My Life in Comics, Part 5: The Pittsburgh Comix Club Years …

So there I was, in art school in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s, a quiet, shy kind of guy, bombarded by the changes in life involved in moving from a small town to a big city. So what did I do to start some kind of social life?

I joined a comic book club.

My memories of the Pittsburgh Comix Club are spotty at best; after all it was almost 50 years ago when I joined during the club’s heyday. They’ve been recently jogged a bit by a couple of events: The start of a new Facebook group dedicated to the club and its former members by Elmer Harkema and (sadly) the deaths of Greg Eide and Rick Ulacky, both this year. Ulacky was Eide’s store manager for many years and an early club member.

I still have a number of publications from the Pittsburgh Comix Club era, which ran roughly for a decade from 1972–1982 or so. Most of those publications are ones that I edited and designed. I wish I had held onto more of the club’s publications, because they’re lost at this point; outside of those being held in personal collections, the stuff just doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, if you do a Google search of “Pittsburgh Comix Club,” very little comes up. The main things are that the club helped co-plot an issue of The Avengers (#193), titled “Battleground Pittsburgh!,” and an article by yours truly on my old blog. But one of the publications I did hang onto over the years is the Pittsburgh Comix Club Handbook. Written primarily by club member Craig Dinkins, the Handbook is a treasure trove of information on the club, including a well-written chronological history. Sadly, there are pages that are all but unreadable due to the very bad printing (it was xeroxed and compiled into a thick 5.5 x7.5” unbound publication), and compounded by an even-worse typewriter used to create the original paste-ups. With a front cover featuring Richie Rich by Howard Bender and a back cover by “RH” (I think that’s Robert Harris, who contributed a lot of art to Pittsburgh Fan Forum, the club’s official fanzine), this 100-page artifact includes photos and a lot of fan art.

Pittsburgh Comix Club members at the 1980 PittCon held at Monroeville Mall. Front row: Melvin Moten, Andy Sands, Ron Kienzle, Elmer Harkema, comics writer/editor Len Wein with his PCC award, The Lenny, Ben Pondexter, Jim Johnston. Middle row: Lou Pascazi, Steve Parys, Jim Coons, Thomas Scott, Jim Clark. Top row: Greg Novelli (in Planet of the Apes costume), Jim Whelan, (unknown), Gary Sassaman (that’s me), (unknown), Eric Sandberg, (unknown), Weir Strange, Roger Schoolcraft. Photo courtesy PCC Facebook group.

Here’s what Dinkins wrote about the beginning of the PCC:

“The idea of what was to become the Pittsburgh Comix Club was really, like so many good ideas, spontaneous.

PITTSBURGH FANDOM ARISE. You now have your first COMIX SHOP. Please pay us a visit. We buy, sell and trade comix and related materials. 636 Butler St., Rt. 8, Etna, Pgh. 15223. Open Tues., Thurs., and Sat. 12:00–6:00. Call (phone number) for further info. Come on Pittsburgh fans we need your support.’

“When Gregory Eide opened Pittsburgh’s first comics and science-fiction shop, it was done primarily to dispose of a considerable amount of unwanted material; the monetary angle, although delightful, was secondary. Whether it was on the strength of word of mouth or the classified advertisement in the thirteenth issue of The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom, Eide had, within three weeks, twenty regular customers and the opportunity to begin breathing a little easier about remaining in business.

“In fact, Eide, through his shop, had hoped to begin a Pittsburgh comic book club, but had not been interested in the mechanics of actually running such a club. Still, he took interested customers’ names and telephone numbers, keeping a list in the event of a tentative move on someone’s part.

Greg Eide’s ad in The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom #13; basically a call to arms for Pittsburgh comics fandom and the beginning of the Pittsburgh Comix Club. Courtesy Eide’s Facebook page.

“The events leading to this move were set in motion when, in the summer of 1972, Ben Pondexter returned from his first New York Comic Art Convention, still incredibly enthusiastic about the whole affair. This enthusiasm was only kindled by reading his way through the fanzine collection of Bill G. Wilson, the Clairton publisher of The Collector, whom he had initially corresponded with about three years previously. In a letter written as early as 1970, Pondexter had told Wilson about his ideas for a Pittsburgh-based club for panelologists.

“These ideas were crystallized when Pondexter acquired Eide’s list and started telephoning. With the New York influence still heavy, the idea of holding that first meeting on the second Saturday of the month had been lifted from Phil Seuling’s “Second Sunday” conventions.

