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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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!
This has been quite a year. At the end of March, I left The Columbus Dispatch and started working for InsideClimate News, first as a freelancer and now as a staff writer covering clean energy and the Midwest. (The photo above is me going to the office for my last day at the newspaper, showing off my infamous “picture face.”)
This alone would be a trying transition, but it happened to coincide with lots of other challenges. The upshot was that I spent much of this year tired and nearly overwhelmed by it all.
A few days ago I looked at this website for the first time in a while and saw that I am still getting fairly steady traffic, despite not posting since late September.
So, thanks for reading. Here are a few things from my travels this year that I never got around to to posting:
I am lucky to live in a city that puts on one of the best comics festivals around. The fourth annual Cartoon Crossroads Columbus starts this week. I’ll be volunteering there over the weekend, so say hello.
Here are some of the things I’m excited about. Note that I’m not listing some of the high-profile events, such as the Fraction-Bendis panel or Olivia Jaimes, because I think people already know about those.
Jason Lutes! He has spent two decades completing Berlin, a story of that German city during the decline of the Wiemar Republic and the rise of fascism. He will be selling the recently released hardcover of the complete series and appearing at several panels. I have enjoyed his work ever since Jar of Fools in the mid-1990s, but have never seen him in person.
Keiler Roberts has a new book and she’ll be there. I adore Keiler Roberts’ comics, which show the humor and frustration of being a parent of a young child and the uncertainty of dealing with personal health challenges. Her new book is Chlorine Gardens from Koyama Press. She has deservedly gotten rave reviews for just about everything she’s done, but she deserves even wider recognition.
The usual suspects! One great thing about CXC is the guests who are there every year, including the show’s founder, Jeff Smith, and others such as Dustin Harbin and Derf Backderf, among many others.
My main advice this year, which is the same as it was last year, is to buy the damn books. You’ll be glad you did. And, many of the lower-profile cartoonists who are there are doing great work and depending on selling their books to pay for the trip.
Last week, my wife and I had a two-day escape to Toronto, our first stretch of the summer when we were child-free and had no work commitments. It was sublime.
One of the highlights was getting our first look at the new location of The Beguiling, the legendary comic shop that had to relocate at the beginning of 2017 to make way for a development project in its old neighborhood.
The old Beguiling was one of the best, if not the best, comic shops I had ever seen, and I approached this new location with concerns that some of the magic didn’t make the move.
Well, I can safely say that this new spot has much of the deep selection and quirkiness of the predecessor, and now has it in a larger space. The current location opened in one storefront, but soon expanded to take up the two next door, making this one of the largest indie-friendly comic shops in the industry.
Owner Peter Birkemoe told me that the retail footprint is about to get even larger with the opening of a basement section for back issues, which was under construction when I visited.
Here is a brief tour of what you’ll see if you go to the new Beguiling:
I still have sentimental attachment to the old space, which was in a repurposed house, and had more offbeat backstock than this one. That said, this location is worthy of its name, and is enough of a destination that anyone visiting Toronto should go.
Bud Plant says he will not be a vendor at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, marking the first time since the con’s debut in 1970 that he is not among the people selling.
“After 48 consecutive years of exhibiting at Comic-Con, I am not going to set up this year. I’ll be there walking the floor, looking for new sketchbooks and other products, catching up with publishers, seeing friends, and, well, scouting for Golden Age comics as I always find time to do. But after long and hard debate, we here (LaDonna, Anne and our usual assistants) decided we had enough of the complicated and labor-intensive logistics of setting up there,” he said in a Facebook post.
One of the best moments of working on my book was when Bud gave me a tour of his warehouse in Grass Valley, California, which is where I took the photo at the top of his this post. (Self-promotional note: He is a key person in the book, and is also selling copies of it that he signed.)
Bud has spent decades helping to sustain an audience for books that celebrate cartoon art, illustration and design. He also was on the leading edge of selling underground comix and importing the best material being published overseas.
The world of comics, and just the world in general, is a better place because of Bud and others in his generation who built something almost from scratch.
Here are some of my favorite images of Bud or related to Bud:
It’s been way too long since I posted here, in part because it’s been a busy few months. I just changed jobs, following nearly 10 years at The Columbus Dispatch. Now you can see my work covering the clean energy business at InsideClimate News, including the Clean Economy Weekly newsletter, which is free. Subscribe here!
I have several posts in various states of “in progress,” but a lot of them will be stuck on my to-do list for a least a little while.
I was a guest on the Off Panel podcast with David Harper, talking about Comic Shop. I think this may be the only time I have publicly discussed my fondness for late period Don Heck. It was a fun conversation.
