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Friday, November 01, 2013 

Old pamphlets may not have much value, and if they do, it's diminishing fast

Businessweek's written about collectors who hoped to make fortunes off their collections of old comics that could date back to the Golden Age, yet it turns out they're reselling for less and less all the time. For example:
Barry T. Smith, 44, spent most of his life collecting comic books. And he always considered them an investment. “These books would someday be college tuition, or a house down payment,” Smith remembers thinking. “I would lay them all out in my parents’ living room, sorting them, cataloging them, writing down entries on graph paper while cross-referencing them against the Overstreet Price Guide.”

After college he landed a tech job in Silicon Valley but held on to all 1,200 of his comics, including several hundred early issues of Marvel’s (DIS) X-Men, which his research suggested had grown in value every year. The comics sat in a storage unit, boarded and bagged, for close to two decades. When Smith found himself unemployed and in need of money to support his wife and two daughters, he decided the time was right to cash in on his investment.

The entire collection sold for about $500. “I’m not too proud to admit, I cried a bit,” Smith says.
Once, those issues might have all sold together to make several thousand off of. But, as is becoming apparent, the chances these famous old pamphlets have of making big money on each individual copy are decreasing, even as we speak.
Stories like these are a stark contrast to what’s typically reported. To go by media accounts, 2013 has been a huge year for the vintage comic market. A Minnesota man found a copy of Action Comics No. 1—the first appearance of Superman, published in 1938—in a wall of his house and sold it for $175,000 in June. Three decades ago a different copy of the same comic sold for about $5,000, a record at the time. In August, meanwhile, Heritage Auctions hosted a comic-oriented event in Dallas where a highly-graded copy of the 1940 comic Batman No. 1 sold for a staggering $567,625. A recent piece on the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch website was especially enthusiastic about comics as an investment strategy, calling them “more predictable than stocks” and “recession-proof.” Old comics, the author suggested, could even save your home from foreclosure.

Outlandish claims and tales of amazing windfalls elicit only groans from Rob Salkowitz, a business analyst and author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. He also happens to be, in his own words, “a guy in his 40s with a basement full of old comics.” He warns that too many people have been deluded into thinking they are sitting on a comic book gold mine.

“There are two markets for comic books,” Salkowitz says. “There’s the market for gold-plated issues with megawatt cultural significance, which sell for hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars. But that’s a very, very, very limited market. If a Saudi sheik decides he needs Action Comics No. 1, there are only a few people out there who have a copy.” And then there’s the other market, where most comics change hands for pennies and nobody is getting rich or even breaking even. “The entire back-issues market is essentially a Ponzi scheme,” Salkowitz says. “It’s been managed and run that way for 35 years.”
First, I think I'll take a moment to note that, on the one hand, I don't really see a Saudi sheik caring to buy a classic copy of Action Comics numero uno if he's the kind of Islamofascist who hates Jews and knows Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were 2 Jewish guys who created the Man of Steel, and, on the other hand, I don't think I'd want to sell one to an Islamofascist who doesn't deserve it since he adheres to the Religion of Peace, so that's an awfully clumsy citation Salkowitz is using there.

But apart from that, he and Businessweek have done a great service by letting anybody uncertain know that, contrary to what we've been told earlier, making big money off of old pamphlets simply isn't guaranteed to result in an avalanche of money being paid to the merchant. Certainly not in an age when the USA is suffering from recession that could make the sale of comics all the more unreliable as an investment.
Todd McDevitt, who owns a chain of five comic book stores in Pennsylvania, remembers when Superman No. 75, published in 1992 and featuring the death of the hero, was selling for $75. Today, collectors are lucky to get $8. “I still get calls from folks who think they can retire after buying what they thought was the ‘last’ Superman,” McDevitt says. (Death, of course, proved only a temporary setback for the Man of Steel and his comics.)
Personally, I'm wondering if and why they weren't disappointed DC was allegedly getting rid of Superman in 1992. What, don't they like Superman?!? If he were being killed off at the time, that would be sad. Why should a wonderful hero's death be something to celebrate by getting rich off the back issues? As the article notes earlier, the guy who collected early X-Men issues wasn't doing it because he loved the stories, but rather, because he thought they'd make some big bank notes. What has gone wrong with some people, who care less about the joys of reading than the sound of ka-ching? I realize that making a living is important, but this, IMHO, is the wrong way to do it. It's only had the effect of destroying the potential of the medium, and still is.
There are many theories for why comic collectibles have stopped being valuable. Some blame readily available reprints. “What drove the collectibility of the old comics was that they were once genuinely rare,” says Salkowitz. Others point to the grading system, which now requires that comics be encased in plastic polymer. “It really is a shady process that’s completely changed the marketplace,” says Santoro. And there’s reason to suspect that the Internet era has yet again worked its magic on prices: “In the ’60s, the only way to read these stories was to own the original issues,” says Salkowitz. “Now you can go on Pirate Bay and download a torrent of anything you want for free.”
Can you? I once tried that, and the package I downloaded via torrent didn't work; I couldn't open all the files and pictures to look at the story. Not all these programs are what they could be.

