1971: Mike Zeck, photographer

One of the challenges writing about the history of selling comics is that many of the people involved did not realize they were living through events that should be documented.

There is no trove of photos and original documents for many of the people and places.

Today, I want to focus on one of the great exceptions. I have a vivid sense of the look and feel of the 1971 Comic Art Convention in New York — Phil Seuling’s annual show — thanks to a young man who shot several rolls of film and held onto the negatives.

His name was Mike Zeck, a comics fan from Florida who had dreams of getting a job in the industry as an artist. He competed in the show’s costume contest as Marvel’s Black Bolt (pictured above), and won first prize.

(Mike tells a more detailed version of the story in the book.)

The 1971 Comic Art Convention was held July 2 to 4 at the Statler Hilton in Manhattan.

I saw a few of Mike’s photos online, and reached out to him for permission to use some of them in print. He was gracious, and took the time to prepare high-resolution versions for me.

Here are a few of them:

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Phil Seuling, the main organizer of the show, auctioning off the splash page of DC’s Showcase #29, “Last Dive of the Sea Devils.”
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Seuling seated next to DC writer Gardner Fox.
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The dealers’ room, where comics and original art were sold for prices so low that you would weep today.
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Dealers room (2 of 3)
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Dealers room (3 of 3)

Some of Zeck’s best photos are of comics creators speaking at panels. I am particularly struck by Harvey Kurtzman, with a wiseass grin and his first few buttons undone.

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Harvey Kurtzman
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Harvey Kurtzman (2 of 2)
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Frank Frazetta
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Gil Kane

As we now know, Zeck’s professional dreams came true. He was one of Marvel Comics’ star artists, known for his cover work in the 1980s and for being the artist on Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars and the Spider-Man story Kraven’s Last Hunt.

Here is one cover. I could list a hundred.

Cap annual
Image from Comics.org

OK, one more cover. Seriously, I could go all day.

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Image from Comics.org

The cover artwork and characters, and Black Bolt, are copyright Marvel Comics.

Mike is doing well and is a regular at comics shows. Here is his website, and he does frequent updates on Facebook.


Gathering the old gang (updated)

On Saturday, I got to spend time with some of the people who were key interviews for my book. Flying Colors Comics hosted a panel discussion, and co-owners Joe and Libby Field were great hosts.

The Geek Speak Show was there and has put together this video:

In the video, the panel, from left to right was: me; Joe Field; Jim Friel, who has done just about everything in comics; Mike Friedrich, the writer, publisher and former Marvel Comics staff member; Dick Swan, onetime co-owner or owner of several comic shops including The Big Guy’s Comics in Mountain View; Bud Plant, another guy who has done just about everything and still runs Bud’s Art Books, a mail order retailer; and Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience in San Francisco.

Here are some highlights:

(5:05) Dick Swan and Bud Plant talk about becoming comic shop owners while still in high school in San Jose. The store was called Comic World and each co-owner put in $21.25 per month for rent.

“It was all about trying to get more comics,” Swan said.

(9:03) Mike Friedrich remembers visiting Bob Sidebottom’s comic shop in San Jose, which was a competitor of Comic World, and how the experience helped steer him toward publishing comics.

“Those of us who were having fun had a good life,” Friedrich said. “People who were trying to make money at this had a miserable life, and they left.”

(12:33) Jim Friel tells how he got into the comics business, including time as the cartoonist behind Land Grant Man, published by an underground newspaper in East Lansing, Michigan.

(20:28) Stan Lee played a role in Joe Field beginning on the path toward the comics business.

(27:14) Brian Hibbs had the good fortune of opening his store right before the 1989 Batman movie.

“That totally changed the culture at the time,” Hibbs said. “Literally anything with the Batman symbol sold. It didn’t matter what it was. It could be used toilet paper and people would say, ‘I’ll give you $20 for that! It’s got the bat logo on it.”

(34:40) Bud Plant, and then others, give a brief history of the direct market for mainstream comics.

(40:41) Finally, we talk about Phil Seuling. Dick and Bud team up to tell the story of when they were teenagers driving across the country to stay with Seuling and his family in Brooklyn.

(51:45) Begin questions from the audience.

(1:02:40) An audience member asks about how Amazon is affecting comic shops. Field and Hibbs answer.

