Meet the Ogre: The origin story of the comic shop that just won the Eisner award

My local comic shop, The Laughing Ogre, was the setting for much of the present-day action in my 2017 book Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture. More than that, the shop, and its manager, Gib Bickel, were an essential part of the existence of the book, because the whole idea came from many chats between the two of us.

So I am elated to see that the Ogre was has won the 2021 Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer award, which is one of the greatest honors in the industry. The past winners of the award, which has been around since the 1990s, are a hall of fame of the business, many of whom are featured in the book. The Ogre has been nominated many times and has been a finalist before finally winning this year.

Here was the store’s nomination video:

Here are excerpts of two parts of the book that feature the Ogre. For the rest of the story, order a copy from the publisher, your local book store or comic shop.

Excerpts from Chapter 1: Magical Powers

On a Saturday, Gib Bickel sees a woman step into the children’s section of his shop. He approaches and gives his usual opener: “Canwehelpyoufindsomething?” The woman, with tattoos down both arms, is shopping for a graphic novel for her daughter. She has no idea what to get, although a book called Hero Cats has caught her eye. He points her toward something else, a favorite of his, Princeless.

“This girl, she’s a princess,” he says. “Her dad puts her there in a tower with all her sisters until a prince will rescue her, and there’s a dragon guarding her. And then she’s like, ‘Why am I going to wait around for some dumb boy?’ So she teams up with her dragon and they have adventures.” Sold.

Gib Bickel

Bickel has hand-sold more than one hundred copies of Princeless, a small-press graphic novel that has become a cult hit and been followed by several sequels. This is what he does. It is what makes him happy.

He is in his midfifties, with a graying goatee and a wardrobe that is an array of T-shirts, shorts, and jeans. And he is an essential part of the Columbus, Ohio, comics scene. In 1994, with two friends, he founded The Laughing Ogre, a comic shop that shows up on lists of the best in the country. Though he sold his ownership stake years ago, he still manages the shop and can be found there most days.

Laughing Ogre is one of about 3,200 comic shops in the United States and Canada, mostly small businesses whose cultural significance far exceeds footprint of their revenue. They are gathering places and tastemakers, having helped develop an audience for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s, Bone in the 1990s, and The Walking Dead in the 2000s. And yet, for all the value that comic shops provide to their communities and to the culture, their business model has a degree of difficulty that can resemble Murderworld, the deathtrap-filled amusement park from Marvel Comics. Publishers sell most of their material to comic shops on a nonreturnable basis. By contrast, bookstores and other media retailers—some of which sell the same products as comic stores do—can return unsold goods for at least partial credit. The result is that comic shops bear a disproportionately high level of risk when a would-be hit series turns out to be a dud. And there are plenty of duds. This book is a biography of a business model, showing comic shops today and how they got here. I come at this as a reporter who covers business, and as a lifelong comics fan.

Laughing Ogre is now on its third owner, a businessman who lives in Virginia and also owns two shops there. Even Bickel was gone for a while. After the first sale in 2006, he stayed on as an employee but found he didn’t get along with the new management. He left for five years to sell cars. That job paid better and offered more stability, but he missed the people at the store. He came back in 2011, welcomed as a returning hero by employees and longtime customers.

The store’s most recent big change was in the summer of 2015, when several long-term employees left for other jobs or for school. This left Bickel with only one remaining full-time coworker, Lauren McCallister. She was twenty-two at the time and a recent graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design. She also does autobiographical comics, which she sells on her website, at shows, and at the store.

During the time I spent at Laughing Ogre, it was the Bickel and McCallister show. They served as manager and assistant manager, respectively, and worked with a group of mostly new hires. McCallister likes to call her boss “Old Man,” as in, “I just sorted that shelf, Old Man.”

Lauren McAllister and Gib Bickel, photographed in 2016.

But when he’s not around, she talks about him like this: “I think he has magical powers,” she said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. He’s like a master salesman, really. He has a way with every single person who comes through the door. Even like the craziest person, he can deal with them so effortlessly. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. Still to this day, after working with him with three years, I can’t tell you what kind of weird voodoo he’s working.”

The owners and managers of the best shops are a collection small enough that most of them know each other. They have seen some of the best in the business fail. They have failed themselves, or at least come close. Much of this is because of the unique risks of selling comics, a set of dangers that exceed the substantial challenges confronted in running many other types of small businesses. Almost nothing about this model makes sense if you look at it purely in terms of profit and loss.

Excerpt from Chapter 4: An Ogre’s Story

On a Saturday in May, a line extended out the door. This was Free Comic Book Day 2015 at The Laughing Ogre. The store would give away thousands of comics. It also would ring up more sales, by far, than any other day of the year. Near the front door was a face-painting station for the kids, some of whom came dressed as superheroes. Across the aisle was a table for the Hero Initiative, a national charity that sells prints and books to raise money for comics creators in financial need.

The annual event takes place at thousands of shops around the world. Publishers produce special titles that they sell at a deep discount to retailers, who in turn give the comics away to customers. Started in 2002, it is by far the largest promotion in the industry. Customers come for the free stuff, but almost nobody leaves without buying something else.

“On Free Comic Book Day, 90 percent of the people through are not your usual crowd,” Gib Bickel said.

He saw the day as an opportunity to turn casual fans into regulars. At the same time, he knew that the first-time customers that day were walking into a store so crowded that it could feel uninviting. The cool air escaping because of the constant opening of the front door, along with the roomful of warm bodies, made the whole place feel sticky, especially for the employees.

Laughing Ogre was going through a rough patch. The previous February, the store had been sold for the second time in its history. It was not a happy transaction. Bickel was there for both sales, first as the owner and then as an employee. Each sale was stunning in its own way. He had reason to feel shell-shocked, except that he was accustomed to upheaval. Indeed, the history of the store could be seen as a series of rough patches.

Way before Laughing Ogre, Bickel was an up-and-coming manager for Wendy’s restaurants. He had started with the company while a student at Ohio State University and soon dropped out because he liked the idea of getting a decent paycheck rather than paying for classes. Still in his midtwenties, he was a Wendy’s veteran by the time he got assigned to manage a store on Columbus’s west side in the mid-1980s.

In his first week there, he told the employees that the store had an unusually small number of comment cards from customers. A few days later, he looked at a bulletin board for the cards and saw four had been received, a veritable avalanche. “They were very complimentary,” he said. Then he saw the names on each card: Peter Parker, Reed Richards, and Anthony Stark, the secret identities of Spider-Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Iron Man, respectively. “I realized, holy cow, these are all fake and someone in here is a comic fan.”

