York University’s Cosmicon: one of Canada’s earliest comics conventions

Many thanks to Ron Kasman for sending me this article for the site (back in October no less). It has also appeared elsewhere online, primarily the Collector’s Society Message Boards. I’m running it here as is, unedited, as I asked him if I could re-publish it here as it gives a fairly accurate look at what the comics scene was like forty years ago. Heads up that Ron’s language and perspective on what transpired is a little spicy and may offend some.

A little preface: before Cosmicon, Toronto hadn’t really had much of a convention scene.

In 1968, Captain George Henderson – owner of Canada’s first comics shop, Memory Lane, had brought Stan Lee to the city for the Triple FanFair (no doubt inspired by the convention of the same name that had been taking place in Detroit around the same time – the three fandoms in the name being science fiction, movies and comics). That event took place in tents on Markham Street (where Memory Lane used to be and currently where the Beguiling is). For the most part Canadian comic fans of this era in this region had to pile in a car and drive to Detroit, Chicago or primarily New York to attend a comic book convention. What happened at York University was pretty amazing and was the highlight for many young fans, a lot of whom would go on to work in comics or related things.

I should note that I see some of the folks mentioned here pretty regularly. Ron and I visited the New York Comic Con together this last October, and stayed with our mutual friend Walter Dickinson. Ronn Sutton just had a graphic novel published last week, and you can find him as a guest at many Canadian shows, primarily in Ontario and Quebec. I see Ken Ketter nearly every Saturday night when he comes by for his comics fix, he’s one of my regular customers at the Comic Book Lounge, here in Toronto.

COSMICON: 1972-1975

A Tell-All Expose by Ron Kasman

Steranko Poster for Cosmicon I

Steranko Poster for Cosmicon I

FLASH:
Steranko’s surrealistic, day-glo poster for Cosmicon,
distributed free in 1972,
just went for $212.00 Am. on Ebay!

CANUCK COMIC HISTORY LIVES!

In January of 1972 Cosmicon was potentially a horror show, both literally and figuratively. What saved it, in the immortal words of Howard Chaykin, was “Canadian Bacon”.

Ken Ketter was a horror film fan, a university sophomore who chose York Fine Arts over his old job at a soap factory, and the most courageous man I’ve ever met. He applied to Winter’s College of York University for $600 to put on a comic book/ SF/ horror movie convention… and they gave it to him!

I was a Winter’s student too, at least I was until I dropped out and couldn’t find a job even in a soap factory. I told Ken I’d help out. I brought in fan artist Ronn Sutton and fan publisher Mark Segel. Gloria Agnew was hired to do administrative work. Many, many others contributed to the convention. We invited Jim Steranko (comics), Gray Morrow (SF) and Alain Resnais (film) as our guests. We paid for their plane tickets and expected them to be the only celebrities in attendance.

As the big day approached things were all set to become a terrible mess. Hundreds of fans were coming in, some from as far away as Quebec, Ohio, Michigan and even Germany and we just didn’t have a lot going on to entertain them. As the VW minivan drove off to Toronto International Airport to pick up our guests, Mark Segel looked anguished and annoumced, “I wish this wasn’t going to happen”. But, what do you know, it went very well. Here’s why: European comic art was getting noticed in the U.S. through Jim Warren’s Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella magazines. Outside of that, most European comic art was inaccessible. The New York comic artists’ community (as well as most Americans, it seemed) was so ignorant of what Toronto was like that they naturally assumed that we all spoke French and that they’d find lots of comics by Philippe Druillet, Jean Giraud and others up here. When they arrived, the invited guests and many more that paid their own way — soo-prise!… no European comics! They should have phoned ahead.

Well, you’d think they’d have been disappointed but other factors entered. Cosmicon was probably the first comic convention ever held at a university. Back then, all the little fanboys like me treated the New York Comic Book artists like they were gods. So the girls who lived at the Winter’s College Residence (and would never ever sleep with a pimply creep like me) figured these guys from New York had to be important! The comic artists, not unlike rock stars, had gained a perk not known to us lesser beings — groupies! These comic geeks, by the sheer fact that they could draw better than the rest of us and whose faces had probably only recently cleared up, got laid!

