Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Exploding the Myth of Comic Book Collecting

This news article from Bloomberg Businessweek is trending in the GeekiVerse right now. It's worth reading. Check it out: Those Comics in your Basement? Probably Worthless. One thing I'd like to pull out of the article is this thought:
And then there’s the other market, where most comics change hands for pennies and nobody is getting rich or even breaking even. “The entire back-issues market is essentially a Ponzi scheme,” Salkowitz says. “It’s been managed and run that way for 35 years.”
This is a Steve Ditko Spider-Man. It is
worth something. You have a Todd
McFarlane Spider-Man. It is worth
nothing. See the difference?
Well, no. I mean, sorta. Not really. When I was behind the counter of two different, very good comic book stores that also did a fair amount of Silver Age back issue business, we made it a kind of unwritten policy that we weren't selling collectibles. Not the new comics. That was what you bought because you loved comics and wanted to read them. The older stuff? On the wall, there? The Steve Ditko Spider-Man? The Infantino Flash comics? The first Silver Age appearance of Catwoman? Okay, that was a slightly different story. They were already expensive, especially compared to the weekly comics. But we always said there was no guarantee that the older stuff would go up in value. We had boxes full of comics from the fifties and sixties that no one wanted. The price guides reflected that.

Of course all of this was pre-Internet, and pre-eBay, but you know what? Even when those things DID finally show up, and after it managed to help equalize the back issue market somewhat, everything started slowly increasing in value again. Everything old, that is.

If I told one customer, I told a thousand, "Look, if you're buying that book, expecting it to go up in value, then you're doing it wrong. It doesn't work like that. I've sold a hundred of those books already, to people just like you. They are all bagging and boarding them up as we speak. In twenty years, you're all going to whip out your comic books and say, 'Now how much will you give me?' and there will be no takers, because the only people who bought them in the first place already HAVE them."

These guys were the real bandits. They
sold the entire industry a bill of goods.
I really gave that speech, and variations on it, for years and years. And even as I was saying it, I could see it going in one ear and right out the other. And make no mistake, I was not the lone voice in the wilderness, crying out against a sub-culture market that was indifferent to its customer base. Every good retailer I knew, all throughout Texas, and far beyond, as well, gave variations on that same speech. The problem was, for every good retailer in the 1980s and 1990s, there were three bottom-feeding man-children who kept their money in a cigar box, chased every trend to get "what's hot" and get it on their shelves, so they could justify borrowing all of that money from their parents so they could open up a comic book store and move their collection out of the house for good.

Okay, that's a little harsh. But it wasn't far off the mark. But that didn't matter, either, because there was nothing you could tell most of these people who were shopping in our stores that they were Doing It Wrong. See, they'd already seen baseball cards skyrocket--not the new ones, mind you. The old Topp's cards that the Baby Boomers were buying up because they missed their childhood. When comics started to go the same way, everyone assumed that it was ALL comics, and not CERTAIN comics. As in, comics printed before 1970.

All of this collector speculation is just another iteration of the great myths of American Culture: the Get-Rich Quick scheme. The idea that you could buy something for a dollar and in ten years it's now worth a million dollars is sheer fantasy, but it's one we all indulge in on some level. Whether it's lottery tickets, a 1957 Mickey Mantle card, the super rare (but reprinted often) Action Comics #1, or the Boba Fett action figure with the rocket pack that fires a missile that so many people swear on a stack of Bibles they actually owned, we all want to think we're like Jack with a handful of magic beans. Who wouldn't want to get rich for doing nothing except buying something you like enough that you were already going to own it? How great would that be?

These days, if you want to catch up,
you need to buy the trade paperback
collections (or the hardcovers).
You can buy the entire series that
way for less money than this one
book will cost you.
I've grown up around comics. My whole life has been filtered through crappy paper, four color offset printing, and hand-lettered balloons. When I was deep in the thick of it, I couldn't tell you what was going to become popular and thus collectible if you were to put a gun to my head. Case in point: while everyone else was buying multiple copies of the latest X-Men comics ten years ago, fewer than seven thousand people bought the first issue of The Walking Dead comic book. But a slabbed copy of the first issue recently sold for $10,000 on eBay.

There are two reasons for this: the first, and the biggest reason, is that right now, there's a lot more than seven thousand people who want that first issue. And the number one thing to remember regarding collectibles is the law of supply and demand. The second reason it went for so much is because the book was "professionally graded" to be a "9.9 out of 10" and sealed in Lucite, thus insuring that grade is permanent (not really) and also making sure whoever buys the comic can't read it without cracking the seal and thus destroying the grade. This is a racket, something aimed specifically at the speculators in the marketplace, but it's unfortunately one that the comic collectors of the world have bought hook, line, and sinker, so there you go.

Even now, there are people out there, trying to analyze what books will be worth something down the road. It can't be done. No One saw potential in The Walking Dead, aside from it being a modern-day western about the zombie apocalypse. Was it a good book? Yeah, if you read it. But if you gave it a pass (and believe me, everyone did), you shouldn't feel bad about that. The money was never yours. It was fate. Happenstance. Dumb freaking luck. You can't predict what people will want in twenty years, so you shouldn't really try.

But here's a good hint: if you seriously think it's going to be the same thing that everyone else is buying and storing in their cardboard boxes, you are wrong. This life lesson is best applied liberally. This hobby was never about the money. The most expensive books in my collection are books I'd never sell for any reason. Why? Because they are what they are: old, cool, funky comics that mean something to me personally. If you're not in it for the love, then you'll never understand that.
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