Mathew Klickstein has been a storyteller his whole life. In elementary school, he would write stories instead of listening to his teachers, and as a teenager he devoted hours to making short films. Today, he continues to use his creativity working as a multi-form storyteller. Klickstein has published everything from podcasts to non-fiction books. His most recent book, See You At San Diego, is an oral history of the San Diego Comic-Con and geek culture; it will be published in September.
You wrote your first novel at the impressively young age of 13. What inspired your passion for storytelling?
It’s something I think about a lot, even the term “storyteller.” I’ve done many kinds of work over the years and it can be hard sometimes to explain what I do. So I like “storyteller.” Even when I’m working on something historical or that is nonfiction, which is what a lot of my work’s been over my career, I try to find the story and the character development. I write it and think of it almost like a novel.
I think a lot of that came from being very curious as a young person. I would read, I would write, I’d watch movies. I was a latchkey kid. My friends and I would make little short films with video camcorders. This was before social media and the internet so we weren’t posting this anywhere. We really just made it for ourselves. A lot of my friends became filmmakers, writers, and musicians. I grew up with a lot of people around me who wanted to engage with information and engage with ideas and one of the best ways of doing that, as we got older, was through storytelling.
I guess the straight answer is that I’ve always done it. I’ve always been interested in it and I had an extremely supportive circle growing up. A lot of the people that I grew up with were interested in similar kinds of engagement with technology, movies, books, and storytelling.
You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from USC where you focused on screenwriting. Because of this, is film your favorite way to convey a story?
I don’t know, really. I’ve been told by professional representatives of mine that the fact that I am so eclectic with what I do is actually a bad thing in this day and age when everyone kind of wants the elevator pitch. I really need to pigeonhole myself more so I can be marketed more easily. However, I would say that filmmaking and television are definitely one of my favorites. They’re something I’d like to get more into because they’re much more profitable and engaged with on a larger level. Sadly, people aren’t reading as much as they used to.
I’d like to move on to the next stage in my career now that I’m getting a little older and I’m going to have more responsibilities. I can’t keep living the ne’er do well lifestyle, as fun as it’s been and as supportive as a lot of people in my life have been about it. I want to find something that’s a little bit higher level. So television is definitely one that I’d like to focus more on just because there’s more survivability there once you get it started.
You do a combination of creative and factual, documentary-type work. When you are doing those nonfiction pieces, how do you keep the story accurate while also using creative elements to make it more compelling?
That’s the crux really, of a lot of what I do and what I’m trying to do and what I’m hoping to achieve. I’m trying to make things that people more people will see, read, talk about, and incorporate into their own work.
When I’m working on something, there really is a process as far as figuring out, okay, what’s the subject that I can focus on? What do I have access to? What’s going to really fascinate me for the two to four years I’m going to be working on this, not to mention promoting and everything else. What do I think is going to do well in the industry or in the market right now?
For example, with the Simpsons book I co-wrote, we knew that within two years when the book came out, which is about how long it takes usually to put a book like that together, it would be the 30th anniversary of The Simpsons. So we said, this would be a good story. I knew we had a good angle on it, having someone who wrote for the Simpsons since the show started. He was credible in the market. And I like him, and I grew up with the Simpsons. It’s a big part of my life and I knew I could focus on this over the next few years.
So you’re thinking about all these different things just to prepare for the pitch. And for me, it’s not just about keeping it entertaining and fun. Call me a sellout. Call me mercenary or whatnot. Yeah, I think there’s a marketing and salability aspect to finding something that’s going to provide a unique way and angle to tell that story.
You’re playing with all these different elements and I almost think of it as performance art. I’m thinking not only about the book and the writing but also, how are we going to pitch it? How are we going to sell it later? For me, that’s part of the fun of it. It’s like a puzzle.
You are about to release See You At San Diego in September, which is based on an audio documentary that you published last summer. What inspired you to create this oral history?
I had originally been working on a book about so-called nerd culture back in 2014. I interviewed a lot of the people both in front of and behind the cameras on the film Revenge of the Nerds, and I was intending on really focusing on that movie and talking about themes of it and ideas from it and the people that I talked to. That was going to come out for the 30th anniversary of Revenge of the Nerds, but a lot of people didn’t feel that Revenge of the Nerds was a large enough concept to really do a whole book about. I had an editor friend who had suggested I focused more on some of the other elements that I couldn’t help but bring into it, which was talking about nerd and geek culture on more of a kind of socio-political level.
The book ultimately came out in China in 2018 in a totally different version because of some weird things that happened with the rights and whatnot. However, during that process, I talked to people involved with Comic-Con. One of my contacts was Wendy All, a woman who helped start Comic-Con back in the early days. We remained friendly over the years. Then, when my agent and I were trying to come up with ideas for projects a couple of years ago, I mentioned that I happen to know this woman. Also, it had just been the 50th anniversary of Comic-Con. I realized, hey there might be something to this. My agent jumped at the opportunity. Wendy got me in touch with a lot of the other people who helped create Comic-Con and people in that community. She became our liaison into that world.
Originally it was going to be a book but then COVID happened, and lockdowns happened. One of the things that happened is certain entities in the tech and media world, instead of going crazy, thought about what they could do to gain leverage. SiriusXM was starting to develop more original content because they knew everyone was going to be home a lot more and have time to listen to podcasts. One of my friends, who was a producer at SiriusXM, said, why don’t we do this as a podcast series? I said yes.
