Diamond Comic Distributors President and Chief Executive Officer Stephen A. Geppi has made a multi-million dollar donation of more than 3,000 items from his personal comic book and pop culture collection to The Library of Congress. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, made the announcement on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.
Geppi’s gift encompasses comic books, photos, posters, original comic book and comic strip art, newspapers, pinback buttons, and other rare, vintage pop culture artifacts including the storyboards for Plane Crazy, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon Walt Disney produced (and the third released).
Items will go on display beginning this summer. This move represents a huge next chapter in one of Geppi’s long-held dreams.
For more than a decade, the material has been on display at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum (GEM) in Baltimore and includes Big Little Books, Beatles memorabilia, a collection of flicker rings popularizing comic book characters and political figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., R.F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid printing blocks, and the No. 2 Brownie camera model F from Eastman Kodak Company.
In light of these items moving to the Library of Congress in the coming weeks, GEM will be open to the public for the final time, from 10 AM to 6 PM on Sunday, June 3, 2018. Admission that day will be free of charge.
“When we opened Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in 2006, many people looked at it as the natural step in my career-long effort to share popular culture in general and comic books in specific with the public as a whole. I’ve actually been sharing my enthusiasm for comics since I first discovered them. Once I was grabbed by the comic book bug, when I picked up my first issue of Batman at 5, I couldn’t help but share my excitement, first with my brother, then my family, and then my friends. I remember thinking ‘This stuff is great! I can’t wait to share it with so-and-so.’ After that, each step along the way has really preceded from those initial impulses,” Geppi said.
His first job was counting comic book returns for a local liquor store. As he grew up, he left school and some childhood activities behind when he had to get a job to help support his family. This sidelined his pop culture aspirations, but only in the short term.
While his story from that point is well documented in industry circles, its track certainly bears out the influence of comics on him, as well as his influence on them. As a young man just starting a family, he landed a job with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). After seeing his nephew with a comic book during a family vacation, his childhood passion was rekindled. He began asking people on his mail route if they had any old comics. As it turned out, some of them did.
Soon he was working comic book conventions on the weekend, and soon after that he was making more money from comics than from his USPS position. In 1974, he launched his first Geppi’s Comic World store in the basement of a TV repair shop. He’s often been quoted that when he announced his intention to quit the Post Office to run his comics business, his co-workers said, “See you in September.”
For the record, they did not see him in September.
By 1981, Geppi’s Comic World expanded to four stores, including his first true showplace, a presence in Baltimore’s then-newly redeveloped Inner Harbor at Harborplace. Starting first with a kiosk and then with a full comic shop in the high profile, high traffic development, he put the spotlight firmly on comics and comic characters.
“Even at that early stage, it was clear to me that the general culture would embrace us. They just had to be given the right kind of venue. Harborplace was new, bright, well lit, and it had excellent foot traffic, most of which was not specifically coming there to see comics. Seeing their reactions to that Geppi’s Comic World store crystalized my desire to elevate the presentation of the comic arts even further,” he said.
In 1982, when his previous distributor failed, Geppi rolled the dice and came up big with the founding of Diamond Comic Distributors. Over time he built his new company into the largest distributor of English language comic books in the world. Running Diamond essentially forced him to put his own shops on the back burner, but it never extinguished his belief that his particular branch of pop culture deserved the highest quality presentation.
In 1994, Geppi began planning Diamond International Galleries. When it opened in 1995, it was undoubtedly the showplace that comics had never had. With a mix of high end comic books, original comic art and other pop culture items, it dazzled its invitation-only visitors for more than a decade. It surrendered its crown only when Geppi’s Entertainment Museum opened to the public in September 2006.
The luminaries present for the two-day opening festivities at GEM included civic leaders such as Maryland’s then-governor, Robert L. Ehrlich, State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nancy Grasmick, and activist Martin Luther King III, as well as comic book icons such as Paul Levitz (then DC Comics President and Publisher), former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, Dark Horse Comics President Mike Richardson, cartoonist Jerry Robinson, and illustrator Frank Frazetta, among many others.
The reactions were swift and glowing. The most common refrain from visitors was, “Oh, I had that!”
“It’s packed displays - of movie posters, animation cels, action figures, board games, advertisements and more - chronicle the evolution of these characters, often reflecting the periods of American history from which they emerged,” The New York Times said.
“When retailers visited the museum on the evening prior to Diamond’s Baltimore 2006 Retailer Summit, they (as was the case with everyone I’ve talked with) were stunned by the monument to pop culture that is Geppi’s Entertainment Museum,” wrote Comics Buyer’s Guide’s Editor, Maggie Thompson, who had visited the facility during its development in addition to participating in its grand opening event.
Over the following 11 years, in addition to offering the public a detailed look at a wide cross section of Geppi’s personal collection, the museum’s special exhibits have included 75 Spirited Years: Will Eisner & The Spirit, The Artistry of Amanda Conner, Finally In Full Color, Steve Epting Originals: Captain America and The Winter Soldier, Milestones: African Americans in Comics, Pop Culture and Beyond, The Dark Knight Through The Decades, Stoogerama, and Atlas At Last, among others.
It has showcased the Alice in Wonderland Collection of Matt Crandall and the Star Wars Collection of Russell Branton. It presented artist spotlights on Jim Aparo, Carl Barks, Sal Buscema, Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, J.G. Jones, Kelley Jones, and Shawn Martinbrough, among others, and created the first of its kind exhibit of the work of legendary creator Will Eisner during World War II in Will at War.
In GEM, Geppi had achieved a previously unparalleled execution of his vision, but after more than a decade in its historic Camden Yards facility, it was apparent to him that to reach even more people with his message, he was going to need to go bigger. This led to a meeting with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who Geppi knew from her time heading up the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. From there, things moved relatively quickly.
“The Library of Congress is home to the nation’s largest collection of comic books, cartoon art and related ephemera and we celebrate this generous donation to the American people that greatly enhances our existing holdings,” said Hayden. “The appeal of comic books is universal, and we are thrilled that this new addition to the collections will make them even more accessible to people worldwide.”
The Library holds more than 140,000 issues of approximately 13,000 comic book titles, dating back to the 1930s. The collection includes many firsts and some of the most important comics in history, including the first comic book sold on newsstands, the first comics featuring Batman and other iconic characters, such as All Star Comics #8, the first appearance of Wonder Woman. The Library also holds a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, the origin and first appearance of Spider-Man, along with the original artwork that Steve Ditko created for the issue. According to The Library, The Geppi Collection expands and enriches this strong foundation and fills gaps in specific issues.
“While this means the end of Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, it is truly the start of a new chapter in this quest. Along the way, first at Geppi’s Comic World, then at Diamond International Galleries, and most recently at GEM, we’ve had incredible teams of people who made it their cause to showcase these wonderful items. This latest step in the journey is something in which I hope they take great pride,” Geppi said.
“I’ve been blessed to make my living from something I love for decades, and further blessed to be able to share these treasures with others. The idea of how many more people will get to see this material under the auspices of The Library of Congress invigorates my mind with a multitude of possibilities. I definitely have other plans for the future as well. Besides,” he said, “it’s not like I’m going to stop collecting.”