Perhaps to atone for the clickbaity vibe of my headline, I want to make clear from the outset that this post will not tell you the identity of the country’s first comic shop — I think the question is a flawed one.
That said, there is fun to be had in exploring the potential answers.
A few weeks ago, several people sent me links to an article on the Talking Comics website speculating that Bob Sidebottom opened the country’s first comic shop in 1966 in San Jose, California. Here is a tweet from retailer Joe Field:
My quick answer is “depends on how you define ‘comic shop.’” If forced to name a first shop, under my own idea of what constitutes a shop, I’d say Robert Bell’s store in Queens. https://t.co/nNP9TOwioW
After tweeting this, I cringed a little because I know the “first comic shop” debate can be a tar pit, with strong feelings, regional biases and a strong possibility of devolving into name-calling. I also know that, despite the temptation to have a simple answer, any sort of defensible response would need to come with a stack of caveats. So, I quickly covered my rear end:
Bell’s store, by the way, opened in 1961 with a small selection of old comics. He added comics over the years and by the mid-1960s had an organized selection that looked a lot like what I would consider a comic shop.
But even that response feels inadequate. Here is my attempt to answer, or at least explain a non-answer.
I’ll start with Sidebottom. I know from prior reporting that he was an important early retailer, but his store was not even the first in San Jose, much less the first in the United States. (I don’t mean this as a knock on the Talking Comics story, which is worth a read, and clearly says it is speculating about an elusive subject.)
To confirm this, I turned to some experts: Jim Buser, Michelle Nolan, Bud Plant and Dick Swan. They were friends in the San Jose area in the late-1960s and would go on to be pioneers of comics retail. They were some of the people behind two early comic shops, Seven Sons Comic Shop in 1968, then Comic World in 1969.
They each had some version of this answer about Sidebottom: He was a presence at the San Jose Flea Market in the mid-1960s, selling records and occasionally showing an interest in comics, but did not open his comic shop until late 1968 or early ’69.
Sidebottom’s store opened after Seven Sons and before Comic World. He showed a knack for business that those other shops lacked.
“We probably did not give Bob enough credit, because he turned out to be a pretty savvy guy,” said Plant. “He didn’t know comics like we fanboys did, but he was older and wiser in the ways of the world, and surely impressed customers and suppliers perhaps more than four moonlighting students like us could.”
Buser said Sidebottom was “primarily a flea market guy with a passion for old records.”
Then I asked a broader question: What was the first comic shop?
I also reached out to a few other people who might have answers. This included Robert Beerbohm, who co-founded Comics & Comix in the Bay Area with Plant and John Barrett, and has written about comics retail history, and Bill Schelly, the Eisner Award-winning author of books about comics history.
Here are some of the shops that got mentioned:
Pop Hollinger’s store, Concordia, Kansas, circa 1940. Here is what I wrote about Hollinger in my book:
One of the earliest known comics specialty retailers was Harvey T. “Pop” Hollinger in Concordia, Kansas, a small city about a three-hour drive northwest of Topeka. Starting in the late 1930s, he opened a store selling used comics and other items, according to a profile in the 1981 edition of the Overstreet guide. He found that one of the big problems with comics was durability, so he developed modifications that included brown tape and extra staples along the spines. The results, which would horrify collectors seeking “mint” condition, can still be found on the secondary market, often described as Hollinger-rebuilt comics.
The case for this store being the first: It predates all the others by a decade or more. Beerbohm cites this store as the first, and says any arguments for other stores are “someone blowing smoke out their ass.”
The case against: Hollinger’s store sounds more like a junk shop with a specialty in comics than a business that catered to comics collectors. Also, I am uncomfortable that most of the information about Hollinger can be traced back to a single source, the Overstreet guide article. In my research, I verified some basic facts about Hollinger and his store with help from the local county historical society, but still have little sense of the look and feel of the place.
Victory Thrift Shop, Queens, New York, circa 1960. This was Robert Bell’s store, which sold comics along with a variety of used goods in the early 1960s, and gradually came to specialize in comics. Bell was on the leading edge of selling an organized selection of back issues, and he did it from a storefront while many of his contemporaries were operating mail-order businesses.
The case for it: Victory Thrift felt like a comic shop in a way that would be familiar to a current reader, according to Jim Hanley, who shopped at the store as a kid and would go on to become a retailer himself.
The case against: Bell sold just about as many paperback books as comics, especially in the early days.