At 1:04:33, Hibbs turns this whole thing into a tent revival, which was a fitting way to end.

Some more photos:

Joe and Brian
Joe and Brian before the panel. All photos are either courtesy of Flying Colors Comics, or taken by me or my wife.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Jim Friel, who was a last-minute addition. Jim lives in Oakland and is semi-retired, working Wednesdays at Escapist Comics in Berkeley, a store that will be the focus of a post here in the near future.

Joe Ferrara, owner of Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz, was scheduled to be there but had to cancel.

Although I had interviewed everyone before, this was the first time I met Friedrich and Swan in person, and it was a pleasure.

Here is a group shot:

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Left to right: Jim Friel, Joe Field, Mike Friedrich, Dan Gearino, Dick Swan, Brian Hibbs, Bud Plant and Libby Field.
Dick and Cindy Swan
Dick and Cindy Swan.
We had a nice crowd, including a few people who traveled to be there.
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Joe and Libby Field put together a great spread for us, including sandwiches, meatballs and sweets that are not in frame. The guy behind the counter is Michael Eriksson of Flying Colors.
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Here is wider look at the store. I couldn’t find the time to rummage through the back-issue bins, which is a shame.

A few other notes:

• Check out Bud Plant’s listing for the book. Here is what he had to say:

I was tempted to lead off this week with this—I think it’s a fascinating book. But then I’m biased because I play a somewhat major part in the story. So in all humility, I’m listing it here. With the first 15 copies we sell we will include a slick 6×9 full color promotional card that we handed out at Comic-Con in July. I am signing and dating all copies. Full disclosure: I have two pictures, one contemporary and one from the early seventies in the book, and 21 entries in the index. Nuff said.

• I’m going to be in Muncie, Indiana on Dec. 2 for an event at one of my favorite shops, Aw Yeah Comics. Come out to see me and the store’s owner, Christy Blanch. Here is the event listing.

****** UPDATE 11/9/17: This post has been updated to add more photos, links and other elements.

****** UPDATE 11/12/17: I corrected the URL for The Geek Speak Show.

See me this Saturday: An evening with Joe, Joe, Brian, Dick, Mike, Libby and Bud

In a few days, I’ll be going to California for an event honoring of some of the people featured in my book. The hosts are Joe (pictured above) and Libby Field and their store, Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, just east of Oakland.

This is free and open to the public. Here is the event listing. If you’re anywhere near, you should come.

I could spend thousands of words on each of the special guests. Heck, I probably could write a treatise on the facial hair stylings of Dick Swan.

But I’m going to limit myself to just a thought or two for each person.

Joe Ferrara

Joe Ferrara: The longtime owner of Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz, he is one of those people who seems to know everyone in comics, making his shop a regular destination for top creators.

Joe and Libby Field: This husband-and-wife team are co-owners of Flying Colors, with him doing the marketing and events, and her handling much of the business side. He is the public face — known for coming up with the idea for Free Comic Book Day among many other things — and he says that she deserves much of the credit for the store’s success.

Lilly and Joe Field
Libby (second from left) and Joe (second from right) Field, along with two of their three daughters, Jenny (left) and Michelle (right).
Mike Friedrich

Mike Friedrich: An accomplished comics writer, a boundary-pushing publisher of Star*Reach, and Marvel Comics’ first manager of sales to comic shops in the early 1980s. He and Joe Field owned and operated WonderCon when it was based in the Bay Area.

Brian Hibbs: A man unshy about expressing his opinion, he owns Comix Experience and Comix Experience Outpost in San Francisco, and writes the long-running “Tilting at Windmills” column which now appears at The Beat. Here is a recent scorching he gave to the Marvel Legacy initiative.

Brian Hibbs

Bud Plant: He has done just about everything in the comics business, co-owning his first shop when he was in high school and going on to a succession of groundbreaking businesses, such as co-owning the retail chain Comics & Comix, becoming an independent publisher, and running a mail-order book business that continues to bear his personal stamp. He still edits his monthly catalog and helps decide which titles are worthy of the label, “Our highest recommendation.”

Bud Plant behind his desk at Bud’s Art Books in Grass Valley, California.
Dick Swan

Dick Swan: He goes way back with Bud Plant, and later would be part of Comics & Comix and have his own shop, The Big Guy’s Comics in Mountain View. Now he is semi-retired near Santa Cruz, giving him more time to admire an epic comics collection.

