Comic Con in the 90’s

I recently came upon the most amazing thing: Boxes that had been stored in my mother’s basement, untouched for 16 years.
I left them there in 1998 when I cleaned out my bedroom and headed back to college up north. They are amazing time capsules, full of a riot of items from my past: teenage notes, bad poetry, photographs, and more.

The thing in these boxes that I had been pining for the most was my comic book collection, left behind sheerly because of it’s bulkiness.

Inside the comic boxes I found not only a shit-ton of mostly X-Men issues (my Sandman comics are supposedly forth-coming) but random memorabilia from the San Diego Comic Cons I attended in the 90’s. I found badges, buttons, two issues of Sandman signed by Neil Gaiman and one comic signed by Dave McKean, a signed Elf Quest ashcan, and other random bits. Holding these things in my hands I had a flood of lovely memories resurface about my days immersed in the amazing comic book land of the San Diego Comic Con.

A few of the treasures I found:

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Before the mid-2000’s Comic Con was much more low-key than it is now. You could comfortably walk the aisles without being crushed in a sea of nerddom, you could get through lines in a reasonable amount of time, and everything was just a little more laid back (it was also way easier to use your friend’s pass to get in! shhhhh.)
It also wasn’t all over the news, I don’t remember having any concept that anyone outside of the little comic world really cared much about it.
Back then my friends and I just had a ball of a time looking at comics, getting things signed, and just lollygagging all day long.

Favorite Con story from back then: Glen Danzig used to attend the Con every year. A friend of mine, who was a snarky little punk rock boy, made it a yearly tradition to find Danzig and harass him about being short. Danzig would then chase him through the convention center.
“Oh, there goes Kevin being chased by Glen Danzig!”

I remember the 1994 Comic Con most vividly. I was 14, and had grown out of my superhero phase (but I still love X-Men forever;  80’s-era mohawk Storm is my girl.) I also had gained a certain consciousness about comics and their representations of women that irked me. It seemed like all the female comic book characters had impossibly small waists and boobs that defied gravity, with absurd clothing that barely covered these parts (they must have had superhero-strength-double-sided-tape.) Some booths at the Con hired women who tried to fit these beauty standards, and they lingered in the aisles, tasty eye-candy for the leering hetero-male nerds. I sneered at all of it.
On top of this, every pretty woman in a sci-fi TV show had her sexualized image plastered all over the con. Posters of Gillian Anderson in lingerie laying across a bed were all over the place, and in later years Seven-of-Nine’s busty Borg figure was around every corner.
I was so over it, even at 14. I thirsted for diversity, something non-exploitative, something unique and creative.

In late ’93 I had discovered a beacon of light in the land of spandex, pecs and boobs… At a small comic show I’d found Sandman, issue 51. I still remember when I picked it up from one of the vendor tables. I was drawn in by the beautiful and gloomy cover art. I flipped through, entranced by the looming Dream character and his sister Death (who is adorable, gothy, and has small boobs). Yes, I’d jumped on this train late, finding it at issue 51, but I was a youngin’, so I had an excuse.


So that year at Comic Con, I was on a mission: To find more Sandman and things like Sandman.


That year the Con was like it was every year, full of spandex superheroes. But then while walking down one of the aisles in the artist section, I came upon the booth of a particular art agent. This booth was covered in Sandman-esque art… and on closer inspection, some of Dave McKean’s pieces were, in fact, hung behind the table. His work is stunning, but even more so in real life, the texture of his multimedia pieces is quite something. My heart lept at this discovery, and I rabidly sifted through the boxes of comics on the table, deciding which ones I could afford, but wanting them all.

While in my mild panic about not being able to buy everything (or much of anything, really) at the booth, I was approached by a gentle-looking, bespectacled young man.

“Hi. Can I draw you? I’m not a creep, I swear.” and he grabbed a small portfolio that was sitting on the table next to the comics I was riffling through. Inside were gorgeous dark, but classical-style paintings of figures draped in fabrics. His name was Paul Lee, and he had the same art agent as Dave McKean.
Of course I said yes, and he snapped quick photos of me posing against the concrete walls next to the bathroom. My hair was extremely long back then, wavy honey blonde and down to my hips. Paul said I looked like I’d stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. I didn’t exactly know what that meant at the time, but later I realized what a compliment it was.
Paul and I became friends that year, and he really was not creepy in the least; I was also introduced to his lovely wife, Wendy.

And so it was, every year I came and hung out at the booth with Paul and Jon J. Muth and the host of characters who frequented there (I met Dave McKean, but he didn’t hang out much.) Each year Paul snapped pictures and then painted me when he got home, but sadly, he didn’t take pictures of many of the paintings before they sold. (Darn it, Paul!) I do have pictures of a couple of them from 1998 though:



Paul and I at Comic Con in 1997:


It was fun to be an art model, and while attending I slowly built-up my Sandman collection to a respectable size. One year I even got a couple issues signed by Neil Gaiman himself. I stood in line with hordes of others, while Neil, wearing sunglasses inside, exhausted his writing hand to appease us all.

Then I moved away to go to college, and my trips to Comic Con became less frequent. Years later, I worked for a Halloween costume company and was given free passes every year, but the Con just wasn’t the same as I remembered. It had become an over-blown circus, just getting from A to B on the convention center floor was enough crushing insanity to give you a panic attack.

So I haven’t been back in years. Every year I ponder it, but now I live even further away, and I’m not quite sure if I can handle the insanity. Maybe one day, if the mayhem and hype ever calms down, I’ll go back.

But I know, cynically and wistfully, that it will never be as amazing as when I was a teenager.

the sandman gallery 09 paul lee

This is a painting of Dream from Sandman that Paul gifted me one year in payment for modeling. I still have it hanging on my living room wall.


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