It’s July 4th weekend, a time when many fans of my generation remember the amazing time we had at the New York Comicons of the 1970s. Everyone’s memories of great events is biased by the point they occurred in the individual’s life, so it’s pretty much useless to argue about when the “best” Comicons were. But objectively, the conventions of those years had a few things going for them: our gatherings had grown large enough to have budgets that permitted flying in legendary guests (and so many of the legends were still with us), but were still small enough that the guests were totally approachable; original art was being returned to artists and so was available for sale (but inexpensive enough that you probably could have had every piece in the hall for the auction price of Frank and Lynn’s iconic DARK KNIGHT RETURNS cover); likewise the wealth of early issues being offered (unslabbed) by a roomful of dealers (okay, I didn’t think the $150 it would have taken to get a copy of ACTION #1 was wise—who says I’m a good businessman?); and publishers were beginning to support the shows without trying to turn them into ‘activations’ the size of a Vegas trade convention.
But most of all, I remember Phil Seuling on the 4th. He was as loud and explosive as a fireworks, inviting the world to his party and furious when anything threatened to make it less than memorable. His vision of a comic convention lives on, now almost four decades after his premature passing: even within the largest shows events mimic what he dreamed up or polished.
I knew Phil from when I was 11 or 12, and my Dad rented him space for a used bookstore venture he briefly tried in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. One of my fondest childhood memories is of a summer day when I walked across the borough with friends, 10 miles of hitting used bookstores and places that randomly racked new paperbacks, ending at Phil’s. Later on, I worked on the convention program books, helped him mail out ‘progress reports’ (think of an analog equivalent to Kickstarter communications with backers but being hand-coallated in a 90 degree living room with my Mom unwilling to open windows on a summer day), helped at his dealer’s tables at my first San Diego Con, got to know Bill and Annie Gaines racing through the woods of Canada with Phil driving like a maniac (a very skilled maniac, but still), worked briefly for him at the dawn of the direct sales system and had a challenging couple of years dealing with him as I took responsibility for the business side of DC in the years when his distribution company was facing increasing competition. Oh, and I wrote his eulogy for DC’s Meanwhile page, probably the first time a fan was so ‘honored.’
Phil was full of enthusiasm and energy, bouncing through life, a big kid who was content not to completely grow up. He loved comics, he loved creativity, and he loved the next idea, sometimes before he’d been able to make the last one work. He quietly supported projects by others, buying up improbable and likely unsalable quantities of early zines (or a garage full of the AMAZING WORLD OF METROPOLIS tabloid). He experimented, putting together everything from classic reprints to coloring books. And when he focused on something, he almost always made it better.
If you saw him with Jonni Levas, in their good years, you might hear a booming voice singing of their love. If you saw him with Gwen and Heather, you saw a father who was always ready to be a playmate. And while I was too young to get any kind of read on his marriage to Carole before it ended, just seeing the pics that circulate of them in costume before the word cosplay was invented tells me they had their good times too.
I made so many friends at those early shows, and had so many moments that I cherish. But when I think of the 4th, the first person I think of is the guy who threw the best parties of my life. And if you have a great time at a comicon this summer, stop for a second and think of him too. He’d like that.
I was also part of the Seagate mafia a few years later, and have MANY fond memories of Phil and Jonni and the yearly madness that was the New York Comic Con!
Also remember being in the car with Phil at the wheel, which was about as close to imminent death as I every want to get! To be in Phil’s orbit was a high-gravity affair, but never a dull moment (or an ability to EVER pick up a dinner check!) I was privileged to have him as a mentor and a friend. Thanks for the trip down memory lane Paul.