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San Diego Union Tribune
July 16, 2006
When the San Diego Comic-Con International opens its annual run at the Convention Center Wednesday night, Shel Dorf won't be there.
The man widely considered the founder of the convention is 73. The last time he went, several years ago, he was in a wheelchair because of diabetes
and he couldn't make his way through the throng.
LAURA EMBRY / Union-Tribune
A drawing of Comic-Con founder Shel Dorf is on a wall of fame at the Palm Restaurant in downtown San Diego.
“We had no idea it would get this big,” he said in a recent phone interview. “To me, it's just become an ordeal. I don't know of any way to make it
smaller, though. I guess in some ways it's become too much of a success.”
He isn't bitter, not publicly anyway. He figures he had his run. He was actively involved in the convention for the first 15 years, using contacts he'd built
from a lifetime of loving the comics to bring some of the industry's biggest names to San Diego.
The convention also helped him get more work as an artist and a writer and enhanced his reputation as a historian of comics. When Warren Beatty
turned Dick Tracy into a movie in 1990, Dorf was a consultant.
But now, being in the background is fine with him. He declined to be interviewed in person at his Ocean Beach home. “I'm not seeing people,” he said.
He didn't want his picture taken, either. He suggested using a caricature that hangs on the wall of a local restaurant – a cartoon for one of cartooning's
When Dorf was a kid, growing up in Detroit in the shadow of the Great Depression, he made his own comic books. Every day he would cut strips out of
the newspaper and paste them in scrapbooks.
Dick Tracy was a particular favorite. Dorf can remember waiting on his front porch for the carrier to arrive, anxious to learn what had happened to the
He loved the stories, and he loved the artwork, and the people who created the comics were his heroes. He knew them all by name. When he grew
up, he wanted to be one of them.
Back then, in the 1940s, being a fan didn't make you a creep. Nobody knew what “stalking” was. You got a star's picture or autograph because it meant
something to you, not because you were going to sell it on eBay.
Not many people considered cartoonists stars, but Dorf did. He reached out to them, sent them custom Christmas cards. Some became his friends.
He went to the Art Institute of Chicago to learn the trade, then plied it – first at the Detroit Free Press, then in New York as a freelance commercial
In 1969, his parents retired to San Diego. Dorf helped them move. The lifelong bachelor got one look at the city and decided to stay. He brought along his
scrapbooks, and kept adding to them. The newspaper strips, he said, were “too good to throw away.”
It didn't take him long to find kindred spirits on the West Coast. Within a year, he and some of his new friends decided to hold a comic convention here.
Dorf had worked on similar gatherings in Detroit.
“I just felt that the cartoonists who entertained the popular masses were not getting their fair share of recognition,” he said. A convention would celebrate
their many contributions.
Dorf, who was 36 then, also remembered what it was like to be a kid burning with a desire to become an artist, and not really knowing how to get there.
A convention, he believed, would be a way to let youngsters meet pros, get some advice.
They held a one-day test fair in March of 1970, then the first three-day convention later that summer, in the basement of the U.S. Grant hotel. About 300
They didn't know it, but a monster was born.
Several of the teenagers who helped Dorf put together the early conventions moved on to successful careers. John Pound drew the “Garbage Pail
Kids.” Dave Stevens did “The Rocketeer.” Scott Shaw went into comics, TV and advertising.
In that way, Dorf's vision came true, and it makes him proud. “The convention is still doing its job in terms of new talent getting discovered,” he said.
But he and other old-timers are uncomfortable with what they see as a steady march away from the event's roots. “Hollywood has kind of hijacked it,”
The four-day event is getting known more and more as a springboard for new movies, video games, TV shows and toys. Much of the pre-event buzz
these days is about what film stars might show up.
“Our real goal in the beginning was to let youngsters meet the pros, the old guys, but that's not the priority that it once was,” said Shaw, who has been
at every Comic-Con. “A lot of us wish it was more about the art than the business.”
Phil Yeh, another veteran artist whose work includes graphic novels and comic books such as “Winged Tiger” and “Patrick Rabbit,” tells a story from
last year's convention that he said illustrates the shifting priorities of the event and its audience.
He had a table next to a booth for the Cartoon Network, which was giving away free T-shirts. People lined up for the shirts. As they stood there, Yeh
encouraged them to look at his books. Most declined, he said, with many telling him they don't read.
(That's probably the wrong thing to say to Yeh. For the past 20 years, he has run Cartoonists Across America, which promotes literacy as an essential
component of a functioning democracy.)
“Sadly, as the Con grew ever bigger and the big movie stars drew even bigger crowds, we lost sight of the fact that this convention was set up for the
promotion of the actual art of comics and not for the selling of toys and games and promoting films,” he said.
That said, Yeh and Shaw will be at the convention again this year. “It's still one of the few places in the United States where all the creators get
together,” Yeh said.
Shaw said he got his start doing posters and other promotional work for the early conventions, and his steady presence at the show – he said he's never
missed a day – means a lot of people recognize him now. He's grateful for that.
“The show is like an annual reunion,” he said. “It's just that I used to know one out of every three people I'd see, and now it's like one out of every
Convention organizers said their event remains the largest gathering of comics professionals in the country, and they believe the other attractions have
come in addition to, not at the expense of, the original goals and purposes.
“Over its 37 years, Comic-Con has evolved and grown to become an event that offers many things to many people, serving as an umbrella for fans of
all aspects of pop culture,” they said in a recent newsletter.
One of the reasons Dorf used to send Christmas cards to cartoonists was to let them know how much they were appreciated, he said. In many ways,
that has been his life's work.
Now he wants to make sure they are remembered, too. He's donated many of his old scrapbooks to Ohio State University, where scholars study them
for various research projects.
He's getting ready to part with five boxes of material related to the Steve Canyon strip, by Milton Caniff. Dorf did the lettering for the comic for more than
12 years in the 1970s and '80s.
He's also been heavily involved with a museum in Woodstock, Ill., for Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy. He's ridden in the annual parade there.
As for Dorf's own legacy, that will be on display again next week at the convention center.
“Shel's fingerprints are on Comic-Con in the fact that it exists at all,” Shaw said. “He stuck with it. None of us who were involved when it started knew
how huge it was going to be.
“He probably wishes he could be acknowledged a little more for what he did, but life is strange that way. People go into a Ralphs market and they don't
wonder who Ralph is. Same with the Comic-Con. It just is.”
Even without Shel Dorf in attendance.
John Wilkens: (619) 293-2236; firstname.lastname@example.org