ”Stand back kid, you’re gonna get wet!” We had a wonderful time.

One of the things being promoted in 1976 was the fact that the next year, there was this science fiction movie coming out, and it was going to be a change, because the starships were going to be kind of dirty and beat up, and it was going to be an adventure, and blah, blah, blah. And we said, “Wow, that sounds really keen!” I asked the PR guy, “What are some of the challenges [of production]?”  And he said, “Well, one of the problems is we got this young actor that we really like [Mark Hamill], and one of the things that he required was that he not miss any of the comic books that came out when he was in England shooting.”

There was a time when popular writers could attend Comic-Con and meet fans without getting mobbed. That was starting to change by 1985, when Watchmen author Alan Moore attended his first and only San Diego Comic-Con.

Alan Moore does not go to conventions anymore. He came to Comic-Con one year that I wasn’t there, and [my husband] Don got to talk to him. And Moore said, “I can’t even go to the restroom.”

Some of the creators are now such stars that they are actually surrounded by entourages that keep people away. I wouldn’t want to have to function that way. That’s why it’s great that I can go and people don’t care! It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s Maggie, she’s over there talking to Neil Gaiman — Oh! Neil Gaiman! Let’s run over there!' Well, you know, I've known Neil for decades. But Neil has a problem now, in terms of, how much can he hang around?

Still with all the griping about Hollywood taking over Comic-Con, Thompson maintains the position that movie and comic fandoms belong together.

You get people who just huff and huff, but there are more comics dealers today, certainly, than there were in 1976! And the people putting on the convention have always made an effort to promote the comic books that are part of that outreach. At the Eisner Awards, I heard people commenting bitterly, ‘Ooh, they’ve got all these celebrities, the comics people aren’t good enough.” And I’m going, you know what? These guys are fans too! Samuel L. Jackson’s a comic book fan. Jonathan Ross is a London celebrity host of a talk show, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a fan. And it’s one of the things that I love, because it’s the common love that brings us all together. Now — totally realizing that if an actor is there, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing anything more than promoting their next event. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t love the art.

Nearly 40 years after attending her first Comic-Con, Thompson still delights in bringing along first-timers, like her fellow NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour panelist Glen Weldon.

Last year was Glen Weldon’s first year at Comic-Con, and he’s not a people person. So as we’re walking in front of the enormous convention center in San Diego, I said, “Look around you. Here’s hundreds of people — about a hundred and fifty thousand come to Comic-Con — and the thing that I want you to notice is, they are all smiling.” Now, where have you been where there are hundreds of people and they’re all smiling? Even at a rock concert — well, I suppose that’s an archaic term now, but chances are somebody is grumpy, somebody’s feet hurt. Now, I guarantee you: Feet will hurt by the end of Comic-Con. But you’re still going to be smiling.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Todd Richmond