“In about 2 hours 13 minutes and 14 seconds, any mention of last weekend’s New York Comic-Con will be thoroughly passé,” said the Beat two weeks ago in her blog. But of course I’m still writing about it, and will be for many weeks more.
But regular readers of this column know that my main interest in convention panels is not in reporting the kid of news that other comics websites would have posted within twenty-four hours after the panel took place. No, my intent is to record in detail what I witnessed that will be of lasting interest to comics fans, scholars, and historians weeks, months, and, I hope, years after the convention took place. I am a comics historian, and in this week’s column I give you a panel all about the history of comic conventions in the city of New York.
FRIDAY 1 PM
On the first day of the convention, the general public is not
admitted until 3 PM. Until then, the convention is for comics professionals, retailers, and press, enabling them to interact and relative calm before the crowds arrive to clog the aisles.
The programming before 3 PM is likewise aimed at professionals. It was the Beat herself who suggested that I attend the 1 PM panel, “Phil Seuling and the New York Con.” This was a good idea.
Perhaps most of you don’t know who Phil Seuling is. I see that his Wikipedia entry is a mere stub consisting of a single sentence. Wikipedia’s entry on “Comic Art Convention” is considerably more informative.
There had been conventions for science fiction fans since the mid-1930s, which inspired small comics conventions starting in the mid-1960s, including the New York Comicon in 1964, a one-day event with roughly a hundred attendees.
It was a Brooklyn high school English teacher named Phil Seuling who organized the first large scale comics convention, held in New York City in 1968. In 1969 Seuling held his first in his series of “Comic Art Conventions,” which usually took place in New York City over the Fourth of July, and which continued through 1983; Seuling passed away the following year.
The Seuling conventions set the mold for all the major comics conventions that followed, including the San Diego Comic Con.
Inventing the modern comics convention would be enough to earn Seuling a place in the medium’s history, But Seuling was also the visionary who pioneered the direct sakes market for comics distribution.
From the 1930s into the 1970s, comic books were primarily sold on a returnable basis through newsstands and in small “mom and pop” stores. (In high school, I bought my first Marvels at a small store owned by a classmate’s father; in my college years I bought comics at a tiny luncheonette near Columbia University.)
But over time, probably due to the usual suspects like the rise of television, comic book sales fell from the heights they had achieved in the Golden Age, and as the decades passed, fewer newsstands carried them, and their owners realized they could make more money selling higher priced magazines. Moreover, the “mom and pop” stores were dying out, supplanted by chains. The comics industry might not have survived, had Seuling not pioneered a system by which the publishers sold their comics through distributors like himself to comic book specialty shops. This is the system with which we are familiar today, even though nowadays there is essentially only one specialty shop distributor, Diamond.
Moreover, whereas comics publishers felt they had to appeal to mass tastes through the newsstands, they could aim at dedicated comics fans through the direct sales shops. This was both good and bad: comics became a niche market, but the shops also made the rise of independent comics and lines like Marvel’s Epic and DC’s Vertigo possible. Thus Seuling spurred the evolution of American comic books towards appealing to an older readership and readers with more discerning, sophisticated tastes.
So Phil Seuling definitely deserves more than one sentence from Wikipedia. If you want to see what he looked like, I refer you to this entry in Mark Evanier’s blog, with a photo of Seuling appearing on television’s The Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s alongside Elfquest co-creator Wendy Pini, costumed, as she regularly was at conventions, as Red Sonja. (You don’t want to miss this, I assure you.)
I only attending the Seuling cons in their final years, and, although I was aware of their historical importance, I had the sense that I had already missed their golden age. By that point Creation was holding its own conventions in New York, notably a big one on Thanksgiving weekend, and in other cities. Between the monthly dealers’ shows, several annual Creation cons, and the Seuling show, comics conventions in New York City were already losing the sense of a being special. The San Diego Con took over that aura of a special, once-a-year event, perhaps in large part because attending the San Diego Con, back in the 1980s, when it was far less crowded and hectic. was like going on a summer vacation with your friends to a gorgeous locale with perfect weather. (This was back when comics pros could actually take the time during the Con to hit the beach.)
