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.

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.

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.