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Comic book club of Ithaca lives long and prospers

It started in 1974.

Aaron Pichel was a kid in DeWitt Jr. High School when he and Tim Gray gathered a dozen of their peers, to start the Comic Book Club.

“I was the founding president at the age of 12,” he laughs.

A year later in February 1975, that group became the nonprofit, Comic Book Club of Ithaca — now the oldest continuously running comic book fan club in America. Once the founders realized the amount of creative talent that was accessible in the community, they started planning their first Ithacon, said CBCI member Alec Frazier.

“Someone once said we are the most square-foot, creator-filled convention I can think of,” he said.

Now in its 38th year, the annual convention — which was held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on March 2 at Funky Junk at The Commons — brought together a collection of 19 local comic artists, ranging from J. G. Hertzler of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 fame to Storn Cook, a local illustrator.

Ithacon used to be a two-day event where high profile guests from New York City would gather for panels, workshops and comic auctions, Pichel said. The Internet made comics more accessible.

“Back then, to have a convention was a very special thing. Not so much anymore. People don’t need to come to a convention to hunt and dig when they could go on eBay and do it in their pajamas at home,” Pichel said.

Compared to bigger comic conventions such as San Diego’s Comic-Con International and New York’s Comic-Con — which each may draw more than 100,000 guests — Ithacon averages about 200 attendees.

Bill Turner, who was instrumental in transitioning the club to a nonprofit and is currently the CBCI’s treasurer, has organized Ithacon for more than 20 years. While Turner remembers smaller comic book conventions would be held every weekend before the rise of technology, the Internet has made Turner’s job easier.

“If you wanted to find artists who might be willing to come to Ithaca, you had to know somebody to talk to who had somebody else’s contact information,” Turner said, “and it was done by mail, not even by phone, so we wrote a lot of letters to people saying, ‘You’ve never heard of me, but would you be willing to come to the convention?’”

However, back then, Turner’s real-life comic book heroes — such as Marvel founder Jack Kirby — were alive.

Turner remembers when he got EC Comics artist Johnny Craig — who drew EC Comics such as “Moon Girl,” “Saddle Justice, “Modern Love” — to Ithacon.

“[Craig] really thought he was forgotten and then he came to the convention and we put him on the panel discussion and he [said] ‘Nobody will remember my work,’ and eight of the younger professionals — and I’m talking about my generation [artists in their 30s and 40s] — stood up and talked about some story of his that they remembered strongly and how it affected them professionally, and so it was [very touching] because it started as a panel discussion and it became a testimonial to Johnny Craig.”

Stories like these keep Ithacon going, said Turner.

Aaron Kudor, an Ithaca, N.Y., native and currently a D.C. Comics artist, met his hero Al Williamson — known for his work on Flash Gordon and Star Wars — at Ithacon.

“Meeting him completely changed my life. He looked at my work at gave me such a positive reaction,” Kudor said. “That will always be my favorite convention memory, just hanging out with Al Williamson. It was the first time I was at a convention and I was like, ‘Alright, these are my people.’”

Seventeen-year-old Nathaniel DeWalt was looking for a similar experience when he and his friends drove two hours from Mansfield, Pa., to their first comic convention: Ithacon.

Dressed in a homemade Robin costume which he put together over a week, Nathaniel hoped to meet Will Dennis, senior editor at Vertigo Comics, a division of D.C. Comics.

Trailing behind Robin, Batman — Nathaniel’s brother, Benjamin, 24 — was hoping to expand his action figure collection.

“We’re in Mansfield and we don’t have anything comic-related there so the chance to dress up to go out to these things is a good thing for us, you know,” Benjamin said.

While the CBCI approaches their 40th anniversary, Frazier said it will always be a beacon for comic fans like him and the DeWalt brothers.

“It’s not like the club is going to stop functioning, and we still are the oldest, and we still will be around, and we will always be around for book fans, for geeks, for nerds, for dweebs, all those wonderful people with whom I identify and whom I love so much,” he said.

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