Walk into the former Reformed Episcopal Church of the Atonement in West Philadelphia, and you hear the unmistakable sounds of construction work. The century-old structure, which is now home to two day care facilities, will also soon have 21 loft apartments.
Inside, a spiral staircase leads to the office of Josh O’Neill, 37, co-founder of Beehive Books. For the past three years, the publishing company has made a name for itself with crowdfunded books with high production values, focusing particularly on comics and graphic art.
The office, which O’Neill thinks might once have been home to church bells, is Beehive’s base of operations. It’s a space crowded with books, the walls covered in framed cartoons and comic strips. The top of a decorative electric fireplace is lined with O’Neill’s personal collection. A few of those books were picked up at yard sales, but many were inherited from his great-grandfather, Hirsch Stalberg.
Several of the texts were published in Philadelphia. Some came from small, local presses made possible by a subscription-based model that allowed customers to finance a book’s creation. It’s a parallel not lost on O’Neill.
“They basically have the same business model as we do. They have a small, committed audience that is willing to spend money before the book exists,” he said. “So I appreciate that we’re continuing this forgotten tradition.”
O’Neill described his journey into publication as a “weird sideways stumble.” He grew up in New York City, raised by a Jewish mother and Catholic father. As a kid, he was obsessed with newspaper comic strips. But as his parents only subscribed to The New York Times, which didn’t have a comics section, he had to get his fix from his grandmother in Philadelphia.
“I was just completely obsessed with them. I like them all, even the ones that were not funny, that were just bad. I just liked that format. Anything that was like a comic, I would read,” O’Neill said.
That passion led O’Neill to pursue a career in writing comics. He moved to Philadelphia about 15 years ago to major in English with a concentration in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, he got a job at Video Library, a video store that also happened to have a small selection of comics. At the store, O’Neill found a thriving comics artist subculture. He worked alongside Chris Stevens, another aspiring comic writer, and the two started to collaborate.
The store eventually went out of business, so O’Neill and Stevens acquired the inventory in 2010 and opened their own comic book shop called Locust Moon Comics.
The shop aimed to be a local mecca of comics culture, with book signings, talks, weekly drink-and-draw events and even an independent comics festival, which ran for four years.
One of Locust Moon’s biggest projects was a collaborative book, Once Upon a Time Machine, featuring about 100 different artists’ reimagining of classic fairy tales. It was published by Dark Horse Comics in 2012.
That gave O’Neill the “publishing bug.”
Under the name Locust Moon Press and with help from collaborator Andrew Carl, the label began launching projects on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. In 2014, a campaign was launched for Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. The large-format book showcased the work of about 140 artists inspired by the classic Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips. The campaign raised more than $150,000, and the book won two Eisner Awards for Best Anthology and Best Publication Design, in addition to a Harvey Award for Excellence in Presentation.
“This book was a crazy experience for us. And I got to work with people who I’ve been obsessed with since I was a little kid. There’s a cartoonist in there who I grew up reading,” O’Neill said. “It was the craziest thing we’ve ever done. It was the most unrealistic, most unfeasible seeming project.”
They launched another campaign in 2015 to fund an anthology of works by legendary comics artist Will Eisner, who pioneered the art of the graphic novel and chronicled stories of Jewish New Yorkers. That campaign raised $50,000.
“So little is working in the publishing industry right now — it’s like when you find a model that actually works, I’m amazed every publisher isn’t doing this because it works great for us,” he said.
In 2016 O’Neill closed the shop so he could focus on publishing full-time with Beehive Books. O’Neill handles the editorial side of the venture while business partner Maëlle Doliveux oversees the art direction and production. One of Beehive’s first projects was a book compiling Herbert Crowley’ works. It raised about $125,000 on Kickstarter.
O’Neill is now working on growing Beehive’s customer base as well as exploring a particular classic story in a different way. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is told from varying perspectives through diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, phonograph recordings and so on. O’Neill wants to create a leather-bound briefcase filled with handwritten diaries and letters as in the book. The trouble is finding calligraphers who write in 19th-century styles. But the challenge is what makes it worth it, O’Neill said.
“It’s not fun unless someone tells you that you can’t do it,” he said.
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