Don and Maggie Thompson in 1992.
Maggie Thompson was a key figure in the history of comics because she and her late husband Don, who died in 1994, started the early fanzine Comic Arts, then the sci-fi fanzine Newfangles, and then went on to edit the Comics Buyer's Guide for over 20 years (see "‘CBG’ DOA").  She has continued to be an active part of the comics community as a writer and historian.  In Part 2, of this interview with comics journalist Heidi MacDonald, she discusses the Comics Buyer's Guide.  In Part 1 she describes her early days in comics and sci-fi fandom and her collaboration with Don on their first fanzines.

This interview was conducted as part of ICv2's Comics Direct Market 50th Anniversary celebration; for more, see "Comics Direct Market 50th Anniversary."

To watch a video of this interview, see "ICv2 Video Interview: Maggie Thompson, Part 2."

Did TBG, The Buyer's Guide, exist at that point?
No, [Alan Light] created it.

You and Don were not part of the original TBG. You joined, right?
Yeah.  He said, "I'll [edit your fanzine] for you."  We said, "Get lost kid."  Basically, very politely.  I'm sure we were polite.

Of course.
Then in 1972, July, we prepared a half page column for The Buyer's Guide for Comic Fandom, "Beautiful Balloons," we called it.  It was written in July and published in Buyer's Guide #19, dated August 15, 1972.  I was 29 at that point, by the way.

The deal is "Beautiful Balloons;" it was a half-page, camera-ready.  We had a Selectric with a nice carbon ribbon.  We did a half page and it was a cartoon of us in a hot air balloon saying "Up, up and away,” then an arm coming up from below going, "Hey, that's my beautiful balloon."  That's where that started.  We just turned it in.  We did it for free because we didn't want to be responsible for something that was good enough to be paid for.  He actually insisted on paying us eventually.

You were a librarian at this time. Don, what was he doing?
No, I retired from the library when I was pregnant with Valerie, because I had never had three‑day measles.  It was not safe.  There was the World Science Fiction Convention in 1966 in Cleveland.  We went, we had a great time, went home, I quit and just stayed home and basically isolated for the first three months of my pregnancy with Valerie.

Which is something you had to do then, which is crazy. You were a working mother at that point.
Basically keeping house and looking out for cats.

Image: GCO, LLC
Don Thompson at a Capital City Distribution event, likely early 90s.
What was Don doing?

He worked for the Cleveland Press.  I graduated from high school in '59, started in fall of 1960 at Oberlin, at which point Don went to work at the Cleveland Press.

I'm just trying to get some kind of a feeling for how you transitioned from fan, hobby, to pro.
When they started paying me.

Yeah, but when you took over, I want to talk a little bit more about TBG, but just as long as we're on this thread, when Krause bought TBG and turned it into CBG and you became the editors of a weekly newspaper, I'm assuming that was your full-time job at that point.
With two publications.  Alan had started a second publication.  Alan did The Buyer's Guide for Comic Fandom, and then later, he developed another publication, this time for movie collectors called Film Collectors World.  We did a column for that as well.

What happened was Chet Krause in Wisconsin was doing collector publications, saw them, wanted to buy them, made an offer to Alan, and asked Alan for a recommendation as to who could edit them.  They had to have a newspaper background or a publishing background of some sort.  I had been doing magazines for New Media/Irjax, which was for Hal Schuster.

Hal wanted to do a publication called Doctor Who, and I said, "If you call it Doctor Who, the BBC will come and break your legs, but if we call it Fantasy Empire and we deal with science fiction and fantasy in the British Empire, guess what will be on the cover every month.  I had started that, we did a publication about comics, etc.  We worked with Carol Kalish and Rich Howell and so forth.  That whole little thing started.

