Gary Arlington, a Force in Underground Comic Books, Is Dead at 75
Gary Arlington, who died this month at 75, did not open the San Francisco Comic Book Company because he wanted to create a place where the city’s underground comic artists could meet to mine one another’s unusual minds. He really just needed money, and he hoped to make some by selling thousands of comic books he had been hoarding in his parents’ basement since he was a little boy.
“I was virtually starving,” Mr. Arlington was quoted as saying in the 2002 book “Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution,” by Patrick Rosenkranz. “I made nothing. I was sleeping on somebody’s couch. I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ ”
Soon after he opened the store in 1968, it became clear that Mr. Arlington had created much more than a curious retail operation. In walked Robert Crumb, whose influential Zap Comix was first published the year the store opened. There was Art Spiegelman, who would go on to win a special Pulitzer Prize for “Maus,” his graphic novel about his family and the Holocaust. There was Don Donahue, who printed Zap; Ron Turner, who founded the comics publisher Last Gasp; and so many others who shaped the beginning of underground comics (“comix” to their devotees, with the “x” sometimes signaling their rating).
At first they came to browse Mr. Arlington’s enormous collection, particularly the 1940s and ’50s horror and science fiction titles from EC Comics like “Tales From the Crypt,” which were his obsession. Soon they came just to see who else may have stopped in. Browsing turned into talking and creating and collaborating. Some would draw right there in the shop, with Mr. Arlington offering ideas and guidance and helping some artists find publishers.
For all its importance as a gathering place, the shop did not offer much room. Behind a storefront on 23rd Street in the Mission District, it occupied less than 200 square feet and was filled to the ceiling with comics, books, artwork and miscellany.
Many people say his store was the first they knew of, anywhere, that was devoted exclusively to selling comics. And while he might not have set out to cultivate a scene — “at first he was such a straight-looking, ordinary schlub,” Mr. Crumb said in a telephone interview on Wednesday — he loved watching it blossom.
“It was kind of a validation for his existence that I’m sure he never expected to get,” Mr. Crumb said.
To Mr. Spiegelman, Mr. Arlington “was definitely at the right place at the right time.”
“San Francisco in the ’70s was the Paris of the ’20s for the underground comix scene,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “I guess Gary’s shop was a very sleazy, hole-in-the-wall version of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon by default. Gary was hardly an obvious magnetic personality, but he was an obsessive and he really genuinely cared about this subculture.”
Gary Edson Arlington was born on Oct. 7, 1938, in San Jose, Calif. His parents, Alfred Arlington and the former Dorothy Hazen, moved to Hayward, where they ran a lumber company. After high school he enrolled at the College of San Mateo and received a two-year degree in 1959. He worked several jobs and spent two years in the Army before moving to San Francisco in the mid-1960s.
Betty Finnegan, his sister and only immediate survivor, said he died of heart failure on Jan. 16 in San Francisco. For the last several years he used a wheelchair as he dealt with health problems, she said.
Although he had been more of an idea person than an illustrator in the early years of underground comics, he drew frequently late in life, each day making a new, primitivist self-portrait. In 2011, Last Gasp published a collection of his drawings and excerpts from years of his diaries, titling it “I Am Not of This Planet: The Art of Gary Edson Arlington.”
If the San Francisco Comic Book Company felt like a glorified storage space, there was a reason. Mr. Arlington’s parents had died in the early 1960s, and he and his sisters eventually decided to sell their house across San Francisco Bay in Hayward.
“All the comic books were in the basement, and Gary needed a place to put them,” Ms. Finnegan, said. “So that’s when he opened the comic book store.”
In the early years, customers had to ask for some of the more provocative titles by name. Mr. Arlington stored them under the counter.
“It was a thrill when new books would come out all the time,” Mr. Arlington said in “Rebel Visions.” “I was the first one selling them. Even Ron Turner came to me to buy them. I was the only ballgame in the world. It was wonderful.”