Cherokee Book Shop, Hollywood, California, circa 1960. This Hollywood Boulevard store was a wonderland of books, comics and other printed material. Its comic book selection grew over the years, with that part of the store looking a lot like a comic shop. Early comics fans, especially those from California, have warm memories of this place, which helped to inspire other businesses that had more of a focus on comics.
The case for it: To start here is the original caption for the photo: “COMIC BOOK HEAVEN-Rick Durell, El Segundo, left, operator of a gasoline station, and Burt Blum, manager of Cherokee Book Shop, 6607 Hollywood Blvd., look over comic books in store, largest center for them in the country.” The photo, which I got from the UCLA photo archive, shows that Cherokee Books looked like a comic shop, and an amazing one at that.
The case against: Much like Bell’s store, this was a used-book store that devoted some of its space to comics, and not a comics specialty shop.
Seven Sons Comic Shop, San Jose, California, 1968. A bunch of friends pooled their money and comics collections and became retailers. Some of them were still in high school.
The case for it: If a comic shop is defined as a business that just sells comics and caters almost exclusively to comics fans and collectors, then this is the earliest example that I have found. Nolan, one of the co-owners of Seven Sons, says, “I staunchly maintain nobody beat Seven Sons Comic Shop, opening March 1, 1968, for comics and nothing but comics. … Until I see proof otherwise, I think that’s it. Nobody I know relied entirely on comics for profits and to pay the rent!” The March 1 date comes from Plant’s journals, and is corroborated by others.
The case against: Here’s where we get nit-picky. Seven Sons didn’t sell new comics, nor did several of the stores already listed here. Can a business be the first comic shop if it didn’t sell new comics?
San Francisco Comic Book Co., San Francisco, California, 1968. Gary Arlington opened this store shortly after Seven Sons had started in San Jose. He sold new and old comics.
The case for it: Arlington had a full-line shop, and a deep collection, and his store felt more like a comic shop that many of its predecessors.
The case against: You need to bend over backwards to come up with a definition of “comic shop” that is narrow enough to put Arlington’s store first and exclude all the others.
So what’s the answer?
I found the response from Bill Schelly to be the most convincing. Here’s what he said, lightly edited:
“Comic shop” is a term that has almost no meaning before the beginning of direct market sales in the 1970s. Before that, old/used comics had been sold in used book and magazine stores as a subset of magazines. As families disposed of old magazines, there were also comic books that went along with them, and those that survived the World War II paper drives went into such used book stores. So it’s impossible to know the first book store that began carrying some old comic books for sale.
Comic books alone have rarely if ever been the sole stock of ANY store at ANY time. (There have always been posters, calendars, Big Little Books, and other ancillary products.) So, for me, the only meaningful starting point for a “true comic shop” has to be when stores carried direct comics at the same time as newsstands. I don’t think that could ever be whittled down to the “first” one — do you?
Now, it’s like anything else, such as arguing when the Golden Age ended, or the Silver Age ended, it’s really just an excuse for a bull session over a few beers with friends. Nothing wrong with that. But there’s no ultimate answer! There’s no way to empirically bestow the title “the first comics shop.” Or so I believe.
With due respect to all the other responses, and all the other stores that could claim to be the first comic shop, I think the answer to my initial question is that there is no clear answer.
I will update this post with any corrections, clarifications or additions, so check back.
Here are 74 minutes that make me hope Diana Schutz writes a memoir. She was one of the keynote speakers last weekend at the Michigan State University Comics Forum. In this video of her talk, she tells how she got into comics retail and then comics publishing, and how that led her to the academic study of comics.
“I am not a scholar,” she says. “I’m really just a comics fan. At best, a dilettante scholar.”
But she is a scholar.
She got into comics as a college student in 1976 in Vancouver. She was studying philosophy, and was one of the only female customers at her local comic shop, called The Comicshop.
“Hours of sharpening my brain during the week on Kant and Bertrand Russell sent me screaming to Howard the Duck on the weekend, which, you know, was itself philosophical, but a lot funnier,” she says.
She moved from Vancouver to the Bay Area where she worked at Comics & Comix, the influential chain of shops, and soon was editing The Telegraph Wire, a newsletter/magazine that was distributed for free at all of the chain’s locations. And that experience led her to work for comics publishers, first very briefly for Marvel, then Comico, and then a long stint at Dark Horse where she became the top editor.
Today, she is a freelance editor and translator, and teaches about comics at Portland State University.
The latter part of her talk is about comics studies and what she sees as reasons for concern that the field is growing too quickly, drawing a parallel with the black-and-white comics boom and bust of the 1980s.
She argues passionately for a comics studies that is rigorous while still being comprehensible, and hints that much of today’s scholarship is slapdash.