Showing posts with label Big Planet Comics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Big Planet Comics. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

SPX Oral History - Christian Panas (UPDATED with a response by Greg McElhatton)

by Mike Rhode
(recorded in March 2017)

It's been on my mind for several years that the Small Press Expo could really use an oral history especially as it approaches its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the online history is pretty skimpy.

Christian Panas recently stopped back in the area for a few weeks, prior to moving to Japan. I was able to have one interview session with him while he was in town. This is edited by me for clarity, but has not been edited by Panas. Greg McElhatton has written to me with a response which is appended at the end, while being asterisked in the text at the places he indicated; since I was not involved in the show and have not deeply studied the history of it, I am only presenting what people say, and not attempting to determine any 'truth.'

Mike Rhode: When did you work on SPX?

Christian Panas: I would say 1997-2000.

MR: What was your role there?

CP: I started as a volunteer. I ended up working with the steering committee and I guess I was technically executive director for two years.*

MR: How did you start volunteering?

CP: I had moved back from Chicago to the area in '97 and wandered in to Big Planet Comics in Vienna. That's how I met Greg Bennett, and how I got interested in comics again. I had stopped reading them. I read comics from 4 years old through high school, and then just lost interest. It wasn't until I rolled into Big Planet and saw a lot of alternative press comics that was coming out that I got interested again. I found out about SPX and decided to volunteer and I had a blast, meeting those creators and seeing what was coming out. I just got really enthused about it. It was a real pleasure.

MR: Who were you reading at the time that sucked you back in?

CP: There was that whole movement with the Fort Thunder guys. Kurt Wolfgang. There was plenty of Fantagraphics that I had missed. I hadn't realized that Ivan Brunetti was putting out comics. He did a student comic strip at the University of Chicago when I was there.

MR: You liked the more "primitive" type of look then?

CP: Yeah, that's what got me back in. I always loved European and South American albums too, that were more polished, but still raw and powerful. This was lots of what Fantagraphics was putting out. At the time I discovered Munoz and Sampayo. Munoz blew my mind, and I got to meet him when I went to Angouleme in '99 with Greg.  There were also guys like Top Shelf, Jeff Mason's Alternative Press… between finding foreign stuff that I had missed and all the American indy stuff that I had no clue about, it really opened my eyes.

MR: So how did your role from volunteer to executive director evolve?

CP: It happened really suddenly. I was working at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum at the time, and I was doing a lot of cultural work in the anthropology department. We were working with other institutions so I went to Japan and Thailand, and I had experience working with artists in Trinidad & Tobago, and other things. I'll be very honest. I think part of it had to do with not being sure who wanted to be executive director at the time and part of it was that I was good at having rapport with people. I was good with schmoozing. We'd have those wonderful parties. At one of the SPX's when I was executive director we had in a Swiss cartoonist, and between folks like him and Joe Sacco, and Bob Sikoryak... I just had a good affinity and inclination to putting those people at ease, and drawing them out… making them feel welcome. To be honest, if I had anything to contribute, I think it was that. I think a lot of other people were involved in the real work of the show.

MR: Who else was involved with you at this time?

CP: There was Karen Flage, Greg McElhatton, Greg Bennett, Craig Thomas…  I also helped edit the 1999 and 2000 anthologies with Chris Oarr and Tom Devlin. We got nominated for the Eisner which was a lot of fun.

MR:  So did people undertake the job they could fulfill the best, or did you have to assign work to people?

CP: No, I was technically executive director, but literally it was the group meeting and functioning in an anarchistic sense – the good sense, not the chaotic one – self-actualized. Towards the end as I was having certain difficulties in my life, people ended up having to take up my slack.

MR: Where was SPX actually being held when you were working on it?

CP: In Bethesda.

MR: Were you involved with the Silver Spring interregnum?

CP: No, no.

MR: Chris Oarr was still director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) at the time, and you were working with Chris?

CP: I don't think he'd been doing it that long at that point, and in some way I was taking over executive directorship of the show from him.

MR: These were the days when it was still largely seat of its pants. Were you there when the parallel track with ICAF was going on?

