When Lila Salatka gets nervous, she blushes.
She wasn’t nervous early Friday arriving on day two of her first Comic-Con. The prospective high school student quietly walked into the convention center with her classmates and took in the spectacle.
When her teacher walked to one end of the exhibit hall, she didn’t immediately register where they were going.
Then it hit them: they were about to share their original comics with professionals.
Salatka felt herself blush.
Among the crowds downtown last week – the celebrities, PR people, fanboys and cosplayers – were 12 teenagers.
They were between 14 and 19 years old. Some lived nearby. One drove more than a hundred miles away. All were part of a Comic-Con camp hosted by Little Fish Comic Book Studio, a San Diego-based nonprofit.
Everyone wore comics they had written and drawn, hoping for feedback at the world’s largest pop culture conference.
“We’re always just working and striving,” said Ana Badillo, a student at University City High School. Surrounded by art from industrial giants, it was hard not to wonder, “Are we going to get to this level?”
The studio’s executive director, Alonso Nuñez, gave them a tour of the halls.
The 42-year-old San Diego native co-founded Little Fish a decade ago to teach kids how to make and interpret the medium.
Nuñez studied comic illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York and sometimes wishes he had more time to draw. Yet his studio will have its own Comic-Con panel on Sunday, and in his hands, the exhibit hall became a 460,000-square-foot classroom.
One morning he stopped at a glass case. Nuñez pointed to an old black and white drawing of Doctor Strange.
“You can see a lot of whiteout,” he said.
“I find that very understandable,” said Emilia Quintanar, a recent graduate of High Tech High at Point Loma.
She glanced at the price tag on a Batman picture.
“Thirty-five thousand, goodness gracious,” she said.
Nuñez seemed to know the backstory of each drawing, the names of everyone who manned a booth.
“Give him hell,” a bearded comic salesman told the teens. “That’s why he’s a teacher.”
Nuñez led the group to another table and opened a book of drawings.
The teens exhaled as he turned to one of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. The image – priced at $9,000 – showed two monsters in a fistfight.
“You can see the Kirby in it,” Nuñez said, a reference to Marvel and DC legend Jack Kirby.
“It looks so yummy, like crunchy peanut butter,” said Chloe Strahm.
Strahm, who will soon be leaving California for the University of Dallas, has previously shared her work at Comic-Con.
At one point she felt as if an artist had quickly skipped past her pages. That hurts. Another laughed at a joke she wrote.
It could all be so intimidating.
“They have achieved what I want to achieve and they know what they are doing,” she said. “And I still don’t.”
At one point, the group slipped into a dimly lit conference room for a panel.
Quintanar from High Tech High sat a few rows down.
She was not very familiar with the session’s main guest, writer and artist Frank Miller.
A woman with purple hair entered the stage.
“These people need no introduction,” the woman said into the microphone. “If you need an introduction, you shouldn’t even be at this conference.”
“Oooooooh,” said Quintanar.
While he’s now famous for creating “300” and “Sin City,” one of Miller’s early experiences of sharing his art with a pro didn’t go well.
He told the crowd he could still remember exactly what the artist said.
“You think that’s a face?” Miller recalled being told that. “Ever heard of perspective?”
The artist asked where Miller was from.
“Vermont,” Miller replied.
“So go back,” said the artist.
The panel was not among the teens’ favourites.
Another afternoon, the group arrived early for a presentation on censorship.
Isidro Valdez Palmer (“I Am the Lute”) pulled out a stack of paperbacks he had just bought. Some saw at least 500 pages.
“Kids, go slow,” Nuñez said. “This is only day 1.”
Afterward, the teens crowded the stage to meet Jeff Trexler, interim director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
Trexler was thrilled to see her. “That’s amazing,” he said, arms outstretched.
He invited her to a party the Fund was throwing, then hesitated.
“We’ll have Coke there,” he said. “I don’t want to see fake IDs.”
Palmer suggested hand-drawing a driver’s license photo.
“You with alcohol is a scary thought,” Nuñez said.
The group chatted easily and freely throughout the week, often crossing sentences. A girl apologized to a reporter for being long-winded, then realized the casually asked questions she’d answered were part of a real interview.
“Oh, I see what you did there,” she said.
But still ahead: show art.
On Friday morning, the group walked along the side of the exhibition hall.
Salatka, the sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy, who might or might not have blushed, stirred quietly.
Above, a huge banner hung from the rafters: “Artist’s Alley”.
It can be difficult to ask artists about their time. The teenagers generally didn’t have appointments, and many artists were busy selling their own work.
Nuñez has been doing this long enough to know how to avoid the grumpy ones.
He spotted Keithan Jones.
Jones founded the independent publisher KID Comics and is one of the main guests of the convention, which is a great honor. (Another guest this year: Frank Miller.)
The teenagers stopped near Jones’s table. Salatka was standing on the corner.
Jones ended the conversation with someone else. Nuñez stepped forward, introduced the group, and handed Jones a phone.
On the screen was Salatka’s work.
“Wow,” he said.
“Wow,” he said again. “You have it.”
He asked how old she was.
“Fifteen,” Salatka said.
Jones said he was just 16 when he got his first job – after sharing his art at Comic-Con.
He held up her comic. “I’ll show you if you try to find work,” he said.
Salatka barely moved.
“That’s why we’re printing it,” Nuñez finally said.
Nuñez gave Salatka a thumbs up. She nodded. She felt like she was in shock.
Jones talked a bit more, then Nuñez thanked him and the group left to look for other artists for other students.