Above: The Exhibit Hall at the 1972 New York Comic Art Convention at the Statler-Hilton Hotel.
The swinging sixties swung forward, and we (my brother and I) kept buying comics. The Marvel Age of Comics moved into hyper-drive, with the team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at their creative zenith, the return of John Romita and John Buscema to the Marvel fold, the introduction of new artists like Jim Steranko and Neal Adams, the addition of writers Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Denny O’Neil, all combining to bring superhero comics to a new level. Soon a whole new aspect of comics would be introduced: the underground comix era. Other than the first decade of comics in America, there would never be another one as creative and ground-breaking as the 1960s.
That decade was also the spawning ground for comics fandom and conventions. Current comic books had letter columns and included on those pages were addresses of comics fans who published fanzines. These publications were often amateurish and horribly printed, but still had a certain … shall we say, naive charm? … about them. My brother, who was 8+ years older than me, dutifully taped quarters to index cards and sent them off in the mail along with a SASE and months later, some kind of fanzine arrived.
They had exotic titles like Rocket’s Blast, Komix Illustrated, Batmania, Sense of Wonder, Comic Crusader, and Alter Ego, to name a few. They had “superstar” creators, both writers and artists, like Biljo White, GB Love, Bill Schelly, Martin Greim, Don and Maggie Thompson. Some crossed over to become comics creators, like Roy Thomas, Bernie Wrightson, and Don Newton. The fanzines were a time of unbridled creativity, where people (mainly young men, some just teenagers) openly embraced comics, a medium that they were most likely embarrassed to be seen reading in public. Many featured historical articles about comics, and I learned a lot about the Golden Age before I even saw some of the actual comics of that era. Some fanzines were devoted to original stories and art, and cartoonists like Richard “Grass” Green, Biljo White, and Ronn Foss turned out almost-pro level comics. Some fanzines, like Comiccollector contained ads for people selling old comics, and some, like comics fandom pioneers Don and Maggie Thompson, reported on current comics news in an era when publications sent via the US Mail moved much faster than anything else.
I remember one of the first fanzines we got was Comicollector #4. It was a mimeographed publication, and (minus the art) resembled a school test (the kind you sniffed for the heady aroma of ink as it was passed around). Usually printed in two colors (mainly red and blue), the pages were sometimes very difficult to read, depending on where in the printing process your copy came; some pages were crystal-clear, others faded and smeary. But the print quality of these publications wasn’t the important part: What was really important was they made you feel that you weren’t alone, that there were others out there just like you, who loved comics and wanted to tell the world about them.
The evolution of a fanzine. (Left to right) The Rocket’s Blast/Comicollector #32 in it’s original mimeographed form; issue #64 (our first subscription issue) with a Frankenstein cover by fan artist John Fantucchio; #73 with a two-color Tarzan cover by Robert Kline; and # 89 with a stunning Golden Age Green Lantern cover by Don Newton, who would go on to a career in superhero comics, including The Phantom for Charlton and Batman for DC, before dying at the young age of 49. (Click on the image to see it larger on your screen).
As more and more fans found fanzines, they evolved. DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz was instrumental in promoting fanzines and more and more fans sent off their hard-earned quarters and dimes for issues. Some of the more popular zines left behind the mimeograph machines and graduated to color covers and crisp, inky-black interiors printed via photo offset. We eventually took the plunge and subscribed to Rockets Blast/Comicollector (affectionately and mercifully shortened to RBCC) with issue #64 and kept that sub running until the magazine folded around issue #150. The Comics Buyer’s Guide, a newspaper-format news and advertising zine, made the RBCC obsolete, and added the aura of a weekly newspaper devoted solely to comics news and ads.In turn, the Internet made CBG obsolete, even after it switched from newspaper to magazine. (The late Bill Schelly’s excellent book, The Golden Age of Comics Fandom, chronicles this era much better than this very condensed version of mine. Look for the second edition published by Hamster Press, the one with the Michael T. Gilbert “green” cover. You can find it on eBay.)
But the fanzines created something else. By offering this forum for comics fans in the United States (and elsewhere in the world), they started something much bigger: A community. And the next logical step for that community was to meet in person.
Comic fans that were local—or near local—to each other started to meet. There were small fandom-driven gatherings like the Alley Awards party, which determined the winners of comics fandom’s first awards. In 1964, an intrepid teenager by the name of Bernie Bubnis held the first “Comicon” in New York City, in a dilapidated hotel in the city’s Bowery district. (Years later, the hotel literally collapsed, turning the entire building into a heap of rubble.) Marvel’s Gal Friday, Flo Steinberg, was there and Spider-Man and Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko made a brief appearance (and promptly vowed to never attend a convention again). The New York cons continued over the next few years, sans Bubnis, with people like Dave Kahler taking over. In 1968, a schoolteacher named Phil Seuling took the con to a new level with his Comic Art Conventions, held every July; they quickly became the pinnacle of comic book conventions, before San Diego and Chicago began dueling for that distinction (with San Diego ultimately winning). Seuling ran them from 1969 (the first year with the official “Comic Art” name) until his death in 1984. One year, Seuling had to move the con to Philadelphia because he couldn’t get hotel space in NYC. It was a pale copy of the annual Big Apple event. (Seuling pioneered one other aspect of comics: He was the “father” of the Direct Sales market, distributing comics directly to the growing number of independent comics shops across the country.)