Considering how expensive attending San Diego has become, consider this Wikipedia factoid, if indeed it is true: “That 1969 convention, held Independence Day weekend at the Statler Hilton Hotel in New York City, cost $3.50 for a three-day ticket, with daily passes at $1.50. Admittance was free with a hotel room rental, which cost $15-and-up per day.”
Creation, then Fred Greenberg, then Dynamic Forces, and currently Big Apple kept the New York comics convention tradition going. But they could not afford the space for a truly major convention. Only now, with Reed Exhibitions’ New York Comic Con in its third year, successfully surmounting its growing pains of the past, has the sense that New York City has a potentially world-class comics convention begun to return.
So what were the Seuling conventions like in their early years? That’s what I attended the panel to find out. When I arrived, it had already begun. Milton Griepp, CEO of ICv2, was the moderator of a panel that included DC Comics president and publisher Paul Levitz; Diamond vice president (and former Pacific Comics co-founder) Bill Schanes; Greg Goldstein, recently vice president of gaming and entertainment at Upper Deck; and Michael Uslan. the comics writer who became executive producer on the Batman movies and producer of the forthcoming Spirit film.
When I came in, Milton Griepp was asking the panelists to recall their “favorite moments” from the Seuling conventions.
Paul Levitz recalled what he termed “an important point in my education.” At this point, 1971, “there was no Artists’ Alley, per se,” but some artists would do sketches for fans. “Neal Adams was at perhaps the first crest in his career,” and “I got him to do a sketch of Superman. a very, very quick sketch. . .for the enormous sum of six dollars.” Levitz ran it on the cover of his fanzine, and “I got an energetic lecture from Mr. Adams educating me on the difference between original sketch purchase price and reproduction right purchase price.” Levitz commented that this “has served me well in my understanding over the years, as I started to learn that original art should be returned to artists. . . .”
Schanes said that he “drove for three thousand miles” to attend Seuling’s con. “I was literally a teenager, and Phil was a very imposing figure” with “big bushy eyebrows” who “looked down at you. . .as he yelled at you–with love and affection.”
Schanes continued, “He scared the bejeebers out of me for years because he was such a big guy. . . .” But, as you might guess, beneath this fearsome facade, “he was really a very affectionate person once you knew him. And took us under his wing and really shepherded us. He took me into his house that night,” where Schanes gazed in wonder at the “very spectacular” collection of original comics art on his walls.
Greg Goldstein agreed that Seuling “was an imposing figure” who sternly ruled his convention and his monthly dealer shows. (As a former English teacher myself, I enjoy hearing that one of my kind can be this formidable.)
It was at one of the latter, Goldstein said, that “I recall Phil being arrested because of the ‘obscene comics’–quote-unquote–which were the underground comics.” (An audience member later identified the comics in question as Zap #4 and Armageddon.) Goldstein continued, “that was quite an education for me, because some guy just got arrested for selling comic books.”
This was like a flashback to the anti-comics hysteria of the 1950s, and as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund will tell you, this sort of thing still happens today.
“It was very sad,” added Paul Levitz. “Because he was an English teacher” the Board of Education put him “on desk duty” for “a stretch” “until he gave it up.” Levitz observed, “That’s what really moved him into full time distribution at that point. It was in many ways probably good for the business, because he became more of an entrepreneur as a result, but it was certainly one of the tragedies of his life.” And people now and in the future will hear or read this story and be appalled and amazed at the blindness of years past towards the comics medium and those visionaries who were associated with it.
Michael Uslan sought to establish “the proper context” to explain exactly how Phil Seuling changed comics conventions. When Uslan was thirteen years old, he went to his first comics convention, which was run by a guy named Bernie. “He was in a black leather jacket with a duck tail, pompadour, and I seem to recall chains. . . .I was sure this guy was going to pull a switchblade on me if I didn’t cough up the right money at the right time.” And Schanes and Goldstein thought Seuling seemed intimidating!
“But back then, very few pros would come to the conventions. Stan–it was beneath him. He sent Flo Steinberg,” his secretary who didn’t mind interacting with fans. “Julie [Schwartz, DC editor--and a pioneer of science fiction fandom in his youth] didn’t show up.. . .But the pros looked down on this, They said, ‘These guys are nuts, they’re fanatical,’ and they kept their distance.” (This, of course, is before comics fans started becoming comics professionals in significant numbers.)
