Richard Alf

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Richard Alf

Richard Alf in 2009

by Mike Towry

Richard Alf was a fun guy. One thing his many friends all remember about him is his laugh. It was wonderful and unique and whenever you heard it, you’d feel like laughing too. He was always the one that when he arrived, that’s when the party started. He was fun to talk to as well, a great raconteur and conversationalist. He always had a lot to say, but you never had the feeling of struggling to get a word in. It was always just a very relaxed, comfortable scene whenever you were with him.

When it came to the people he associated with, he was accepting and tolerant to a fault. Richard always felt like an outsider and appreciated and enjoyed the company of other outsiders, especially people who had interests that were outside of the mainstream, particularly in the arts. This, of course, made Richard a natural fit for comics fandom.

Some longtime comic fans will remember Richard as an entrepreneur, an early dealer in collectible comics through mail -order and a retail store. These days, more fans will know him as a co-founder of San Diego’s Comic-Con International. His first involvement with comics, however, was as a reader and collector.

Richard Alf in 1972

Richard Alf in 1972

Richard was born January 26, 1952. He caught the collecting bug early on and never got over it. Last year, I was speaking with him on the phone about how people will collect just about anything. Trying to come up with a preposterous example, I said, “You know, there are even people who collect old glass electrical insulators.” There was a pause for a moment on the other end of the line, and then I heard Richard say, “I collect those.”

Like many youngsters in the fifties and sixties, Richard started out collecting stamps and coins. Since he also read and enjoyed comics, he of course had to start collecting them as well. However, as he grew older, his interest in reading and collecting comics waned, only to be replaced by an interest in buying and selling them.

In his teens, Richard had developed into a determined entrepreneur. His paternal grandfather, who had been a successful businessman, likely had something to do with that. Richard would often speak admiringly of how his grandfather had used radio and print advertising to reach potential customers, and of the large mail-order business he had built up by such means.

With his grandfather’s example to guide and inspire him, a teenaged Richard Alf plunged heartily into the business world. As Bob Sourk, Comic-Con’s first chairman and an old friend, recalls, “Richard was a wheeler-dealer. One of the first things I remember about him is him selling half-inch high plastic beer steins that a relative had sent a large box of to his family. Richard was selling them in junior high school for a dollar each. It was an immediate fad, and soon everyone who was anyone was wearing one on his pants belt loop. Later, when the supply of beer steins ran out, he was selling Creepy Crawlies, rubbery insects that I was manufacturing for him.  Richard could sell anything.”

Once Richard’s entrepreneurial attention turned to comics, he soon plunged into buying and selling them via mail-order. That was no easy task for a youngster in those days, and while he wasn’t one to freely reveal his business secrets, it was likely that he was advertising in such fanzines as G.B. Love’s Rocket’s Blast Comic Collector and contacting fans through addresses printed with letters to the editors in the comics. Finding success with his early efforts in the business, he decided to take it up a notch and risk some money on placing an ad in Marvel and DC comic books. His first ad in the comics appeared in 1969 when he was 17 years old.

In that same year, I was 14 years old and living in the same neighborhood as Richard and eagerly following in his entrepreneurial footsteps. I had started my own comics business, and Richard was definitely a role model for me, a successful older kid I admired and learned from. Another young comic dealer in our neighborhood was Bob Sourk, age 16. We were all friends and friendly competitors, though Richard was far ahead of us in developing his business.

In that same year, I was 14 years old and living in the same neighborhood as Richard and eagerly following in his entrepreneurial footsteps. I had started my own comics business, and Richard was definitely a role model for me, a successful older kid I admired and learned from. Another young comic dealer in our neighborhood was Bob Sourk, age 16. We were all friends and friendly competitors, though Richard was far ahead of us in developing his business.