CP: Yes. I have heard about difficulties and after I was involved, there was a split, but when I was involved, it seemed to be really great synergy. The artists that they brought were phenomenal. It felt really perfect to me. It was one of the many reasons I loved that show so much. The programming that they brought added such richness and depth, although I have to tell you I've been to one or two conventions in my life, including Angouleme, so I don't have much to compare to.

MR: SPX didn't really have any programming before that point, except for a few small press business things and a retailer thing on Sundays.

CP: Yes, exactly. And the softball game. We did have that retailers meeting and that was pretty much the program.

MR: It was in Bethesda in that little hotel with the two levels and it was outgrowing it rapidly at that point, I would imagine…

CP: It was really packed by the end. I remember it was an issue we were talking about constantly and trying to figure it out. A lot of people complained that getting tables was tough. As a show, my understanding is that is when it really took off in terms of filling up with crowds. It became a real indy (as opposed to local) show. At every stage, I remember how many of the creators who came spoke of it with real wonder and love, and spoke of it as a show that was feeding them.

MR: People make money every year, and some have been coming since the beginning… What were some of your successes?

CP: To me personally, it was just being involved with a lot of good people and being able to help provide that venue and that excitement and support to those creators. That felt really great. I can't remember how well it did in terms of sales, or publicity, and I wasn't the architect of new policies, but it felt incredibly fulfilling just making it happen.

MR: At the time, it was purely a fundraiser for the CBLDF, and that very well might still be the case, but I think it makes more money for the artists than it used to, and that's a concern for people who want to come since there are so many competing conventions. There's essentially a convention every weekend in America now, and people have to make an active choice to come to SPX now. Back then, there were only two relevant cons – SPX and APE.

CP: There's so much less distinction in terms of pop culture and knowledge. People know these creators and books more than they used to. It did feel seat-of-the-pants in a positive way, but those people on the committee … and Steve Conley was also a big part of it… worked extremely hard and did a great job. I guess one of my successes … working on the anthologies I really loved.

MR: Did the anthologies already exist when you started volunteering?

CP: Yes.

MR: And they kept getting thicker and thicker every year…

CP: In 1998, or 1999, the one that got nominated for an Eisner – there was controversy with people who felt that some of it was too experimental.

(courtesy of

MR: How did material get chosen for those?

CP: My vague recollection is that Chris and Tom and myself got submissions, and we met with Adhouse Book's Chris Pitzer who was the fourth in that group. I had my roommate Greg McEllhatton and Karen Flage look at the comics too, to get their input and to create a shortlist. Then Chris Pitzer, Chris Oarr, Tom Devlin and I holed up and went through and hammered out which ones we wanted in and and what order to put them in.

MR: So Pitzer's been running his own
publishing house for over two decades, and Devlin joined Drawn & Quarterly and is now the co-publisher, so I guess the experience was good for them too. Is there anything you can recall as a particular failure?

CP: I don't remember anything in particular.

MR: What were some of the more memorable events?

CP: We had Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman in. They were big names. For us, they were huge names. Honestly, my interest was a lot more to the people ICAF brought over. I remember sitting and having a drink with Will Eisner one night at the bar. I just remember how awesome that was -- the two of us randomly having a drink. Joe Sacco was a person I really loved talking to. I think we had the American debut of the Comix 2000 silent comics compilation and some of the L'Association guys. That was incredible. But having the likes of Miller and Gaiman show up for the CBLDF was a really big deal and it drew people. It gave support to the CBLDF and was great for us. After 300, talking Greek history at the after party with Frank Miller was fun. I made the mistake of framing a question I asked along the lines of 'how does it feel to come back to comics,' and he took offense at that, but I didn't mean it. [laughs]

MR: At some point there was an ill-advised attempt to rebrand SPX as 'The Expo.' Was that in your time?

(courtesy Grand Comics Database)

CP: I do remember that, but I can't tell you much more other than I expressed my opposition to the idea. I don't remember details other than I felt it was totally unnecessary.

