Comics: An Overview
Up until a few years ago I knew the following things about comic book collecting:
- An Action Comics #1 will set you and your family up for the rest of your lives.
- Comic books take up an extraordinary amount of storage space, as they are traditionally stored in “long boxes” which cannot be stacked vertically lest they bend/crush the valuable things inside.
- Most of the books meticulously stored in these boxes are worth a fraction of the cost of an entirely incinerated corner of a page of Action Comics #1.
Now I know the following additional bits of information:
- It is well beyond extremely unlikely that you will find anything even approaching Action Comics #1, no matter how hard you look.
- The small possibility of finding undervalued treasures with lurid illustrations is worth the hunt despite #1.
- There are more efficient ways to store and search for comics than long boxes and a patchy memory.
- When a collector encounters the technology referenced in #3, your comic collection will grow at a much faster rate.
- Many of the new books you encounter will be quite good, challenging your “low culture” expectations of the genre.
The long boxes – at first there were only three or four of them – came into the house through our marriage merger. At first I put them in the same category as the baseball cards and the several boxes of Harper’s back issues. Surely at some point they would migrate into the attic, or go to a thrift store. They persisted, even as the baseball cards went upstairs to the long holding cell that prefaces the slide down to the very bottom of the value ladder (Still holding on to cards? Forget about it. Or come get some of the thousands in our attic, if you can pry them out of their owner’s warm, very much alive hands.).
It seemed that, in principle, I would enjoy comics. I was raised on the pulpiest of the pulpy science fiction and started playing what I could figure was a probably-mostly-right version of Dungeons & Dragons before I was ten years old. But I’d never read a comic book before I was an adult. They were, perhaps, a little too expensive for us. I think being a girl might have had something to do with it, although my father never seemed particularly aware of gendered notions of parenting. I’m not sure that they sold comics at the military commissaries where we shopped, and even if they did, I can imagine Dad saying no. We were a library family. You could read as much as you could borrow, and only special occasions meant that you might own an actual book. Much less a disposable comic book.
So I had no context. I’d read some of the new things called “graphic novels,” when they became fashionable – V for Vendetta, of course, and The Watchmen (although I never understood that book’s particular brilliance until I saw how it operated as a critique). But aside from a love affair with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman in college, I’d never picked up a flimsy paper book to see what was inside. I began to ask about the boxes of comics. Where did they come from? Why were they here? What was their value to my husband?
He told me stories in response. Long, winding, improbable, sometimes cosmic and glorious stories about the characters in the books and their histories. Over hours of close questioning in cars and over meals, he revealed universes so bold but closely held that they stood alone as one of the most high-wire acts in writing. There were so many variants. You could be handed a character with decades of canon and the fans to boot and told to “make it new.” You might be assigned a book that everyone has always hated and told to “make it interesting.” You might be singularly motivated to turn a good title into something great and crazy and eye-popping. You might be a mad genius, inventing your own path with new characters or repurposed cast-offs to make something genuinely new. Or you might just spend a decade writing what was, essentially, a soap opera featuring people with special powers.
These stories are complicated. They span decades of feverishly creative minds and artists trying to sell as many people as possible on all kinds of crazy stuff. And although many of the stories intersect (there are team-ups, cross-overs, random cameos clearly designed to bait fans into picking something entirely second-rate off the shelf because ooh, Wolverine!), they occupy different universes. These days, that’s basically two (yes, of course, indie comics – not going to totally nerd out here). I mention this because even though I’ve been reading comics for a few years now, and even though I’m lucky to have a patient interpreter husband who will tell me the back story and then some (“Wait, what’s the deal with Bullseye?”), I still get DC and Marvel confused. I’ll say things like “Why doesn’t Superman just come in and waste this fool?” (Usual answer: wrong universe.) The more I heard, the more I read. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.