Some time in 1969, Richard and I were kicking around the idea of holding a sort of comic collectors swap meet in the backyard of my mother’s house. We’d never been to a comic or science fiction convention at the time, and we weren’t involved in organized fandom outside of buying and selling comics, but it seemed like it might be a good idea. And who knows, if we’d gone ahead with it, perhaps it would have developed into San Diego’s first comic convention. However, that was not to be, as fate intervened in the form of Shel Dorf.

During the summer of 1969, Shel had helped his parents move from Detroit to San Diego for their retirement. He had planned to return back East, but once he’d experienced sunny San Diego and the Southern California lifestyle of the late 1960s, he couldn’t bear to leave, so instead he took up residence in his parents’ apartment in San Diego’s Clairemont community.

Not too long after that, Shel’s father showed him a comics-wanted ad he’d found in a free local advertising magazine. Since Shel was in need of funds and had some extra comics to sell, he called the advertiser, who turned out to be 12-year-old comics fan Barry Alfonso. They soon got together, and as Barry looked over the comics Shel had for sale, he said that he didn’t have enough money to buy them all but that there was a local dealer named Richard Alf who’d just started advertising in the pages of Marvel comics who likely had the means.

Shel contacted Richard, who agreed to drive to Shel’s place to see what he had for sale. They set a time and date and at the appointed hour, Richard drove his 1954 VW Bug on over to meet with Shel. While Richard inspected his comics, Shel proceeded to tell him about the Detroit Triple Fan Fair convention that he, Jerry Bails, and other Detroit fans had joined together to produce. He suggested to Richard that San Diego fans might be interested in doing something similar. Richard was intrigued by the idea and said he’d talk to his friends about it.

Shortly thereafter, Bob Sourk and I crammed ourselves into Richard’s VW and made the trip to Shel’s place. Joining us there were Barry Alfonso and also Dan Stewart, a fan artist and customer of Richard’s from the nearby town of Escondido.

Shel talked with us about comics, comics fandom, and the Detroit convention. When he asked us if we’d like to put on a convention in San Diego, we weren’t quite certain what to think: about Shel or about putting on such an event. After all, those were the days of the “generation gap” and Shel, at age 36, was more than twice as old as any of us. As Bob Sourk recalls, “One day, Mike said that Richard had been contacted by some ‘old’ guy who wanted us to all come for a meeting about starting a comic convention. We were all aware of conventions in New York, etc., so I’m sure our minds were thinking along those lines already. Laughingly, Richard, Mike and I asked each other if we thought the old guy was on the level or an elaborate con-man. I guess we decided he was on the level.”

The Kirby visit in 1969

San Diego comics fans visit Jack Kirby

at his home in Irvine, CA on Nov. 9, 1969.

(L to r): Dan Stewart, Bob Sourk,

Richard Alf, Barry Alfonso (in front),

Jack Kirby, Shel Dorf, and Wayne Kincaid.

Photo courtesy Mike Towry

Richard always said that Shel finally proved himself to us at a subsequent meeting we had at his place in the early fall of 1969. At that meeting, Shel asked for a show of hands by any of us who were familiar with the work of Jack Kirby. Of course, all our hands went up. Then Shel asked who of us had ever met or spoken with Kirby, and all our hands went down. After that, Shel smiled and asked which of us would like to speak with him.

What an outlandish question! To most of us, Jack inhabited some comic creator Mount Olympus that mere mortals could not approach. It had never occurred to us that we could talk to someone like him. However, as we watched in wide-eyed astonishment, Shel proceeded to call Jack and then pass the phone around to each one of us in turn so that we could speak to the King ourselves.

Soon after that, we pooled our money to rent a station wagon and Shel drove us up to Irvine, California to meet Jack “King” Kirby in person. That trip and the call that preceded it were amazing experiences that really validated Shel in our eyes and bonded us together as a group with the goal of putting on San Diego’s first comic convention.

Of course, after deciding to do it, we had to get organized to actually get it done. Shel wanted us kids to run the convention and occupy the various organizational positions while he would remain known as “founder and advisor.” His concept was that each year we would select a chairman and a co-chairman, with each year’s co-chairman becoming chairman the subsequent year and a new co-chairman then being selected.