There are some great storytellers in this group, and they have deep connections with each other. The Bay Area has long been a hub for the country’s comics business, due in large part to these people (plus others who no longer live in the region, and some who died way too young). And, there are a few who are not announced guests, but are still in the area and just might make an appearance.

The photos of Ferrara, the Field family, Friedrich, Hibbs and Swan are all used with permission. The other photos are by me.

How in the world did you do that? Or, Thank you Ryan Claytor!

In writing about the business and culture of comic shops, I went to many shops in many states, and interviewed the owners, managers and even some customers.

My book has 40 brief profiles of notable shops of the US and Canada, from Nova Scotia to Los Angeles.

People have asked me how I had the time and resources to do all that travel. The answer: I didn’t.

I did most of the reporting in three breakneck trips that hit several cities each, and through a few weekend day trips. And that left about a dozen stores that I couldn’t get to.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I could put together a travel schedule, I needed to know which stores to feature. To do that I reached out to many people, and I want to put a spotlight on one of them.

Ryan Claytor is the cartoonist behind Elephant Eater Comics, and a faculty member at Michigan State University where he teaches comics studio art. I met him when he was exhibiting at the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, or SPACE, in Columbus (a great show, by the way), and we got to talking about comic shops.

(Here is a recent podcast in which Ryan is interviewed by his college’s dean of arts and letters.)

Ryan loves comic shops, and he has been to more of them in more places than just about anyone I know. He has toured extensively to promote his self-published comics, and he has produced videos as many of his stops.

When I told Ryan about my book, I shared a list of the stores I was planning to visit and profile. My list had a lot of the usual suspects that often show up on “best of” lists, plus a few I had discovered on my own or had been suggested by others.

Ryan’s response was something along the lines of, “That’s a good list, but…” He then suggested many more shops that he said were worth a look.

I ended up including at least five shops that he suggested. Because of timing and location, I couldn’t visit any of these, but was able to write about them by interviewing the owners and getting background notes from Ryan and others.

Here are three of those stores:

Tate’s, 4566 N. University Drive, Lauderhill, Florida

Tate’s is one of the most innovative pop culture stores, with a mix of comics, toys, odds and ends, and an unmistakable vibe. The founder and co-owner, Tate Ottati, started when he was a teenager and has built his business into a destination.

First, take a look at Ryan’s video from his visit six years ago:

Tate was a great interview. He swears a lot, and has strong opinions about how a retailer should work hard to create a space that is fun and inviting.

His company, which he runs with wife Amanda Magnetta-Otatti, and a veteran staff, can serve as a model in many aspects of how it is run.

Tate Ottati behind the counter at his store. Photo used with permission of Tate’s.


Southern Fried Comics, 136 E. Front Street, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

The comics business would be much better off if every small city had a shop like Southern Fried Comics in Hattiesburg.

Again, let’s start with a Ryan Claytor video:

This store is co-owned by Barry Herring and Jamye Foster, a husband-and-wife team. Jamye is active in the wider comics business as a board member of ComicsPro, the trade group for comics retailers.

Barry does most of the day-to-day work at the store, which emphasizes comics in book form and art. Jamye teaches full time at the University of Southern Mississippi.

The store looks great, with white walls and fixtures, and an uncluttered feel despite being in a small space.

southern fried
Photo courtesy of Southern Fried Comics.


Alternate Reality, 4110 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, Nevada

One more time, let’s start with a Ryan Claytor video:

Alternate Reality is about three miles from the Las Vegas strip in a strip mall. It is an unlikely spot for a great comic shop with a deep selection.

For the book, Ryan wrote a testimonial about the store, which sums up its many virtues.

Alternate Reality’s store image is immaculately kept. It’s one of the (very few) stores my wife will request we visit. Patrons are greeted with organized areas, constantly curated shelves, and a clean, welcoming aesthetic. Last but not least, Ralph Mathieu is one
of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. He also supports local artists by designating a section of his store as an art gallery and signing space. Beyond the gallery, which regularly rotates artist exhibitions, the remaining walls of Alternate Reality serve as a more permanent display for Ralph’s extensive personal original art collection, including work by heavy hitters such as Dan Clowes, Tony Harris, and J. H. Williams III, to name but a few.

