A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part One

Posted by on February 15th, 2010 at 8:13 AM

 

Sidebar: ?Gwen Seuling and the Lost Boys of the Direct Market

Gwen Seuling had the kind of girlhood boys used to dream of having. As the daughter of Phil Seuling, the director of one of the country’s first and most popular comics conventions, she was surrounded by comic books, comics creators and comics dealers. It was as if the entire comics field was her extended family, with “uncles” like Frank Frazetta and Dan O’Neill dropping by and an army of teenage “brothers” on the verge of forming the comics-shop Direct Market. Tracked down by the Journal to her home in Florida, where she teaches art to high-school kids, Seuling reminisced about the days, circa 1973, when she was barely 13 and the likes of budding Direct Marketeers Bud Plant and Frank Mangiaracina and Air Pirates Bobby London and Dan O’Neill used to hang out in her dad’s apartment in Coney Island.

“Yeah, I guess you could say I knew those people pretty well,” she said in answer to the Journal‘s question. “They’d stay in our apartment for a week at a time and then I’d see them at conventions. To me, the year began and ended with the convention. For three weeks before, we’d be up all day and all night, putting mailing lists together and sending out mailings and packing up books and taking phone calls. And the smelly boys would be in the house. My mom got to be Wendy to all the Peter Pan boys. God, they ate cereal. They must have eaten 20 boxes of cereal a day. We never had cereal in the house except when they were there. And then the convention and then you’d sleep for a week afterwards. That was just the way we lived our life.”

At the time, she lived with her sister, Heather, and mother, Carol, who had recently divorced her father, but the two parents’ apartments were near each other and she was able to see her father daily. “It was two houses,” she said, “but it was not a big deal. It was just one had a father in it and one had a mother in it. Growing up, we had a three-bedroom apartment and one bedroom was my father’s den and it was wall-to-ceiling comics and we read all of them. We read books and we read comics, as well. There was no conflict there. My father was an English teacher and he encouraged comic books in the classroom. He knew that reading is reading.”

Some stories have attributed Seuling’s retirement from teaching to an obscenity arrest for selling underground comics at one of the conventions, but his daughter explained that the incident had occurred shortly after he had left teaching to pursue his more lucrative comics activities. As she recalled, a 16- or 17-year-old Rabbinical student had picked up a “relatively mild” underground comic, “and somehow their Rabbi got light of them and pressed charges.” The charges were ultimately dropped, but the experience put Seuling in touch with underground cartoonists like O’Neill and London, who had their own legal problems with Disney as a result of their Air Pirates comics. “So then we had a steady stream of those guys through the house,” the younger Seuling said. “Dan O’Neill taught me to draw with my toes. Very, very angry when I told him I was going to art school. He said, ‘Don’t go there. They’ll teach you not to draw.’ Made me spend three hours drawing with my foot.

“We played softball with the Frazettas. My mother was good friends with Gil Kane’s wife and Roy Thomas’s wife. This was their social life. This was everything. We went into the room and read the comics and helped them put mailings together. My friends used to come over and do that. It was a family affair. It wasn’t like my father was off in a corner doing stuff without us. I’d been working the table since I was 8. I remember when Art Spiegelman was putting the issue of Raw out with that tip-in cover, and he had all his students over to help tip it in, and he had an assembly line going with 12 of us sitting on the floor of his apartment. They [Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly] explained how it had to be put together and I just started picking up the stuff and slamming it together, and I’m just going, and all of a sudden I realize everybody is just sitting there looking at me. They said, “You’ve done this before.”

Describing the Eureka moment when the Direct Market was born, she said, “My father went up to one of the comics companies [DC Comics] and he saw some covers that had been ripped off of comics and he asked, ‘What’s that?’ They explained that they were returns and this was what was done with them rather than return the whole comic. He said, ‘That’s crazy! These are collectible!’ And then he approached them with the idea that he would take the returns off their hands.”

About the Irjax lawsuit that was instrumental in breaking Seuling’s exclusive distribution arrangement with comics publishers, Gwen Seuling remembered only that “Irjax was a bad word around her father’s office. What I overheard was just that they were unhappy because they didn’t get there first.” The worst thing about the suit for her father, she said, was people attacked him personally: “Listen, I’m his daughter and I’m going to say what a daughter would say, but I can tell you that he was probably one of the most straightforward businessmen that I ever knew. I think he had concerns about some of the people who were getting into the business, but I don’t think he saw himself as the guardian of the Direct Market or anything. I think it went beyond him and became this other thing.”

Phil Seuling was only 50 when he died of a rare liver disorder in 1984, three years after the formation of the International Association of Direct Distributors. Even in the later days, when comics had become the subject of intense business deals and legal wrangling, she said he was first and foremost a fan: “He would call me up in the morning and say, ‘Get dressed! Hurry up and I’ll meet you downstairs!’ I was 18 years old and I needed my sleep, but I’d run downstairs and be waiting and we’d drive upstate because he heard there was going to be a Fireman’s Picnic with a flea market and maybe we could find some old stuff there, you know?”

 

Timeline:
1970 — Bud Plant meets Phil Seuling
1973 — Seuling establishes the first nonreturnable comics distribution operation
1974 — Bill and Steve Schanes open their first comics shop, as does Chuck Rozanski
1977 — Star Wars becomes merchandising phenomenon and gives boost to comics shops
1978 — DC editorial “implosion”; Friendly Frank’s begins; 1st Eclipse graphic novel
1979 — Irjax suit; Superman movie; Marvel opens to other distributors besides Seuling
1980 — Capital City Distribution begins
1981 — IADD formed; Capital publishes Nexus
1982 — 1st Friendly Frank’s store; Pacific begins publishing; Irjax sells to Diamond; Bud Plant begins distributing; DC begins offering royalties
1983 — Air-freight wars; First Comics starts publishing
1984 — Bud Plant buys Pacific; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles published
1985 — Bill Schanes hired by Diamond; Direct Market surpasses newsstand comics sales
1987 — Glenwood out of business
1988 — Bud Plant sells to Diamond
1991 — First Comics closes
1992 — Image starts
1994 — Eclipse files for bankruptcy; Marvel buys Heroes World Distribution

 

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One Response to “A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part One”

  1. patford says:

    Great story, I’m looking forward to the rest.
    One thing I’d point out is there was no, “Marvel-led resurgence of the 1960s.”
    The fact is if you ignore total sales (Marvel was restricted because they were distributed by the DC owned Independent News), and focus only on the best selling individual titles, Marvel’s best selling comic book Spider-Man didn’t break the top ten until the last two years of the decade, and even then was far from the top.
    For almost the entire decade Spider-Man was being out sold not just by Superman, and Archie, but by Tarzan, Lois Lane, Superboy, even books like the Metal Men.
    Where Marvel stood apart from the other comic book companies in the 60’s was their sales were increasing year by year (until 1968) while the sales of DC, Dell/Gold Key, and Archie were in decline, but Marvel’s best selling books never reached the top, and only Spider-Man ever made the top ten. By the time Spider-Man cracked the top ten in 1968 it’s own sales had peaked, and begun to erode.