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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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 manytimes about this great store and its founder and owner, 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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 outpouringofaffection 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.
daylight savings time is planet earth's version of when your friend insists you call them a nickname they made up for themselves
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.
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:
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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, email@example.com.
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.
The new storefront for The Beguiling in Toronto.
Also new in the paperback edition: Meet the “Comic Lady,” Kathleen Miller, owner of Comic World in Huntington, West Virginia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!