Over the past weekend I went to the Philadelphia Wizard World ComicCon. Amid the bustling crowd of costumers, nerds, bargain hunters and children, I had a few select interactions that made me come to a horrifying conclusion.
Comic book collecting will die.
Not comic books, per se, but the entire collecting infrastructure will implode.
Now if you are, like most Americans in 2011, very short-sighted in your economic history, you will probably already say “it’s dead, it collapsed in the 1990s when there were 400 variant Spawn hologram foil gatefold covers and Wolverine effectively became the Marvel logo since he appeared on every cover.”
That’s true, but similar to the current recession, we have no sense of perspective in the markets. We do not remember the 1970s oil crisis, recession, and inflation, which came at a decimating time as manufacturing moved overseas in bulk (again, let’s not have a shortview; outsourcing is a recent buzzword, but Wal-Mart would not have risen to prominence if decades of contracts for consumers goods weren’t already moved and at full steam in factories overseas). My intent is not an economics lesson, but I have to first explain to the lurkers and internet snipers that Comic Collecting is a multidecade phenomenon that goes far beyond the media’s “kinda sorta” acceptance from the past 10-20 years. The “Death of Superman” drives short-term sales and new readers without high disposable income. The long-term collector is an aging population of old men who, as I learned this weekend… are jerks.
As an early onset middle-aged man, I find that I am more often the exception, going up to comic book dealers and asking about a yellowing copy of Captain Midnight, poking around and asking to go behind the counter to look at a valuable book, and often they are shocked when “The Kid” (that’s me) asks how much for a copy of Whiz Comics, and what they can do about the price for a cash discount.
I had contacted one of the dealers during the week and asked about brining in some Silver Age & Bronze Age X-Men for sale or trade. He said no problem. So I went to this person, someone I have made purchases from in the past, and brought my bag to his table. I introduced my self, and gave him the stack. He thumbed through half of the books (leaving the last 5-10 in a perfectly neat pile without even seeing the covers and he said “Too low-grade”.
I held my poker face as long as I could before picking up the stack with a flippant gesture and walking away. I can deal with the concept that someone is not interested in these particular books for sale or trade. Just be honest as a decent human being and say “I’m not looking for these”. At least pantomime the gestures of thumbing through the stack and actually LOOK at all my books. There were only about 30. Don’t lie to me. And finally, if they are indeed too low-grade, you’re feeding into a trend I’ve seen where books are now being skewed as trash or treasure only.
I want to reiterate, if you are a private businessman, in any career, do not lie to people. DO. NOT. LIE. I have ZERO reason to now trust this person for any business. Tell me you are not interested in the books. I’m not asking for a Sherlock Holmes inspection, but at least finish thumbing through the stack (It took him less than 10 seconds to scan the first half of the books. Side note; am I supposed to be impressed by your ability to “grade” comics so quickly? It makes me doubt your abilities to price your inventory. Severely.)
Let’s get back to my comment on trash or treasure, as this is leading to my underlying argument. Comic collectors are becoming more and more fickle about prices. If you want a good copy just to read, you can find one very cheap on eBay. Comics such as X-Men 101 (Phoenix! Holla!) are being driven up to insane values for near mint/CGC 9.8 copies… AND THESE ARE PRETTY COMMON. Incredible Hulk 181, the first appearance of Wolverine, continues to swell in price even though it is a widely available book AND you can have a monkey type in google and find a high-grade copy.
Many articles have been written recently covering the million dollar copies of Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27, as well as the recent sales records for Amazing Fantasy #15, X-Men #1 and other books of significance, but one major underlying factor is these comics are rare. I can hear you fanboys making collective groans, since rare is a relative term (get out your Gerber Guide and Overstreet arguments for and against scarcity) but even in the case of X-Men #1, there are not many near mint copies in existence; this was a book that was almost cancelled and barely floated along while REPRINTING issues as part of the continuing run on a bi-monthly schedule. Incredible Hulk #181 is not in this boat, folks.
I can buy a copy of X-Men #1 for under $1000 in a fair to good condition if the auction is right. Try that with Marvel Comics #1 or Detective #27. These early books are indeed rare collectibles, which is not exclusive to the comic industry. The comic collecting industry can (and will) drop dead and not affect the value of these singular instances.
The dealers are now trying to hoard these mint copies of books. They have zero interest in the middle grades, and are willing to cut deals or sell in bulk to clear these out, driving down prices by flooding the market and decreasing demand for a population that is arguably dying off. Digital comics and trade paperbacks continue to gain momentum. As a kid, I bought comics to enjoy them, and found out years later about the value. An 8-year-old today is not going to look at a thumb drive in 5 years and say “gee, some of these files went up in value”. The top branches are being cutoff of the collecting tree by the new consumer model, which is okay with me since new content is still being provided, but the collectors will be a continually diminishing population.
Now I do look at the view that the higher quality stuff may be the only stuff of importance to a shrinking population. If there are only 3 hyenas instead of 10 in a pack, those 3 will compete harder for the prime rib on a wildebeest (yes, that’s spelled correctly, odd word…) instead of the ankle meat.
But there’s no need to lie and be a jerk. The slippery slope here is that if people are being turned away from selling decent copies of books. why bother collecting them… or the high grades. This isn’t some exclusive billionaire boys club. These are $10-1000 books. If some dealer is going to think he’s “the man” because he has a large number of comic assets under management, he should remember that paper is only worth the value someone else will pay for it. You don’t gain or lose money on a share of stock until you sell it, and as the baseball card market knows, having $100,000 in boxed sets in 1990 means nothing in 2011.
I do buy comics, I do buy high-grade ones. I have goals though. I would never collect anything I don’t enjoy. If the monetary value is zero, I will still own something I like and can display. I began my quest to collect X-Men #1-201 by getting ANY condition possible. I’ll take a running rusty ’69 Mustang over having mint hubcabs and an unused factory stock steering wheel. As I upgrade my collection, I release the lesser quality copies back into the pool. But if that pool is getting smaller, and the upgrade tiers are getting further apart, one has to wonder if the community is building a Tower of Babel, while simultaneously surrounding it with the Walls of Jericho.
Ease of entry to market is a principle in evaluating monopoly businesses, and thus enables supply and demand to control and extend price elasticity. The current comic market is showing that one side is skewing very high, and the other is skewing low. It’s almost turning into an anti-bell curve. If this separation continues, it will pull the sides apart leading to complete segregation, and two lesser organisms that may not survive at all on their own.
For these reasons, as someone with 25+ years of comic collecting experience, I blame this gentleman at Wizard World as one example.
It’s not slander to accuse someone of lying when they do not look at all the presented inventory and reject it (especially when some of the books are right there in his bins). But it is a reason to suggest that someone does not do business with this person. I’ll let him remain nameless though. Do I want him to go out of business? Hardly. Yee have to remember not to bite the hand that feeds you in a dying hobby.