the collection expands
I’ve never especially felt that I wanted to collect anything, even comic books. The collecting impulse feels different from the way I curate my personal library. When you collect, you want the entire (original) run of G.I. Joe. When you curate, you recognize that Hugh Howey’s Wool is brilliant but the rest of the series is disposable. I didn’t want to collect, but I sensed that he wanted to. I was inspired to help this happen. First, I investigated the archiving technology. I found an app to allow him to keep track of his comics in real-time. No more guessing whether he already had Daredevil #312. The phone would allow him to monitor his collection. Second, we needed vertical storage. Research showed that the legal file cabinet was the key: side by side storage, no light exposure, high density. It seemed like only a little while before we went from a few long boxes to several cabinets. Storage somehow expands and accommodates demand. This has allowed us to have an entire room in our house now dedicated to comics – a room I’d initially seen as a place for sun and relaxation, a comfy chair and a martini at the end of the day type space.
We didn’t start off to have a expansive collection of comics. Looking back, it’s hard to explain the new influx except as the result of being, well, lost in Montgomery. You live here for a long time. Friends come and go; they have babies, or move to New York, or circle wagons with their work people. As you get older, it gets harder to make friends. You seek refuge in what makes you happy. If it’s not bourbon, it’s likely to be the euphoria of a well-told story. Whether that’s by Murakami or Remender, you’re operating on the same basic impulse. Some books are just shorter that others. And some have pictures.
I’m writing about the comic collecting ecosystem this month because it’s a fascinating place that hits all rungs of the value ladder. It’s also really how we started going to junk shops in the first place. We’ve come to see it as prospecting. This is a rationalization for canny consumption. But it still feels like an adventure.
On the hunt in Maine
Last year we were in Lewiston, Maine. We had a day or so to kill, so we thought we’d try to figure out where the town’s comics were held. Our operating premise is that every town has people who used to collect (intentionally or not) comics. Most have people who still do. Poking around in junk shops and used bookstores (if a place is lucky enough to have the latter) will give you a good sense of where the stashes might be. If you find a box, sometimes its owner will turn out to have a secret garage full of them. Or they may know a guy. At a junk shop, you’re likely to see two kinds of comics, defined largely by their pricing. Some are priced simply to move – a quarter here, a dollar for this one – by someone who either doesn’t know what they are worth or is too lazy/technologically inept to look up the going rates. Others are priced in a wildly aspirational fashion. They have been deemed “OLD” or “RARE” for no reason (people, being from the 1970s doesn’t make you old and probably not rare except in the all-people-are-special way, so why should some random Spider-Man titles be any different?) and marked way above market prices.
Like every other consumable, comics are worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for them. Unlike lots of other goods, there is, in theory, a master guide to comic book prices. It’s called the Overstreet price guide and it’s very rare to see someone haul it out to look up books. If you want to see that practice in action, visit the Collector’s Corner in Auburn. Be prepared for the smell of cigarette smoke. Most of the time, if you’re dealing with a non-expert, you can expect to either score some bargains or walk away from overpriced hologram covers wedged in between other OLD and RARE back issues of Life magazine. As with coins, condition is a factor – some comics have been poorly stored and get wrinkled, torn or crushed. So is scarcity. The oldest of the old comics are valuable not just because they feature the first appearance of some favorite character, but because there aren’t many around. Comics weren’t meant to be treasured – they were cheaply printed and cheaply treated in MUCH smaller runs than today’s big titles, so the restricted supply tends to drive up their prices, even if the demand isn’t as great as might exist for an early Batman.
Speaking of early Batman, the road to Lewiston had taken us from scenic Bar Harbor down a bookstore trail helpfully mapped out by the Maine Antiquarian Booksellers Association. We’d stopped at a junk shop not on the map in tiny Ellsworth, just to see what they had. We craved a coffee table made out of an old pinball machine and briefly contemplated driving it home to Alabama. We puzzled over a large collection of glass eyes. Then we found the comics, big racks of them, with boxes underneath. The owner knew he had his hooks in us pretty good, and even invited us to look in the “secret room,” which thankfully did not end in our grisly deaths. Although it could have – the precarious shelves of improbably balanced and unmarked boxes seemed ready to collapse at any time. Our stack grew. And grew. Finally we came to the end, the cash register reckoning, the inevitable dickering over the price of a few higher end things. And then he stopped, sizing us up a little bit. Seeing, perhaps, that maybe we were in it for something more.