CP: I don't know that it needs to be recorded, but one personal hurt I had was, after going out of my way to involve the committee in the anthology and giving them a first look, after we put out the anthology, I got a lot of shit and shit was talked that we somehow did a bad job, picking gratuitously weird stuff. But that's just human. That's really the only negative thing I can even remember from time. My time was limited and in the second year I was executive director, I had to bail. Greg Bennett and some other people saved me, because I was having personal issues at the time. They stepped in and picked up the slack, and took it over. 99%+ of my experience and feelings were great.

MR: Favorite parts? Least favorite parts?

CP: I loved the party afterwards! I have to say, and I helped throw it, but I had a facility for that aspect and enjoying it.

MR: The Ignatz awards?

CP: I was not involved with them. There were issues with getting the finished bricks, and I'm sure there were other, more substantive issues, but I wasn't aware of any other problems.

MR: The CBLDF used to hold an auction on the floor. Did you ever buy anything?

CP: I was never a great collector. I got stuff growing up that I liked, but I never had the collector mentality.

(Small Press Expo, September 2009. Crowd including Jeff Alexander.)

MR: Who took over after you left? Was that Jeff Alexander?**

CP: Yeah. Jeff had been involved before me. I met Jeff at Big Planet too, through Greg. Greg used to have to people over to his house. I think that's how a lot of us got involved with the show, and that's how I met Jeff. In the summers, Greg would have Hong Kong film festival parties and put a screen up in his back yard and have a barbecue. Jeff would bring whatever anime or HK films that he had. I think he was predominantly involved with the Ignatz at the time, and that was his main responsibility. Greg McElhatton, Karon Flage, Jeff and Steve Conley and I used to get together on occasional Friday evenings for drink and dinner after work.

The steering committee and the volunteers were a bunch of overall really enthused people who were self-motivated. The committee as a whole seemed to work well, figuring out who would do what, with people stepping in to fill in when needed in places. For me, in that period of the time, it was largely an incredibly pleasant blur.

*Greg McElhatton has written in, stating, "Christian Panas was not executive director for two years, but just a matter of months. He briefly took over in that position in the fall of 2000, after the 2000 show had ended (and the last of the three years that Michael Zarlenga was executive director). By the spring of 2001, Christian was no longer executive director or in fact on the Board or the Steering Committee. At that point, Greg Bennett and I took over as co-executive directors in an attempt to make sure the show would even happen. (As it turned out, the show was scheduled for September 14-16, 2001 and ended up cancelled for events out of our control. But it was on track to occur and we'd even gotten the front page of the Washington Post Weekend section.)"

**McElhatton states, "I ended up serving as executive director for 2002-2003, with a tremendous amount of assistance (and as assistant executive director) from Greg Bennett, without whom I couldn't have achieved a lot. Steve Conley was the director for the 2004-2006 shows, Karon Flage for 2007-2009, and then Jeff Alexander was in 2010. Warren Bernard took over in 2011 and has continued to run the show since then."

"(And before then, Lou Danoff and Jon Cohen founded the show in 1994; Chris Oarr ran the show in 1995-1997, and then Michael Zarlenga was executive director in 1998-2000.)"

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Fantom Comics named City Paper's Best Comic Book Store (UPDATED)

It's its annual Best of D.C. edition, the Washington City Paper named Fantom Comics the city's best comics book store. Big Planet Comics and Third Eye Comics were runners up. 

The issue also had a nice-size photo of Fantom Comics manager Jake Shapiro stocking the shelves.

Perennial WCP staff favorite Exotic Planterium and Card & Comic Collectorama in Alexandria also got a shout-out.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Joel Pollack on 30 years of Big Planet Comics stores

by Mike Rhode


Thirty years ago today, Joel Pollack opened Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, Maryland. I became a regular customer soon afterwards. I'm glad to count Joel as a friend and to be able to run this 'thank you and congratulations' interview with him all these years later.

MR: When and where did the first BP store open?

