Comics Direct Market 50th Anniversary."
If you visited a comic store this week or perhaps hit a comic convention over the last couple months, here’s an idea: Maybe you should point yourself in the direction of a small neighborhood in Brooklyn called Sea Gate and mouth a word of thanks to the man responsible.
Don’t know who to thank? You’re not alone.
"He is the great unsung hero of this business," says longtime Marvel and DC Editor Denny O’Neil. "You never hear about him any more. But it’s hard for me to imagine where comics would have gone if he hadn’t been there."
The "he" is Phil Seuling, a hyper-kinetic, jutting-jawed trailblazer who appeared to lead the way at the perfect moment when comics was ready to explode as a business. He may have been the Richard Branson of comics, a crazy, free-spirited personality who had no qualms about trying the next idea that popped into his head, and usually had a measure of success in doing it. He was a dealer, a convention promoter, a distributor, a publisher. And in wearing these many hats, he undoubtedly shaped the landscape that is comics today.
But for all his career accomplishments and résumé points, it was sheer force of personality most remember. "Phil was larger than life," says longtime comic retailing vet Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics. "When he came into a room, there was hardly room for anyone else. He was bombastic; very opinionated. If Phil didn’t agree with you, boy howdy, he’d let you know. He’d tell you that you were the biggest numb-nuts in the world. Then he’d throw his big arm around you and take you out for dinner."
That duality of personality made Phil Seuling… so very Phil Seuling. Dick Giordano served as DC Comics’ editor in chief, and attended all of DC’s distributor meetings from 1980 to 1993, where he got to know Seuling very well. "He'd jawbone you into submission," Giordano says. "He looked like a hood, with a thrusting jaw and hard angles to his head and body. But all this hid a sharp mind, a well-honed intelligence, and a desire to improve the comic industry."
Seuling’s improvements started when he was one of comics’ early back-issue dealers, as fandom was just starting to grow. Comic conventions started circa 1964-65. The earliest cons were really glorified swap meets, perhaps without the glory. A few back-issue dealers would gather, and a smattering of collectors would appear to fill in some holes in collections. Accounts of these early cons peg attendance sometimes at a couple dozen people. A con with 200 attendees was cause for raucous celebration.
But one dealer at these early cons kept an eagle eye on the proceedings: Phil Seuling. The English teacher from Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, New York saw a potential infrastructure. It just needed some dressing up—creator guests, booths from publishers, some panel discussions. By 1968, Seuling gussied up his first con—The Comic Art Convention on July 4 in New York. Seuling’s bells and whistles proved a huge hit, and the Comic Art Conventions grew to the point where people would refer to them by a different name—they became known simply as "Seuling Cons." And they became the standard all others would have to rise to.
"Those early conventions pioneered everything conventions have become since," says longtime DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz. "Flying guests in was considered an absolutely radical idea. The panel, the auction, the art show, getting publishers to have a presence on the floor, these were all things that happened on Phil’s watch."
Seuling had a store in Brooklyn (that a 12-year-old Levitz shopped at), a thriving yearly convention, and a growing number of contacts in the industry. He also had poker night. "Every Friday night, we’d play at his place near Coney Island, right at the end of the subway line," remembers Roy Thomas, a 40-year comic writing vet who was befriended by Seuling as soon as he moved to New York in 1965. "Sometimes we’d play ’til 5, 6 a.m., and I won or lost $100 a time or two."
But even when Thomas would win, Seuling was the real winner. As one of comics’ earlier dealers, well… he had the goods. "He had one room at his place that was just a wonderland of comics," Thomas remembers. "When I’d play there, sometimes I’d stay the night, and just wander into that room at look at all the stuff. If I won, I’d usually wind up just giving it all back to Phil, because I’d buy all these old comics. He always said when I played, he never lost out—He’d get my money one way or another!"
Seuling’s colorful personality flourished. He took out tongue-in-cheek ads in fan publications bragging about his own arrogance. Having built his name and a reputation to an all-time high, he was ready to take his next step: simply revolutionizing the way comics were distributed.
