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Technology

How Steve Wozniak Brought A Comic Con To Silicon Valley

From the Homebrew Computer Club to the US Festival to his new project, Apple's cofounder has been a community builder for decades.

Steve Wozniak

[Photo: Viappy via Shutterstock]

If you were starting an event that sat at the intersection of technology and pop culture, you could scarcely imagine a better founding myth than one involving an encounter between Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and Marvel impresario Stan Lee. As the designer of the Apple II's hardware and software, Woz played a monumental role in the personalization of computers that ushered in the era that would bring us not just PCs but smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, smart TVs, and much more. And the Marvel comics that Lee co-created and wrote in the 1960s are the stuff that modern myths are made of.

When Woz and Stan did meet, they bonded. "The two of us hit it off so well we wanted to work together on something, anything, anytime we could be together," Woz told me. "We just hit it off like the best friends ever."

The something that came out of the historic meeting was Silicon Valley Comic Con, which will take place from March 18-20 at the San Jose Convention Center. As you'd expect, it includes panels and a show floor devoted to celebrating fantasy as expressed in comics, movies, and TV. But it has another major ingredient that reflects Woz's influence and the event's location: science and technology.

"I don't like to do the same thing as everyone else, I always like to be first at something, do something different on a different track," Woz says. "This will be the first comic con with a technology link." The show's guests include Astro Teller, head of Alphabet's X group (formerly known as Google X); Bobak Ferdowsi, the famously mohawked NASA engineer, and Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, cofounder of Escape Dynamics, a space technology company. Google is participating with a VR zone, and an App Alley section will give developers the opportunity to show off their wares for free.

Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple and the Silicon Valley Comic Con

Woz describes himself as "lightly" involved with planning the Comic Con, but as well as serving as its public face, he's also one of its owners, along with Rick White and Trip Hunter, two of his colleagues at Primary Data, a storage startup where he holds the title of chief scientist. The three also collaborated at Fusion-io, another storage company that was acquired by Sandisk in 2014; Hunter is CEO of Silicon Valley Comic Con. (Stan Lee, meanwhile, is not involved in producing the show—but does plan to attend).

The con's producers expect to sell out the San Jose Convention Center, which holds 30,000 people. If they do, the show could become one of the country's major pop-culture confabs, though not on the same epic scale as the New York Comic Con (167,000 attendees in 2015) and San Diego's Comic-Con International (130,000 attendees).

Securing dates for a big show at a convention center isn't easy; that's why Wondercon, a San Francisco Bay area institution, lost its home at the Moscone Center and has been held in Southern California in recent years. The Silicon Valley Comic Con team solved that problem and generally expedited their plans by acquiring and incorporating the Big Wow Comicfest, an existing show that had already booked space at the San Jose Convention Center.

The show's quick timeline from idea to reality proved a challenge when it came to signing up movie studios and other big entertainment-industry outfits to participate, as did the fact that it overlaps with the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. But Warner Bros., Lion's Gate, and AMC will be exhibiting, and there will be archetypal con events such as a Back to the Future reunion featuring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson.

Woz The Community Builder

When it comes to gadget nerdery, Woz is not just a founding father of the entire industry, but also a superfan himself. (When he saw my iPhone case, which has room for credit cards, he called his wife over so she could show me hers, which has a slot for reading glasses.) And though he says he was never a truly die-hard fan of movies or comics, he certainly cared about science fiction at the same time that he was obsessed by computers in the 1970s.

Wozniak and sci-fi icon Leonard Nimoy at a 2012 tech conference

"Every night for the years when I was working on projects leading up to the Apple I, I would come home after work and watch Star Trek before I went back to work on my own projects," he remembers. "I was young and didn't have much money. I couldn't follow the conventions around but yes, I drove all the way to LA once just to go to a Star Trek convention and see people like William Shatner." (Fast forward a few decades, and Shatner will be a guest at Silicon Valley Comic Con.)

Even though Woz is celebrated for designing computers from scratch back when it was possible for one preternaturally gifted geek to do that, I've never thought of him simply as a solitary engineer. As a company, Apple was practically spun out of the Homebrew Computer Club, the legendary Silicon Valley institution where the earliest PC enthusiasts gathered to talk shop, share projects, and inspire each other. In 1982 and 1983, once Apple had made him wealthy, he poured some of his loot into two Us Festivals—music and culture events held in Southern California which attracted hundreds of thousands of people. Later on, working for the Los Gatos Unified School District in the Valley, he quietly taught computer classes to grade-school kids for years.

Woz's Us Festival, 1982

In other words, I think of him as a guy who likes being around kindred spirits—the sort of person who might naturally be interested in starting a pop-culture festival such as Silicon Valley Comic Con. And even though he's a self-described shy person, he says that he's always loved being part of a community.

"I actually felt the Homebrew Computer Club was so important, as far as the seeds of starting Apple wouldn't have happened without it, that I went around for years to dozens of computer clubs all over the world," he says."I never told Apple, I never had Apple buy my airplane tickets or my hotel tickets. I would speak to the club to share the fact that Apple came from that sort of environment."

"Why would I even put on the US Festivals?," he continues. "It was really because I wanted people to come and share an experience and meet other people. A lot of people get inspired and motivated by the same things. I love just going to listen, observe, and learn."

Woz says he enjoys being a public figure: "I like it because everywhere I go, people come up and they say, 'I admire you.' Well, heck, that's rock-star stuff." But he does concede that it can get in the way of the kind of listening, observation, and learning he craves.

"I used to go to conferences like CES and just walk around. I didn't know anything about the products and they all inspired me," he explains. "Now, I can't go to those things, because everybody's grabbing me. The last three times I went to a comedy club in Hollywood, I sat there thinking I was anonymous and then a comedian said, 'Oh, guess who's in our audience?' I got caught." When Woz attends Silicon Valley Comic Con, he'll get recognized, and that's OK—in fact, it's kind of the point.