Center of the World


So what qualifies me to write a blog about Bronze Age comic books? Well, nothing really.

But in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a History Professor who is currently self-exiled in an administrative position. The pay is better and I love the chance to exercise the leadership my position affords me. But I really miss teaching, and I really miss writing.

However, I am not a comic book historian. The stuff I have published is as far from 1970s cultural history as you can imagine. I have never worked in the comic book industry. I have never written a fictional work. I have never published a piece of self-created art work. So I really have no claim to be an expert on comics, Bronze Age or otherwise.

Except for one thing.

I grew up in San Diego, California.

So, what’s the big deal with San Diego? Wasn’t San Diego just a sleepy navy town during the 1970s?

I’ll tell you the big deal: San Diego was the center of the comic book industry during the Bronze Age.

Whaaaaat? I thought New York was the center of the comic book industry?

Well, you are only partially correct. Now don’t send me any nasty comments about how ridiculous the argument is. I’m relating the perspective of someone who was about eight years old when he read his first issue of Captain America. But there is a kernel of truth to what I’m about to say, from my perspective.

New York City was indeed home for Marvel, for DC and their parent companies. New York was where Stan Lee worked, and Jack Kirby, and Neil Adams, and Jim Steranko, and Jim Starlin, and Marv Wolfman, and Gene Colan, and Roy Thomas, and…. It was where creative meetings were held, publication decisions were made, and everything having to do with comic book production was executed.

Comic book production…..

But not comic book consumption.

It takes two to tango, and that old saying is especially true when it comes to commerce. Commerce works both ways: there are producers, and there are consumers.

We know a lot about the producers because they produced the historical primary sources from which we work. They gave their thoughts on editorial pages. They are the subjects of a large number of books and articles and documentaries.

But we only know a little about the consumers. We know what magazines were popular, through often fragmentary sales figures. We also know about the reaction of fans to the industry through fanzines and letters to the editor. But one can argue that letter writers and fanzine editors were unique. They had the skill, the passion and the confidence to develop opinions and put them out there for all to read. But what about the great, unwashed masses that kept reading while keeping their mouth shut and their pencils on the table?

I was one of those kids. And for me, San Diego was the center of comic book consumption for a few reasons.

First, it was home to Escalante’s Liquor Store.

Escalante’s Liquor Store was really located in National City, an incorporated suburb that bordered Logan Heights (today often called Bario Logan), the multi-racial, multi-ethnic neighborhood in Southeast San Diego where I grew up. Both National City and Logan Heights were adjacent to the 32nd Street Naval Station, home of the United States Pacific Fleet. This was where those battleships should have been when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

My neighborhood was therefore home to a scattering of navy families, mostly non-commissioned officers and seamen, who during the 1960s lived in close proximity to Latino, Filipino, and African American families who increasingly called the area home. When those navy men were in port, they would cross into National City, to access the bars and liquor stores along National City Blvd.

My Dad was a Navy man, a Senior Chief Petty officer from Danville, Virginia, who moved into my mother’s house after he married her. He was, largely, a self-educated man, a voracious reader, and on Friday nights, he would make the short drive to Escalante’s Liquor Store, which was half alcohol retailer, half newsstand. There he would browse the selection of magazines and cheap paperbacks, choose one, and grab an extra six pack, and maybe some cigs, to supplement the supply he had already obtained at the 32nd Street Naval Base Commissary. Escalante’s had a large neon sign that simply read “LIQUOR” outside its door. I don’t even know if the proper name was painted on the glass door of the establishment. But Escalante’s was next door to a bar called the Golden Barrel, and the Golden Barrel had a huge illuminated sign of, you guessed it, a golden barrel, with a caption on the top that read, you guessed it again, “GOLDEN BARREL.”

Being from Danville, Virginia, last capital of the Confederacy, my Dad had a hard time pronouncing “Escalante’s.” He had a hard time pronouncing “tortilla,” too. At first, all the “L’s” in his San Diegan Spanish were hard “L’s.” Very hard “L’s.” Communities like El Cajon were pronounced El Ca JOHN.

So instead of announcing to my mom that he was going to Escalante’s on all those Friday nights, he would simply say, “I’m going to the Golden Barrel.” Once I got into comics, he pointed out that the liquor store he frequented for paperbacks, beer and cigarettes also had two comic book racks. You know, those white rotating racks with the sign at the top that read: “Hey, Kids: Comics!”

