Yes, I’m going to make you sit through all six issues of Innocent Bystander and then a quick recap of my part in ten issues of Geeksville, co-published with Rich Koslowski of The 3 Geeks fame (and Image Comics, for a time), before I get to the part you really want to read: “My Life in Comics, Part 8: The Comic-Con Years.” This incredibly introspective look at my self-published comic series is navel-gazing of the highest order, but something I feel compelled to do, either due to extreme nostalgia or a feeble attempt of recapturing what it was like to self-publish a comic book back in the 1990s. Not sure which it is. You can go look at the pretty pictures elsewhere on the blog if this exercise in self-aggrandizement is not your cup of tea. I understand. I’ll hate you for it, but I understand.
Innocent Bystander #1 came out and it was a mild hit. I sold a little over 1,000 copies through Diamond Comics and about 300 through Capital City, which was the second largest distributor at that time. It was enough, at least in my mind, to warrant a second issue, because at this point I was doing this for ME, pure and simple (kinda like this here blog you’re reading right now).
Innocent Bystander #2 came out in June of 1996, about nine months after the first issue. Diamond gave it a one paragraph notice, with no art, in their Previews catalog. But Capital City gave it a boxed review with the cover and two of their accolades: “Hot Flash!” and “Certified Cool.” Because of that, IB #2 saw greater sales at Capital City than Diamond; in fact, the sales of issue #2 were considerably more than the first issue with that distributor.
I’m sure the graphic blurb helped. But this was an incredibly weird time for comic books and their distribution, especially alternative, self-published series. In the 1990s, a number of smaller, regional distributors were bought out by larger ones, like Diamond and Capital City. And then Marvel, in their infinite wisdom, decided that they should have their own distributor, and enlisted Heroes World, the third largest comic book distributor, which was headquartered in New Jersey, to exclusively distribute their comics. Comic shops that were used to getting their books from one distributor now had to deal with two, if they wanted Marvel Comics. And they REALLY wanted Marvel Comics; that was their bread and butter. DC in turn went exclusive with Diamond, as did Dark Horse and Image Comics. And by 1996 (and until earlier this year) there was only one distributor: Diamond. (In 2021, both DC and Marvel parted ways with Diamond, although technically the company can still distribute Marvel comics through a deal with their new distributor, Penguin Books. Confused? Me, too. Thank your lucky stars you don’t own a comic book store—if you do, you have my sympathy.) There were also a few distributors who specialized in just my type of comics, like Cold Cut Distribution in California. Sadly, they’re now gone, too.
There could be—SHOULD be—books written about this era in comics industry history. The 1990s were such a huge period of flux for comics and how they got into readers’ hot little hands. While new, black and white, self-published series started—and succeeded—the market fell apart as speculators (a lot of them latching onto comics to augment their sports and collectible card sales) quickly fell by the wayside. The big two (Marvel and DC) played the game expertly with gimmicky storylines (Death of Superman, Batman’s broken back), new titles headlined by popular artists (Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man and Jim Lee’s X-Men, both titles sans adjectives—neither Amazing or Uncanny), and even more gimmicky cover enhancements (foil, “holograms”—this term used loosely, lenticular art, poly-bagged special issues). People who never set foot in a comic shop came in droves to buy Superman #75, in which the superhero pioneer bit the big one. They bought two, one to save, hopefully to put their children through college in a decade or so, and one to read. Just as quickly as they entered the world of comics, they exited and stores, especially the ones specializing in speculation, failed.
Despite all of this, very popular self-published series debuted in 1994/1995 such as Jeff Smith’s BONE, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes, featuring the cast of his Megaton Man series from the 1980s, and Batton Lash’s Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre (which went on to become Supernatural Law). A series of small press conventions took off across the country, including Pittsburgh (my hometown at the time), which was hosted by Simpson; APE (Alternative Press Expo) in San Jose, CA (eventually taken over and run for almost 20 years by Comic-Con International: San Diego when the person who started it realized he didn’t know how to run a convention; two decades he still didn’t and ran the show into the ground when Comic-Con gave it back to him), and Small Press Expo (SPX), in Bethesda, MD. SPX is the only one that is still ongoing.
And into this uncertain and ever-changing marketplace came little old me, with my “Nice Little Comic You Can Take Home to Mom,” a phrase that somehow became my slogan. IB #2 had the same format as issue #1, short one- to three-page stories about a variety of different things, including a sequel to “Tales from the Tube” in the first issue featuring a horrifyingly true story from TV news; a three-page look at silent film comedian Buster Keaton; a four-page adaptation of the Joan Osbourne song, “What If God Was One of Us” (God only knows what possessed me to draw that … I am NOT a religious person); and an extended look at relationships in one-page vignettes that is positively cringeworthy for me to read today … and hey, I wrote and drew the damn thing! There were also a number of warmly nostalgic single-page strips about my sixth grade lunchbox, growing up in a no-pet household, and playing “army” as a kid. Issue #2 also some more cat pages, featuring my real-life felines, Stan and Ollie, and actual letters from readers. It was 24 pages (plus covers) of pure me, all the time.