“I have something else,” he said. “Something I don’t show to many people, but you…you might be interested in it.” He produced a metal army box from somewhere in the giant pile of doll arms, rusty trucks, baggies of costume jewelry and yellowing file boxes behind his desk. He opened it gingerly and turned it to face us with the kind of care I’d always assumed would be given to, say, the Hope Diamond. Inside was a Batman #4. This is not an actual picture of the book we saw.
It was in pretty good shape for a few pieces of colored paper printed in 1940. He wanted several thousand dollars for it. Gulp. Cash only. This seemed like an insane amount of money. But if it was real, if it was in good condition, well…it actually might be a bargain. We thanked him for letting us see it, knowing we would probably never see one in person again, and rushed to the car. To call our dealer. This is a strange thing in the comic world – you have a dealer. In our case, it’s the owner of our own Capitol City Comics. We got Rob on the phone to ask if we should buy it. Never mind that we hadn’t figured out how, exactly, we could make that amount of money appear. He talked us off the fence and we continued on. Because condition is everything, and we’re not experts. There could be any number of small things wrong with that book that we’d never even know about until we sent it off to have an expert grade it.
This is something I didn’t know about before comics – there is a whole professional infrastructure set up to evaluate condition. The way it works is that you send your books off to one of the grading services (the most popular is the Certified Guaranty Company, or CGC) and they give it a number between 0 and 10. Then they put the book into a slab (this is called “encapsulating”) and return it. Only the expensive stuff gets graded and slabbed; it’s not cheap to get your stuff graded professionally, and then the pesky things are hard to store.
We soldiered on to Lewiston. It’s a working class town; at least, it seems like it used to be. Along with neighboring Auburn (the locals call it LA, for Lewiston-Auburn), the metro area had a hard-up, post-industrial feel. Downtown seemed like it was emerging slowly from its wreckage – exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a trove or two of undervalued comics. We were surprised to find two shops selling new issues, and equally surprised not to find boxes of back issues at either place. Where were the city’s comics? We found a used book store of the trade-in-your-genre type, staffed by a crusty man tending an even crustier aquarium. Gently sliding past a duo of elderly Nora Roberts aficionados, amid the macrobiotic cookbooks and right wing manifestos (you can tell so much about the politics of a place by looking in its used book stores), we found a stash. The owner was of the price-em-high school of thought, with an additional wrinkle: the bundle. He’d evidently decided that the key to getting high prices was to sell issues in sets of ten or so, all wrapped up so that you couldn’t judge the quality of the books. We passed, but thought perhaps this gentleman might be the key to the city’s missing stash. After some buttering up, he copped to having a storage unit, or perhaps it was a garage, full of comics. But we’d have to make a date to look through them, and we were scheduled to return home to warmer weather. So we passed.
Lewiston aside, Maine was a bit of a gold mine for my husband. I didn’t get anything of note. I’d say that I don’t buy many comics, but that’s just not true. It’s just that I have discovered my own specific tastes. I’m not a generalist. Sometimes I just like the art – anything atomic or space themed catches my eye, especially if it’s got good mid-century styling. But I also found myself discovering authors who seemed to share my sensibility, or whose writing was similar to other (non-illustrated) fiction that I loved. I discovered China Mieville by experimenting with Dial H for Hero last year, just because I thought the premise was amazing and insane (you go into a phone booth, dial…yes, you guessed it, and become a hero). This led me down a rabbit trail of some of the very best science fiction I’ve ever read (or fantasy, or whatever, those genres are super-blurry at the cutting edge he’s writing from).