My brother, Rick, and I attended our first New York Comic Art Convention in July of 1971. I was the ripe old age of 16, just at a point when my interest in comics was starting to wane. We got up early and climbed on a Trailways bus that left every morning from my hometown of Tamaqua, PA, with Rita’s Lunch on Broad Street as the daily pick-up and drop-off point. It was about a 2.5 hour trip to the Big Apple. I had dug up an old suitcase in our attic, probably a leftover from my grandfather, and outfitted it with DIY stickers, cut out from fliers promoting fanzines like The Collector, stuck on with double-sided adhesive tape. I was bound to make an impression with such stunning accoutrements. The homemade stickers all promptly fell off, unable to adhere to the corrugated texture of the suitcase, and they, of course, came off as we were making our way from the crowded and bewildering Port Authority Bus Terminal to the Statler-Hilton Hotel eight blocks away. We looked like two hicks from Pumpkin Creek, with me with those dumb cut-outs stuck to my pants.
But that day was transcendental. Besides the first time either of us visited New York City, walking into a room FILLED with comic books, comic art, writers and artists, made us forget everything else in the world. We spent the entire day in that room, not even breaking for something to eat, until around 6:00 PM when we ran across the street for a quick burger and back to Port Authority just in time to get the bus home. When we sat down and looked at everything we bought, we ended up with just four comics (I think two of them were Flash Gordon #1 from Harvey Comics and one of the Frazetta Buck Rogers/Famous Funnies covers—#212 … not sure what the other two were), and a stack of Big Little Books, plus fanzines, fliers, the all-important con Program Book and more. It was all we talked about for weeks and it so thoroughly immersed us in comics that we are still reading and collecting to this day, FIFTY years later. (Sadly, I was not a picture-taker in those days, so all I really have left is my small collection of NY con Program Books; there also doesn’t seem to be very many photos online capturing those wonderful cons; the one at the top of the page is from the 1973 Program Book, which means it’s from the 1972 show at the Statler-Hilton Hotel, one that I attended—I might even be somewhere in that photo. By the way, those Program Books, especially the ones from 1972-1975, are gems, and were edited by none other than Paul Levitz, the future president and publisher of DC Comics.)
We went back just about every year after that, into the 1980s, eventually staying over night for multiple nights and experiencing the whole con. One year we had a table and sold some old comics. I remember trading a Superman #17 to artist Howard Chaykin for a Gil Kane color piece of Blackmark (sadly, it was kind of a template piece that Kane cranked out by the dozens to sell at conventions; an original nonetheless, but somewhat of a lesser one). One summer, while I was attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, I hopped a bus to Youngstown, OH, and drove across Pennsylvania to New York with two other comics fans that I met in Pittsburgh. We got stopped at the Delaware Water Gap by Pennsylvania State Troopers, who desperately wanted to find drugs in the Ohio guy’s car. They didn’t. We had been long-hair profiled.
The best years, for me, at least, were the ones at the Hotel Commodore, smack-dab above Grand Central Station (It’s now a Grand Hyatt). We could spend all day at the con, but nip into Grand Central for a late-night hot dog from Nedick’s, which had these amazing toasted buns and seemed to be open til all hours of the night. For finer cuisine, we’d splurge and go across the street to dine at Howard Johnson’s. I had an early interest in panels, and one time I was telling my brother about that afternoon’s Steve Gerber event, featuring the creator of Howard the Duck. “He was kind of pompous, sitting on the panel table in a lotus position,” I said, only to turn to my right and see Steve Gerber himself sitting at the table next to us, glaring at me. The Commodore was a big hotel and home to the con from 1973 through 1975. It was just starting to fall into seediness, including an onsite massage parlor on the mezzanine level called Relaxation Plus. (We all knew what the “Plus” meant.)
The New York cons were an amazing ground zero for comic art in that era. I remember Bud Plant and Phil Seuling’s “dueling” booths, chock full of amazing fanzines, portfolios, and limited-run magazines and comics, including undergrounds. Both Plant and Seuling acted as distributors for fan-oriented publications before the latter created the Direct Sales Market. I picked up Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein Portfolios there and Barry Windsor-Smith’s early prints and publications. Steranko had a booth, there were tons of original art, which I regret not buying, since it was so cheap at that point ($35 was a lot of money in the 1970s, but NOT for a Jack Kirby original page). One night we saw Kirby hanging around the lobby, so my brother ran up to our room and grabbed the copy of Fighting American #1 we had bought earlier in the day. We cornered him by the elevator and asked him to sign it, with his son kiddingly urging him to “Bend the cover back, Dad!” Mark Evanier, someone I would come to know and work with in the far-off future, was there, too.
And that far-off future? It was one that I never could have imagined, especially when it came to comic conventions and my involvement in them. Stay tuned for much more about that. But first …
Look for Part 4 of “My Life in Comics: The Pittsburgh Comix Club Years” coming soon …
Just to tighten up your very interesting memories I have to add one correction referencing the first Comicon in 1964. THAT con ( in which I was involved ) was actually held at the Workman’s Circle Building on 14th St. in NYC. The “con” with the dilapidated hotel was held in 1965. Sometimes referred to as the “Kaler Con”. And YES…THAT hotel did collapse shortly after. ( Oh MY ! ) All future Comicon hotels did stay in one piece.
ALWAYS FUN to read well written essays like yours. Thanks for your efforts.
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Flattered to hear from you Bernie! You were the true pioneer in the world of comics conventions!
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