Mathew Klickstein is no stranger to pop culture histories, having written books such as SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age and Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons (with Mike Reiss).
Klickstein’s latest venture is a complete oral history of the most prominent and influential comic convention of all time: San Diego Comic-Con. In his new book, See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture, Klickstein gathers together first hand accounts about the famed convention, detailing all of the history and events that show the evolution of SDCC.
We got a chance to talk to Klickstein all about See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture in this exclusive interview.
What motivated you to capture this long and storied history of Comic-Con?
Mathew Klickstein: As a longtime creator of longform pop culture histories, I was interested in tackling the history of pop culture nostalgia and fandom themselves.
I realized the best way to do so while keeping a focused structure and accessible forward narrative would be by delving deeply into the chronicling of the prehistory, history, and global domination of the largest pop culture gathering worldwide, and that’s Comic-Con. It was a way to tap into everything from: Star Trek and Star Wars to The Twilight Zone and Twilight, mainstream comics and underground comix, all forms of science fiction and fantasy, role-playing games, cosplay, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, animation, Harry Potter, and beyond.
All told by the people who really made modern fandom happen over the past century, with a few special celebrity guests along the way such as: Kevin Smith, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, the Russo Bros., Scott Aukerman, Wu-Tang’s RZA, and others.
How does the new book serve as a companion piece to your recent podcast on the history of Comic-Con?
Klickstein: The six-part audio documentary series we made in partnership with SiriusXM/Stitcher last year (Comic-Con Begins, available free on all audio platforms) was a way for us to efficiently collect and organize all the 50+ interviews we needed to tell the full story of modern fandom and the Comic-Con scene it helped blossom during a really chaotic time when the traditional publishing scene (and everything else!) was in such disarray due to Covid-19, lockdowns, and the tumult of 2020 overall.
We’re very proud of that project, but it’s a little over seven hours in total (with cosplay pioneer/early SDCC contributor/scream queen Brinke Stevens’ fantastic interstitial contextual bits, and tremendous archival audio material from various generous sources). But what we acquired from my original interviews was well over 70 hours of stories, and so the book utilizes virtually all of that. Thus, it’s ten times the material of Comic-Con Begins, plus it includes the visual complement of 400+ pics and art, most of which has never been seen before.
What were your experiences and memories of the first Comic-Con that you attended?
Klickstein: My first Comic-Con was a very unique experience — I was leading a crew that was completing with me the feature-length documentary about TV’s Marc Summers (Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, Food Network’s Unwrapped, etc.) that I was producing and directing. We were following Summers as he took part in the festivities and live events for the 30th anniversary of Double Dare taking place throughout Comic-Con that year (2016).
So, much of my memory has to do with all the katzenjammer madness of an all-day/every-day cinéma vérité film shoot, while we were filming and getting releases and permits, handling schedules, budgets, etc. along the way.
I got to experience the highest of the highs at a Comic-Con (all the “underground” routes to get from place to place, the private guides to do so, the experience of being with a celebrity that fans are all pining over, etc.). But it was also even more intensely nerve-racking than a typical attendee’s experience would be where you’re there just to wander around, have some fun, buy some stuff, and ask questions of your heroes at panels where your biggest concern is not running out of money and not getting slammed into by someone’s overfilled backpack.
It was weird for sure, but it was also very enlivening, especially since going anywhere and doing anything — with hundreds of thousands of people crowding around the whole time, no less — with the one and only Marc Summers is always an adventure.
What type of research went into assembling the book and was there a certain era that proved most difficult to gather information/photos from?
Klickstein: Particularly because we were getting all this going literally during the rise and peak of Covid/lockdowns/2020 insanity, gathering all the materials and interviews we needed for first the audio doc series then the book with the hundreds of credited pics was a complete and total Trichotillomaniac nightmare from start to finish that will be forever indelibly seared into my soul as the worst kind of vocational PTSD imaginable.
There’s a good reason no one’s been able to get an oral history like this together before, even though Comic-Con has been around fifty years and is the largest pop culture gathering worldwide (something you think would’ve been fodder for multiple historical documentaries, TV series, and books like this). And then, yes, all while we were dealing, along with everyone else on the planet, with tragic craziness at historical levels the entire time.
It was definitely a lot. Figuring out who we needed to talk to, reaching out to them, scheduling them for interviews, getting the interviews conducted and done and transcribed, editing them together, checking with as many people as possible to make sure we were as accurate as possible about everything, ensuring there was enough entertainment value there to keep the thing compelling and engaging for six episodes and, later, five-hundred pages of a book … It was insane.
