Friday in the Bank Vault

Here's a question I've heard many, many times over my forty-plus years of reading comics. The first time was probably when I was about eleven. The most recent was last week. I bet a lot of you have heard it too.

"What's the most valuable comic book you own?"

Most of the time, I usually answer something to the effect of, "That whole idea of back issues of comics being worth zillions of dollars is a crock. It's a myth perpetuated by the people trying to sell price guides. When I want to get rid of old comics we give them to my students or pass them out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween."

This is true. As a general rule, whenever Rachel or another of the grads comes and does a chore for me at the studio, she gets paid in old comics and as far as I know the kids find it far more satisfying than cash. (Though sometimes I'll guiltily throw in a $20 bill on top of it because when the girls leave here with a big box of comics I'm tired of tripping over, it feels to me like I'm getting two chores done instead of one.)

So, despite the fact that I am living surrounded by old books and comics and could probably swim around in them like Scrooge in his money bin if I wanted to, I don't think they're worth a whole lot.

Last week, though, when I encountered this question yet again, I got to wondering about it. There are a couple of good ones in here... but I've never actually sat down and figured out the net worth of the things. If my home burned to the ground tomorrow, what would hurt the most to lose? What's impossible to replace? Maybe I should think about getting a safety-deposit box for some of these.

I can easily tell you what the oldest comic here is. That's The Lone Ranger #13, from 1949.

Mile High Comics currently has a Fine copy going for $88.00, which is not a bad hunk of change. But it's nowhere near what I paid for mine. I spent sixteen dollars for mine at a con a couple of years ago, largely because Julie wanted a Peanuts comic next to it on the display and the guy offered us two-for-one. (They were each priced at $32 and two-for-one made it sixteen each.) Looking on eBay I see one for $14.99 and another for $12.75. So maybe that's not quite safety-deposit box material after all.

Based strictly on what I paid, that means the next-highest ranked would be Flash #178.

That one cost me fifteen dollars, back in 1990. I would have paid a lot more -- that book has huge sentimental value for me. It was the first comic book I ever bought off the stands, back in 1968. Mom gave me a quarter at Village Drug and that's what I spent it on, starting me on the journey that eventually landed me here writing these words for you. That alone probably makes it safety-deposit box material, but it's not signed or anything. Overstreet puts it at a high of $202 for Near Mint all the way down to $8 for Good. I daresay mine falls somewhere in the Very Fine range which puts it at $58.

But, as I have said many, many times, Overstreet is not a reliable way to check these things. Looking on actual dealer sites and eBay, the highest is $89, which strikes me as ludicrous, and the lowest is $8. (Kudos to the latter guy for his honesty.) Most of them are in the $25-$30 range.

So, if I lost mine in a fire, I'd be out fifteen dollars and another fifteen or so to replace it with a copy of equal condition. That would suck... but it's not like it's irreplaceable.

Of course, "what I originally paid" isn't always a reliable scale either, because prices fluctuate, especially when stuff gets reprinted. I have a number of nice copies of the early Marvel black-and-white magazines, of which the showpieces are probably the early issues of Savage Tales.

Generally, I got my copies at between $2 and $3 each, usually at convention sales and on eBay. I spent an entertaining couple of years tracking down these and others -- Savage Sword of Conan, Kull and the Barbarians -- on eBay and at shows, because I had fond memories of the old Savage Sword and it didn't seem likely that anyone would be doing trade collections of them. So, of course, Dark Horse started doing exactly that as I was closing in on a complete set of the originals.

Today I'm more interested in the post-Conan Savage Tales, the Ka-Zar issues.

There were seven Ka-Zar issues in all, #5 to #11. I have four of them. (I fully expect Marvel's announcement of Essential Ka-Zar right around the time I track down the other three.) The Overstreet values on these are through the roof, but out here in the real world, you can get pretty much any issue of the original Savage Tales you want for $7 to $10 each, and that includes the issues with the Barry Smith version of Conan in "Red Nails." So they've doubled in price from what I paid, but that's still not a value high enough to worry about keeping them under glass.

