An Interview with Phil Seuling
Teacher, Fan, and Con-man Extraordinaire
Thirty-seven years have passed since I got it into my head to put together a full-scale report on the 1971 New York Comic Art Convention. As part of that report, I determined an interview with the convention's manager was in order. That man was Phil Seuling. Back in those early days, there was only one or two true comicons of note each year. There may have been only one or two comicons at all in each of those early years. But what made the NY Comicon a notable event was its manager Phil Seuling. Phil was a bear of a man. He was large, loud, and boisterous. Each year at his con, which fans quickly dubbed Seulingcon, he would regale us from the podium with stories of how he, the shining knight in armor, vanquished the dragon that was the hotel that hosted the con. He introduced the panels, ran the dealers room, and served as auctioneer at what must have been the jolliest auctions ever. The size of the convention grew over the years from a two day weekend affair close to the July 4th holiday to a week-long epic. It looked as if the good times would never end.
But, alas, it did when Phil succumbed to a liver disease in 1984 whose origins still remain a mystery to medical science. Comicons continued to be held by others, but they weren't Seulingcons. They lacked the soul and the vibrancy that Phil brought to them. They lacked Phil.
It is to his memory and the wonderful memories I have of his conventions that I happily reprint this interview from July of 1971.
An Interview With the Man Perpetually Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Annual Comic Art Convention…
Conducted by Jeffrey Wasserman & Bob Zimmerman
On a windy evening we journeyed to Phil Seuling's apartment in Luna City on Coney Island. It was only two weeks since the convention was over and yet we were to relive it again that night. We found the building with ease and with a little difficulty found ourselves at Phil's door. We were ushered into the apartment and directed toward a room further back in the apartment. There we found Phil sitting in an old lounge chair, surrounded by shelves of cartoned comics. The walls of his den were decorated with old comic strips and original art. The floors too, were quite filled with comics-oriented items.
Phil Seuling is a life long resident of Brooklyn, New York. He was born in, he was married in, and he is living in Brooklyn. His wife's name is Carole and together, she and Phil can boast of two daughters. Phil graduated college with a Bachelor of Arts degree, along with about 60 credits past that. His profession is that of an English teacher at Brooklyn's Lafayette High School. There he also has a films and communications course.
After clearing the floor so we could sit, we plugged in our-trusty tape recorder and inserted a rather dubious tape cassette. With the BMT's D, QJ, F, and QB trains roaring along the tracks but two blocks from Phil's apartment and with the ocean howling through the wide open window, we started.
BOB ZIMMERMAN: When did you first get interested in comics?
PHIL SEULING: I guess the first time I ever saw one was when I was a little kid. Do you mean when did I start this recent thing [pointing to the many items around the room]?
BOB: Yes, that's right.
PHIL: Well, in about 1960, or '59 or '58, a few friends and myself got into a nostalgia conversation. We started asking, "Do you remember Captain Marvel?" "Hey, whatever happened to him?" "Do you remember this? Do you remember that?" I guess everybody has gone through that trip.
So, we visited a lot of bookstores and a couple of us came across some old comic books. One day, (the first day we came across them) we picked up a couple of comic book MADs, and some other magazines. This is what we were talking about. "Let's take them for conversation pieces." So when we brought them to the counter, the guy charged us something like two and a quarter for the comic books and one paperback book. I asked, "What kind of paperback is this?" He said, "It's not the paperback; that's only a quarter. It's a dollar each for the comic books." "Come on, who's going to believe that?" He thought we were conning him. He thought that we were trying to show him that there was no value in comic books, and so he started to clam up. "It you don't like it, it's too bad." We got out of him some information; that there really were some people that collected comic books, and that they went for money. He told us then, "If I had Superman #1, I would sell it for fifteen dollars." Well, nobody in his right mind could believe that.
We got those books anyway! I think we finally paid fifty cents apiece for them. We got three books. Since then we both hit the bookstores a lot, and this other fellow and myself would show each other our prizes. We found three or four places in New York that sold old comic books.
My brother (who’s thirteen years younger than I am) was then interested in comics, and he found a place where they sell old ones. When he told me that he once paid a dollar-fifty, I nearly killed him. You know, it's a dollar-fifty! I'm from the days when we sold them for two for a nickel, three for a dime, out on the sidewalks on orange crates. I went down to this place and the guy wouldn't show me anything. He had gotten very cagey. I finally convinced him that I wanted to see some comic books and I went into the back of the store and there were a lot of very common ones. I looked through them all. There was one there with three characters that I hadn't seen for years: Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. I couldn't get the guy any lower than three dollars. I had to have it, so I paid the three dollars. The book was rotting, it was really something you'd call decrepit, decaying. If you socked it against the wall you'd get a snowfall and no more book. I was really proud of it.