Click on the images to see them larger on your screen!
I had learned a couple of things from issue #1. I hated the newsprint paper which I had gone with to save money and I also hated my hand-lettering. For issue #2, I went with a bright-white paper and I purchased a computer font that looked like comics lettering (ComicCraft’s CC WildWords, I believe). I had also started coloring my covers on a work-related piece of machinery: the Quantel Paintbox, a high-end graphics machine used in television. I drew my black and white art for the cover by hand on paper as usual, but “painted” it on the Paintbox during my free time from doing TV news graphics and then printed it out and pasted it up on a full-size board to send to the printer (once again Brenner Printing in Texas). Little did I know until the phone rang that everyone in the building could dial up the Paintbox on their routers and see what I was doing (“Hey, Sass … that’s pretty cool! What are you working on?”). Luckily I wasn’t fired (even though I quit less than two years later).
With IB #2, I also started my own newsletter, called FIB: Friends of Innocent Bystander, that I sent out to readers on a mailing list I compiled. At it’s height I was printing (at my local Kinkos) and mailing about 300 copies of this 11×17” (folded once) publication, which contained all things pertinent to the world of Innocent Bystander and yours truly. FIB eventually became a job in and of itself and an expensive one at that.
By the time Innocent Bystander #2 rolled into comic shops, I was getting some pretty decent reviews, both in print and on this new-fangled thing called the Internet. A fanzine called Small Press Feedback gave IB #1 3 and 1/2 stars and said in it’s 21st issue: “A fun and relaxing visit with a genuinely interesting guy has a a real love of life … It’s refreshing to see in comics these days … cause for cheers when you find that [this] type of comic [is] still alive and well in the small press.”
I had gotten into the habit of having my issues printed well in advance of their on-sale dates, so I could send it out in advance to places like Small Press Feedback and Comic Shop News. Hence, a review for IB #2 appeared in SPF’s 23rd issue, dated April-May 1996, a month before the issue actually hit comic book shops. The zine gave it another 3 1/2 star-rating and said: “There’s plenty of the same relaxed atmosphere and mood in this issue as there was in the first. If anything, maybe there’s more as Gary settles into the new series. Nice, personal touches and the wide variety of topics make it hard not to enjoy the book.”
And then a much bigger fish, the comic shop-distributed Comic Shop News, a weekly newspaper that still appears in stores to this day, weighed in with this surprise review in issue #469, from June 19, 1996, by Cliff Biggers, which included a little vignette from one my Stan & Ollie one-pagers: “It’s very rare that I find an independent comic that has the same sort of broad, all-ages appeal as a well done comic strip, but Innocent Bystander #2 certainly qualifies. This delightful collection of short pieces by Gary Sassaman manages to capture some of the fun and frustration of adolescence and adulthood in a series of vignettes that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. … Sassaman captures the personalities of cars more in a couple of pages than Jim Davis has in thousands of Garfield strips. … Sassaman’s keen observation of the ironies of life leaves me eager to see more. This book deserves a much larger audience; I certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys humor with a slightly sardonic edge.” Four stars, primo reading
I had hit the big time … or it sure felt that way with such a glowing review from a major comics publication. I also got good reviews in Comic Buyers’ Guide from retailer Tom Lawton (issue #1177, June 7, 1996) and from John Jackson Miller (#1186, August 9, 1996). David LeBlanc posted my first (to my knowledge) review on the Internet in his “Comic Book Net Electronic Magazine,” issue #57. Writing about both issues #1 and #2, LeBlanc said: “These two books are a pleasant break from the drama and action which are the staple of any comic reading. Gary has a lot to say and his art and its composition fit just right with the text. He projects a love for what he is doing and his thoughts and humor are worth sharing with your friends.”
From the positive reviews I was receiving for the first two issues, I felt like Innocent Bystander had the makings of a hit. Readers and reviewers seemed positive about the format and the short stories. So what did I do? For issue #3, I devoted the entire issue to one topic: The Marx Brothers. It would become my first (and only) sell-out issue. More—much more—on that next time.
I still have a few copies left of Innocent Bystander, and I’ll be happy to sell them to you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested. Here’s what’s available with prices.
IB 1, 2, 4, 5, 6: $6.00 each; 2 for $10.00; all 5 for $25.00 +$9.00 for USPS Priority Mail
IB 3 (the Marx Bros. issue): $15.00 (only 3 copies left and hard to find on eBay) +$9.00 for USPS Priority Mail
IB 1-6 Complete Set (Only 1 available!): $45.00 postpaid
The Collected Innocent Bystander Vol. 1 Trade Paperback (Reprints issues 1-4 with an introduction by Mark Evanier): $25.00 postpaid. Only 3 available!
I do not have any issues of Geeksville available for sale.
I’m happy to combine shipping into one package. Limit one copy each per issue.
Shipping to United States only, please.
Payment through PayPal only, BUT EMAIL ME FIRST FOR INFO. No checks or money orders or whatever current version of cryptocurrency someone is trying to con people into using.
All books signed if you’re into that kind of thing.