With the holidays long gone and the first big conventions of the season arriving, you may have received or purchased some comics and related items on your wish list or were fortunate enough to be in a position to pass it on and gift them yourself! Before warmer weather gets here to stay and you’re spending a lot more time outdoors, it’s always a perfect time to take stock of and assess your collection. So if you follow this site/show/column and happen to read and/or collect comics, the hope is you continue to do so out of some form of joy it brings you. If you do so as a speculator, buying things on their projected potential rise in value without even reading them, you’re pissing off genuine fans and cheating yourself out of the truly fun aspect of enjoying some fine reads. The only silver lining I’ll give you is that by choosing to spend your money on this instead of something else, you’re helping to legitimize comics as a recognized and valued art form.
But what if you’re somewhere in between? Maybe you’ve been at it long enough and seen issues at your store or in your collection increase in value, and now you want in on the ground floor of whatever’s being called “the next big thing”. Or maybe you’ve been at it just long enough to realize this isn’t going to be a passing phase and want to take better care of what you have; whether that’s certain bought or inherited treasured issues, or your collection as a whole. Here are a few things to consider either way.
First issues and appearances are an obvious starting point, but in today’s market it’s also a minefield of potential duds. There’s a lot more prestige in owning a silver age (c. 1956-70) or bronze age (c.1970-85) issue that less copies exist of or are more likely to be age-deteriorated or in general bad shape if they do. Something from the last 25 years was produced in an era of comic shops and direct distribution where the average collector was a lot more knowledgeable and aware of anything “special”; or worse, blindly consumes the hype pumped out by greedy big companies trying to sell larger print runs that shamelessly exploits their fan base. It’s simple math: don’t expect anything to increase in value dramatically anytime soon if everyone else has it and knows to take good care of it.
If you have the money or are lucky enough to already have them in your family, first appearances of now iconic characters are prized no-brainers. I don’t want to list specific issues as there are guides for that, along with popular opinion that includes yours; but out of necessity let’s use The Incredible Hulk #181 as an example. A throwaway character appears in the last panel of #180 before fully guest-starring in that issue. You may have heard of this guy – Wolverine? Anyhow, a pretty standard story that might get forgotten becomes a classic when Wolverine is selected to join the X-men a couple of years later and the rest is history. The story is meh but every legend has to start somewhere; and it’s due to what eventually becomes of this character, not what he does in this particular story.
With comic-related properties (see last December’s Watchtower column on this) so prolific now, the market favours first comic appearances of any character, regardless of status. Need proof? See for yourself. Grab any reputable guide from a few years ago and a copy from last year (or wait for this year’s to come out) and compare some of these: For DC, look what happened after their New 52 movement made Cyborg a charter member of the Justice League; or after it was hinted in the The Flash television show that Firestorm was going to be a character. With Marvel, look at Ant-Man’s first appearance (Scott Lang in the 70’s, not Hank Pym in the 60’s) now that the movie’s finally coming out; or what just the announcement of a Captain Marvel movie did for the price of Ms. Marvel #1 (the first appearance of the Carol Danvers character as a super-hero) Former ignored bargain-bin material now gets scooped up and hoarded. Even though the Nova Corps were auxiliary characters in Guardians of the Galaxy, the original run of the Nova series from the late 70’s has jumped. Thanks to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there’s been a similar effect with the first appearances of Deathlok and Mockingbird; and upcoming Netflix series have boosted early appearances for Jessica Jones, Power Man & Iron Fist, and Daredevil, the only “iconic” hero on this list.
But FYI, as exorbitant as some guide prices might look to you, there are others who would consider that a steal and pay what’s listed without question. Why? Because there are greedy stores/dealers out there who make it a policy to charge double, even triple what guides ask and get it – don’t ask why, that’s just the way it is.
A little more speculative are first issues of new series/characters, simply because nobody can foresee if something will take off or tank. Before The Walking Dead became a cable phenomenon, it was an Image comic whose early issues have seriously risen in value. A lot of critics accuse the majority of new comic properties having one eye on a television or film development deal instead of just being comics, and who can blame them? Comic movies have gone from a juvenile niche market that studios were reluctant to sign on for to a must-have that can’t be cranked out fast enough. As the saturation gets heavier and heavier, is the inevitable backlash coming? In the meantime, money talks.