Anyway, Chet said he wanted to ask Alan Light for recommendations as to people who could handle a magazine and a newspaper.  The Cleveland Press had folded in the summer of 1982, and we were at very loose ends and pretty panicked.  There it was, the door opened. Chet's policy was (and he'd heard it from somebody, apparently) that you don't want to have a married couple working because then there can be all kinds of problems for a publisher.  So his rule at Krause Publications was they couldn't have a married couple. We came.  We interviewed.  He said, "I just don't see how a married couple is going to work together."

We said, "We've been doing it for a long time” and he said, "Ooookay."  The policy had to change at Krause Publications.  There were several weddings the next year.

Nice. Very nice.
You say we're influential?  Well, yes.

Just as a footnote, non‑comics-connected, but just how wonderful the different worlds were.  We changed the titles.  The Buyers Guide for Comic Fandom, we wanted the word "comic" out front, so we changed the name to Comics Buyer's Guide.

Then Film Collector's World, at that particular point, that whole hobby was nuts, because the 8mm collectors hated the 16mm collectors, who hated the poster collectors, who hated the 35 mm collectors.  We said, "Let's just call it Movie Collector’s World."  We changed that too.  Within the first month that we were there, I got a phone call from Leonard Maltin, bless his heart, and he said, "Is there anything I can do to help on the Collector’s World?"

This was when VHS was just coming out, I imagine.
Yes, exactly.

And DVD and Beta.  This was a revolution in the whole world of movie collecting.
You got it.

Yeah.  Interesting.  Let me go back to TBG just a little bit, because that's where I got into organized fandom.  It literally was you bought Marvel Comics and then there would be this page of classified ads.  On that page was the Internet of the day, because there was an ad for the Phil Seuling conventions in New York, and then there was the ad for TBG, which was this really weird ad, kind of, as I recall, silhouetted guy in a baseball hat.
Could be.  That was Alan?

I think it was Murray Bishoff because he was the news writer for TBG at that point, right?

He did the news-gathering.  You only did "Beautiful Balloons" on a monthly basis.
By the way, that was a revelation to Chet, because to get second class mail privileges, he thought you had to have at least 25 percent editorial content in every issue.  Alan said, "No, every other issue."  Chet said, "What?"  I'm paraphrasing here, obviously, but yeah, Alan brought new information to the party.

Amazing. This all had to do with mailing. Postage and mailing is fascinating because it was just ads.  There was such a robust world of dealers.  Some of them are still around in various ways like Buddy Saunders.  A lot of them were in there.  Obviously, Phil Seuling.
Can I do a pitch for Buddy, by the way?

When Krause Publications kind of imploded, the building is still there, but basically the company sold bits of itself all over the place and had already killed Buyer's Guide, I kept going over and saying, "Can we keep the heritage?  How much of this can we keep alive?"  I was talking to the guy who was handling the dissolution of that aspect of the company.  I said, "Can we take anything we want to out of the library?"

He said, "Sure, because it's going in the dumpster.  Anything that we don't dispose of."  I now have bound copies of my Movie Collector’s World, thank you.

He said, "What about the forever copies?"

I said, "The what?"

We had filed five copies of every single issue from the first issue we did in boxes, which I didn't know, in the storage unit at Krause.  He said, "We're just going to throw those in the dumpster."  John Jackson Miller contacted Buddy Saunders.  Buddy sent a semi and took the forever copies so they would not be [thrown out].

Wow! Is there a complete run of TBG somewhere?
Got me.  If there is, Buddy has it, would be my guess.

Interesting because that, to me, would be the gold mine.

Maggie, when I was moving from New Jersey to Maine in 1980 or '81 (I don't even remember now.  I don't have a cheat sheet so I'm just going by my brain.), I didn't want to move.  I had saved all my TBGs, of course, because I'm a nerd collector hoarder, but I couldn't move the whole thing, so I actually started to go through them and just pull out your "Beautiful Balloons," and Catherine Yronwode's "Fit to Print," and there was a couple of others then, Craig Yoe.  Then it just got like, "Oh, but now there's more editorial."  I was like, "Ahhhh!"  But I actually probably did that for like 100 issues of it.  I was pretty dedicated for a little while, but those were subsequently lost in a later move.  My copies are gone.

