Comic Book Curious

An Origin Story: San Diego Comic Con

September 19, 2022

An Interview with Mike Towry, Co-Founder of SDCC

In 2014, I moved into an apartment across from the San Diego Convention Center. That July an unforgettable wave of energy pulsed through the city - traffic jams, billboards, roadblocks, costumes, and celebrities stormed onto Harbor Drive. I stared out the window of our high-rise, my face pressed against the glass, mesmerized by the madness. Droves of people painted their bodies shimmering colors while adorning swords, masks, and comic book tees. Decked out celebrities appeared in unexpected windowsills. What society considered weird a day prior, was considered absolutely, unquestioning fire today. “This is San Diego Comic Con,” my roommate whispered into my ear.

An image of people in costume for the San Diego Comic Con

Credit: SDCC

The first San Diego Comic Con was originally planned to be held in Mike Towry’s backyard;
The spot where 4-year-old Mike began reading comics, given to him by his mother. As he got
older and was exposed to more content, his “little mind was blown,” confessed Mike. By 11
years old he started his own business, huffing door to door to buy and sell comics. Three years later he began selling comics by mail order, building a little black book of clients. In those days you could write a “Letter to the Editor” which appeared in the back of the comic. Since it included the addresses of people interested enough to write in, Mike smartly kept those addresses and mailed out requests for comics.

“I met a couple other kids in the neighborhood who were doing the same thing. Richard Alf was the most advanced. He had actually put an ad in Marvel comics. You know, he was just a 17-year-old kid, so that's pretty impressive.”

In 1969, two big things happened: Jack Kirby, aka “King of Comics,” an American comic book artist, writer, editor, and one of the industry’s greatest innovators and contributors to this day, moved west and Ray Bradbury, the best-selling science fiction author in the world, gave a lecture at University of California San Diego (UCSD). Mike Towry, Richard Alfs, Bob Sourk, and Barry Alfonso made up the neighborhood crew whose ages ranged from 12-17 years old. Each was running his own comic book business and striking up meetings, often requiring rides from parents to make a deal. They were networking on a level that is taught to business school graduate students today. Their wheeling and dealing led them to a man named Shel Dorf who urged them to think bigger by beginning a convention. He showed them the way by leading them to the unimaginable - Jack Kirby’s doorstep.

an image of Superman drawn by Jack Kirby

Credit: Jack Kirby

“He was like an Olympian figure. I didn’t think you could ever have any contact with artists like him. Barry Alfonso goes up to him completely sincere and he says, ‘I would just like to ask you, should we call you King or Mr. Kirby?’ Jack Kirby was embarrassed but also really liked it and just kind of laughed and told us to call him Jack. We went inside and he talked to us for hours. He worked really hard but stopped his work to talk to just some kids from San Diego. His wife made hamburgers for us. So, we decided to go ahead [with the convention] after that.”

At that time, the best-selling science fiction author in the world, Ray Bradbury was a guest speaker at University of California San Diego (UCSD). Shel and Richard went to see his talk and casually approached the stage afterwards. They asked if he would speak at a new convention they were starting, convincingly selling it as a public educational service to popularize comic books. Ray Bradbury agreed to waive his typical $5,000 speaking fee and enticed other friends to participate as keynote speakers.

The very first “San Diego’s Golden State Comic Book Convention” was held in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego in March of 1970. They had successfully corralled 100-150 people for a one-day event.

“Any guest could just walk up to these big-time writers and artists, they're just hanging around with everybody else. They weren't off in their special guest rooms or green rooms; we didn’t have anything like that. They're hanging around the pool of Hotel Cortez and you can just sit down next to them and talk about anything.”

Mike recalls a friend named Phil Yeh, a 16-year-old Chinese-American boy who had experienced discrimination in his neighborhood. His father knew he was interested in science fiction and that he would feel included at this convention. He decided to drive him down from L.A.

“He walks up to Jack Kirby and says, ‘Mr. Kirby I’d like to do comics, where should I go to school? What should I do?’ Jack responded with, ‘You just gotta draw, keep doing your own stuff until you get good enough you can join the business.’”

Phil didn’t come all the way from Los Angeles to stop at one passion.

An image of Farenheit 451; Bradbury was a speaker at the first San Diego Comic Con

Credit: Ray Bradbury

“He then goes up to Ray Bradbury and says ‘I’d really like to write science fiction but my grammar’s not that great.’ Bradbury tells him, ‘They’ve got editors for that. Don’t worry about it. Just write good stories and they’ll fix the grammar.’” Phil took it to heart. Within a matter of years, he created one of the first graphic novels, comics, comic strips, started a magazine, started an organization called Cartoonists Across America later changed to Cartoonists Around the World. He would get together a bunch of comic artists in a van and they would drive from city to city and paint murals to promote literacy. He branched out to do it around the world. In the 90s, the International Year of Literacy, was sponsored by the United Nations and the country Hungary printed stamps in honor of it. One of them was dinosaur characters created by Phil Yeh. That was all because in 1970 a kid at 16 could just walk up to people like Kirby and Bradbury and they would take him seriously and give him advice.”

Mike Towry understands better than anyone the impact empowering children can have on the world. San Diego Comic Con, the world’s largest comic convention inspires people of all backgrounds, ages, demographics, and races. Nerds everywhere can proudly wave their geek flags down the streets of San Diego all because neighborhood kids with a passion received encouragement, advice, and, most importantly, were taken seriously by Olympian figures.

About the author: Erin Edwards is a Navy pilot who has seen the world from the sky and is eager to write about it on the ground. Though she is just beginning to dip her toes in the comic world, she is passionate about meeting new people and unfolding a whole new universe.

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