When he was a teenager, Chris Ryall kept his love of comic books under wraps “for fear of being mocked.” Today, the comic book writer and publisher is pleased that this sort of behavior is no longer necessary. Thanks in part to San Diego’s annual Comic-Con International, the culture of comics and sci-fi have become fully mainstream, and the SoCal city has in many ways become its mothership.
“Once the convention went from just comic books to including TV actors and film actors and kind of broader pop culture,” says Ryall, “it became a place where everybody could come celebrate.” The convention has grown so much, he adds, “that it's also gotten to be more and more part of the whole downtown area. You can experience Comic-Con culture in all kinds of different ways.”
One of those ways is now open year-round: Balboa Park’s Comic-Con Museum, where Ryall is a now a consultant. In the latest episode of the California Now Podcast, Ryall gives host Soterios Johnson a virtual tour of the museum, a place that offers deep dives into comic book minutiae but also appeals to any pop culture fan.
“The initial drive for the museum,” Ryall says, “was how can we replicate, or at least offer a sense of, the spirit of Comic-Con—the stuff that gets people so excited over that five-day period?”
He shares details about the different exhibits currently on display—especially Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing, an immersive exhibit that honors the 60th anniversary of Stan Lee’s creation. The exhibit explores the characters and manifestations of the series over the past six decades—from the early comics to the TV show to movies. “It not only offers you any number of different and very cool photo ops,” Ryall says, “like Spiderman hanging upside down from the ceiling, or Dr. Octopus brought to life with his tentacles that you can hold onto or pose around. But you also get a visual pictorial and video history of the character's creation.”
Even for casual fans, says Ryall, Spidey has always resonated, in part because Peter Parker is a regular guy with regular problems. “I think a lot of it is that he is a younger hero that younger readers could relate to. Until he takes off that mask, he is whoever you want him to be.”
Just like Comic-Con, the museum explores other forms of nerd culture—like gaming, as seen in the Pac-Man exhibit that includes several free-play arcade games. There’s also a permanent display of Comic-Con cosplay and an exhibit called “Hemingway in Comics” that shows how the literary icon has lived his best life in various comics. One goal of the exhibits, Ryall says, is “to keep a focus on Comic-Con culture, and expose people to comics and creators that maybe not everybody knows as well as Spider-Man.”
The museum also offers hands-on activities to spur creativity—check the museum calendar for upcoming classes and events—as well as drop-in activities for kids. “We want to have classes about comic book creation,“ Ryall says, “even if people don't want to draw by hand and they'd prefer to just scribble electronically on their tablets.”
Best of all, the museum experience requires no special convention badge. “We understand that Comic-Con is five days and that a lot of people aren't able to get in,” says Ryall. “So we really want to have this space where you can just come live and breathe comics and pop culture whenever you want.”
The rest of the podcast episode celebrates more of San Diego’s heart and soul. Maya Madsen of Maya's Cookies shares her answers to the California Questionnaire, with tips on her favorite spots in San Diego and across the state. The founder and CEO of the black-owned, vegan cookie company shares tips such as the San Diego County hotel where she loves to go for brunch. She also raves about Tacos El Gordo in Chula Vista, calling it “the most incredible taco shop you will ever find. There's so much love that goes into what they're creating. You can feel it, you can see it, and smell it. It's an experience.”
The episode wraps with the song “Can I Call You Rose” by the San Diego soul band Thee Sacred Souls. Band members Alex Garcia, Sal Samano, and Josh Lane chat about the song’s video, filmed in National City, Imperial Beach, and Barrio Logan. The band bills itself as “San Diego sweet soul”—a nice love letter to the city itself. “It’s a little different from Motown,” Garcia says, “more like the ballad side of soul. It’s timeless.”