Revisiting The 1990s With JACKIE ESTRADA

Rob Liefeld, Don Simpson and Jim Lee at 1993 WonderCon
Rob Liefeld, Don Simpson and Jim Lee at 1993 WonderCon
Credit: Jackie Estrada
Credit: Jackie Estrada

Whether you're a professional or a fan, you can agree that comic conventions are changing -- and Jackie Estrada has been there through all of it, and has pictures to prove it. In her new book Comic Book People 2, she once again shares from her extensive library of photos taken at conventions around the United States, this time focusing on the tumultuous and star-studded 1990s.

As the administrator of the Will Eisner Awards and long-time co-publisher behind Batton Lash's Supernatural Law, Estrada has been attending conventions for over forty years. In fact, she's one of the few who can say she's attended every Comic-Con International: San Diego since its humble beginnings in 1970.

Estrada spoke with Newsarama about the people and the stories she's sharing in her new book that's out this week, and talks about the many changes that the comic book industry and conventions specifically went through in the 1990s. For fans it's a who's who of who was big in the 1990s, and for comics pros it reads as a yearbook or extended family album with candid photos of many working in comic books.        

Newsarama: Jackie, what led you to do these Comic Book People books?

Credit: Jackie Estrada

Jackie Estrada: At Comics Fest in San Diego in the fall of 2013, I had a conversation with Lee Kohse, an artist noted for his Star Wars work. He told me that he was involved with a new San Diego company that was looking to build an online source for people to share their photos, videos, and other artifacts for all sorts of pop culture conventions, past and present. I told him I had lots of photos from cons going back to the 1970s, but very few were actually digitized. He later got back to me and said that the company, Webble, would digitize all my photos for me (for free), and then I could figure out what I’d like to do with them. That got me to thinking ... if I had digital versions of all my pictures, I could finally do that book I always had at the back of my mind! So I started hunting around my house and dug up as many original negatives as I could from the 1970s up through the early 2000s. Over a few months, Webble did high-res scans of those several-thousand photos. 

As I went through the files, I decided to narrow the focus to the 1970s and 1980s, not only to make the book more manageable but to highlight the fact that so many of the giants of our field were still around at that time and frequented Comic-Con International: San Diego. And I mean not only giants of comics like Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Wil Eisner,  and Carl Barks, but also the greats from science fiction (Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein, Douglas Adams), comic strips (Charles Schulz, William Hogarth, Russ Manning, Dale Messick), and animation (Osamu Tezuka, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Grim Natwick, June Foray). And of course the current hot creators at the time were all on the scene, so I’ve got shots of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Art Spiegelman, George Perez, Bill Sienkiewicz, and even youngsters like Neil Gaiman and Jill Thompson.

The first volume was very well received, which meant that I had to do the second one! The 1990s volume still runs the spectrum of folks in the industry (including editors, publishers, retailers along with creators), but there are a lot more photos of indy/alt cartoonists and self-publishers. I also cover such trends as the foundings of Image, Milestone, the CBLDF, and Friends of Lulu. Most of the people in this book are still around and working today.

Credit: Jackie Estrada

Nrama: If you could guess, roughly, how much -- percentage-wise -- is the two books of what you have in terms of publish-able, potential photos for future books?

Estrada: It’s really hard to give a percentage. For the books, I chose pictures of individuals and really went with the best shots I had of each person. I have hundreds of other photos that are more contextual—booths in exhibit halls, lines of people outside waiting to get into Comic-Con, audiences at panels, people speaking on panels, party scenes, etc. If I were just sticking with the photos of the individuals, then I’d say maybe 50-60 percent of photos are in the books…

Nrama: This new volume showcases creators you came across in the 1990s, which was a burgeoning time for conventions, particularly SDCC. If you could sum up the tone of conventions and any changes it had during the 1990s, what would it be for you?

Estrada: Well, I think we saw more different types of conventions, more diversity of comics being produced, and a higher level of professionalism. You had the big shows like San Diego and Chicago, then lots of regional shows (like WonderCon and Heroes Con) that each developed their own character, and the alt/indy shows like APE and SPX. On top of that you had trade shows: Capital City, Diamond, ProCon. Many more companies were coming on the scene, and some of them were making big splashes with elaborate booths (Tundra and Tekno come to mind). In 1990 San Diego’s attendance was about 13,000; by 1999 it was something like 45,000. So the tent was definitely getting bigger.

Nrama: You were there, what do you view as the big catalysts and changes in comic books from the con floor in the 1990s?

Credit: Jackie Estrada

Estrada: The early and mid-1990s were boom years because of the founding of Image, the expanded direct market, the speculator market, and the burgeoning self-publishing movement.  So you saw lots of new faces come into the business and on the con floor, not only creative people who otherwise wouldn’t have ventured into the medium but lots of businesspeople who thought they could cash in on all the big bucks to be made in comics. As I mentioned, the whole business was getting more professional. This was when DC debuted it’s “Wayne’s World” booth (dubbed after Bob Wayne) at the brand-new San Diego Convention Center. No longer was press coverage devoted to “look how much that comic book of yours would be worth today if you’re mom had thrown it out!” Now TV reporters would set up in front of that cool-looking display and do interviews. Other companies had to follow suit if they were to compete. And some of them competed by bringing in celebrities to do appearances at their booths, from William Shatner and Mark Hamill to Mickey Spillane and Mr. T. Meanwhile, Comic-Con created a Small Press Area and the Independent Publisher’s Pavilion (where Batton and I have exhibited for the last 20 years) in the mid-1990s to reflect that growing aspect of the industry. Also by the mid-1990s, Comic-Con had expanded from using just one end of the Convention Center to using the whole facility.