This collecting went on for about a year, and we both had thirty books each. My friend and I decided, "If people buy these in New York for fifty cents where there are thousands of little book stores what about Podunk and Rappahatchet, where there are none at all within a hundred miles? If people collect comic books out there, maybe they'll pay to get them? Ha, ha, ha!" [The last comment was said with a greedy gleam in his eyes]
We put an ad in a magazine for $2.50 for the three of us; the three who were originally on this nostalgia kick. Our initial investment was seventy-five cents each. We advertised, "Hey out there, we're selling comic books!" (To this day, that was the only advertisement that I ever made to encourage people to buy. I only advertise that I want to buy, because I always have less comics than I have people to buy them.) It was seventy-five cents each, and the one with the worst guess paid the extra twenty-five cents. You see, we each made guesses as to how many responses we would get. One guy guessed three; that was the number X was going to pick. Another guy picked five and I had nowhere to go. "Okay," I said, "I'll take seven and over." We got fifty answers, and that was astonishing. Result: Mail order business. And so we made up a rexographed sheet of all the comic books that we had. We made the decision to put in fifty dollars each, and we were going to buy old comics and become comic book dealers through the mail.
We wanted to amass one hundred and fifty dollars altogether, but one of the guys dropped out. He said that twenty-five was okay, but with a fifty dollar investment you're not kidding around anymore. We put our collection together and with the hundred dollars, went out buying old comics. We put out this long list and we priced them by date; the same mistake that every new collector who doesn't know what the hell he's doing makes. 1960 was a certain price, 1955 was a certain price, 1950 was a certain price. So obviously, you pick out the best books and leave the shit. But we didn't have good stuff anyway.
We sent the list out to these fifty people and we got a thudding, null, zero of a response. Because we had the prices up there, if you wanted a book from 1945 it would be $75, or something to that effect. It would be a prize to get one of those old price lists right now. So we took the list back and cut the prices in half. Well, at that, somebody bought a coverless comic. That was our first sale; it was about a half a buck. We were in business.
In the next year, we sold almost nothing We traded books and little by little we found some people in the area along with a thriving comic book exchange here in New York City. We were making money at it. Some months it was two dollars, others it was fifty cents, and then sometimes we had a ten dollar sale. "Wow, five bucks each! Ho, ho, hooo! [With that old Seuling gleam again] We're off the ground!" We never made a hundred dollars in a year.
Then two years after we were in this, and collecting, we hit the Mother Lode. One of those original letters that had come back to us was so fantastic that it was impossible to believe. The guy told us he had one thousand books, all of which were number ones; all of which were pre-1942! So would you believe that?
BOB: No. No.
PHIL: Nobody would believe that. Anyway, a couple of years later, we had nothing to do (now I'm in 1963) because Kennedy's assassination knocked the hell out of me; crushed me, you know. And it was Friday that Kennedy was assassinated and all that day it was black. On Sunday, I made a long distance phone call to the guy and I couldn't reach him. I got my partner and said to him, "Let's take a drive and get out of here." My partner said okay. We sent the guy a telegram telling him to call us back collect. He didn't. In the town where he lives, they deliver the telegrams when they see the guy. "Hey, Joe, glad you passed by, I have had a telegram for you for the past few days." He got the telegram a few days later and he phoned and told us to come the following weekend.
So the next weekend we went down and it was colder than a... you know. It was cold! [Laughter] We had no heater in the car. I mean I suffered for this business [and amidst laughter] to go on a long damn trip in an unheated car in the winter.
We got down there, hours later after wrong turns and everything. The guy showed where he had the stuff stashed and he had about one thousand number ones, pre-1942! There are that many around!
I don't think I can remember any duplicates in the whole thing. But this was just a ton of books. There was carton after carton after carton of books. My partner and I looked at each other. This was beyond our means to get. We were still in this penny-ante thing. I'm talking about 1963. Money has changed so rapidly that it was different then.
We asked him how much he wanted. "I was thinking about a thousand dollars." That, for a thousand dollars, is the greatest bargain in the history of mankind. I would do that seven times a week if I could do it. At the time, neither of us could afford it.
We offered two hundred and fifty and finally got them for three hundred and fifty dollars. We settled on that, we shook hands on it and loaded them in the car, the front, the back, the trunk. On the way back, I opened the cartons. I'd be reading off some unbelievable titles; titles that I had never heard of. He didn't have Superman #1, he didn't have Batman #1, he didn't have Action #1, he didn't have Detective #27. Now if you can name another comic that you thought he didn't have, you'd be wrong. He had everything else. Those, the four biggest comics, he didn't have. But he did have Prince Valiant #26, he did have #25, the first time I ever saw the thing. I didn't even know it was big size until I saw it there. He had Green Lantern #1. He had the "Daredevil Battles Hitler" issue, which was number one. He had ... just name it, he had it! Star Spangled #1. Every number one. He didn't have the ones from 1934 up, he didn't start collecting then. He had Super #1, so you could see where the collection was blocked in there. Then we were in business. "Now we put out a list and ooh!" [once again, his eyes gleamed] And then we got people buying because now we had something to sell.