Bickel had been a comics reader ever since high school, when he picked up Amazing Spider-Man #149 off of a spinner rack. It was at a pharmacy in his hometown, Greenville, Ohio, a county seat near the border with Indiana. The issue’s cover had the title character fighting his clone, so there were two Spider-Men. He was hooked.

Gib Bickel in 1979. Photo courtesy of Bickel.

By the time he got to the west side Wendy’s, he had thousands of comics and had branched off into ancillary geeky pursuits, such as role-playing games. He was excited at the idea that someone at the store was also a fan. The author of the comment cards turned out to be Rod Phillips, an employee who was in high school. When Bickel asked about the cards, Phillips burst out laughing.

“Back then, nobody knew who Anthony Stark was,” Phillips said. This was long before the Iron Man movies made Tony Stark more of a household name. “We formed a really fast friendship.”

A year or so later, another comics fan came to work there, Daryn Guarino. He had moved from Connecticut for college and lived in an apartment across the street from the restaurant. The three of them became close friends and stayed that way after they all moved on to other jobs. About ten years later, they cofounded The Laughing Ogre.

Bickel was the oldest of the three, in his early thirties when they opened the store. He had been married and divorced, and had two children. He had experience from years of managing employees and maintaining the books for his Wendy’s stores. He also had worked as a manager for Wizard of Comics, a small local chain of shops.

“Gib was very much the heart of what we wanted to do,” Phillips said. “He was always the one [for whom] this is what you’re born to do. It’s what makes you happy. It’s your niche in life.” For the other two, it was more of a lark. Phillips had worked part-time at Wizard of Comics with Bickel, and he liked the idea of running his own shop. He was young and single, with nobody to talk him out of doing a crazy thing like opening a small business.

Guarino was a freelance computer programmer, and was putting up all of the cash, about $30,000. “Daryn was always the wheeler-dealer guy,” Phillips said. “He just wanted to have a business, and he had only a middling interest in standing behind a counter and stuff. The classic description of Daryn is the guy who owns a restaurant and doesn’t like to cook or anything, but loves to walk around and ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you enjoying your meal?’”

In terms of temperament, Bickel and Guarino were near-opposites. Phillips likes to use a Star Trek analogy, saying Bickel was the analytical Spock, while Guarino was the passionate Dr. McCoy. And yes, Phillips concedes, he cast himself at Captain Kirk, the ruggedly handsome adventurer and natural leader.

The friends began to talk seriously about opening a store in spring of 1994. By the summer, they were scouting locations. They wanted to be close to a residential area, preferably near a high school, and not too far from Ohio State. The spot they ended up renting was a familiar one, a recent former home of Wizard of Comics. The search took almost no time at all.

“It went from notion to reality in an incredibly short span of time,” Phillips said.

As he remembers it, they were able to move forward with abandon because only one of them, Bickel, had any serious commitments at home. He had two children and was dating the woman who would become, and still is, his wife, and she had a child of her own. Phillips and Guarino were single and could throw themselves wholeheartedly into this new pursuit.

Not everything was working out, however. The friends had planned to sell comics and role-playing games, but the former Wizard location sat next door to The Soldiery, a role-playing game store. In hindsight, Bickel thinks the presence of The Soldiery was a boon for his store. He and his friends decided to focus exclusively on comics, aiming to have the most diverse selection in town. They did this while still benefiting from foot traffic for The Soldiery, an audience that was likely to be interested in comics.

Laughing Ogre had a mission. It wanted to be a store that gave you no reason not to shop there. It would be open longer hours each day than any competitor, and seven days per week, and most holidays. While some stores favored Marvel or DC or independent titles, Laughing Ogre would have everything.

On top of all that, the store would have a name you couldn’t forget. Where did it come from? The friends had a long been players of Warhammer, the tabletop role-playing game. Guarino ran the game, and he had invented a tavern that was a recurring setting for the characters. It was called The Laughing Ogre.

“We wanted a character,” Bickel said. “We wanted something people would remember.” The ogre logo was designed by an acquaintance, Gary Thomas Washington, who was a commercial artist. The original sign remains in place, more than twenty years later.

The Ogre himself, art by Gary Thomas Washington.

The store opened on October 28, 1994, a Friday. The co-owners had built the counter and fixtures themselves. On that first day, many of the shelves were empty, and long boxes of comics were stacked along the wall.

“A guy walks in and says, ‘I thought you were open today,’” Bickel said. “We said, ‘We are open.’ He said, ‘I’ll come back when you’re more open.’”

At first, the co-owners were the only employees, and they received no income. They worked all of the store’s hours themselves, and each of them maintained a full-time, or close to full-time, job on the side, just in case the store flopped.

In the history of the comics business, 1994 was a significant year, the beginning of the deepest downturn since the creation of the direct market two decades earlier. The bust followed an early 1990s boom in which many retailers overextended themselves. Laughing Ogre was coming onto the scene with no debt, low costs, and an abundance of enthusiasm, right as many of its local competitors were being whipsawed by the downturn. So, while 1994 looked like a terrible year to open a comic book shop, it turned out to be fortuitous timing.

But any new business has its problems, and the first one for Laughing Ogre had to do with staffing, or the lack thereof. The co-owners found that details got missed because the store was nobody’s full-time job. They needed one of them to quit his other job and become a day-to-day manager. That person turned out to be Bickel, in the spring of 1995. His pay was the store’s first salary, and its largest expense other than inventory.

The store had a full selection of comics from Marvel and DC and other big publishers, and made a point of having an extensive selection of material from smaller publishers. There were competitors in town that specialized in mainstream superhero comics or small-press comics, but none that tried to do both, Bickel said. As a result, many of Laughing Ogre’s first customers would pick up a few items they couldn’t get at their main store, while still doing the bulk of their buying somewhere else.

“We were everybody’s second store,” he said. As some of the other shops went out of business, Laughing Ogre was poised to pick up the customers.

The Ogre’s original front counter when it was still under construction. Photo courtesy of Bickel.

Within four years, the store was the largest in the region, by Bickel’s estimate. Some of the gains were by conquest, with people switching from other stores. And some were by expanding the market into underserved groups, such as women.

“Pretty early on we had a large female clientele that we were really proud of,” Phillips said. This was in contrast to shops that had a boys’ club mentality, where women would “get treated like a Martian, if not outright harassed,” he said.

The store became one of the social centers of the Columbus comics scene. It hosted regular signings for comics creators and had parties on the nights before major conventions, such as Mid-Ohio Con and the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo. In doing this, the owners got to know many of the creators who were coming up during that time.

