Showing posts with label Joel Pollack. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joel Pollack. Show all posts

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review: Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture

reviewed by Mike Rhode

Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture

by Dan Gearino, Ohio University Press' Swallow Press, 2017. $26.95
Despite the title, Comic Shop focuses at least as much, if not more, on the growth of the Direct Market distribution network that gave rise to independent comic shops and sustains them today. Gearino is a journalist and has written an accessible popular history that relies largely on interviews, much like Slugfest, which we recently reviewed and which works well as a complement to this book.
Gearino focuses on his local comic shop, Laughing Ogre, perhaps slightly too much at times, but it's understandable that he chose a long-lasting, respected store as one of the pillars of his book. He returns to the store's history time and again, while recounting a chronological history of the transfer from comic books as a mass media product sold everywhere on newsstands to one that requires a visit to a specialty shop.

From the 1920s through the 1970s, comic books were sold in newsstands, mom and pop shops and anywhere a distributor could place a rack. Personally, for me, the 7-11 was the main site. The books were dumped on the store which was expected to rack them, and return them for credit when they didn't sell. The comics had a profit for the store in the pennies, so little attention was paid to them. At many times, the books weren't delivered or racked, but a refund was requested anyway, leading to fraudulent losses for the publishers, or misleading sales figures.

In 1973, Phil Seuling, an early creator of Comic Cons, made a deal with DC Comics to buy books for them at a larger discount but on an nonreturnable basis, and get them shipped directly from the printer. Seuling's new company was Sea Gate Distributors. It was soon joined by many competitors who split the United States up between them. As in most businesses, the early wide-open days with multiple distributors and thousands of comic book shops saw financial peaks and troughs as well as widespread consolidations and bankruptcies. Gearino also weaves through the rise of independent comic books such as Elfquest, Bone, Cerebus and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and talks about the importance of a retailer hand-selling these types of comics. Today, one distributor remains standing - Baltimore's Diamond Comics, and we're currently seeing a lot of independent books, small publishers and tactics such as variant covers that usually precede a bust in the market.

Gearino did a good job in doing interviews for his research on the book, but is lighter on using archival and printed sources. His focus on Laughing Ogre's small chain occasionally slows the book down, but I think proved to be a good choice to center the story. An odd choice was made to add in profiles of various stores at the end of the book - not quite an appendix, but not quite part of the book either. I think those could have perhaps been integrated in more seamlessly, although when he invites guest commentary in the main text, it is set off at the end of the chapter and is rather jarring. On a local note, Joel Pollack of Big Planet Comics has a two-page profile in the stores section.

This won't be the definitive study of the rise of the Direct Market and specialty comic book stores, but it's a good early step and a fine choice for the casually-interested reader. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Monday, October 02, 2017

SPX Oral History - Joel Pollack

Rhode & Pollack at Baltimore Comic Con 2014
by Mike Rhode

Joel Pollack founded  Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, MD in 1986, and is still behind the counter a few days a week. The chain has grown to four stores, as Joel's former employees have opened their own stores. Joel was at the beginning of the Small Press Expo and jotted a few notes down.

I was involved in the first ten or so. The first was a collaboration between Jon Cohen (Beyond Comics), Lou Danoff (Zenith Comics), and myself with moral support (and much feedback) of Dave Sim (Cerebus) and Jeff Smith (Bone). It was planned for a Thursday evening before a Diamond Comic Distributor trade show. It was held at the Ramada Inn in Bethesda. Retailers were invited to set up.

What was your role? How did it change over time?

I'd like to think that I was a bit of a moral compass. I believe my greatest contribution to SPX was disallowing retailers from setting up, starting with the second SPX. I felt that it was a show about creators, and that creators shouldn't have to compete with retailers selling their products. As time went on, my role quickly diminished, and ultimately became the one task of procuring the park for the Sunday picnic/softball game. I actually umpired a few of the games.

Where was SPX when you worked on it?

Mostly Bethesda, though I believe I had some small role the one year it moved to Silver Spring.

What were some memorable events?

One of the big ones was Chris Oarr's tenure as executive director. I believe it was Chris who introduced the Sunday picnic/softball game and pig-roast. I believe it was Chris' idea to create the Ignatz Awards. Chris created the template for the current SPX.

What were your favorite parts of SPX?

The feeling of camaraderie amongst exhibitors and staff. The great volunteers that SPX attracted. The opportunity for creators to meet their fans, and sell their creations which were generally unavailable in comic shops.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Joel Pollack Remembers Bernie Wrightson (part 2)

by Lee Benaka

Originally published in CFA-APA #101, March 2017 fanzine
Lee Benaka is a Washington, DC, original comic art collector who maintains a searchable database on comic art sales at

Frankenstein art for sale from Joel’s Fantastique Illustration #3 catalog, 1984.
Joel: Whenever I visited Bernie, we would always have dinner at least one night at a restaurant that was owned by Albert Grossman.  He was the manager for Bob Dylan.  He owned a restaurant in Woodstock called the Little Bear.  It was a Chinese restaurant.  We always had dinner there.  It was usually a group of us.  Usually Jeff Jones came along, with Bernie and Michele, and Jeff’s current girlfriend at the time, whoever it might be. 

Barry Windsor-Smith was never included in any of this.  I don’t really know what Bernie’s relationship with Barry was beyond the Studio, but I remember them

talking about how horribly Barry treated his girlfriend Linda Lessman.  They all kind of looked down on Barry for that, because Linda was a sweet person.

Lee:  The first time you went to Bernie’s place, you obviously went with some money in your pocket.  Was that a large amount of money that you had saved, or a fairly modest amount?

