I went to my first San Diego Comic-Con when I was in my early twenties. It must have been 1996 or 1997. I went with a friend from college and two other guys I’d met at a local convention a few months before. I had the most reliable car, so I was the designated driver for our trip from the San Francisco Bay Area.
I was not in a great spot in life. I had a job as a cubicle warrior for a tiny software company. My girlfriend and I had just broken up the month before. She was not a comics person, but she assured me that had nothing to do with our breakup.
The friend from college and I had hung out a few times, but I barely knew the other two guys. We were going to share a motel room to save money. We were all young and filled with hopes that comics would somehow be a part of our futures. I had some anxieties about sharing a room with strangers. Okay, I’ll be honest: I had anxieties about sharing a bathroom with strangers.
As soon as we got there on Thursday night, I took a walk by myself through downtown San Diego. I wanted to get my mind off the breakup. It didn’t work.
But going to the convention the next day did. Comic-Con in the ‘90s wasn’t anything like what Comic-Con is today. It was much smaller and way less crowded. You could still get tickets at the door on the same day. Hall H had not yet reached its eventual legendary status. The cosplayers were awesome, but there weren’t as many of them and their costumes weren’t as sophisticated.
Even so, it was magical. I met writers and artists whom I’d admired since I was a kid. I went to panels and learned about comics as an art, as a business, and as a community. Over that weekend, I felt like I got a glimpse of my own future.
I also got to know my weekend roommates better. One of the guys I barely knew is Derek Kirk Kim. He’s now one of my best friends. He’s also one of my most talented friends. He’s done work for DC Comics, Disney, and Cartoon Network. About a decade after that first Comic-Con, he introduced me to First Second Books, the company that published my 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese.
The most magical moment of that magical weekend was probably meeting Will Eisner. Will was, and is, a legend. When I saw him walking through the convention floor like a regular human being, I gathered my courage and asked if I could take a picture with him. He said yes. He said yes to everyone. That photo is by my drawing table to this very day.
Over twenty years have passed. A lot of the things that I was anxious about have worked out. I’ve been extremely lucky. My girlfriend and I got back together about a year later. Maus and Y: The Last Man converted her into a comics person. We’re now married and have four kids. When we go to comic book conventions these days, the six of us share a room. Many, many things have changed, but I still have to share a bathroom at Comic-Con. I wish I could tell my younger self that it’s really not that big of a deal.
Gene Luen Yang is an Eisner-winning comic book writer and cartoonist whose work includes the recently released Superman Smashes the Klan, the nonfiction basketball drama Dragon Hoops, New Super-Man (which introduced the Super-Man of China, Kong Kenan) and American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Follow Gene on Twitter at @geneluenyang.