Bud Plant: Comics Retailing Pioneer
Bud Plant is one of the pioneers of the comics retail world. He was one of the first storeowners (probably the first to own a chain of stores), an early comics distributor, a publisher, and a convention organizer, all in the 1970s. But Bud is best known for his mail-order business, which he started in the late 1960s, and its Internet counterpart. He has had a long-time (all 44 shows, including this year!) presence at Comic-Con International. In this interview, Toucan talks to Bud about his many years as a retailer, publisher, and most importantly, a comics fan.
Bud Plant and Anne Hutchinson at Comic-Con International in 2011.
Toucan: How many years have you been exhibiting at Comic-Con?
Bud: Since the beginning, since 1970, in the very dark, badly lit basement of the U.S. Grant. I actually shared a table with three other guys from San Jose. We all drove down together. If you can believe it, we all had little two-foot by two-foot sections of the table.
Toucan: At that point were you dealing with old comics or had you already started gathering fanzines and things like that?
Bud: Boy, that’s a tough one. It’s right on the cusp of where I was switching over from doing comics to fanzines, so the date of the first one would have been 1970. I probably had a couple of fanzines that I would have brought in for the stores but very little else, maybe a few underground comics, but that was just before that changeover. By the next year I would have been deeply into fanzines and underground comics and probably doing very little on the old comics.
Toucan: So obviously all of this started for you as a kid when you were a comic book fan. Where and when did you first discover comics?
Bud: My parents had a subscription to Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, and so that could be the very first comics I read. I have two older sisters and we’d get it once a month and read the Carl Barks stories. This would have been like 1959 or 1960, right in that period. I was born in 1952 so I would have been 8 years old or something. And then somehow I got some dimes together and bought some things off the newsstand in 1961. Believe it or not, I actually bought Fantastic Four #1. Unfortunately, it went the way of most little kids comics, but [I bought] Tales to Astonish and some Superman titles. I can remember pretty much all those titles because I had very, very few. I didn’t really actively collect until 1964, then I stumbled into the whole Marvel realm and got into Amazing Spider-Man starting with #13 and Fantastic Four starting with #27, right in that time period. And back then it was eight or ten titles Marvel was publishing, so for a dollar a month or $1.20 a month you could buy every Marvel comic that was coming out. So that’s when I got hooked and actually became a regular collector, strictly of Marvel. Then in the next year or so, when I stumbled into some buddies who knew about fandom and the Rocket’s Blast, they sort of reversed me back and said hey there is good stuff coming out from DC. Look at Adam Strange and Strange Adventures and the Atom and the Murphy Anderson stuff. So they sort of got me back into having a broader horizon than just the Marvel titles. And those are the guys that I eventually opened up the store with in 1968.
Toucan: And was that Comics & Comix?
Bud: That was called the Seven Sons Comic Shop, in San Jose. Yeah we had six partners and we fudged it and added another honorary guy to make it sound better. “Six Sons” didn’t sound as good as seven. Comics & Comix didn’t start until 1972.
Toucan: You were kind of a fixture at the early Phil Seuling New York Comic Art conventions, and you always had a great display of comics-oriented publications of the day, which at that point was mainly fanzines and portfolios. Do you remember the first thing that you ever purchased to sell that way?
Bud: When I think back to the early days, I usually think of like Squa Tront [an EC Comics fanzine] from Jerry Weist. Squa Tront #2 or #3, and also there was Spa Fon [another EC ’zine] from Rich Hauser, which was sort of a sister magazine to Jerry’s. Those are two of the earliest that I can think of that I started selling through the mail. There weren’t too many things. Coming out of San Jose there was Weirdom. Dennis Cunningham was publishing that. He was the first publisher of Richard Corben. His first appearance in fandom was in Weirdom, and that was just a few miles away. So I was picking up that. And Rudy Frankie was involved in the early fandom. He was an art teacher a little bit older than the rest of us, but he had been involved with Bill Dubay and Marty Arbunich, who were doing stuff out of San Francisco. So there were a couple other fan publications that were coming out of San Jose, too. That’s sort of my beginning, where I started bringing those in and putting them in to the stores we had, and then started to list them through the mail.
Toucan: Didn’t you drive across country to do Seuling’s conventions?
