Saturday at the Purge

by  in Comic News Comment
Saturday at the Purge

Our friend Carla called the other day with a problem.

Now, I don’t know if you get this in your life, but we get it a lot. We are everyone’s go-to Geek Index whenever they have a question about something nerdy.

“Doug asked me to organize his comics,” she said. “I’m trying to enter them in a database.”

I winced. “I hope you are getting money or sexual favors or something for it, then,” I told her. “That’s an awful job. Julie volunteers to organize mine for me every so often and I always tell her hell no, it would take months.”

Carla laughed. “Well, he took me out to dinner, and to see Star Trek, so I got that much. Anyway, I had some questions and I thought of you.”

I had a hunch where this was going. “Is he just trying to organize them or is he thinking of selling them?”

“Well, kind of both,” Carla said. “Mostly I’m trying to figure out what some of these are worth. He’s got, like, a lot of number ones and stuff.”

How many times have you had that conversation with a non-fan? I was going through my basement and I found a box of old comics, what are they worth?

The only real answer to that is “Whatever you can get some idiot to pay for them,” but that’s never the answer people want to hear.

“There are a couple of places you can look to get a ballpark figure,” I told her. “, or Mile High Comics.” I gave her the web addresses. “But you have to understand something. The back-issue market for comics is incredibly depressed right now. The idea that you can finance your kids’ college education through a bunch of rare comics is an urban myth. That’s not going to happen. He’s not getting rich.”

“He understands that,” Carla assured me. “Some of these I think he even forgot he owned. He’s got a lot of weird stuff here…. what’s Kamui? That’s a number one.”

“I think it’s manga. Is it in Japanese? Is it, like, a digest?”

“No, it’s a regular comic.”

“Ah. So that’s from Eclipse Publishing then?”

“Yeah!” Carla sounded amazed.

I felt ridiculously smug.

“In the 1980s,” I explained, “Eclipse Comics got the rights to reprint a lot of Japanese manga, doing translations. But they cut the digests up and reformatted them so that they looked like American comic books. It did pretty well for them for a while — I think their biggest successes were Nausicaa and Mai the Psychic Girl — but they don’t have any back issue value. Not since the actual digest reprints started showing up over here. We get the Eclipse ones out of quarter boxes to give to my students, most of the time.” (Not Kamui, I hasten to add. That one’s a bit much. But they really liked when I brought in a bunch of Mai The Psychic Girl Julie found in a dime box at a Seattle Center show.)

We went through a few more like that. I identified several books from Carla’s descriptions, and in each case, it turned out that something she thought was a valuable piece turned out to be a dealer’s shuck or overblown marketing.

“Here’s a Beowulf,” she would say.

“From DC?”

“No, this is like a paperback.”

“From First Publishing?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Well, it’s a nice book, but it’s not very valuable. I got mine from Amazon for three dollars last year.”

“This was $6.95 when it came out!” Carla said, shocked. “It went down?”

“Used books depreciate.”

And so on.

(Julie, who was on the other end of the couch, could only hear my end of the phone conversation, but it amused her to watch my increasing exasperation at Doug’s dilettante buying habits — it was becoming clear that he’d fallen for every collector myth out there.)

For example, when we got to Longbow Hunters, Carla said, “It has a sticker that says, ‘first printing.’ I don’t get that.”

“It means he probably paid way too much for it,” I said. “Look. Almost all comics are first printings. They’re magazines, they only get one printing. Longbow Hunters went back to press a couple of times because it was incredibly popular and DC was starting to figure out that maybe they should act more like a book publisher. Book publishers do multiple printings — first, second, third editions and so on. And they differentiate them. They’ll change the cover art, stuff like that. But I don’t think the Green Arrow books even got any kind of trivial differentiation. The colors might have been altered a little or something. So there’s no real difference, and more, because everyone who wanted a copy pretty much was able to get one when it came out, there’s no one really looking for it now. Plus, the whole story was collected in paperback, so the people who just wanted to read it and missed it when it came out bought one of the paperbacks a year or two later. The only people that care about first printings are book people– I mean serious book people, antiquarians. There, first printing means something. But most comics fans don’t care very much, except for the bragging rights. Buying something that’s a bagged first printing of Longbow Hunters from a dealer is just snobbery. There’s no intrinsic value, all the later printings looked pretty much the same. He might get a buck or two for it. But it’s not really very valuable.”

