The Unfiltered Oral History of San Diego Comic-Con is Now Unleashed

Author and historian Mathew Klickstein celebrates geek and fandom culture throughout the years in his latest project

With his latest project, the prolific author, journalist and playwright Mathew Klickstein, who has become known for his sprawling oral histories of pop culture institutions, now tells the full, epic story of Comic-Con—warts and all—in his latest book.

In See You at San Diego: An Oral History of Comic-Con, Fandom and the Triumph of Geek Culture, Klickstein chronicles the history of what has become the world’s largest pop culture gathering, which takes place in San Diego each summer. The massive oral history of the event hit shelves this week and Klickstein is scheduled for an appearance at Skylight Books on September 8 for its launch. After a book signing, participants are invited to head over to the American Cinematheque for a screening of Edgar Wright’s beloved 2010 film adaptation of the graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Just like the subject of his latest book, Klickstein’s roots are right here in Southern California, where he grew up and then attended the University of Southern California’s film program; afterward, he worked gigs within the film and television industry— logical first steps for someone who would go on to become a major pop culture historian. At 40, he’s produced an array of materials getting to the heart of some of America and the world’s biggest obsessions. 

He’s already taken on the longest-running scripted series in TV history with Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons and a children’s television phenomenon with Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age. But See You at San Diego might just be Kilckstein’s most expensive project yet. The idea for this book hit him, Kilckstein says, when he began to think about how to chart the history of the entirety of popular culture.

“I was looking for the next big challenge,” Klickstein tells LAMag. “I was looking to do something that would be my opus.”

In order for this challenge—which ultimately covers the event’s heyday in the early 1970s as the Golden State Comic Book Convention up to the behemoth global destination we know today—wouldn’t be finalized at “50,000 or 5000 pages,” he says, its central focus would need to be narrowed. For Klickstein, Comic-Con seemed the ideal choice because of its central position in today’s entertainment landscape; a line can be drawn from the 52 years of the San Diego event to nearly every corner of pop culture, he says.

The uninitiated may be surprised, but the fact is that Comic-Con was not conceived solely to celebrate heroes like Spider-Man and the like.

“Comic-Con was never just about comics,” Klickstein says. Science fiction, martial arts and animation, among other industries, all have connections to the event. And its origin has roots in the highbrow literary world, as Ray Bradbury, who penned Fahrenheit 451, was instrumental in the event’s inception. Now, television and film are key to the event’s success. Though some might argue that fields outside comics cemented their ties to Comic-Con years into its ongoing success, Klickstein says he wants to make it clear that this is untrue.

“It was always about movies and animation and magic and martial arts and all different kinds of things that (have) to do with pop culture,” Klickstein says.

See You at San Diego marks the latest of Klickstein’s forays into oral history-style works. In putting together the book, he interviewed several of the creators of Comic-Con; in the oral history style, these conversations are spliced together to create a vivid and detailed narrative with many points of view. For Klickstein, the format allows him to tell others’ stories without his personal opinions intruding on the story he wants to help tell.

“A big part of what I appreciate about oral histories is that it is that raw information,” Klickstein says. “It’s not my speculation. It’s not my analysis. It’s not my opinions.”

However, oral history texts are prickly, he says. Some of his subjects, Klickstein admits, disagree on the way certain things went down. In his book, he allows such contradictions to exist—giving the readers views from every position.

“We really get that three-dimensional quality to the history that you wouldn’t get if I were just coming in as the judge and saying okay, ‘This is what definitely happened or did not happen,” Klickstein explains.

Some of those interviewed for the book don’t even like each other, Klickstein tells LAMag, and still refuse to even sit on panel discussions together. This fact, and that the project is an unauthorized telling of the event’s story with no current Comic-Con administrators participating in the book, allows the full history and narrative of the cultural staple to emerge—raw and unencumbered. 

Just like See You at San Diego, the core idea of Comic-Con—and why the event has resonated with the public and grown to a global destination event—is this unbound open exchange of ideas, Klickstein says. Now, he says he hopes that reading about Comic-Con will encourage audiences to break free of their own comfort zones.

“It’s important for us to at least attempt to find those connections with each other. And one of the ways of doing that is going to something like Comic-Con,” Klickstein says.

See You at San Diego will be available for purchase beginning September 6. Tickets for the launch at Skylight Books can be purchased here.

(Illustration by Scott Shaw!)

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