Thank you, Ryan. I’ll see you at SPACE!


‘Please join me in welcoming Gib Bickel’

I had a great night on Saturday talking about comic shops and signing books.

About three dozen people came to my book launch party in Columbus. The location was Rambling House, a bar and music venue in my neighborhood, and its people were great hosts.

I spoke for a few minutes, and then brought Gib Bickel to the stage. Gib is the co-founder and manager of The Laughing Ogre, the comic shop that has a prominent role in the book.

As luck would have it, another Ogre co-founder, Rod Phillips, was in the audience. About 20 minutes into the program, we asked him to come up, and he and Gib told how they met, and how they feel about what the shop has become. Laughing Ogre opened in 1994, co-owned by Bickel, Phillips and Daryn Guarino, three friends who had gotten to know each other about from working at the same Wendy’s store.

In the photo above, that’s Phillips on the left, Bickel in the center and me on the right.

Columbus’ comics community showed up in force, along with my co-workers from the newspaper, neighbors, friends and family.

This was a low-budget affair, but I think we pulled it off. My wife baked four chocolate cakes, which were part of a formidable refreshments table.


While we spoke on stage, a slideshow played in a loop showing some of the people and stores from the book. This photo, by Clay Geerdes, is of a Diana Schutz from her Comics & Comix days. Diana went from that great Bay Area chain of stores to a career as a comics editor.


After the program and book signing, many of us hung around for Rambling House’s Saturday show. The band was Erika Hughes and the Well Mannered, and they were incredible. If you ever have a chance to see them, do it.

Here is an excerpt from what I said the introduce the evening:

Whenever I’m traveling in a new city, I want to visit the nearest comic shop. The best comic shops are deeply tied to their cities, with work by local artists, and a specific vibe.

But I know from my work writing about businesses that comic shops shouldn’t really exist.

What I mean by that is the shops have a business model that that is damn near impossible. They buy most of their products on a nonreturnable basis from publishers. Other media retailers like Amazon can return unsold goods for a credit.

So, if a shop buys a 100 copies of the hot new comic, and that comic is a utter bust, the store is stuck. Do this enough times, and you’re out of business.

One great retailer told me he has to eat all his mistakes. This gave me the image of a guy actually eating paper and cardboard.

Despite all the hazards, there is a vibrant network of comic shops. They make you feel good about the world.

My goal with this book was twofold, two questions to answer.

1. How did things get to be this way? That’s about the origins of the business in the 1970s, when comics seemed to be fading as a mass medium, and a colorful bunch of characters essentially invented the modern comic shop. Much of today’s comic shop business model can be traced back to those early days.

And 2., how are these entrepreneurs doing today, when all brick-and-mortar retailers feel like their days may be limited?

Comics as a medium, as an art form, are doing spectacularly well. Now this is my highly subjective assessment, so take it for what it’s worth.

Comics are becoming, or have become, a mass medium again. Ask an elementary school kid about comics and they’ll light up and tell you about Zita the Spacegirl, Bone and the work of Raina Telgemeier. These comics are mainly read in book form, and mostly are sold outside of comic shops.

In addition, there is a growing audience for comics as art and literature.

At the same time, the market for superhero comics is flat or even shrinking. The core audience of adult men is increasingly fed up.

The best comic shops – the comic shops that are going to survive – are welcoming to the growing audiences, while trying not to alienate the old ones. They have a deeply stocked kids section and a staff that can sell kids books.

One of those shops is just a mile or two from here. To tell you about it, I’m going to read you a mericfully short excerpt from the book:

On a Saturday, Gib Bickel sees a woman step into the children’s section of his shop. He approaches and gives his usual opener: “Canwehelpyoufindsomething?” The woman, with tattoos down both arms, is shopping for a graphic novel for her daughter. She has no idea what to get, although a book called Hero Cats has caught her eye. He points her toward something else, a favorite of his, Princeless.

“This girl, she’s a princess,” he says. “Her dad puts her there in a tower with all her sisters until a prince will rescue her, and there’s a dragon guarding her. And then she’s like, ‘Why am I going to wait around for some dumb boy?’ So she teams up with her dragon and they have adventures.” Sold.

Bickel has hand-sold more than one hundred copies of Princeless, a small-press graphic novel that has become a cult hit and been followed by several sequels. This is what he does. It is what makes him happy.

