RIP Bill Schelly, 1951-2019. Here are four of his books you should read.

Bill Schelly, a prolific writer about comics history, has died at 67.

In writing my book about the business and culture of comics retail, I found that just about all roads lead to Bill Schelly. He had written some of the definitive accounts of early comics fandom and biographies of leading writers and artists.

And, I was delighted to learn that he was a great person, eager to help me with fact-checking and offer advice. Based on the tributes I’m seeing today, he was like this with many people.

Here, in an interview reprinted on his website, is his answer when asked to name his first comic book:

I don’t think I can remember my first comic book because I had to have gotten comics before I was eight. I know I had to. But the first one I remember was that first Superman Annual in 1960. I distinctly remember reading it on a train trip where I could focus on it fully without distractions, and … I got so sucked into it. I remember there was a panel in one of the stories where it was something about Superman’s “mighty mind,” when he’s really concentrating on remembering something, and I remember thinking, “Wow, what would it be like to have a mighty mind? What does that mean?” I just got into it fully. Then, later, I realized that most of the stories in that annual were written by Otto Binder and I ended up, not just coincidentally, writing a biography of Otto. So in a way, Otto Binder was the one who really pulled me into comics.

The best way to remember Bill is to read his books. Here are a few:

 

Sense of Wonder.jpgA Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom — The Whole Story (2018 edition)

This is Bill’s memoir about being a gay comics fan in the 1960s, finding his home in the burgeoning fan community, and coming into his own as a writer.

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James Warren, Empire Of Monsters: The Man Behind Creepy, Vampirella, And Famous Monsters (2019)

James Warren, founder of Warren Publishing, was the subject of many tall tales. Bill Schelly was well-suited to sort the facts from the fiction.

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Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America (2015)

“I was surprised to discover some of his personal contradictions,” Schelly said about Kurtzman in this story in The Atlantic about the book. “He was a writer-artist with both a towering confidence and a deep insecurity about his work. He was, in my estimation, a creative genius, and could have been an egomaniac, but he was genuinely modest about his work and his influence on other cartoonists.”

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Founders of Comic Fandom: Profiles of 90 Publishers, Dealers, Collectors, Writers, Artists and Other Luminaries of the 1950s and 1960s (2010)

This was the first Schelly book I read. It is clear that he admires the people who built comics fandom, but there is no gushing here. This is the work of a talented reporter.

Bill made one contribution to this website. Last year, when I wrote about the challenge of identifying the country’s first comic shop and reached out to experts, he argued that there was no real answer because of there was no clear definition of “comic shop.” He was right.

 

A milestone, and looking back on four years of writing about comic shops

The paperback edition of my book has now arrived in comic shops. It includes about 25 pages of material that wasn’t in the hardcover, including an epilogue about how shops fared in 2017 and 2018, a rich period for comics as art and a scary one for the shops as a businesses.

I started working on the hardcover edition of the book in the summer of 2015, and did most of the work on the paperback in the spring and summer of 2018. It has felt strange not to be working on some facet of the book since then.

I’m not quite to the point that I have perspective on all of this, but here are some of my lessons learned, both personal and in terms of the research itself.

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This is me, selling books at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus in 2017

Tall Tales

One of the big challenges when writing about comics is that tall tales are an essential part of the culture. This is especially true when talking about beloved figures who are no longer around to tell their own stories. In my book, I ran into many tall tales about Phil Seuling, the convention organizer and high school teacher who co-founded the first distributor of mainstream comics to comic shops.

I spent an inordinate amount of time diving down rabbit holes to attempt to verify anecdotes about him. These ranged from pivotal events, such as his arrest in 1973 for allegedly selling obscene comics, to minor but colorful ones that showed his combination of good humor and temper. I could have written a highly entertaining chapter about the Phil Seuling stories that were not verifiable enough for me to be comfortable including.

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Phil Seuling on the Mike Douglas Show. Read more about that here.

A related challenge was when interview subjects told me stories about events for which they were the only living witness. In the book, there are several of these stories that were priceless, and, by definition, beyond the reach of fact-checking. I had to make judgment calls about whether this was a tall tale or an honest recounting of events.