I was very concerned because a lot of the people in it were a lot older and so honestly a lot of the rush was because we need to get them on record before anyone passed away. One of them did pass away, and he actually told us that would happen, that he knew he only had a set amount of time left. He was somebody who didn’t have necessarily a big name. Within the community, though, he was extremely important and a lot of people were really glad that we were able to get him on record. We got his voice in there, and he had some really unique things to say from a very different perspective. So I’m glad that we did the recordings and pieced them together for the audio documentary.
Then, some people involved in the audio series, who were also involved with Fantagraphics, talked to the Fantagraphics publisher, Gary Groth, about making it into a book. He loved the idea. We talked about photos and art since it’s a Fantagraphics book and it being visual is very important. I’m glad that I went with them.
What are some of the differences between the audio documentary and the book?
The podcast is about seven hours, and that’s with interstitial historical context. The book is 500 pages and is culled from 70 hours of interviews. I would say the book is about 10 times, if not more, the material that was in the podcast. It’s a lot of stories. It’s a lot of information. It fills in a lot of gaps. It’s telling the story of the fandom community through the eyes of the largest pop culture gathering worldwide, which is where so many of them congregated and came together, which is very much what we wanted the audio documentary series and now the book to be.
The book is very free-flowing. I could see somebody reading it cover to cover and I could see somebody just picking out one page and reading a bit. The book is stream of consciousness which I know some people don’t like, but I like it and I think some of the better oral histories are like that. You may need to read it two or three times to really get everything because there’s so much going on, but that’s what I wanted.
Can you elaborate on the history of Comic-Con and the culture surrounding it?
People forget that up until fairly recently, you were made fun of or ostracized or ignored or misunderstood, or even beaten up for liking comic books or science fiction or fantasy. Just a few decades ago, teachers didn’t like it either, and they’d discourage anyone from reading comic books and even science fiction. People were told, this isn’t writing. This isn’t literature. This isn’t art.
In regard to Comic-Con, a lot of the founders were children. One of the early Comic-Con founders was 12. They were interacting with the local media and local radio stations, they were doing it all themselves from a young age. They were all very creative and artistic, and they all just came together. Many of the founders happened to live in San Diego or Southern California. And that’s an important part of the story too. This is the story of how San Diego became San Diego. We really go all the way back to when San Diego was this tiny little obscure town. The first Comic-Con had to be called the Golden State Comic-Con because they were worried that people even within California wouldn’t know where to go if they called it the San Diego Comic-Con.
As you mentioned, genres such as science fiction and fantasy, and mediums such as comics, aren’t considered to be serious. In what ways do you see them as powerful tools for making political and social commentary?
In the 20th century, science fiction and comic books and fantasy were very much about the concepts and ideas of great artists and philosophers and psychologists. It’s not a surprise that both Orwell and Huxley wrote science fiction books and did a very good job of it, creating entire archetypes that were somewhat similar and in conversation with each other in certain ways, and that they were so right about so many things and they were able to do that through science fiction.
And you had what was going on with underground comics in the ‘60s that were very explicitly talking about what was going on with feminism and civil rights and drug culture and counterculture and terrorism and domestic terrorism and politics. Because they weren’t being taken seriously, they were able to say a lot of things that you maybe wouldn’t have been able to say otherwise; it was a very important medium for that, but they were also trying to make money and they were trying to survive.
Whether it’s science fiction or fantasy or comics, these were all very smart, fascinating people who again kept congregating at Comic-Con every year. Comic-Con is some people’s world. It’s like Disneyland, with all the characters coming together from all these different shows and movies and such. It’s a place where all the Twilight and Star Trek and Twilight Zone and Watchmen and Wolverine and things I’ve never heard of all come together. People find each other and find similarities in each other. It’s a real community. It’s a great community. It’s an important community. A lot of them helped each other get through COVID and a lot of them helped each other stay hopeful. They might not have a lot in common, being from different parts of the world or different ages or from different backgrounds and whatnot. But people find common ground that transcends any kind of barrier. It’s not without its faults, and we certainly talked about that in the book. It’s not a paradise, but comparatively, it’s a great very welcoming, very inclusive, very eclectic community.
Is there anything you want to add in general about your book that’s coming out about any of your experiences overall?
I definitely want to get the word out about the See You At San Diego book tour. That’s why I’m coming to Colorado in September. I actually lived in Boulder two different times and I’m very excited to come back. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and bringing this book and concept to them. One place I’m particularly excited about going to is Mile High Comics, which I’m pretty sure is the biggest comic book store in the country. A lot of people in the comic industry make sure to go there and always talk about it and it comes up in a lot of books and documentaries. It’s so esteemed, and I’ll say the same about Tattered Cover. It’s one of my favorite bookstores and I’ve done a couple of events there already. Going to Tattered Cover is something I’m really looking forward to and hopefully, I’ll bring some people out to see me talk about the book.
Mathew Klickstein will be making two stops in Colorado during his See You At San Diego book tour:
September 20- Tattered Cover Book Store, book signing at Aspen Grove location (Denver, CO)
September 21- ?Mile High Comics, book signing (Denver, CO)