I have some of the layouts we did of our column in my attic.

What was the relationship of the industry to "Beautiful Balloons" at that time? Murray Bishoff was the guy who did the hardcore news. Obviously, there was just as much news then as there is now only it didn't get reported as well, or it got reported more but, you know…
He did what he could.

He did what he could. He left for reasons I can't recall, but then Cat Yronwode took over and she was a bit more controversial for some reason.
She had opinions.  Everybody has a different style.  I don't recall why Murray left, but obviously, Cat was a wonderful columnist.

She was incredible. She was an incredible writer, incredible personality.
A stylist personality, absolutely.

Such a huge influence. For me, her and you, Cat and Maggie, I wouldn't be here for sure because you both inspired me to be like, "Maybe I could do this."  I'm just wondering because I know Cat did get a lot of push-back for it because she talked about it.  I'd say this, I love Cat.  She has a confrontational personality.  I would say the Thompsons are not necessarily as confrontational.
The Thompsons had a responsibility to their employer.  We were very careful.  And coming from Don's years as a professional [journalist] (he was a journalism grad at Penn State), he knew the rules and the history and the whatever, and we were careful.

What happened eventually with Cat was that when she would express negative opinions, the negative opinions tended to be about her competitors and we felt that was something to be cautious of, and saying that if she was going to do that, perhaps…  And bless her heart, bless Dean [Mullaney]'s heart, they just bought page nine as an ad.  It solved the problem.

Yeah, that's right.
And good on her for solving the problem.

Milton will kill me if I don't talk a little bit more about the birth of Direct Market, which by his reckoning is '73.  Which would be Phil Seuling and Sea Gate.  I guess Bill Schanes was involved in this, Pacific Comics.  You probably had just started doing your column for the Buyer's Guide.  This had been a hobby, but a hobby that you had so much love and respect for, the comics industry, and the people who created them.  It wasn't until I read All in Color for a Dime that I knew who Carl Barks was, and Walt Kelly.  That was my first bible into comics.  Like, "These are the things I should look up and these are the things I should try to find."

I think this is right around the time of Giant‑Size X‑Men, so that revitalized things in a lot of ways.  Roy the Boy [Thomas], there were new voices coming in.  It was a tumultuous time for comics!  What did you think of it?  What did you think of these times?

Basically, keep in mind, Phil Seuling had the first Seuling Con in New York City in 1968.  There were head shops in the 1960s, which was their own method of direct distribution of the underground comix.  On November 4th, 1977, Phil Seuling, also known as Father of the Direct Market, announced incorporation of Sea Gate Distributors (see "Phil Seuling: The Man Who Invented the Direct Market").  He announced that in Buyer's Guide.  In 1982, Steve Geppi announced the beginning of Diamond Comic Distributors.  Then we sort of grew into the International Association of Direct Distributors.

IADD.  Then, in 1988, Diamond bought Bud Plant's distribution company. One of the things that I will point to is that we used to do—this is 1989, so it's the fourth edition, we did this Guide to Collecting Comics.  It included a listing of the members.  There was a dozen members.  They were distributing the comics.  As we say here, not the only organizations publishing comic books, but they are the better‑known publishers, fourteen of them.

This gives the background.  I was looking at this before our conversation.  I was very impressed with us because I think it's really well‑written.  It says, in our "Introduction to Comics Collecting," "More people are collecting..." and we actually said, at one point, that Krause had done an analysis of our subscribers.  Again, as I say, this is 1989.  It says, "When Comics Buyer's Guide recently polled its readers, it found that its audience was largely affluent, educated, and male."

Oh yes, affluent. [laughs]
"More than two‑thirds came from households with an annual income of $26,000 or more.  Nearly 55% had had at least some college education.  Nearly 96% were male."  Then we continued by saying, "However, women are increasingly involved with comics today, and industry professionals are looking for more ways to get women to buy comics."