What to Leave Out

I aimed to write a relatively short book on the business and culture of comic shops, including an origin story of the business model behind the shops. To do this, there are big parts of the story that I didn’t touch, or barely touched. Much of the criticism is about those omissions.

In his thoughtful and thorough review of the book, comics scholar Charles Hatfield writes that one of the “research problems” is that there is not enough about how the distribution model for underground comix helped to inform and inspire what was later used for mainstream comics.

When I see this comment, which I’ve gotten from others as well, I think of the reams of notes I have on that very subject, and I know that the relationship between the undergrounds and the mainstream is a fraught subject that would have led to a lengthy digression of little relevance to most of the audience. This could be a book unto itself, and I don’t envy the person who would write it.

I can say with confidence, based on interviews with people involved in the origins of modern comics retail, that the distribution model of underground comix helped to inform and inspire some aspects of the distribution model of mainstream comics. But I think some retailers and fans who focus on the undergrounds tend to overstate the connection. Most retailers I spoke with who were active in the 1970s say that there was a connection but not a crucial one. Could I have written a page or two about this and then moved on? Well, yes. Maybe I should have.

What are the omissions I regret? There are many.

I never made it to Third Eye Comics in Annapolis, a large and important store. I didn’t include Alley Cat Comics in Chicago, one of many charming stores that I visited but did not profile. I didn’t do a more thorough profile of Casablanca Comics in Maine, which is a linchpin of the comics community there.

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Brian Hibbs

Then there are the omissions that are due to not having the sources I needed. In the paperback edition, I added several pages about retailer Brian Hibbs’ lawsuit against Marvel in the early 2000s. This could have been a much larger and colorful episode, if only I had the transcript of Hibbs’ deposition with Marvel’s lawyers. I sought the deposition from several sources and came up empty. So let’s just imagine what might lie in those pages, with a team of Marvel lawyers interrogating Hibbs and him responding by absolutely schooling them.

What This Meant for Me

The idea for this book came from many conversations with Gib Bickel, the co-founder and manager of Laughing Ogre, my local comic shop. As a business reporter, I was fascinated by how the comic shop business model was different from any other. In spring of 2015, I talked about this idea with Gillian Berchowitz, now recently retired as director of Ohio University Press. She suggested I write up a proposal and said she wanted to publish it.

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Lauren McCallister, the assistant manager, and Gib Bickel, the manager, at Laughing Ogre

Then everything went to shit. In the summer of 2015, my two remaining grandparents died within weeks of each other. My father was in the final stages of a form of dementia and he would die a few months later. I call this the “year of funerals.” Meanwhile, the newspaper where I worked, The Columbus Dispatch, was sold by its family ownership to a national chain, leading to layoffs of colleagues. At home, my wife and I were dealing with our delightful but challenging daughters, who were 4 and 1. We were getting little sleep and felt like the world was closing in on us. And I had a book to write, which I had barely started.

It got done, somehow. I turned in the initial draft a little more than a year later, and then made substantial revisions to get to the version that become the hardcover edition.

Considering all my personal and professional challenges, I wonder how different the book would have been if I had had a clear head during that year. I could have asked for a long extension of my deadline, but I felt like the changes in comics retail were happening at such a rapid pace that I needed to work quickly or else the present-day chapters would be hopelessly out of date.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t yet have much perspective on this project, but I can say what I hope it has accomplished. I hope that I played some role in informing the conversation about the business and culture of comic shops, cutting through some of the tall tales, and providing a narrative that can help inspire others to do their own explorations of the same subject.

Thank you for reading, everyone.

Re-reading Bone with my kids (with a cameo from Jeff Smith himself)

I am midway through my third re-reading of Jeff Smith’s Bone. The first one was on my own, with the black-and-white paperbacks. The second was with my daughter four years ago, with the color Scholastic editions. And, now the third is with my other daughter, again with the Scholastic editions.

This time we got a special treat: Jeff Smith, who lives here in Columbus, held a reading at a local bookstore a few weeks ago, so the kids and I got to watch him sketch and answer questions.