“In the early days,” Uslan continued, “we’d have people like. . . John Benson tell us how to behave and present ourselves, and how to dress on some occasions, He said, ‘There’s going to be press here. There’s going to be TV cameras. . .and it’s really important that people out there in the public take us seriously. . . . Let’s give them the impression that we are. . serious about our hobby, and what we’re doing, and our profession.”
When Seuling started running cons, Uslan continued, “There was a sophistication to it. Because all of a sudden I was going to a con and Stan Lee was here, and Will Eisner was there, and Burne Hogarth [of the Tarzan comic strip] was there, and Milton Caniff [of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon] was there.” This was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. Newspaper comic strips were long considered to be a superior field to comic books (like movies were vis-a-vis television, I suppose), so it’s interesting that Seuling managed to persuade comic strip giants like Caniff and Hogarth to attend a convention for comic book fans. And it’s also intriguing that comic book convention attendees of that time apparently would have been interested in Caniff and Hogarth as special guests. What percentage of today’s comic con attendees care about classic newspaper adventure strips?
Uslan continued, “the one thing Phil Seuling really brought us as fans and as comic cons was respectability. It was respectability for the fans, it was respectability from the pros, and I think that changed everything forever.”
I don’t know that the mainstream media considered comics conventions respectable in the 1970s or 1980s. Even quite recently mainstream news reports on the San Diego Con often seem to belittle the attendees as a community of geeks and act as if virtually everyone comes in a wacky costume. Only now, I think, is the tone of mainstream press coverage really starting to change. But yes, it was important that Seuling brought comics fans and pros together. It’s rather startling to realize there was once a gap between them that had to be bridged.
Schanes explained that in the old days, it was New York’s comic con, not San Diego’s, that was acknowledged as the country’s greatest. Schanes was from the West Coast, “But In ‘71 San Diego was a very small show, and we had hundreds of people, not thousands. So we wanted to go to the mecca. We wanted to go to New York City and see the famous New York comic con. They were actually putting original artwork on the covers of the program books,” something else that we take for granted now, but was a big step to take at the time.
Moreover, “we were always very, very envious, being in the West,” Schanes went on. “We knew Jack [Kirby] was in Sherman Oaks [California], but. . . that’s where all the [other] artists were, was in New York City.”
Paul Levitz added, “Most of them were within fifty miles.” Nowadays comics writers and artists for American comics live all over the country and even in Britain, But in those days before FedEx and the Internet, the American comics industry was almost entirely centered within easy commuting distance of New York City.
Summing up, Schanes told us, “it was a very zen thing to go to New York and make the pilgrimage and see all the famous people. . . .”
Then Paul Levitz expounded a theory I find quite impressive. ” At dinner with Stan [Lee] about six months ago,” he began, “I made the argument that everything that’s going on here in comics today is his fault. . . . ” Well, that’s indeed true, not only in that Stan pioneered three-dimensional characterization in mainstream adventure comics, and demonstrated how genre comics could be used as a mode of personal expression, but also because without his Marvel revolution, American comics might well have virtually died out decades ago.
Levitz continued, “I think there’s a domino theory of the evolution of the comic book business that takes in both Stan’s work and the comic convention. . . .In the 1960s you have Stan. Julie Schwartz, really a very short list of people, starting to do comics for intelligent kids. They didn’t view it as something you could do for adults. This was just, “We’re going to do this for the bright kids instead of the stupid kids, because we’re going to have some fun doing this.
“Egotistically, we’ll all describe ourselves as being among that generation of smart kids who found this interesting, ” Levitz continued (Well, of course!), “and mostly those were the smart kids who showed up at the comic conventions. Those kids are the ones who came into the business, whether they came in as marketers, distributors, publishers”–apparently alluding to Griepp, Schanes, Goldstein and himself–”working for the publisher for two minutes and then teaching a course in it and then going off on the film side”–and this is a concise description of Uslan’s career– “however and in whichever fashion, and began agitating for change.” Of course, though he didn’t mention this, lots of these convention attendees became comics writers and artists as well.
Levitz told the audience, “We said, “Comics can be great; we want to do great comics. We don’t want to be screwed like the guys before. We want to do wonderful work, and we want to make money doing it, and we want to have a good time doing it.’”
