FantaCon, once an Albany tradition for fans of comic books, fantasy, and in its later incarnations, horror films, is returning after a brief, two-decade hiatus. FantaCon 2013, operated by its original creator, Tom Skulan, will be held Saturday, September 14 and Sunday, September 15 at the Marriott Hotel on Wolf Road in Albany. Ticket for the related Three Nights of Horror at the Palace Theatre on September 11-13 in Albany, will be available from the Palace Theatre box office, starting on February 13.
FantaCo, the store/mail-order company Tom started, operated from 1978 through 1998 at 21 Central Avenue, Albany, NY. I worked there from May 1980 to November 1988, worked at the first five FantaCons, and attended the sixth.
Incidentally, Skulan is pronounced like the third word in Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love.
Tom, when you owned FantaCo, you ran seven FantaCons, in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1988, 1989, and 1990. But you had a store, and often, publications to use in cross-promotions. You have a FantaCon planned for September of 2013, after a twenty-year hiatus. Why FantaCon, why now?
There are three reasons that come to mind. First, I have always wanted to do another FantaCon when I wasn’t preoccupied with the store, the publishing, and the mail order. I have always wanted to see what that would be like!
Second, time is creeping up on me and these old bones have only so much time left where I can handle the demands of the show. And finally I like the numbers of doing the show the weekend of Friday the 13th in 2013.
What is the theme of the upcoming convention? What guests have you lined up so far?
The theme for this show is to try and recreate all the FantaCons all at once. Some shows were strongly comic-oriented and some shows were strongly horror-oriented. This show will be both at once. I want to create a party atmosphere for all the original attendees AND the new attendees too.
The guest line up confirmed at this time is Steve Bissette, Ari Lehman, John Russo, George Kosana, Russ Streiner, Judy O’Dea, Judith Ridley, Geri Reischl, Belinda Balaski, Kyra Schon, A. Michael Baldwin, Kevin Eastman, Richard Brooker, Michael T. Gilbert, Jason Moore, Jarod Balog, Dennis Daniel, Bob Michelucci, Mark Martin, Bill Anderson, Jim Whiting, John Hebert, Herb Trimpe, Dustin Warburton, Jeff Lieberman, Fred Hembeck and a few other surprises to be announced. You can read all about each guest at our website at www.fantacon.com.
Let’s go way back in time, to the mid-1970s. When I first met you, you were working at a comic book store in New Paltz, NY, halfway between New York City and Albany. Tell me about the Crystal Cave and its owner, Peter Maresca.
The Crystal Cave started as a little shop in a second-floor walk up on Main Street in New Paltz. It was run by Peter and his then-wife Rita. It was one of the first 100 comic book stores in the US. Peter was definitely a fan more than a business person whereas Rita was a business person more than a fan. The combination worked for a while. I hightailed it to that little shop the moment I saw a flyer for it hanging in the Ariel Bookstore. I preceded to visit it every time I got out of a class. I devoured the newest issues of TBG and started advertising myself. Eventually, I hounded Peter into giving me a job. The Crystal Cave then moved across the street to a ground-level storefront where it established itself. A couple of years later it moved to a much larger location off the beaten path. My years spent working at the Crystal Cave during the development of the comic market are fond memories for me.
You were going to school at the State University College at New Paltz to be a teacher. How long did you teach, and how did you like it?
After doing my student teaching in Carmel, NY I was asked to stay on and fill in for a teacher on maternity leave. I taught junior high school in the morning sessions and high school in the afternoon. I taught for one full school year.
I met David Greenwood and Gerry Michalak who would become friends. I enjoy teaching. I DIDN’T enjoy the administrative aspects of it, though, and that spun me around to doing my own thing.
A couple of years later, I would run into you selling comic books at small shows. Then on August 28, 1978, which you insist was NOT keyed to Jack Kirby’s birthday, you opened FantaCo. What did the name mean to you, and why in Albany?
Oh, what a search it was to find a location for the store!! I started in Danbury CT, which was near Carmel, and looked at all kinds of storefronts in all kinds of locations. I then moved up and through NY state and ended up with three possible locations in and around Albany. 21 Central was the last location I looked at and it was the 55th time I had inspected a storefront. The large front window sold me as did the location.
The name means either the Fantasy Company or the Fantastic Company. I used both interchangeably when I was thinking it up.
In 1979, you held the first FantaCon at the Empire State Plaza, called FantaCon ’80 to confuse future historians. What are your recollections of that first convention?
It was a whirlwind!!! From conception to the actual show was only a few months!! I do remember drinking obscene amounts of coffee, staying awake for days on end, and ultimately stumbling into the Convention Center on a bright August morning and labeling the tables. The lift started bringing up dealers and then the show was on! I remember that everyone we had brought in was a trooper and did a great job. By the way, you can thank Kevin Cahill [now a New York State Assemblyman] for calling the first show FantaCon ’80. HE convinced me that it would make the show sound futuristic!!
The cover of that first FantaCon program was drawn by the late Raoul Vezina. Raoul was, in many ways, the face of the Crystal Cave, and in the early days, the face of FantaCo. What was it about Raoul that made him suitable to be the guy everyone saw in the front of the store?
Raoul was a super popular artist and musician in New Paltz. And as soon as he did the window mural for the Crystal Cave he became known for that as well. Everyone liked Raoul!
So considering that I had worked with him for years at the Crystal Cave it was logical for me to ask him to come to Albany and help me with the new store. The earliest days of FantaCo very much mirrored the Crystal Cave in that Raoul did our first window and he was the frontman for the store. I took care of the finances and ran the mail order which carried over from my own mail-order business. Most people thought that Raoul owned the store.