One of my favorite comics came from South Alabama, in a big multi-vendor “antique mall” called Mr. Bill’s. It’s near Mobile. The place somehow supported two vendors with comics – one guy with some more high-end “first appearance of some villain or another” type books displayed in Mylar bags on high shelves; the other a more “also I have knives and gently used heavy metal records” type with a couple of random stacks. Here I bought a reprinted version of the first appearance of Captain Marvel. I mostly liked the art. And the price – 50 cents.
I had no idea who Captain Marvel was, or that this particular story was so important in the comics genealogy. But the story, as I read it out loud on the car ride home, was so engaging and improbable that it has come to signify something especially wonderful about comic books. It is almost unnecessary to say that the premise is preposterous. We are, after all, talking about an industry where time travel is about as routine as romance as a plot device.
We begin with young Billy Batson, alone on the streets of the big city. He is homeless and selling newspapers. A mysterious stranger tells Billy to follow him, which of course he does – PSAs about this sort of thing evidently didn’t exist at the time.
A mysterious subway ride later, and Billy meets an old man sitting on a throne. This guy is Shazam. He knows everything about Billy’s life, which he summons before the eyes of Billy and the reader through the amazingly named Historama:
This turns out to be like the Cyclorama except more portable and personalized. Shazam is super old and also there is a giant block suspended above his head by a thread. He’s ready to pass on his powers to Billy, who learns that by speaking the old guy’s name (“SHAZAM!”) he becomes Captain Marvel, the “strongest and mightiest man in the world.” To become Billy, Captain Marvel speaks the name again. This second announcement somehow causes the block to fall on the old guy. There’s no time to mourn his death, because the next thing we know, Billy’s out on the street again selling papers. And he foils a plot, etc.
Captain Marvel didn’t last long- there were some copyright issues. A subsequent version had a doppleganger saying “Kimota!” instead to activate his powers – that’s “atomic” spelled backward, sort of, if you’re interested.
Here’s why this issue, with its stripped down and lovely artwork, appeals to me. First, the Historama aside, it doesn’t mess around with too much back story. We get right to the point. Second, it taps into a deep cross-cultural fantasy: that you were, all this time, meant to be something more than you are. As a child, I read A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett. This caused me to become deeply convinced that I, too, would be pulled from obscurity into better circumstances. I would often say to my mother that she’d be sorry for treating me in a certain way (demeaning stuff, usually, like washing the dishes) when “my real mother” found out.
So far in this series, I’ve talked a lot about how things burden us and can make us sad. I’ve written about consumption’s transient therapy. We grasp at things floating through the waste stream, whether uphill or downhill, as little patches for existential ailments. It’s easier to deal with dread when you have new shoes, or vindication as some kind of thrift store conquistador. All of us have giant blocks hanging over our head. All of us need magic words to get by.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I tell myself a story. It’s always a story I know well, so I don’t have to stay awake for the ending. Insomnia will make you crazy because it’s full of stories that have no end. Narrative is a good solution, letting the structures, characters and processes lull you into dreams that (if you’re lucky) transport you, down past the surface tension of worry and regret into the deep and hopeful structures of your imagination.
Lately, I’ve been telling Billy’s story. Which makes no sense. It’s not an especially good story. It’s not likely to happen to me (or anyone, especially as modern children are hopefully disinclined to follow strangers into subway stations). What Shazam provides is the murmur of destiny, combined with the idea that just one word could transform you. That’s the stuff of genius. No need to find a phone booth to change, no need to be some rich guy with a cave full of bats and gadgets. Just you and your bright future, separated by a few mystic syllables – all for just fifty cents.
Note: If you’re interested in viewing free comics online, I highly recommend visiting Comic Book Plus and the Digital Comic Museum, free to register and chock full of wonderful old comics. Images above are thanks to the Digital Comic Museum archive.