As Bob Sourk recalls, when it came time to select our first chairman, “We all wanted Richard to be the first convention chairman, but he graciously declined, for reasons that his mail-order business was demanding so much of his time, and probably because he was near his graduation from high school.” Therefore, we chose Bob, the next oldest, to be our chairman and Richard agreed to be co-chairman.

After that, Shel gradually laid out for us the steps he knew we needed to follow based upon his experiences with the Detroit con. At each step along the way, Richard provided the necessary transportation to carry out Shel’s plans, as none of the rest of our group had a car except for Dan Stewart and he lived 30 miles north of us in Escondido.

Early on there was a trip to the local paper for publicity and a visit to the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau for help in getting a hotel venue. In the course of driving Shel around, he and Richard became close friends and Richard was happy to act as Shel’s chauffeur in his explorations of San Diego as well as on Comic-Con business.

One early significant trip they made together was to attend a speech that Ray Bradbury gave at UCSD on December 3, 1969. After the speech, Shel approached Ray and invited him to be a guest at our first Comic-Con. Ray was agreeable provided that we pay his customary speaking fee, which was either $3,000 (as Shel later remembered it) or $5,000 (per Richard’s subsequent memory of the event). Accounting for inflation at the CPI rate, that was anywhere from $18,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars.

Shel was crestfallen, as there was no way we could afford that much. Then it occurred to him to say to Ray that we were a just a group of fans trying to put on a non-profit educational event for the public benefit and didn’t have that kind of money. To Shel and Richard’s delight, Ray replied that if that was the case, he’d be happy to attend for free, which he did at our August 1970 con. Shel would later say that prior to that he hadn’t given much thought to profit versus non-profit, and it was at that moment, on the spur of the moment, that Comic-Con became non-profit.

Richard also provided us with transportation out to San Diego’s Ocean Beach community to meet in a bookstore owned by John Hull and Ken Krueger. John and Ken were longtime science fiction fans, and Ken had even attended the first World Science Fiction Convention as a teenager in 1939. Ken had been mentoring a separate group of local young comic and science fiction fans who called themselves the Woodchucks. That group included Greg Bear, Dave Clark, Roger Freedman, John Pound, and Scott Shaw!. Once they joined forces with our initial group that had gathered around Shel and Richard, the early Comic-Con committee was in a very real sense made complete (though, of course, many other fans individually would join us as well and make their own valuable contributions).

In addition to providing the VW “con-mobile” and chauffeuring us around, Richard played an important role in the early Comic-Con finances. Shel was great at setting out the basic steps we had to follow to produce a convention and at getting professional guests to attend, but he didn’t seem to have an equally practical grasp of financial matters, and that’s one area in which Richard excelled.

A couple of years ago, Richard told me that one time in later years Shel had remarked to him that he found it amazing that we had been able to get Comic-Con going with just the fifty-cent dues we collected (or attempted to collect) at our comic-club meetings. (We had a club in those days that was somewhat separate from the convention and that would try to raise funds for it through club dues and auctions to club members.) Richard said Shel was surprised at being informed that it was actually he, Richard, who had fronted the necessary money to cover expenses for the first Comic-Cons. (During a June 2011 television interview, Richard said that the amount he’d set aside to front the first convention as needed had been $3,500, a substantial sum in those days, especially for a teenager.) It truly was fortunate for us and for the future of Comic-Con that Richard had the knack, the means, and the desire to make sure that the convention had the necessary funds and that they were wisely spent.

Of course, Richard contributed more to Comic-Con than money and transportation. Richard once showed me a note he had received in later years from Shel Dorf. Shel, who had from the beginning wanted to be known as Comic-Con’s founder and advisor, had written that he considered Richard to be a true co-founder along with himself of Comic-Con. Richard never made a big deal about it and I don’t know if he ever showed the note to anyone else, but I recall thinking at the time that he really deserved the accolade. Richard was a real leader for us in those early years, well liked, hard working, and highly capable, while at the same time modest and unassuming.

