COTO DE CAZA, Calif. — The first time Chris Bachalo attended Comic-Con International, the world-renowned comic book and pop culture convention in San Diego, he was a fan like any other.
Bachalo, who majored in illustration at Cal State Long Beach, hoped to meet a few of his favorite comic book artists, get some autographs, maybe buy an original piece of art.
“It was 1987, I’d say, and I met Bill Sienkiewicz and that was cool, because I was a huge fan,” Bachalo says of the artist known for comic books such as “The New Mutants” and “Elektra: Assassin.”
This week, Bachalo, 43, returns to Comic-Con to sit on the opposite side of the table. Now he’s a celebrated comic artist with credits that run from “Sandman” and “Shade” to “Uncanny X-Men” and “Generation X.”
So we called him up and arranged a visit to his Coto de Caza home, to talk about his career, his success and most of all, his relationship with Comic-Con, the festival that since 1970 has excited fans of comics, movies, TV and all manner of related entertainments.
After that first fan visit in 1987, Bachalo says he went back with a bigger purpose the following year.
“The second time I went to show my portfolio around,” he says. “I stood in line, listened to what they had to say. For me it was invaluable: I got some great advice from people, and went back home and started drawing a new book.”
Those early works eventually led to a job offer from DC Comics, working as an artist on the series “Shade, the Changing Man.” At almost the same time, Bachalo says he got a call inviting him back to the 1989 Comic-Con to talk about another gig, too.
“I went down to meet (comic editor) Karen Berger and (writer) Neil Gaiman, to talk about a job on ‘Sandman,’” Bachalo says.
(If you’re a comic fan, you know how big that meeting was: Berger, the longtime editor of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, was and is an influential player in the comic industry. Gaiman, whose series “The Sandman” made him a star, is now also well-known for books including “Coraline” and “The Graveyard Book.”)
“I was really excited because (‘The Sandman’) was my favorite book,” Bachalo says. The meeting resulted in him being hired as a fill-in artist on that series.
It was an easy trip from his home in Orange County, and an easier convention to navigate then, too, Bachalo says.
“It was much more low-key, much smaller,” he says. “The neat part, as a fan, especially before the Internet, and before it was so easy to contact people, was that you could see your favorite people in town.
“Just seeing a Bill Sienkiewicz cover in person, how he produced it, it was just so neat,” Bachalo says.
Bachalo says as a kid in Fountain Valley, Calif., he was about 10 years old when he and a friend started collecting comic books, with favorites that included “Man-Wolf,” “Conan,” “Marvel Team-Up” and “Ghost Rider.”
“My career choice epiphany came in my second year of high school,” he says, recalling how he sat in on a friend’s art class final. “And at the end of the hour I said, ‘Is that all you do in the class?’”
It looked like fun, and so for the rest of his time at Fountain Valley High School he took as many art classes as he could, eventually creating his first comic book with a friend, a homemade publication they sold to friends.
“It was called ‘Octagon’ and we really created our own little universe,” Bachalo says. “It was a series of eight planets, and each planet had its own guardian, and the one we focused on most was Octagon.”
After graduating in 1983, he majored in illustration at Cal State Long Beach, using part of his senior portfolio to create another comic that he hoped would help land a job in his dream industry.
“I gave myself until the age of 27 to get in the business,” he says. His parents were worried about the whole starving artist thing. “They’re from a farming community in Manitoba, and pop culture was like Jupiter to them.”
In the end, no need to worry: When Bachalo got the first DC gig, he was just 23.
By his fourth year at Comic-Con in 1990, Bachalo went as an artist there to meet fans of “Shade,” the DC series he’d first been hired on.
“I had a table and they stuck me in a corner,” he says, describing how all these years later he’s still uncomfortable with the idea that he’s someone fans would want to meet.
“To this day it still feels weird,” he says as his wife, Helen, wanders into the living room of the home they share with their 8-year-old son Dylan.
“Tell the truth about how you run away!” she teases him.
“I’m a little shy,” Bachalo admits. “So I have a tendency to go to the washroom to find solace. It’s weird, but it’s neat. It’s flattering.”
The big conventions — like San Diego has become — aren’t his favorites now, Bachalo admits, preferring instead the smaller ones where he’s not quite as overwhelmed by fans.
And fans he has plenty: after “Shade” and “The Sandman,” Bachalo’s has drawn comics at a steady pace, such as “Death: The High Cost of Living,” another Gaiman title, and a variety of “X-Men” titles, including co-creating the spinoff “Generation X.”
With writer Joe Kelly he launched “Steam Punk” and with many stops in between is now drawing “Dark Reign: The Sinister Spider-Man.”
In his studio, which shares space in the family room with a pool table and library of art books, he takes each new script mailed him and draws pages by hand on 11-inch by 17-inch boards.
Later those are reduced and pinned on a bulletin board to study as a complete story. After they’ve been sent out to be inked and colored, they come back for final touches and then are zipped to the publisher for printing.
In addition to drawing the new “Spider-Man” series, Bachalo says he’s had a proposal accepted by Marvel to write an issue too, which if brought to production will be his first formal writing credit, an idea that thrills him.
He’s not been to Comic-Con since 2001, but this year he’ll return, appearing at panels for Electronic Arts — for whom he’s working on a video game — to do an interview with a filmmaker shooting a documentary on “X-Men” comics, and to speak on one panel he says he doesn’t feel at all shy about.
“It’s on comic book portfolios, and that’s something I can talk about,” Bachalo says.
—What: The world’s largest comic and popular arts convention, drawing more than 100,000 fans each year.
—Where: San Diego Convention Center
—When: Thursday through Sunday, July 23-26, though the event already is sold out.
—For more: Comic-con.org
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