By the way, Maggie, remember when I said 4% was about the industry's average? [laughs] Nailed it.
As we say there, wouldn't it have been great to get more women to read comics?

We could have a whole another hour conversation about that.
Of course.

I just want to get an idea of your own feelings about the industry as it grew in that ten‑year period, let's say, from you starting "Beautiful Balloons" in this really just astonishingly homemade newspaper of The Buyer's Guide to something that was so much more professional‑looking.

I remember you said, "We will typeset your ads for you so you don't have to write them on a sheet of mimeograph paper" or whatever they were doing.  There was hand‑drawn ads, handwritten ads. Some of them had terrible penmanship.  What were some of your feelings?  In 1973, could you have ever imagined where we are 50 years later?

Always imagined.  Remember, we were science fiction fans.  Yes, we will take over the world.  In terms, by the way, of the "We will typeset your ads," again, that was not our policy.  That was Chet Krause's policy because then he could charge for that.

Sure, but he had to.
Then the readers complained because they could tell.  They said, "I can tell if an advertiser is bad because his ad is bad.  Now I can't tell because the ads look good."  Oh dear.  Our advertisers' work looks good.  Wow, what a shame.  That was an evolution, in and of itself.  That was Chet, however.  His first publication was Numismatic News for coin collectors.  Then he went on and he did car collecting, sports card collecting, etc.  He also did collect cars.

I want to get back to that point, in 1973.  You said of course you could imagine it.  Did you really think it was possible?  You and I were on many organizations in the '80s and '90s to save comics.  Did you have then this idea that there would be an industry that you could become involved in?  Did you think this was rational at all?
I think it was more an egotistical [laughs] wanting to make what we had.  So, "I want to do a magazine.  I would like it to look nice.  How will it look nice?"  I can cut a mimeograph stencil, I will have you know, to this day.  Do I need to?

As time goes on, now I can scan something.  I can do something.  It's latching on to whatever the methods are that can be used to do something to make my ability to yammer at people the way I want it to be.  Right now, I do a column for Diamond, which is basically looking back at the history of comics, the anniversaries: 5‑year, 10‑year, 15‑year.  I do events at Comic‑Con because I love Comic‑Con, I want to stay in touch with people and I want to know about people.

It's feeding my own selfish, "Yeah, I want this."  I can't draw that well, so maybe I can have somebody else draw it.  Or I cannot write that well, but I can write about people who can write well or that sort of thing.  I find historical stuff of interest.

For example, selfishly, I help at the American Association of University Women book sales in October, where we sell books for a dollar.  Out of the garbage, I rescue—this is last week—How to Be a Perfect Liar. [holds up a book] I said, "What?  This is by—"

Who is it by?  I can't quite see.
I've probably got it upside down.  Anyway, [Mort] Weisinger.

Oh, Weisinger. Yes. Interesting.
Weisinger and [Arthur] Henley.  It's hilarious.  It's a humorous book about how to lie really well, which is interesting.  You never know what you're going to find.  You go, "I'm going to rescue this from the [dustbin]."  They threw it away because, I think, they didn't approve of it.

Do you think this is the life you were meant for?
Pretty much.  Mom taught me to read with comic books.  I had rheumatic fever when I was five, and so I was in bed for five months, so she taught me to read.  How did she teach me to read?  With comic books, and so on and so forth, and then you say, "Thank you."  And you try to find out more about it because suddenly it's a disposable art form that maybe can we rescue it from the dust heap.  They also, because they were fans of Walt Kelly, they were clipping Pogo.  They clipped Pogo from day one.  I clipped for example, Gordo, which I loved, and so again, clip it out of the newspaper, preserve it, because if you don't preserve it, you don't have it.

You were clipping comic strips and I was clipping "Beautiful Balloon."  You see where my interests lie.  This is the most perfect example of people funneling their interests, right?

Your kids are pretty accomplished, as well.  Steven, as the editor of The Onion, obviously, had a very distinguished career.