Here’s how Barry Alfonso summed up his impressions of Richard as early Comic-Con Committee member: “As we worked on the first several Comic-Cons, I came to see Richard as a kind of big brother. He wanted everyone to feel a part of the Comic-Con organization, even a much younger kid like me. Richard set a tone for how we did business—he was serious about the details of putting on the convention, but always good humored and full of positive feeling. He was modest. I don’t remember him making a big deal about financing the first Comic-Con. What I do remember is his big, friendly smile and his jokes. He was considerate and thoughtful, the kind of person who would do something for you for no special reason. Richard recognized the huge potential of the San Diego Comic-Con but didn’t use it to fulfill his own ego. He was inclusive in his vision, someone who recognized that sharing a good thing was more important than claiming it all for yourself.”

Richard’s modest nature came to the fore after Bob Sourk resigned as chairman for personal reasons after our Comic-Con “prequel,” the March 1970 Comic Minicon.  Since Richard was co-chairman, Shel therefore expected him to assume the chairmanship. However, Richard was adamant in his belief that he wasn’t yet ready for the position, and told Shel that while he would be chairman for the second Comic-Con as planned, he was determined to remain as co-chairman for the first one. Fortunately for us, Ken Krueger then generously agreed to serve as chairman and we were fortunate that he gave our nascent group the active benefit of his decades of fandom experience.

After the August 1970 Comic-Con, when it was time for Richard to become chairman, he faced a difficult decision. He was about to start college at UCSD as a music major and he still had his mail-order comic business to operate. Adding to those responsibilities the duties of the Comic-Con chairmanship would have been overwhelming in his estimation. One would have to go, and the choice he ultimately made to wind down his business was a surprising one.

Richard was an entrepreneur by nature and he’d put a lot of work and creative effort into developing his business and was enjoying the financial rewards of success. In addition, by that time, he really wasn’t a fan. He wasn’t particularly into comics other than as products to buy and sell;, he didn’t read much—if any—science fiction or fantasy, and he wasn’t especially interested in genre films. His passions at the time were fixed upon what might be called “highbrow” music and film, and he was looking forward to studying them in college.

So why did he choose Comic-Con over his business? For one thing, he’d made a promise to Shel and that was something he took seriously. For another, he enjoyed the challenges of putting on such an event and was anxious to put his own stamp upon it. And finally, he truly valued the friendship of his fellow committee members, appreciated their enthusiasms even if he didn’t entirely share them, and enjoyed associating with such cultural outsiders as fans were at the time.

In accordance with his personal vision, Richard worked hard at making Comic-Con an open, welcoming event to all sorts of fans. He was especially active in recruiting participants from other local fannish groups such as the Society of the Friends of Hobbits and the San Diego branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism. As he said in a June 2011 interview, “So we opened the door and we said everybody's welcome. Anybody who has any sort of interest in anything that's vaguely related to comic books and has a pulse and is willing to work with us, the door's open. Come on in.”

This welcoming spirit also was manifest in Richard’s decision relating to official Comic-Con parties. Before the second Comic-Con, Richard had visited other comic and science fiction conventions. As he roamed the halls of the hotels hosting those events, he had the impression of a great number of fan parties being held behind closed doors, excluding the uninvited. That bothered Richard, and he decided that Comic-Con should host an open party to which all attendees would be welcome. Shel was uncertain about the wisdom of that, but Richard felt it was his decision to make as chairman, and he persisted in implementing the parties, which met with great success.

Another important decision Richard made was to relocate Comic-Con to the beautiful UCSD campus. With most students away from school for the summer, the dorm rooms were available for con attendees at much cheaper rates than hotel rooms. To meet school regulations, he and Roger Freedman, who was also attending UCSD at the time, started a student comic club to be the sponsoring organization. The school turned out to be a great site for the event, and under Richard’s leadership, attendance more than doubled from the previous year. Unfortunately, the proceedings were a little too wild for the school administration, which wished us success in the future so long as Comic-Con was held elsewhere.

