Happy birthday Jonni Levas (and Phil Seuling)

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

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

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

Phil died in 1984 when he was just 50.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonni 2.jpg
Jonni at the Museum of Modern Art Sculture Garden. Undated photo is courtesy of Jonni Levas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Jonni.