Longtime comic fans look back at the nineties and shake their heads at the “speculators boom”, a time when non-comic readers started buying up comics by the armful after news that vintage comics like ‘Action Comics’ #1 were selling in the thousands… even millions! But true comic fans knew that the glow-in-the-dark issue of ‘Ghost Rider’ or any copies of ‘Blood Pack’ weren’t going to be worth toilet paper no matter how long you sat on them.
But now it seems that even those issues we thought were sure fire money in the bank aren’t worth nearly what we thought they would be. I’m talking Golden and Silver Age goodies!
Rob Salkowitz, a business analyst and author of ‘Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture’ explains, “There are two markets for comic books. There’s the market for gold-plated issues with megawatt cultural significance, which sell for hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars. But that’s a very, very, very limited market. If a Saudi sheik decides he needs ‘Action Comics’ No. 1, there are only a few people out there who have a copy.”
But that’s ‘Action Comics’ #1. Most other comics never sell for what owners think they will and most people don’t even break even on them. “The entire back-issues market is essentially a Ponzi scheme,” Salkowitz says. “It’s been managed and run that way for 35 years.”
Barry T. Smith had collected comics since his childhood and had a collection of over 1,200 issues including a couple hundred early issues of ‘The Uncanny X-Men’ which according to what he read, grew in value every year. But when he found himself unemployed, he was forced to sell what he thought was a sound investment. The entire collection sold for $500. “I’m not too proud to admit, I cried a bit,” he stated.
Smith isn’t alone. Kevin J. Maroney, another lifelong collector, decided to sell 10,000 vintage comics on consignment at various comic shops in New York, and out of that number, less than 300 have sold for only roughly $800. Maroney however wasn’t surprised. “A lot of people my age, who grew up collecting comics, are trying to sell their collections now, but there just aren’t any buyers anymore.”
While milestone books, like first appearances of cross-pop cultural icons like Superman (the afore mentioned ‘Action Comics’ #1), Batman (‘Detective Comics’ #27) and Spider-Man (‘Amazing Fantasy’ #15) are still in high demand for big bucks, the bottom has essentially dropped out of the market. Why is that?
Well, here are a few of my thoughts.
One basic explanation is the proliferation in recent times of reprints. Nearly every major (and even some minor) comic series has been fully reprinted in some form or another, even if it was in black and white. Those that grew up on comics don’t necessarily care to own old comics, they just want to read the stories. And now those are more readily available than ever. If I want to read a particular storyline, I’ll just pick up the trade rather than trying to find the original “floppies.”
But sadly, for another thing, I think we all realize comics are a dying art form. Comics flourished at a time when they were cheap entertainment that cost less than a dollar and were easily accessible at grocery stores, gas stations, even airports. But as prices rose, they slowly disappeared from all of those venues. Nowadays, comics cost upwards of $2.99 and can only be found at stores that strictly sell comic books or the occasional chain book store. While $2.99 may not seem like much, the average comic takes less than fifteen minutes to read. While most people groan about the cost of movies, they’re still around $10 per ticket and entertain you for about two hours.
Even when you factor in graphic novels, those may cost roughly the same as a regular novel (but, sometimes far more), they take considerably less time to read.
And they’re not for kids anymore. Part of this is kids just don’t care about them. They have video games. Who wants to spend ten minutes reading about Batman when you can actually BE Batman and play for hours? But without a younger audience embracing the art form, what happens once the existing audience dies off?
In a way, the movies are the life raft for comic book properties. In a decade or two, I think comic books will be a thing of the past like radio serials and pulp novels. The same way Dynamite Comics revives pulp concepts like The Shadow today into modern comics, the movies will revive dormant comic book characters as feature films.
I used to collect comics. I had six long-boxes worth. Then I just stopped. They accumulated, but a friend of mine was horrified and perplexed to learn I didn’t bag or board them. Then I just got rid of them altogether. They were just too much trouble to keep in order and I move a lot, so lugging them from place to place was a hassle. Some I sold for chump change to a used book store just to get rid of. Then after that, I just started giving them away, either to friends or to charity. Just before my last move, I actually threw a bunch away or ripped them apart to use for packing material. I still have one long-box with some that I hold on to for sentimental reasons, but I don’t ever intend to sell them and I know they’re not anything that most collectors would want. (Like the entire run of ‘The Super Friends’.) Recently I switched to just reading comics on my iPad. No more clutter!
Frank Santoro, of ‘The Comics Journal’ confesses that he had to break the news to someone who owned 3,000 comics, which he thought were worth at least $23,000 that “It was probably more like $500. And a comic book store would probably only offer him $200.”
Sounds like ‘Pawn Stars: Comic Book Edition.’