And the real shady process I see here is a mentality that turns reading material into moneymaking objects on the speculator market. I thought all those reprints of classic tales was a good thing, and they're coming close to making it sound bad. I can understand that some people selling their comics need to do it when the budget is tight. But there's still a lot of other, better ventures they could try out for investing, like paintings, sculptures and artifacts. Even old clothes could have some value, if it hasn't been worn out. How about the earliest plastic products? I'm sure there's many more items other than comics out there that would make great investments and lots of money to go with them.

One thing I rarely ever see in articles like this one about investments is the collectors talking about whether they enjoyed the stories when they first read them in their youth, and if they think other people would like to sit back on the sofa and spend their time reading a nice bundle of them too. That's the real reason they should sell them, in hopes they'll find a buyer looking for some fun pastime, who can now have the pleasure of finding out what made the stories such great reads for their previous owners, and if the stories will make ideal sources of mirth for their children. You'd think that would be a great cause for selling from one person to another, but it never seems to happen, and the owners don't talk about how much they loved reading the stuff as kids, and some of them didn't even buy them for that purpose.

However, I do know some comics that are rare for now, if only because they're not reprinted: Chuck Dixon's run on Robin, which, along with at least 2 miniseries from the early 90s, only got one reprint for the first several issues, and very little or none of what came after ever got reprinted in trades. Even some of Doctor Strange's subsequent adventures from the 80s/90s have yet to be reprinted. Some of the Punisher's older series written by Dixon and Mike Baron haven't been reprinted either. The Shadow War of Hawkman miniseries from 1985 by Tony Isabella is another example of a good tale gathering dust and never reprinted. And if they were, they've gone out of print since, and not necessarily because nobody was buying. It's because the people who took over the big two disliked Dixon, whom they apparently consider somebody who stands for all they've come to shun, and since that time, they've ostracized people like him, while others are forced to keep silent out of potential fear they'll lose the royalties they're being paid (Len Wein got some for the creation of Bruce Wayne's company exec named Lucius Fox). I wonder how much people would be willing to pay for all those for the precise purpose of actually reading them? Though a paperback would be a much better way to introduce an audience to all those latter day gems today.

I feel sorry for some of the people who bought famous comics more as an investment than for the fantastic escapism the older tales offer, and hope they at least knew better than to buy early Image titles like Rob Liefeld's monstrosities on the assumption they'd make bank. If the stories and artwork are awful, why would anybody who cares about their own financial situation want to buy those? It would easily turn them into laughingstocks. There's no money in poor artwork. Only if the story and art are decent will there be even remote value, and even then, they should be bought more for the storytelling value. A shame that not all have learned the lesson from the early 90s when the speculator market brought down the medium.

And reprints of the best comics, IMO, should be viewed as a good thing, so that everybody can have the pleasure of sitting back and digging the best adventure tales comics had to offer in the past century since the Golden Age.

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The collecting mentality is one thing that pisses me off. I like to read my comics, not put them in plastic bags and save them for "when they're more valuable."

I think they should reprint the stories you mention. I think the big reason why they haven't reprinted Dixon's work is because he is a conservative who works in an industry dominated by liberals.

And one sad thing I've noticed is that lately when I've gone to the comics section of Barnes and Noble... half the comics are either New 52 and/or Marvel NOW. It's hard to find the classic stuff when it's being obscured by the modern junk.

In fairness, everything really de-appreciates anymore, especially with the rise of eBay, which ironically made things easier to sell. I tried to sell some action figures at what I thought was a reasonable price, some time ago, and got nowhere. Unless I want to sell them at a fraction of what I paid for them, decades ago, it's not worth the bloodbath. "I paid 40 for this, and the best I can get is 15?!"

And I have stories about selling antique furniture, but at least THAT can bring in something.

And torrents are a pain, and leave at that.

And I'm really not crazy about the grading system, either and the zipping them into a mini-vault, which hardly seems worth it.

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