Try a real-time experiment: the CW premiered its’ adaptation of Vertigo’s iZombie a few weeks back. With zombies as the new vampires, the marketability is obvious. But aside from that, it’s actually a pretty good read (the entire 28-issue series fell into my lap and I binged ‘em!) and I’ve always enjoyed Mike Allred’s art. There’s already been some major character & storyline condensing/alteration (another argument that comics and the written word are still the best format for telling some stories), but if the show pulls in strong enough numbers to last and generate a following, keep an eye on the price of the original source material…
An old trend that returned and is getting out of hand is variant covers. This used to happen to distinguish a second printing of an issue (still does) or a special occasion, like first issues of a new series before it became the norm to shut down and reboot a series every few years. Even then, the artwork was often the same, with only the background or title colour getting changed up (i.e. the gold and silver foils used in the first issue of McFarlane’s Spider-Man series in the early 90’s). Now, it’s a monthly ritual; DC has been going with themes, like March’s reinterpretation of famous movie posters with their characters along with their ‘regular’ covers. This is great news for artists getting more work, but what does a fan do? When there’s so many (Marvel’s reclamation of the Star Wars license shows this practice at its’ worst-there were 67, no word of a lie), how does a fan choose? You certainly won’t buy all of them (unless collecting variants is your thing) at today’s prices while getting the latest issue of every other title you follow. Buying a trade that has all the variant images a few months later defeats the purpose if you want to read the issues now and will already own them.
Adding to the confusion is once again, the varying sense of ethics your local comics peddler may have. Take that new Star Wars example: I’ve seen various shops immediately putting bagged variants on their shelves, asking $10-$30 and beyond right off the bat. But I’ve seen other stores, with more of a sense of decency, make them available on a first-come first-served basis without any mark-up, limiting the purchase amount to one copy to prevent hoarders from doing what perpetuated all the nonsense. For what it’s worth (literally), it seems like the covers done as mock-ups of the original Star Wars action figure blister packs seem to be in the highest demand…
I’ve talked about death of characters in a past column as well. Saving time, I’ll say it’s still a practice that deserves zero sense of gravity when it happens as it’s only a matter of time before everyone comes back. The bigger the hero, the more that mantra rings true. If you truly believed that Superman, Captain America or Wolverine were gone for good (and that death beats money in the great comic beyond), I honestly wish I still had your sense of naivety towards comics. I can only imagine how much more awesome the stuff I read would seem!!! Congruently, the same for the value of these ‘special’ issues – hooray, you’re the proud owner, among thousands of others, of a false alarm with someone’s ‘final’ appearance…for now. This now jaded formula even applies to lesser tier and supporting characters – Bucky Barnes, long considered a ‘permanent’ irrevocable death, made a credible return as the Winter Soldier courtesy of Ed Brubaker in Captain America. Even Gwen Stacey, Peter Parker’s first true love and one of the first major deaths in comics (Amazing Spider-Man #121), has been ‘brought back’ through the years in various forms and concepts.
A different kind of first appearance is an artist’s first issue on a title or for a company. Unfortunately, with comics being a visual medium, this doesn’t apply nearly as strongly to a writer’s early work, although many would argue it should. When an artist is the ‘new kid’, they’re usually assigned a one-off or short story on an obscure or struggling title. I’m thinking John Byrne on the original Iron Fist or an unknown Jim Lee getting issue #51 of the first Alpha Flight series. A contemporary example in the making might be Ramon K. Perez. The Eisner-winning artist who pencils Marvel’s latest Hawkeye series, fresh off last year’s Spider-Man: Learning to Crawl mini-series, got his foot in the industry door doing Star Wars short stories for Dark Horse when they still held the rights. But as with everything pop culture, yesterday’s unknown becomes today’s darling until the next big thing comes along to nudge its’ place. So unless your ESP powers are finely tuned, you can’t predict what the masses will favour or buy every new artist’s work on spec. Stick with what you love, and if a character or their creator blows up, that’s gravy.