Bud: Yeah, starting in ’69, we went to Houston from California and came back. It was always a bunch of buddies and me. John Barrett was my partner in Comics & Comix from the beginning. We ran into Bob Beerbohm and he became a partner. He was from Omaha, Nebraska, at that time, but there was a little group of hardcore guys who would actually try to do all the shows, and we were part of that group. People were usually pretty surprised that we’d come in from California to Houston or to Oklahoma City or especially to New York, because very few people did that. Michelle Nolan was doing it, but very few people were driving across the country to do comic books shows back then. But that’s what we did. As many shows as were happening, we usually tried to make it to most of them. Of course, there weren’t a lot, maybe a half-dozen over a period of Spring to December.
Toucan: You published a fanzine in the late ’60s, didn’t you?
Bud: Co-published. We started with four partners and ended with three. That was Promethean. Well, it was actually a magazine with no name. We were really, really bad marketers. We said we’re going to do this cool magazine with this really cool logo that Rick Griffin had drawn for us, and it’s not supposed to mean anything. And we said it’s published by Promethean Enterprises, and of course people had to call it something, so they called it Promethean Enterprises. The first one came out in ’69 and it was a pretty thin little piece. We sent a copy to Bill Spicer, the editor and publisher of Graphic Story Magazine, and he said, “Yeah it’s sort of a quick trip for a dollar.” That was probably our first review. It was a combination of some above-ground stuff like Frazetta and Williamson and sketches or things that we’d picked up at shows and then also some underground stuff. The first issues had a Rick Griffin cover, and I think some Robert Crumb in it. We did five issues over the next six years. The last issue came out in ’75 and it was monstrously big. It looked more like an issue of Squa Tront by then, a big fat magazine, and it had a big interview with R. Crumb which was actually, believe it or not, the first Crumb interview. He was still not really above ground at that point, just doing a lot of underground comix. I did that for a while and I did a few underground comix, too.
Toucan: Wasn’t there another fanzine called Anomaly at some point, too?
Bud: Anomaly started out as a fanzine published by Jan Strnad. Jan came to me when the undergrounds were going real good and said, “I’m looking for a publisher, why don’t you do this as an underground? You’ve got all the connections out there.” So that’s what I did. I can’t really claim much credit for that other than I just sort of facilitated it and printed it and my address was on it, but Jan really put the thing together. And we did it as an underground comic and printed 20,000 copies.
Toucan: When you look back at your career in all this, you’ve been a pioneer in a lot of different areas that are very common now. You were one of the first to gather stuff like this—comix, fanzines, portfolios—to sell at conventions. You were an early comic shop owner or co-owner, you were an early distributor and a publisher, you were a mail-order pioneer all the way back in the late ’‘60s, and I don’t know exactly when you started selling on the Internet, but I’m guessing you were probably in the forefront of that, too.
Bud: Yeah we got into that pretty early. I can’t even remember when we started on that. I was able to keep taking advantage of these—I don’t know—the changes as they came along, the opportunities. And I managed to get somewhat of a business education as I went through that. I was going to college from ’70 to ’75, but at the same time I was running the mail-order business and the comics store. So I eventually actually majored in business. But more than anything else, people like Phil Seuling were really influential on me. I met him first in ’70, when I was still just barely 18 years old. He became a big mentor to me and sort of taught me, even though he wasn’t really a businessman. he was just a high school teacher and a fan and a part-time dealer, an entrepreneur. He was a hip New York guy and had 15 years or something on me. So he was a big mentor to me. He taught me a lot, and fortunately back in those days everything was so seat of the pants and small you could sort of get a start without having to come up with a bunch of money or a bunch of fancy ideas and stuff. We’d just buy some things and put them on a list and put them in ads in the Rocket’s Blast or Alan Light’s Buyer’s Guide and sell some and then buy some more.
Toucan: The second comic shop that you co-founded as you mentioned with John Barrett was in Berkeley in ’72 and it was Comics & Comix. How did that get started?
Bud: What happened was John and I had been two of the partners in Seven Sons in ’68 and then we sold that out to one of the guys whose mom had enough money to tempt us to sell. We went to Houston in ’69—there were four of us, John and I and Jim Buser and Dick Swan—and we bought a whole bunch of comics cheap. Bought a couple tables’ worth of comics from people and stuffed the car with them and drove home and said hey, we’ve got all these comics, let’s open up another comic shop. So all of a sudden we opened up a new shop called Comic World and then San Jose had the privilege of having two shops, and eventually they had three because another guy, Bob Sidebottom, who was big in the early days of distributing underground comix, was there too. So we had three comic book shops all sort of thriving in San Jose in ’69 and ’70.