“On the evening of August 12, 1972, the first meeting of the Pittsburgh Comix Club was called to order (or the conspicuous lack of it) in Eide’s shop. The initial roster consisted of Pondexter, Eide, Howard Bender, Robert Logan, Rick Ulaky, Peter Kendrick, Jeff Fisher, Guy Connelly, Charlie Smail, and Robert Hyde.”

While there’s some debate about who was actually at that very first meeting, there’s no debating that the Pittsburgh Comix Club was the brainchild of another quiet, shy kind of guy, Ben Pondexter, an African American male nurse who worked at Shadyside Hospital. While Ben was the driving force behind the club, another person, Greg Eide, became the one who helped Ben achieve his goal by offering Eide’s new comic shop in Etna, PA (a suburb of Pittsburgh) as the meeting place for monthly club meetings. The club was almost exclusively all-male (with a few honorary female members), with most ranging in age from their late-teens to their early thirties. I could never quite figure out how old Ben was … he was a bit of an enigma. Because he was partially deaf, you never knew if Ben’s long stares were his pausing to think over what you were saying or just not hearing you. But Ben loved comics, that was undeniable, and he came up with the club’s somewhat awkward slogan: “Comics Are the Good Times.”

Ben Pondexter (left) with Greg Eide, alongside Eide’s original business card and one I designed
for the store in the 1980s.

If Ben’s goal was to unite Pittsburgh comics fans to do comic-centric activities, including conventions, Howard Bender’s goal seemed to be to publish fanzines under the club’s aegis, something Pondexter was initially against. Bender produced Pittsburgh Comix and Fandom #1 soon after the club’s first publication, a somewhat mystifying combination of indexes to Steranko’s History of Comics and the villains of Justice League and the Avengers. Comix and Fandom was actually sold on some Pittsburgh newsstands, including the local chain National Record Mart, undoubtedly due to hand-selling to managers by Ben or Howard or someone in the club and not to any kind of distribution deal.

Somewhere along the line both a club newsletter and a publication called Pittsburgh Fan Forum came into being. I’m a bit uncertain if they merged or what happened, but after many months of publication, I somehow took over PFF from editor Mark Lerer and edited and designed it for a number of issues … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I moved to Pittsburgh in March 1974 to start a two-year trade school program at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, in their “Visual Communications” department. (You can read a lot more about that part of my life in my “Art School: Not-so-Confidential” post by clicking here.) I’m not quite sure how I found out about the Pittsburgh Comix Club; it was probably through an ad or mention in The Buyer’s Guide for Comics Fandom (later known as Comics Buyers’ Guide), probably similar to the ad for Eide’s comics shop pictured above. I vaguely remember a long-distance phone call with Ben Pondexter about the club before I moved to Pittsburgh and on the second Saturday of March 1974, I met him under the clock at Kaufmann’s department store at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh and we took the bus to Etna. Eide’s first store was a tiny hole-in-the-wall location, a one-room storefront with some card tables, a counter with some shelving behind it that housed more expensive and rarer books, a bookcase or two filled with used science fiction paperbacks (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, etc.), some cheap comics on and under the card tables, and some pulp magazines on the shelves behind the counter. Greg was in his twenties, a gruff former law student who opened a store to further his own collection and get rid some of the comics and books he no longer wanted. It turned out to be a lifelong career for him.

I don’t remember who all I met at my first meeting. Certainly Ben and Greg, maybe Tim Kupin, a teen who was one of Greg’s first employees, Howard Bender (and his mom, Ruth, a fixture at early meetings, along with Howard’s girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife, Joni), maybe Rick Ulacky, who I would eventually room with when I moved back to Pittsburgh after art school and my first design job back in my hometown. I was smitten with the idea of a comic book store, though … that I remember. I had probably first encountered them in either New York City or in Kingston, Ontario, but they were more magazine stores with used, back issue comics thrown in (in NYC, more girlie mags than comics). The idea of a store that sold just comics was mind-blowing to me in 1974, and Eide’s was the first of its kind in Pittsburgh.

An early Pittsburgh Comix Club T-shirt design and a decal designed and printed by Ken Klaczak were among the first pieces of PCC merchandise that weren’t publications.