One year, the convention guests included Tony Moore, the cocreator and artist on a new horror series called The Walking Dead. Bickel bought the original cover art for issue #15, showing the protagonist, Rick Grimes, riding his motorcycle. The price was $200, and it helped Moore recoup the costs the trip, he would later say. Years later, The Walking Dead has been adapted into a hit television series, and the cover likely is the most valuable comics-related item that Bickel owns, worth thousands of dollars, but he’s not selling.

Bickel was eager to buy the cover because he was a fan of the series, long before it was a commercial success. “We pushed it really hard from day one,” he said. The Walking Dead was one of the titles that had a sign by it saying, “Recommended by Gib.” This meant that customers who tried the book could bring it back and exchange it if they didn’t like it.

Among the other titles that won the status of “Recommended by Gib”: Ultimate Spider-Man, Stray Bullets, and Strangers in Paradise. His favorites tended to come from a select few creators, such as Terry Moore, the writer and artist behind Rachel Rising and Strangers in Paradise, and Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of Ultimate Spider-Man, Powers, and Daredevil.

The Ogre’s staff on a Saturday in 2016: Sarah Edington, Alissa Sallah and Lauren McCallister.

And yet all those creators were secondary to the hometown favorite, Jeff Smith. He had launched Bone, his self-published comic, in 1991 from his Columbus studio. He and his wife, Vijaya Iyer, lived in California from 1991 to 1994, before returning to Columbus. When they got back, Smith became a regular customer.

The store’s sales grew in each of its first eight years, and it was profitable that entire time. “A lot of the mistakes we were making were getting eaten up by sales increases,” Bickel said. The mistakes were almost all related to runaway costs, much of it for inventory that was poorly tracked and got lost in the back room.

This was about when the trio of owners became a duo. Phillips decided he wanted to get a more traditional job, and went back to information-technology work. He sold his share to Bickel and Guarino, and the three remained friends.

The store’s fortunes began to turn during what Bickel calls the “Bush recession” of 2002 and 2003. The country’s economy was sluggish, and the store found that its expenses had grown to exceed its income. By 2005, a business that had once known nothing but profit was $150,000 in debt, and the co-owners had no idea how to reverse course. Bickel worked nearly every hour the store was open. He found he was too tired to give proper attention to ordering and organizing the back room. He staggered through most days. One of the most upbeat people you ever will meet was tired and depressed. In the middle of this, his family dog, Charlie, died.

“I remember being devastated. I don’t deal well with that kind of loss,” he said. Bickel began to see that there was no way forward for the store. He and Guarino would need to close. It was just a matter of when.

Bickel reached out to Gary Dills, owner of Phoenix Comics & Games, a two-store chain in Virginia. Bickel had met Dills a few years earlier through a comics retailer group, and they had kept in touch to trade ideas. This time Bickel had a plea. He asked Dills to consider buying Laughing Ogre’s excess inventory.

“The more we talked, [Dills] said, ‘Have you ever thought about selling the business?’” Bickel said. He knew of nobody in the Columbus area who had the desire and the money to buy the store. And he hadn’t considered that somebody outside Columbus would want to own it.

Dills visited the store and was astounded by what he saw as a great business that was being run poorly. “That was probably one of the top forty stores in the country in terms of volume, and they had one guy doing everything,” Dills said, referring to Bickel. “He’s running ragged and he has no time to get anything done.” He saw big problems in the way Bickel and Guarino related to each other. Bickel worked most of the retail hours and interacted with customers, while Guarino was largely behind the scenes. “It was kind of this left hand not talking to the right hand,” Dills said.

In February 2006, Dills bought the store. Bickel would remain as an employee, and Guarino would leave the business. I was unable to reach Guarino for an interview. He still lives in the Columbus area, and is not in regular touch with Bickel.

The fix for Laughing Ogre turned out to be easy. Dills emptied the store of more than fourteen hundred storage boxes of unsorted comics and books that had accumulated in the back room. He sold them in bulk to another comics dealer and had them trucked away. He followed this with a remodel, taking down walls so that there was more space open to the public and less storage space. Then he started using inventory-management software so that he could better align his ordering with sales.

Less than a year after the sale, Laughing Ogre was profitable again, and monthly sales were up $10,000 from the prior year, Dills said. But this was not a happy time for Bickel. Dills, who spent most of his time in Virginia, had hired a friend of his to be the store manager. The new manager turned out to be one of the few people on earth who couldn’t get along with Bickel.

“I chose the wrong person is what the reality was,” Dills said. “I take as much of the blame as there is in that situation.”

Bickel quit his job at the store in December 2006, less than a year after the sale. Customers received this note with their comics:

Dear Ogre shoppers, “I believe it’s time for me to fly.” OK that was REO, but it also sums up what I need to tell all of you. When I leave on December 21st, I will no longer be working at The Laughing Ogre. It’s a very tough thing to do, but it is time. I can’t express how much I will miss you all. The hardest thing about leaving is realizing that so many friends won’t be visiting me anymore. Your friendship and loyalty as customers is greatly appreciated, and I do mean greatly. . . .

I’ll still buy my comics at The Ogre, so I may see some of you from time to time. I encourage everyone to treat the new store as wonderfully as you did the old one. Thanks again, you have all been absolutely great to work for. Take care, Gib

He went to CarMax, a national chain of used-car dealerships, and worked on the sales staff. He liked it, but he missed comics. During Bickel’s time selling cars, Dills went through two store managers before promoting Jeff Stang to the job, an employee Bickel had hired back in the day. Stang had moved to Columbus for college and was a customer at Laughing Ogre before he was an employee. He had, and has, a memorable look, with a bald head and a clear fondness for the weight room.

In August 2011, Stang posted online that he had a big surprise for longtime customers. That Monday, Bickel returned to Laughing Ogre, and he’s been there ever since. “Anyone who had been shopping there for any amount of time was just ecstatic,” Stang said.

Excerpts from Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture, published in 2017 by Swallow Press at Ohio University.

A Return to DreamHaven and The Source

I took a solo trip to Iowa (where I’m from) and Minnesota (where I went to college) this month, my first extended travel since the pandemic.

And no visit to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area is complete without seeing DreamHaven Books & Comics, the Minneapolis store that has helped to shape my tastes in many things, and is still in business with founder and owner Greg Ketter behind the counter most days (I also visited The Source, pictured above, a great comics and games store in a St. Paul suburb. More on that below). DreamHaven got broken into and vandalized during the riots last summer, but an army of volunteers helped to put things back together, and the place looks as good as ever.

