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.

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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.

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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.

 

How I spent my winter vacation

My nine years in Ohio have desensitized me to cold. I got a reminder of this when my home state, Iowa, greeted me with a cold snap last week, as if to remind me who’s boss.

Other than the extreme cold (with lows of -15 Fahrenheit), I had a great time seeing friends and family in the Des Moines area and in northwest Iowa.

On Dec. 27, I did two events for my book. First was a reading at Beaverdale Books, a cozy independent bookstore in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood. Turnout was great. The store sold out of its stock of my book, and I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing a few former colleagues from the Des Moines Statehouse press corps.

Thank you to the store’s owner, Alice Meyer, for inviting me, and to the whole staff for promoting the heck out of it. Daniel P. Finney, the Des Moines Register columnist, wrote a column about comic shops and the book, and John Busbee interviewed me for his show on KFMG radio.

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Alice Meyer introduces me at Beaverdale Books.

Later that same day, we had a gathering at 515 Brewing, where the tap room manager is Matt Johnson, my high school classmate and a former comics retailer. We had the misfortune of scheduling this at the same time that the University of Iowa was playing in the Pinstripe Bowl (Go Hawks!). Despite this, a bunch of people showed up, and it was great to catch up with Matt.

A few days later, Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool picked up the Register story, and posted “The Man Who Gave Up Comics for Beer.”

Before I go, I wanted to comment a bit on what I’m hearing from comics retailers as they concluded a difficult 2017. While the nation’s economy grew at a healthy pace, comics retailers were going through a sales swoon, due in large part to an awful performance by Marvel.

The question going forward is how much of this is cyclical and how much can be attributed to secular decline.

I think it’s safe to say that there will be fewer comic shops next year at this time than there are now. A lot of the closings will be stores that were barely holding on, even in good times. The real concern for the industry will be if well-run stores with loyal audiences find that their profit margins have slipped to below the point of sustainability.

Although I did interviews for my book in 2015 and 2016, many of the comments ring true today even more than they did then.

First was Mark Waid, the comics writer who was a co-owner of a comic shop when I spoke with him:

“The role of a comic shop is to be a curator, is to be a gatekeeper, to help new readers find what they want. … It is a great time in that more and more people are coming in and looking for things that are not Marvel and DC comics, that are looking for creator-owned stuff, that are looking for material based on creators rather than on franchises, and that’s pretty cool. And frankly, it’s healthier for the market because it brings new people in. Very few people walk in the door at age twenty-five and say, ‘I want to start reading Avengers.’

“The paradigm shift seems to be away from monthly comics and toward trade paperbacks and stuff like that, which is great. It’s better money for everyone in the long run and a better format. But it’s the changeover that is dangerous. That’s the part that could kill us because all comic book stores still depend on that Wednesday cycle. All comic stores are still budgeted for those people who come every Wednesday for their comics. We can’t change overnight to deal more with a bookstore customer, people who only come in infrequently to pick up bigger amounts of stuff.”

Next was Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California:

“There are waves in this business. … The retailers that have been able to persevere through all of that have learned to ride those waves. Sometimes there’s an occasional wipeout and you get sucked under the tide, and there are times when you’re riding high and you’re on top of the world. For me, in all of that, the key has been how do you manage things, not just on the way up, but how do you manage things when things aren’t going well. And that’s, to me, the difference between the stores that last and the ones that don’t.”

Now, shop owners are going into the slowest time of year and hoping that the major publishers can come up with a few hits in the spring.

 

Berkeley, 1973: The art of Jim Pinkoski

In April of 1973, a bunch of young entrepreneurs hosted a convention focused on underground comix, with a lineup that included just about all the stars of that scene.

The Berkeley Comix Convention, or Berkeley Con, was held at Pauley Ballroom at the University of California. It drew national media coverage to a side of comics publishing that still seemed to be in its ascendancy.

Today, I’m going to focus on the program book, a work of art all its own, and the drawings of Jim Pinkoski.

He was a young employee at Comics & Comix, the chain of comic shops, and he was a talented artist.

The book includes an ad for Comics & Comix, and a Little Nemo pastiche, both by Jim.

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Here is the cover, with art by Rick Griffin, followed by the table of contents. Take a good look at some of those names.