There were precious few "comic stores" in the early 70s, maybe 20 or 30 nationwide. Seuling knew there could be more. He had dealers at his conventions who dealt extensively in comics. Their problem was distribution: getting new books they needed, at a decent price. Under the newsstand distribution model of the times, comics and magazines came bundled in odd assortments, and were sold to retailers at 20% off of cover price, a low margin of profit. Retailers had the cushion of returnibility, and they needed it; no one wanted last week’s Newsweek. It was birdcage liner at best.
Not so in the burgeoning comics market. Hell, when Superman #206 came out, you wanted extra copies of Superman #205. The back-issue business was exploding, and plenty of retailers could do great in comics if they could get ready access to them. The publishers’ eyes just needed to be opened to the possibility. Enter a now 17-year-old assistant editor at DC, Paul Levitz.
"I happened to be present at DC the day he came in and pitched it," Levitz remembers. "[Then DC Vice-President] Sol Harrison came up to me after the meeting and said, ‘Phil has this idea for selling comics straight to the comic shops. Do you think that’s a good idea?’ I didn’t know enough to vouch for the idea, but I could vouch for Phil as a person. The comic shops were all trying to figure out how to get new comics through the newsstand distributors through very imperfect methods. So they were really used comic shops as opposed to new comic shops. It was Phil’s system that tipped that over, opened that door."
Seuling’s system was to have the publishers sell to him at 60% off cover price. Seuling would sell to comic dealers at 40% to 50% off, doubling their margins or better. Under this system, returnibility was gone, but who cared? Remember, comic dealers wanted extra copies of last month’s Superman. Roy Thomas set up a similar meeting for Seuling with Sol Brodsky at Marvel, and as soon as he had DC and Marvel in his pocket, the rest of the publishers quickly fell in line. By 1974, Sea Gate Distribution, named for Seuling’s Brooklyn neighborhood, was up and running.
Seuling created a philosopher’s stone for comics: access to the books retailers wanted, in top condition, at a better profit margin. It was a trifecta that kick-started the industry. Dealers made money, Seuling made money, and new comic stores started to pop up and flourish. But the biggest winners of all may have been the publishers. "With returnibility, the conventional wisdom was that you had to print 100,000 copies to sell 30,000. It was a grossly inefficient system," Denny O’Neil remembers. "But along came ol' crazy Phil with this wacky idea that created the specialty shop, which carried with it a guaranteed reader base."
Many near the epicenter of this creation of this new "Direct Market," Levitz and Giordano included, will also throw credit in the direction of San Francisco dealer Bud Plant. The only problem with that theory? Bud doesn’t buy it.
"Phil Seuling was the guy who created it," Plant states flatly. "I only slipped in there on the side. He was the guy who had the idea, and went to Marvel and DC and said, 'This is what I want to do. I can make this happen for you. Let’s get these comics out to people who know them and understand them, and let’s get them to them at a discount that will allow everyone to prosper.' That was his idea. The only place where I come in is that Phil and I used to work together on buying quantities of independent comics like Cerebus or Elfquest. If Phil could sell 1,000 and I could sell 1,000, together we’d order 2,000. That was it. But the idea, the creation of Direct Market distribution… it was all Phil."
The path Seuling started on as a fan as a youngster, a dealer in 1965 and a promoter in 1968 finally reached fruition. "I remember he would talk to me occasionally in the late 60s and early 70s about how bad the distribution was, how the market was in danger of drying up," Roy Thomas recalls. "Newsstands weren’t as interested in a product that was only 15 cents, 20 cents. He was worried that nothing could save comics, unless there was a different distribution system. Well, he created that system. He saved it."
Seuling set up a network of regional sub-distributors, and other distributors jumped into the fray as well. But Seuling enjoyed one massive advantage over any competition. At the time, almost all comics were printed in Sparta, Illinois, and if you ordered 25 or more copies via Sea Gate, the books were shipped right from the plant to your store’s doorstep at publisher expense. Not so with other companies. Other distributors such as Irjax, Pacific, and Glenwood got bulk shipments from Sparta, picked-and-packed themselves, and then shipped to stores. Stores got theirs quicker through Sea Gate. It was an insurmountable advantage.