Please join me in welcoming Gib Bickel.

One more thing:

Heidi MacDonald interviewed me on the Publishers Weekly comics podcast called More to Come. It was fun. Listen to it here.


Jim Hanley: ‘We wanted customers to buy their comics from us, for the rest of their lives’

A young man became co-owner of a comic shop in 1983 in Staten Island. The initial name was The Merchant of Venus, which he soon changed to The Fantastic Store.

But this guy is best known for the business he opened next, two years later, the one with his name on the sign: Jim Hanley’s Universe.

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Just a little shop in Staten Island. All photos used with permission of Jim Hanley.

He talks about his early struggles by saying, “I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out.”

He told me this at least a half-dozen times, with only minor variations in the wording. I bet his family has heard it hundreds of times.

He and his new business partner were able to get their footing and expand into a small chain of shops, including two in Manhattan.

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One of the Jim Hanley’s Universe locations in Manhattan.

In the process, he became known as one of the most innovative retailers in the business, making friends with like-minded people such as Rory Root in the Bay Area and Joel Pollack in the Washington, DC area.

Hanley was a counterpoint to the many shop owners who didn’t know how to set up an inviting space or deal with customers.

“We always approached it as merchants, rather than thinking customers were lucky to buy their precious comic books from us,” he said. “We wanted customers to buy their comics from us, for the rest of their lives. When they asked for something, the next time they came in, we wanted to have it for them, so they had no reason to look anywhere else for it.”

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Here at Jim Hanley’s Universe is a guy whose name tag says “Jim Hanley”

He will tell you that he often was a difficult boss, a perfectionist with strong opinions.

He had great success and terrible failure, and he told me about all of it in hours of interviews.

“Never confuse brains with a bull market,” he said, something he first heard from a Wall Street guy.

Now he is retired and living in the DC area. His legacy is all over the comics business. If you’re in New York, visit JHU Comic Books, the rebranded two-store chain that is owned by former Jim Hanley’s Universe managers and was started using the assets of the former business.

In Middletown, New York, Peter Dolan owns Main Street Comics. He was a manager at Jim Hanley’s Universe from 1986 to 1994. Dolan is known in the business as the president of ComicsPro, the trade group for comic shop owners.

One of the pleasures of working on my book was getting to know Jim Hanley.

Learn more about Hanley and the comics business in my book, COMIC SHOP: THE RETAIL MAVERICKS WHO GAVE US A NEW GEEK CULTURE, which went on sale Oct. 11 at comics and books retailers.

****** UPDATE 10/16/17: Jim had some comments about this post on Facebook. Here is a sample, in response to someone asking about the “pinolia nut” sign to his left in the top photo:

“That’s the little store next door. They were an electrician’s office, where the wives of the electricians ran a candy & nut business to help wit the rent. Evan used to call them Nuts & Volts. Within six months of this, they hired a receptionist and the wives went back home. Turned out that there wasn’t any money in candy & nuts.”

The comments thread includes fellow retailers Joel Pollack and Joe Field, saying nice things. Both of those guys are in my book, and I’ll be seeing Joe soon at this great event he’s planned.

Incidentally, this post got more views than any other in the (brief) life of this site.


Publication day!

After about two years of work, my book arrives in comic shops today. I’ve gotten messages from retailers unboxing their orders and can confirm, it’s here. This baby has been birthed.

The photo at the top of this post is of the first sale of a physical copy, which was made late last month at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. I had a few advance copies to sell there. The buyer, moments before the show opened, was Chris Pitzer, the publisher of AdHouse Books, the innovative company behind comics such as Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats. Chris took my photo as I nervously prepared to sign the book. Check out his full Flickr album from CXC to get some of the flavor of what is a great event.

And, here I am at home, showing off the book:


Three other notes:

• Richard Pini, the ElfQuest co-creator has read the book and sent me some kind words to post here:

“Comic Shop” is a rare treat. Having been witness to much of what Dan Gearino writes about, I can state that his fact-finding is just about impeccable, his reporting crisp and objective. At the same time, he’s infused this journal with overwhelming humanity. For me, he brings into sharp focus memories of people and events from decades ago. And those players and experiences I didn’t directly share, he makes come alive nonetheless. For anyone who’s ‘been there, done that,’ this book is a treasure.