In Columbus, we are spoiled by Jeff Smith’s presence, and his role in helping to start one of our local comics festivals, Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (I have been a volunteer for the festival almost since it started).

But my kids have never seen him in person in the time since they’ve read the books, so it was great that Cover to Cover Children’s Books hosted him. Check out this display window:

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For the reading, store employees encouraged kids to sit down in front, while the adults were packed shoulder to should along the back.

Jeff did a series of sketches while talking about how he first imagined the Bone characters when he was kid, and showing how the look of the characters changed as he grew up. The protagonist Fone Bone initially had a head that looked like the handset of a rotary phone (see the contrast in the photo at the top of this post).

Here is Jeff signing and sketching after the reading:

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My Bone re-reading is now on the seventh book, Ghost Circles. There are two books to go in the main series, followed by the prequel, Rose, and other related books.

For those who haven’t read the series, here’s my too-brief summary: The three Bone cousins are cartoon characters who have been forced to leave their home of Boneville and get stuck in a lush valley where they are caught up in a conflict between humans and the beastly Rat Creatures that turns into war that could lead to the end of the world.

The main character, Fone Bone, is a regular guy caught in events he doesn’t understand, constantly dodging death and trying to do the right thing. The adventures are filled with pratfalls and gags, mixed together with a longform fantasy story.

To understand why Bone works, it helps to read it with a kid. My kids immediately identify with Fone Bone and his cousins and want to see how the story ends. And, my kids had a strong reaction to the Rat Creatures.

My youngest daughter can speak for paragraphs upon paragraphs about how the rat creatures have giant fangs, but how their mouths seem to disappear when closed, and how this contrast makes them more scary. They are often drawn with claws extended and about to pounce.

Jeff Smith’s Bone is also a great publishing story, which I go into in my book. It started as a self-published comic book in the early 1990s that managed to find an audience in comic shops thanks to its quality and the way that Smith got it into the hands of retailers and fans who helped to sell it to others.

Bone was later picked up by Scholastic, which turned the series from a cult hit into a mainstream success story, selling millions of copies and helping to start what has turned into a boom in comics sales to younger readers.

The significance of Bone in the current market becomes clear when reading the 2015 Tribute Edition of the Bone Vol. 1 in which other leading Scholastic cartoonists have brief pieces showing their appreciation for this series that helped to create the publishing category that they all are now a part of.

Announcing the paperback edition of COMIC SHOP: THE RETAIL MAVERICKS WHO GAVE US A NEW GEEK CULTURE

Below is tomorrow’s news release from the publisher about the expanded paperback edition of my book, which is coming out in May. The Previews order code is MAR191929 and it is also available to the book trade.

About a year ago, as the publisher planned a paperback edition, I suggested writing a new epilogue and expanding several other parts. I wanted to do it because so much had happened in the comics business since I finished writing the hardcover.

There are new stores, new homes for some great old stores (including Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in North Carolina, pictured above), and yet another near-death experience for the industry.

PRESS RELEASE

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I don’t yet have final art for the paperback cover. It will be similar, but not the same, as the hardcover. Art by Sebastian Biot.

Athens, Ohio—Award-winning journalist Dan Gearino expands on his 2017 book, Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture, with a revised paperback edition coming in May from Swallow Press, the trade imprint of Ohio University Press.

In a new epilogue, Gearino tells how comics retailers fared in 2017 and 2018, a time when shops struggled to stay afloat at the same time that comics reached new heights as an art form, with landmark works such as My Favorite Thing in Monsters.

“Comics retailers are survivors, somehow making their way in a market that really shouldn’t work, but often does,” said Gearino, a journalist based in Columbus, Ohio. “With an unusual business model, and an eccentric cast of characters, this is a story unlike any other.”

Also new in the paperback edition:

  • An expanded look at the market of the early 2000s, including the David-and-Goliath story of how retailer Brian Hibbs sued Marvel Comics.
  • Updated profiles of two storied comics shops–The Beguiling in Toronto and Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in Charlotte–that went through major changes and lived to tell about it. This is part of an expanded profile section that includes several shops new in this edition, including Vault of Midnight in Ann Arbor.

