AN APPRECIATION, BY MARK EVANIER
When Shel Dorf died Nov. 3 at age 76, he was hailed as the founder of that big comic book convention down in San Diego – the one that reminds some of a cross between Brigadoon and Disneyland, materializing for but four days each year. “Founder” was not a bad word to describe Shel’s contribution since others did much of the organizing. What Shel contributed was the sheer love of comics, and of the folks who create them.
And there was also the whole idea – “Hey, let’s put on a convention” – which seems to have come from him. Uttered to a group of local comic fans, it was as potent and transformative as Billy Batson shouting “Shazam!” and morphing into Captain Marvel. When folks wonder why the nation’s largest gathering of this kind is in San Diego of all places, the answer is simple: Shel Dorf lived in San Diego. That’s why.
He moved there in late 1969 when his parents retired to that city. Before that, he’d lived in Detroit and participated in a convention called the Detroit Triple Fan-Fair. And before that, he’d grown up in Detroit, utterly captivated by comics. He clipped Dick Tracy and other favorite strips from local papers, pasting them in vast, keepsake scrapbooks. Everyone loved “the funnies” back then but few went to that much effort to preserve and respect them. Shel wrote fan letters to the cartoonists, struck up friendships, even received invites to visit.
Pursuing a dream to become one, he studied art … and if wishing alone could make you all you want to be, he’d have become Charles Schulz at least. It apparently doesn’t, since Shel got no closer than his 14-year stint lettering the Steve Canyon newspaper strip for his friend and idol Milton Caniff. He also, in the 1980s, assembled a series of books reprinting the Dick Tracy newspaper strip. Those scrapbooks he’d filled as a child were the primary source material.
I met him in early 1970, months before the first convention, which they’d call the San Diego Golden State Comic-Con. His round face glowed when he spoke of the synergy (no, he didn’t use that word) that could result if fans and creators intermingled, each caste to be inspired by the other. The first three days of August of that year it happened, pretty much as he said it would – at the then-shabby, now majestic U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego. There were 300 of us there, give or take a Star Trek fan, and it was a joy. These days at the con, there are that many people there ahead of you in line to buy a Diet Snapple.
Year after year, it grew and changed names … though some of us called it (lovingly) the DorfCon, as in, “You going to DorfCon this year?” Finally, it became the Comic-Con International.
Annually, it convenes in a mammoth convention center built in the late ’80s as part of a far-reaching redevelopment project. And what inspired the civic makeover? In large part, the comic book convention, which now covers so much more than comics: motion pictures, television, video games and almost any form of imaginative, superannuated storytelling. For the 2009 edition, a staggering 125,000 attendees were reported; there would have been more there but that’s all the building could hold.
Among those not present: Shel Dorf.
He was hospitalized with multiple ailments, diabetes chief among them, for what turned out to be the rest of his life. Even if he could have attended, he wouldn’t have. He cut back in the 1990s and made his last visit in 2001. Too depressing, he said, instead spending the con dates in his tiny Ocean Beach apartment where he lived alone. He’d read comics and watch old movies … making his own con, I suppose.
He didn’t like how big the one he started had become, didn’t like how top movie stars were eclipsing top comic creators. He wasn’t the only person who felt that way but Shel had a more personal “didn’t like.” He didn’t like having no piece of its annual seven-figure cash flow. In the 1980s, he’d quarreled with those handling operations, demanding this and that. When he didn’t get it, he stormed out in a fit of pique, thereafter resisting all offers to come back, play a role and collect a paycheck or pension. I acted as go-between for some of those discussions but cannot explain why he preferred to play the angry exile.
Still, he was proud of what he started, but from afar. Entertainment industries thrive at that event. Millions are spent on books, comics and memorabilia. Mega-deals are made. Careers are launched. New talent is discovered, old talent is honored and everyone has an awful lot of fun. It flourishes because it was created not for money but upon a solid foundation of passion. Others did the heavy lifting, but that passion was supplied by Shel Dorf. They can call the event what they will, but, for some of us, it’ll forever be the DorfCon.
– Mark Evanier
Mark Evanier is the author of the 2008 book “Kirby: King of Comics” and is a longtime presence in the comics field as a writer, historian and former production assistant to Jack Kirby. His writing career includes stints in live-action television (“Welcome Back, Kotter“), animation (“Scooby Doo“) and comics (“Groo the Wanderer“).
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PHOTOS: Top, Shel Dorf in the days when the fan event was still called the San Diego Comic-Con. Middle, Dorf and Ray Bradbury, photographed by Mark Evanier. Bottom: Comic-Con International in 2008 drew more than 100,000 people.