“So a lot of these collector things are just scams?”

“Most of the time. It’s like anything else. Supply and demand. The things that make a comic book valuable are scarcity in tandem with popularity. There are lots of number one issues that are scarce, but they weren’t popular, so no one gives a damn. Like Stalker, or Starfire.”

Although, I thought, I’d totally love to get hold of the original Stalker, just to have to read again.

Carla was still curious, so I explained. “Rarity is kind of a dicey proposition. It’s not enough by itself. The only back issue comics that are genuinely rare, any more, are the ones that came out before there were comics shops all over the place. Anything up to around 1984. After that, it’s probably not worth anything. And even with the older ones it’s like pulling the lever on a slot machine. Might be worth something, might not.”

“How can you tell?” Carla asked immediately. Well, I guess I’d invited that one.

I explained that you looked at the listed price for a quick visual check (anything under sixty cents = probably pre-1984) and where she could find the indicia to get the year and the publisher and so on. “Here’s the thing. There’s two markets for comics. There’s the collectors, who are obsessive about original editions and condition and stuff, and the readers, who just want the stories. But today, publishers have figured that out, and they put everything in paperback collections.

“What that does is largely eliminate the reader market for those back issues. So even though Doug has some old Metal Men there, and those have some value, they don’t have as much value because now the people who just want to read the stories get the paperback instead. See?”

“Yeah, I get it,” Carla said. “That makes sense.”

“Look at it this way,” I went on. “Spider-Man’s very popular. And Amazing Spider-Man #1 is really scarce, plus it’s got historical interest. So that’s a hugely valuable comic book even though it’s been reprinted several times in paperback.

“Web of Spider-Man #1 was a first issue of a pretty popular series, but it came out at the beginning of the comics-shop era, so it’s not terribly scarce. A lot of the people who wanted it got it when it came out. But it’s been enough years that you might get five or six bucks, since I don’t think it’s been reprinted anywhere.

“Spider-Man #1 from Todd MacFarlane was one of those phony collectors-item shucks I was telling you about. It sold in the millions, so it was popular, but as a back issue it’s almost worthless because they printed so many. No scarcity at all. Plus the story wasn’t very good. You might get a buck for it.

“And finally, Amazing Spider-Man #1 from 1999 was an awful story and an unpopular book, it didn’t sell all that well even when it came out despite being a #1. That’s one you see in quarter boxes.”

“Okay,” Carla said. “I think I got it now. So you don’t think there’s much valuable stuff here?”

“I’d have to look,” I hedged. “But probably not. Really the only way to be sure is to look online and see what a particular book sold for on eBay, look at closed auctions.

“That gives you the real dollar figures that someone actually got for the book in question. Anything else is, at some level, wishful thinking.”

She thanked me for my help, we said our goodbyes and that was that. But it reminded me how very many times I’ve had that conversation, explaining to people how their old comics are probably not all that valuable.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, we’re coming off a move…. my comics are in the still-unpacking phase, for the most part, which means this is a good time to go through them. Which I’ve been doing, a little at a time. And my problem is about a hundred times more complex than what Carla’s dealing with.

First of all, I’m not really looking to sell anything. My issue is more organization, access, and storage. Right now those things are in short supply. The mission statement isn’t make money off old comics so much as it is create some elbow room and pare it down to the books I actually want.

What’s more, even if I did want to sell off my old stuff, I’m discovering that– even though I like to think I have a better eye than Carla’s boyfriend Doug– most of my comics are just about as valueless. If I wanted to spend the next five years or so selling them on eBay as single issues, I might get back half of what I put into them. But there’s no guarantee I’d be rid of all of them, and honestly? That’s my primary interest.