When I say “good,” I mean overstuffed to the point of delightful excess. A visitor could spend a day in one aisle, and there is a good chance that something you’d really like is for sale in a nondescript box on the floor

DreamHaven Books & Comics, 2301 E. 38th St, Minneapolis, photographed on July 2, 2021. Squint and you can see postcards promoting my book, which features DreamHaven.
This photo gives some sense of the sensory overload of walking the aisles at DreamHaven.

At its height in the 1990s, DreamHaven had three locations. In the decades since, Ketter his cohorts have responded to changes in the market and real estate costs by moving several times and reducing the size of the business to the current South Minneapolis storefront. There are almost no new periodical comics. The new stuff here is all science fiction and fantasy books, new comics in book form, and a deep selection back issue comics and of odds and ends.

Ketter told me business is good. The pandemic led to people wanting to buy more stuff for entertainment at home, including books. Also, there has been a boom in the market prices for old comics and collectibles, which helps a store like DreamHaven whose main asset is its deep inventory.

Here are some of my finds from my visit:

Whenever I’m in a store with a lot of back issue comics, I try to pick up some old issues drawn by Alex Toth or José Luis García-López, two greats whose work can often be had for a few dollars each.

I had the good fortune to be at DreamHaven right after they had put out a bunch of issues from DC Comics’ Tarzan series of the 1970s, featuring artwork from Joe Kubert and García-López, among others.

Tarzan #252-255, published by DC Comics, found in a short box on the floor near some pulp paperbacks at DreamHaven Books.

García-López is probably best known for drawing Superman, including early issues of D.C. Comics Presents, and for his work crafting the versions of DC characters used in licensing in the 1980s. If you had Superman bed sheets, the art was probably done by García-López or based on his work.

His magnus opus may be Twilight, a 1990 re-imagining of DC’s science-fiction heroes like Tommy Tomorrow, which was written by Howard Chaykin. Read it for the pretty pictures.

Another career highlight for García-López is Atari Force, a 1980s series that was much better than it had any right to be. Gerry Conway wrote and García-López drew most of Vol. 2 of the series.

But back to Tarzan. In small panel on the second page of #252, García-López gives us one of his distinctive faces:

Here’s the next panel, which takes up a page and then some:

The dialogue is, well, what it is. But just look at the pretty pictures.

The backup story is a reprint from one of the Kubert issues earlier in this run:

My other find at DreamHaven was Weird Western Tales #26, which I believe is the only Jonah Hex story drawn by Doug Wildey. I could have bought this one online at any time, but I’ve preferred to look for it in back issue bins and at comic shows.

I adore Wildey’s work. Weird Western Tales #26 is not his best, but it’s still pretty good.

DreamHaven is about a mile from the intersection where George Floyd was murdered last summer, and the store has a counter display selling Words Over Windows, a book of photographs by David Dyer-Bennet of the art that came from the aftermath of that tragedy. Businesses put up plywood over their windows and residents, artists and business owners painted messages and images on the wood.

You can buy the book and see more photos on the author’s website, which is here.

I’ll end with The Source Comics & Games in Roseville, which is just north of St. Paul. This is a giant comic book store combined with a giant games store, and may be the best I’ve ever seen at this combination.

The storefront isn’t much to look at, but once you get inside this place is a wonderland. Among its many virtues is a well-stocked children’s section:

What made my day about visiting The Source was finding an inexpensive copy of Four Color #920 from Dell Comics, featuring a Zorro story by Alex Toth:

Toth’s Zorro stories have been reprinted many times, including in some nicely produced hardcover editions, but there’s nothing like seeing and smelling that old newsprint. Soak in these few panels:

There’s no way to top Alex Toth, so I’ll just stop right here.

My comfort read: Doug Wildey’s Rio

In a year of pandemic and political chaos, I have found comfort in a certain kind of comics. These are great comics that don’t try to beat you over the head with their seriousness of subject matter, but still manage to demonstrate a mastery of the form. Some examples: Darwyn Cooke’s The Spirit, Mark Waid’s Daredevil (drawn by Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin and Chris Samnee, among others), and Doug Wildey’s incredible Rio.

You know the work of Doug Wildey (1922-1994) even if you’ve never heard of him. He was the main creator of Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest, a cartoon whose artistry and influence extended far beyond its brief run in the mid-1960s.

Jonny Quest Classics #2, published in 1985. Art by Doug Wildey.

Wildey also was a cartoonist, including a run on Atlas Comics’ The Outlaw Kid in the 1950s, the comic strip Ambler in the 1970s, and much more. Later in his career, he had a passion project, a Western about an ex-gunfighter named Rio.

Rio made his debut in 1983 in the anthology series Eclipse Monthly with a story that ran through three issues of that series.

Here is a luscious double-page spread (scanned by Scott VanderPloeg of Artist’s Edition Index and used here with permission) from the beginning of the story as reprinted in Doug Wildey’s Rio: The Complete Saga from IDW:

That first-story reads like it might have been storyboards for a movie, with a clever adventure that spans the country. Rio is working on assignment from the U.S, government to investigate a business that organizes train trips to shoot buffalo for sport from train windows, a practice that is threatening the peace with local Native American tribes. His work gets him framed for murder and he travels across the country to find the person who framed him.

A few years later, Comico collected the story in one volume which was my introduction to Wildey and the character. Note the silver embossed logo, which must have stood out on bookshelves at the time.

“This is a real labor of love for Wildey,” writes Frank Plowright at The Slings & Arrows Graphic Novel Guide. “There was no guarantee of any further Rio stories, so he threw everything into this three-chapter gem, covering an inordinate amount of familiar Western scenes and characters. Gunfighters, cavalry, Native Americans, a snowstorm, the railroad, buffalo, a bar brawl, a siege, a quest to clear Rio’s name and a trip to Mexico all feature.”

Wildey continued to work on Rio stories. The next one was published as the Marvel graphic novel Rio Rides Again in 1990.

If the first Rio story was a movie, the second one was more like a really good episode of a television show. Rio gets a job as interim sheriff of a small town in Kansas, and soon finds that the town’s peaceful atmosphere is a facade.

The original art from the Marvel cover sold in an auction in 2019, and I am jealous of whoever got it.

The next Rio story was Rio at Bay, published by Dark Horse Comics in 1992. It was good, but a notch below the previous two stories.

