Programs for past Comic-Cons
Programs from 29 years of Comic-Con. Photo by Luis Monteagudo Jr.

When Comic-Con kicks off on preview night July 17, it will reach a milestone — the 50th annual Con.

Although it’s now considered the largest pop culture event in the world, it wasn’t always that way. Comic-Con grew from modest beginnings in San Diego and over the years expanded into a major media and cultural event that takes over the streets of America’s eighth largest city and commands a global media spotlight.

How did it get to be so big? And what happened during those 50 years? Here’s a look back decade by decade.

1970s – Humble Beginnings

Way before the massive crowds, the Hollywood star power and the international media, there was the very first Comic-Con, a small affair with an audience of true believers.

After a one day event in March 1970 that cost $2 to attend, the first annual Con was held that summer in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel. Then known as San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Con  it was a three-day event that attracted about 300 die-hard fans  who bought, sold and traded comic books and viewed displays of old comic strips and comic collections.

Shel Dorf, one of the Con’s first organizers, called comics an “American art form” and talked about the need to establish a museum devoted to comic art.

A young boy looks over comics in the exhibit hall in 2017. Photo by Chris Stone

As the 70’s continued, Comic-Con began to slowly grow, expanding in length to five days and moving to the campus of UC San Diego and the El Cortez Hotel. Its popularity began drawing well-known industry stars, including artist Jack Kirby, sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, “Peanuts” creator Charles Schultz and film director Frank Capra.

In the mid-70s, films started to make their presence felt with showings and previews. By the end of the ‘70s, attendance had grown to include fans from Europe and Japan. Tickets were $4 a day and $15 for five days of the Con.

1980s — A Pivotal Year

Pop culture was starting to make inroads in America thanks to a little film that came out in 1977 called “Star Wars” and that, in turn, boosted Comic-Con’s popularity not only with the fans but with the major film studios.

In 1980, Lucasfilm presented “Star Wars” at the Con, and studios brought out major films including “Star Trek” and “Superman.” Another key aspect of the Con, professionals mingling with budding artists, began to take hold as nine 3-hour workshops were held by illustrators. And the business side of industry began to be noticed as, for the first time, the Con hosted a national trade show for publishers, retailers and distributors.

By this time, the Con was forced to move again to larger quarters, setting up shop at the San Diego Convention and Performing Arts Center downtown.

Star Wars actor Mark Hamill speaking at the 2015 Comic-Con Center in San . Photo by Gage Skidmore

Comic-Con’s wide appeal grew larger, with Japanese anime and cosplayers becoming regular attractions at the event. From its beginnings in one room with about 25 booths and three speakers, the Con had grown to 250 vendors and nearly 80 speakers.

1986 proved to be one of the Con’s pivotal moments. That year, three critically-acclaimed works came out — Frank Miller’s dramatic retelling of the Batman saga, “The Dark Knight;” “Watchmen,” an epic saga about flawed superheroes, and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel of the Holocaust, “Maus,” which would go on to win a Pulitzer prize.

Those three works affirmed that comic books were not for just kids anymore, and the world started paying attention. By the end of the decade, the Con’s attendance had reached 10,000.

1990s – A big, New Home

By the ‘90s, Comic-Con had gained a foothold in San Diego and was accepted as an important event in the entertainment industry.

In 1991, the Con moved to the San Diego Convention Center on Harbor Drive, which proved critical to its growth.

San Diego Convention Center
The San Diego Convention Center viewed from the waterfront. Courtesy of the city

“We now have the opportunity to expand the San Diego Comic-Con even more, to keep it growing even as the industry grows and matures,” wrote then Con President John Rogers.

And expand it did. Attendance would grow from about 13,000 at the dawn of the decade to 44,000 by the end of it.

At the Con, fans celebrated the debut of such iconic characters as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hellboy. They welcomed such heavyweight guests as director Francis Ford Coppola, the cast of the original “Star Trek” TV show and writer and artist Frank Miller. There were previews of major films, including the first “X-Men” movie and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Not even the Republican National Convention could slow the Con down. The convention was held in the summer of 1996, bumping the Con to the July Fourth holiday for the second time.

