Founder of the Geppi Entertainment Museum and Diamond Comic Distributors, Steve Geppi, talks about building the Xanadu for comic collectors, what he loves to collect the most, and the art of sniffing old comic books.
Q: You’ve built your career on collecting, distributing and displaying comics, but when did you first start collecting them?
A: Well, like everyone else, I started getting into comics when I was a little boy, and then like everyone else, I got out of it as I grew older. It wasn’t until 1972, when I was on vacation and I saw my nephew was reading a comic book and I was looking over his shoulder and got this nostalgic twinkle, and when I got back home, I went to go see if I could find some old comics. I’ve been in the business for over 40 years now.
Q: What is it like to see the business change so much over that amount of time?
A: You don’t realize while it’s happening until you sit back and you say, “My god, what a difference today than when I first started.” But I always believed in it; I always thought that comics and pop culture never got the true recognition that they deserved and, in the case of comics, were often stigmatized. Like in the 50s and 60s, when they were thought of as being for juvenile delinquents and illiterates — but we all knew all along that was not really true. So today, with the advent of the movies and the TV shows, and even TV shows like Comic Book Men, comics are getting their just due, so to speak, and it’s fun to see people everywhere recognize these characters who might not otherwise be even known.
Q: Do you think it’s people responding to these touchstones from their childhood, like that twinkle of nostalgia you mentioned?
A: I think that’s just it. Even going back to this episode of Comic Book Men, when people come into my museum — the museum is now ten years old — it’s always the same reflection of, “Oh my god, I had one of these when I was a kid.” It’s like a quadrant of your brain is storing all of this information that hasn’t been accessed for many, many years, like a computer file you have tucked away in a folder. But when you touch on it and hit it, all of a sudden, it comes rushing back to you in full force, and all the things you couldn’t ever believe you forgot about come back into your head, and it’s quite satisfying.
Q: Has the museum become part of a pilgrimage for comic fans over the years? Do you get a lot of people like Walt looking to gaze upon the greats?
A: It’s kind of like Xanadu for comic collectors. Because the things that are in there are all originals and all displayed elegantly with the respect they deserve — considering their great value in many cases today — it sets them in a whole new setting that allows people to appreciate them. They used to be called “funny books” and now they’re appreciated as art. And many of the artists who have drawn these comic books have become rockstars of their own because they have such a huge following. It’s satisfying for me to be able to present that in my museum and create a little bit of a temple for people who created these projects, so guests can appreciate it no different than if Renoir or Van Gogh had their paintings in some major art gallery.
Q: Which is fitting, considering how greatly comic books have influenced and continue to influence American culture.
A: The museum is designed to be an educational journey through the history of our country — and for that matter, the world — through the eyes of pop culture. You don’t realize until you go through that museum just how much you’ve been influenced by many different characters through licensed products, toys, movies, or TV — all along the way these characters have survived and continued to make impressions on people. So they’ve done their job and continue to do their job, and I’m proud that I’m a part of that.
Q: What’s it like for you to be able to see both sides of the legacy of comics? The Geppi Museum celebrates the past, while your distributing company, Diamond, sells comics in the present.
A: Diamond is the largest distributor of comics in the world, so if you go to any comic book retailer anywhere in the world selling English language comics, they’re buying from us because we’re the exclusive distributor for just about every title. But that aside, from the perspective of the museum, that’s what I really started with. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I got into it, other than that nostalgic twinkle. At the beginning, when we opened comic book stores back in the 70s, it was all about back issues and old collectibles and vintage comics in high grade condition and value, and that was always my first love. Obviously Diamond has grown into a great company and is a satisfying piece of my life, but I still love playing with the old stuff and what brings back memories to me, and not only brings back memories from when I was a kid, but I’m enjoying a lot of what’s come and gone since then and brought me back into the current world of comics.
Q: Are there any titles running now that you think will be similarly revered one day?
A: It’s hard to say, there’s a lot of titles. The Walking Dead is an incredible phenomenon. The title Saga might be the next The Walking Dead, who knows. There’s so many different things. But the beauty of it is that through Diamond and through the internet, a lot of small publishers and artists are getting the chance to display their wares, where otherwise they’d never even have gotten seen.
Q: Was there an item or issue that felt like a real triumph to add to your collection?
A: Well, value or fame aside, I’ve always had an affinity for things I had when I was a kid. I used to love to read Disney comics by a guy named Carl Barks, a legend in our industry who passed away back in 2000 at the age of 99. I used to love to read the Harvey Comics with Superman and Batman. A lot of these were just things you related to as a kid — Little Lulu and Tubby — I loved those comics, so when I get hold of them again, it’s like reliving my childhood all over.
Q: In the episode, Walt waxes poetic about the smell of old comic books. Since you’re the expert, what DO old comics smell like?
A: Well, it’s interesting actually! People who are humbly submitted experts on the Golden Age comics have been around long enough to know that when certain pedigree of collections have surfaced, they have a certain aroma to them depending on where they were stored. For instance, in the legendary Edgar Church “Mile High” collection, which is considered the greatest collection on Earth, those books were stored in a cool dry climate in Denver, Colorado with an altitude like that — just all the perfect conditions, accidentally — and they have a unique smell that I can pick out right away. Other collections, too, have a unique smell. But more generically, comics were made out of pulp paper back in the day – today it’s a little different – but back in the day that pulp paper has a certain aroma after aging that, while this might sound crazy, is really kind of refreshing. It kind of captures in your mind that nostalgia because you know it’s old. The art of sniffing comic books [Laughs] has never been documented as an art. But I can tell you that those wheeling and dealing and buying expensive comic books in the tens of thousands of dollars rely greatly on the aroma of these comic books to verify that they are in fact from a particular collection.
Comic Book Men airs Sundays at Midnight/11c.Read More