A towering figure in the history of American comic books is gone. Bruce Hamilton, publisher of Gladstone Publishing, comics historian, and fan activist, passed away at 3:00 AM on Saturday, June 18, 2005.
Known around the world for the licensed line of Disney comics he lovingly published, Hamilton was a central figure in documenting and advancing the detailed history of the medium. Through his involvement in fandom to the limited edition Disney lithographs and fine, bone china figurines his companies produced, he remained committed to gaining a wider, more serious acceptance for comic characters in mainstream circles.
Possessed of an imposing stature, a radio announcer’s voice, and a fiery drive, Hamilton was a primal force in getting the comics industry organized, first as a dealer in Golden Age comics, then in other diverse collectibles such as original art, movie posters, and cartoon cels. He was among the first to suggest that classic material be repackaged into deluxe formats. Together with Russ Cochran, he was largely responsible for promoting Carl Barks into the superstar he became in the 1980s and onward. Barks' work was already known, thanks to the efforts of Malcolm Willits and others, but Hamilton and Cochran significantly made his work better-known.
He began a 20-year relationship with The Walt Disney Company in 1980 when he and Cochran acquired a license to produce The Fine art of Walt Disney's Donald Duck, a collection of all of the Carl Barks Disney-based oil paintings to that date. The book sold out quickly and won an award for excellence in production values from the American Bookbinders Association. The success of that project enabled Hamilton to acquire the Disney license to produce limited edition lithographs based upon newly-produced Barks oil paintings. After Western Publishing dropped the license to produce the Disney comics in the mid-1980s, he was granted the license and the now-legendary Gladstone Publishing company was created.
“This is a bitter loss for the entire industry, and a very personal one for me,” said Steve Geppi, President and Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Comic Distributors. “I’ve said publicly before that I considered Bruce to be a mentor, as well as a friend and business
associate. The knowledge we have lost in his passing is incalculable. My thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathies go out to his wife, Helen, his daughter, Summer Hinton, his son-in-law, Richard Hinton, and his three grandsons.”
“Bruce Hamilton recognized very early the potential that our industry had and still has,” said John K. Snyder, Jr., President of Diamond International Galleries. “His foresight helped preserve the history of Disney comics for future readers, and he also helped expand the frontiers by growing past the printed page and expanding into figures, lithographs and different areas. He made comic characters more accessible, and in doing so left a legacy of enjoyment behind for others.”
While his Disney licenses dated from the early 1980s, his enthusiasm and vision for comics was honed well before that time. In 1971, a few months after the first edition of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide was published, Hamilton appeared unannounced at the Cleveland, Tennessee doorstep of Robert Overstreet. He understood the potential importance of the then-new book to the market and recognized the influence it could have in the years ahead.
“Bruce was there in the beginning to help me develop the proper approach to pricing this complex market. For years Bruce and I would discuss the philosophy of market economics and how the guide should reflect a pricing policy that would be fair to dealer and collector alike,” Overstreet, Publisher for Gemstone Publishing’s line of price guides, said. “Whenever the market got in trouble, Bruce was there to lead discussions with other top people in the market to help me figure out the best position the guide should take to steer the market in the right direction. He attended and participated in all my meetings held in Tennessee during the formative years of the guide’s development.”
Of Hamilton’s long list of other accomplishments, one lesser-known is the instrumental role he played in spear-heading the development of independent grading certification of comics. He actively encouraged Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) to enter the comics market, which lead to the formation of Comics Guaranty, LLC (CGC). A year before the first comic was certified, he told participants in the meetings that they would remember they were there for a momentous time in the market’s history.
While many are aware of his distinct influence in the comics arena, fewer may realize that he was a force in record collecting as well. Together with partner and musicologist Jerry Osborne, Hamilton produced over a dozen record price guides between 1976 and 1984.
“Appropriately, Bruce and I first met at a comic convention in Scottsdale, Arizona, 1969. Our mutual love for the works of Carl Barks, coupled with our radio history and love of music, cemented our friendship. He is the only person I ever knew who can say they saw both Elvis and Buddy Holly on the same show (January 6, 1955, Lubbock, Texas),” Osborne said. “As a mighty close friend for exactly half of Bruce's 72 years, there are a million memories and stories that could be told. But we'll save those for another time. For now, I'm reminded of a line Bruce would jokingly quote when he was so agitated he
wanted to scream in frustration — one originally written by Barks for Donald Duck: ‘Now I'm more determined than ever to force cheer onto the world.’ Mission accomplished, my old friend!”
With success in records and other businesses, though, it remains comics for which he’ll be best remembered.
“I met Bruce Hamilton at a comics convention in the early 1970s, and our mutual interests in the works of Carl Barks and in collecting original comic art led to us becoming good friends,” said Russ Cochran, now publisher for Gemstone Publishing’s Missouri office. “We formed a partnership known as Another Rainbow Publishing and Gladstone Publishing in 1980 to explore the possibilities of publishing the works of Carl Barks, including his oil paintings and his comic book stories. Bruce was an unforgettable character, full of idiosyncrasies which often made him difficult to deal with, but his natural intelligence and life-long love of learning made people respect him. He and I enjoyed many cross-country motor trips together where he would talk and I would listen. He was a rare and strange duck, and I will miss him.”
After relinquishing the Disney comics license, Hamilton worked behind the scenes to support Gemstone Publishing’s acquisition of the license. John Clark, who served as Gladstone’s final Editor-in-Chief and now serves in the same capacity for Gemstone’s Disney line, knew Hamilton for 35 years.
“I first met Bruce circa 1970 when he was a DJ for radio station KBUZ in Scottsdale, Arizona. He had just moved to Arizona and my friend, artist Don Newton, got in touch with him through an ad Bruce had run in The Rocket's Blast – Comic Collector fanzine. That ad contained for sale a handful of original Grandma comic strip art and some obscure, non-super hero Golden Age comics,” Clark said. “Little did Don or I realize at that time that Bruce would go on to be one of the truly driving forces in early comics fandom and that his lifetime of accomplishments would have considerable impact on collecting. Bruce's legacy in fandom will truly live on through the ages.”