GAZE AT that frozen moment from 1985 and you see most everything that’s essential about the two men and their towering public images. It’s almost as if they were posing for their personal narratives.
There looking vaguely feral in his looming, lean-in aggression is the great writer and anarchist of a graphic novelist, Alan Moore. This is a time before “Watchmen,” and he is poised over a Comic-Con microphone with a certain ferocity, glowering toward fans as if he had just glimpsed a future copy of “Before Watchmen.”
Then, as our eye pans to the right, we see Jack “King” Kirby in the limelight and yet in recessive view — looking too small for his massive influence, even accounting for the photo’s perspective. Like his own genius comic panels themselves, the distinguished-looking Kirby is forever in the frame yet, overshadowed, never quite getting his full due.
But perhaps most undeniable is that even in this most candid of images, they both stand as comics giants.
The photograph was taken by Jackie Estrada, a San Diego-based editor and educator who has attended comics conventions for more than 40 years. Decades ago, she photographed San Diego’s burgeoning punk scene, but she gradually turned her passion fully toward the comics scene. (Today, Estrada — who is married to highly regarded cartoonist Batton Lash — is a part-time employee with Comic-Con, for which she administers the Eisner Awards and produces the on-site Events Guide.)
From the thousands of photos Estrada has shot at comics events, she has decided to cull and curate a new book to be titled “Comic Book People.” And to make the publication possible, she has launched this as a Kickstarter project as she aims to raise more than $25,000.
Comic Riffs caught up with Estrada — who is also co-publisher of Exhibit A Press and a freelance book editor — to delve into her narrative vision for these 1970s and ‘80s photos as magical history tour:
MICHAEL CAVNA: For those of us who first attended Comic-Con decades ago, there are many windows into feeling nostalgic about the old Cons. One way, naturally, is the [difference in] sheer size of the Con in recent years, but there’s also the “feel” of the Con in the early years -- the intimacy of the room, and the casual feel between creator and fan. Can you speak some to how YOU have experienced it, Jackie — what is most strikingly different about the ‘70s and ‘80s compared with now?
JACKIE ESTRADA: The 1970s were definitely much more intimate and casual. In those days, Comic-Con was held primarily at a place called the El Cortez Hotel, which had an attached convention space. People hung out around the hotel pool a lot, and there were plenty of parties. You’d see an underground cartoonist chatting with a science fiction author, or a Marvel writer talking to a Playboy cartoonist -- all sorts of combinations of folks. People would even take little trips off-site, to play miniature golf or go to the beach, it was that casual.
In the 1980s, everything moved to an actual convention center in downtown San Diego [the Convention and Performing Arts Center], at first taking up one exhibit hall and then expanding to two, when publishers actually starting setting up exhibit space.
By the end of the 1980s, you had things like the Batmobile and the “Ghostbusters” car on the floor. Attendance increased significantly, but it never really felt crowded. And contrary to the complaint we’re always hearing that “it’s not about comics anymore,” Comic-Con was an umbrella show from the very beginning — the first guests were from comics, science fiction and horror. Star Wars fandom hit Comic-Con big in 1977 and has stayed to this day. The guests always included a mix of comic book creators, sci-fi/fantasy authors and artists, comic strip cartoonists, animators, and professionals from other pop culture fields. Walter Koenig, Bill Mumy, Adam West. and Gary Owens were among the celebrity “regulars” at the show. Over the years, the “tent” has gotten a lot bigger, but all the elements are still there.
MC: In 2009, I was interviewing Tim Burton at Comic-Con when he remarked just how much the event had grown since he’d been there last — and I said he’d contributed to that with his 1989 release of “Batman.” When I talked with [futurist author] Rob Salkowitz, though, he thought [it was the year] 2000 or so — with the new Spider-Man and X-Men film franchises — [that] really brought Hollywood size and spectacle to Comic-Con. Do you see certain years that changed everything, or has it been more of a continuum from your long view?
JE: I think it’s been more of a continuum. After all, Frances Ford Coppola was a guest in 1992, pushing his Dracula film, and that was the first time William Shatner appeared at the show, as well. In the 1990s, you had the Image and speculation explosions that brought people in, along with the Vertigo British invasion. Manga also hit big in the 1990s, and fans could meet the creators of Sailor Moon and Pikachu. Comic-Con started bringing in some European guests and tracking down Golden Age creators to appear. And then you had things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the self-publishing movement, plus the popularity of the Batman animated series. So lots of things in the 1990s were setting the stage for the new century.
MC: Could you please speak to your path to Comic-Con? You’ve attended every one of ‘em, yes — since the first in 1970, right? How did Comic-Con become such a passion project in your life, and what makes it just so special to you?
JE: I was a comics fan in the 1960s, when I was in college as a journalism major. I subscribed to all the fanzines, bought comics twice weekly from the newsstand, and made regular pilgrimages to Hollywood to get comics at Cherokee Bookshop and other stores [with then-husband Davey Estrada]. We subscribed to all the comics and sci-fi fanzines of the day and became big fans of Barks, EC Comics, Marvel and Ditko, among many others.
As a freelance writer, I did some magazine and newspaper articles about the growing popularity of comics at the time — this was when Stan Lee was doing lectures on college campuses, for instance. So in 1970, I heard there was going to be an actual comics convention in San Diego and headed there for one day. I got to see both Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury talk — how cool is that? So I went back each year after that to get to see these favorite writers and artists and mingle with other fans who were interested in the same things Davey and I were.