Furthermore, the part of the convention not held in the Winter’s Women’s Dorm Rooms was held at the Absinthe Pub just steps away from our dealers’ room. Aside from the beer there was lots of dope which could be consumed with impunity on the liberal arts campus.

The next year the artists returned bringing friends, displays and slide shows. By year three Cosmicon was the place to be. Among other attendees that year were Jim Warren of Warren Publications; Carmine Infantino, editor-in-chief at D.C., Stan Lee from Marvel; Michele Eury, comic editor at Playboy and P.J.O’Rourke, the editor-in-chief of National Lampoon. There were so many big time pros that if the Absinthe beer had been teeming with salmonella, comics today would look quite different.

But Cosmicon became a political issue. Students at the left leaning university (which like North Korea, Cuba and Albania is still probably babbling about the truth of communism to this very day) thought too much money was being spent by the university for the benefit of Americans. Furthermore, the ever increasing budget shifted the convention to being student administered instead of fan administered. Most of the people who had ran it were about to graduate. Also I still wasn’t getting laid. Why bring Americans up to score with girls who’d have nothing to do with me?

Year Four was Cosmicon’s swan song. The budget was $24,000. This is back when a comic book cost $.20, a chocolate bar was dime and a year of university tuition was $600. We were the front page headline in Friday night’s Toronto Star. Pete and Geets, a popular comedy duo of the day, satirized us on their morning show on CHUM-FM and later came down as convention guests. We were the talk of the town.

Cosmicon II poster by Michael William Kaluta

Cosmicon II art by Michael William Kaluta

Memories:

Talking to Stan Lee for about an hour at a cocktail party. He was a tall, handsome man, dressed in high boots and suede. I stared and stared but I honestly couldn’t tell that he was wearing a wig.

Hippy comic scribe Steve Skeates being questioned at the border until they phoned the university and were told that he was a respected writer coming to York University to lecture.

T. Casey Brennan, Vampirella scripter, coming to Toronto and not knowing just where Cosmicon was taking place (we neglected to put the exact location in our first ad). He took a chance and asked a random geek on the subway and, of course, he knew!

Jeff Jones and Vaughn Bode together in a photo in the program book — as men!

Alain Resnais sticking the convention with unexpectedly high food and hotel bills.

Buying a $10 EC Portfolio from Ed April’s widow only because she was doing no business and as an organizer I felt responsible. It is worth about $200 today.

Ron Peterson, Winter’s student and perpetual life of the party, getting more attention than Jones, Wrightson and Kaluta put together.

Ken Ketter inviting Alice Cooper and being turned down then getting Ted Nugent and Amboy Dukes. They had had a hit with “Journey to the Center of Your Mind” but had yet to emerge with “Cat Scratch Fever”. I think Ken paid them $1100 for the concert. Admission was free with a Cosmicon pass.

Harry Kremer, comic book dealer, buying a stack of Wrightson coloured drawings at $50 to $100 each. His estate sold them thirty years later for more than 50 times that.

So where are they now? The people involved in Cosmicon became famous, dead, washed-up, struggling, jailbirds, real estate salesmen, comic artists, teachers, musicians, collectors, legends, rumours, and painters of motorcycle gas tanks and the sides of vans. Some of us grew up and some of us never would. Cosmicon was fun but looking back, it was hard to be nineteen. It was even harder to be nineteen and a comic fan. Back then I wished I was Jeff Jones and so did hundreds of other little geeks just like me. We lacked his talent, intelligence and drive. I was pretty sure at the time that he got a lot of action from the females at Cosmicon though now, it seems rather ironic, as he’s clearly crossed the gender boundary in recent years. Nonetheless, I’m absolutely sure he got to see Jody Winthrop’s tits because she posed naked as a model for his National Lampoon IDYL comic strip. She had great tits. I wonder what they look like today. They are probably still pretty good.

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2 thoughts on “York University’s Cosmicon: one of Canada’s earliest comics conventions

  1. No mention Gray Morrow or Neal Adams? And all that for about 3 bucks admission

    FYI: Captain George wrote a follow up report of the 1972 Cosmicon that appeared in the April issue of Comic Fandom Monthly, along with some comic stuff (articles, letters) by messers Kasman and Sutton and some other long forgotten fan names …like Paul Levitz and Mark Evanier. I’ve got it around here someplace if you want a scan.

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