Toucan: And that was before the direct market?
Bud: Oh yeah. In those days we didn’t really handle new comics. What we would do is run down to another distributor that would get them a week early and buy them at cover price, bring them back, and sell them for an extra nickel. I think they were 20 cents and we’d sell them for a quarter to the guys who wanted to get them earlier. We had not broken into getting comics from a distributor yet. That didn’t happen until Comics & Comix in ’72.
Anyway, the story on Comics & Comix is simply that John and I had sort of parted; we were friends, but we parted company. He was going off and going to be a photojournalist in college and I was also going to college, but I started my mail-order business. But I still wanted to go to the shows in the summer, so I needed somebody to fill orders while I was gone. So I enlisted John and said I’m going to be off for two weeks or so, can you fill orders for me? And so he did that, and then after two years of doing it, he said, this is a great little thing, we should be partners again. And I said I don’t know if I want to be partners, I don’t if it’s that big a deal, but let’s do this, let’s open a store. And so that’s really how Comics & Comix started. We said okay, John will be the guy that’ll be working the store, because he just dropped out of college to do that and I wanted to keep going to school, so I was sort of the guy behind the scenes where I put up some of the money and was bringing in the fanzines and the underground comix, and that was the beginning of our partnership.
Toucan: You ended up with six or seven stores, is that correct?
Bud: Yeah we ended up with seven stores. I was involved in it from ’72 to ’88. Bob Beerbohm came on board really, really early, right at the beginning. He moved out from Nebraska, and then eventually Dick Swan, who’s still a comic book dealer, came in, and Jim Buser and Scott Maple, and they were managers of stores and became partial partners in the store. We had a good little chain. I think we had the first chain going, extending up to Sacramento and down to San Jose and San Francisco and Palo Alto.
Toucan: You did a convention early on in ’73 called Berkeley Con, probably the first Bay Area comics convention. What was the focus of that event?
Bud: Underground comix were ostensibly the focus of it. It started out as a regular convention. A couple of guys who were customers of ours and collectors started trying to put it together and then they sort of got in over their heads and talked to us—I mean, Comics & Comix in Berkeley. They asked if we could help promote the show or put on the show. So we sort of got involved, and by that time believe it or not we’d had some experience because we’d been to all these other shows. So yeah, it was called the Berkeley Comic Convention or Berkeley Underground Comix Convention. Since undergrounds were so big, we thought we’d orient it towards the undergrounds because nobody had ever done that. We invited all the local underground artists to show up, and we did an art show in the Poly Ballroom. It was sort of co-sponsored by UC Berkeley, which was really nice. They gave us the facility, anyway. It came off pretty good, but it also taught us a really valuable lesson, which was you don’t get to enjoy a show very much if you’re actually running the show.
But it was pretty casual. We ran into some belly dancers who were out doing stuff in the Berkeley campus and we said, “Hey, you guys should come over and be a part of the show.” So all of a sudden we had belly dancers at the show. It was pretty fast and loose, but it worked out pretty good. One of the big deals that came out of that show was the Riley Collection, which is also known as the San Francisco collection of Golden Age comics. It turned up at the door, and that was one of the earliest pedigree collections. So that actually helped up finance a couple more stores.
Toucan: Comics & Comix bought the entire collection?
Bud: Originally some of the other dealers jumped in and got some of the books, which was fine. But they freaked out the people who had brought the stuff in, because all of a sudden the people realized, oh my God, we’ve got something here. We’re talking 1973—you can imagine how cheap the prices were. So they sort of freaked out and went home and they had a whole bunch more stuff, and one of our partners from Comics & Comix got a contact for them and went over and explained the situation and treated them right and said here’s the deal, and here’s a price guide and we’ll give you a reasonable price for these and we’re not going to scalp you. And we ended up getting the balance of whatever wasn’t sold when these guys walked in the door.
Toucan: How long were you with Comics & Comix?