Two decades later, IDW gave us all a gift by publishing Doug Wildey’s Rio: The Complete Saga in 2012. The book includes all three of the previously published stories, plus “Red Dust in Tombstone,” which was previously unpublished in English, and “Reprisal,” a story that was unfinished when Wildey died in 1994.

In his introduction, Mark Evanier wrote that the greatest character Wildey ever created was himself.

“He was funny, irascible, colorful and blunt,” Evanier wrote. “Tact was not among his many skills, and if he didn’t like something, you heard about it, Did you ever. A hustler in the best sense, Doug had an approach to his vocation that was half Milton Caniff and half Sgt. Bilko. Deep down he wanted to be a TV or movie producer and maybe a director as well, and he probably had all the necessary skills; just not the opportunity.”

Doug Wildey was an incredible talent. Just look at this model sheet:

Some of Wildey’s work reminds me of the great Al Williamson. But the arc of Wildey’s career looks a lot like that of Alex Toth. Both were best known for their work in animation, and even worked together in animation, and both had long careers in comics in which they were drawing scripts that often didn’t live up to the quality of the art. Both also had passion projects that they wrote an drew, with Wildey’s Rio and Toth’s Bravo for Adventure.

My main complaint reading Rio is I wish there was more of it. These stories, especially the first two, are the kind that beg to be reread, with many pages and panels that make you want to stop in a moment of wonder. If you haven’t experienced this stuff, you should.

The 1978 lawsuit that changed comics retail forever

We are living in a year that is fundamentally changing the business of comic shops, with the end of Diamond Comics Distributors’ near-monopoly on selling periodical comics.

DC Comics initiated the change by dropping Diamond in favor of two upstart distributors that are owned by prominent retailers, likely leaving Diamond weaker and forcing comic shops to adjust to a new reality of extra order forms and higher shipping costs.

The events of the last few months have led some people to reflect on the last time a major publisher upended the comics distribution market, when Marvel had its brief and misguided foray into self-distribution starting in 1994.

But I want to talk about something that happened much earlier that set the table for all of this, back when there was another near-monopoly.

In 1977, Phil Seuling and Jonni Levas were four years into running a company that was the first distributor that specialized in selling comics from major publishers such as Marvel and DC to the country’s small but growing network of comic shops.


The company, which would come to be called Sea Gate Distributors Inc., named after the Brooklyn subdivision where Seuling lived, was an innovator that provided an alternative to newspaper and magazine distributors.

Phil Seuling

Phil Seuling in 1971, photo by Mike Zeck. The photo at the top of this post is of Seuling on the Mike Douglas show in 1977.

Retailers could buy from Sea Gate at a greater discount than they could get for the same comics from news distributors. The big difference was that Sea Gate sold its products on a nonreturnable basis, but there were many other differences that appealed to retailers whose businesses depended on having enough copies of the most popular titles, and having extras to later sell as back issues.

Sea Gate helped to create an ecosystem of shops that had comics sooner and often in better condition than competing outlets like grocery stores and drug stores.

But Sea Gate had some practices that made it a difficult vendor. Retailers needed to pay for orders months in advance, which was a challenge for small businesses that often operated on thin margins. Also, Sea Gate required minimum order levels for individual titles that were more than many retailers wanted to buy. Since Sea Gate was the only distributor of major publishers to the comic shop market, retailers had nowhere else to go.

Seuling was a passionate and aggressive businessman. He looked out for his friends and tended to belittle the people he viewed as adversaries.

And then he ran into a family that wouldn’t take it.

Here’s an excerpt from my 2017 book:

There is little doubt that Phil Seuling saw himself as the hero of his story. So who was his archenemy? There are many candidates, but my vote goes to a pugnacious young man named Hal Schuster. As of 1978, Seuling was the biggest player in comics distribution, with the top accounts and the best terms from publishers. Schuster had a small business in Maryland, distributing comics and other material for his family-owned company, Irjax Enterprises.

Irjax had been started in 1973 by Irwin Schuster and his sons Jack and Hal. The name was combination of Irwin and Jack. Although he wasn’t in the name, Hal gave the impression that he ran things. The business was set up to act as a wholesaler of comics and related materials to comic shops. It also was a publisher of magazines about geeky interests, such as Star Trek fandom.

Irjax grew from its base in Rockville, Maryland, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. It wanted to be the dominant wholesaler in the state and neighboring states, and then build from there. This put the company on a collision course with Phil Seuling and Sea Gate. Seuling had started with a few accounts in places such as New York, Buffalo, and the Bay Area. By 1977, he had worked out many of his own organizational problems and was in an expansion mode. He was looking to sign up new retail clients, including in Maryland.

He came into Irjax’s backyard and formed an alliance with retailer Mark Feldman, owner of Maryland Funnybook Shop in Silver Spring. Feldman would serve as a subdistributor for Seuling, obtaining products for his store and then acting as a wholesaler for other stores in the area.

Examples of this model had already happened in other metro areas. Seuling found retailers to serve as his middlemen. These coveted roles often went to friends and associates he had met through his conventions. In almost every market, competing retailers found themselves in the awkward position of having to buy from their local rivals if they wanted to have the advantages of Seuling’s services. At that time, several small comics distribution companies were trying to build and sustain regional territories. Some of them, such as Irjax, saw Seuling’s expansion as an existential threat.

Irjax and Seuling started to trash each other in conversations with potential clients. Seuling would say that Irjax was a small-time operator that didn’t know what it was doing. Irjax would say that Seuling was secretly bleeding money and about to go out of business. The comments, made in private, were not unusual for the rough-and-tumble world of comics distribution. Then Seuling kicked it up a notch with this note in his November 1977 newsletter to customers:

A notice I think is probably unnecessary: For a few months, an off-the-wall pseudo “distributor” on the middle of the East Coast has been telling everyone that “Seuling is out. He won’t be able to deliver books any more.” This nut has also suggested returning unsold books (bought from him) through the local distributor as “returns,” a policy which would automatically get you cut off from all supplies from all publishers. Additionally, this sickie made threatening and harassing phone calls, and has used the mails fraudulently. He is inches away from deep (Federal) trouble. And yes, I intend to prosecute.

Hal Schuster saw this and was livid, according to Levas. The part that most incensed Schuster was the use of the word “sickie,” which he took as a reference to his father. Irwin Schuster used a wheelchair, and his sons were sensitive about anything that seemed to be making fun of this.

“That’s certainly not cool to have written that, but that was Phil, impetuous and headstrong,” Levas said. She thinks the newsletter, as much as any business disagreement, is what made the conflict escalate into what would turn into a legal quagmire.