Then there's the bundle of Green Lantern comics from the early 60s that I paid a total of $31 for back in 1988. Those must have gone up in price since then.

Two are what are commonly referred to by collectors as "keys," meaning there's some sort of notable first appearance or something. #7 is the first Sinestro story, and #16 is the first appearance of Star Sapphire.

The other three are moderately important as well; #19 is the third Sonar story, #20 is the third Flash/Green Lantern team-up, and #24 has the origin and first appearance of the Shark.

I didn't actually know any of this when I bought them -- Don, my guy at the old Time Travelers comics shop, set them aside for me, knowing I liked Green Lantern, and offered me a bulk deal on the lot. $31 is what we settled on. (He said $35, I showed him that I only had $31 in cash in my wallet, and he grinned and nodded and said "Close enough." That was typical Don.)

Man, I miss that shop. It was beat-up and on a really bad street corner -- that intersection is still a little sketchy today, but it used to be the hangout for junkies and gang kids back in the 1990s. However, the shop itself was clean and pleasant, and Don and his wife Crystal were just lovely people. It was homey in a way that I haven't seen in a comics retailer since then.

...sorry, digressing. Anyway, the market value on those Green Lantern books today is a little difficult to assess. The stories themselves have been reprinted in both Showcase and Archive formats, so people who just want to read them are much more likely to purchase one of those.

That leaves the hard-core collectors as the only potential buyers for these... and honestly, after being around comics for over forty years I still can't make sense of the collector market. There's just no way to tell how high or low those guys are willing to go. Looking at auction sites I see these books ranging from nine dollars to six hundred apiece. Just eyeballing it, most dealers appear to be asking $20-$30 for each, which is, again, a fair hunk of dough but not that exorbitant. On the other hand, if I were to lose these I think I'd probably just buy the Showcase Presents Green Lantern volumes and call it done.

Same goes for books like Sandman and so on. I have complete runs of a lot of that early Vertigo material... and I see that dealers are apparently getting insane prices for Very Fine and Near-Mint copies of those books, which is where mine would rank. (Making my point for me about collector insanity -- out-of-print stuff from fifty years ago selling for less than ten percent of the average collector price of a 1989 book featuring a story that's never been out of print ever. I mean, this guy is clearly sniffing glue or something.... though he does offer free shipping!)

If I was smart I'd put my run of Sandman issues up on eBay and replace them with the trade paperback collections... and now that I think about it I might do that. But it's certainly not safety-deposit box stuff. If anything, the collector value is an argument to liquidate those books now before these lunatics come to their senses.

I do have a few things that are genuine collectibles... mostly 1970s-era experiments, precursors to today's graphic novel.

All four issues of Ariel, three of the Byron Preiss Fiction Illustrated, stuff like that. But those are more collectible for the historical interest than the actual cash value. I certainly didn't pay more than $5 for any of them, and I think I dug out most of that stuff on Amazon for $3 or thereabouts.

The truly irreplaceable items are original art pieces -- a couple of Tom Beland pages, the Alberto Giolitti Sgt. Preston page Julie found at Goodwill, Dan DeCarlo's lovely self-portrait that he gave to the cartooning class a decade ago -- and quite a few books that are signed.

I'm of two minds about signed books. On the one hand, I would never spend extra money on a book just because it was autographed. To me that just feels silly.

On the other hand, I treasure the autographed books that I have here. Because the real value of a signed book to me is the fun of getting it signed. My stance is that it's not the signature that's important except as a souvenir of the meeting, a tangible memento. It's the experience itself that's the important part.

Of those, I have four favorites among the signed souvenirs here.

There are two from Greg Rucka, not strictly comics but close enough.