A lot of people told me it couldn’t be done. But, I’m used to hearing that on pretty much every project I do, and then I go and do it anyway. Someone’s got to, after all, and I guess this kind of elaborately complex historical project is my métier. Looking forward to the day that it actually pays off. Maybe when I’m in my fifties.
You have also collected a fan’s dream of interviews and observations from countless writers, artists, actors, and filmmakers. What are some of the observations that stand out to you or made you think of Comic-Con in a different way?
Klickstein: Getting a chance to speak with folks like Comic-Con founder Scott Shaw! and SDCC early contributor and then Image Comics publisher Jim Valentino, comix legend Trina Robbins, and folks like Bruce Campbell, Frank Miller, Stan Sakai, Sergio Aragonés, and one of my all-time heroes the RZA (took a year and six representatives to finally get that guy onboard; now that’s dedication!) was one of the things that kept me going through what otherwise seemed almost throughout like an unbelievably insurmountable challenge of completing the audio doc and book.
It may sound saccharine and cliché, but virtually every second of every interview was giving me a high throughout. And I learned so much about these people I didn’t know before, as well as the fandom scene they helped to build and grow — in many cases, just by being themselves and creating and producing what felt most natural to them.
I’d say the eclecticism of the fandom and Comic-Con scene was the most interesting revelation to me. The idea that it was never just about comics, or even just about comics and so-called sci-fi/fantasy. It was always about everything, and even aspects you wouldn’t have thought about — martial arts, yo-yo-ing, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and god-knows-what else — were almost always ever-present in the Con scene.
It was and in many ways still remains a truly inclusive fandom universe, and this means you can find the things (and the people who are like minded fans of the things) you love, while at the same time you’ll find things and the people who are fans of the things you’ve maybe never heard of before or might want to learn more about. That’s what makes Comic-Con so very special: how syncretic it is about all things pop culture.
Comic-Con attracts all types of fans of all types of material. In recent years, is there one group that has been represented to a greater degree?
Klickstein: It certainly doesn’t seem so, and again, I believe that’s what makes it so unique: everyone and everything is represented there. It’s a true utopia in that way.
Yes, it has its disadvantages and downsides too (over the past two decades or so, for example, it’s become extremely expensive and hard to get into, especially for older people, persons with disabilities, and we working class lumpen folk). But, you could say the same thing about a lot of places and events around the world, which is unfortunate but … you do whatever you have to do to make it in if you really want to go, and once you’re there you’re likely to find all the things you could hope to find a la Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory‘s “world of pure imagination” style.
Is there still room for the dusty long boxes at Comic-Con with all of the film/tv studios and promotion?
Klickstein: Yes, of course there is!
So many people still go there to locate the hard-to-find comics and comix and graphic novels and vintage art they might not be able to get their hands on anywhere else (including the Internet!). I’ve seen them and know them! It’s all still there. It’s just a much, much bigger place, with many, many more people.
Yes, there’s Hall H now with all the Big Hollywood, Big Media, Big Corporate presence there and all. But, as SDCC co-founder Barry Alfonso notes in See You at San Diego, you can also find (as his wife and he did at a recent Con) a room where a bunch of people are performing a read-around of Little Lulu comics. That still is indubitably still there. You just may have to work a little hard to get at it and/or prepare yourself by going through the programming guide/map a bit more thoroughly than you would have in the 1970s/80s (although, there would also have been way less stuff there back then, too, which has its upsides and downsides; less stuff means less stuff to see in addition to whatever you’re specifically looking for like old comics!).
Klickstein: In addition to the audiobook version of See You at San Diego coming out the same day as the book (September 6), and our nationwide/Canadian tour starting September 8, I also have The Little Encyclopedia of Jewish Culture coming out in late November. It’s a tight but extensive, lighthearted and illustrated guide to all manner of Jewish foods, locales, celebrities, movies, books, music, customs, and more.
I’m also working with early SDCC contributor and longtime comics/graphic novelist Rick Geary (who also appears as an interviewee in our audio doc/book) on a graphic novel adaptation of my 2009 wackadoodle novella Daisy Goes to the Moon, which will also be out through Fantagraphics with a TBD release date (hopefully next year!).As always, I have a few other coals burning, including development on more Con/fandom history iterations (we’ve already done the podcast and book, so there’s really only one more place to go with it, eh?!). More info about all of this can be found on my regularly updated website: www.MathewKlickstein.com
See You At San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom, and the Triumph of Geek Culture will be available on September 6 from Fantagraphics at your favorite local comic book shop and book store for a suggested retail price of $39.99.