BOB: How much was that collection worth? Can you take a guess?
PHIL: I once estimated that even if we sold it at the best price in those days, we'd make about three thousand dollars on it. We probably made about three to four thousand dollars over the course of the next year and a half. This was a phenomenal return. Now, today, if we had those exact books, I'm sure they'd be worth ten thousand.
JEFF WASSERMAN: That's because the economy has changed so much. People would be paying more and be willing to pay more.
PHIL: Also, the selling of comic books is a very strange business. There are such good vibrations every time I meet people because everything I've sold them is so valuable, they love me for it. And it's not me, it's because that now with the sky-high prices on comic books, if you bought Batman #1 from me for two hundred dollars, five years from now you'd thank me. Two hundred is no bargain; that's a fat price. Five years from now, if you tell people that you paid two hundred for it, they'll say, "Ooh wow, who did you know?"
BOB: In other words, your collection started in 1958, from what I gather [Gesturing at Phil's huge collection]?
PHIL: Well, that's when we started in business. But we didn't have that many. You're looking at ten thousand. [Around the room]
JEFF: Do you think there is a strong bond between comic fans?
PHIL: Comic books seem to have a very good group around them. I don't know what it is; whether people are trying to return the good times, the entertainment, or the good feelings they get from comic books. I don't think that it's consciously that. But it must have something to do with it. "Listen, if this guy read comic books when I read comic books, how bad can he be?" This kind of kindred feeling. It's been said a thousand times before. Who you are, what religion you are, and stuff like that means nothing. Even what language you speak. Two plumbers, one from America and one from Red China would have much more in common than two guys who live in Brooklyn; one of whom is a minister and the other one is a carpenter. Who could talk more easily? The plumbers of course, even with sign language would have much more in common. We too have this mutual frame of reference, this mutual font of knowledge, this mythos that we share. If I'm talking here and I say, "Shit, I just banged my elbow. I wish I had a magic word to speak so that the pain wouldn't pain," you'd know what I'm talking about. That's because we share the same frame of reference. You couldn't say that in all company and be understood.
JEFF: Also in comics for a long time you couldn't find anyone else who read comics. When you got to meet someone who shares your love for comics, which people have always turned their noses down on, you feel in good company.
PHIL: The people who read comics are not ashamed of it. There are people who are willing to embarrass you, who are willing to put you down. "Tell us about your comic books," they'll say loudly in strange company. And tell them, I do. "They're beautiful, do you want to come and see them?" They're not going to embarrass me because I'm not the least bit ashamed of it. And of course when they see that you're not ashamed of it, they ask, "Do you really have all those comic books?" And they become very sincere and interested. The few idiots who tried to embarrass you feel left out of it all of a sudden, because the rest of the people really become interested. Anyway, about the story of how the business got started... that's essentially it. Except for the fact I bought out my partner two years ago since my end with the load of work (namely keeping up the correspondence) was growing greater than his.
JEFF: About the convention itself, how did they start? Beginning with the ones that were held in New York before yours.
PHIL: In late 1963, I began hearing about proposals to have meetings. It really wasn't too good of an idea since too many people live in too many different places. What would you do at such a meeting? Show off your comic books? Nobody wanted to sell them. In 1964 a guy wrote to me and every letter was handwritten so you can imagine what his mailing list was. He sent out to all the people he could get on his mailing list and told them we're going to have a convention. This is where it's going to be, we're going to have a professional artist there and he'll talk to us about his artwork. This prolific writer was Bernie Bubnis. I went to the convention and my partner and I supplied all the refreshments for the first convention... we brought a case of soda. [Laughter] The soda was warm and it was a hot damn day and the room was small and sweaty. 1964. The nicest thing about it was that Bernie had someone make up buttons saying, "1964 COMICON" in red, white and blue. They were really beautiful. I still have some of those. But at last year's convention, or the year's before, I was tossing them around to the crowd at the auction.
BOB: It was last year's. 1970.