As regular readers know, I gave a lecture series at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art titled “1986: The Year That Changed Comics.” Paul Levitz likewise regards the mid-1980s as a key transitional period for American comic books. “When that broke through in the early ‘80s from all of these forces–and it would have happened without any one individual or any group of individuals, but it happened to be the bunch of us who were there at the time who were pushing for it–you very swiftly have a quantum leap in the creative quality of what happened in American comics. What’s going on here in this hall today is largely happening because of the group of people who read those books in the mid-80s. They became journalists and said, ‘Of course comics can be great. I read Maus, Watchmen, Dark Knight, Elektra, Daredevil,’ whatever it was that gave them the passion. ‘I’m going to judge by that standard.’ It’s not going to be, ‘Isn’t it amazing that they did a comic book that makes some sense?’ They said, ‘Of course, this is genuine art.’
“Some came into field as creators; many became the journalists who wrote about it; many became the booksellers. We had a couple of guys up two minutes ago who were Random House salespeople who just started handling our line. They said, ‘We love comics, we’re happy to be doing it.’ That generation really comes from all of it. The conventions brought us together. It’s where we met. I walk through this hall, and I have so many friends who go back to when I was 14, 15, 16 years old, with a shared sense of purpose. We might have been on the opposite side of business deals along the way, we might have been competing companies, certainly had our share of arguments, but we all shared a very high sense of common purpose and the conventions crystallized all of that.”
Schanes agreed, “It was the first gathering point.”
Then Levitz summarized, “It’s like, ‘We’re here. We’re the tribe.’ And he concluded, “we pulled together in all of that in a really unique fashion in American culture at that time. And we changed the culture, as a result.”
Michael Uslan then said, “I’m going to take the position as the crotchety old man for a minute, which I often do. I’m elated. As I had a chance to walk around for the last hour up here, my comment was, ‘Oh my God, I’m at a huge comic con and look, there’s comic books. There’s original artwork.’ My biggest complaint has been that so many of them have gotten so big and so diluted that you can walk through endless hallways and see no comic books and see everything else but comic books.” Do you suppose he could be referring to San Diego? Uslan continued, “For a comic con, especially for a New York comic con, to pull back to the roots and really get the old comics and the new comics and the art out there again is something I’ve been looking for for a long time, that I felt has been significantly missing.” In other words, Uslan seemed to be suggesting that the current New York Comic Con was recapturing something of the spirit of Seuling’s original New York comic cons.
“I couldn’t agree more with what Paul said,” Uslan told us. “It It goes back to what I said initially, finding out that there were other geeks like me out there,”–oh, no, not another comics person who uses this word!– “that I wasn’t alone in the universe and there were people who shared this passion and shared this joy and had this thirst for knowledge in the history of the subject matter. . . .” Now that part I agree with.
“And here we sit today,” Uslan continued. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is going to open an exhibit on May 7th showing how comic book superheroes have influenced fashion, and Action #1 [the first appearance of Superman] will be on display, and Detective #27 [the first appearance of Batman] will be on display, along with many other comic books.” This is the exhibition “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” and I’ll be attending the press preview.
“And you’ve got to give the credit to the comic book conventions, to the tribe,” Uslan concluded, “for having gotten the message out that this is an indigenous, legitimate American art form and that this is our modern day mythology.”
For Greg Goldstein, who described himself as being “a young guy who was into writing and art” in the early 1970s, it was a revelation to go to the New York Cons and see the new comics pros of that time. “Stan and Jack and those other guys were in the legendary hall-of-famers category,” Goldstein said. But then there was the new generation: “There’d be Roy Thomas. . . and Len Wein and Marv Wolfman. It felt more attainable. But the whole thing felt like we were next. There were these guys; they weren’t much older than us; they had the same sensibilities; they had long hair; they dressed the same way we did. And it felt like, boy, they can do it and they can do some really wonderful things in comics, and therefore we had a shot.”
Returning to the subject of why comics professionals used to avoid conventions, Paul Levitz explained that “remember that as late as the late 60s, the characters in comics weren’t even WASPs. They were white Anglo-Saxons. They weren’t even allowed to be Protestants, much less have any sense of religion. They had no ethnicity. They had all been whitewashed into the blandest possible form, the creators, largely, too. Stan Lieber became Stan Lee.” Listing other Jewish-American comics creators who had changed their names, Levitz mentioned Jacob Kurtzberg, who became Jack Kirby), Batman co-creator Bob Kahn, who renamed himself Bob Kane, and artist Eli Katz, who took the name Gil Kane. “They were embarrassed,” Levitz said, apparently suggesting they feared how people would react if they knew their true ethnicity.