The hardcover first editions of both his novelization of Batman: No Man's Land, and the first Queen and Country novel, A Gentleman's Game. The reason I'm so fond of those is because they weren't from a crowded con, but rather quiet bookstore signings, and each one was accompanied by a pleasant, low-key conversation. (A Gentleman's Game, in particular; that was at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and it was just me, Julie, the bookstore clerk, and Greg Rucka chitchatting and hanging out for half an hour or so. I daresay it was a disappointing turnout for Mr. Rucka and especially for the bookstore guy, but Julie and I sure enjoyed it a lot.)

There's my Doc Savage magazine that was signed by both Tony DeZuniga and the late Marshall Rogers.

That one I value partly out of sheer fanboy geekiness -- when I was a youngster Tony DeZuniga was drawing pretty much all my favorite Marvel comics at one time or another, particularly the black-and-white stuff like Doc Savage and the Robert E, Howard books. (And of course he also did a magnificent Jonah Hex.) What was fun about that meeting was finding out that he too loved the black-and-white line at Marvel and was very sad to see it go.

And we met Marshall Rogers at a little show at Seattle Center not too long before he passed away.

He signed that same Doc issue for me, as well as doing a delightful drawing of the Foozle for the cartooning class scrapbook.

(I suppose the class scrapbook itself is the most valuable piece here, but I think of that as belonging to my students, not me. More samples from that are here, if you are interested.)

Anyway, because it was such a tiny little show, there were no lines or crowds to speak of. Marshall Rogers spent quite a while talking to Julie and me, and I remember especially how pleased he was at Julie complimenting him on his Doc being more lean and realistic-looking than the steroid case Ken Barr had done for the cover. Just a really, really nice man, and it's a damn shame that he's gone. He died way too young.

I guess the showpiece among the signed books is my hardcover of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

That became my personal con scrapbook of sorts. If I was going to put anything into a safe-deposit box, this would be it.

I spent about five or six years filling this up, it traveled with me to every show I attended until I'd pretty much gotten everyone I'd hoped for to sign it. (It started as "everybody who was in it," and morphed over the years to "everyone who'd done a Batman story I liked.") Every signature has a little story or anecdote, and looking at it today it makes me a little sad to see how many of these folks are no longer with us... Dick Sprang (who, when I admitted that I'd started my art career by trying to swipe his stuff when I was eight, said I honored him by saying that and wanted to hear all about the magazine production job I was doing at the time) Arnold Drake (who had a hilariously rude Bob Kane anecdote to share), Jim Mooney (who said sadly that he felt hopelessly out-of-date when he looked at new DC books, and since this was the early 90s it was a sentiment I largely shared) Julius Schwartz (he had another hysterical Bob Kane story) and most recently Dick Giordano (who struck me as having the gentlest soul I'd ever seen in a comics pro.)

If I was going to put anything in a bank vault, it'd be that Batman book, I suppose. Certainly it's the most valuable one to me. But I don't even have a guess as to what the actual cash value of it would be. In fact I was always ridiculously conscientious about asking the artists and writers who've signed it to personalize it to me -- not because I'm so thrilled with seeing my name there, or because I wanted to promote the idea that I was a close personal friend... but because I wanted them to know that it was for me and I was going to treasure the memento, not sell it.

Because at every convention I've gone to with the intention of getting it autographed, I always seem to end up in line behind the guy that's getting ten copies of the same book signed so he can seal them in mylar and offer them on eBay at vastly inflated prices.

I'm terrified of being seen as that guy. Because I think that guy is a dick. I don't expect any of the professionals who've signed books of mine to remember me, but I'd hope they at least realized I wasn't standing in line just so they could turn a pile of my books into an eBay bonanza.

Honestly? This is why I hardly ever tell people who ask me about my "valuable comics" about the Batman book, or any of the others. It's probably also why I don't really ever seriously consider putting any of them in a vault somewhere. Because it smacks of being the collector who sees everything in terms of Near Mint CGC ratings or current Overstreet value or whatever.

And I think I'd rather let the whole collection burn to ashes than turn into that guy. That's not why I fell in love with comics, and it sure as hell isn't what I think about when I think about the 'valuable' ones I have here.

See you next week.

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