On October 2, 1978, Irjax Enterprises filed suit in Maryland federal court against Seuling and just about every major comics publisher, accusing them of violating antitrust laws. At its heart, the case was about how Seuling and Sea Gate had more favorable terms with publishers than Irjax did. The most glaring example may have been the way Seuling could get his customers’ orders collated and shipped directly from the printer, which meant his clients received items sooner than his competitors’ clients did.

What Irjax was doing was audacious. The company was a small business, and it was suing some corporate giants. Among the nine defendants were Warner Communications Inc., the parent company of DC, and Cadence Industries Corp., the parent of Marvel. Other retailers and distributors had to take the risk to its finances and reputation.

In the lawsuit, Irjax claimed that the defendants “have engaged in an unlawful combination and conspiracy in restraint of interstate trade and commerce” and have “endeavored to force Irjax out of business of whole-sale distribution of comics books and related items.”

Along with the antitrust claim, Irjax also made a libel claim against Seuling for the comments in the newsletter. The court filing says Seuling’s letter had been mailed to many of Irjax’s customers, contained statements that Seuling knew were untrue, and was “clearly intended to, and did, hold plain-tiffs up to contempt and ridicule.”

Two months later, in an amended complaint, Irjax provided some additional details about how all the defendants fit into the larger comics business. The filing said that Marvel accounted for 70 percent to 75 percent of sales to comic shops; DC was 20 percent to 25 percent of sales; and Warren Publishing, known for Vampirella and other horror titles, had 4 percent. Marvel was dominating the industry, while DC, the former industry leader, was struggling. Warren would go out of business a few years later.

Seuling was not the type to walk away from a fight. He responded to the lawsuit by denying the allegations and then making claims of his own against Irjax and the publishers. He also added a claim against Big Rapids Distribution of Detroit, a company that had not been named in the Irjax lawsuit but was a competitor of Seuling’s. His argument, in essence, was that Irjax and Big Rapids were the ones getting favorable terms of service from the publishers.

From there, many lawyers expended many billable hours. Filings piled up at U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Beyond the nuts and bolts of the case itself, the publishers came to the realization that distribution to comic shops was becoming a big business, and it needed to be handled in a more organized way. No more handshake deals. From then on, Marvel and DC would seek to have uniform terms of service.

By the summer of 1979, less than a year after the Irjax complaint had been filed, the major issues had been resolved in a series of settlements. The upshot for Seuling was that he would no longer receive terms of service that were different from what other distributors got. His time as king of the business was waning. Meanwhile, the number of comic shops continued to grow. Irjax, Big Rapids, and others had a wide-open playing field in which to sign up customers, leading to the next era, one marked by chaotic competition, rapid rises, and even more rapid falls.

 
Hal Schuster

Hal Schuster, photo by Alan Light

Here is a link is a link to a PDF of the complaint that the Schuster family filed in court, which includes a copy of Seuling’s November 1977 order form. I got this from the National Archives, and I want to share it here for the benefit of other researchers.

Irjax1

The lawsuit and its resulting settlements forced comics publishers to change their practices for dealing with distributors, and move away from Sea Gate’s dominance of the business.

I’ve heard several people suggest the federal investigators were looking into whether Sea Gate was an illegal monopoly, and that this, along with Schusters’ lawsuit, forced the publishers to act. I’ve never seen evidence from an official source that there was such an investigation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was.

I’m posting this today for a few reasons, one of which is to tell the story of another near-monopoly reaching its end, a moment that led to dynamic growth and competition in the industry. The market was ripe with opportunity and a new generation of entrepreneurs was arriving, including Milton Griepp and John Davis who would soon found Capital City Distribution, and Steve Geppi would would soon start Diamond Comics Distributors by buying assets from Irjax/New Media.

Another reason for this post is to make an overdue correction.

Here it is: In working on this book, I found two spellings for the Schuster family’s name in documents from the era, with and without the “h.” I needed to figure out which one was correct, and ended up making the wrong choice.

In hindsight, the correct spelling — Schuster — was right in front of me, in court documents and in the way the family spelled its name in its own publications. The misspellings that steered me wrong were in other sources, including an obituary.

For a reporter, misspelling a name is an especially embarrassing mistake. We’ve all done it, but we know to be careful to avoid it. This error appears on five pages in the book, not counting the index and endnotes.

I alerted my publisher about the error, and they are correcting the spelling in the electronic edition, which should eventually solve the problem of the wrong spelling showing up in Google searches. I can’t go out and mark the correction in all the copies that have been sold, but I’d like to.

***

Before I go, I want to point you to a great story on the site formerly known as Newsarama. Jim McLauchlin has put together an oral history of Carol Kalish’s work in the comics industry.

Jim Hanley, the retailer behind Jim Hanley’s Universe, once told me that Kalish “was the patron of the art of comic retailing.”

To find out who she was, and why someone would speak of her in such terms, check out the story.

Some other things that are worth your time:

First, the great Comic Book Historians podcast interviewed Steve Geppi of Diamond Comics and Geppi speaks about his career, including how he bought the some of the wreckage of Irjax/New Media to start Diamond.

 

Next, Comic Book News had an interview with another luminary in the history of comics retail, Milton Griepp. Check it out:

And here’s a recent article by Milton about his early days in the business.

DreamHaven rebuilds after rioting: “Not the best of mornings, but mornings are always hopeful.”

Rioters in Minneapolis did serious damage to DreamHaven Books and Comics, a business that has been around in various forms and under several names since the 1970s. This store is a treasure, and some of its many friends showed up on Saturday morning to help founder Greg Ketter and his team clean up the mess.

There has been some discussion online about whether it’s tone deaf to mourn the damage to businesses and livelihoods during riots that were inspired by horrifying inequities. I think it’s possible to mourn multiple things at the same time, without implying that those things are equivalent.

DreamHaven’s Facebook page posted the photo above (used here with permission), showing that volunteers had boarded up the shattered windows, and painted a message familiar to any comic book fan.

“Thank you everyone who came by to help and wish us well,” writes Wendy Comeau of DreamHaven. “It was a mess, with most of the glass cabinets at least partially broken. There were a few merchandise casualties and they took/destroyed the electronics they found, but mostly they ignored the books. All except the one they tried to burn, which they left to smolder and which put itself out.

“Teams of folks came by during the day (they appeared out of nowhere! It was *brilliant*!) and boarded up the store and painted ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ on the boards. Also brilliant.

“So for the moment, we’re done. There are a lot of things that need to be put back into place, and it will be a little while before we can open again. But we’re here and safe and once we get through this patch we will again be able to open for business.”