PHIL: Well, those buttons were beautiful and they're really from the first comic convention. And there's the proof of it. There's Bubnis, nobody can say there was a convention before his. The first convention was in New York in 1964, and if anyone wants to say, "Well, my friend came over to see me in 1938 and that was the first comic convention;" right. Sure it was. The first convention called a convention, the first one planned as a convention, the first one run in an organized manner was Bernie Bubnis' in New York, 1964. The following year it was run by the Academy of Comic Book Arts, which was an organization noted for its inefficiency and disorganization, although it was well-meaning. Everybody who was in it was sincere, it's just that nothing ever happened. This was 1965. In 1966 they ran another one, but in 1966, the guy who was running it was so befuddled and confused that he told people that there wasn't going to be one the next year. Another group got together and organized one, put down-payments on the room and things like that there. Then the other guy from the previous year decided to hold one and so there were two in 1967.
In 1967, the Academy ran one. That was its third and last, By this time, people were saying things like, "Why isn't this done, why isn't that done? And why don't they do this?" And the guy who was running it was really running it out of a welter. He just couldn't keep details together, nobody knew who to go to for information. One of the people in charge was Mark Hanerfeld, and when you asked him something, he would say, "I don't know, he won't tell me."
So in 1968, we got this idea that we would start an organization called SCARP, Society of Comic Art Research and Preservation. I got five guys together who were interested in comic books, and who I thought had something to offer. One of them I didn't know and I was grossly deceived. He was a phoney; he supplied absolutely nothing and took a lot of credit. He was really a weight we had to carry around. Tom Fagan was in it, but Tom lives in Vermont, and so that limited what he could do. Mike MacEnerny was in it; he did the most he could do at the convention. But like there was nothing he could do in the planning of it; he found it difficult to help out. And the other one was a lawyer. Those were the five members. You have to have a lawyer, you absolutely must have a lawyer. That was the group.
I figured that it would be four guys working on the convention, but it turned out to be just one guy working on the convention. Me. Some of the befuddlement of past years was being passed on. I just couldn't do it anymore; it really took a lot out of me. That was the first big convention. All the conventions since 1964 had drawn 150, 250, and one of them went and drew 300 people. That was the biggest convention ever at that time; Benson's 1966 convention. That was a tremendous success. Well, I figured that we should do a little national advertising and call it the International Convention of Comic Art. There were promises as to how people are coming in from France. (This was from the guy who was all talk). We did publicize it nation-wide through comics fanzines and my list. We got 750 people. 750 people, that was absolutely incredible. Do you realize how many people that is? At the time, there were people who would bet you that there weren't that many fans in the country.
JEFF: Where was this convention held?
PHIL: That was held in the Statler-Hilton.
BOB: Was that the first one at the Statler-Hilton?
PHIL: That was the first one held in the Statler-Hilton. Now that was the first and the last thing that the SCARP did. Due to this one guy who was a genuine leech, a parasite, who lived on other people, and took credit for what other people did. I would not do anything that he would take credit for, so SCARP went completely inactive. Totally. For all intents and purposes it doesn't even exist anymore.
Anyway, I took all the profits to myself, which were pitifully small. The thing that limited it was that now we have to prepare for bigger numbers. If 750 came the first year, how many can come the next year? So we figured maybe even a thousand. Also ... when I go to a convention and I pay whatever it is for a table ($10, $20, or even $50, as it is at my convention), I sit back and I make a thousand dollars. [Clapping his hands] All these nice people come over, buy nice stuff and go away smiling. And they give me their money. I make a thousand dollars. [His eyes started to gleam still once more] On the other hand, if I run a convention and break my ass for a year, I make the same thing or less. Because now I can't make all the preparations that I would ordinarily. I made as much at my table in Dallas with a thousand people there as I did at my own convention with two thousand people. That was 1969. In 1970 it was the same thing; almost no profit. And this year, I finally made enough at the convention combining everything that everybody paid in. I thought that this year's convention was perfect according to plan because everybody got more than was ever promised, more than what they ever got at any other convention. It was bigger, it was better, it was more glamorous. It was a better bargain. How much is it if you divide three-fifty by four?
JEFF: Quick Bob! [Laughter]
BOB: Don't look at me.
PHIL: It comes out to about ...
PHIL & JEFF: Eighty cents.
JEFF: Other places like Metro charge $4 for two days as Bob and I know.
PHIL: Dallas charged $6 for four days. So that's what I mean. There are some times when everyone comes out ahead, and a convention should be that. Everybody who put something into a convention should get more than enough back. Did you get three dollars and fifty cents worth out of this convention?
BOB: Ah, yeah.