After the UCSD convention, Richard thought his con-running days were over. However, unexpected circumstances intervened to delay progress on staging the third Comic-Con, and as the appointed dates for it drew near, it appeared that the con might not take place at all. With the encouragement of Dennis Smith, a local fan and fine artist, Richard and I stepped in late in the day that year—as co-chairman and chairman respectively—and with a lot of hard work and enthusiasm on the part of all concerned, we managed to have another successful convention.

That was the first of the Comic-Cons at the El Cortez Hotel, which turned out to be a perfect venue for the kind of event we wanted. It was really a case that year of the lunatics taking over the asylum, and it set the precedent and pattern for a string of memorable conventions throughout the rest of the seventies.

Of Richard’s critical role that year, Barry writes, “I recall riding around in Richard’s VW bug to help promote the Comic-Con in ’72. He and Mike Towry stepped in to keep the convention going that year after a shaky start. As usual, Richard did it with his quiet, jovial aplomb and generous spirit. The ’72 Comic-Con was a success in large part because of him.”

After the 1972 Comic-Con, Richard, Dennis Smith, and I decided to explore putting on other fan-oriented events, but after encountering a number delays, Richard’s personal circumstances changed and he found himself in need of an immediate increase in income to support himself. That necessitated his returning his full attention to the comics business, and that turned out to be the end of his involvement in producing fan conventions.

In 1973, Richard worked hard to build up his mail-order business once again. In 1975 he expanded his business by opening Comic Kingdom, the second comic store in San Diego (the Schanes brothers having opened the first). However, after a few years, he grew disenchanted with the comic business, in part because he was having difficulty obtaining enough stock to operate at the level he wanted to, and decided to sell his store to Jack Dickens, who was one of his employees, and his mail-order business to Mile High Comics’ Chuck Rozanski. (After buying Richard’s mail-order business, Chuck was pleased to acquire Richard’s proprietary business methods as part of the package. Chuck has subsequently written that Richard “had developed some wonderful manual systems for tracking customers, orders, and inventory.”)

With the sale of his business, Richard had to decide what to do next. Around that time, he considered an offer to work in the direct sales channel for Marvel but ultimately decided to exit the comics business entirely. In subsequent years he worked in real estate, outdoor advertising, used videogame sales, and, finally, day trading stock futures.

Comic-Con International's 40th anniversary party

Richard (far left) at Comic-Con's

40th anniversary party, cutting the cake

with (l to r): Mike Towry, John Rogers,

Richard Buttner, and Lance Geeck.

Photo by Kevin Green

In succeeding years, he also continued to socialize with some of his fan friends and in 1989 he was pleased to receive a Comic-Con Inkpot Award. Then in 2009 he was invited to be a special guest in connection with the celebration marking the 40th Comic-Con. He had a great time as a panelist, speaking with con attendees, and renewing acquaintances with old friends.

In 2011 he began to work with San Diego State University in connection with a special history project called “Comic-Con Kids.” With Greg Bear as advisor, the SDSU project aims at recording and preserving a detailed history of how a bunch of young San Diegans had banded together to create what has become a pop -culture phenomenon. Richard very much wanted the story of those days to be told and was working with SDSU to determine the best approach for the project before his final illness intervened.

It’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to record the full story of his early work with Comic-Con. There is much to tell, so much more than could be covered in this remembrance. It’s the hope of his friends that more will be told in the days and years ahead. For now, though, I’d like to conclude by simply quoting Barry Alfonso’s closing words to the piece he wrote for Richard’s memorial, words that echo my own sentiments: “Richard is legendary for me. He truly made a difference for me at a crucial time in my life. We shared in a great adventure in the Comic-Con’s early days. He will always be a hero for me, as well as a dear friend.”