Flashback: Chicago Comicon, 1976

Tuesday, August 11, 2015
As another comics convention nears in Chicago, a look back at my coverage of the first big Comicon in the city. (Someday, I hope for a bigger scanner.)

Published Aug. 22, 1976, in the Star newspapers serving Chicago’s south suburbs. (Full text added to this page Jan. 23, 2021.)

No Longer ‘Kids’ Stuff,’ Comics Heavies Now Have Conventions


The Windy City finally played host to its first major Comicon.

“Comicon” is short for “comic book convention”—a celebration of the comic book as art.

These things have become commonplace in New York and San Diego, which annually play host to thousands of comics fans and pros.

BUT EVEN though Chicago has seen a couple of large-scale Star Trek conventions (one of which ran into financial problems earlier this summer), the Really Big Comic Convention is a phenomenon that passed Chicago by.

Until this month.

What makes the 1976 Chicago Comicon different from the smaller ones that precede it? What draws 2,000 persons downtown to the Playboy Towers hotel to pay at least $2 apiece admission?

Maybe it was the opportunity to commune with other souls who truly appreciate the profundity of the graphic story form.

Maybe it was the chance to pick up an early edition of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories for a mere $600.

MOST LIKELY, it was the presence of Stan Lee.

Lee is the original author of Spider-Man, the neurotic teenager with acne who has since been graduated to college and whose fame and popularity how rivals that of Superman: the Silver Surfer, visitor from the car reaches of the galaxy stuck on the cosmic insane asylum we know as Earth; the Fantastic Four; the large, green Incredible Hulk; and dozens of other characters starring in Marvel Comics.

The convention guests included Jenette Kahn, newly appointed publisher of DC Comics (owners of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), and Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad magazine.

But Lee is the one who commanded lines of autograph seekers that took 40 minutes to wade through.

“THANK YOU, culture lovers,” he said, bounding to the podium while several hundred comics fans applauded as if the Hulk himself had appeared.

Most of the audience nodded in agreement with Lee’s tongue-in-cheek boast that “Marvel Comics is a way of life, a philosophy, almost a religion.” And when he announced the forthcoming daily Spider-Man newspaper strip, mouths opened ’neath eyes that had clearly Seen The Light.

Although he no longer writes or edits the Marvel line, Lee’s name appears on the top of the first page of every Marvel comic. As the group’s publisher, he has become a star.

And he knows it. “We at Marvel began the star system in comics,” he told the audience after he finished his PR pitch.

“WE WERE the first to give our writers, pencil-and-ink artists, colorists, letterers and editors credits on the front page—like in the movies.

“It has caused problems for us,” he explained. Expanded egos create personality clashes frequent and intense in the Marvel “bullpen,” making one of Lee’s most important tasks that of soothing hurt feelings, talking artists out of quitting.

“We call ourselves editors and art directors,” he said. “We’re not. We’re chaplains.”

Between services, Lee travels around the world, spreading the word of Marvel and negotiating contracts. (Marvel, he told conventioneers, has just won the rights to the Edgar Rice Burroughs characters, so a new series of Tarzan comics will soon appear under the Marvel banner.)

BUT LEE doesn’t speak just anywhere, according to one of the convention sponsors, Ross Kight. Kight, who owns the Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow shop at 7046 North Clark Street in Chicago, said Lee received $1,500 plus expenses for his appearances at three hourlong panel discussions Saturday and Sunday.

(The other guests of honor asked only expenses.)

Lee probably earned his keep, though. According to Kight, the convention succeeded far better than expected. Most of the conventioneers—many of whom dragged along mothers and fathers—were there because Stan Lee was there.

Some brought whole boxes of Marvel comics for him to autograph. One kid shoved 10 or 15 blank sheets at the publisher. “I’m gonna sell ’em later,” he explained.

“When Stan Lee announced the forthcoming daily Spider-Man newspaper strip, mouths opened ’neath eyes that had clearly seen the Light”

OTHER FANS brought labor-of-love illustrations of Marvel heroes for Lee’s signature and maybe for a “big break” into the comics field.

“Please don’t ask my opinions of your artwork,” he told the audience. “I’d love to look at it, but what do I say if it’s really rotten? How can I tell some kid that his work isn’t any good?

“You really should send it to our art director, Johnny Romita. He’ll have time to study it and give you a full evaluation.”