Also by the end of the 1990s we were seeing the rise in the popularity of manga and anime, which correlated with higher female attendance at shows, especially San Diego. I think that’s when I first heard the word “cosplay,” in relation to the Sailor Moon gangs. And as many people are fond of pointing out, we started to see more Hollywood involvement, whether it was a Ghostbusters display or Francis Ford Coppola talking about his version of Dracula. I really think we started seeing the cross-pollination between comics and the TV/film/animation industries take off in that decade. Perhaps one of the big hints of things to come was a panel and signing that Joss Whedon did in 1998 with most of the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—fans went into a Beatles-like frenzy!

Nrama: If you had to choose one (or just a couple), what are the photos that are the most heart-warming for you?

Estrada: The most heart-warming photos to me are the ones of my very dear friends who are no longer with us—Dave Stevens, Al Williamson, B. Kliban, Barb Rausch, to name a few. In the 1990s book, there is a 1991 photo of Sharon Sakai carrying then-baby Hannah on her back that gets me every time I look at it. I’m also fond of a photo of Chris Ware with the late Kim Thompson from 1998; Kim has a protective hand on Chris’s shoulder.

Credit: Jackie Estrada

Nrama: Fans see this as a historical text, but for many pros this is like an extended family album. Although most creators work in solitude, what do you think the camaraderie of conventions does for comic book pros -- besides just network and selling stuff?

Estrada: I’ve had many pros tell me that the books feel like “yearbooks” where they can relive favorite times with friends. I’m sure that most are like me—we see each other once a year, and just pick up the conversation where we left off. Facebook is all well and good for keeping in touch, but it can’t beat face-to-face interactions. Pros make lifelong friends at cons; they also may end up collaborating on an important project because of a chance meeting during a show.

Nrama: The 1990s are also when you and Batton Lash founded Exhibit A Press. How do you think that changed the way you attended and worked at conventions in the 1990s?

Estrada: When I went to the 1990 Chicago ComiCon, which is where I met Batton, I had not really been to any other comics shows besides San Diego (and I’ve been to all of those, starting in 1970). I had been to sf and fantasy cons, including the WorldCons in Kansas City and Phoenix and some WesterCons, but otherwise had not traveled to comics shows. After Batton and I got married and started Exhibit A Press in 1994, we traveled all over the place to do cons: Kansas City Comic Con, Heroes Con, WonderCon, Chicago, APE, SPX, distributor sales conferences, even a Thanksgiving show in Dallas. Suddenly instead of working on the con behind the scenes (which I continued to do in San Diego), I was working a table, appearing on panels, and doing lots of PR.

Nrama: You've raised capital for both Comic Book People books through Kickstarter, so let me tap into your imagination: how do you think having Kickstarter around in the 1990s, especially the early part, would've changed the industry for yourself, Batton and others?

Credit: Jackie Estrada

Estrada: A lot of self-publishers could certainly have used it then! Several really good ones would still be around if they’d had that option.

Nrama: The first volume documented the 1970s and 1980s, and this one the 1990s -- is it too soon to ask if a third, about the 2000s, is in the works?

Estrada: I’m not really planning a third. For the 70s through the 90s I was a photography enthusiast and had all my own equipment. I used film and for a while even had a darkroom and did all my own developing. But in the early 2000s I switched to digital. I also took a lot fewer photos at shows because I wore so many hats and would be constantly busy; most of my photos from the 2000s seem to have been taken at dead-dog parties! If there are future volumes, they might contain more photos from the 70s, 80s, and 90s; I feel like I just scratched the surface in what I included in the two books, which is about 600 photos in each. Many of the Kickstarter backers are beneficiaries of the unpublished pix, since one of the rewards for each campaign has been a booklet of “Extras,” with pictures from parties, the Exhibit Hall, cosplay, etc. from those years. Maybe I’ll do something to publish those…

Nrama: Last question, as a SDCC original, do you have any secret tips that you've learned from doing cons that you can share, particularly of San Diego? Or something you always do before a con?

Estrada: Well, if you’re going to a really big show like San Diego, I suggest setting very specific goals of the things you want to see and do, and plan to make those things happen. Everything else will be gravy if you can do that. Fortunately, Comic-Con posts schedules for everything a couple of weeks out before the event, so you can make a list of must-see panels, must-see booths, and must-see creators in Artists’ Alley. Once you are at the show, you can also consult the Events Guide to see what special activities exhibitors are hosting at their booths. In addition, there are some Facebook pages and websites that list activities happening around the city during Comic-Con that might be of interest. So the secret is to do some research and then to plan, plan, plan! And make sure you meet up with your friends and have some quality time while you can be together in person; that makes it all the more special.

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