Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Comic Economy

I ran a comic book shop for at least seven years, beginning around 1990. In 1990, there was a small but dependable demand for traditional "superhero" books published by the two 'powerhouse' publishers, Marvel and DC, Spider-man and Batman being respective examples of popular superhero books, as well as a growing readership of what were called "independent" comics.

Independent comics such as: Cerebus; Love and Rockets; Flaming Carrot; Weirdo and Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman were published by small companies ( some, such as Cerebus, directly by the author ) and had an audience for one reason- the books were fun to read, even for adults. Especially for adults.

It wasn't long before Marvel and DC noticed that adults were buying comics, but not their comics. The grown-ups were reading "indie" books. What to do?

The Big Two "loosened up" a little, DC in particular. They allowed a writer/artist named Frank Miller, who had already broken fresh and controversial ground with his re-working of Daredevil, one of Marvel's lesser characters, to write an "alternate" Batman book, The Dark Knight Returns. Dark Knight, along with other DC books such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta proved that there was a lucrative audience for "mature readers" comic books.

All of that was old news by the time I arrived, quite by accident, on the comics scene. When I started shilling books, the "cool" book-of-choice was a DC title named Sandman, written by some guy named Neil Gaiman. I myself was a huge fan of that book and I was really glad that the early issues were re-printed in trade paperback 'graphic novel' form because not only were those issues good reading, they were also scarce commodities. The early issues were printed in small numbers and became more scarce and expensive as Sandman gained new readers.

Meanwhile, a much larger, but less readable phenomena was occurring at Marvel and aimed at the unsophisticated younger "collector". Not reader. Collector.

An artist named Todd McFarlane had gained a huge readership on the Marvel title, The Amazing Spider-man for his intricate, stylized rendition of Spider-man. Marvel took a chance and let Todd -who was an artist, not a writer- have complete control over a brand new title, simply called "Spider-Man"

This book was released in at least a half-dozen different "collector" editions, most of which were sealed inside plastic bags, making it impossible to read them without tearing the bag, thus destroying the collector value. To get around this, "serious" collectors would buy multiple copies - one to read, the rest to "save".

(Digress to interject Allan's Law , #1: If it says "collector's item" on it, it isn't. )

The book, which on the inside was a sloppy, unreadable mess, was a huge sales success, the biggest in comics history at that time. Despite a massive print run, it was in great demand.
There were also a number of low-print "special cover editions", available only in certain was all very confusing.

Shady dealers created their own artificial shortages. Here's a typical example:

Kid (holding four dollars): "Do you have a copy of Comic X #1 ?"

Dealer: "No. It's sold out. I'm trying to get more though."

The dealer would have a pile of Comic X #1 stashed away in the back room- he only answered "no" because he knew that the same kid would come back the next day and ask the same question, only next time the kid would be holding five dollars.

Anyway, before long, almost every "hot" comic was coming out in multiple editions, packaged with trading cards, festooned with holographs and almost always sealed in plastic. What was once a quick, disposable read was suddenly a precious treasure that would be ruined just by looking at it.

This cycle of pre-fab "collector's item" hit it's peak when DC decided to "kill" Superman. Much media attention was given to the six-issue "event", which culminated in Superman being beaten to death by a big alien monster or something. The press pushed the idea onto the public that the book -which came sealed in a black plastic bag- was going to be a huuuge, history-making collector's item and that everyone should buy one now and hoard it for years to come.

The same day the book- published price $2.95- came out, certain dealers were selling "investment" copies for twenty dollars or more, limit five to a customer, hahaha...a lot of people who hadn't so much as glanced at a comic in years got fleeced by unsavory comics hustlers.
Trust me on this.

Thing is, DC printed a lot of that comic. Plenty for everyone, despite widespread "shortages"...there are so many of them in existence that they are worse than can't even read the damned thing, it's sealed in plastic.

Eventually, the price of that comic dropped well below the original price.
Hard-core collectors who "stocked-up" got burnt.
Novice hoarders who thought they were financing Junior's tuition with a handful of comics got burnt.
Dealers who overestimated the sustainability of the market got stuck with case after case of unsellable product. Many comics shops closed.

Today you can find a copy of Superman #75 (the bagged one) on-line for 99 cents. If you went to a comic show, you could probably find one for a quarter, but at one time the going price was over fifty dollars and they were in "short supply". A lot of people sank a lot of money into a product that had nothing but imaginary value.
Superman #75 is not an interesting read, it has no great artistic vision, it was just a product cynically engineered to maximize short-term profit. It worked.

Today, there are millions of copies of Superman #75 gathering dust in attics and closets across the nation. People who bought them as investments took a beating.

The only thing missing from this story is the happy ending- the one where the Government comes in and gives the comics dealers fifty dollars for every copy of Superman #75 that you got ripped off on.

Happy now?


yellowdog granny said...

your so smart....

I never was into cousins would all be reading comics and I'd be reading H. Allan Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs,Robert Ruark, and Fred Allan.

angel said...

hhmmm... praps i should open a comic book store now?

AC@45 said...

This was around the time that I stopped buying comics. Though I do have the McFarlane Spiderman (
two copies) and Superman (2 copies) .. though I didn't pay $25 .. I think I bought it for $1.50

Lyzard said...

The only 'collector's edition' comic I have is a leatherbound version of the Sandman trade, Season of Mists, which Craig gave me the day we met. He wrote a note inside about the uncanny common interests we shared and a wish to discover more over time.

A few years later Craig took me to a Gaiman book signing. I brought my Season of Mists and Neil signed the same page with the note "Sweet Dreams".

It wouldn't fetch it's shipping cost on the open market, but no one could ever offer me enough to part with it. :)