Because I’m not a collector. Not really. I have my moments where I look at a completed run and gloat a little, like, say, the Shang-Chi comics I spent the last couple of years tracking down…

…but that’s because I like reading them. I’m a reader.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I enjoy picking through back issue bins, the act of shopping for them, the hunt. I always have one of those that’s kind of simmering on the back burner. Right now my current collector thing is Marvel’s black-and-white Planet of the Apes magazine.

But that’s mostly because I think those are cool books to read. I enjoy the challenge of the hunt, and it’s not likely to be reprinted so I feel justified in getting the back issues… but the prize is still a comic I enjoy, it’s not any kind of a showpiece.

Which leads me to the first of the criteria I have been applying to the books as I’m going through them. Do I enjoy reading it? If the answer is no, over it goes.

That is followed by Am I likely to reread this? That question’s a little trickier to answer.

We’ll take Teen Titans as our test case. I like most of the iterations of the Titans from Wolfman and Perez on up, I have a lot of those books. But where in the past that meant the longbox of Titans books would be an automatic “keep these” and move on to the next series, today it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried.

I have most of the originals… a lot of the older stuff from the early 1980’s, and everything from when the book was relaunched in the nicer format on up.

Do I enjoy those? Well, some of them. Up to about, oh, the Grummett era when the wheels really started to come off the wagon. Somewhere around #80, #85.

The ancillary spin-off series definitely don’t make the cut. I got rid of my run of Team Titans long ago, and the Deathstroke book that launched around this time is also going to be history. I didn’t enjoy them that much and I won’t be rereading them. So there’s no real reason to hang on to the Titans books from this era either; if I’m honest with myself, I will be cutting things off a lot sooner, probably somewhere around the “Who is Wonder Girl” story that began in #50.

But I might be even more ruthless than that. Because — here’s the part where it gets tricky — the stories I am likely to reread are all reprinted in trade paperback.

And I have those, too. Bought them to take to class, the kids were into the Titans when the TV show was on and they were always hounding me to “show us the real one!”

With these paperbacks, the single issues are redundant… and am I likely to reread the others? Probably not. The Barreto stuff is okay but I’m probably not going to pull it out again. I haven’t for the last six years. Again, if I’m honest with myself, these books largely meet my Titans needs.

So everything else goes except the books preceding the relaunch in the new format. Those I’ll hang on to.

What about other Titans books? The Jurgens crew?

Those got dogged a lot and they tanked pretty hard, but I still sort of like them. The run’s not that big and I probably will read them again someday. Plus they’re unlikely to be collected.

And the Devin Grayson revival?

The JLA crossover that launched it was okay. I’ll hang on to that and put it with the other JLA books. The rest can go.

That frees up most of a longbox. Now — what to do with them? I already gave Rachel all my X-Men books. But I can’t dump these on her.

Some for eBay, I suppose. Might try selling some of the Perez ones there. But realistically, no one is going to want the Grummett stuff, or the truly awful Jaaska issues. Probably Goodwill for everything that doesn’t go to my students or the neighbor kids at Halloween.

I admit that as much as it pains me in my OCD collector’s soul to ‘break up a run’ like that, it only hurts for a second. After that it feels… wonderfully freeing. Seriously, I feel about fifty pounds lighter every time I do that. One longbox down… seventeen to go.

The next time I see one of those breathless news articles about how you can make a ton of money by selling old comics? I think I’ll invite the guy who wrote it over here and tell him he can have the proceeds from selling everything I’m getting rid of if he carts it all out of here.

Truthfully, when I heard Doug was interested in back-issue comics I toyed with the idea of making him that very offer; it’d take him years to figure out the books were dogs. But then Carla would be stuck with organizing them, and that’s just mean.

Besides, she’d just call me again.

See you next week.