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Right before the convention, Jim did the cover for the San Francisco Phoenix, an underground newspaper that was doing a special issue about comix. The cropped illustration is at the top of this post. Here is the uncropped version:

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I asked Jim about how he came to work at the Comics & Comix, and this was his response, via email.

I recall walking along Telegraph Avenue in what I thought was 1971, and seeing the Comics & Comix store there for the first time. It had been open just a week or so. The first guy they hired was a fellow with long straight blonde hair, and I can’t recall his name, but I was the second person they hired!

I think I worked there straight through — 1971 to 1976 — started at the Berkeley shop, then filled in for several months at the S.F. store. It was time consuming to commute across the Bay, but was neat to walk right along the base of the huge Transamerica Pyramid each day! (And then I recall doing the commute while sick with the flu once that was no fun.) Then in 1975-1976 they opened a shop in San Jose and I moved into it to manage it. Brent Anderson and Frank Cirocco were there and we painted the comic characters on the front windows.

Some notes: The store opened in 1972, not ’71. Also, the San Jose store was getting remodeled in 1975, as opposed to opening for the first time.

About the Berkeley Con, his memory is foggy.

I remember next to nothing about that 1973 Berkeley underground comix con. I recall that I thought the building was “too clean” for something like an underground comix con. It really should have been held in an old broken down rave warehouse somewhere!

One of his few clear memories, aided by photographic evidence, is that he was taking shots of the guests using his Nimslo 3-D camera. Among the photos was the following salute from Spain Rodriguez and S. Clay Wilson.

[Correction: A reader tells me that this photo wasn’t from 1973, noting that Wilson’s hair wasn’t this gray until the mid-1980s. I think the reader is correct, based on this photo that also was taken at the 1973 show. I followed up with Jim Pinkoski and he said he still thinks the photo is from ’73 but is not absolutely sure. Either way, cool photo.]

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Below is Trina Robbins on the Pauley’s center’s balcony. [If the Spain and Wilson photo is not from ’73, then it’s reasonable to ask if this one is as well. If I get any other information, I’ll update here.]

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Comics & Comix, initially called the Berkeley Comic Art Shop, was started by John Barrett, Robert Beerbohm and Bud Plant, some of the same people who organized the Berkeley Con.

Here, from 1975 or so are Barrett (left) and Pinkoski.

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They did the grunt work themselves to remodel the San Jose shop. And yes, the Brent Anderson from Comics & Comix is the same guy who has spent the last few decades drawing comics for major publishers.

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Once at a Comics & Comix warehouse party, Jim played the drums and Jim Steranko played guitar.

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Jim Pinkoski continued to do ads for Comics & Comics, such as this one from 1975:

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He now lives in Tennessee with his wife Sandra, pictured below. You can see what he’s been up to since leaving California by going to his website.

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Thank you to Jim for sharing all the photos and stories. I got in touch with him after he reached out to Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics, so thanks to Joe as well.

One more thing: I want to read an oral history of that 1973 Berkeley Con. Some of the best books about the undergrounds, such as Rebel Visions by Patrick Rosenkranz, do not have much about what must have been an off-the-hook weekend.

****** UPDATE 12/15/17: I added several photos, and removed an illustration of Bud Plant. I’ll be posting that illustration in an upcoming post.

****** UPDATE 12/20/17: I added a correction to the Spain and Wilson photo based on evidence that it was not taken in 1973. I also added a note above the Robbins photo.

An update: What’s good, what’s weird and what I’ve learned

My book has been out for almost exactly two months. I’ve heard from many readers and had some great fun doing events. While I expect that there still are reviews and reaction to come, I have a pretty good idea of how my work is being received. Below is a far-from-complete list of things on my mind during this eventful stretch.

Here’s what good:

• The book’s initial printing has sold out, and a reprinting is on its way. I was anticipating that the initial printing would be enough for the calendar year, but sales started strong and have remained steady. This is great news, not only because it shows support for this project, but it demonstrates that there is an audience for this kind of story.

• My family and I drove to Muncie, Indiana last weekend for an event at Aw Yeah Comics. Christina Blanch was a great host, and turnout was solid. I can see why her store has become a frequent destination for comics creators doing signings. See the end of this post for more.