(As a side note, I never quite understood why it was called the Pittsburgh COMIX Club. By 1974, I had been to at least three of Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Art Conventions and I knew that the word “comix” denoted underground comics. Maybe Ben chose that particular word to be sure people understood it wasn’t about comics, i.e. comedians, but it always mystified me.) The PCC held monthly meetings at Eide’s store, sometimes fractious events where everyone talked at once with soft-spoken Ben trying to call them to some kind of order. A lot of time was spent trading comics and picking up books from Eide’s ever-increasing stock. One meeting was so crowded that the Etna fire marshal showed up and kicked us all out of the small shop and the meeting was held on the sidewalk. Eide eventually moved his store to Federal Street, just across the Sixth Street Bridge to downtown Pittsburgh (exactly where Pirates Stadium—PNC Park—is now) and the monthly meetings moved with him, to a creepy dungeon-like basement that was entered through a trapdoor in the floor. Somehow it seemed appropriate for a comic book club that had a side interest in old monster movies.

The club did a lot of things, including local outreach at various events, trying their best to get the word about comics out there to the unsuspecting public. At that point in time, comics were still regarded as solely for children, and for a lot of people, a bunch of older guys interested in them was, well … suspect at best. The club planned trips to Seuling’s New York cons, and even went out to San Diego one year. While I attended all the New York cons from 1971 until the early 1980s, I didn’t go with the PCC crowd, although I may have seen them there from 1974 on. My NYC con visits were done with my older brother, Rick. The club was big on going in costume, too, attending the NYC ones in group costumes such as The X-Men, The Avengers, and the Legion of Super-Heroes (they eventually got an honorary award from Seuling), and even going to super-fan Tom Fagan’s annual superhero-centric Halloween parade in Rutland, Vermont a couple of times.

By 1975 or so, PCCer Howard Bender had moved to New York City and was working in the Marvel Bullpen. He got Marie Severin to illustrate this 3rd Anniversary piece for the club, which Howard had signed by numerous Marvel writers, artists, and Bullpen members, including Stan Lee, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Frank Giacoia, Don McGregor, Steve Gerber, and, of course, “Jim Salicrup hates all of you.” That’s Howard with his buddy Hulk.

Ben, Greg, Howard and the rest of the PCC did their own conventions in Pittsburgh, too. They started in 1975 at the University of Pittsburgh, followed by 1976 (Duquesne University), 1977 (Hotel Webster Hall, near the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon campuses), and 1978 (the first mall-con at Northway Mall). 1979 and 1980 were both held at Monroeville Mall, where George Romero filmed the original Dawn of the Dead. The mall cons were strange; the tables were located in the aisle ways of the mall itself, so there was a lot of foot traffic from “normal” people, wondering who all these strange comics people were … especially the ones in costume. Programming was done in the community rooms at the malls. PittCon as it was known, continued through 1981, when it returned to where it started, Duquesne University. The process of putting on conventions was often complicated and convoluted, especially for a group of young volunteers with limited finances. After each convention, the discussion descended into debate about whether or not to even contemplate ever doing another con.

Somewhere along the line, I became more and more involved with the club, at least from a publication point of view. I took over Pittsburgh Comix and Fandom with its second issue. By this time, Howard Bender had moved to NYC and his own career in comics, mainly in the Marvel Bullpen. I was still an Art Institute student so I jumped at the chance to produce the second issue, which included an interview with comics superstar Roy Thomas (originally conducted by Mark Lerer and fellow PCCers at a New York con and reprinted from an early issue of Pittsburgh Fan Forum, the monthly club newsletter). I illustrated the Conan cover and relied on a couple of my fellow AIP students for comics stories, keeping Howard’s thread of new comics being a large part of the book. It was a thrill to walk into National Record Mart and actually see copies on the magazine racks. Before the launch of the direct market for comic shops, NRM was my go-to place in Pittsburgh for my weekly comics buying (along with McCrory’s, located conveniently across Market Street). Soon Greg Eide joined the direct market and I started buying my new comics from his store, a weekly habit (some might say addiction) that held fast until I moved to San Diego in 1998. Wednesday is still New Comic Book Day for me each week.

Eventually I graduated from the Art Institute with an associate degree in something-or-other and moved back to my hometown of Tamaqua, PA. There I got a job as the art director of the town’s weekly newspaper, The Tamaqua Paper (the daily Evening Courier had died in the early 1970s). With that job came a photostat machine and an electronic typesetter, both of which I commandeered when I took over the bi-monthly production of the PCC’s newsletter/fanzine, Pittsburgh Fan Forum.

Despite Ben’s reluctance to publish fanzines, the PCC did a monthly mailed newsletter with club news, some comics news, and fan art. Under editor Mark Lerer, this publication became more and more ambitious. I’m uncertain as to how or when the newsletter morphed into Pittsburgh Fan Forum, but I know by the time I took it over (when Lerer went off to college) it was already at issue #33. I edited and designed it until #41, a thick $2.00 digest that was also the PittCon 1979 Program Book. Around that time, The Tamaqua Paper went out of business and I was not only out of a job, but also out of a photostat machine and electronic typesetter. I tried doing a couple of issues called Thought Balloons with a new electronic typewriter I had bought, but it wasn’t the same … if it couldn’t look the way I wanted it to, I wasn’t interested in doing it any longer.

