Sheldon Dorf, founder of sci-fi, fantasy convention Comic-Con, dies

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Sheldon Dorf, the founder of Comic-Con, an annual comic book, science fiction and fantasy festival held in San Diego, died of complications related to diabetes Wednesday. Dorf, who was 76, was also a freelance writer and a letterist, but was best known for founding the convention -- the largest such event in the Western Hemisphere, bested only by France's Angoulême International Comics Festival.

Spanning four days and attracting tens of thousands of attendees, Comic-Con was the second festival that Dorf created. When he was living in Michigan, he mounted the "Detroit Triple Fan Fair," a local gathering for comic book fans. The DTFF continued after Dorf left for California, but it never reached the level of pop-culture relevance attained by Comic-Con.
At the time that Dorf stepped into the scene, comic books, science fiction and horror were located on the outer edges of popular culture, and were largely perceived as the province of adolescent boys. Still, as Dorf's first Comic-Con event showed, there was a groundswell for the genre. While the original 300 attendees pale beside this year's massive 125,000-person turnout, it was impressive for what was, at the time, a regional event.

As Comic-Con's numbers continued to expand over the years, so did its focus. At the 1970 Comic-Con, the featured speakers included horror film fanatic Forrest J. Ackerman, authors Ray Bradbury and A.E. Van Vogt, and comic book artist Jack Kirby -- a group that demonstrated the fairly narrow boundaries of the convention's world at the time. But, as fantasy, science fiction, and comic books started to embrace a wider universe of perspectives, Comic-Con's speaker lineup expanded, too. In recent years, underground artists like Kim Dietch and Howard Chaykin have joined lesbian icon Alison Bechdel, postmodern noir writer Warren Ellis and dozens of other niche luminaries on the convention's guest list.

Comic-Con's growth has also reflected a change in the world of speculative fiction and comic books. After all, 1970 was a year after the airing of the last episode of Star Trek and seven years before the release of Star Wars. In terms of comics, it was eight years before the release of the first graphic novel and decades before the first comic book film that was really aimed at adults. It would be excessive to credit Dorf with the gritty, mature perspective of A History of Violence or The Dark Knight, but Comic-Con has certainly had a lot to do with the rising profile -- and potential -- of the genre. As a crucible for fans, writers, artists, and filmmakers, it has launched careers, inspired artists and helped expand the boundaries of comic books and speculative fiction.

Dorf stopped attending Comic-Con in 2001, as his vision of the event increasingly conflicted with that of its other organizers. However, his creation continues on, inspiring fresh generations of fans and artists.

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