Shel Dorf dies at 76; architect behind San Diego’s Comic-Con

Shel Dorf, a prominent comic-book collector who was the architect behind the pop-culture showcase in San Diego now known as Comic-Con, has died. He was 76.

Dorf died Tuesday at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego from complications related to diabetes, said his brother, Michael. He had been hospitalized for more than a year.

He was a 37-year-old recent transplant from Detroit when he rallied a group of teenagers to stage the first convention in 1970. It was attended by 300 people in a downtown San Diego hotel.

“I just felt that the cartoonists who entertained the popular masses were not getting their fair share of recognition,” Dorf told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2006, and he remained dedicated to exposing new talent.

The annual gathering has grown to be the largest of its kind in the United States -- more than 125,000 attended the 40th convention in August. From the beginning, it highlighted science-fiction and fantasy literature, TV and film, in addition to comic books.

“People casually referred to it as Dorf Con because he was so ubiquitous and such a presence,” said Mark Evanier, a television and comic-book writer. “He was a very fierce fan of comics when there weren’t that many adults who were.”

For about 15 years, Dorf was actively involved in the convention but then pulled away.

Publicly, he complained that it was an ordeal to oversee an event that had grown so large. He also felt that “Hollywood had hijacked it,” a reference to the convention broadening to reflect a wider range of entertainment that included anime and video games.

David Glanzer, a Comic-Con spokesman, called Dorf “a champion of the creators of comic books and comic strips.”

“He brought recognition to creators of comics at a time when no one did. It was considered a children’s medium,” Glanzer said. “He understood the historical value of comics in addition to their artistic value.”

On its website, Comic-Con posted a statement that said: “Shel Dorf’s love of comic books and their creators had no equal. It was his appreciation of this art form and his keen foresight that helped to create what is Comic-Con.”

Growing up, Dorf cut comic strips out of newspapers and pasted them into scrapbooks to create his own comic books.

“I can remember as a child in Detroit being so excited by a cliffhanger in ‘Dick Tracy’ that I waited on the front porch until I saw our paper boy turn the corner,” Dorf said in the Union-Tribune in 1990.

When Warren Beatty made the 1990 film “Dick Tracy,” Dorf, along with a series of “Dick Tracy” books he had edited, were consulted, according to the 1990 Union-Tribune article.

In the 1970s, he experienced “an unexpected bit of excitement,” Dorf later recalled, when he was hired to letter Milton Caniff’s “Steve Canyon” during the comic strip’s final 14 years.

The cartoonist was a good friend and had modeled a character after Dorf, a well-meaning football player named “Thud Shelley,” Evanier said.

Sheldon Dorf was born July 5, 1933, in Detroit, the first of two sons of Ben and Sarah Dorf, immigrants from Russia. His father was an artist turned candy manufacturer.

As a child, Dorf befriended cartoonists by sending them Christmas cards.

During a 1949 trip to Illinois, he paid a surprise visit to Chester Gould, creator of “Dick Tracy,” then was speechless when the cartoonist recognized his name, his brother recalled.

After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Dorf became a staff artist at the Detroit Free Press and in the 1960s chaired Detroit’s Triple Fan Fair, a convention similar to Comic-Con.

While employed by a New York ad agency, he drove his parents cross country to San Diego, where they retired. He took one look at the city and decided to stay, his brother said.

A longtime resident of Ocean Beach in San Diego, Dorf made his living doing freelance design work and writing.

He donated much of his collection of comics and memorabilia to Ohio State University’s pop culture archives.

Of the phenomenon that started out as the Golden State Comic Book Convention, the modest Dorf wrote in 2001: “Who could’ve guessed it would be so very successful!? Not me!”

Dorf is survived by his brother, Michael, of Los Angeles.

Memorial donations may be made to the Shel Dorf New Talent Encouragement Fund, c/o Michael Towry, P.O. Box 232497, San Diego, CA 92193.