JP: My first business partner, Gene Carpenter, and I opened the Bethesda Big Planet Comics on July 11, 1986. Our first location was on the second floor of 4865 Cordell Avenue, just 100 feet from our current location (at 4849). After one year, I decided that Gene's focus on back issues/collectibles was incompatible with my vision of what a modern comic shop should be, and I bought him out. It was an amiable split, and Gene and I remain friends.

MR: Why did you decide to open the store?

JP: I had worked in my father's drapery business since the age of twelve, and when he retired I found myself unemployed. I had toyed with the idea of opening a comic shop for at least ten years before I made my move.

101_9088 Dave Lasky and Martha Burns at Big Planet Comics
Dave Lasky and Martha Burns at Big Planet Comics Bethesda, 2014.

MR: You'd been active in fandom and publishing before that. Can you tell me about some of your work, like selling Bernie Wrightson's original art?

JP: I became a part of "organized" comics fandom as early as 1963 when I discovered my first fanzine, "Rocket's Blast". I was a charter member of Biljo White's "Batmania." In 1965, I had my first letters published in Detective Comics #342 and 343. That same year, My aunt Kitty Goldberg introduced me to her friend, Ira Schnapp, who was a letterer and designer at DC Comics. Ira invited me to visit DC's offices (twice) and I met Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson. It was those visits that made me determined to work in the comics field.

I attended my first convention (the first major comic convention) in 1968. Phil Seuling ran that convention and many subsequent July 4th conventions. At those conventions, I met many of my artistic heroes, as well as several up-and-comers who were my age. I became friends with several, including Bernie Wrightson, Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, Howard Chaykin, and Walt Simonson. I dabbled in publishing, first with Bob Lewis on "Colour Your Dreams," a fantasy coloring book, and later, the ill-fated "Wet Dreams" portfolio.

In the early 1980s, I started reselling original art and published four "Fantastique Illustration Catalogs," selling art by Wrightson, KaIuta and Jones, as well as by younger artists like Charles Vess and Jon J. Muth. I sold at least a dozen of Bernie Wrightson's original Frankenstein illos, none higher than $2000. Those same pieces now fetch tens of thousands. A lot of great art has passed through my hands.

Richard Thompson &Joel Pollack

MR: How did the decisions to eventually expand to four stores happen?

JP: It started when my protege, Greg Bennett, graduated college, and we opened the Vienna store together in 1992 (still in its original location). I mostly acted in an advisory role, while Greg did all of the hard work. In 2001, when it looked like an existing Georgetown comic shop was going to fold, Greg and I decided the time was right to make our foray into DC (I was born in DC). After years in our charming old rowhouse location in Georgetown, the building was sold, and we decided to move the shop to U Street for better Metro access and a younger population demographic.

The now-defunct Georgetown store
Our long-time store managers Jared Smith and Peter Casazza bought Liberty Books & Comics in College Park and turned it into the fourth Big Planet location, and now own the Vienna and U Street shops as well, allowing Greg to focus on Bethesda as I have been approaching retirement age. College Park is the only one I had no hand in, other than giving moral support, and licensing them the Big Planet Comics name.

MR: How have you survived the ups and downs of the comic book market?

JP: By mostly ignoring the collector in favor of the reader. Early on, we saw the future of contemporary comics in the collected editions, the so-called graphic novels/trade paperbacks. We eliminated 90% of our back issue stock, and gave over 75% of our rack space to collected editions. To this day, Big Planet Comics has the most comprehensive selection of comics in book form of any store in the area. The only back issues we carry in Bethesda are some vintage comics from the silver age.
Gene Yang & Joel Pollack in 2008

MR: How has the store changed over the 30 years? How is it the same?

JP: The main change is what I described above: a focus on collected editions and graphic novels. Our market has evolved from a primarily male collector-driven business to a much more diverse reader-driven base - especially with the tremendous growth in graphic novels for kids and young adults in the last decade.

Greg Bennett, Gary Panter, Steve Niles and Joel Pollack at Big Planet Comics, July 20, 2008

What has stayed the same is our focus on customer service. We constantly upgrade our inventory, and we're happy to fill special orders.

MR: What's next?

