J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Changeling, Thor) has a special place in his heart for Comic-Con. It’s not just an opportunity for JMS to connect with fans — it helped him succeed as a writer, as he explains in this exclusive guest post:
What’s so special about San Diego Comic-Con? I hear you ask. Yes, that’s right, you, seated in the last row where you thought I wouldn’t notice or call on you. Sit up straight, stop fiddling with your papers and pay attention, because I’m not going to repeat this.
I lived in San Diego from 1974 through 1981, when I made the long trek up to Los Angeles to pursue my writing career in venues a bit broader than were locally available at that time. Despite being a massive comics fan, I was only able to attend SDCC a few times during those years because … well, frankly, I couldn’t afford it. The con wasn’t unduly expensive, in fact by most measures it was quite a bargain, but at the time every penny I earned as a writer, and there were very few of them, went into buying writing supplies instead of luxuries like convention tickets or food. Which is why despite being 6’3” I weighed only about 145 pounds. I was determined to make it as a writer or die trying.
Whenever I could scrape up enough cash to buy a ticket to SDCC, I did so, even if it meant not eating for a while. It was that important. Why?
There is a vast difference between a convention like SDCC and most of the for-profit conventions that are run more by businessmen than by fans. In the case of the latter, there is the audience and there are the participants — the speakers, panelists and special guests — and rarely is there the opportunity for one to become the other.
But that transition, from audience to participant, from fan to professional, is what fan-run conventions are all about. Despite its staggering size and complexity, San Diego Comic Con is the Mount Everest of fan-run conventions. In the course of its history, it has become a Mecca for those who love the visual arts and want to do more than just look on passively.
As a college student, on the few occasions when I had enough cash to buy a ticket to SDCC, I was able to see folks like Harlan Ellison, and Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and dozens of other leading professional writers talking about the craft of writing. I often learned more about writing in one hour-long panel hosting luminaries of that level than I’d learned in two years of college work. And then there were all the editors and publishers and agents who came to talk about their part of the business, what they looked for in new and aspiring writers, and what it took to break through the background noise and be noticed by those empowered to purchase your work.
And further down the hall, in the dealers’ and exhibits room, you could find publishers from DC Comics, Marvel and other publishers who would actually take the time to review art by novice illustrators or talk nascent writers through the process of improving your dialogue or breaking down a plot for a comic book.
For as much as the event was about comic book companies and others showcasing their wares, it was also about bringing up the next generation of writers and artists, about the transition from here to there, from fan to professional.
And here’s the amazing, the stunning, the delicious part of it all.
It’s still about that!
There is a supportive and positive tide that runs through the core of San Diego Comic Con that crests in the panel rooms and sweeps people up from their seats and deposits them behind the dais where they encourage the next group to hold on as the tidal surge now starts to come their way. It is as regular as clockwork, as powerful as an earthquake and as intimate as the quiet turning of your considered conscience.
It is a celebration, a passing of the torch, a reunion of glorious madmen and women, a parrot-pretty parade of costumes, a top-flight university in the visual and creative arts…and every year it is my favorite place in the world to visit. Because in the final analysis, the whole thing is about hope.
Why does that matter?
For all of human history, it was accepted that nobody could run a mile in four minutes. Simply not possible. Until Roger Bannister finally broke that record on May 6, 1954. That is worthy of note, no mistake. But what is also important is what happened afterward.
Within just a few months of Bannister breaking that record, it was broken again by other runners who had been competing alongside him for some time. So why were they able to do now what they weren’t able to do before? They weren’t suddenly stronger or faster, they didn’t train any differently. So what made the difference?
They now knew that it was possible! In the past, they’d subconsciously pulled back because they knew there was no point in trying to break a record that could not be broken. But once they saw it being done by one of their own, once they knew that it could be done … they did it.
During the years I lived in San Diego, I attended SDCC as nothing more than a fan with a few tiny little publishing credits to my name, mostly in local newspapers. I listened. I learned. I paid attention. I used what I learned to improve my work. But more important still, I saw other new writers who were as geeky and new to the field as I was make it past the barbed wire and the gun emplacements to succeed as professionals. Seeing them, I knew it was possible.
As a result, for the last twenty years, I have made a successful living writing comic books, movies and television shows. And I go back to tell the next bunch the central truth of the convention: that it doesn’t matter what the odds are, you can make it to the other side, that it’s possible. And there’s not a school on the planet that can deliver that message as well as this convention.
A couple of years ago, I was on my way in to appear on a panel at SDCC when a young woman stopped me in the hall.
“I want to thank you for all the encouraging words and stories you tell at your appearances,” she said. “It really had a profound effect on me because it made me realize that if you can make it, anybody can make it.”
As soon as she said the words she began trying to claw them back again, fearing that they might give offense. I put her at her ease and thanked her, because I knew exactly what she meant.
Because that is the glory, and the wonder, that is San Diego Comic-Con.
Amazing things can happen there.
Even for geeks like me.
— J. Michael Straczynski