Learning from Don Donahue


Friday, October 29, 2010

Photo by another undergrounder gone: Clay Geerdes

I was saddened to learn of Don Donahue’s passing. Don was most famously the publisher of Zap #1 in 1968. According to Patrick Rosenkranz in his indispensable Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, Donahue was a former typesetter and production man who hooked up with a printer named Charles Plymell. “Donahue was visiting friends who wanted to introduce him to a cartoonist they knew,” Rosenkranz writes. “It turned out to be Robert Crumb, who had a comic book he wanted someone to publish. Donahue looked at the artwork and immediately agreed to do it.” The story of actually printing the thing and then selling it on the street on February 25th, 1968, is a classic one, and is also a reminder that Donahue was both printer and publisher and everything else. These days we publishers are vastly removed from what he went through. So much so that it’s kinda hard to imagine. But there it is.

Donahue, under the name Apex Novelties, went on to publish a number of important comic books, including future issues of Zap, a bunch of Crumb titles including Black and White, Your Hytone Comics, and Best Buy Comics. Apex also crucially published Funny Animals, which contains Art Spiegelman’s first iteration of Maus, as well as some of my personal favorite undergrounds: the utter filth fests Jiz and Snatch (1-3!), copies of which I bought from S. Clay Wilson at a comic convention in NYC a few years back. He was selling them out of a suitcase and Santoro loitered nervously nearby like we were making an illegal transaction. We probably were. Anyhow, Apex also published Michael McMillan’s Terminal Comics in 1971, which, for at least a few heads out there, was a major event and remains the only concentration of McMillan’s work in one place. Later Donahue was the great Dori Seda’s companion and, sadly, the executor of her estate.

Anyhow, this isn’t a formal bio of Donahue. I’ll leave that for Patrick (I hope) and others. But I wanted to make a few points. I have no idea what kind of business man Don Donahue was, but as a man with an eye for talent and a risk taker par excellence, he’s kinda hard to beat. He did what a publisher should do best: Recognize great talent and do the best he could for it.

I also have my own little story with Apex and Don. As a kid of 13 I spent most my Bar Mitzvah money ordering underground comics from Don Donahue. I think I must’ve seen an ad in the Comic Buyer’s Guide and sent off for a catalog. At the time (1989) he was still selling back issues from various publishers, as well as prints and such. If I remember correctly, his catalog sometimes included little descriptions of the titles, which guided what I was buying. I think I began with Zap #3 (first printing, natch), which blew my adolescent mind into a thousand little pieces. Then it was on to Rick Griffin’s Man From Utopia, from which I’ve only recently recovered, and then there was some Justin Green (as I remember, the catalog always championed Justin) and various anthology titles like All-Star #2. I bought a set of Yellow Dogs. Some Freak Brothers. I remember calling the phone number on the catalog once, when I was 15 or so, and asking for recommendations. Must’ve been Don who picked up and told me what was worth buying (he guided me towards a great Rory Hayes print) and what wasn’t (can’t remember now). Don and his catalog were basically my education in underground comics. Between that xeroxed & stapled document, Mark Estren’s oddball history book, various issues of The Comics Journal and some gossip at Big Planet Comics, I learned to tell my S. Clay Wilsons from my Spains from my Rick Griffins. Ironically, back then the one document that could have really helped, the late Jay Kennedy’s still-unsurpassed The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, was way too expensive for me to afford!

Years later I spoke with Don again and he agreed to include Dori Seda’s work in a show I curated. He was quiet, friendly, and clearly cherished the art.

Anyhow, all of this is to say that for me, Don Donahue was more than a publisher of note — he was, without ever knowing it, a teacher and guide along the path to discovering the art and history of comics.

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17 Responses to “Learning from Don Donahue”
  1. Robert Boyd says:

    One thing I think is interesting about Donahue and Plymell is that they are a link between underground comics and the small-press poetry scene that existed at the time. (Greg Irons and Rick Veitch were also part of that scene.) When we think about the origins of underground comics, we tend to think of EC, the college humor magazines, and fanzines–all undeniably important. But more and more I have been thinking how similar the small-press poetry scene of the 50s and 60s was to the small press comics scene that has grown up since the age of the undergrounds. In Donohue’s case, I think there is a direct link as opposed to a mere similarity.

  2. Brendt Rioux says:

    Wonderful post. There is such an enormous wealth of innovation in the Apex catalog. Having gotten into this material in a similar way, (Terminal Comics, Yellow Dog, and Funny Animals remain favorites) I’m happy to know a bit more about Donahue. Thanks.

  3. Alec Trench says:

    If it wasn’t for the audacious risk taking of people like Don Donahue, and the consequences thereof, I would have very little enthusiasm for the comics medium.
    In that grim, CCA bedevilled, parallel universe, the smile-lines on my face, and many thousands of others, would barely show at all.
    What an excellent effect he has had.