It was also "unfair restraint of trade" for publishers not to allow other distributors the same terms. Distributor New Media/Irjax sued in 1978, and the deals became more equal. The sands were starting to shift, the first chinks appeared in Seuling’s armor.
"His was undoubtedly the linchpin presence by which comics fandom was transformed into the Direct Market. His rise was meteorically swift, and his reach and control unimaginably strong," recalls Cerebus creator/publisher Dave Sim. "But he fell victim to the hubris which accompanies all would-be tyrants like their own shadow. As the one who made the direct sales breakthrough, he had it all in the palm of his hand… and then hastened his own steep fall from the summit by trying to keep it there."
Chuck Rozanski thought that Phil Seuling’s ultimate problem was… Phil Seuling. "Phil was probably borderline-brilliant," Rozanski says. "But he had blind spots. Phil had faith in himself, probably too much faith. He could make errors with a shocking order of magnitude. You could sit there and argue with him and try to point out where his errors were, and not get anywhere with him. He believed in his own vision."
Seuling’s critical error happened shortly after the Irjax suit. All distributors had to move to doing their own pick-and-pack, and one of Sea Gate’s employees started falling behind in billing the stores for freight. Rozanski tried to tell Seuling that he was shipping the books for free to stores, but Seuling wouldn’t listen. Over a year’s worth of shipments went out without Sea Gate charging for shipping before Seuling checked his records. His response? He sent all his accounts a full year’s freight bill at once.
"They walked," Rozanski says. "Overnight, Sea Gate lost a huge percentage of their accounts, because Phil tried to get all this freight money at once. First he wouldn’t listen. Then, when he found there was an internal problem, he overreacted. Any other rational person would have tried to figure out a way to recover this money without losing their accounts. But Phil saw the world in black-and-white. Instead of trying to get paid over time or whatever, he just sent ’em all a bill. That was the nature of Phil Seuling. Brilliant on one hand, but so stubborn on the other."
Sea Gate was starting to wither away, as distributors including a new contender called Diamond were starting to rise. Seuling was starting to wither away as well. He had a rare liver disorder, and was looking jaundiced, losing weight. Seuling missed one of the annual distributor meetings, and as news of his illness rippled through the room, his fellow distributors and publishers grew quiet. "It definitely cooled the ardor of that meeting," Dick Giordano recalls. "A thin, subdued shadow of his former self showed up at the next meeting, but the fire was gone. And a little later, so was Phil."
On August 21, 1984, at the age of 50 years, Phil Seuling died. Sea Gate died with him.
All that’s left is legacy, and that legacy is a massive one. "I don’t think comics history would have gone the way it did without him," says Denny O’Neil. "And the way it did go is a healthy one. As a business, I don’t think you’d have the recognition for comics, and thus these umpteen-billion dollar comic movies. And the comic stores that cropped up around his idea created a marketplace, which could be a marketplace for anything. As an art form, comics are, by God, real capital-A Art. That’s all at least partially because of Phil Seuling.”
Dave Sim witnessed Phil Seuling’s fall, but he also recalls sending Seuling a sample copy of Cerebus #1 back in 1977, and a request that maybe Seagate might be able to move 500 copies. Seuling calling almost immediately with an order for 1,000 copies.
"He was a person of boundless generosity and warm open-heartedness, larger than life," Sim says. "For all his faults and foibles, he remains a large and significant presence in the history of the comics medium, literally the man 'without whom…' No one who met him or spent any time with him could ever forget him. And I doubt anyone who came to the point of parting ways with him did so without a large and enduring sense of regret at the loss."
You should know. You should turn in the direction of Seagate and mouth that word of thanks. Because Phil Seuling’s legacy lives on. "He helped popularize comics, get people interested. For people who were already interested, he helped make them part of a community as well with his conventions," says Bud Plant. "For years, when San Diego was just a minor blip, his convention in New York was the Mecca. That’s a great effect he had as well. The stores became a meeting place, too. He built community."
"I remember him as a friend," Chuck Rozanski says. "And I remember him as sort of a flawed genius. He created so much good in his lifetime that none of us collectively can thank him enough for the great things that he did."
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