And so, on Friday nights, my Dad would approach me and say, “Do you want to go to the Golden Barrel?”

“Do you want to go to the Golden Barrel?” was one of the most exhilarating questions an 8 year old comic book fan could hear.

Escalante’s wasn’t the only center of comic book distribution for this 8 year old comic book fan. By the early 1970s, San Diego was also the location of numerous comic book specialty stores that appeared before the distribution revolution really took off: House of Comics, with a Howard the Duck emblazoned on its sign, was located on Broadway in San Diego’s downtown; Comic Kingdom, my main hang out, was on an equally busy University Ave in North Park; Golden State comics was in nearby Kensington. Pacific Comics had four retail shops scattered throughout San Diego. Owned by the Bill and Steve Schanes, Pacific eventually became a publisher in its own right, if only for a few years. For me, Pacific Comics was the go-to place when I couldn’t find an old issue at Comic Kingdom. Usually, they didn’t disappoint.

And lastly, San Diego was also where a group of comic fans, led by the irascible Shel Dorf, conceived of an annual gathering of like-minded fans that eventually evolved into the modern San Diego Comic Con.

Shel Dorf advertising an early Comic Con.

Going to the San Diego Comic Con during the Bronze Age was not the same as going to the San Diego Comic Con now. Sure, it was a bit smaller, but its attendance steadily grew, from 300 in 1970 to 13,000 in 1990. Typically held at the old El Cortez Hotel, it eventually moved to the San Diego Civic Center. It had rows and rows of vendors, with comic books in columns of cardboard boxes. It also had posters, it had toys, it had binders full of 8X10 glossies of Science Fiction and Fantasy stars. I spent a lot of time looking at 8 X 10’s of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. It had autograph sessions with unbelievably long lines of comic fans hoping to get the signatures of some famous writer or artist. It had panels on comic themes and block buster movies.

At the early Comic Cons, I went to a panel previewing The Empire Strikes Back a full year before its release. The speakers presented some slides with a few sneak peaks. Of particular interest was a shot of Rebel infantry emerging from snow covered trench lines to commence a charge. There was no mention of the iconic Imperial Walkers, which hadn’t been added yet. I got to talk to Jack Kirby, co-creator of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Avengers, and a host of other Marvel classics, asking him, quite seriously, if he needed a good assistant artist. He replied, “There’s no such thing as a good assistant artist.”

Vendor at an early San Diego Comic Con.

So the early Comic Con was big. It was busy. It was exciting. For a kid, it was also expensive. Weeks and weeks of allowances were saved annually for Comic Con.

But compared to today, the San Diego Comic Con was so easy to get into.

If you went to the Comic Con during the Bronze Age, you literally walked right in. That’s right. No online waiting rooms, no Member ID’s, no randomized queues. I would get the date of the Con from the mailers, save my money, and my mom or dad would drop me off for a day at whatever venue was holding the event that year. During the earliest Comic Cons, I was between 10 and 12 years of age. Leaving a kid by himself at a downtown hotel is unheard of now, but it was ok back then. A gaggle of the neighborhood kids were typically left at the Fox Theater downtown on most Saturdays armed with money for popcorn, a soda, and a dime to call for pickup when the double feature was over.

And so one of my parents would drive me to the El Cortez Hotel, or the San Diego Civic Center, and drop me off at the curb. Before pulling away they would make sure I had a few dimes for that important phone call when I was done. I would walk into the lobby, where there was typically a line of tables with about three or four nice ladies with a couple of cash registers and typewriters. After standing in line for like, three minutes, I would walk up to the ladies, tell them I wanted to buy a two day ticket, give them the money, and wrote my name on a registration form. One of the ladies would type out a name badge for me on colored construction paper with some superheroes or something printed on it.  They would then insert the construction paper into a see through plastic holder with a pin, hand it to me, and direct me to the next table to get a bag and a program, and it was off to buy comic books in the dealers room, where I went to town, burning all that allowance money that I so painstakingly saved.

More on the early Comic Cons later.

But for now, suffice it to say that Escalante’s, Comic Kingdom, House of Comics, Pacific Comics, and the annual Comic Con made San Diego, for me, the center of the world for any kid who loved comic books during the Bronze Age. And because of that, I’m writing this blog.

O.K. I’m exhausted. Time for a drink.


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