Watch this: Diana Schutz on comics and comics studies

Here are 74 minutes that make me hope Diana Schutz writes a memoir. She was one of the keynote speakers last weekend at the Michigan State University Comics Forum. In this video of her talk, she tells how she got into comics retail and then comics publishing, and how that led her to the academic study of comics.

“I am not a scholar,” she says. “I’m really just a comics fan. At best, a dilettante scholar.”

But she is a scholar.

She got into comics as a college student in 1976 in Vancouver. She was studying philosophy, and was one of the only female customers at her local comic shop, called The Comicshop.

“Hours of sharpening my brain during the week on Kant and Bertrand Russell sent me screaming to Howard the Duck on the weekend, which, you know, was itself philosophical, but a lot funnier,” she says.

She moved from Vancouver to the Bay Area where she worked at Comics & Comix, the influential chain of shops, and soon was editing The Telegraph Wire, a newsletter/magazine that was distributed for free at all of the chain’s locations. And that experience led her to work for comics publishers, first very briefly for Marvel, then Comico, and then a long stint at Dark Horse where she became the top editor.

Today, she is a freelance editor and translator, and teaches about comics at Portland State University.

The latter part of her talk is about comics studies and what she sees as reasons for concern that the field is growing too quickly, drawing a parallel with the black-and-white comics boom and bust of the 1980s.

She argues passionately for a comics studies that is rigorous while still being comprehensible, and hints that much of today’s scholarship is slapdash.

One scholar who gets a warm endorsement is Charles Hatfield and his book, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature.

Michigan State has a legendary comics library and a vibrant program for studying comics. I wish I could have been there for this event.

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Comics carpentry, or, how to survive the comics retail bloodbath

A few weeks ago, I visited one of my favorite comic shops, Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan, and walked right into a carpentry project.

Co-owner Dan Merritt was making a bookcase, while his wife, co-owner Katie Merritt, was working the register and helping customers. (That’s the bookcase-in-progress in the photo above. It was their idea to put my book on the top shelf, honest!)

Green Brain, like most comic shops, posted a decrease in sales for 2017 compared to the prior year. The co-owners had not yet closed the books for the year, so they didn’t know the precise amount of the decrease, but it likely was in the 5 percent range.

Much of the industry’s malaise could be traced to the disappointing performance of the largest publisher, Marvel. Much has been written about Marvel’s woes and I won’t rehash it here.

So what about today? Things are getting better.

“2017 was rough,” Dan Merritt said. “Now January is starting off fairly strong. Not five-years-ago strong, but fairly strong. Part of it is Marvel coming back. I’m selling through on Marvel nowadays, which is cool.”

But Marvel has a long way to go to regain the market share it lost among his customers over the last few years.

I asked Merritt if he expects his 2018 sales to be better than 2017. His answer was a qualified “yes.”

“It’s got to be,” he said. “It has to be, for everybody’s sake, or else there won’t be comics in 2019.”

The comics retail business is prone to wild ups and downs. One of the great challenges, in comics or any other business, is managing through the downturns. Green Brain has some built-in advantages when it comes to facing hard times, and other shops would be wise to learn from its example.

Here are a few of those advantages:

  1. A do-it-yourself sensibility. Many of the fixtures in Green Brain were made by the owners. The ability to make your own stuff leaves more money for comics and everything else.
  2. A close connection to the community. The store and its owners are cheerleaders for Dearborn as a place to do business, and they have made connections with a number of community groups. This visibility helps get the word out to potential customers, including lots of people who may not otherwise have considered going to a comic shop.
  3. Owning versus renting. This is a tough one to pull off, especially in high-priced urban areas. During the most recent slump in the real-estate market, the Merritts bought their building and are now paying a mortgage as opposed to rent.
  4. Events! Green Brain has a schedule of events aimed at comics fans, young readers and board game enthusiasts. When I was there in January, there were postcards at the register to promote the Jan. 31 book club discussion of Watchmen.
  5. Steady and fun social media. I wrote few months ago about Green Brain’s weekly videos about newly arriving products. The videos help the staff become familiar with the new stuff, and serve as an opportunity to plug specific books that may not be well known. Katie Merritt says credit for the store’s social media presence should go to the store’s employees, who were initially much more savvy about it than the owners.

Below are a few other photos from my visit to Green Brain. (Not pictured is a large children’s section, and a big selection of mainstream comics.)