My run as editor/designer of Pittsburgh Fan Forum, from issue #33 through #41, which was combined with the PittCon 1979 Program Book.

I had a lot of fun producing PFF, but looking back over those issues I realize what an unmitigated little shit I was in my more than cocky early twenties, especially when it came to letter replies and my editorial writings. The club members as a group were always an opinionated bunch (I’m being polite) and most of us being at that know-it-all age added to the sometimes aggressive letters and comments. I would put the whole thing together, based partially on what Ben sent me (art, letters, regular columns by club members) and partially on stuff I came up with (a long Classics Illustrated article plus articles and interviews based on my love of vintage Dick Tracy Comics, neither of which were very popular with the club members). But those issues of PFF became more like fanzines than club newsletters, and Ben sold out of his very limited print-runs, mainly to people outside of the club. I would do the paste-ups in printer spreads (page 1 side-by-side with page 48, page 2 with 47, etc.) and send the boards off to Ben, who would have them printed at a local copy shop on 8.5 x 11” paper, folded once to make a digest-sized booklet. I have to admit the typesetting and quality of the art reproduction from the photostat machine lent a more professional look to the book and that certainly helped it become more popular in the outside world. I like to think the content and design helped too. Ben was also very big on recognizing the club’s anniversary each year, and all members were invited to send in art and articles to be included, as long as they took the time (and expense) of making 100 copies of their work. (Some of these anniversary editions were bound into black sketchbooks … I still have one.)

In late 1979 I moved back to Pittsburgh, hoping to find some kind of design job there. I ended up working at Eide’s comic shop for a year or so, just to pay the bills. But looking back at it from 40 years on, I loved opening those boxes of new comics each week and seeing them before everyone else. I eventually got a job as a graphic designer for KDKA-TV, where I worked for almost 20 years, primarily as the lead news designer.

Me (with hair–sort of!) with Marvel editor-in-chief and Pittsburgh native Jim Shooter. I interviewed him as part of the programming for PittCon 1980 at Monroeville Mall.

The Pittsburgh Comix Club continued until Ben’s death in 1984 at the age of 47 and then—as far as I know—just kind of fell apart. Marvel Comics memorialized Ben (thankfully before he died) as one of the aliases Daredevil villain Bullseye used. You can get a glimpse of Ben—along with legendary Marvel Comics artist Marie Severin—at PittCon 1979 in the clip below from KDKA-TV’s Evening Magazine show … fast forward to around 1:50 for the beginning of the segment. Eide’s continues to this day, having just celebrated their 49th anniversary in May 2021. Sadly, Greg Eide died of Covid-19 just shy of his 70th birthday (you can read more about Greg by clicking here). Rick Ulaky died of lung cancer in February of this year. He was 67.

All of these memories about the PCC and Ben and Greg caused a bit of an epiphany for me recently. I’ve spent the past 20 years of my life working for San Diego Comic-Con, first as it’s director of programming from 2000 until 2007, and then as its director of print and digital media, in charge of its publications and website, from 2007 until earlier this year when I retired. But the epiphany is in how much my years with the Pittsburgh Comix Club foreshadowed my work with Comic-Con. I helped run programming at the Pittsburgh Comix Club conventions (see that photo above with Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter on an interview panel moderated by me in 1980) and I produced their publications for over two years. All of that was foreshadowing for my later career. The only thing I really miss about Comic-Con is producing the Souvenir Book each year. I did 14 of them from 2007 on, along with various WonderCon and APE (Alternative Press Expo) program books, numerous Update, Comic-Con Magazine, and Comic-Con Annual issues, and countless internal publications for professionals and exhibitors over the almost-decade and a half I was in charge of publications. I couldn’t have done any of that without the mentorship of people like Ben and Greg and the sometimes prickly friendships of the Pittsburgh Comix Club. They were a defining influence on both my life and career. From my involvement with the PCC and those early publications, I discovered how much I loved editing and designing fanzines, and later—professionally—newspapers, magazines, and convention program books. I had no idea at the time how much the PCC would prepare me for my life 30-40 years later and what would become my career.

“Comics are the Good Times,” indeed.

Ben Pondexter’s catch phrase, “Comics Are the Good Times,” lovingly illustrated by Ben Ruiz (left) and Robert Harris.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: