When fans are asked to name the legends of the comic book field, Phil Seuling is never mentioned, but old hands from DC and Marvel always say his name with fondness and reverence.
Phil Seuling never wrote nor drew a single comic, yet he is credited with saving the field.
Back in the dim days of the 1970s, comics were sold at newsstands and luncheonettes. The retailer had no control over what he received, and each week he sent back the unsold copies. This was inefficient and there were no back issues to be found. Everything went back to the distributor. Back issues could only be found at secondhand dealers.
Seuling came up with the idea to directly market comic books to specialty stores. His plan was for the publishers to sell to him at 60% off the cover price, then he would sell at 40% off to the comic book stores. Returns were gone, and everything sold. Under this arrangement everyone won.
In 1974, Seuling’s Seagate company was up and running. He named it after, of course, Seagate in Brooklyn where he lived.
This new form of marketing resulted in larger profit margins to the publishers and created a new and more controlled outlet: the comic book store. The store owners went from selling used comics to brand new ones. This innovation is credited in saving the comic book companies, which were not all that healthy in the early 1970’s.
Phil was also the father of the modern comic book convention. Prior to his convention in 1968, cons were basically small affairs primarily focused on second hand dealers. Only a handful of people would show up. Seuling started to add the trappings we associate with the modern convention, guests, artists, panels and publisher’s tables. Last year New York ComicCon had 167,000 people attending.
Who was this Renaissance man? He was a used comic book dealer and an English teacher at Lafayette High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. According to the PTA president of Lafayette at the time, my dearly departed mother, Evelyn Port, Seuling was a f****n’ moron. (Mom was originally a hillbilly from the Deep South and had a colorful way with words.) She complained that all Seuling talked about was comic books. My brother thought Seuling was a great teacher, but clearly Mom was of a different opinion. I distinctly remember one day when Mom told me that Seuling had quit his tenured position as a teacher to, if you can believe it, sell comic books!
What Mom didn’t know was that by 1978 Seuling had a near monopoly on the comic book trade. He was sued by another distributer and lost. Having created a new model, Seuling soon started to lose business to competitors. He was also, unfortunately suffering a rare liver ailment. By 1984, he was dead at the age of 50.
Jim McLauchlin published a great, in-depth account of the rise and fall of Phil Seuling, as well as how he saved the comic book industry. It is well worth the time to read it. Also of interest is Billy Ingram’s vintage 1973 interview with Seuling.
For my part, I can still hear my mother cursing Seuling for being an idiot because of his obsession with comic books. Yet, here I am, part of a comic book convention. It would seem that BoroughCon is Phil Seuling’s revenge.