Comic Shop shows how the comic shop business model turned out to be a boon for many cartoonists, helping up-and-coming creators find their audiences, from Wendy and Richard Pini’s ElfQuest in the 1970s to Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim in the 2000s.

Gearino alternates between the present-day landscape of the best shops in the United States and Canada, and the origins of the business in the early 1970s.

Comic Shop is based on more than one hundred interviews, including innovative retailers such as Peter Birkemoe at The Beguiling in Toronto, and Diamond Comic Distributors’ founder and owner Steve Geppi.

Also included are profiles of more than 40 notable shops in the United States and Canada, showing the many flavors of an iconoclastic business.

Comic Shop is 300 pages with 74 illustrations. To request a review copy, contact Samara Rafert, Publicist & Exhibits Manager, rafert@ohio.edu.

 

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New in this edition, a look at Vault of Midnight, a great store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and several others that were not in the hardcover.

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The new storefront for The Beguiling in Toronto.

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Also new in the paperback edition: Meet the “Comic Lady,” Kathleen Miller, owner of Comic World in Huntington, West Virginia.

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Books With Pictures in Portland, Oregon, has helped to redefine what a comic shop can be. The shop wasn’t yet open when I was on my reporting trip to Portland for the hardcover, but I made sure to include it in the new edition.

Gary Arlington

Just so we don’t forget that much of the book is about the origins of modern comics retail, here is pioneering retailer Gary Arlington at his store in San Francisco, with Air Pirates Funnies on the shelf behind him. Photo by Clay Geerdes.

 

1979: Read one man’s list of every comic shop in the US and Canada. What was in your town?

In 1979, a writer set out to compile a list of every comic book shop in the United States and Canada. He did so with the meager research tools available at the time, and the result is remarkable.

I would have loved to have had the National Comics Shop Register when I wrote my book. (Brief update on the book: The expanded paperback of COMIC SHOP is coming in May, and the listing is in the current Previews catalog. It includes a new epilogue I wrote last summer, among other additions. More on this in the coming weeks.)

The register is 13 pages of newsprint listing 439 businesses with addresses, names of key personnel and notes about what they sell.

See the whole thing here (PDF).

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Murray Bishoff in 1979.

It was the work of Murray Bishoff, a reporter for The Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom who, like many comics fans, was clearly a completist. It ran as an insert in The Buyer’s Guide.

I also should note that it was near impossible to put together a complete list. I’m sure there are shops from the era that are not listed.

Paging through it, I see some familiar names: Dick Swan and John Barrett of Comics & Comix in California, several locations of Geppi’s Comics World in Maryland, and Heroes World in New Jersey, among many others.

I see only two retailers who were running stores then and who are still doing so: Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics in Colorado and Joe Ferrara of Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz. If anyone spots another who is still active, let me know. (Note: I added Ferrara here, after slapping myself on the forehead for not spotting him initially. I would pay to watch Chuck and Joe hang out and talk shop.)

Looking at stores in the Des Moines, Iowa, area, where I grew up, I see the Comiclogue, which existed until the late-1990s. That was where I bought Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, and picked up a bunch of the Red Circle relaunch from the early 1980s for 50 cents each. I was about 10 at the time, and it was the second comics specialty store I had ever seen after Four C’s Collector’s World, which also was in Des Moines.

One of the pleasures for me in reading the registry is seeing all the names of stores and people I didn’t know. It implies that there was a vibrant comics culture in much of the country and in Canada, a few years before comics retail hit what I see as its heyday.

I should note that Bishoff is broadly defining “comic shop” in his list, so he includes some businesses that specialize in back issues and collectibles, and do not sell new comics. Defining “comic shop” is always a challenge when trying to determine how many existed at a certain time, especially in the late-1970s, when the market was in one of its Wild West phases.

Register description

Bishoff left The Buyer’s Guide a few years after this and went to work for Jim Steranko’s publishing company.

Since 1988, he has worked work The Monett Times, a Missouri newspaper where he is news editor. I got in touch with him last weekend.

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Bishoff more recently. Photo used with permission.