Bernie Wrightson art from Joel’s Fantastique Illustration #1 catalog, 1983.

Joel:  I brought as much money as I had at any given time.  It was probably a modest amount by today’s standards, but it still bought a lot of Wrightson artwork.  He was selling it to me very reasonably.

Lee:  Did you zero in on certain pages?  Did he have Swamp Thing pages?

Joel:  I have owned one Swamp Thing page, but I don’t really believe he still had any of that art at that point.  Bernie sold a lot of what he did.  He didn’t hang on too much, although he still has stuff, I’m pretty sure.  I was probably visiting him between 1982 and 1985.  I opened a shop in 1986, and I don’t know whether I was visiting him at that point. 

Lee:  When you got the art from Bernie, did you just list it in the catalog, or did you have contacts you would call to let them know about the art?

The cover of Joel’s Fantastique Illustration #3 catalog, 1984.

Joel:  I think I was just selling through the catalogs.  I think I probably advertised the catalog in early issues of the Comic Buyer’s Guide.  I had a mailing list, but I didn’t necessarily talk to anyone on the telephone.  I remember one of the early people on my list was Benno Rothschild.  I was a charter member of the CFA-APA, so I had a lot of connections that way. 

Bernie really liked dealing with me because I always paid cash.  I always brought cash, never a check.

Lee:  Did you keep any pieces for yourself?

Joel:  For a long time I did.  I kept four of five of the very best Frankensteins that I had.  I had the title page.  But I ran into tax problems sometime in the 1980s, and I

was really dumb.  Instead of borrowing money from friends to pay taxes, or taking out a loan to pay taxes, I sold art.  I got good money for it.  The title page for Frankenstein, I got $2,500 for it.  You know what that’s worth now?  I wouldn’t be shocked if you could get $100,000 for that right now.  Certainly $50,000, just like that, I’m sure.


More Frankenstein art for sale from Joel’s Fantastique Illustration #3 catalog, 1984.

Lee:  Do you remember who you sold those to?

Joel:  The title page I might have sold to Richard Kelly, but then when Richard switched over to illustration art, he sold that himself. 

Lee:  You stopped going to Bernie’s house around the time you opened your shop?

Joel:  I think I pretty much did.  We had Bernie in for a signing at one point.  He had a very aggressive girlfriend who was marketing him.  I don’t remember her name.  She was very attractive, and she was definitely smart.  She wanted to make sure Bernie got paid properly, which he did.  We did get to do a Wrightson signing with him.  It could have been Hooky, because I had a lot of the Hooky pages at one point.  I don’t think I ever had any of the Thing/Hulk pages.  But I had a bunch of the Hooky pages.  I probably had 20 of those pages at least.  

An ad that was included as part of Joel’s contribution to CFA-APA #5, 1986.

I don’t think I ever got to watch Bernie draw.  When we moved him from Queens to Kansas City, though, I remember he threw away a lot of artwork.  He lived in a building where Simonson and Chaykin were both living at the time, and Simonson and Chaykin were always raiding his trash can.  Bernie would throw away really nice artwork, because it wasn’t perfectly the way he wanted it.  You’ve seen all the Frankenstein “outtakes”.  There’s probably 50 Frankenstein drawings that never got published.  Bernie was a real perfectionist.  Sometimes he would lose interest in something, and you would look at it and ask, “Why?  This is fantastic.”


Joel’s copy of Creepshow, signed by Bernie and Michele Wrightson, as well as Stephen King.

After Frankenstein, I think he went through a fallow period.  I think it’s because he spent himself on Frankenstein.  Originally, he was going to self-publish Frankenstein.  I don’t think he had the patience for business.  He didn’t want to have to do all the work that was involved with self-publishing.  It’s a shame a fan didn’t step forward and say, “I’ll publish for you Bernie.  I’ll take care of all the details and do it.”  He ended up selling it to Marvel, and I think that took a little bit out of him emotionally.  His work seemed to slip a bunch at that time.  He was also having some allergy problems with his hands.  Evidently the ink and part of his brush were causing his hands to get eczema, where they were cracking.  That might have affected him a bit too. 

But I think that Frankenstein was such a masterpiece, and he sweated blood into that.  It’s hard to say that he ever did work that was better than that.  He had moments that were equally as good.  But he went through a period where he did a bunch of comics for Marvel, which he said he would never do.  He didn’t really want to do comics again, but he went back and did comics, because he had kids then, and he had to earn a living.  Bernie had a lot of years there where he wasn’t living up to his promise, and I think he’d be the first one to really tell you that privately, if not outwardly.  Maybe his heart wasn’t into it.  I’ve been told that having kids can be a huge distraction.  I don’t think you could say that the work he did on Punisher: POV and Batman: The Cult was as good as the work he did on Swamp Thing, or for Warren magazines.  The work he did for Warren was amazing.  That was probably his high point in comics. 

It’s interesting because, the thing he did a few years ago, Frankenstein Alive, Alive!  That was a return to form for him.  I was amazed.  He really seemed inspired by that.  It’s a real shame that it probably never will be finished.  And if it’s not finished, they should still publish what’s there in a paperback, because it deserves to be in permanent form.

I’m not sure I fully appreciated how talented he was back then, compared to how I look at him now.  Genius might be the wrong word for him, because all his genius was just in one area—drawing.  But he was a prodigy.  He was great from day one, and he just kept getting better. 

Bernie Wrightson’s preliminary drawing for the cover of Toe Tags Featuring George Romero #3 (DC Comics, 2005) (from the collection of Joel Pollack).