Another point of contention is whether or not to get an issue signed if you should have the opportunity to meet one of its’ creators. Sentimental value (especially if you were also lucky enough to take a photo together) is priceless. Sadly, we lose more giants of the industry each year as they age. I will always envy a friend who got to meet Will Eisner before he passed, and I will always treasure an issue of Green Lantern I own signed by the legendary Gil Kane. The arguments in this area tend to be over whether or not an autograph can actually devalue something if it doesn’t come with a certificate of authenticity. This seems to be the case more and more and personally, I hate it. Signings that include certificates entail an exchange of money, and while I respect that a creator deserves to get theirs for their hard work, I despise that it’s created a side industry with profiteering middle-men that dehumanizes the original spirit of excited fans and just-as-excited creators getting to meet face-to-face and discuss a work that was fun both to read and produce.
Aside from first issues/appearances and ‘deaths’, another element that may cause a book to go up in value is being designated as a ‘key’ issue. This usually happens due to a recognized event taking place within its pages, such as the first meeting between two heroes or teams (a classic standard for this would be the meeting of the Golden and Silver Age Flashes from the Flash of Two Worlds story from The Flash #123), the ever-popular major crossovers and the good old stand-bys: weddings and births. But once again, investors beware: even after they were in place for more than a decade, the marriages of Spider-Man to Mary Jane Watson and Superman to Lois Lane were erased to restore the original status quo. Events that change a hero’s look or direction – even temporarily (see the intro of Spidey’s black costume) – seem to get coveted as they’re happening, even before any true long-term impact can be determined. Numerical milestones such as reaching a 100th issue were once a bigger deal; maybe not so much now as every major title seems to ‘end’ and re-boot with another #1 every couple of years.
Some comics attain added value if they’re a chapter in a series that tells a bigger story arc (generally 4-6 issues, such as Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Year One in Batman #404-407) or a longer ‘run’ in an ongoing series (i.e. Claremont & Byrne’s “Dark Phoenix” saga in Uncanny X-men); or as part of a limited series (while more focus will always get put on first issues and finales, there’s no way a classic like The Watchmen can be fully appreciated or understood for its’ genius and scope if you’re not able to read the whole 12-part story). It will be interesting to see what happens with the value of Marvel’s original Secret Wars limited series from the 80’s as they resurrect the concept (sort of) with a new series of the same name this spring.
Finally, a few words on protecting your investments; if you’ve determined or decided that they’re valuable to you, what steps are you going to take to preserve them? Bags and boards seems like a common starting point everyone can agree on, and if you have a lot, proper boxes with lids stored in an area away from dampness or any other potentially damaging elements. But from there, the floodgate for debate opens. ‘Regular’ bags and boards, or pricier ones of a higher grade, allegedly made from ‘acid-free’ polymer and stock? Or ditching b & b’s altogether for thicker, shell-like casings; running up an even higher bill while eating up more of your precious storage space.
A lot of folks, myself included, were proven wrong, as CGC has outlasted any assumption it was a passing fad designed to make money by becoming an industry standard. Don’t worry, it’s still a cash cow, as collectors send off their prized issues by the boxful to get assessed and sealed up. Most guides now have a separate section for CGC-treated issues with accordingly higher prices. My problem with this is the format, where should you have to break the seal on your now unreadable comic, any assessed value becomes null and void. Not every issue made has been collected in a trade or reprinted, so what happens, heaven forbid, should you ever dare to want to read or just look through that old issue?! I liken it to buying a collector automobile. Sure, you might enjoy owning it, keeping it in a garage and occasionally looking at it/showing it off to friends. But will that ever compare to getting in the damn thing and driving it like it was meant to be? No way.
There’s even some purists – nope, I won’t go that far on this one -who claim that the scent of an old comic is part of its’ charm and sense of nostalgia. What side of the fence do you land on that one? Even comic repair and restoration processes and services that can go from as simple as removing small creases to actually replacing missing chunks of covers or pages are becoming more widely accessible. This also divides the collectors world. There are those who feel something that looks good as new should be priced as new. Others who say no matter how good it looks, it’s not the same if it’s not original and should come down in price. Compounding this debate is the ethical quandary of those who perform or commission restoration jobs (especially on older issues) but try and pass them off as original when selling them. Well, here’s where I have to step off, as we’ve gotten to a point that isn’t really my area of expertise.
Maybe a future episode of the show or edition of this column can bring someone in to speak to this and explain it more in depth for you. In the meantime, start digging through your back issues and let us know what you think makes a comic go up or down in value.
Be prepared to argue, ‘cause if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!!!