Comic-book fans know Stan Lee, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby. Comic-book vendors know Bud Plant.
So it stunned many when Plant — one of only two distributors attending every Comic-Con since its 1970 debut — announced Wednesday that he won’t return in 2018.
In a Facebook post, Plant said the decision to uproot came after “long and hard debate” with his partner, Anne Hutchison, and staff.
“We had enough of the complicated and labor-intensive logistics of setting up there,” he said in a 300-word post.
“I’m proud that we had as many as 11 booths up until 2008, 10 of new products and one with out-of-print material,” he said. “But since that disastrous year, when sales dropped by 40 percent, we’ve been downsizing in an effort to still make it work.”
Francis “Bud” Plant, 66, of Grass Valley noted how he spent “seven full days on the road” and 13-hour days at the annual July show.
He said event organizers had always treated him well, but “attendees these days are, in general, not our customers or they are not looking for books.”
Many of his former customers can’t get tickets — known as badges (because Comic-Con is a nonprofit) — or have chosen to stop coming, he said.
On Friday, Plant said he got a “very, very nice note” from Comic-Con exhibits director Justin Dutta after he made his decision not to sell two or three months ago.
Plant said Dutta wrote: “Sorry to hear that, but I cannot fault your reasoning. Comic-Con is very stressful and very expensive in the best of times.”
But Plant, despite his pioneer status, was expecting to pay $3,000 for a single booth — albeit in a choice “end cap” location near a main door.
“They could have said: ‘Hey, you’re an original [vendor]. We’ll give you the booth [rental for free]. That might have been nice, but they didn’t,” he said with a laugh. “So oh well.”
Had he gotten free space, would he be selling in 2018?
“Yeah, I probably would be,” Plant told Times of San Diego in a phone interview. “That would make a substantial amount of difference. I could put in an appearance and not have to beat myself up trying to make the booth rent back.”
In recent years, Plant has occupied two or three booths — and had first-in-line privileges for unloading his truck.
“Part of that was because my partner, Anne, actually broke her wrist down there [three or four years ago]. She tripped over part of the display … before the show opened. … She got rushed off to the hospital and had to get surgery.”
(Hutchison attended UC San Diego and later worked for book publisher Houghton Mifflin in San Diego. She met Plant 15 years ago at a Portland, Oregon, book fair but also connected with him again at San Diego’s Comic-Con, he said.)
Plant recalled the first San Diego show in a darkened basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel, when he shared an eight-foot table with three buddies from San Jose.
He said they tried desperately to find things for their collections, making deals and swaps.
“I think there was only one female in the entire show,” he said — the 12-year-old daughter of a Phoenix radio man.
San Diego was a backwater for the comic-book trade. New York City’s comic-art convention was the mecca at the time, Plant said.
Also selling his wares at the first Comic-Con was Terry Stroud of Los Angeles, who plans to attend his 49th show this year, according to his friend Greg Koudoulian.
“Hopefully, he’ll be at the 50th” show in 2019, said Koudoulian, who is interviewing dozens of Comic-Con figures for a documentary project. Stroud was at a Pomona show this week, he said.
Comic-Con didn’t respond to an inquiry. But one of Plant’s old friends said the pullout was no surprise.
In fact, it was “predestined,” said fellow vendor Chuck Rozanski of Denver’s Mile High Comics.
“This was something that was planned,” he said. “Because it gives the people that are running it now complete and total control of an audience that has zero ability to influence events.”
Rozanski — who wrote off Comic-Con last year after selling there for 43 years — said in a phone interview Thursday that Plant chose to follow his path “because it’s just become so expensive and such a glorious pain in the ass.”
He said his booths and Plant’s were right across from each other, so they’ve had a chance to commiserate about the costs and logistics of selling books there.
His last couple years at the San Diego Convention Center “was almost like I was dancing with a corpse,” Rozanski said. “You have this incredibly beautiful entity that you were in love with … and then you started to realize that it wasn’t there any more.”
