AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Fifty years ago, a bunch of comic book fans in San Diego decided they wanted a way to meet other fans. They were mostly teenagers, though there were two adults among them. And what they created a year later became the pop culture phenomenon known as San Diego Comic-Con. NPR's Petra Mayer is at this year's convention, and she spoke to some of the original crew.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Roger Freedman was 17 years old in 1969, and he had no idea what he was about to get himself into.
ROGER FREEDMAN: I think it's fair to say that if you had come to us and said what - how Comic-Con was going to evolve, we would have said, A - what have you been smoking? And B - where can we buy some?
MAYER: It all started with a guy named Shel Dorf, one of only two adults involved with that first convention. Dorf had some experience attending and planning conventions. And more importantly, he had connections. He knew Jack Kirby, the legendary co-creator of characters like the X-Men and The Fantastic Four, and Kirby was willing to talk to a bunch of kids.
MIKE TOWRY: I think we thought comic creators lived on some comic book Mount Olympus and couldn't be approached by normal mortals like us.
MAYER: That's Mike Towry. He was 14 when he got involved with the convention committee.
TOWRY: And then to find out that we could actually meet them and talk to them one-on-one and then have a convention where they would come and we would get to hang out with them was just kind of mind-blowing.
MAYER: We're standing on the packed show floor at Comic-Con 2019. More than 130,000 people are expected to attend this year. Right now it feels like most of them are crammed in around us. It's a far cry from the 300 people who gathered in the basement of San Diego's U.S. Grant Hotel in the summer of 1970 to see Jack Kirby and the equally legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. Scott Shaw, another member of the original convention committee, was an aspiring cartoonist then and a professional now.
SCOTT SHAW: It really was just kind of a bunch of tables like this with cardboard boxes of comics. And I would say I only know of one woman that showed up that was a fan of comics. For the most part, it was teenage boys.
MAYER: Shaw says that one woman was Jackie Estrada.
JACKIE ESTRADA: I only went for, like, three hours, and it was in a basement of a hotel. And there was Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury. So for a fan of both of those to go and just hear them talk - I mean, what more could you want?
MAYER: Yup. Jackie Estrada is here today. In fact, she's been to every single Comic-Con. These days, she even works for the convention, running the annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. And, of course, she's far from the only woman at Comic-Con 2019. Today the show floor is crowded with people of all genders, ethnicities and ages. But not all the changes have been positive. When a convention gets as big as this one is, you do lose something. Jim Lee is publisher and chief creative officer of DC Comics, but he started coming to the con as an artist back in the '80s.
JIM LEE: For the first several years, we just went to the con, met with fans, went back to the hotel room, drew pictures and met with fans. They would just kind of wander into the rooms all night long. And you'd draw till, like, 3 in the morning, get some sleep and go back to the convention.
MAYER: Lee says he began to notice things changing in the '90s and the early 2000s.
LEE: And now today you have, like, all of Hollywood here, so you just don't have the stars, but you have agents and you have managers. And so there's a whole stratification of the show, I think, which wasn't there early on.
MAYER: But people still find fellowship here. They make con friends - the kinds of friends you only see once a year. But when you see them, it's as if you were never apart. Shel Dorf died a few years ago, but most of his young proteges are still alive, still friends and still here. The convention and fan culture in general has changed dramatically in 50 years, says Roger Freedman.
FREEDMAN: And to feel that we had a small part in that transformation is a very remarkable feeling.
MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News, San Diego.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWHY SONG, "REAL HAPPY LIFE")