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This table has a rotating selection of books that the employees want to make sure customers see. This is the most precious real estate in the store.

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“Shay thinks this book is awesome.” The store has these recommendation cards throughout, in addition to many face-out displays.

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This spinner rack is stocked with small-press comics. Notice the actual green brain on top.

One more thing:

I was just on the Off Panel podcast with David Harper. Among other things, we talk about how I like the work of Don Heck, and wish I had a time machine so I could go back to DreamHaven Books circa 1996.


Allow me a fanboy moment: Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men is really good

The past week, I’ve listened to a dozen episodes of the podcast Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men — and I don’t even like the X-Men!

There are many podcasts that can be described as “two people talking about comics,” and this one puts most of them to shame. Co-hosts Jay Edidin and Miles Stokes are clearly having fun, and take this stuff seriously but not too seriously. (The illustration above is by Ming Doyle.)

I got hooked in part because first episode I listened to was about The Muir Island Saga, a storyline that included some of the first X-Men comics I read as a kid. I had been a DC kid with a special focus on the Legion of Super-Heroes, and I had dismissed the X-Men, for lack of a better critique, as “weird.” In hindsight, I know that one of those comics I browsed and discarded was from the Brood storyline by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, which shows that elementary-school me was a dumbass.

Years later, when I was in high school, I picked up Uncanny X-Men #278, the first chapter of The Muir Island Saga, written by Claremont and penciled by Paul Smith(!). I would later develop a fondness for Smith’s work and pick up almost everything I could find of his, from X-Men to Dr. Strange to DC’s The Golden Age. But X-Men #278 was not good Paul Smith. He was doing a fill-in issue and was far-removed from his great run as the title’s regular artist. Claremont also was off his game here, about to be pushed out of writing the title he had been doing since 1976.

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The Muir Island Saga marked a transition for the X-Men and related titles ahead of a major shakeup in the creative teams. The storyline was a wrap-up to Claremont’s long-running storylines, with the X-Men coming together to battle the Shadow King, a mind-controlling creature of psychic energy.

Despite its flaws, the story turned me into an X-Men reader for the next four or five years. Some of those comics were good. Many were terrible. I hadn’t thought about them in a long time.

Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men feels like it was crafted for me. The production value is second to none. The hosts and their producers are great at their jobs and give the whole thing a warm, engaging feel. They go through the comics with an obsessive level of detail, and pull no punches when the material is crap. It helps that the X-Men provide some great highs and lows from their publishing history.

I realize I am very late to the party with this podcast. I have seen it recommended many times. Now that I started listening, I have worked my way through most of the episodes about those comics that were formative for me.

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Miles (left) and Jay, in a photo from their website.

Meanwhile, some other stuff:

• I was on War Rocket Ajax, another strong entry in the “two people talk about comics” podcast subgenre. It is an understatement to say this was a wide-ranging discussion. I had a lot of fun talking with hosts Matt Wilson and Chris Sims.

• Gregory Smith wrote about ‘Comic Shop’ for Pop Matters. This was a generous and thoughtful review, and I appreciate it.

• Abraham Riesman included ‘Comic Shop’ in his list of “8 Great Comics to Read this January” at Thank you, sir!


Happy birthday Jonni Levas (and Phil Seuling)

Jonni Levas is one of the founders of modern comics retail, and, I think, has never gotten appropriate recognition.

Yesterday was her birthday. She lives on the New Jersey side of the Philadelphia area and has been out of comics since the mid-1980s when the company she co-founded, Sea Gate Distributors, closed its doors.

In a coincidence that is worthy of a comic book story, she shares a birthday with the man who co-founded Sea Gate with her, her onetime boyfriend and longtime business partner, Phil Seuling.

Phil died in 1984 when he was just 50.

(The photo at the top of this post is Jonni, with Phil to her left, during a 1978 trip to London.)

Jonni and Phil met in the early 1970s when she was a student at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn where he was an English teacher. She became a part of the group of young people who often worked at the comic book shows he operated as a side business.

She was among the people arrested on March 11, 1973 when police busted one of Seuling’s shows for allegedly selling inappropriate material (specifically Zap Comix #4 and other underground comix) to a minor.

At some point, she and the recently divorced Seuling had become a couple, which she says she initiated.

