Eugene Henderson wasn’t allowed to have comic books while growing up in Los Angeles because they were considered evil by his religious parents. But after secretly purchasing Batman #7, his mother found out, read it and surprisingly gave the comic her stamp of moral approval. Soon, Eugene was expanding his repertoire to every comic book in sight. “Then I started collecting Captain Marvel, which, to me, is the best comic book ever done,” Henderson professes.
Years later, he penned a letter of disapproval to a comic magazine about a story line in Justice League of America. It was published, and Henderson’s Santa Ana address attracted the attention of John McGeehan from the House of Info, a pioneering comics and pulp fanzine archive. McGeehan was surprised to find a fellow comic fanatic in Orange County, and in 1970, he invited Henderson to take a road trip to San Diego for a new comic-book event called Comic-Con. There, Henderson geeked out in full force for the first time. The next year, Eugene asked his wife, Mary, to join him there.
The two quickly signed up for what’s now one of the world’s most important pop-culture gatherings. Eugene worked his way up to head of security, while Mary’s impeccable people skills led her to become Comic-Con’s hotel liaison, then the banquet coordinator. Every visiting comics great loved Mary. “She was for the people, and I was busy looking for comic books,” Henderson jokes.
Being the oldest committee members of Comic-Con provided a unique angle for Eugene and Mary, as it allowed them to closely bond with many Comic-Con artists in their age group including Jack Kirby and Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman. Henderson also had the honor of meeting cartoonists Hal Foster (Prince Valiant, Tarzan) and Burne Hogarth (Tarzan), as well as actors Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker himself!). “It’s fun meeting these people,” Henderson says. “They’re just like everyone else.”
That insight also helped him administer some of Comic-Con’s most important legacy business. He was involved in the creation of the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award (named after the famous illustrator who lived in Modjeska Canyon and was a friend of the Hendersons) and became the guarantor of the West Coast Comics Club. He also worked on the first Will Eisner awards ceremony and continues to offer valuable input. “He can tell you a random story of every Hall of Fame inductee at the Eisner awards—it’s, like, the coolest thing,” says Carmen Herrera, Henderson’s granddaughter.
The Hendersons witnessed Comic-Con outgrow the US Grant Hotel, El Cortez Hotel, UC San Diego and Golden Hall and helped to get the event to its current home at the San Diego Convention Center. Along the way, they each earned the Inkpot Award, the equivalent of Comic-Con’s Hall of Fame—Eugene in 1977, Mary in 1981. The two finally retired from Comic-Con this year, with 82-year-old Eugene’s final title being the show’s archivist and Mary, the archivist’s assistant. (Mary passed away March 12 at age 79.) “We were the Ma and Pa of Comic-Con.” Henderson says, his smile as radiant as Captain Marvel’s lightning bolt.