Matt Dunford, Chairman of San Diego Comic Fest

As it nears two weeks until San Diego Comic Fest, organizers and volunteers are most likely running around at lightspeed to make sure the convention comes off without a hitch. Though Comic Fest calls itself the “friendly, intimate comic convention experience,” that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot that goes into its planning. In fact, Chairman Matt Dunford has been hard at work to bring about his ideal vision of the convention.

Over the years, Dunford has made himself a prominent figure in the San Diego comic community and local conventions. Among other things, he juggles the roles of Chairman of Comic Fest, President of local Little Fish Comic Book Studio, and frequent host of Club Cosplay, the “Nerds Night Club.” With the recent Anaheim Wonder Con behind him, all his efforts are now focused on Comic Fest. We here at Comics Beat sat down with Chairman Dunford and listened to him describe with his typical nerdish fervor what we have to expect come two-weeks’ time.

How is Comic Fest shaping now that you have more time to devote to it?

Ah yes. Coming hot off the presses of the highly successful “Club Cosplay,” which I hosted at the Anaheim House of Blues, and was a blast, I’m diving headfirst into San Diego Comic Fest, returning as my second year as Chairman. The convention is entering its sixth year, but for the first two years there really wasn’t much to talk about. But during the third year, I feel it really picked up. Comic Fest took some slow steps at first, but then it found pace, and then it started picking up that pace and started running. Now, I think it’s at a pace that I feel is outpacing many other conventions and I want to keep that up, because I really do believe in the success of this convention and how great it is.

What do you particularly like about Comic Fest compared to some of the other conventions?

Well, anyone who knows me know that I’m a convention addict. I go to conventions about every single weekend. While I think it’s unfair to judge one convention to another, each convention should be based on individual merits. Example, I don’t think it’s safe to compare San Diego Comic-Con to a small, one day convention, but I think certain one day conventions have their merits for what they have going for them.

What I love most about San Diego Comic Fest is that it dedicates itself to the small, intimate atmosphere. All the while, it still manages to be entertaining. The thing about small, intimate conventions is that we have a tendency to be boring and not have a whole lot to do. Attendees will feel like, “Oh, we’re just here to chill, hangout for an hour or two, and then leave.” But San Diego Comic Fest brings you enough entertainment and enough things to do that you just feel like you want to stay and hang out for the rest of the time. Also, that small, intimate environment makes it easier to access the special guests, hang out with them, and have a casual conversation with them.

Related to what you said about some conventions not having a lot to do, I understand you’re expanding the hours for the nighttime programming. Why is that?

During last year, we closed up shop at 6 p.m., which I really didn’t think was the best decision to do, but we kept an all-night theatrical serial showing off those hilarious old Batman serial films from the 1940’s and we thought those were highly entertaining. Plus, our bar closed early. You want that bar to be open when you have people watching those hilarious Batman serials. But, I think there’s much more opportunity for us to extend our hours. A lot of our guests are coming as a weekend getaway. And if they are coming from out of town and are just hanging around the hotel, we want to give them something to do. We wouldn’t just want them to go back to their hotel and say, “Well I guess that’s all I’m going to be doing for tonight.” We want to entertain our guests and we are very dedicated to that crowd.

Plus, with the 200th year anniversary of the novel Frankenstein, we have more to do. Why not nighttime for some horror themed entertainments? And of course, for my favorite late-night program, we have Scott Shaw’s Odd Ball Comics, the Late-Night Edition, where he can be a little raunchier, showing some comics that are a little less on the PG-13 side of things.


King Kong display created by Robert Maya, San Diego Comic Fest 2017

You mentioned the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” What about Comic Fest is going to “scream,” if you will, Frankenstein for attendees?