Who was the original Smilin’ Ed, and how did the rat become the emblem for FantaCo?
Fortunately, the absolute original first Smilin’ Ed character exists in about 50,000 copies of the 1979 Overstreet Price Guide as a full-page ad announcing the new store. Anyone can pull out a copy and see the original character.
The way it went was this: I had reserved a full-page ad in Overstreet timed to come out just after the store opened. I had laid out the page and written the copy I wanted it to say but I had no central comic character so I asked Raoul if he could draw a rat in a spacesuit. I figured that was different enough from all the other characters. So Ed began as an advertising character. The very first FantaCo t-shirt also featured this rat in a spacesuit on a light blue shirt. Raoul was the one who named the character Ed after we both got tired of constantly calling him “the rat in the spacesuit”. From Ed, Raoul then blended him with a 1950’s children’s show personality and began calling him Smilin’ Ed. He then lost the spacesuit and started his own adventures. So I came up with the basic rat character but it was Raoul who gave the “rat in a spacesuit” a personality and a name. It was a good blend of ideas and I really think we could have continued the comic series until it caught on.
Smilin’ Ed was the star of four comic books, created by Raoul and you, and published by the company in 1980-1982. It was never particularly commercially successful, unfortunately. Why do you think that was?
At the time we were publishing Ed, independent comics were in their infancy. They were B&W and cost more than color comics. Fans wanted a superstar artist on the series to make the relatively high cover prices palatable. All we had was good art and good stories. That was not enough at the time.
What’s your favorite Phil Seuling story? [Among other things, Phil pretty much invented the direct market for comic books. His company, Seagate, was FantaCo’s distributor of comic books and was early in carrying FantaCo publications. FantaCon 2013 is dedicated, in part, to Phil’s memory.] ]
OMG!! How long is this interview??? I have SO many Phil stories I could go on forever. Probably “the pact”, which lasted many years right up to his death, is my favorite. At some point during a particularly slow show in Boston, Phil and I decided that we were going to eat out way through the cuisines of the world. ALL of them, no matter how obscure were there to be tasted. We did this at conventions and on my weekly visits to his home in Seagate. After several years we really started hitting the obscure. One of the last places we ate together was a Cuban-Chinese restaurant (which was wonderful by the way). Later Hank Jansen and I would go there too.
The other part of the pact was that whoever left the country had to send the other one a postcard saying “I’m in (fill in the country) and you’re not!! I have a lot of those cards and sent a lot too!!
The first artist FantaCo published was Fred Hembeck. It was Fred’s second book, Hembeck 1980, which actually came out in February 1980. Fred has been quite clear that FantaCo didn’t “steal” him from Eclipse Comics, who had put out the first Hembeck issue. What’s your recollection of the story?
My recollections were that Dean [Mullaney] had a big hit with his Sabre book. It had gone through some 3 printings with 30,000+ copies. I think that Dean wanted (expected?) the Hembeck book to sell just as many copies and when it did not he kinda lost interest in it. It was nothing against Fred and certainly, we NEVER stole the book away. It was offered to us.
Hembeck did a total of seven books for FantaCo, but three new items plus an expanded reprint of issue 1 just in 1980. Wasn’t that an ambitious schedule?
Yes, looking back on that it was ambitious. If you remember at the time one of the biggest complaints about the independent comics was that they were always late. Fred was fast so we tried to keep up a steady schedule. It worked.
How the heck did you get John Caldwell, who had done work for National Lampoon, to do Mug Shots with FantaCo in 1980?
I hand that miracle off to Kevin Cahill who convinced John to do the first several FantaCons. At each show, John would organize a group drawing by all the guests and then auction it off for charity.
At some point, I think that Kevin mentioned to John that we were publishing and the idea snowballed from there. Unfortunately, we did not lay out the book the way John wanted it and he was quite disappointed. I wish there had been more communication as that book could have been a nice seller in book stores over a long period of time.
In many ways, I was a bit surprised that you had a store primarily focused on comics since you were much more interested in film and music. Were comics a toehold, a recognizable store genre, you used to eventually do what you REALLY wanted to do, such as the horror film books and magazines?
Well, it was, has been, and still is a Catch-22 for me. I started my interest in this specialty market from horror-oriented products: Mars Attacks cards, Famous Monsters, Gary Svehla’s Gore Creatures fanzine, Steve Ditko’s Fantastic Giants comic, Creepy, Eerie, and others. I would always choose a horror comic over a superhero comic. Fantastic Four #19 was the first superhero comic I ever read. Much later in 1968, I bought all the first issues that Marvel was putting out that year- Silver Surfer, Iron Man, Hulk 102, etc., etc. It was then I caught the superhero bug and waited for every issue. It was also when I began buying multiple issues for later resale. So that is my messy answer!!
Xerox Ferox, John Szpunar’s forthcoming book, with a cover created by Steve Bissette, will be premiering at FantaCon.
Photos, taken by Roger Green (top to bottom):
Tom Skulan, 1982 or 1983; founder of FantaCo and FantaCon
Steve Bissette, 1989 FantaCon; contributor to various FantaCo publications, a guest at FantaCon 2013
the late Raoul Vezina, 1982 or 1983; co-creator of Smilin’ Ed comics, FantaCo front of the store guy
Bill Anderson, 1989 FantaCon; contributor to various FantaCo publications, worked at FantaCo, a guest at FantaCon 2013, the guy who scanned all of these pictures and about five dozen more