It would be fair to say San Diego Comic-Con changed Phil Yeh‘s life. Now 64, Yeh was at the first iteration of Comic-Con as a teenager, way back in 1970. He wasn’t much of a comic book fan, but attending the convention and meeting sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and comics legend Jack Kirby set him on a track he’d follow the rest of his life: starting a publishing company, spearheading the early days of graphic novels, starting literacy nonprofit Cartoonists Across America & The World and more.
This year, SDCC is celebrating a milestone it’s calling Comic-Con 50. At his booth on the expo floor, I spoke with Yeh about setting up shop in a hotel basement, paying $2 for a ticket and getting career advice from Bradbury and Kirby. Here’s our conversation, edited lightly for clarity.
How did you get into comics as a kid?I was never into comics. I grew up in Los Angeles in an area near Watts. So I was a street kid, mostly into playing poker and other things, but I had a friend who was a comic book fan, and in between when I would play cards, I’d say, “Hey, give me a comic book to read,” and he would always hand me Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four, something like that. But I didn’t really collect comics or read them. I read Ray Bradbury.
How did you end up at Comic-Con?In 1970, there was a little [classified] ad for San Diego Comic-Con, and my friend, who was the guy giving me the comics, said, “Phil, you should go to this,” because he knew I drew. I always drew — I covered my homework — because I have dyslexia. I can’t spell. School was not good. But I didn’t care because I was drawing.
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I was 15, so I had to get my father to drive me to San Diego, and we took my little sister. We went down to San Diego, and 300 [people], mostly guys, were in this room in the US Grant Hotel, and it was the weirdest collection of people I’d ever seen. There were only a few guests — it was Ray Bradbury and Jack Kirby. I went up to Ray and I said, “I want to be a writer but I can’t spell.” He said, “No worries, they have editors.”
Then I turned to Jack Kirby and I said, “My friend always tells me I should be a comic book artist. I don’t really read comic books, but since I have you here, what college should I go to?” My father was standing right behind me — my father is a Chinese engineer. My father was listening to this, and Jack Kirby says, “There’s no colleges for comic book artists. Just do it.”
Three months later, I started my company.
What was the room like?It was just a little basement room, a very small room, and 300 kids who couldn’t get dates [laughs].
Would you have thought Comic-Con would be happening 50 years later?Not at all. I don’t think anybody did. I got to know Shel Dorf pretty well, and he was the founder. It was founded by [a] 37-year-old man and six kids, 12 to 17. I knew all of them. If you’d known these guys, you’d say the same thing — I don’t think this is going to last.
Every year, at the end of the convention, it was like desperate times. We’re going to try and do this again next year. We charged $2 to get in, so we didn’t have a budget with 300 people. Eventually it got up to where it is today. I think everyone saw the writing on the wall, probably about 20 years ago: OK, this is here to stay. When I talk to young people, Comic-Con has been there their whole lives.
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SDCC, the biggest convention ever, had a very small start: What started as a gathering in a basement has exploded into one of the world’s biggest cultural blowouts.