Reviving Classics : A young entrepreneur has big plans for an old comic book publisher.

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

When 25-year-old Jeffrey A. Montgomery headed for a meeting with wealthy investors to solicit millions for a corporate acquisition, he brought along some heavyweight celebrity friends--Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich and Baby Huey.

By introducing the familiar cartoon characters to the investors, Montgomery hoped to interest them in his bid for Harvey Publications, a New York-based publisher of comic books including those of Casper, Richie and Huey. The investors fondled stuffed toy representations of the three characters, viewed videotaped cartoons and leafed through Harvey comic books.

“I wanted to excite them,” Montgomery said. “I thought I would sell the proposal by presenting the characters.”


The investors bought the idea, and the brash young Montgomery last week bought Harvey Publications, a major force in the comic book business in the 1950s and 1960s that has fallen on hard times in the last decade. Montgomery now hopes to rekindle interest in the Harvey cartoon characters with a new marketing plan and a variety of new products.

His newly formed Los Angeles-based HMH Communications also acquired legal rights to a handful of other Harvey characters, including Little Lotta, Playful Little Audrey and a little devil called Hot Stuff.

In addition, HMH obtained Harvey’s library of 248 35-millimeter color cartoons from the 1950s and 1960s, shorts that Montgomery watched as a child. The collection includes animated “sing-alongs” featuring animator Max Fleischer’s famous “bouncing ball.”

The acquisition cost an estimated $6 million, but that price tag apparently didn’t frighten investors, nor did Montgomery’s relatively tender age.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that he is the son of James F. Montgomery, chairman and chief executive of Beverly Hills-based Great Western Financial Corp., the giant savings and loan company. But the younger Montgomery says his father was neither an investor nor a participant in the Harvey deal.

Jeffrey Montgomery’s business career began when he founded an auto body shop in Calabasas at the age of 17. Later, he earned a business degree from USC.

He plunged into film making in 1984, when he helped two friends solicit nearly $1 million from investors to put a new sound track on a 1959 horror film titled “The Hideous Sun Demon,” thus converting it into a campy comedy that was sold to a major studio but never released.

Got a Commitment

Since then, he earned a master’s degree in fine arts from USC and worked as an intern for a film production company. But until now he has had no experience in publishing--which makes his bid for Harvey seem all the more brash.

When Montgomery decided to make the bid, he returned to investor community contacts made during the production of the redubbed horror film. The young entrepreneur obtained a commitment from investors in February and began to negotiate with the owners of Harvey Publications in March.

“I have some experience and I’ve been exposed to the studio system and to film making,” Montgomery said. “There’s a lot to learn, but it will be a great challenge.”

His age was not a Harvey family concern because the company’s founder--Alfred Harvey--established the company in 1940 at age 26, said Victoria Harvey, the company’s spokeswoman and wife of the retired founder.

“I was a little startled when I first met him because I was expecting someone older,” she recalled. “He seemed very imaginative, very capable and he wants to preserve the integrity of the characters. He seems to surround himself with knowledgeable people and appears to have a feeling for the business.

Was Hot in ‘50s

“If you’re young or young at heart,” she continued, “that’s actually helpful in this (comic book) industry. We have great faith that the business will become first-rate in the film and comic industry.”

A rise in prominence would return Harvey to a position it held in the 1940s and 1950s. Riding on the success of Richie Rich, Harvey had a top-selling line of comics during those decades.

In 1952, it began to produce a Casper comic book under a licensing agreement with Paramount Pictures, which distributed theatrical cartoons featuring the lonely and unassuming spirit. Harvey eventually bought the rights to Casper, Little Audrey and hundreds of other characters from Paramount in 1958, and licensed them for television and advertising.

But Harvey Publications began to falter in the 1960s and 1970s. Alfred Harvey retired in 1977, and the family had difficulty finding a management team. With a lack of capital and leadership, Harvey stopped publishing comic books in 1982.

It reentered the market in 1986, bringing out three titles every month. The company now publishes Casper, Richie Rich, Hot Stuff, Baby Huey and a comic digest called Harvey Hits. Montgomery said HMH will continue to publish that line and intends to add new characters under a new label.

The company will also attempt to develop television cartoons and movies based on the Harvey characters. Citing the success of films such as “Batman” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and upcoming big-screen productions of Dick Tracy, the Jetsons and Brenda Starr, Montgomery said the film industry is ripe for a return of the Harvey characters.

Noting the increased use of cartoon characters in advertising--Garfield the Cat for Embassy Suites and the Peanuts gang for Metropolitan Life--Montgomery said he would also try to boost Harvey’s licensing revenue.

Firm Ranks Fourth

“Harvey is like a talent management agency and the characters are the company stars,” he said.

Montgomery, who would not reveal the Harvey firm’s revenue, said Harvey sold 2 million comic books last year. He said the company has 5% of newsstand sales, ranking it fourth behind Marvel, D.C. and Archie Comics. Montgomery intends to move Harvey’s corporate headquarters to Los Angeles but maintain its publishing operations in New York.

He will be operating in an industry that is enjoying a creative renaissance.

A new wave of comics arrived in the early 1980s, aimed at teen-agers and adults. For example, there are “graphic novels” such as Art Speigelman’s “Maus,” an illustrated story that wound up as one of the five finalists in the biography/autobiography category of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985. In “Maus,” Speigelman recounts his father’s recollection of the Holocaust, depicting the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice.

There are also comics about ordinary people. Harvey Peckar’s “American Splendor,” is a collection of 30 stories of his life as a file clerk and ordinary American, a work that has prompted some literary critics to make comparisons to Chekhov and Dostoevsky.

Meanwhile, a rebirth of interest in super hero figures has drummed up new interest from readers. To be sure, the Harvey characters are far removed from publications such as “Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles,” a violent action comic popular with teen-agers. But such new entries and new approaches have created a surge in sales of all comic books. Sales have more than doubled since 1986, reaching $300 million in 1988.

Direct Marketing

Harvey, which markets comics for children aged 5 to 12, does not have to compete against super heroes or serious illustrated fiction, according to Maggie Thompson, co-editor of Comics Buyer’s Guide, a trade publication. Thompson said the company’s chief competitors are Archie Comics and Gladstone, a firm licensed to publish comics based on Disney characters.

To gain an edge on its competitors, Harvey must develop a presence in the direct sales market, Thompson said. Under a direct marketing operation, a publisher sells comics to the retailer, and unsold copies may not be returned. About 70% of all comic books are sold on a direct sales basis, but Harvey has only 0.05% of that direct sales market, Thompson said. “An active owner can succeed with well-known characters,” Thompson said. “If the new owners are aggressive, they can do very well.”

Sitting in a spartan office with bare walls and a table covered with stuffed likenesses of Casper, Little Audrey and Hot Stuff, Montgomery said he would pursue more direct market sales. He plans to boost sales by promoting the characters and by appealing both to children and their parents.

“People grew up with Casper and Richie Rich,” he said. “If I can’t make it with this kind of foundation, I don’t belong in business.”