Publishers Weekly wrote about the damage to Twin Cities book stores, including DreamHaven and the complete loss of Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore and Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. Moon Palace Books, another great store, had not yet sustained major damage, even though it’s right in the thick of where riots were taking place.

Even though I haven’t lived near DreamHaven for 20 years, I ordered from them twice during this pandemic, because it’s the kind of place that has what you’re looking for.

I’ve written many times about this great store and its founder and owner, Greg Ketter.

Greg Ketter

Greg Ketter, photographed in 2017.

Ketter wrote this yesterday on his personal Facebook page:

“We’re safe at DreamHaven. The store was trashed but so many volunteers have showed up that cleanup is going really well. I want to thank everyone for their love and concern. Uncle Hugo’s has burned; they tried to burn DreamHaven, but ironically, the book they tried to start the fire was my own book, Shelf Life, which started to burn but then extinguished and saved the store.

“I’ve been very emotional today, bursting into tears every so often. I just don’t know what else to say…”

A dad and his daughter read (and rate) the amazing Don Rosa

I knew of Don Rosa, the great cartoonist who wrote Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, but I didn’t read a story by him until my daughter was born nine years ago.

Having a child gave me license to dive into the canon of great comics for young readers. I say “gave me” instead of “gave us” because I started reading comics to her when she was three months old, long before she could follow narrative or eat solids.

She was 3 and getting old enough to follow the stories when Fantagraphics published the first volume of The Don Rosa Library in 2014. In the years since, we have worn out that book out from rereading. We also bought and read the other nine volumes, which together make up all of the duck stories by this great artist. She now has reread them on her own, loaned them to friends and otherwise absorbed the work in the ways a kid does when they love something and have had it for as long as they can remember.

son of the son

Walt Disney Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck Vol. 1: The Son of the Sun (Fantagraphics Books)

Starting today, my daughter and I begin to make our way through this collection, rating which stories we liked the best and explaining why. I also have a daughter who is 6, and has her own thoughts on these matters, and may occasionally chime in.

Don Rosa — full name Keno Don Hugo Rosa — is acclaimed in Europe, where Disney’s duck comics remain big sellers, but largely unknown in the U.S., leading to headlines such as this one: “Meet Don Rosa, the most famous Kentuckian you’ve never heard of.”

At a time when comics for children are going through a renaissance, with Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier and Jeff Smith selling millions of copies, I am certain that many of those readers would adore the stories of Don Rosa. I know this because I have a focus group right in my house.

Rosa’s stories can be enjoyed on their own, without any knowledge of the duck comics that came before. But there is a deeper level of understanding for people to can see the many ways that Rosa is paying tribute to Carl Barks, the cartoonist who drew Disney characters starting in the 1940s and created most of the characters and settings in which Don Rosa is playing. Rosa is a devoted successor to Barks, filling in blanks in Barks’ continuity to tell a richer story. Nearly every Rosa duck story contains a hidden tribute to Barks, in which Rosa writes “D.U.C.K.” somewhere for readers to find. This stands for “Dedicated to Uncle Carl from Keno.”

Vol. 1 of the Don Rosa Library is titled “Son of the Son,” after the epic story that begins the book and was Rosa’s first published Disney story.

Here we go:

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The first panel of Don Rosa’s first Disney duck story. All images © Disney.

Son of the Son (26 pages) — Some artists arrive on the scene fully formed to an extent that it seems like they’ve been training in some secluded chalet for decades, preparing for their moment.

Rather than make his debut with a short, simple story, Rosa chose to do a continents-spanning treasure hunt, with a death-defying flight, an exploding Inca temple and pages packed with sight gags and ridiculous levels of detail.

Son of the Son 2

I can only imagine what this story must have seemed like to readers of its first U.S. publication in Uncle Scrooge #219 in April 1987.

This is a great story, in the pantheon of Rosa’s best, but, as you’ll see, my fellow reviewer and I think there is an even better story in Vol. 1.

I gave this one 90 out of 100 points. My daughter gave 95. “I think it’s really good for a first try,” she said. Average score 92.5.

For the other stories, I’ll list it like this: 92.5 (90, 95), with my score first.

Nobody’s Business (10 pages) — This is Rosa’s first story with Gladstone Gander, Donald Duck’s obnoxiously lucky cousin. Neither I nor my fellow reviewer are fans of Gladstone. I’m not giving this one a score because my daughter doesn’t remember it well enough to rate it. At best, this is a middling story.

Mythological Menagerie (10 pages) — Now we’re talking. This quick and hilarious story is one of the best of a subgenre of Rosa comedies in which Donald comes up with a scheme that goes poorly. His nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, are identifying animals they see in the wild to earn merit badges from their Boy Scouts-like organization, the Junior Woodchucks.

Donald plays a practical joke on them by putting paint, household objects and random junk on pets and livestock and having them walk through the woods where the nephews are camped. Rather than be confused, the nephews manage to identify each of these animals as exotic species from the far corners of the world or even mythology. Donald sees this and keeps upping the ante, ending up enraged and injured — which is often the ending of these kinds of duck stories.

My co-reviewer says, “I love, love, love that one.” Score: 86.5 (88, 95)

Menagerie

Let’s quickly do the next three stories, none of which were among our favorites.

Recalled Wreck (10 pages): 70 (65, 75)

Cash Flow (26 pages): 67.5 (70, 65)

Fit to Be Pied (10 pages): 72.5 (72, 73)

Fir-Tree Fracas (10 pages) — Another example of Rosa’s flair for short comedy stories. This one is about holiday decorating gone awry, ending in embarrassment for Donald. My co-reviewer says, “It’s funny how when Donald tries to be extra perfect at something, he does it and it gets extra weird and it ends up being less than good.” Score: 81 (82, 80)

When re-reading this book, we often skip the following to two stories, which are unremarkable and also right before one of the best stories Rosa has ever done.

Oolated Duck (10 pages): 56.5 (58, 55)

The Paper Chase (10 pages): 52.5 (56, 49)

Dawson 1

Scrooge, in flashback, during his days in the Yukon, quoting the poet Robert W. Service.

Last Sled to Dawson (28 pages) — With this story, published in 1988, Barks makes his first major contribution to expanding upon Uncle Scrooge stories written by Barks. This is a sequel of sorts to the Barks story “Back to the Klondike,” taking place in the icy wilds of Canada where Scrooge made his first fortune.