And then there was what had happened only a decade before: “They were recovering from the 1950s and Wertham.” Levitz was referring to Dr. Fredric Wertham, the man most associated with the anti-comics crusade of the 1950s, which claimed that comic books of various sorts contributed to juvenile delinquency, and which devastated the comics industry and the lives of its writers and artists. The story has recently been retold in the new book The Ten Cent Plague by author David Hadju.
Levitz recalled that “Joe Orlando”–one of the artists at EC Comics in the 1950s, who later worked at DC–”would tell the story, when I was working for him, that in those years [the 1950s] if he went to a party and a girl was asking him what he did for living, he was an artist. If pressed, he was an artist of things for children. Maybe somewhere between his picking up the girl or his despairing of any hope of picking up the girl, he’d finally admit that he was a comic book artist.” Back then comics were considered the bottom of the artistic barrel.
“The conventions have had an astounding power in all of this,” Levitz continued. ” ” It’s the first time anybody told these guys that what they did meant a damn thing. It’s still has that power for some of the older ones as they get to places like San Diego and they get an Inkpot [Award from the San Diego Con], or they come here. Arnold Drake”–the recently deceased co-creator of Deadman and the Doom Patrol–”was here a year or two ago and just delighting in the fact that, ‘People care about what I did? You remember who I am?’” Levitz pointed out that artist Jim Mooney, who passed away earlier this year, had not received credit on his work at DC for decades; he too finally got to meet his fans at comics conventions.
“But in the history of comics, when we start these early conventions,” Levitz asserted, “these brilliantly talented people are still battered children. They really are totally unrecognized. And the conventions were a vital part in the step of acknowledging them as the artists that they are.”
With the panel nearly at a close, an audience member asked if the panelists had any regrets about the old New York conventions.
Michael Uslan told an amusing story that also bore witness to just how worthless comics were considered only three decades ago. “We had a treasure trove down the shore in New Jersey: Collingswood Auction. It was a flea market. My friend Bobby and I would get my parents to take us every Friday night because . . . the guy would come in every Friday night with boxes from New York loaded with old, old, old comic books, and because they were so old, he sold them for a nickel a piece. Bobby and I returned every soda bottle we could find within three towns. We brought in the nickels, and over the course of a couple years, we walked off with literally thousands and thousands of comics dating back to 1936 that we bought for a nickel apiece.”
Great, huh? But then television started to report on the New York Comic Con and the prices collectors were paying for old comics. “And the word goes out, ‘comic books selling for $100 apiece,’”–which, from today’s standpoint, seems cheap for Golden Age material–”and that was the end. My supply was cut off.”
Paul Levitz had a different, more somber regret: “the questions I didn’t get around to asking. I was too busy running tables, but the history that we’ve lost. I constantly say to myself, I wish I had asked this guy about that. And I’m probably still not getting around to doing nearly enough of it.”
Back in the 1980s I was asked if I wanted to be part of an oral history project about the history of comics. I said yes, but it never happened. And that was back when Jerry Siegel. Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Julie Schwartz, John Broome, and, indeed, most of the giants from comics’ Golden and Silver Ages were still alive.
But in my next New York Comic Con report, I’ll tell you about a panel that brought together many of the surviving giants of early comics history, right here in New York City in April of 2008. But i may be tempted to write about the Iron Man movie first!
LINKS IN THE AMAZON CHAIN
You can get David Hadju’s The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America at Amazon.com here. I shall soon be reviewing it in my column “Books about Comics” in Publishers Weekly’s online newsletter Comics Week.
And since I’ve promised to mention each week one of the books my own work appears in, how about Marvel’s Daredevil by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson Omnibus (as opposed to the Bendis Daredevil Omnibus), which collects much of Frank Miller’s work on the character, as well as an interview I did in the 1980s with Miller and Daredevil collaborator Klaus Janson? You can find the Miller-Janson Omnibus at Amazon here.
-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson
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