It’s easy to forget how close Baltimore really is, but it is less than an hour away and has one of America’s few comics museums. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum (aka GEM), housed in a former railroad station right outside the Camden Yards ballpark, is a magical place for comics fans. Steve Geppi is the owner of Diamond Distributors, the largest comic book distributor in the country, and his museum is a showcase for his collections. The main hallway is filled with large posters (including one for the original King Kong movie), original comics artwork, advertising signs, and a letter from Walt Disney to Mrs. George ‘Krazy Kat’ Herriman expressing condolences on her husband’s death.
The exhibit galleries tell the story of popular culture via characters, beginning in the 19th century with Palmer Cox’s Brownies (although there’s a nod to earlier history in the first one – you can see Ben Franklin’s original newspaper cartoon in it). They jump decade by decade, hitting highlights such as The Yellow Kid, Superman, Disney’s characters, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye and the like before ending with Star Wars in the 1970s. Each room is packed with toys and merchandising.
The galleries begin with one devoted to the history of the comic book which begins with early collections of comic strips from the 1900s through the ‘20s, then moves into pulps and a whole wall of Big Little Books, before showcasing Geppi’s collection of key comic books. Atlas At Last! the current temporary exhibit began in this room. Atlas was a company that barely existed from 1974-1975. It was created by Martin Goodman, the former owner of Marvel Comics (which had used the name Atlas in the 1950s), for his son Chip to run, in an attempt to outstrip his former company. As Diamond’s Scoop site notes, “By paying top rates, the company attracted creators such as Russ Heath, John Severin, Alex Toth, Walter Simonson, Ernie Colon, Neal Adams, Pat Broderick, Mike Ploog, Rich Buckler, Frank Thorne, Tony Isabella, Jeff Jones, Boris Valejo and others. One series, The Destructor, featured longtime Warren, Marvel and DC editor Archie Goodwin as its writer, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko on pencils, EC veteran and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents creator Wally Wood on inks, with Marvel veteran Larry Lieber (one of the Atlas editors and Marvel impresario Stan Lee’s brother) providing the cover.” It’s worth noting that talents did not move between the major companies at the time, and one could be blackballed for doing work for a competitor.
Mark Huesman, JC Vaughn, Mike Wilbur, Philip Zolli & Mark Wheatley
The exhibit features most, if not all, of the comics, that Atlas published and some striking original art down for the books. These are drawn from the collection of Philip Zolli, the enthusiast behind The Atlas Archives website (which he started in 2003). Zolli bought the comics he could fine when they appeared originally, and has continued completing and filling out his collection over the intervening thirty-five years. Mike Wilbur (employee of Diamond International Galleries) was one of the show’s curators and provided some of the comic books on display. The other of exhibit’s two curators, J.C. Vaughn (of Gemstone Publishing), invited me to the opening of the show. Of Atlas’ enduring appeal, he told me, “I’ve worked in comics for sixteen years next month, and I freelanced for a year before that, so I’m not a novice, I’m not your average fanboy, but I was totally a geeked-out kid. I got two of the comics in a trade when I was a kid, like 1976, a year after they died, and I got so into them -- that’s the seed of the exhibit being here now.”
The Atlas line has just been relaunched by Ardden Entertainment and grandson Jason Goodman, and Vaughn says, “I think there’s a better understanding of the company now … we’re talking 72, 73 publications in 1975, and the fact that we’re still talking about them in any sense is amazing, and the fact that anyone’s bringing them back is even more amazing.”
Phil Zolli was attempting to collect his comics before there were comic book stores. “I remember there several stationary stores had the spinner racks, and they were there, and Atlas in my area got good coverage, so I was able to buy them right off the newsstand. They just struck a chord with me because all I knew at the time was Marvel and DC, and I got to be at the ground floor of a brand-new company. It was very exciting. A year later, they disappeared.” He didn’t buy all of the line at the time – Archie knock-off Binky, Gothic Romances and other magazines waited for later, as did buying original art. “Once I started the site, and I had searches out because I wanted to accumulate as much information as I could, E-bay was a great source of information and artwork that popped up. I thought, ‘This is great and relatively inexpensive. I’m going to buy it.’ Zolli’s original artwork is interspersed with other artwork, both in the main comic book exhibit room and the museum’s main hall, a weakness in the show’s design that lessens the impact of the art. Very little of the original art exists. Vaughn noted, “When people went up to the Atlas offices, after they ceased publication, there was one secretary that denied that they were ever in comics, Simonson had a whole story missing… some have cast glances at some of the last editorial employees and others have just heard that it got thrown out.” Maryland comic artist Mark Wheatley, who noted that he published the first or second story done by Howard Chaykin, said “During that period, it’s quite likely it just got tossed.” Zolli is continuing to collect the new versions of the comics, and has been buying original art from those series as well.
The second Atlas failed for a couple of reasons. Vaughn points out, “They hired Jeff Rovin from Warren [a black and white comics magazine publisher] and put him in charge of color comics; they brought in Larry Lieber who worked at the core of silver age Marvel, and put him in charge of black and white magazines…” Wheatley said of Atlas, “They looked like Marvel deliberately, and then the distributors forced them to change and not look like Marvel” while Vaughn says that “a lot of the changes were capricious like the Movie Monsters [magazine on display] originally had differently colored lettering that didn’t get lost in the background orange, but the Goodman’s came by and made them change it.” Discussing how much the comics industry has changed, Zolli says “Larry Hama was doing the second issue of Wulf, and his mother was dying, and Martin Goodman refused to push the deadline back. The guy quit right after that. A lot of people were bitter.” Distribution was a problem for the company, as other companies such as Skywald and Charlton were still fighting for space on the racks. Wilbur remembers, “The place I was buying my new comics in the ‘70s was a bookstore / newsstand place. I went in there often enough that they would let me put out the new comics when they came in. They had no say in what they got – they would just get these bundles of comics strapped together and it was just totally random. Maybe this month you might get ten copies of this title, next month you’d get two copies and the next month you’d get twenty of them.”
The failure of this newsstand distribution system is what led Geppi to begin Diamond, his distribution company – so he could get his own comic books to read. If you’re curious about a little company that didn’t matter much, or are interested in cartooning history, the museum is located at 301 W. Camden Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, 410-625-7060, sliding scale entry fee begins at $10 for adults.
[Corrected June 1, 2011 for the misspelling of Mr. Zolli's name as Zullo. I regret the error].