Here’s what’s weird:

• The parts of the book that I expected to be controversial have not been, at least not yet. I’ll leave it to others to guess what those are.

• I am realizing the extent to which there is a regional element (I’m avoiding using the word “bias” here) when talking about the history of the comics retail business. Broadly, this is separated into two main camps: East Coast and West Coast. People from each side tend to talk about the early days from the perspective that their region was on the leading edge, and its people were the pioneers. Here’s why I find this weird: I’m from Iowa, where we often feel like everything happened somewhere else. And, the pioneers of the business were from all over, not just one or two metro areas.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

• Let’s call this the “Tintin Rule.” If I’m walking into a comic shop for the first time, I look for whether there is a children’s section and whether Tintin books are on display. The presence of the Tintin series by Hergé is a strong indicator that I’m in a good store. I realize this may sound random, but I found it to be true over and over.

And that brings me back to Aw Yeah Comics. The store covers two floors, and the upstairs is packed with old books and comics, many of which are at bargain prices. I found a nearly complete run of Tintin paperbacks for $5 each. I bought four of them. Sometime soon, I’m going to write about another book I picked up, the black-and-white reprints of Alex Toth’s Zorro from Eclipse Books.

Thank you to Christy and everyone who attended. Here are some photos:

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After my signing, Christina Blanch and I held a discussion on the store’s cozy second floor. This photo was taken by someone seated on an extremely comfy couch.

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Aw Yeah Muncie has one of the best children’s sections I’ve seen, and it’s located right inside the back door, which faces the parking lot. Not pictured are the shelves of kids books and the couch. Christy seems to have a thing for couches.

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The second floor has shelves of books and many long boxes of back issues. My one regret from this visit is that I didn’t not have much time to scan these shelves.

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Just to give a sense of the treasures to be found on Aw Yeah’s second floor, I found these Terry and the Pirates reprint paperbacks from NBM for $5 each.

 

Upcoming events: Meet me in Muncie, and Des Moines, and Bexley

This Saturday, I’ll be in Muncie, Indiana at Aw Yeah Comics, talking to owner Christina Blanch and signing books.

More on Aw Yeah in a minute. First, I want to give a rundown of public events over the next two months. I will update if things get added or otherwise change.

• Saturday, Dec. 2 at Aw Yeah Comics in Muncie, Indiana. Signing from 4 to 6 p.m., immediately followed by a discussion with Christy Blanch.

• Wednesday Dec. 27 at Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa. Meet the author event and signing starts at 4 p.m. I grew up in Norwalk, which is just south of Des Moines, so this is a hometown event for me.

• Wednesday, Dec. 27 at 515 Brewing Co. in Clive, Iowa. Happy hour gathering from 7 to 9 p.m. No program planned for this, just hanging out, with books available for sale. The taproom is managed by Matt Johnson, a high school classmate of mine who later was co-founder of Cup O’ Kryptonite, a comics-coffee combo store that was way ahead of its time.

• Thursday, Jan. 18 at Gramercy Books in Bexley, Ohio. Author night with Dan Gearino starting at 7 p.m. Gramercy is a relatively new independent bookstore in the Columbus area, and has been a great supporter of local writers. This will be my second Columbus event after the book launch in October.

Now, about Aw Yeah Comics. When I started writing my book, Aw Yeah was one of the first stores I visited. Christy and her crew went out of their way to accommodate me at a time when my project was barely formed.

Aw Yeah is part of a loosely connected three-store chain, with other stores in Skokie, Illinois and Harrison, New York. The Muncie store is in the city’s downtown. It has an inviting children’s section, and an enticing mix of back issues. While I was there, I saw how the location attracts foot traffic from lots of people who are new to comics. The staff has a knack for making recommendations and turning one-time visitors into regulars.

In addition to owning the store, Christy just completed her doctorate in education at Ball State University, and she is a writer and teacher.

If you’re in or near Muncie this Saturday, you should stop by.

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The Aw Yeah Muncie crew, photographed at a recent convention. Christy is notably not wearing her logo gear, probably because she was spending half of the day moderating panels.

Watch this: Green Brain Comics’ weekly video

One of my favorite comic shops is Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. Co-owners Katie and Dan Merritt (pictured above) have a fun, deeply stocked store that is an important part of the Dearborn and Detroit-area community.