  4. Don Donahue wasn’t easy to get in touch with in 1972. You had to know somebody who knew him to find him. He turned out to be around the corner from Gary Arlington’s comic shop in an unmarked storefront on Valencia, where he ran Eric Fromm’s mail order comic business. There was no indication outside about what was inside.
    He let me in to the front room where he had his printing presses and I took some photos of him before we sat down to talk. He told me all about his adventures in publishing Zap #1 and the Snatch busts in Berkeley and North Beach, and convincing Rory Hayes to draw Cunt Comics. He had just published Mr. Natural and Your HyTone Comix, and had Funny Aminals and Trots and Bonnie in the works. After we finished the interview he showed me around the place. He pointed out a box full of Plymell Zaps.
    “How much are you selling them for,” I asked.
    “Ten bucks,” he replied. I remember thinking, “Who would pay ten bucks for a fifty cent comic?” If I’d known better I’d have snatched up the whole box. Well, if I’d had the money maybe.
    Then he showed me a human head, which he kept in a shoebox, and I took some photos of it. He said it came from a medical school cadaver back in Kansas and he had traded an eight-legged pig fetus for it. He kept it until 1994 when the Berkeley Drug Task Force took it away during a marijuana raid. No charges were filed against him for it’s possession, but they wouldn’t give it back.
    This has nothing to do with his career as an entrepreneur in the underground comix movement, but it firmly established him as a unique and eccentric individual in my mind. He followed his own convictions all his life and didn’t need anybody’s permission to do what he wanted to do. Cartoonists and publishers had a symbiotic relationship in those days. Neither could exist without the other, and they all knew it. They were on the same side of the counterculture divide. It was complete artistic fucking freedom or bust. It 1972 it was boom, with a few busts, but a few years later when the movement peaked, only the strong continued on. Don was one of them, at least until cancer got him this year.
    He was the guy widows called when they wanted to sell their late husband’s counterculture comics and tabloids. He was the go to guy for serious collectors, and he was the primary source of first hand information for comic historians like me. I still had a few more questions I waited too long to ask him.

  5. Byron Coley says:

    The loss of Don leaves a large hole in the comix continuum. He was a really wonderful, affable and low-key guy. His stories about growing up in the Bay Area and being “the youngest beatnick” were always a blast, and trips to the East Bay will feel quite a bit more empty from now on. It seems banal to suggest that perhaps now Don & Dori will get to kick the gong again, but hope is an eternal spring, so who the hell knows? Maybe they will. Regardless, he will be missed. But I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that the legacy he left behind will continue to make young minds explode from here to eternity.

    byron coley

  6. edmond says:

    10/31/10 2:30pm sun

    i knew don at the very beginning when he lived on ashby corner telegraph, where
    the first Sexual Freedom League parties were, with fred & the 60s berkeley characters.
    i wrote the big sur poem of doris on his typewriter.
    i am saddened by this news that he is gone.
    we were all immortral.

  7. Bob Levin says:

    Fine tribute.

  8. RAF says:

    I came to the underground comix scene from the college humor magazine side and met Don at the old Rip Off Press in 1969. A good man and I’m sorry to hear he’s gone. It is a fine tribute, all the finer because he more than deserves it. Go in Peace old man.

  9. Don and Dan O’Neill and I once drank all night in honor of a friend. A real Irish wake. He introduced me to my girlfriend Janet. He even came to visit a couple times all the way up here in the foothills. I got him to do a solo comic story about the ’89 earthquake for the All Shook Up anthology, and I think it was one of the best pieces in the book. Don always treated me like a friend. I’ve never met anyone like him. I’ll miss you Don.

  10. Leonard Rifas says:

    Thanks for the rememberings. I hired Don Donahue to print my first mini-comic, _Quoz_ on his famous Plymell printing press in 1969. I had bought my copy of the “Plymell Zap” from Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore when it came out. (“25 cents for a black and white comic,” I remember thinking…. If I’d known better, I would have bought two of them.) I last communicated with Don Donahue in 2007, when he gave his permission for me to assign his 1974 essay “How I Went Underground” from the _Apex Treasury_ to my students. I’ve been assigning it ever since. It concludes “Who knows, perhaps we’ll all be hippies to the bitter end.”

  11. Sally Cruikshank says:

    Sorry to read of his passing. Such a smart, kind, and tuned in guy.

  12. Dylan says:

    Thank you so much for this, Dan (and Patrick).

  13. […] Comics’ Dan Nadel posted about what he learned from Don and there’s some interesting looking comments there. And Marc Arsenault shared his last drink […]

  14. Larry Fuller says:

    I knew Don since the late 60s, met him – and a bunch of others – at Gary Arlington’s store – the original one, before he moved down – or up – the street just a few doors. Don printed my first comic, The New Funny Book #1, a 16-page B/W that turns up on eBay now and again, and gave me a lot of insight into the whole comics/comix ethos in general, as I was just starting out to be a long time – though erratic – underground publisher for about 17 years.

    He was a very VERY knowledgeable guy about undergrounds – knew EVERYbody – and was as classy as he was connected. I hadn’t seen him in about 10-12 years but every time we encountered each other, he was the personification of gracious. He was – in short – a great guy! So sorry to hear of his passing. My condolences to his family and friends.

  15. Eric Reynolds says:

    Great post, Dan, and great comments, too.

  16. I am stunned to hear of Don Donahue’s passing. He was never anything but kind and friendly to me, and when Dori died we all felt so very sad for Don. As a friend and co-Wimmin’s Comix artist with Dori, I mostly knew Don as Dori’s partner, and it’s uncanny, but I knew nothing of Don or his illness and weirdly have found myself wondering the past few days about him and whether he is still around. So, maybe Don and Dori have been reunited, who the hell knows? Rest in peace, Don.

  17. David Wells says:

    eBay auctions and mail order brought me into contact with Don for several years now and I’m proud to say that it was a privilege for me to have gotten to buy books from him. His family and friends have my sincere condolences.

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