JEFF: Sure. [meanwhile, Phil continued to ramble on, ignoring our answers]
PHIL: If you say yes, then fantastic. The dealers pay fifty dollars apiece. That's important for they foot the early bills before the convention opens. The dealers by paying a lot of money, get a lot in return. Look at that room we had! Fantastic! Do you realize that we had the television cameras in there and nobody even knew? In 1965, we had what we thought to be a big, big room. The television camera came in and the whole convention stopped. To bring the camera in and aim it in a certain direction, the cables and people behind it and the interviewer in front of it blocked off half of the room. There was this half of the room [gesturing to the right] and this half of the room [gesturing to the left] and the camera right in the middle. The convention came to a stop. That was how small the room was. This time, the television camera was in the room and nobody even knew it. We had last year, in smaller rooms, three television cameras at the same time, and even that didn't cause that much of a ripple. Last year it was a little crowded but even that we survived.
JEFF: They spent a longer time there last year. This year, it was just, "Hello, this is Lew Wood, NBC News at the Comic Convention. Good-bye." [Laughter from Phil] And that was it.
PHIL: They also interviewed Kirk Alyn; that was good. The convention is at a stage now where if my plans go right, I come out happy, because financially I invest a lot. Time and energy I also invest a lot. I get a good return on that. A nice, fat, 'make me smile' return. [Need we tell you that he was smiling?] The people who come to the convention get a bargain. They should. I think that the people who come should pay less and less and get more and more. The fans. For the professionals, it's an ego-trip. People hang along with them and tell them how great their stuff is. They feel like a celebrity. Most artists are very underrated; they're treated very badly by everybody. They not only feel that way, it is true. They get something out of it. They get a cocktail party which I throw, many even get to sell some of their stuff to make the price of their carfare to and from the convention. The publishers get tremendous publicity out of it, and good will out of it. And the publishers pay even more than the dealers for a table. Publishers pay $100 for the advertisement in the program and sponsorship of the cocktail party. All the people put together for the cocktail party only pay half for the cocktail party; I pay the other half. As I said, everyone who gives to the convention should receive back many-fold. And I think they do. I'm always afraid of a convention where someone will say, "Well, what did I get for my money?" I have a feeling that that might happen, but never at my convention. That's why. Some of the things planned at this year's convention were planned a year in advance. There are things that are going to be at next year's convention that are already planned.
JEFF: Do you want to give any away?
PHIL: No, and I'll tell you why. Did you get disappointed at this year's convention? Was there anything promised that I didn't deliver? Did you know that Gardner Fox was going to be the guest of honor?
JEFF: "No," to all those questions.
PHIL: I wanted Gardner to be the guest of honor, but I didn't have the confirmation by the time I had to send out the notices. So in order not to disappoint anybody ("Gardner Fox will probably be guest of honor" and then Gardner says, "I can't make it"), I didn't release anything.
JEFF: Last year there were some tie-ups.
PHIL: Yeah. Well, as careful as I am, I still make some mistakes. But Kurtzman was there this year. Kirk Alyn was there unannounced. So you got more than you bargained for. This is the way it should be. I don't like to make any promises. For instance, three of four conventions have announced that Frazetta will be there. Now Frazetta almost never travels. Even in New York, he comes to a convention, looks around, and goes home. That's about it. And that's where he lives! Any other convention, he has just never made.
His track record is 100%. And yet people advertise, "FRAZETTA IS COMING!" I guess it's partly their own enthusiasm and trust and partly because Frazetta doesn't make it a definite, "No." He leaves them to believe that he will be there. I don't like that. I don't like to promise anything that may not be delivered.
I'll tell you something that was supposed to be at this year's convention. Now, you'll feel disappointed, but I don't care since you already told me it was a great convention. If I had advertised this thing, what a bummer it would've been. Robert Crumb's FRITZ THE CAT is being made into a full length animated feature. Full animation, like Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Fantastic! It's probably going to be finished in four months. October, November, December, around that time. I did the voice for one of the characters. The guy who's producing it is a close friend. I said to him, "Why don't we put this one at the convention? Why don't we show the rushes, the advanced footage?" Do you know you can actually see the characters moving around in panels, before they're inked in? Then they make a 16 millimeter film of the pencils to see how it's going to work? Did you ever see that? I've seen it. I've seen the black & white and the color rushes of Fritz The Cat and it's dynamite. It comes with the sound dubbed in and everything. The rushes last about 10 minutes. We were going to have Ralph Bakshi come down, talk about how animation is done, give demonstrations, show the backgrounds he had been commissioned to do for Fritz The Cat, show some of the frame by frame animation, bring some cells down, put them up for a wall display, and show the rushes of Fritz The Cat, which will be the first full length animated film with an "X" rating. Fritz was not Little Orphan Annie. It was dynamite. A month before the convention, before the Progress Report was to be put out, the whole animation studio had to be moved, lock, stock and barrel, from New York to Hollywood. All the animators that New York could provide were not enough that would be needed for Fritz The Cat! He had to move where the animators were. Warner Brothers, MGM, Disney, they're all out on the West coast.