Bud: Until 1988. I actually sold my distribution business and Comics & Comix at exactly the same time. Basically, in 1988 I was getting pretty tight financially. I had subdistributors that I was selling, for instance, DC comics to because DC didn’t want more than a handful of direct distributors. So we’d have guys like Chuck Rozanski [Mile High Comics], he was a subdistributor. I had a guy up in Seattle and I had somebody else in Canada. And people weren’t paying their bills too well. We could have been better at collecting, and we were getting pretty tight on money, and the business had grown tremendously. I just thought that if I could get out with my shirt on I might want to do that and go back to doing something that was more enjoyable for me than running an 80-employee company. So I sold out to Steve Geppi [Diamond]. At the same time Comics & Comix was also in financial difficulty and so I basically almost handed that company over to my financial controller, and he promised to pay me off with what Comics & Comix ended up owing me, which he did, and he took it over and ran it for another 10 years, and then some other guy took it over and ran it into the ground.
Toucan: So that’s how you got out of the distribution business and the comic shop business. How did you get into the direct market distribution system?
Bud: Just slid in, like I say. In the early days it would have been Phil Seuling and me. The very beginnings of that would have been back when we were buying print runs of things like Squa Tront or ElfQuest. We were sharing ElfQuest distribution and The Comics Journal. When Gary Groth got into a little bit of difficulty, he came to me and actually wanted me to be a partner with him, and once again I said let’s not do a partnership, but how about if Seuling and I split your print run for a while to help finance the magazine, and we did that. So that’s how we slipped into distribution. I was the West Coast guy and Phil was the East Coast guy. And then Phil went to the comic book companies and started the whole direct market. I got into it eventually, but I was not in distribution in the very beginning. That was all Phil. I was just doing the fanzines and the underground comix.
Toucan: So essentially you become like a subdistributor for Phil for the West Coast?
Bud: Yes, that would be correct. At that point I would have had Comics & Comix, and we were buying from Phil as a subdistributor. My partners kept saying you should really get into the distribution business. At the same time a good friend of mine, Charles Abar—who’s now still a distributor of supplies, plastic bags and stuff like that—was distributing in the Bay Area, but he also had a day job and his wife gave him an ultimatum: “Charles, you’re not around enough; do something about all this work you’re doing.” So Charles came to me, because he’s really a straight-shooting guy, and he said I want my customers to be taken care of and I trust you, and so he basically handed the business to me, and that’s how I got to do the distribution business. All of a sudden I had all these accounts in the Bay Area to sell to. We did it out of Grass Valley at the very beginning, but then we quickly realized we needed a warehouse, and so we opened up another warehouse, and then eventually we had seven warehouses in different areas. So everything was going really fast at that point. It was in about 1983 when I got into the distribution business, and it was a big growth period from then until I sold it in ’88. Even after that, the Batman movie came out, so it was pretty much perking along at full speed until ’89 or ’90. I think when Marvel wanted to distribute their own comics, that really destroyed most of the small distributors. So I got out nice and early and didn’t get burned like that.
Toucan: You continued to publish over those years, and you published the Jack Katz epic, The First Kingdom. How did that come about?
Bud: Well that was another thing that came out of Comics & Comix. Jack was living in Berkeley, so he’d come in and visit the shop, and he was at that time a veteran comic book artist. He decided he wanted to do this First Kingdom epic, and Comics & Comix was getting involved with publishing a few comics ,and they started it and did six or seven issues. And then they were feeling like they were sort of overamped. They were trying to be a retail store and were trying to be an underground comix distributor and trying to publish, and I think they realized—they meaning we, because I was a partner—that we were trying to do too much. It was duplicating some of what I was doing, because I was also distributing underground comix and involved in publishing. So I took it over and got it out of Comic & Comix’s hands and continued to publish it for another seven or eight years. It was ten years, all told, when First Kingdom came out. I had no idea the commitment I was getting into when I got into that. Jack’s sole income was the First Kingdom, so I was sending him a paycheck every Friday to do the book.
Toucan: Was First Kingdom the last thing that you published?
Bud: Yeah, by that time I was pretty much out of the publishing arena. I felt like I had not been a particularly successful publisher, because I felt it was hard to do too many things, and being a distributor and trying to still be a retailer was just enough. I felt strongly that to be a publisher you’ve got to be able to devote a really good amount of energy into strictly publishing and promotions. I sort of said I’m going to get out of this and just stay away from publishing. I’d like to think I’ve been influential on a lot of publishers, because with a lot of people, I’ve tried to say you should publish this or you should publish that and I’ll carry X number of copies if you do something. But I’d prefer to do that rather then try to do this stuff myself.
