Comic-Con is nearly 50: A glimpse of pop culture at its start

When 145 people met in a hotel basement for the first time, a movie ticket cost $1.55 and Simon and Garfunkel ruled the radio waves.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

A cosplayer at last year's Comic Con, which is celebrating its 50th installment this week. 

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As the masses descend on San Diego for the 50th Comic-Con this week, people will be talking about fallen Marvel superheroes and the ending of Game of Thrones. But what were people talking about back when the confab started in 1970 as the one-day Golden State Comic Book Mini-con? 

As we celebrate nearly a half century of the venerable convention that kicked off in a hotel basement and grew to be the world's largest culture convention, we're taking a look back at the zeitgeist of that inaugural year.

Simon And Garfunkel

Simon and Garfunkel had the No. 1 song in March 1970.

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In 1970, a first-class stamp cost 6 cents, a movie ticket $1.55, bell bottoms and ponchos were in fashion, and McDonald's had just introduced the Shamrock Shake

Both folk and motown dominated the radio waves. Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel topped Billboard's Top 100 songs of the year. Other hits included (They Long to be) Close to You, by The Carpenters (which I can only now think of as Marge and Homer's song), I Want You Back, by the Jackson 5, and Let it Be, by the Beatles. Jimi Hendrix would die in September of that year. 

At the box office, people were obsessed with war. Top-grossing movies included MASH, which would be adapted two years later into the long-running TV show. Patton, the biopic on the famous World War II general; and Tora! Tora! Tora! about the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

But it wasn't all about the battlefield. The top movie after MASH was Woodstock, a documentary about the iconic music festival, which also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. People adjusted the rabbit ears on their CRT TV sets to watch The Brady Bunch, Hawaii Five-O and Bonanza.

Comic Con had humble beginnings. It started as the Golden State Comic Book Mini-con in March 1970, put together by five guys in San Diego who gathered together 145 comic fans for one day in the basement of the city's US Grant Hotel. Later that year in August, the group held a slightly bigger event, a three-day conference held at the same venue. (The two conferences in that first year is the reason this year's show is Comic Con 50, but it's been only 49 years.)


Bonanza was one of the top TV shows of the year.


At the first gathering, the guest of honor was Jack Kirby, the already-legendary comic illustrator famous for co-creating iconic Marvel superheroes like the Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America with Stan Lee. Kirby is also credited with giving Comic Con the trait that has arguably most enabled its endurance throughout half a century: the decision to not only focus on comics.

"It would be a lot more fun and a richer experience if we included these other things, like film and science fiction and whatnot," Mike Towry, one of the conference's original organizers, recalls Kirby advising, according to Rolling Stone. 

The 1970s, of course, ushered in more than just a new era of comic book fandom. It was a decade of institutional shifts in the US after the turbulence of the '60s. In 1970, President Richard Nixon occupied the Oval Office and the Vietnam war would still rage for another five years. NASA launched the Apollo 13 mission, and the world celebrated the first Earth Day, a response, in part, to a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California.

But it was a focus on pop culture -- the seemingly unimportant fare -- that made Comic Con such a lasting institution. 

"In those days, you were an oddball or an outcast if you were into that stuff," Towry told Rolling Stone. 

Not anymore. 

The hottest cosplay we expect to see at Comic-Con 2019

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Originally published July 16, 5 a.m. PT.