JEFF: Who produced it?
PHIL: Bakshi-Krantz, that's who's doing the picture. Warner Brothers is backing it. That was going to be shown at the convention. What a disappointment. If I had advertised that, the fans would have been disappointed. I would have felt worse than anyone.
BOB: What are some of the future plans for the convention that you can tell us about?
PHIL: It's been in the back of my mind to have some skits and little scenes acted out from the comic books. In-type humor. Satirical humor. That's been planned for three years and it's never been done. It takes a lot of time to sit and write, to plan, to cast, to rehearse and to do it. So, I don't think we'll ever do that, but I'd love to.
Jeff Jones will have an exhibition next year. It will be advertised and he’s going to have a new sculpture. That's the first one over there, and he’s going to have another one next year. [There, atop a bureau, was an exquisite piece of sculpture by Jones himself!]
BOB: Are you going to expand to any other rooms or have it differently organized?
PHIL: It might be possible to fit everything on one floor. This year we had everything on the first story with two things on the eighteenth, the top floor. Now that wasn't so bad, because you were always near an elevator. We had to move in the last minute, the very last minute, the week of the convention. We moved to this bigger room, the Grand Ballroom, because it's a tremendous bargain to move there and for a lot of other reasons. Our new room was far from the elevator, remember how you had to take that hike down the staircase to the mezzanine to the elevators? Everybody commented on it. They said that that should be avoided. Nobody was pissed off about it nobody was hostile about it. The reports on the convention were so fantastically positive that they took that as a small thing. I don't know what's going to go wrong next year, but I'll promise you that something will.
JEFF: Something probably will. Do the fans ever make that much of a problem?
PHIL: Yeah, the fans created one of the two big problems this year. One is a New York problem. I'm not saying that only New Yorkers do it, but it's a problem that happens mostly in Now York City. The thieving. The thefts ... you talk about a kid running away with a dollar comic book and you say, "Ah, well, the kid was tempted and it's only a kid and it's only a comic book." When a guy loses a medium run of ALL STARS, which anyone would pay two hundred for, that's grand larceny. And I'll tell you very frankly, since this is going to be in a fanzine, perhaps it will get publicity. [Phil ran over to his shelves, cluttered with boxes of comics and took out from a molding box, a DICK TRACY G-MAN BADGE, upon which he swore:] When we catch somebody stealing at a convention, I will prosecute, meaning that I would file charges, bring him down to the precinct station, and have a record made out on the kid. Whatever the final decision is, FUCK HIM! [slapping his knee] I HAVE HAD IT! It is no longer a small thing; it is grand larceny. I've seen dealers cry from their losses. I won't have it, I just won't have it.
JEFF: Did you have security guards this year?
PHIL: There were, but any dealer will tell you that if he stands behind the table and a guard is at each corner of his table, and all three of them are staring at the table, that will not eliminate theft. That's not enough. There's a crowd around, and people are putting their books down and picking them up and looking at the books and saying, "Look at this one, Joe," and passing it to a confederate behind him. There are not many doing this, but there are just a few of these clowns.
Now I'm threatening that I'm going to prosecute, which I will. I want this to be known and I don't care if I have to make examples of ten kids. I will. I'm fed up with it after four years. But the worst thing about it is that never, never again, as long as I run a convention, will they be let into one of my conventions. Now if they want to be cut out, that's okay, but they will be cut out. I swear, I won't deal with them personally. And they will not come to the convention, and the convention is worth a thousand dollars even to you, and you're not a dealer.
JEFF: I agree, Just the experience alone is worth it.
PHIL: And it gets to be known that you're excluded for that reason.
JEFF: Most of the penny-ante crimes aren't noticed; the dealers expect it to happen.
PHIL: And I'm not uptight, I'm not an authority figure. People kid me about that because I'm big and my voice is strong. But I'm not hung up on authority, punishment and stuff like that. But I said this already at the convention, so this isn't brand new.
At this year's convention there were 2000 people. Last year there was a little under that, about 1900. This year there was a little over 2000. Now you figure that occasionally someone will lose a ticket. Alright, we don't care. So if you lose a ticket, we'll replace it. This year, supposedly, 200 people lost their tickets. I don't believe that they lose their tickets. I believe that they gave their tickets to a friend and came back for another one. We finally, defensively, just to cut down the flow, had to say, "Well, go find your ticket, because we're not letting you in," or "you have to pay a fifty cent fine, penalty, or whatever you want to call it." And people were outraged that they would have to pay after they had already paid for their tickets. And they should be outraged, except it was not a case of just losing tickets anymore, it really wasn't. It was a case of, "Ha, ha, ha! I don't want to pay the eighty-eight cents per day admission. I'd rather steal. "
JEFF: Other than thieving, have the fans been much of a bother? There are more fans at a convention than dealers who hassle you about table prices and the like.