Two other signature moments occurred in this decade. Recognizing that they were attracting fans from around the world, organizers changed the name of the event to Comic-Con International and they adopted its distinctive eye logo.

2000s – When Everything Changed

Comic-Con survived Y2K and although it had grown size, it had still remained manageable. But that was about to change.

The decade saw attendance explode from 48,500 to over 120,000. The Convention Center that had seemed like a spacious, new home became more of a test of endurance as fans navigated jammed hallways and swelling crowds both inside and outside. While getting into panels had once been easy, long lines became the norm, and major film and television presentations were moved into the massive Hall H room. And all of that led to one of the Con’s most infamous moment in 2010, when one fan stabbed another with a pen during an argument in Hall H.

Throngs of people wait outside Comic-Con from the doors to open on the first day.
Throngs of people wait outside Comic-Con from the doors to open on the first day in 2018. Photo by Chris Stone

Part of the Con’s expansion during the decade was due to the growing influence of YA, or Young Adult, books.  “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” drew a new, younger crowd into the Con. Teens passionate about these new properties, most of them girls, now packed Hall H and other rooms.

A slew of popular new shows and movies also fueled the growth, including “Lost,” “Supernatural,” “Heroes,” and the beginning of Marvel’s hugely successful run of superhero movies, starting with “Iron Man,” which was previewed at the Con in 2007.

Comic-Con also began to make its mark outside the Convention Center, as companies began to wrap nearby hotels in giant ads to promote their shows and movies. And in 2007, the first zombie walk was held outside the Convention Center, bringing a morbid, chaotic version of Mardi Gras to the Gaslamp and giving San Diegans who couldn’t get inside the Con a taste of the event.

Comic-Con was now big time!

2010’s – Go Big, and Leave Home?

As the new decade dawned, Comic-Con’s enormous growth and success was now threatening its very existence in its hometown of San Diego.

Comic-Con was bursting the seams of the Convention Center and board members of the nonprofit organization that operates Comic-Con considered leaving San Diego for Anaheim or Los Angeles. Eventually, organizers agreed to stay in San Diego a few more years, while waiting for a long-talked about expansion of the Convention Center.

Meanwhile, the Con continued growing, now reaching 135,000 fans in attendance, 600 hours of programming and 1,000 exhibitors. The entertainment industry continued flocking to the event, and so did the world’s media with more than 4,000 journalists attending from 34 different countries.

And with the Convention Center expansion still on hold, Comic-Con expanded its reach outside into the Gaslamp and East Village. Programs were held at the city’s new Central Library in downtown and elaborate exhibits promoting shows and movies took over downtown blocks, including a zombie obstacle course in Petco Park to promote “The Walking Dead” television show.

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan experience
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Experience takes over a block in downtown San Diego in 2018. Photo by Chris Jennewein

By now, Comic-Con had become a well-established brand. Late night talk show host Conan O’Brien began taping shows at the Spreckels Theatre during Comic-Con week. And Comic-Con established two other popular conventions — WonderCon in Anaheim and the Alternative Press Expo. It also launched its own streaming service showcasing programming from the Con.

By the end of the decade, the dream of Con creator Shel Dorf to create a comic art museum was closer to becoming reality with the announcement of a Comic-Con museum to be built in Balboa Park.

2020 – To infinity and Beyond!

As Comic-Con enters its next half-century, there appears to be no slowdown in its popularity.

The opening of the Balboa Park museum, possibly in 2021, could allow Comic-Con to become a nearly year-round event. The explosion in streaming networks will feed the Con’s demand for new shows and movies to present to fans. Meanwhile, a successful vote next year on the Convention Center expansion could allow Comic-Con to grow even larger.

For now, Comic-Con remains a one-of-a-kind San Diego success story that few could have imagined.

Luis Monteagudo Jr. is a freelance writer and pop culture fan who is attending his 29th consecutive Comic-Con.