• ICv2 has published the first review of the book, and it comes from Rob Salkowitz, a writer who needs no introduction to people who follow the business of comics.

• The Columbus College of Art & Design blog did a feature on the book, which includes an excerpt from the chapter on the amazing Valkyries.


A highly subjective guide to Cartoon Crossroads Columbus

The third annual Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, or CXC,had its first full day today with sessions at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and will continue through Sunday at a bunch of venues across the city.

I think CXC is one of the best things Columbus does. The festival shows off the laid-back collaborative spirit that is one of the best aspects of local culture.

If I didn’t live in Columbus, I would travel for this show.

I wrote about the first CXC as a reporter, then decided became a volunteer at the second one. This time, I’ll be volunteering again, including hosting two panels on Saturday and I gave a presentation today about some of the research that went into my book.

Here’s the full schedule.

So I am not an objective observer of this festival, and therefore no longer write about it for my day job.

Here are 5 things on my mind at this year’s show:

  1. Laura Park will be tabling at the show and did a Q&A last Sunday at the Columbus Museum of Art. I had heard of her before, but had not seen much of her work. After hearing her talk, and seeing the museum’s exhibit of her work, I want to read everything she’s ever done.
  2. Anyone going to the festival should make a point to attend the Friday tours of the Billy Ireland. People who live in Columbus may take the Billy for granted. A good cure for that is to see visiting cartoonists react to the original art and other treasures as if in the Sistine Chapel.
  3. Take a slow walk around the floor during the weekend market at the Columbus Main Library. If you’re like me, you know to look for the familiar names, but will get the most out of finding artists and books and that are a surprise.
  4. Dana Simpson, the cartoonist behind Phoebe and Her Unicorn, is one of several examples of how CXC is on top of the growth and dynamism of comics aimed at younger readers. My wish list for next year starts with Ben Hatke.
  5. Buy the damn books. Last year, I was running low on cash by the time I got to Miriam Libicki‘s table, and I didn’t buy her newest book. The solution: Bring more cash. Many of the exhibitors pay for their trip with book sales, and your sale could be the one that buys them dinner or pays for the ride home.

A lot of familiar faces were at my presentation today at CXC about research methods in the exploration of comics history. Thank you to everyone who came. This was the first time I gave this talk, and people responded nicely, which is a comfort since I’m still figuring out the best ways to present this material. Next time, I’ll try to reduce the oddly timed pauses by 50 percent.

Before I go, a few links:

• I wrote the “Things I Love” column for Columbus Alive this week, in which I talk about comics, jazz radio and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, among other things.

• Last week, I was the guest on the Major Spoilers podcast and had a good time talking about comics history with Stephen Schleicher.

• By day, I write about manufacturing and energy for the Columbus Dispatch. I had a big story last Sunday about wind energy in Ohio, featuring some crazy good video by my colleague Doral Chenoweth III.


Columbus book launch party

Join me on Oct. 21 at the Columbus launch party for COMIC SHOP: THE RETAIL MAVERICKS WHO GAVE US A NEW GEEK CULTURE.

It begins at 7 p.m. at Rambling House Music Bar, 310 E. Hudson St. in Columbus.

Doors will open at 6:30. I will be there with Gib Bickel, co-founder and manager of The Laughing Ogre, and we will talk about the book and take questions, followed by a signing.

Bickel head shot
Gib Bickel

The event is free and open to the public. Appetizers will be served, and drinks will be available from the bar.

I’m planning to stick around for Rambling House’s show later that evening, which starts at 9 p.m., and will feature Erika Hughes & The Well Mannered.

COMIC SHOP is an exploration of the business and culture of comics shops, with much of the present-day action taking place at The Laughing Ogre, a Columbus shop. The book’s cover, designed by Sebastian Biot, contains the image of a keychain with the face of The Laughing Ogre’s mascot, designed by Gary Thomas Washington when the store opened in 1994.

The book goes on sale in comic shops Wednesday, Oct. 11, and will be available through other retail outlets that same week.

Dan Gearino

For more information about the launch event, contact me through this website, or contact Samara Rafert, promotions and exhibits manager for Ohio University Press, at rafert@ohio.edu, or The Laughing Ogre at laughingogreohio@gmail.com.

