COMIC-CON 2019: PROFESSOR DOUBLES AS A COMIC BOOK HERO
You may know Roger Freedman as a professor of physics at UCSB.
On Page 8 of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen 144 (1971), Dr. Freedman, with his long red hair and glasses, is standing with the San Diego Five String Mob, as the Guardian and Superman look on. “Dig those weird instruments they play!” Terry Dean tells the superheroes.
Little do the trio know that Dr. Freedman and his friends are actually in league with one of DC Comics’ most powerful villains – Darkseid! Egads!
Dr. Freedman became immortal in DC Comics canon because of someone he met at the first San Diego Comic-Con: the legendary Jack Kirby.
Mr. Kirby (1917-1994) co-created Marvel Comics’ Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, Fantastic Four, and later created DC Comics’ Fourth World stories, which featured Darkseid and his fiery world Apokolips.
From the start, San Diego Comic-Con had big names, even if the first convention only had 300 or so people attending, a modest dealers room with card tables and comics books and movie posters for sale, and only one room with speakers and movies.
“You didn’t see the multi-media stuff you see today,” Dr. Freedman, 66, told the News-Press last week in a meeting room at UCSB Broida Hall.
The first convention, then called San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Con, took place Aug. 1-3 at the U.S. Grant Hotel, and tickets cost $3.50 for three days.
Fans got their money’s worth. Besides Mr. Kirby, the first convention featured legendary sci-fi authors Ray Bradbury and A.E. Van Gogt, Dr. Freedman, 66, said. “That really impressed me.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Freedman spoke on panels about the convention’s history and the science of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” at Comic-Con International: San Diego – specifically the 50th San Diego Comic-Con.
It has grown exponentially from what Dr. Freedman experienced that first year.
Around 130,000 fans, many of them dressed as superheroes and villains and characters from other realms of fantasy and animation, walked around a convention that has grown beyond the San Diego Convention Center and taken over nearby hotels and the downtown historic Gaslamp Quarter.
Fans often wait for many hours to see the latest stars, especially in Ballroom 20 or Hall H, which seats 6,500 fans. There’s a long history of fans camping out overnight in grassy areas and parks to get into Hall H, where this year Sir Patrick Stewart talked about reprising his famous “The Next Generation” character in the upcoming “Star Trek: Picard” series on CBS All Access.
Only Mr. Kirby knew how big San Diego Comic-Con would get, Dr. Freedman recalled.
“Jack made the comment, ‘Some day everything is going to be at this convention. All the TV studios are going to be here. All the media is going to be here,’ ” Dr. Freedman said, recalling a story he heard from comic book and TV writer Mark Evanier. “”Mark’s response was, ‘Sure, Jack, whatever you say. Let’s go get lunch.’
“Jack was exactly right,” Dr. Freedman said.
The lifelong sci-fi fan recalled how much easier it was to get an autograph or talk with a star in those early years.
“You would see these guys sitting around the table or around the pool. You would say, ‘Hey, Jack, can you sign this book for me?’ ‘What was it like working with Stan Lee?’ ” Dr. Freedman said. “We didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that.”
Dr. Freedman and his friends chatted with Mr. Kirby at the first San Diego Comic-Con, and convention founder Shel Dorf later called Mr. Kirby to ask if they could visit him at his Thousand Oaks home. The DC and Marvel Comics legend said that would be fine, and Dr. Freedman recalled one conversation in particular with Mr. Kirby.
“Jack said, ‘I can put anybody in a comic book,'” Dr. Freedman said. “Someone said, ‘How about us, Jack?'”
Mr. Kirby found a way with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen 144.
“It’s us and Darkseid against Superman,” Dr. Freedman said. “I’m actually part of the DC universe.”
Dr. Freedman skipped San Diego Comic-Con in 1971 when it was at UC San Diego, but returned in 1972 and worked on the con’s program book when the event was at El Cortez Hotel. Besides Mr. Kirby, the special guests included Marvel Comics editor Roy Thomas and Looney Tunes cartoons director Bob Clampett.
Dr. Freedman said his first participation in the masquerade, the Comic-Con event that has grown into elaborate skits with effects and fans in impressive costumes, came in 1974. As an alternative to all the “Star Trek” fans at Comic-Con, he and his friends promoted fandom for “Gilligan’s Island” and went on stage to perform the 1960s CBS show’s theme song, complete with a prop for the line, “The tiny ship was tossed.”
“I had a plastic boat I threw into the audience,” Dr. Freedman said.
“For a while, I was the lead singer of a band that was only at Comic-Con. It was Dr. Raoul Duke and His All Human Orchestra,” Dr. Freedman said. “Dr. Raoul Duke” was a pseudonym for journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson.
Dr. Freedman said Comic-Con grew quickly in the 1970s, thanks to San Diego’s proximity to sci-fi authors and comic book talent and its draw as a vacation destination for the New York City-based comic books industry.
“I can tell you exactly where things got to get big, when the transition started from the original Comic-Con to today,” he said. “It was 1976 when there were 2,000 to 3,000 attendees. The word started getting out to Hollywood types that Comic-Con existed. They thought, ‘We have this movie coming out next year. We think people might be interested in it.’ “
The film was “Star Wars” (1977).
Behind-the-scenes crew sold promotional merchandise at a card table in the dealers room, Dr. Freedman said.
“If I had been smart, I would have bought every sticker and poster (in the dealers room),” he said. “I would be selling them now, and we would be having this conversation on my yacht. But I didn’t, so we’re not.”
Dr. Freedman, who earned his doctorate in physics in 1978 at Stanford University and became a teaching professor of physics in 1983 at UCSB (following a two-year post-doctoral program), continued to attend Comic-Con until the mid-1980s.
When he returned in 2009 for the 40th Comic-Con, he was surprised.
“I was pretty amazed by how large it had gotten,” he said. “I had heard second-hand, but I was pretty amazed by how large it had gotten. It was like 40 of the Comics Cons I remember happening simultaneously in the same room, which was awesome.”
Mr. Freedman, who came back in 2010 and this year, sees the future for San Diego Comic-Con as secure.
“The number of people who want to get in exceeds the number of people get in. It’s up there with Coachella or Burning Man tickets.”