PHIL: The fans have been fantastic. The best thing about a convention is the fans. It's a fan gathering; it's always been a fan gathering. It always will be a fan gathering. And that's what it should be as far as I'm concerned. That's who I run it for. I make a profit out of it, so if you want to ask if I run it to make money from it, I would say, "Yeah, I run it to make money." I also run it for the fans. I'm not going to make money if the fans don't come.
JEFF: Well, the fans wouldn't come if you didn't have the dealers, and of course the dealers wouldn't come if the fans weren't there; they couldn't make money.
PHIL: For instance, let me give you an example. Look at the program book. That program book is a knockout.
JEFF: The convention's luncheon this year was quite good. I remember that people last year were complaining about the bad food. Were there any last minute goof ups? People leaving, things going wrong, that might make good anecdotes?
PHIL: No, and I attribute that all to myself. [Seuling leers] I'm now going to give you the secret to my success that I learned through the years. To all other convention chairmen: Don't lose' your cool. Just relax. Almost everybody wants to keep the thing running, and keep the thing going. And when something goes wrong, you just go with it. You talk to people, you listen to people rather than snapping off directions and hostility and stuff like that. And the biggest thing that can go wrong is very easily overcome. The convention just rolls over it. Really, with all the joking aside, I learned that all the anger in the world, all the spitting of fire, all the thunder and lightning are not going to do anything. It's not creative, it's not productive. On the other hand, if someone comes running up to me and screams, "There are no more white tickets, there are no more white tickets!", I reply, "Alright, there are no more white tickets. Are there any brown tickets from yesterday? Why don't we use them?" Should he say, "People will say, where are the white tickets?", I'll answer, "We'll say we lost them." If you really don't get excited, then people around you won't. You get so much help. Last year, a panel didn't show up, so Neal Adams and a couple of others got up and said, "Let's have a panel folks!" And they had some sort of round table discussion. It was beautiful. People keep things going. How many times did we have to change time schedules?
We can provide as much as we can provide if we're not dogmatic about it, if we're not authoritarian about it. If we say, "Something will go on at seven o'clock. No later than seven o'clock and no earlier than seven o'clock." Then if a really great guest gets stalled in traffic, you don't have any space to fit him in. If everybody's there early and you can get the panel on earlier than it's scheduled, then fine. If someone else shows up, we can fit him in too. We arrange it on the spot. I guess some people are upset by the constant changes in the schedule, but if you work with what you have and try to get it in there. Time is just a value anyway. It really isn't a thing, it's a value and you use it in the way you choose. I think that the casualness of the convention is more efficient than structure. The more structure, the less efficient.
BOB: What happened with that problem you had with the hotel? What actually did happen?
PHIL: Since the convention went well, I imagine I made a good decision. I wasn't convinced that I had made a good decision at that time. The hotel called me two weeks before the convention date and told me, "Listen Phil, this is what's happening. A guy who's not working with us anymore [Laughter] has done a little thing. He has scheduled another event into the room that you have. And both you and this wedding party have iron clad guarantees. You have perfect contracts, there's nothing you can do about it." If I didn't move out, I could've stayed there and I don't think that they could've gotten us out and, if they did, I could sue for triple damages. I had a contract. The same thing with the wedding party; they also had a contract. So they said, "Would you consider taking any other rooms? How about last years rooms?" I told them that I had already arranged for seventy tables and the old rooms only hold sixty. They were trying to put a gallon into a quart jar. "Well what else can we do?" I absolutely can't move into smaller quarters. Even thinking about it scares me for all the arrangements have already been made." The dealers already had their directions and everything. If you knew what went into the convention you'd be staggered. Every dealer gets a communication of where to go when he gets to the hotel.
JEFF: Could you give us some statistics? How many people ordered rooms?
PHIL: About a hundred and fifty. No, no. One hundred fifty rooms. That's about two hundred fifty people.
BOB: Anyway, so you were giving dealers directions. What happened to the marriage?
JEFF: I think they got married while the EC Panel was on. [Laughter]
PHIL: No, that was another marriage, it wasn't the one we were having a conflict with. We didn't have that room, it was theirs. I just changed things there for certain reasons. There was going to be a wedding in one room while in the adjoining room there was going to be an EC Panel with Steranko and a couple of other things. No, it was the Underground Comics Panel. When I found out when the marriage would be held, we scheduled up to the time of the marriage and then afterward. I left my rooms empty because I didn't want a wedding going on while we had a panel. There was no sound-proofing, so those at the wedding would've heard everything that was said at the Underground Panel. "Well, we don't say, ‘fuck’ too often, because it won't be published" or, "We got this guy eating this girl in this panel..." and, well, you know. Or like Steranko would say, "Who do you think I am? Jim Warren?" [With bellows of laughter from the imaginary audience provided by Phil] while the wedding is going on. It's another thing. It was just as easy to let that hour go by and let the marriage get out of there, than it was just to run our panels normally. So, why not do it?
