Yesterday, more than 130,000 comic-book aficionados from all over the world descended on the San Diego Convention Center for Comic-Con International, which runs now through Sunday. Given the event’s extravagant, fantastical dress code, there might be quite a few winged wonders in the crowd. Options include: Harvey Birdman, Hawkgirl, Hawkman, Hawkeye, Falcon, Ladyhawk, Pigeotto, Raven, and Vulture.
It's obvious that feathers, talons, and beaks run deep at Comic-Con. In fact, the event’s official logo used to be a bird—a grinning, costume-loving toucan named Toucan. But why?
Well, why not? “He’s so random, so charming . . . that he just works,” says Rick Geary, the creator of the mascot. The 69-year-old cartoonist attended his first Comic-Con in 1976, a year before he became a full-time, professional illustrator. In the early 1980s, the convention’s organizers—also his good friends—asked him to draw a fun character to serve as the new Comic-Con ambassador. “Of course I said yes,” Geary says.
But picking out a muse took a little more reflection. Geary had moved to San Diego from the Midwest just a few years prior, and was immediately captivated by the dazzling avian life in Southern California. One of his earliest outings in his new home city was to the San Diego Zoo, where he met a chatty, orange-beaked Toco Toucan. That captive bird would soon serve as the inspiration for the Comic-Con toucan, albeit on a subconscious level.
“At the time I was really into drawing animals in human clothing, and I just happened to draw a toucan wearing a coat and tie because I thought it was a funny thing to do,” says Geary, who now resides in rural central New Mexico.
Toucan served as Comic-Con’s official logo for a little more than a decade, until he was replaced in 1995 by a more graphic design meant to boost the international appeal of the event: a heavily browed eye that mimics the piercing gaze of a superhero. But Toucan lived on, making occasional guest appearances on Comic-Con paraphernalia, such as souvenir books and t-shirts; today he serves as the permanent face and name of the convention’s buzzed-about blog.
Geary, too, has moved on from his animal-inspired characters. Instead, he’s made a career of drawing humans navigating everyday life; his work has appeared in famous humorist publications like National Lampoon and MAD Magazine. But he says it’s easy to understand why avians make such a good subject for cartoonists: “Birds have traits that people envy, like beauty and the power of flight. They also make strong characters because they’re so direct in their actions—they know what they want, they get it.”
This year, Geary made another pilgrimage to San Diego—his 40th convention so far. Comic-Con attendees can find him at booth F-06, where he’ll be sketching, signing and answering questions about his latest cartoons. And of course he’s more than happy to reminisce about Toucan—but only if someone else mentions him first.