Unfortunately, the ogre himself is a fictional character, and will not be present. Here is a scan of Washington’s illustration of the full ogre, who appears to be amused:

Ogre resized

Robert Bell’s comic shop: ‘The most amazing thing we’d ever seen’

One of the moments that pointed Jim Hanley toward a life in comics was a trip to Woodside, Queens in 1968 where he saw something unbelievable: a comic book shop.

“It was the most amazing thing we’d ever seen,” he told me. “We went there in the elevated train to the store, and as we get there, there’s a window, a display window, floor-to-ceiling comics. There was Action Comics 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Superman 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Marvel Mystery 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”

I have a lot to say about Hanley, who would go on to co-own the Jim Hanley’s Universe stores in the New York area, but right now I want to focus on the man who operated that store in Queens.

RobertHis name is Robert Bell, and he has an incredible story that I touch upon in my book. He opened the business 1961 when he was 18. It was called Victory Thrift Shop, a reference to the Allies’ victory in World War II.

He sold a mix of paperback books, comics and other used goods. When he started, comics were about 10 percent of sales. The store was about 36 feet wide and 50 feet deep.

“It took off slow, but I wasn’t depending on comic books to make a living. I was depending on books,” Bell told me in an interview last year.

“It would be crazy to just open a comic book store in the early 60s because I don’t think you would make it. You needed to have paperback books, Geographics and hardcover books to make it.”

When he says “Geographics,” he means back issues of National Geographic magazine, a staple for used book stores.

Early on, he could see a shift in his customers’ interests. Some new comics, such as Fantastic Four, were attracting a more devoted fan. Readers were willing to pay a premium for hard-to-find old issues. Also, fans seemed increasingly interested in reducing the wear and tear on old comics.

Here is a page from his mail-order catalog:


Bell’s store gradually shifted to feature comics, which grew to become at least half of his sales. By the mid-1960s, Victory Thrift had transformed into a comic shop that was way ahead of its time, and would be familiar to customers today.

Side note: I sought, and could not find, photos of Victory Thrift to use in my book. Even Bell himself did not have accessible photos. The ones that do exist, such as here, were not available in a form I could get permission to use. If anyone has photos of this store or its owner, let me know.

Bell ad headWhile Bell’s store has largely been forgotten, he is remembered as a mail-order comics dealer. His ads appeared in the Overstreet price guide, in fanzines and in comics. A Marvel or DC reader from the 1970s and 80s may not remember the Bell name, but the ads’ mascot — a Thor-like tough guy — is hard to forget.

Bell left his Queens store in 1968 and focused exclusively on mail order, first from a warehouse on Long Island and then from Florida. Then, in the mid-80s, he sold his inventory and focused on commercial real estate. (Bell’s mother took over the Victory Thrift retail location, and turned into a general used-goods store, which is how people from Woodside in the 1970s remember it.)

Here is a “Bell Buck,” part of a set of coupons Bell would send to mail order customers, which could be redeemed for discounts:

Bell buck front & back.jpeg

Before he sold his collection, he had at least one copy of every Marvel comic from 1961 to about 1980.

“If I had that collection today, I bet it would be worth $20 million,” he said. “I had four kids. The kids couldn’t eat comic books. They needed food.”

When I interviewed him last year, he was 73 and semi-retired, living in an oceanfront condominium near Fort Lauderdale. And, his comment about his kids needing food was meant in jest, which doesn’t quite come through in print.

Unlike some of the shop owners that followed, I think Bell was a businessman more than a fan.

I reached out to him this week in anticipation of writing this post, and to see how he was doing following Hurricane Irma. I will update if I hear back.


****** UPDATE 9/17/17: I heard back from Robert Bell. He’s doing fine. His land line was knocked out by Hurricane Irma, and his internet access has been spotty, but he is otherwise in good spirits.

When I posted a link to this post on Facebook over the weekend, Jim Hanley responded with a comment about how Bell invented, or at least popularized, the comic bag. Yes, that is one of the many aspects of Bell’s legacy, and that story is in my book. Most of the material on this website is in addition to what’s in the book. One of the few exceptions is the Hanley quote at the top of this post, which was just too good not to use.

Dealers such as Bell are an important aspect of the early history of comics retail, and his time as a shop owner and mail-order dealer was part of the dynamic New York scene that gave us Phil Seuling, Hanley and many others who shaped the business.

Now, if only I could procure a time machine.