JP: For me, it's retirement. Even after retirement, I hope to continue in an advisory role, and spend a few hours weekly in the Bethesda store. I've made a lot of good friends there through the years, and I consider Big Planet Comics the high point of my life.

(Click here for more of my photographs at various Big Planet Comics stores and events)

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Big Planet 30th anniversary shirt/July 4 sale

Big Planet Comics celebrates its 30th anniversary with a new long T-shirt, which is currently available at its Bethesda, Md., store. On Monday, all locations hold their annual Fourth of July/30th anniversary sale, with everything 20 percent off.

Friday, May 27, 2016

June 4: 'Captive of Friendly Cove' signing at Big Planet in Vienna

June 4, noon to 2 p.m., Michael Short, Rebecca Goldfield and I (Matt Dembicki) will be signing our Eisner-nominated graphic novel Captive of Friendly Cove at Big Planet Comics in Vienna, Va. We'll bring some original art and some other cool things.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

New Big Planet Comics t-shirt (UPDATED)

Big Planet Comics Bethesda has a new retro t-shirt, designed by Joel Pollack after an old DC Comics logo. Joel says, "I'm guessing Ira Schnapp did this logo originally. Martin Pasco put this together for me. We initially printed 72, and we're going to print another 72 next week. I've been wanting to do this design for years.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Q&A: Jared Smith of Big Planet Comics/Retrofit Comics

Jared Smith is one of the owning partners of Big Planet Comics, which almost two years ago dipped its toes into publishing by taking on some of the duties of Retrofit Comics. We thought it'd be interesting to check in with Jared on how that partnership with Philadelphia-based comics creator Box Brown is going.

Big Planet Comics has been publishing and distributing Retrofit Comics since about mid-2013. How have things been going?

Smith: I think really well. Box Brown, the founder of Retrofit Comics, has a great artistic vision, so working with him as editor and with Big Planet covering the rest of the publishing has been a good team.

What has been the biggest challenge so far? How are you tackling that challenge?

Smith: Distribution is tricky. It is very depressing to see the same few stores that are interested in carrying small press comic books (I'd say only about 20 in all of the US.) And some areas of the country are well served, like the major cities, but whole other areas have no stores that are interested. We've been reaching out to stores directly and trying to get more reviews and general awareness. We also distributed our first big graphic novel, FUNGUS: The Unbearable Rot of Being, through Diamond Comic Distributors, which has the best reach into comic stores here and internationally.

Big Planet Comics has several shops and locations, each with a different owner, correct? Was everyone initially on board with starting a publishing/distribution venture?

Smith: There are four stores, and there are four co-owners. We work together on most things though. Everyone was interested and supportive, but it was my idea and passion so I handle most of it, with help from various members of the Big Planet team like Kelly and Kevin and Peter.

How have you been getting the word out about Retrofit Comics?

Smith: We send out a lot of copies to reviewers, and of course the internet is huge for letting people know about your work. But we also go to a lot of conventions to reach people directly. It helps we publish such a wide range of artists of different styles and nationalities. I think it makes us a more appealing package, and when fans of one of our artists are directed to us, we have a lot of other things to appeal to them.

Several other retail shops around the country have also dipped their toes into publishing — such as Bergen Street Comics with Copra and Desert Island with Smoke Signal — though on a smaller scale. Do you think this is the start of trend? What makes publishing appealing to some retailers? 

Smith: Yes, there are about 10 retail stores who are publishing as well, such as Floating World, Locust Moon, Kilgore, and Secret Headquarters. I don't know if it's a trend, but it is just relatively easy for retail stores to support some of their favorite artists in a new way, by publishing their work. Most artists who are just starting out do it for the love of creation, and aren't making much money (if any). Plus many prefer to focus on the artistic side, the business side is a distraction from creating more comics! So if we can handle some of that, it works out well for everyone. Publishing also distinguishes your store and it helps gets better comics out into the world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big Planet Comics 20% off everything New Year's Day sale!

Jared Smith invited you to Big Planet Comics 's event   20% off everything New Year's Day sale! Thu Jan 1, 2015 at 12:00pm to Fri Jan 2, 2015 at 5:00pm   Join     Maybe     Decline   It's time for our annual New Year's Day sale! 20% off everything! Extra bonus sales! All 4 Big Planet stores! One day only! Big Planet Comics of Washington DC Big Planet Comics of College Park Big... Joel Pollack and 11 others are also in the guest list.             Pending Invites (2) Block invites from Jared?    

20% off everything New Year's Day sale!
Thu Jan 1, 2015 at 12:00pm to 5:00pm
It's time for our annual New Year's Day sale!

20% off everything! Extra bonus sales!

All 4 Big Planet stores! One day only!

Big Planet Comics of Washington DC
Big Planet Comics of College Park
Big Planet Comics of Vienna
Big Planet Comics of Bethesda

Start 2015 off right with a pile of comic books!



Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dec. 14: Keatinge, Duca at Big Planet

Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca, co-creators of the series Shutter from Image Comics, will be signing at Big Plant Comics at College Park from noon to 2 p.m. on Dec. 14. The store will also have an exclusive Big Planet Comics variant of the next issue, Shutter #7.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Impressions and photos of Baltimore Comic-Con day 3, Sunday

Gerhard and the Little Nemo book from Locust Moon
Sunday was a nice quiet day at the con. Plenty of energy, but it wasn't so crowded that you couldn't see the guests, or run into friends (such as Heidi MacDonald who requested this photo of Gerhard from Friday (Day 1 is here)). I bought the only print Gerhard brought (by accident) of his Little Nemo art. I'm not sorry.Gerhard's finishing work on Cerebus made Dave Sim's artwork sing.

My daughter and I cruised around and I got my Team Cul de Sac book signed by Rob Harrell and Jay Fosgitt. I saw two other Little Nemo-related modern items (by Fosgitt and Joel Gill) - it's odd how the character is making  a comeback.

Here's some shots. A few additional pictures can be seen on Flickr.

One joy for me was meeting Fred Hembeck and getting a Shadow sketch for him. I've loved his skewed take on comics history for thirty years.
Little Nemos by Gill and Fosgitt
Mike Rhode and Dean Haspiel

Denis Kitchen and Fred Hembeck

Rafter Roberts covers X-O Man-o-War

Big Planet Comics owners Peter and Jared

Fulcrum's Jess Townsend with books edited by local cartoonist (and ComicsDC'r) Matt Dembicki
Andy Runton's booth babe, AKA "Mom"

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Big Planet Comics has Doctor Who special covers

from their Facebook page...

Out today! The adventures of the 10th & 11th Doctors... with a custom cover as they hang out at Big Planet Comics!  
(Uhhhh not due to any strange customers we have, we promise...) 

Big Planet Comics's photo.
We will be having writer Nick Abadzis and artist Simon Fraser for a special event on Thursday, Sept 11!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dave Lasky at Big Planet Comics

Dave Lasky and Martha Burns were at Big Planet Comics Bethesda this week, with Dave signing his graphic biography on The Carter Family and Martha Burns performing their songs. Since she was performing, I didn't get a chance to talk to him and ask about the book, but I did get the only copy of Oregon Trail they had in the store.

Afterwards I stopped across the street at South Street Steaks and avoided the Misteak Challenge. My Italian sub was just fine though.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A few more photos...

Becky Cloonan and Shaun Simon at Big Planet Comics Vienna.

Becky Cloonan and Shaun Simon at Big Planet Comics Vienna.

Claire and Mike Rhode wearing t-shirts from Joe Sutliff's Master Jeffrey webcomic which has a Kickstarter campaign now.

And here's pictures from the exhibit of original artwork at Art-Enables by five artists who contributed to the new graphic novel Wild Ocean: Sharks, Whales, Rays and Other Endangered Sea Creatures (Fulcrum Publishing).  Artwork by: Brooke Allen, Matt Dembicki, Andy K, Steve Loya and Steven Russell Black.

Art by Matt Dembicki, that I think I now own.

Steve Loya and his art.