My classic story was I turned down ElfQuest. We were doing the First Kingdom at the time, and Richard Pini came to me and asked if I wanted to publish ElfQuest and I said oh, we’ve already got this heroic fantasy thing, we don’t need another one. And it was actually a wonderful decision for both of us, because Richard and Wendy did a much better job doing it themselves and spending all their energy and time to really promote it and do it. So I think that was a good thing for them and a good thing for me.
Bud Plant's booth at Comic-Con in the early 2000s.
Toucan: After all this then, you settled down and concentrated on your mail-order business and you published an incredible catalog—so incredible that for a time being they were called just that: Bud Plant’s Incredible Catalog. What was your criteria for carrying something? What were you drawn to?
Bud: Well, anything having to do with the history of comic books and comic book collections, Silver Age and Golden Age. And then my interest had gone out into the area of illustrated books, such as classic illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac and people like that. I was trying to push the envelope into other directions, carrying just general art books and some popular culture stuff and that sort of thing. My criteria . . . a lot of it was what I liked, what did I think was interesting and enjoyable as a collector. And of course there were always things that I handled that I might not be a huge fan of, but the stuff I was most enthusiastic about was the stuff that I’d really made sure to bring into the business, and my collecting interests sort of dovetailed with that of a lot of what my customers wanted.
Toucan: You also have a business that specializes in old and rare books and comics. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Bud: Well, that began in partnership with Jim Vadeboncoeur, who was another one of our old buddies from San Jose from back in the ’60s. Jim had not gone into the comic book field, he had actually gotten a real job and ended up working at Hewlett-Packard, but he and I were both collecting. Jim has a complete Atlas collection, for instance. In fact, he’s one of the hardcore artist identifiers; he and Hames Ware are cited all the time as experts on the old comic book artists. But anyway, Jim and I shared this passion also for illustrated books and old children’s books and things like that. We were accumulating duplicates, and we said let’s get together and form a partnership and do this as a part-time gig and sell some of our duplicates, and when collections come along, then we can buy them and sell them. So that’s basically what we did, and Jim was putting together the catalogs and I’d write some copy and we did a few shows. We usually did San Diego, and he used to be incorporated into my booth—I surrounded him and he had one little space selling old books. In fact, back in those days nobody else really had any books like that in San Diego, so that was a unique concept. We did that for, I think, 15 years or maybe just a little longer, and then finally Jim decided to bail out. About that time I met the wonderful lady that I’m with now, Anne Hutchinson, and I convinced her to move from San Diego up to here and we said, okay, Jim is leaving, Anne is joining, and so now it’s Anne and I. Anne’s interest is in children’s books, children’s picture books, and things from the last 50, 60 years, and my interests go back from that time, back into the 1800s, so we complement each other pretty good in our material. And then of course I still collect comics so I’m always stumbling across duplicates of things and small collections. So a small part of the business is also selling old comics and pulp magazines and paperbacks and you name it. I can’t seem to get my hand out of all these different areas that I have personal interest in.
Toucan: How many conventions and book shows do you do a year?
Bud: Probably on the order of 14 or 15. Some of them are just one-day shows. There’s a little one-day comic book show in Sacramento that’s every four months, every three months, and so I set up there, but then we do shows. We do the Emerald City show, and most of the other shows besides Comic-Con are actually antiquarian book shows in Sacramento, San Francisco, Pasadena, Houston, and Boston. Again I’m going back and I’m getting my satisfaction fulfilled on old books because I’m really a huge fan of old illustrated books. My interests go back all the way to the 1830s, 1840s. They have to be illustrated or designed. So I have to buy and sell at the show, and that way I can finance my own collection.
Toucan: You’ve had a presence of varying size at Comic-Con for almost its entire existence. What draws you back to the show each year?
