Learning from Don Donahue
by Dan Nadel
Friday, October 29, 2010
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.