“Of course people raised eyebrows,” she said, in one of my interviews with her for my book. “After a while, when people saw we were still together, they stopped raising their eyebrows.”

As a result of the arrest, Seuling’s employers in the New York pubic school system took him out of the classroom while his case was being litigated. Even before the arrest, he had thought about leaving teaching to focus full-time on comics, and he was working on a plan for a company that would distribute to comics specialty shops.

That August, at the San Diego Comic-Con, he and Levas had scheduled a breakfast with Sol Harrison, an executive with the company that published DC Comics.

They made a handshake deal that led to Seuling and Levas receiving an exclusive right to sell new DC Comics directly to the nation’s small but growing network of comics specialty shops. Seuling and Levas later made similar deals with Marvel, Archie and the other major publishers of mainstream comics.

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Jonni at the Museum of Modern Art Sculture Garden. Undated photo is courtesy of Jonni Levas.

At that time, comics were widely sold at grocery stores, drug stores and other retailers through a network of newspaper and magazine distributors. Comics were a tiny part of the distributors’ inventory, with selections that often seemed random and did a poor job of serving fans who wanted a reliable supply of their favorite titles.

Seuling and Levas were 50-50 partners in the company, which later was named Sea Gate, after the Brooklyn neighborhood where they lived.

Sea Gate acted as the middleman for major publishers to sell comics on a nonreturnable basis. In contrast, news vendors sold returnable, which had a smaller wholesale discount and did not account for the fact that some retailers wanted to hold onto unsold copies to sell as back issues.

The “major publishers” part of this is key. Sea Gate was not the first to sell nonreturnable or to sell comics directly to specialty shops. It was the first, however, that sold Spider-Man, Superman and other mainstream titles in this way. The presence of mainstream titles was instrumental in what was to be an explosion in comic shops.

Seuling was giant in the world of comics, even before Sea Gate. He seemed to know everybody, and his conventions were some of the largest and best-organized.

Levas wasn’t as well-known except to the people who dealt with Sea Gate. One colleague, Ron Forman, said Levas was the “business brain” of the company. He thinks she didn’t get enough credit for her role in making the place run.

Greg Ketter, the founder and owner of DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis and a onetime Sea Gate customer, remembers Levas as someone who took shit from nobody.

Levas and Seuling ceased to be a couple in the late-1970s but remained business partners. She thinks they might have gotten back together if not for his illness and death, and she describes him as the great love of her life.

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This is how Jonni displays the Museum of Modern Art photo in her home, with a separate photo of Phil from that day, posed so they are looking at each other.

One recurring theme from my writing about the origins of comics retail is how beloved Levas was to many of the people who were there at the beginning.

Happy birthday, Jonni.


How I spent my winter vacation

My nine years in Ohio have desensitized me to cold. I got a reminder of this when my home state, Iowa, greeted me with a cold snap last week, as if to remind me who’s boss.

Other than the extreme cold (with lows of -15 Fahrenheit), I had a great time seeing friends and family in the Des Moines area and in northwest Iowa.

On Dec. 27, I did two events for my book. First was a reading at Beaverdale Books, a cozy independent bookstore in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood. Turnout was great. The store sold out of its stock of my book, and I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing a few former colleagues from the Des Moines Statehouse press corps.

Thank you to the store’s owner, Alice Meyer, for inviting me, and to the whole staff for promoting the heck out of it. Daniel P. Finney, the Des Moines Register columnist, wrote a column about comic shops and the book, and John Busbee interviewed me for his show on KFMG radio.

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Alice Meyer introduces me at Beaverdale Books.

Later that same day, we had a gathering at 515 Brewing, where the tap room manager is Matt Johnson, my high school classmate and a former comics retailer. We had the misfortune of scheduling this at the same time that the University of Iowa was playing in the Pinstripe Bowl (Go Hawks!). Despite this, a bunch of people showed up, and it was great to catch up with Matt.

A few days later, Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool picked up the Register story, and posted “The Man Who Gave Up Comics for Beer.”

Before I go, I wanted to comment a bit on what I’m hearing from comics retailers as they concluded a difficult 2017. While the nation’s economy grew at a healthy pace, comics retailers were going through a sales swoon, due in large part to an awful performance by Marvel.

The question going forward is how much of this is cyclical and how much can be attributed to secular decline.