Rosa goes far beyond the material that inspired this story to present something new, with rich characters and intriguing plot twists. Here we see a young Scrooge in flashbacks. We see Glittering Goldie, the dance hall girl who in Rosa’s hands becomes Scrooge’s lost love. We see Soapy Slick, a loan shark and all-around villain.

Scrooge decides to go back to the place he made his fortune because he gets news that an old pack of his has finally come loose from the ice where it had been entombed for decades.

He brings Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie for an adventure that forces him to confront the mistakes of his past. This is close to my favorite Rosa story because of the way it succeeds on several levels, with fodder for fans of the Barks story, and an exciting plot and luscious art for readers who know nothing of what came before.

The things that make this story great are what would eventually do the same for Rosa’s 12-part “Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,” an extended origin story that takes up most of the fourth and fifth volumes of the Fantagraphics book series.

“It’s really interesting,” says my co-reviewer. “It’s like something is lost but (Scrooge) suddenly remembers it.” Score: 96 (95, 97)

The book ends with two two-page stories and a 10-pager. “Fiscal Fitness” gets one of the lowest scores of any Rosa story in the 10 volumes, not because it’s bad, but just because it’s blah. The other two show Rosa operating at a high level, but they are several gears short of his highest level.

Rocket Reverie (2 pages): 62.5 (63, 70)

Fiscal Fitness (2 pages): 37.5 (35, 40)

Metaphorically Spanking (10 pages): 66.5 (73, 70)

Vol. 1 of the series of one of the best of the ten, showing how Rosa knew exactly what he wanted to do and did it, without the apparent jitters so many people would have in his position.

My daughter and I have talked about and scored all of the stories from the first five volumes of the series. I was going to call this post Part 1, but I know my posts have been infrequent enough that I don’t want to overpromise. I hope there is a Part 2, and more.

Until then, go get your hands on these books. Give them as gifts. Read them.

 

How best to honor Tom Spurgeon?

Tom Spurgeon died this week. Although he was not in great health, this was a shock for all of us who were lucky enough to have him in our lives. It still hasn’t sunk in for me. I half expect to see him at the next Columbus comics event. He always showed up.

Our city and a much larger community are reeling from the loss. The only positive I see is that so much of the good Tom did has not vanished along with him. We have his lifetime of often-brilliant writing. We have friendships that exist because of the people he brought together. We can learn from his example about how to love art, appreciate artists and sneer at bullshit.

Tom Spurgeon

Tom Spurgeon

I became aware of Tom in the late 1990s when he was editor of The Comics Journal. He was the person behind the issues of the magazine when I became a devoted reader. As I told him more than once, his Comics Journal helped to shape my tastes.

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The Comics Journal #194, Fantagraphics

The first issue I picked up was #194 in spring of my junior year of college. I got it at Uncle Sven’s Comic Shoppe in St. Paul and I devoured it. I learned of the cartoonist Seth because the letters page had comments about the previous issue, which was an interview with Seth. The articles and ads in that issue inspired my reading for the next few years, introducing me to artists whose work I still adore.

The fact that I was a comics fan and a lifelong comics reader was secondary to all the serious stuff that people list in their official bios. I was a largely closeted geek. I was first and foremost a news reporter. After college I moved to New Hampshire to work for a newspaper and then to my native Iowa to cover the statehouse for a group of newspapers. In 2008, my wife enrolled at Ohio State University for graduate school and so we moved to Columbus and I got a job covering business news for The Columbus Dispatch.

Tom Spurgeon moved to Columbus to take the job as executive director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, or CXC, a comics festival that made its debut under his leadership in 2015. At the Dispatch, I occasionally wrote about comics, and I wrote a preview of the first CXC.

I loved the first CXC. It was held in a small art space and had a ridiculously talented cast of special guests, including Jaime Hernandez, Art Spiegelman and Craig Thompson.

In 2016, I became a volunteer with the show. My job, among other things, was to act as a gopher and driver for Ben Katchor. It was great.

Sometime after that, I got to know Tom. One of our longest early conversations was when I interviewed him for my book about comics retail. I got my first taste of how he could go off on entertaining tangents. It also became clear that he and I shared a fondness for comics of the 1970s and 80s and for the wonderful and weird trappings of comic shops. We shared a mutual appreciation of Dan Spiegle, a criminally underappreciated artist.

Blackhawk.jpg

Blackhawk #268, DC Comics. Art by Dan Spiegle.

Soon after, I asked him to write the foreword for the book and he agreed, even though we barely knew each other at that point. Somehow, I had obtained the Spurgeon seal of approval, which turned out to be essential for others to take the work seriously. He gave me some of his credibility and expected nothing in return.

He later asked me to take on a greater role with CXC. The best part of this was that his “ask” took the form of a long afternoon at a coffee shop in which we talked about CXC a little and a lot about everything else. We had a few conversations like that since, and I thought we’d have many more.

The outpouring of affection for Tom this week has not been surprising. He did for many others what he did for me. If he saw something or someone he liked, he helped out.

He was one of the funniest people I knew. Just read his Twitter feed for years of wit and self-deprecation.

He was one of the best writers and critics I knew. If anyone wants to publish a collection of his work, I’ll buy one for me and others for my friends. To get a sense of this, read his essay about illness and near death from 2011, one that has been shared a lot by people coming to terms with his death.

Now, let’s get to the point. A bad thing has happened. A good person is gone. What do we do?

The answer is simple. We support good work. We tell others about it. We help others without expecting anything in return.

One of the ways I’ve been dealing with the loss of Tom is re-reading Don Rosa’s Disney comics. He and I had talked about our mutual affection for Rosa’s work. I remember he had a Rosa hardcover in his bathroom, which I thought was cool.

As a parent of two elementary school age daughters, I can see we are living in a renaissance for comics aimed at children. I’ve read my kids all of Don Rosa’s stories, and I think it’s a unfortunate that his work is not better known. He is a star, and a legend for a certain kind of comics fan, but there are millions of readers whose lives would be better if they knew of his work.

Fantagraphics has done a great thing by publishing a 10-volume series that contains every Don Rosa Disney story. More people should read them, and I want to try to do my small part to encourage that.

These next few weekends, I’m going to go through those books with my daughters and we will pick out our favorite stories. I’ll write about them in several installments here, with commentary from my 8-year-old, a critic whose humor and insight would make Tom Spurgeon proud.

The image at the top of this post is by Nate Powell, used with permission. He’s great. Buy all his books.

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.

James Warren

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.

Kurtzman

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.”

founders

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.

Mike and Phil

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.

IMG_1265 (1) Laughing Ogre

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.