If I was starting a comic shop, I would spend some time at Green Brain and copy just about everything they do.

Today, I’ll mention just one of those things. Each Tuesday, Katie and other staff members do a live video in which they run through most of the new stuff coming out that week.

In addition to promoting new books, the whole vibe is priceless, showing that this place is fun and welcoming. Other stores do videos like this, but Green Brain does it the best that I’ve seen.

Take a look:

I got this from the store’s Facebook page. I will update this post with the names of the other two employees.

Take my money, please: Someone publish new editions of Charlier and Moebius’ Blueberry stories

My introduction to Eurocomics came from The Comics Journal, a magazine that was readily available in my Iowa hometown while many of those comics were not.

This led to a odd experience, repeated time and again, of reading about a comic years before reading the comic itself.

I thought of this over the weekend when I made a find at Half Price Books. Get a load of this:

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That, my friend, is Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s cowboy classic, Blueberry. Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint did this run in a series of paperbacks in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

Unfortunately for me, the books were at close to market prices, which are steep considering this stuff is long out of print. I ended up buying just one.

I suppose I am holding out for a high-quality hardcover series that must be just around the corner. Right? Anyone?

As has been noted elsewhere, “We are at peak reprint,” and that certainly applies to European comics translated into English. I can get a great editions of Valerian and Laureline. Moebius’ sci-fi material is being collected by Dark Horse and it looks outstanding. Dean Mullaney is doing yeoman’s work with his EuroComics imprint at IDW. And, I must mention Fantagraphics, for many titles, including lots of Tardi.

In this embarrassment of riches, I still need to search for Blueberry, the pulpy genre work of two European guys telling the story of an American. The character, Mike S. Blueberry, is familiar: He is good with a gun, doesn’t play by the rules, and operates with a sense of personal honor. The wonder of these comics is how much the creators do within this framework.

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Until the next reprint series of Blueberry, here is some of what’s out there:

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• The Blueberry Saga: Confederate Gold, 1996, MoJo Press. This undersized, black-and-white paperback contains five stories and runs 288 pages. It can be had online for about $40. The print quality is hit or miss. I like being able to see the art in black and white, but the fact that it is being presented at less than its intended size is a problem, especially on highly detailed pages. By the way, this was the first Blueberry book I owned, and it seemed great to me at the time. The black-and-white illustration above appears in the introduction to this edition. (This book contains five full-length stories: Chihuahua Pearl, The Half-a-Million Dollar Man, Ballad for a Coffin, The Outlaw and Angel Face; plus a short story, Three Black Birds.)

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• Epic Graphic Novel series, 1989-91, Marvel Comics. This color, paperback series has 10.8-inch by 8.1-inch pages, which is larger than a typical American comic book. I count nine volumes, most of which have two-full length stories, putting them at about 100 pages each. The exceptions are the The Iron Horse and Steelfingers, which are 46 pages each. These are all out of print. If you see one for less than $30, buy it.

• Graphitti Designs’ Moebius series, 1989-91, Graphitti Designs. I have never seen any of these color, hardcover books in the wild, but they are evidently still available from the publisher for about $40 to $50, depending on the volume. There are four books of Blueberry stories, plus others that contain Moebius sci-fi stories. The first Blueberry book, MOEBIUS 4, has four stories, starting with Chihuahua Pearl; the second book, MOEBIUS 5, has six stories, starting with Angel Face; the third book, MOEBIUS 6,  has four stories, starting with The Iron Horse; the fifth book, MOEBIUS 9 has two stories, starting with The Lost Dutchman’s Mine.

I would suggest starting with Chihuahua Pearl, which is the beginning of fun and gripping serial, and also seems to be one of the easiest stories to find.

There are other English-language Blueberry editions floating around, including some from Egmont/Methuen that were initially published in the United Kingdom in the late-1970s, and one from Dark Horse 1990. (Thanks to Eurocomics.info, which I used, among other sources, to put this together.)

The cover images above are from Comics.org. All artwork, including cover images, is copyright Charlier and Giraud.

One more thing:

When searching Comics.org for Blueberry titles, I found one that clearly didn’t belong with the rest. See if you can find it.

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I for one would read a Blueberry/Cathy crossover.