I think it’s safe to say that there will be fewer comic shops next year at this time than there are now. A lot of the closings will be stores that were barely holding on, even in good times. The real concern for the industry will be if well-run stores with loyal audiences find that their profit margins have slipped to below the point of sustainability.

Although I did interviews for my book in 2015 and 2016, many of the comments ring true today even more than they did then.

First was Mark Waid, the comics writer who was a co-owner of a comic shop when I spoke with him:

“The role of a comic shop is to be a curator, is to be a gatekeeper, to help new readers find what they want. … It is a great time in that more and more people are coming in and looking for things that are not Marvel and DC comics, that are looking for creator-owned stuff, that are looking for material based on creators rather than on franchises, and that’s pretty cool. And frankly, it’s healthier for the market because it brings new people in. Very few people walk in the door at age twenty-five and say, ‘I want to start reading Avengers.’

“The paradigm shift seems to be away from monthly comics and toward trade paperbacks and stuff like that, which is great. It’s better money for everyone in the long run and a better format. But it’s the changeover that is dangerous. That’s the part that could kill us because all comic book stores still depend on that Wednesday cycle. All comic stores are still budgeted for those people who come every Wednesday for their comics. We can’t change overnight to deal more with a bookstore customer, people who only come in infrequently to pick up bigger amounts of stuff.”

Next was Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California:

“There are waves in this business. … The retailers that have been able to persevere through all of that have learned to ride those waves. Sometimes there’s an occasional wipeout and you get sucked under the tide, and there are times when you’re riding high and you’re on top of the world. For me, in all of that, the key has been how do you manage things, not just on the way up, but how do you manage things when things aren’t going well. And that’s, to me, the difference between the stores that last and the ones that don’t.”

Now, shop owners are going into the slowest time of year and hoping that the major publishers can come up with a few hits in the spring.


Berkeley, 1973: The art of Jim Pinkoski

In April of 1973, a bunch of young entrepreneurs hosted a convention focused on underground comix, with a lineup that included just about all the stars of that scene.

The Berkeley Comix Convention, or Berkeley Con, was held at Pauley Ballroom at the University of California. It drew national media coverage to a side of comics publishing that still seemed to be in its ascendancy.

Today, I’m going to focus on the program book, a work of art all its own, and the drawings of Jim Pinkoski.

He was a young employee at Comics & Comix, the chain of comic shops, and he was a talented artist.

The book includes an ad for Comics & Comix, and a Little Nemo pastiche, both by Jim.



Here is the cover, with art by Rick Griffin, followed by the table of contents. Take a good look at some of those names.



Right before the convention, Jim did the cover for the San Francisco Phoenix, an underground newspaper that was doing a special issue about comix. The cropped illustration is at the top of this post. Here is the uncropped version:

Phoenix cover

I asked Jim about how he came to work at the Comics & Comix, and this was his response, via email.

I recall walking along Telegraph Avenue in what I thought was 1971, and seeing the Comics & Comix store there for the first time. It had been open just a week or so. The first guy they hired was a fellow with long straight blonde hair, and I can’t recall his name, but I was the second person they hired!

I think I worked there straight through — 1971 to 1976 — started at the Berkeley shop, then filled in for several months at the S.F. store. It was time consuming to commute across the Bay, but was neat to walk right along the base of the huge Transamerica Pyramid each day! (And then I recall doing the commute while sick with the flu once that was no fun.) Then in 1975-1976 they opened a shop in San Jose and I moved into it to manage it. Brent Anderson and Frank Cirocco were there and we painted the comic characters on the front windows.

Some notes: The store opened in 1972, not ’71. Also, the San Jose store was getting remodeled in 1975, as opposed to opening for the first time.

About the Berkeley Con, his memory is foggy.

I remember next to nothing about that 1973 Berkeley underground comix con. I recall that I thought the building was “too clean” for something like an underground comix con. It really should have been held in an old broken down rave warehouse somewhere!

One of his few clear memories, aided by photographic evidence, is that he was taking shots of the guests using his Nimslo 3-D camera. Among the photos was the following salute from Spain Rodriguez and S. Clay Wilson.

[Correction: A reader tells me that this photo wasn’t from 1973, noting that Wilson’s hair wasn’t this gray until the mid-1980s. I think the reader is correct, based on this photo that also was taken at the 1973 show. I followed up with Jim Pinkoski and he said he still thinks the photo is from ’73 but is not absolutely sure. Either way, cool photo.]