During the first two years of our convention, we had a café which was named after Café Frankenstein, an old café in the Ocean Side area of San Diego. Though it has since closed its doors, the people who went there really loved it. So, we thought we would bring back Café Frankenstein for the first two shows. But this time, we can go full Frankenstein. For the first two years, the café was more of a science-fiction, geeky theme, but this time we are turning it into a full-fledge Frankenstein dungeon. We have some great art directors and prop builders on board to really give the atmosphere of Victor Frankenstein’s lair and I think they are doing an absolute phenomenal job with it. Robert Maya, who has built props for us in the past, such as the giant King Kong and the Moai statue that we used for the 100th anniversary of Jack Kirby’s birth, is coming back on board. The art director of the café is Mario Torres, one of the instructors from local Little Fish Comic Book Studio. I think he’s a great designer and is bringing so much to the table. We are also going to have an actress on board portraying Mary Shelley, the writer.

I know Comic Fest founder Mike Towry has his own little pet project he’s been working on for the convention, trying to get certain talent from over the border. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

We always like to showcase international talent. This year, we will have some special guests from Mexico such as Hugo Castro, Daniel Gutierrez, Juanele, Sebastián Llapur, Gabriel Reyes will be returning, and of course cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, coming fresh off the presses from working on Disney’s Coco. I just love his political cartoon La Cucaracha.

I know one of the difficulties that you are facing this year is the again changing of venues. How is this affecting your dealers area, the panels, and artist alley?

Artist alley may not have as much room as previous years because we were very spoiled by the previous area. Unfortunately, we had a conflict of interest with the new management of where we were last year, which if we continued with them it would have led to the elimination of all of the artist alley section and would have prevented us from even having the convention on Sunday. We just agreed to disagree and went back to our previous venue of the Town and Country Resort. Ultimately, we know that space and how it works; we know it has more available parking; we know it allows for more panel rooms, thus allowing us to have more programming. I think we have done well in adjusting to it. Also, it’s a more centrally located area, so we can be more accommodating for people.

For this year, the convention dates were changed from February to April. Do you think Comic Fest will be impacted at all by not working with the four-day President’s Day weekend like last year?

I don’t think it’s going to affect attendance that much. It was nice having the convention last year on President’s Day weekend, but unfortunately a lot of other conventions decided they wanted to have their dates on the four-day weekend too. And, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a convention addict. I don’t like missing other cons myself, and I don’t like running one against other people also. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. It becomes very difficult though, because here in southern California there are a lot of events going on, just about every weekend it seems. So, we have to play it safe and make sure everyone that wants to come can, without being impeded by other events.

Though, Kingdom-Con also falls on Comic Fest’s days this year, which is why you aren’t doing a gaming room this time around.

I love Kingdom-Con. It’s a really wonderful event. It’s going to be down the street from us at the Crown Plaza hotel. Now, I’m not going to say “Don’t go to Kingdom-Con.” In fact, I strongly encourage going to it if you are a gamer. I don’t really see our attendances clashing much. Still, out of respect we have decided to omit a gaming section, again because we don’t like stepping on anyone’s toes.

Finally, since you pretty much have a hand in every aspect of Comic Fest’s planning, what are you most excited about come the convention?

It’s nice to be able to play around with guest invitations and programming, but I’m still very dedicated towards the mission of San Diego Comic Fest, keeping it a small and intimate convention. I’m not trying to make this “Dunford Con,” as a lot of people may allege that I’m doing. Trust me, it would look very different if I was.

I’m very happy to have guest of honor Karen Berger, former editor and chief of Vertigo. She has been so instrumental in cultivating the careers of so many people like Neil Gaiman, Peter Mulligan, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison, and launching their careers as they transition from British talent to American talent when she was working for DC and later Vertigo. I am also so happy that Boris Karloff’s daughter, Sara Karloff, is coming on board with celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein.

I do have some little fanboy moments, though. I’m really happy to have Steve Purcell on board, one of the guys who really helped define Lucas Arts in the early 1990’s, coming up with video games there. I’m also a huge fan of his with his comic Sam & Max. Now, he’s a bigwig at Pixar, having come up with Toy Story That Time Forgot and also Brave. I’m also very happy to have some of the other animation guests that have been so important in my youth, such as John Semper, the creator of the Spider-Man cartoon, my all-time favorite cartoon.

All those interested in attending San Diego Comic Fest, mark your calendars for April 20th to the 22nd, as well as visiting their website at SDCOMICFEST.ORG.


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