Around 1970, when I got into the comic book business, the consensus was that there wouldn't be a comic book business for long...and not
because of me. The traditional method of distribution — comics sold on a returnable basis to newsstands around the country — was failing, or
at least it was failing comic books. The biggest distributor, Independent News, was making large sums off more expensive, adult publications
like Playboy and Penthouse, and some there suggested that newsracks were no longer a place for kids or low-priced periodicals.
Since comic books were low-priced and largely for kids, this was a pretty ominous suggestion, especially when you considered that Independent News
not only distributed DC Comics but was a part of the same company. In other words, DC's wares were being sold by an outfit that no longer
believed there was a future in selling comic books. With that attitude, there couldn't be much of one.
The "returnable" part was what was really hurting comics. Marvel would print 500,000 copies of an issue of Spider-Man and would
get paid only for those that actually sold. So if the racks were crowded (or the distributor trucks filled with an extra-thick issue of
Playboy that week), 50,000 might not make it to the racks at all. Many more copies would get damaged and returned with all the unsold
copies for credit. 300,000 might actually be sold and the rest would get pulped...obviously, not the most efficient way to do business.
In the past, the ratio had not been that bad, and a publisher could make a tidy profit...but by the seventies, the numbers were closing in on the
comic book industry.
To the rescue came not Superman or Batman but a Brooklyn school teacher named Phil Seuling. Phil ran the big comic conventions in
New York for years so he knew the fan market and its buying power. Around 1973, he began proposing to DC and Marvel that he sell their comics
in a different manner, by-passing traditional newsstands and getting them directly to comic book dealers and shops. He would pay slightly less
per copy to the publisher but he'd be buying the comics on a non-returnable basis, so a sale would be a sale; no printing five copies to sell
At first, publishers rebuffed his proposal. The "direct market," as it would come to be called, did not seem lucrative enough to
warrant the attention, to say nothing of how it might further destroy the old method. But before long, it became apparent that the old method
was being destroyed, with or without selling books the Seuling way, so DC, Marvel and other companies tried it. Within a year, around 25% of
all comic books were being sold via "direct" distribution, through Seuling's company and about a dozen others, with 75% still on conventional
newsstands. Within ten years, those percentages were reversed. Today, the "direct market" is the primary market...though Phil, sadly, did
not live to reap the full benefits of his idea. He died in 1984 at the age of 50.
That's Phil in the above photo, second from the left, holding a stack of comic books. The man at the far left is talk show host
Mike Douglas, and this is a still from his popular afternoon show, airdate July 28, 1977.
Seuling was a guest on that episode to discuss comic book collecting and conventions and such. He was asked by the producers to
bring along "a superhero" to surprise the audience...and Mike Douglas. They apparently expected Phil to find a guy in a Batman costume or
something, but Phil had a better idea.
The character of Red Sonja was then big in Marvel Comics. Developed by editor-writer Roy Thomas from a brief appearance in one of
Robert E. Howard's stories, she was one of the sexier characters around. Some of that was due to the way Roy wrote her and some to
the way she was depicted by her illustrators...most notably, Frank Thorne. But a lot of it was because she began turning up at comic book and
science-fiction conventions...in the flesh. There were many young women who seized on the inspiration to fashion an appropriate costume and to
parade about the aisles and masquerades. None of them drew more stares or attention than Wendy Pini.
Today, Wendy is best known as the talented artist and co-creator (with her husband, Richard) of the Elfquest series. Millions of copies have been sold of Elfquest graphic novels, prose novels, comic
books, calendars, art folios and other items from that wonderful fantasy world...but in '77, Elfquest was just beginning. To most comic
fans, Wendy was that lovely lady who dressed up as Red Sonja at conventions, often performing a little show with artist Frank Thorne.
So when Phil Seuling was invited to appear on The Mike Douglas Show and asked to bring along his own superhero, he brought
Wendy. Neither Mr. Douglas nor his co-host, Jamie Farr, saw her before she burst onto the stage at the close of the segment. (Douglas was
concerned that her costume — or lack of one — might offend the show's female viewers. There's no report on what Farr thought, but he probably
wished he had an outfit like that.)
That's really all there is to this story. I wanted to run the photo because it's so wonderful, and because it gives me the chance
to tell you about Phil. And I also wanted to mention that, much to Wendy's amazement, I have actually located a tape of that episode of The
Mike Douglas Show for her. I haven't yet discussed it with the programming folks at the Comic-Con International in San Diego, but I'll bet
we can find some event at the 2005 convention where we can show that segment to everyone who wants to see it. It's a great moment.
P.S. Since I posted this, several folks (including Gary Sassaman
and Steve Thompson) have pointed out to me that 1977 was the year that Phil
Seuling's big New York comic book convention could not find hotel space in New
York, so it moved to Philadelphia. Philadelphia was where Mike Douglas
taped his show.