Bud: Well it’s still the number-one comic book show as far as I’m concerned. It’s changed a lot and there are a lot of younger fans who probably aren’t as interested in comic books. But there’s still a good hardcore element of collectors who like my kind of stuff. Now I mix the whole booth up and it’s new material and older material, and I think that’s something that makes it successful. I started downsizing my number of booths because I think the audience changed and also I think with the Internet a lot of my material was a lot easier to find, so I just couldn’t bring full-priced material and still fill ten booths full of stuff and make it successful. There are plenty of people discounting books, and too many things are easy to find the Internet a little cheaper, so we had to downsize until we finally hit a new sweet spot and said, okay, this is a reasonable size for us and a reasonable expense to continue at the show.
Toucan: The other nice thing too was we got used to kind of the Bud Plant family at your booth every year, because it was always the same people, staff-wise. Who’s still with you after all these years in the Internet business?
Bud: What’s really nice is we just hired back three people who had been with us for a long time, so we’re actually going through a resurgence. I tried to sell the business in 2011 and actually considered closing it down and retiring into selling old books, and I just couldn’t give it up. So last year was a year of change for us when we went to Internet-only and saw how that went and then started expanding a bit again and went back to doing color flyers now—we do a little mailing to people who aren’t on the Internet. Anyway, the point is that I’ve been able to keep two of my key employees who have been with me for a decade or more, and then we’ve hired three more people back just in the last couple of months. Alberta was the girl who was most popular in San Diego because she always wore outrageous outfits. Alberta is back working here. A lot of people know LaDonna because she’s been our purchasing person for a long, long time, so she knows all the artists and all the publishers. And then Joe is my jack of all trades here who does our emails and packs orders and does whatever needs to be done. So we’ll actually have a bigger presence in San Diego this year than we did. Last year we had just Anne and me and we were really overwhelmed; it was just too much for the two of us to deal with, so this year we’re going have a little bit better staff and a little bit more material.
Toucan: When you decided not to retire and sell off the business and became more of an Internet-only presence, it seems like you’ve gone to a more specialized product mix.
Bud: Yeah, I was leaning in that direction in my own interests for a while. We had to move away from just trying to carry modern graphic novels, because they’re readily available everywhere so it doesn’t make much sense to be taking space in the catalog for those. I tried to pull away from the business starting around 2008 and to spend more time doing other things, and my marketing director went off in a whole different area. He was doing more general nostalgia books and WWII things, which have always been a small part of the business but not a big part, but he went too far in that direction and moved away from the kind of material that I care for. So when I came back in and started working full-time again, we went back to our core audience, the people who have always supported us and the kind of stuff that I care about. So that’s what’s been going on now. I’m trying my best to find things that aren’t as readily available, because that’s what gets people to come to you on the Internet. Our real success has been not just the Internet but also mixing that with getting flyers and minicatalogs into people’s hands, because there are still a lot of old-timers out there who do not get emails, as hard as it is to believe.
Toucan: There’s been a huge growth in artist-published sketchbooks and art books in the last decade, and you seem to be in the forefront of offering those to a larger audience too. What attracts you to those kinds of books?
Bud: Well, they’re just a lot of fun. They’re really like going back to the old days of fanzines, back in the late ’60s or early ’70s. Once again, somebody who’s creative can do something and print up a small number of copies and distribute it themselves. The entry level is really low for that. One of the great things about this industry is that small publishers can still walk up to Diamond and say, “Will you please put my book in your catalog?” and at least they’ll try it. It’s the same thing with the sketchbooks and stuff. A lot of them are so small they don’t even get into a Diamond catalog, but they’re perfect for somebody like me or for Stuart Ng because it’s a really interesting, fun product. It’s a chance for these artists to reach out to the audience, and it’s a chance for the audience to get onto the ground floor on somebody who might be a big deal such as a Frank Cho or a Dave Stevens, and get some fun artwork.
Toucan: And the quality of these books is amazing.
Bud: Oh yeah, they’ve gotten better and better. They started out being pretty funky, little black and white, untrimmed, badly put together things. Now people are doing hardcover full-color books of their work. It’s a really good chance for artists who have been professionals working in say the film industry and animation or for Wizards of the Coast or gaming or something where they’re not quite as well known. It’s a chance for them to do something and get their name out to a much bigger audience, instead of being a credit at the end of a movie. A lot of those guys have gotten involved in that, in sketchbooks and small books.
Bud Plant celebrates his 44th year at Comic-Con International this year. Stop by his booth and say hello!