Shel Dorf

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Shel Dorf
by R. C. Harvey

The love affair began early and lasted long. Born July 5, 1933, Shel Dorf said he was “born again” when he saw his first comics at about the age of six—a book of Katzenjammer Kids strips reprints. When he was seven, he bought his first comic book—Sure Fire, No. 1, cover-dated June 1940. Hooked, he spent his 25-cent weekly allowance on the four-color pulps—Superman, Action, Blue Beetle, Super Comics, Disney titles, Captain Marvel, Bullet Man, Doll Man, Batman—or on movies. Of his two passions, comic books were favored because they were fungible: after reading and rereading them, he traded them with friends for comics he hadn’t read yet. By the time he was ten, he was clipping comic strips out of the newspapers in his hometown, Detroit—which, at the time, supported three daily newspapers and, therefore, a fruitful plentitude of comic strips.

During World War II, Shel, like kids all across the country, joined in the war effort by collecting newspapers, tying them in bundles, and turning them in to neighborhood recycling stations. Before bundling up his haul, Shel pulled out the comics pages, daily and Sunday, clipped the strips, and pasted them in scrapbooks, six dailies on a single page, the facing page for the color Sunday. The pastime of the war years became a lifelong hobby, resulting in more than 500 scrapbooks, all of which Shel later deposited at the Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University.

Growing up, Shel worked in the family candy factory and, later, supplemented his weekly allowance by clerking in a drugstore and working in a hubcap factory sweatshop. In grade school, he attended after-school classes in art; and with his father as tutor, he took the famed Landon correspondence course in cartooning. He graduated from Cass Technical High School with a major in commercial art, and in Chicago, he took classes in design, fine arts, and the history of painting and architecture at the famed Art Institute. Back in Detroit, he joined the art staff of the Detroit Free Press, where he did photo retouching and some cartooning, and he also freelanced commercial art, doing layout and design.

Shel Dorf

And then in April 1964, at the age of 30, Shel piled up the books from his comic book collection that he no longer wanted and took them to trade at the nation’s first Comic-Con, mounted at the Fuller Hotel in downtown Detroit by Robert Brosch. It was called a “swap meet”: the expression “Comic-Con” wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary until that summer, when Bernie Bubnis coined the term in staging New York City’s first comics convention. Shel went to New York that summer, toured the New York World’s Fair, and met Milton Caniff for the first time. Back in Detroit, Shel joined Brosch and Jerry Bails and Ed Aprill and a few others, mostly students like Carl Lundgren who was co-chair, to start arranging for what Shel christened the “Detroit Triple Fan Fair”—for fantasy literature, films, and comic art—which was held July 24–25, 1965, at the Embassy Hotel on Cadillac Square downtown in Detroit. In the program booklet, Shel appears as “chairman,” saying, in a Statement of Principles, that “by establishing this convention, we hope to bring together people” with an interest in preserving rare material and to foster “the appreciation of Comic Strips, Films, and Fantasy Literature as genuine Art Forms.” Furthermore, “we hope to draw a close bond between the creative artist and his audience.”

Shel went to New York to live for a short time and renewed his acquaintance with Caniff, who put him in Steve Canyon as a football player named Thud Shelley—“Nothing has topped that,” Shel said. He returned to Detroit and continued to “coordinate” the elements of the event there until the fall of 1969, when he moved to San Diego where his parents had retired. While settling into a one-room apartment at the back of a store at Ocean Beach, Shel encountered a circular with an ad about buying comics, and he sought out the advertiser, Barry Alfonso, who introduced him to Richard Alf; with other comics hobbyists, they formed the San Diego Society for Creative Fantasy. This ensemble soon merged with another such group that had been meeting in Ocean Beach at what one of its number, Scott Shaw!, called “a flyblown bookstore” (perhaps named, inexplicably, Andy’s News) run by Ken Krueger, who had attended the “very first ‘scientifiction’ convention” in 1939, officially making him a member of the elite-if-obscure group known as ‘First Fandom.’”

The amalgamated group enthused about putting on a comics convention, and with Shel’s practical Detroit experience to guide them, lofted a trial balloon the following spring. That first Comic-Con was a one-day affair held March 21, 1970 to test the waters and generate a little capital for the subsequent three-day bash, officially dubbed the San Diego Golden State Comic-Con, held August 1–3.

Shel Dorf and Ray Bradbury

Photo by Jackie Estrada

For those first Comic-Cons, Shel and his crew rounded up an impressive list of special guests—Jack Kirby, who attended every Con but one until he died in 1994; sf and monster maven Forrest J Ackerman; artist Mike Royer; and sf authors Ray Bradbury and A. E. Van Vogt.        

Coordinating the efforts of the volunteer staff in those formative years of the Con took hunks of Shel’s time, but his was always a nonpaying job; to make a living, he continued freelancing commercial art. And in 1975, he landed his dream job: lettering the Steve Canyon comic strip for Caniff, who had moved from New York to take up permanent residence in Palm Springs. Caniff phoned Shel once a week to dictate dialogue for the next batch of strips, and Shel ruled panel borders and lettered speech balloons on blank artboard, then sent them on to Caniff for him to draw on. They’d spend hours on the phone, talking about the strip, movies, the latest TV shows, and events both current and historic. Shel loved those times.

In 1982, Shel and I worked together on a comic strip we hoped to get syndicated: it was Shel’s brainchild, and he called it Lines; he wrote it, and I drew it. It didn’t sell. Shel had created another comic strip in 1978: it was called Boogie and Zits, which Shel produced solo; it didn’t sell. Shel, nothing daunted, would concoct at least two more comic strips: Family Popcorn in 1996 with Tom Reese drawing, and Spare Change in 1999 with art by Mexican editorial cartoonist “Curry.” Neither of these sold either.

Shel resigned as “founder and president” of the San Diego Comic-Con in 1984, and after Caniff’s death in 1988, Shel, shattered personally and unemployed professionally, tried to withdraw from comics fandom. He took up painting and focused on the history of the media he loved, comics and film. He attended Cinecon regularly and screened hours of old movies on DVDs at his Ocean Beach apartment. And he remembered the Comic-Con with affection and pride. “I have the feeling that I ‘done good’ by establishing the Comic-Con,” he wrote me once. “It does help a lot of folks! For the most part, it’s a happy thing. I know I’d feel terrible if it ended.”

Shel Dorf

Shel would be the first to say that creating and nurturing the Con wasn’t a one-man enterprise: it took work by many people, of whom Shel was only one. But to fully comprehend the role of the “founder,” we might ask if the San Diego Comic-Con would have come into being and prospered without Shel. The answer, I believe, is, No. He brought an understanding of the mechanics of producing a comic convention with him from Detroit, where he’d played a key role in the earliest comic conventions. In San Diego, he found a cadre of interested youths who were willing to do the work, and Shel was happy to delegate. But year after year, he was the sparkplug, stimulating interest in Comic-Con among fans and professionals alike, keeping the flame alive, and today, in an delirious annual conflagration at the water’s edge, more than 125,000 attend the “swap meet” he was most instrumental in starting.

Reprinted rom the Comic-Con International 2009 Souvenir Book

R.C. Harvey, Comics Journal columnist and author of Meanwhile: A Biography of Milton Caniff and several other comics-related books, produces a biweekly online magazine of comics news and reviews, cartoon history and lore, at www.rcharvey.com