I believe it was in 1975 that I pitched an article on Comic-Con to Rolling Stone magazine, and the editor at the time gave me an okay. So I started going to the planning meetings to get the behind-the-scenes story. I met Shel Dorf and Richard Butner and the other committee members and wrote a preliminary outline for the article. But then the editors changed at Rolling Stone and the new guy had no interest in comics. But meanwhile, I found that I had volunteered to help with PR and publications for the show!
By 1976, I was heavily involved in many aspects. The greatest thing about Comic-Con in those days was the mix of people interacting there. You had animation people like Bob Clampett and June Foray, cartoonists like Charles Schulz and Milton Caniff, authors like Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, along with Golden Age, Silver Age, and up-and-coming comic book creators, all hanging out together with the fans. I got to meet and interview Frank Capra, visited Carl Barks’s house, drove Jim Steranko to the house where Raymond Chandler had lived . . . all great moments. But the thing is, all these creative people — with a few exceptions — were just wonderful to be around and chat with. I made friends for life at those shows.
MC: So, what inspired you to work on this Kickstarter project now? ...Were you going through your stacks of personal photos? What spurred you to say: Now is the time?
JE: What happened is that I had the opportunity to have all my negatives digitized from all the various comics and sf conventions I’d been shooting pictures of since the 1970s. I jumped at the chance, because I’d always wanted to do something with my photos. They pictures and negatives were scattered all over my house in drawers and closets and boxes, so this was a way to organize everything. At last I would be able to do a book of these photos, many of which even I hadn’t seen for 30 or more years!
I decided ... on the 1970s and 1980s to narrow down the focus and make the sorting a little more manageable.
MC: Speaking of your personal photos: Could you tell us about some of your favorites? What are some of the moments — who are some of the people — that you captured that really still resonate and that hold as particularly special?
JE: One would be of Jack and Roz Kirby dancing together to Seduction of the Innocent [a band that consisted of Bill Mumy, Steve Leialoha, Miguel Ferrer, and Max Allan Collins]. The band was playing a song called “King Kirby.” How cool is that? Another is from 1980 of science-fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle with animator Bob Clampett and actors Kirk Alyn [Superman in the serials] and [“Batman’s”] Adam West. That just shows what interesting combinations of folks were hanging out together at those shows.
I love a photo I took of Dave Stevens and Al Williamson, two of my favorite people ever. They had been having long phone conversations with each other for a few years but had never met in person until that wonderful moment. And I have some photos of Bill Woggon that I treasure because my favorite comics as a girl were his Katy Keene comics, and I finally got to meet “the Bossman”!
I’m thrilled that I was able to get photos of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman. And they were both at Comic-Con in 1977, when other guests included Batman creator Bob Kane, original Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck. And if that’s not enough, the other guests in 1977 included Carl Barks, Robert Heinlein, B. Kliban, Joe Kubert, Harvey Kurtzman, and Walter Gibson — who wrote all those great Shadow pulp stories). That may have been my favorite year ever.
MC: When I look at your vintage convention photos — from the ‘70s and ‘80s — I’m struck by what a tremendous esprit de corps, and often a youthful exuberance, seems to emanate from the images. Am I just warmly projecting, or was that how you experienced it at the time?
JE: I think you can tell by my answers so far that you are correct, sir!
MC: Will “Comic Book People” have a narrative through-line — an arc — propelling these 600 or so photos? How do you envision the book’s experience for the reader/viewer?
JE: I will provide commentary for a lot of the photos. Personal stories about the people or the situation. And I’ve got some pretty good stories . . .
MC: Several years ago, I was talking with [creator] Stan Sakai at Comic-Con, and he told me he used to bring his family back in the early days, when — he said — the sight of families at the event wasn’t so common. When you look at and curate your photos from the ‘70s and ‘80s, do you notice anything in general about the creators that strikes you as having been gained, or lost?
JE: Uh, weight? But seriously, as I’ve said ... creators seemed to be more relaxed and less stressed out then. However, what has been gained over the last few decades is a higher level of professionalism in all aspects of the industry.
MC: Could you speak to the book through the eyes of a professional photographer? What did you look for — and go for — when shooting these creators? There is an intimacy that even seems to radiate through the lens — from subject to viewer, across time. And were there certain photographic techniques and approaches you used and favored?
JE: My photography background is in what’s called “street photography” — the school of Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand. Framing and timing are everything in trying to get just the right shot. I think since everyone was used to me always being around with a camera, and a lot of them were friends, it was easier to get more casual and candid pictures — to “capture the moment.”
MC: What, for you, makes cartoonists fun and interesting to shoot?
JE: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know that they are particularly more interesting, since I like to shoot lots of other kinds of people — my pictures of the punk music scene in San Diego in the late 1970s will be the subject of another book, I hope. I’m a fan, so maybe this is my way of getting a personal “autograph.”
MC: Is there anything else I didn’t ask that I should have?…
JE: If [people] become backers, they will get the book before it is officially published in the fall, and they can get some exclusive items as well. For instance, only from the Kickstarter campaign will people be able to get the wrap-around dust jacket, or a calendar of images from the book, or postcards of photos from the book. And I’m also doing “Comic Book People Extra” at one level — this will be a 36-page booklet of photos from parties, panels, and various events rather than shots of specific people.
The more money the campaign raises, the more copies of the book I’ll be able to print.
*(Disclosure: Michael Cavna has served as an Eisner Awards judge.)