Here is some of what he had to say, via email:

What a treat that someone should remember a project that consumed an enormous amount of time and hardly generated much interest at the time. I often thought that if I had kept it up, I could have had a gold mine like Bob Overstreet’s Price Guide. After doing it twice, before the internet, mind you, it just didn’t seem to have a future, at least one that would bring me any reward. I still tried networking, listing an events calendar up to the end of my time with DynaPubs, where I included lists of comic conventions and clubs, along with science fiction conventions and clubs.

I saw them all interwoven, but at the time, few recognized that or encouraged my efforts. My life took a turn in 1982 when I went to work for Jim Steranko, then Alan Light sold The Buyer’s Guide.

That was all at the dawn of the private market. I’d like to think my efforts helped to fertilizer the ground for what became an industry of its own for decades.

As for me, I have been at The Monett Times now for 31 years. I will retire to write books in the summer of 2020. I have now appeared in three documentary films relating to ethnic changes in the southwest Missouri population. That latest, about “The Green Book,” is being released this weekend on the Smithsonian Channel.

Thanks for writing. What I treat for me to think all those earlier efforts have not been forgotten.

 

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Bruce Chrislip, photo courtesy of Bruce.

I learned of the existence of this list a few weeks ago when Bruce Chrislip, author of a fascinating history of minicomics, told me he came across it in an old issue of The Buyer’s Guide. He said he was thinning out his collection and wondered if I wanted it.

A thick envelope arrived a few days later. Thanks Bruce!

 

 

How I spent my spring, summer and fall

This has been quite a year. At the end of March, I left The Columbus Dispatch and started working for InsideClimate News, first as a freelancer and now as a staff writer covering clean energy and the Midwest. (The photo above is me going to the office for my last day at the newspaper, showing off my infamous “picture face.”)

This alone would be a trying transition, but it happened to coincide with lots of other challenges. The upshot was that I spent much of this year tired and nearly overwhelmed by it all.

A few days ago I looked at this website for the first time in a while and saw that I am still getting fairly steady traffic, despite not posting since late September.

So, thanks for reading. Here are a few things from my travels this year that I never got around to to posting:

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This is the audience for my June reading at DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis. I adore that store and the audience was great, including many family and friends.

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Comics writer James Moore had the great idea to take a class photo of Columbus’ comics community. I took this shot moments before joining the group for the real photo. This was at the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo in April.

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I found this sign, outside the authors’ green room at the Ohioana Book Festival, funny.

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I took a trip to Iowa in October and stopped to walk down Snake Alley in Burlington, which a sign proclaims as the world’s most crooked street. My parents lived in Burlington before I was born, so I knew of Snake Alley even though I can only recall being in the city two or three times.

CXC is here! My thoroughly biased preview

I am lucky to live in a city that puts on one of the best comics festivals around. The fourth annual Cartoon Crossroads Columbus starts this week. I’ll be volunteering there over the weekend, so say hello.

Here are some of the things I’m excited about. Note that I’m not listing some of the high-profile events, such as the Fraction-Bendis panel or Olivia Jaimes, because I think people already know about those.

  • Jason Lutes! He has spent two decades completing Berlin, a story of that German city  during the decline of the Wiemar Republic and the rise of fascism. He will be selling the recently released hardcover of the complete series and appearing at several panels. I have enjoyed his work ever since Jar of Fools in the mid-1990s, but have never seen him in person.

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    Chlorine Gardens by Keiler Roberts

  • Keiler Roberts has a new book and she’ll be there. I adore Keiler Roberts’ comics, which show the humor and frustration of being a parent of a young child and the uncertainty of dealing with personal health challenges. Her new book is Chlorine Gardens from Koyama Press. She has deservedly gotten rave reviews for just about everything she’s done, but she deserves even wider recognition.
  • The usual suspects! One great thing about CXC is the guests who are there every year, including the show’s founder, Jeff Smith, and others such as Dustin Harbin and Derf Backderf, among many others.

My main advice this year, which is the same as it was last year, is to buy the damn books. You’ll be glad you did. And, many of the lower-profile cartoonists who are there are doing great work and depending on selling their books to pay for the trip.

Here’s the full schedule.