He was one of the Onion folks and now, of course, co‑created Pop Culture Happy Hour at National Public Radio and the Tiny Desk Concerts at NPR.  He got to meet The Muppets.

Valerie is also pretty amazing.
Valerie's done book design.  She was vice president of a PR firm.  She's now home, looking out for stuff.  Basically, now, among the fascinating things, is they do weekend flea markets with the stuff that they have.

I wish I could do that.  What do you do with your time now?
Try to bring order to the chaos that is the stacks, and stacks, and stacks, and stacks, with some more stacks and, by the way, stacks of stuff.  My brother died almost a year ago now.  Just trying to figure out where his various items should go, where would be the best home for this or that or the other?  This is his self‑portrait back here.  He worked for Carol Kalish at Marvel.  He worked for Innovation, then he went to Marvel, then he went to Swiss Re, which is a company that insures insurance companies, and so forth.  He died last year.

Obviously, your late brother Paul also had a career in comics.  When you were growing up, did you share fandom with him as well?
Certainly.  My whole family was surrounded by fantasy, science fiction, and comics.

Did he help out?  Did he do things for you?  Did you work together?  Did you collaborate?
Yes. If you look at the first issues that Don and I edited, when Comics Buyer's Guide became Comics Buyer's Guide, those first issues have filler cartoons by Paul.

One of the things that he solved was one of the things we were putting up with, which is how do you lay out?  This was a traditional newspaper layout that the two of us had to lay out.  We would do a rough layout and what you end up with in that situation—you did something that, by the way, I don't know any layout program today that does what was traditional in newspapers, which is you back a story in.  If it's supposed to end at the end, you back in, and then you adjust the headline at the start. [laughs]  We were able to do that.

Even so, there'd be odd spaces, and we were having to strip things in and photocopy, and then in production, they would take the actual film and lay that in.  I was talking to Paul and I said, "This is a nightmare.  We need filler that will fill the spaces that are awkward."  He came up with the concept of the "amazing expandables."  He would do one where for example, somebody is walking and a safe is falling down on their head, so your white space could be as long or short as it needs to be.  Or you're throwing something from there to there, and it could be as wide or as narrow as it needs to be.  He created that.  I don't think anybody had done that before.  That's the kind of mind Paul had.

You are a family of super‑geniuses! Speaking of super genius, can you talk for a couple of minutes about Carol Kalish?
She was magnificent.  She was just jaw‑droppingly brilliant.  At one point, she was handling the layout, back when she and Richard [Howell, Kalish’s partner] were working for Hal Schuster and New Media, and they had sent me the film for I think Fantasy Empire for something I was writing.  I said, "I don't want to touch it."  She said "You have to wax it and put it up and do the layouts for us, and then send it back."  I said, "I don't want to cut the film."  Her line was, "If your cat had an opposable thumb, your cat could do it."  It was a [laughs] sort of inspiration, and sarcasm, and brilliance.  Carol, probably the most brilliant person I have ever met.

I would agree with that. [laughs]  She was really, really, really smart.
Amazing, inspirational.  She brought cash registers to comic shops.  She would go into comic shops and say, "What do you need?"  She had that hands‑on, helping the local comic shop to get better.  She would travel and check comic shops, "What do you need?"

Then she would get ideas from that and say, "Can Marvel supply it?"  Not only the cash register but there was a retailer, I don't remember which one, who told us that she had come to the store and she said, "Do you have any problems?"  They said, "Yeah, the toilet is all stopped up in the restroom" and she went back and fixed the toilet.  She was a master of solving problems.

It strikes me even when you mentioned the four women who are at this show, the four percent, that the women who were in the industry were so accomplished and so brilliant.  Like Cat, like Diana Schutz, like Carol, and Jenette [Kahn].  They had to be so far above to be able to cut through the chaff.

Image: GCO, LLC
Maggie Thompson at a Capital City Distribution event, likely early 90s.
Because I saw—again, this is another conversation—but I know you and I, we saw women who didn't have this belief and self‑confidence chewed up and spit out by this prejudice.