Below is Trina Robbins on the Pauley’s center’s balcony. [If the Spain and Wilson photo is not from ’73, then it’s reasonable to ask if this one is as well. If I get any other information, I’ll update here.]


Comics & Comix, initially called the Berkeley Comic Art Shop, was started by John Barrett, Robert Beerbohm and Bud Plant, some of the same people who organized the Berkeley Con.

Here, from 1975 or so are Barrett (left) and Pinkoski.


They did the grunt work themselves to remodel the San Jose shop. And yes, the Brent Anderson from Comics & Comix is the same guy who has spent the last few decades drawing comics for major publishers.


Once at a Comics & Comix warehouse party, Jim played the drums and Jim Steranko played guitar.


Jim Pinkoski continued to do ads for Comics & Comics, such as this one from 1975:


He now lives in Tennessee with his wife Sandra, pictured below. You can see what he’s been up to since leaving California by going to his website.


Thank you to Jim for sharing all the photos and stories. I got in touch with him after he reached out to Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics, so thanks to Joe as well.

One more thing: I want to read an oral history of that 1973 Berkeley Con. Some of the best books about the undergrounds, such as Rebel Visions by Patrick Rosenkranz, do not have much about what must have been an off-the-hook weekend.

****** UPDATE 12/15/17: I added several photos, and removed an illustration of Bud Plant. I’ll be posting that illustration in an upcoming post.

****** UPDATE 12/20/17: I added a correction to the Spain and Wilson photo based on evidence that it was not taken in 1973. I also added a note above the Robbins photo.

An update: What’s good, what’s weird and what I’ve learned

My book has been out for almost exactly two months. I’ve heard from many readers and had some great fun doing events. While I expect that there still are reviews and reaction to come, I have a pretty good idea of how my work is being received. Below is a far-from-complete list of things on my mind during this eventful stretch.

Here’s what good:

• The book’s initial printing has sold out, and a reprinting is on its way. I was anticipating that the initial printing would be enough for the calendar year, but sales started strong and have remained steady. This is great news, not only because it shows support for this project, but it demonstrates that there is an audience for this kind of story.

• My family and I drove to Muncie, Indiana last weekend for an event at Aw Yeah Comics. Christina Blanch was a great host, and turnout was solid. I can see why her store has become a frequent destination for comics creators doing signings. See the end of this post for more.

Here’s what’s weird:

• The parts of the book that I expected to be controversial have not been, at least not yet. I’ll leave it to others to guess what those are.

• I am realizing the extent to which there is a regional element (I’m avoiding using the word “bias” here) when talking about the history of the comics retail business. Broadly, this is separated into two main camps: East Coast and West Coast. People from each side tend to talk about the early days from the perspective that their region was on the leading edge, and its people were the pioneers. Here’s why I find this weird: I’m from Iowa, where we often feel like everything happened somewhere else. And, the pioneers of the business were from all over, not just one or two metro areas.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

• Let’s call this the “Tintin Rule.” If I’m walking into a comic shop for the first time, I look for whether there is a children’s section and whether Tintin books are on display. The presence of the Tintin series by Hergé is a strong indicator that I’m in a good store. I realize this may sound random, but I found it to be true over and over.

And that brings me back to Aw Yeah Comics. The store covers two floors, and the upstairs is packed with old books and comics, many of which are at bargain prices. I found a nearly complete run of Tintin paperbacks for $5 each. I bought four of them. Sometime soon, I’m going to write about another book I picked up, the black-and-white reprints of Alex Toth’s Zorro from Eclipse Books.

Thank you to Christy and everyone who attended. Here are some photos:

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After my signing, Christina Blanch and I held a discussion on the store’s cozy second floor. This photo was taken by someone seated on an extremely comfy couch.

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Aw Yeah Muncie has one of the best children’s sections I’ve seen, and it’s located right inside the back door, which faces the parking lot. Not pictured are the shelves of kids books and the couch. Christy seems to have a thing for couches.

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The second floor has shelves of books and many long boxes of back issues. My one regret from this visit is that I didn’t not have much time to scan these shelves.

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Just to give a sense of the treasures to be found on Aw Yeah’s second floor, I found these Terry and the Pirates reprint paperbacks from NBM for $5 each.