He agreed with Plant on the dearth of hard-core comic-book fans and collectors coming to San Diego.
He chalked up the change in clientele to Comic-Con International’s move toward a lottery system of selling badges — and away from allowing longtime attendees to automatically sign up for the next year.
“The day they made that decision — that was the Orwellian ‘Animal Farm’ moment, when suddenly some animals became more equal,” Rozanski said. “It took the convention away from the fans of San Diego and turned it into a Los Angeles convention.”
He accused organizers of doing it “for themselves, so they can have a bigger corner office and … a $10 million reserve fund.”
As many have noted in recent years, the “Con,” as it’s called, has strayed far from its roots.
“This is not supposed to be San Diego Media-Con,” he said. “This is not supposed to be Let’s Make Disney a Little More Rich Con. This is supposed to be all about comic books. It’s supposed to be about literacy. It’s supposed to be about reading and passion.”
Rozanski said Comic-Con has taken its mission statement and “just buried it in a hole somewhere. They’re not meeting their mission statement in the slightest. … They have taken this beautiful event and utterly converted it and perverted it to their own needs and wishes.”
(Comic-Con International, in annual tax filings, states its mission as “creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular art forms.”)
The host city wasn’t spared the wrath of Rozanski either.
He said San Diego has been “complicit in all of this. There are people there who really should be ashamed of themselves. This was a great, great, not just national event but an international event. And now it’s nothing.”
In a 2013 blog post, Comic-Con celebrated Plant and his role in the event, introducing him as “one of the pioneers of the comics retail world. He was one of the first store owners (probably the first to own a chain of stores), an early comics distributor, a publisher, and a convention organizer, all in the 1970s.”
The post said Plant was best known for his mail-order business, which he started in the late 1960s, and its Internet counterpart.
Rozanski’s voice rose when asked whether new-media popular culture had simply left him, and print, behind.
“Then why the hell are my sales up 80 percent at my store this year?” he nearly shouted. “Print is not dead. You just have to market it right.”
He contends that if Comic-Con badges went only to hard-core comic-book fans, the convention center would still sell out.
Rozanski acknowledged one reason for the change to lottery — the scalping of tickets by longtime convention-goers. But he contends other fixes could have been made.
And if Comic-Con needed to have proof that badge-buyers were true-blue comic-book fans, organizers could recruit the help of the 3,000 comic-book stores to vouch for the applicants, he said.
“They could say that so and so is a regular shopper with me and so they actually have an interest in comic books,” he said. “They’re not just going there to see what color Deadpool’s underwear is going to be in [film] No. 3.”
Heidi MacDonald, who first broke the Plant pullout story on comicsbeat.com, wrote: “There goes the neighborhood…. Plant had a large aisle of booths that for years sold a variety of rare and unusual art books and collected editions from around the world.”
She said that in the convention’s early years, Plant’s aisle was a mecca for collectors.
“But in recent years it’s shrunk to a few booths and become the anchor of a loosely defined ‘Old Town’ where exhibitors who started in the show’s distant past still congregate in Hall B.”
Plant, then 18, first sold comic books at what was then called the Golden State Comic-Con in August 1970. The event drew 300 people.
But on Facebook, where he has 4,200 friends, he declared he’s still a fan of the Con.
“I have an Inkpot Award from Comic-Con, which gives me a free lifetime ticket,” Plant wrote.
What will Plant do this year?
He says he’ll reconnect with his vendor and publishing friends, and longtime customers and collectors — “a whole gamut of old-timers, old gray-haired guys.”
And he’ll hunt for old comics himself.
“There’s a lot of Holy Grail stuff out there,” Plant said Friday. “I’d love to have more early DC comics and the occasional Marvel comic from the ’40s,… They’ve become all very expensive. It’s a matter of gritting your teeth and what can I afford.”
Updated at 5:35 p.m. May 11, 2018