LEE’S PRESENCE at Sunday’s charity art auction helped jam the chambers. Eighty pieces of comic book and strip art brought a total of $1,966 for the Chicago Alternative Schools Network. (The highest bid went for a page of Barry Smith’s original art from an adventure of Dr. Strange, Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. It sold for $125.)

For the last 10 years or so. Lee has run a personal campaign to bring respectability to comic books, to show that they're more than just kid stuff.

In a roundabout way, he seems to have succeeded. The comics dealers at the convention represented a healthy slice of American society: College students. husband-and-wife teams running weekend businesses, full-time dealers from across the nation taking a weekend trip to Chicago.

Unfortunately for those serious comics collectors who used to able to complete their prize collections by raiding musty attics, the growing public acceptance of comics-as-art has raised prices astronomically.

LARRY CHARET, another convention sponsor and owner of Larry’s Comic Art shop, 1219a West Devon Avenue in Chicago, said he sold about $1,500 worth of comics in the three days of the convention.

You've no doubt heard that Action Comics No. 1, which introduced Superman to the world about 40 years ago, now commands about $2,000.

But did you know that Conan the Barbarian No. 1, drawn by Barry Smith and sold only six years ago for 15 cents, now goes for at least $20?

Just as astonishing is that a more recent Marvel comic, Howard the Duck No. 1— published less than a year ago for 25 cents—is getting as much as $5 a copy.

(HOWARD, YOU SHOULD know, is an intelligent fellow from another planet, where everyone just happens to look like a duck. He's trapped on our planet, and he wants off.)

As a matter of fact, the 1976 Chicago Comicon might as well have been the 1976 Howard the Duck Presidential convention. Most conventioneers carried “Get Down America—Howard the Duck for President” buttons, Howard T-shirts, Howard posters or copies of Howard’s magazine.

Mr. Duck is running, by the way, as a candidate for the All-Night Party. (And we have to assume that one of the party’s platform planks calls for a revocation of the “native American” restriction on the presidency.)

MEANWHILE, BACK at the convention: Although Lee and Marvel were the focus of most attention, Kahn managed to capture the hearts of many convention-goers.

At 29, as the first female to head a major comics firm, she has to deal with an industry normally dominated by male executives and even male-er superguys. (Her top-seller, remember, is SuperMAN).

As the publisher of DC Comics, she faces an uphill battle to regain from Marvel the industry championship DC held for 30 years.

She’s been in the job less than six months, and she doesn’t have Lee’s sense of showpersonship, but she’s rapidly earning the admiration of skeptical comics fans and pros.

KAHN TOLD the convention that a giant-size Superman-vs.-Muhammad Ali comic book is in the works. Although some fans thought it was a joke, their faces lit up when she promised the book would be drawn by Neal Adams, an artist whose work is rare but revered throughout comicdom.

In a panel discussion on “Publishing Comic Books,” Kahn agreed with Lee that comics deserve a wider audience than they’re getting.

But Harvey Kurtzman, who’s now producing the Little Annie Fannie strip for Playboy, charged that both major comics publishers are stagnating and in turn killing the art form with them.

How, he asked, can comics hope to appeal to a diverse audience if they continue to carry cheap-looking muscle-builder ads, to use the lowest-grade newsprint and to employ the worst color separation process?

THE ANSWER, according to the publishers, is that comics are caught in a vicious circle: “We’d love to get IBM or General Motors to advertise in The Incredible Hulk. But they’re just not interested,” Lee explained, because the readership is so narrow.

Kahn added that as long as those big-money advertisers stay away, the comics have to operate on low-budget paper and printing.

And as long as comics remain cheap-format items, readership is not likely to diversify of its own accord, new advertisers won't get interested, etc.

Combine that with rising prices and a shrinking editorial content—the standard 32-page book now contains only 17 pages of story-and-art for a whopping 30 cents—and the outlook for comics in America is not especially cheery.

PLAYING DEVIL’S advocate, Kurtzman doggedly asked Lee why DC and Marvel and all the rest of the publishers don’t try a completely new format, advertisers or no advertisers.

True to the Marvel faith, Lee responded that the American comic book will survive as it is. “To ask us why we don’t do something besides comics is to ask Ford why he doesn’t do something besides cars.”

Eleven floors below in the convention’s marathon film festival room, Popeye the Sailor Man probably said it more succinctly: “I yam whut I yam, and thet’s all whut I yam.”


Find this interesting? Check out my audio interviews with Stan Lee through the years here and here.