We had a new publisher take over at Krause and my office was stacked high, as my other room is, stacked high with papers.  A few of the other editors at Krause had that sort of situation and others did not.  We had a meeting with all the editors around the room with the new guy in charge and he snorted at me.  I mentioned that I had been a pre‑professional assistant children's librarian, and he said, "Oh, well, did you get into trouble for having a messy desk when you were a librarian?"  I said, "No because I had adequate storage space for my papers, which I do not have here."

Yes, yes, Maggie.  Yes.
A round of applause from the other editors.

Listen, I've always had a horrible, messy desk because that's how I work.  I can't work in a neat environment.  I'm sure that's definitely held me back but whatever.  I'm still here.

Anything else about Carol?  When did you first meet her?  What was your first interaction with her?

It was when I was working for Hal Schuster at New Media.  She and Richard were in New England and Hal was in Florida, and they were arranging the publication of Comics Feature.  There was something called LOC, there was something else, and Hal was trying to build each one into having its own circulation.

Because Larry Charet, a Chicago retailer, had introduced me to Doctor Who—well, that's not true.  I had seen it at a Denver convention.  It was one of those things when you're in the middle of the night and somebody says, "Hey, come see this show."  I was curious about Doctor Who, so I started to investigate it.  Just as I've done with other things, if I want to know more about it, you print an article on it, say, "Now, tell me more."  Larry told me more.  Isn't that the history of all the stuff I've ever done, is I want to know more?  And so the only way to find out more is to investigate more.

Now, it's a lot easier with the Internet, but there's still stuff we don't know.  I actually did see a flyer today that had George Washington saying that he couldn't tell a lie because he cut down the cherry tree and I'm going, "Oh, my gosh, you're still believing that?"

There's a lot of things that you have to go to books to find.
I've been lucky in that the routes that I have chosen have intersected happily into producing cool stuff.

There you go.  That's it.  It's an industry of dreamers, and outsiders, and dreamers.
It was attention and having the opportunity to spread the word to people who can help.  For example, when a retailer came up with the idea of a Free Comic Book Day as the first Saturday in May, because there was going to be a major movie tie‑in...

We were able to publish that in the magazine.  Diamond said, "Yes, let's do that," and we were able to make it happen.  That is another advantage in our industry, is responsive people who make things happen.

Absolutely.  One quick question then I'm going to let you go.  How did you get to do the In Memoriam at the Eisner Awards?  Because that's probably what you're best known for, for youngsters who weren't around and making mimeographs like us.
They asked me. [laughter]

Initially, as I recall it, I actually had to write the mini‑biographies, and then thank goodness, they went to a video that would go through it more quickly.  I think we lose more people every year now than we used to.

How long have you been doing it?
I really don't know.

Do you think 20 years?
Probably.  One of the things that happened was our first San Diego Con was 1976.  Valerie was nine, Steven was four. Mel Blanc said to Valerie, "What voice would you like me to do?" thinking she would say something like Bugs Bunny.  She said, "I want to hear Jack Benny's Maxwell car."  I can pretty much guarantee no kid ever said that to him.  His response was, "Stand back, kid. You're going to get wet."

That was the first.  Then we came to Comics Buyer's Guide. 1983 was our first year.  We parlayed that, we said, "Look, we need to go to San Diego."  Then we went almost every year after that.  At some point in all of that, I ended up with that.  Because I had access to the bios probably initially.

That's right.  That's right.  I don't remember where the earliest Eisners were.  I guess they were held in the convention center.
Yes.  There was the old convention center.

The new convention center opened in the early '90s, so it really was a long time ago.
And it was only a portion of that convention center because I remember they kept expanding it.

Yes, till we got all the way to Hall H and beyond.  Maggie, this is a wonderful, wonderful conversation. I would love to talk to you more about it.  Perhaps I'll have to do a second part.