BOB: Why are you so nice to the hotel?
PHIL: I described it after the convention during the Gripe and Planning Session. The hotel should be looked on as a monster with claws and fangs and breathes fire, and gives milk and butter and bread and eggs. If you kill the monster, you kill your supply of milk and eggs. If you want the bread and butter you'll learn to avoid the claws, to watch out for the slashing tail, to wear asbestos.
JEFF: Do you have any last minute words for the fans? Anything? Wishing them well or telling them to come on to more conventions of yours?
PHIL: I tell you, I think that they should learn to make their voices heard. I would say this to anybody. Make what they want known. Say what they want. And try to do something about it. For instance, there is a bad comic book dealer, I don't think people have a real right to complain about him. I just think that they shouldn't deal with him. It's just as simple as that and then he's out of business. If there's a convention somewhere where twenty things are promised, and nothing is delivered, if you go to a convention and find out that your room that was supposed to be $16 will cost you $20, (which happened at one convention), holler! Certainly don't go to that convention next year. Make it be known, make your work be known. "If this isn't there, I'm not going to send my money." You just can't go to every convention. Would you go for five dollars admission, ten dollars?
JEFF: It would depend upon where the con is and what's promised.
PHIL: You've got to let your standards be known. Eventually, there will be someone who will come into the convention business, ready to rip-off the money of the convention-goers. We had that once. A guy who's a publisher of a lesser known monster magazine ran a convention where he supplies nothing, performed nothing, nothing went off that was promised, took all the money and told everybody that they had no right to complain because they were ungrateful. That's true. Well, this guy could never run a convention again, and that's as it should be. The guy's name is as good as mud. People who have complained about my convention don't complain more than once; the problem doesn't happen again. I read those letters, I listen to them. I have everything taken care of the following year. That's it, let your voices be heard, if you want more professionals, less professionals or whatever. Last year people were saying that we had the same old people on the same old panels. You didn't get that this time. You got to see people you never saw before. Next year it's going to be the same thing.
One suggestion that I picked up from science fiction conventions is having a fan guest of honor. Isn't that something? There are some fans in this thing, for a long, long time. People that should be recognized. They're an interesting bunch. Look, you're interviewing me. I've been in fandom for a long time and I'm interested in other fans. So maybe a fan guest of honor would be a good idea. Let people know. Let the people who are running the convention know what you want and what you don't want.
JEFF: One last question. With all the conventions now being held, with the second one already in New York, with one in Washington, possibly Detroit...
PHIL: Atlanta, San Diego, Dallas, Houston Boston...
JEFF: Do you think that there are too many of them; do you think they'll hurt the NY Convention or will yours always stand out?
PHIL: I thought about this and I proposed to a few people about having a calendar for comic book conventions. If anybody wants to have a comicon, it could be cleared with the calendar. I'm glad to see all these conventions. I try to attend as many as I can.
JEFF: And last, some sort of closing statement to the fans reading this?
PHIL: [Pause] Something clever, right? Spontaneous and on the spot? [Pause] Yes, if everyone would send me just one dollar ... [Quoting an old Soupy Sales joke that got Soupy thrown off the air, Seuling bounded out of the room]
Interview Copyright 2008 Jeffrey H. Wasserman and Robert Zimmerman.
This interview originally appeared in February 1972's Fantastic Fanzine Special #2. The initial copyright on the interview has expired. Publishing rights to it have reverted to myself and Robert Zimmerman who both now claim joint copyright.
The photograph of Phil Seuling above accompanied the interview's original appearance and was taken by Martin Berkenwald. May both R.I.P.
My thanks to Jim Hanley for scanning this interview from a copy of the original magazine, supplied by no less than Paul Levitz, and for suggesting that I place it here on my website.
If you want to see the greatest comics stores in New York City, I heartily recommend Jim's stores:
My thanks to Bob Zimmerman for his great help in conducting, transcribing, and copy-editing this interview back in 1971. I doubt I could have encountered Phil without him.
If you want to read about Bob's wonderful literary work on space exploration you can check out his bibliography and see a listing of his appearances at:
If you want to learn more about Phil Seuling and his New York Comic Art Conventions, you can access these pages on Wikipedia; the first of which Jim Hanley intends to flesh out:
An audio recording of an interview with Phil Seuling conducted on the radio in 1974, three years after the one above, can be found on this website: