L.A.'s Oldest Comic Book Convention Is Content to Be Nothing Like Comic-Con

Animals allowed.EXPAND
Animals allowed.
Photo by Chlöë Moll

There’s a peculiar kind of calm that exists on the outskirts of the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention. The first of this year's four planned cons took place Jan. 10 at the Reef, an area of the L.A. Mart outside which sits an enormous chair. It’s the latest stop in a journey that began in 1977 at the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel; the con later moved to the Shrine Auditorium. The convention exists in a laid-back world of its own, presenting a more measured respite from the frenetic atmosphere of San Diego Comic-Con.

Not better or worse. Just different.

The convention is a bit like fan conventions used to be before Hollywood came knocking and before cosplay was king. Book collecting — a pastime described by novelist Robertson Davies as something that combines “the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser” — was the logical predecessor of everything related to modern fandom.

At the January event, the showroom floor was dotted with tables behind which sat actors and authors, casually chatting with fans and signing photographs and memorabilia. Headliner Billy Dee Williams sat for photos but wouldn't answer questions about Lando Calrissian's return to the new Star Wars universe. Several Aliens cast members observed the film's 30th anniversary (except for Jenette Goldstein, who's lately been hard at work making better-designed brassieres at Jenette's Bras and who may make up her appearance at a later date). Comic book artists like Bill Sienkiewicz, a preternaturally patient man whose art remains more ethereal than most of his contemporaries,' were there. Nearby sat Herbert Jefferson Jr., who played Boomer in the original Battlestar Galactica series.

Among the few costumed con-goers were a couple of little girls — Kayla and Zoe Miyamoto, ages 5 and 7 — dressed by their parents as a teeny Predator and a tiny Queen Alien. Even legendary cinematic blowtorch Lance Henriksen smiled wide when the girls approached the table where he was signing copies of his new memoir, Not Bad for a Human. There was only one bookseller — Aladdin Books from Fullerton — selling only books on this particular day. Their boxes brim to bursting with British H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks, Wizard of Id compilations and Mad Magazine anthologies — treasures from a different age that continue to delight a certain crowd.

A vendor with his waresEXPAND
A vendor with his wares
Photo by Chlöë Moll

And in the middle of it all, as stalwart and staunch as he’s been for almost four decades, is convention organizer Bruce Schwartz.

“The show was able to bring in a lot of interesting people over the years, from the co-creator of Batman, Bob Kane, to the co-creator of Captain America, Jack Kirby. We had James Cameron make one of his first convention appearances to preview The Terminator,” he says. “We kind of intermingled comic books, film and animation, and this was a time when films weren’t previewed on DVD — they were previewed on 16mm film. The convention grew over the years and gained the confidence of the studios — whether it was Christian Bale, Keanu Reeves or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and as the show’s stature grew, more people came on board.”

Nostalgia is another, practically unstoppable energy that propels the convention. “We were the first convention to have the nostalgic TV shows remembered, and we did this when it was closer to the time the shows had been off the air. Now it’s a recurring theme in many conventions across the country, but we were one of the earliest to have things like the casts of Lost in Space,The Green Hornet; John Astin from The Addams Family.”

Over the years, the convention has weathered its fair share of changes. “There were many more pulp dealers [in the beginning], but they’re not there as much, as far as book dealers. Not antiquarian dealers, not in big numbers.” Has there been a change over time from one aspect of the convention to another? Schwartz pauses for a moment, reflecting. “I’d say toys have become a bigger part of the convention. It actually used to more comic book dealers, but it’s more of a mixture now. The room used be 90 percent comics, and now it’s maybe 60 percent comic books and 40 percent other stuff. When we started, it was a simpler time. Occasionally we’d get written up in newspapers as an oddity, and now it’s kind of an accepted thing. In the early years, most people were mainly interested in the [monetary] value of comic books, and that’s still prevalent today, but because of the movies that are coming out, and the TV shows, more people are into this than ever before.”

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There are certain people who act as lodestones that attract other, like-minded individuals, who then learn from and are inspired by their apparently boundless energy and enthusiasm. People like the late movie memorabilia dealer Eric Caidin, or late Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Forrest J. Ackerman — both Angelenos, both passionate advocates for this branch of popular culture, bringing together a scattered fanbase that would eventually find one another through fanzines and conventions like these. Imagination is the connective tissue that holds together a multibillion-dollar industry. Much like the secret identities of the heroes in the comic books, enthusiasts like Schwartz are unassuming figures. They melt into the margins and operate without fanfare. Their hard work acts like water running under the earth that makes everything grow. Without the vision of people like Schwartz — or Caidin, or Ackerman — it’s hard to see how that fandom would have coalesced and grown into the phenomenon that moves so much of the culture today.

The power of enthusiasm transcends fads and fashion, rising above the countless temporary annoyances involved in organizing a convention attended by thousands of people over 40 years. The Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, as Schwartz has sculpted and refined it, has become a fantastic world unto itself.

OK, so there's some cosplay.EXPAND
OK, so there's some cosplay.
Photo by Chlöë Moll

Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, The Reef, 1933 S. Broadway, downtown; Sun., Feb. 28, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; $12. comicbookscifi.com.

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