Part Two: Comics Are Worthless
A tall, burly man in a grease-stained wife beater saunters into a comic book shop. After the clerk finishes helping a customer, he slams a threadbare copy of Rampaging Hulk #1 on the counter.
One uncomfortable silence later …
“Rampaging Hulk #1. Cool.” said the manager. “I love the old Marvel black and white mags. Crazy, really imaginative stuff.”
The man puts both hands on the counter, looks at the manager, and says in a voice that sounds as if he’d had a double shot of cheap rye and a handful of gravel before he came in, “How much will you pay me for it?”
“I’m sorry, man. We don’t buy comics. Most shops don’t really do that anymore.”
Quite puzzled, the man waves his arms, pointing to the comics on the racks, the back issue bins, and the shelves of graphic novels, finally coming back to the manager. “Then how do you did you get all this?!”
“I’m sorry. I meant we don’t buy comics from people, just our distributor. Any of our back issues are things that didn’t sell out while they were on the shelves. The oldest comic in here is from the 90’s. Actually, most stores don’t really deal in a lot of this kind of thing anymore. Your best shot is eBay.”
The man points at the number on the cover. “It’s Hulk #1!”
“Well, yes and no. It’s Rampaging Hulk. If you’re talking about the first Hulk comic ever, this isn’t it. Marvel did these black and white magazines with stories for mature readers during the ’70s and ’80s. Incredible Hulk #1 came out in the ’60s.”
“But it’s a number ONE!!!”
Fortunately, neither the manager nor myself was harmed during, or after, the preceding exchange. The guy finally gave up, looked at us as if we had brain damage, grabbed his girlfriend, and stormed out. I’m sure several other Los Angeles area comic shops had to endure this intimidation ritual before he finally gave up.
Admittedly, the headline is an attention getter. Plus, an all-inclusive thesis statement contains too many ifs and buts to be a decent headline, and “Comics don’t always have the monetary value that one might assume,” is too weak. In the interest of putting a positive spin on it: There is one and only one reason to read, and keep, comic books — you like them. Comics are cool. Sure, movies are gaining fast, but still, when it comes to pure, unbridled imagination, comic books still have the corner on the market.
In part one, I mentioned the sale of Action Comics #1 as a sort of benchmark — the flashpoint for when comics stopped becoming kids’ stuff, and became something one could consider as an investment. It’s true, there are comics that are worth thousands of dollars, but they are in really short supply. Without getting too deep into an economic discussion, scarcity is what drives up the value of a lot of things — especially art. A big contributing factor, believe it or not, is World War II. Many decades prior to “going green” as a motivation for recycling, Americans were turning “trash” (paper, rubber, metal) into “gold” (resources) as part of the war effort.
Comics weren’t taken seriously as an entertainment medium, and calling it an “art form” was decades down the road. Thus, pre-World War II comics are the most valuable because very few people kept them. As the years progressed, more people held onto them for both sentimental reasons, and the fact that there wasn’t the immediate need for resources to sustain a war didn’t hurt. [There were plenty of corporate dollars to do that …] Still, a lot of comics fans at least have an uncle whose parents threw out their comics while they were away at college, or overseas in the military. As soon as Action Comics #1 made the press for passing the six figure mark in an auction, it began a snowball effect of people saving their comics. If money wasn’t a motivation, it at least was a justification to keep your “childish things.”
The next thing that devalued — and continues to devalue — the average contemporary comic is the existence of preservation technology. It’s a strange thing to regard a simple plastic bag with a thin piece of cardboard in it as “technology.” As a kid, it seemed ludicrous to me. My dad made me devote five dollars of the twenty he gave me for my first comic convention (Disneyland Hotel, 1982) to buying bags and boards. I threw them away pretty much immediately after getting home.
The bottom line is that they didn’t really show up on the comics scene until around the ’80s. So the big idea is that a way to keep a comic in something other than a cardboard box in the corner of the garage not only kept a comic around, but in relatively good condition, came into play. To date, things have gotten even more advanced to the point where you can get a comic straight from the publisher, by way of a rating service, who can vacuum seal the comic and rate it a “10” without the art inside ever crossing your eyes, and the story touching your mind and heart (by way of your fingers). What … fun?
The final big contributor to why comics — particularly contemporary comics — aren’t really the investment they’re made out to be is that old comics stories are regularly reprinted. Children raised by wolves know who Superman is, and if you become even the most casual of fans, everybody is going to want to read his origin story. Comic companies know this, and periodically reprint the inaugural issues of iconic characters either as single “collector’s edition” issues, or more commonly, in collections, called Trade Paperbacks.
Trade paperbacks are a lot like collections of short stories in prose fiction. They’re sometimes called graphic novels, which isn’t really what they are, but what’s the point in getting hung up on definitions? The bottom line is that they either collect important issues of a given title, or entire, long form stories that spanned over many issues, in magazine form. Some say “they look like ‘real’ books.” If you want to go all the way back to the ’60s with a character like Spider-Man, you can do it for less than twenty bucks. And with most comic book story arcs being written with the idea that they will be collected, reading a single issue of a comic book is like turning on a movie that’s half way through, then the cable goes out after you’ve gotten really into it.
Here endeth my two-part “mini-manifesto.” I’ve covered the why. It’s time to move onto the how.
As with the last installment, until I can get into a deeper discussion of exactly where to go, here are a couple of suggestions for places to find comics in the Los Angeles area: A lot of shops rent a space at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena (2nd Sunday of every month); there is also a (generally) bi-monthly convention at the Shrine Auditorium.