Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Comics – Creator or Character Part VI: Boom & Bust
The decade of the 90s is looked back upon with a lot of derision. And much of that is deserved. Wizard magazine hit the stands in 1991 and promptly latched on to the speculator market that was running rampant at this time. Providing a price guide while spotlighting “hot” artists and writers as well as back issues that were rising quickly in price, they fed into the frenzy surrounding the comics medium by those who wished to turn a profit by selling their books on the secondary market.
This energized base that viewed comics not as an entertainment medium but as an investment opportunity led to unprecedented sales in the marketplace – X-Men #1 by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee sold over 8 million copies while Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 sold 2.5 million copies. These, and other similar books, were interesting in that the sales were, on the one hand, driven by the high-profile creators on the book (a definite rebuke of Marvel’s and DC’s belief that the artists and writers were interchangeable), and it signaled, to readers at least, that possibly a sea-change was coming within the “big two.” Maybe Marvel and DC would finally start giving the respect due these creative people.
Of course, they didn’t.
The second thing driving the sales of these books, though, was the rise of the variant cover. Comics is a storytelling medium, one that melds art and words in a way that no other medium is able to do. And yet, these large publishing companies decided to market foil-embossed, die-cut images from big-name artists – often artists unable to manage a monthly deadline. X-Men #1 had five different covers – the images of the first four creating the gatefold cover of the fifth cover – and Spider-Man #1 had multiple covers as well – gold and silver inked ones - but they sold. And to this day, they continue to be produced, though on a thankfully smaller scale than in the 90s.
IT’S ALL ABOUT ECONOMICS:
The one economic point that many of these investors failed to take into account is the law of “supply and demand.” We’ve all seen the stories of Action Comics #1 selling for $1.5 million. And people believed if they bought these “hot” comics, they could cash in too.
Of course, the fact that there were 8 million copies of X-Men #1 meant there was the potential for 8 million copies to be put on the auction block. If there are that many copies of a single comic available (and even if only 1% of those copies were put up for auction, there would still be 80,000 copies available, more than most individual comics sell today), then there is no incentive for a buyer to bid a high price, because if he doesn’t get that one, there are still 7,999,999 other copies for him to try and buy.
There is also the disposable nature of comic books. Despite the upgrade in paper and printing over the past couple decades, they are still relatively fragile. If you crease a book, or tear it accidentally, or smudge the cover, or the pages go yellow from age, or they crinkle because of too much humidity, then the book you own is no longer in pristine, mint condition. That means you won’t be getting “primo bank” for your comic when you try to flip it.
It’s only recently – in a relative sense, with regard to the seventy-plus year history of North American comics – that the collectability of comics has become a factor. During its infancy, people did not regard comic books as valuable commodities. They bought them to read and to share with friends and family, and if they ended up in the bottom of a closet after being dog-eared and sullied with luncheon condiments, then so be it. That was the nature of the beast, and nobody really cared because the value had already been obtained through the reading of the comic and the joy and excitement that brought to the reader(s).
This is why high-grade copies of Action Comics #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15 go for such exorbitant prices, because people were not looking toward future investment with these comics and many of them were trashed or damaged to a point where they weren’t worth such a high price. But now, with mylar bags and acid-free backing boards, everyone who’s a collector is working hard to keep their collections in prime condition, in the hopes that one day they might be able to sell them for a mint. It’s too bad because I wonder if these people who are so focused on the collecting aren’t missing out on the enjoyment that comes from sitting down to read a cool comic.
This collector mentality, when it is at the expense of the reading experience of comics, really gets to me. I remember witnessing it first hand at my local comic shop. While browsing the new comics one Wednesday, a father and his young son came into the shop. The boy was very excited and was pulling down a lot of comics to check out. But his father made him put most of those back, instructing his son to only buy first issues because they’d be worth something someday. I couldn’t believe it. Here was an opportunity for this man to get his son into reading, and he squandered it for a useless chance to make money down the road. Money that would never be coming his way.
It was this stupidity and short-sightedness that led to the almost total collapse of the comic marketplace in the mid-90s, as hundreds of comic shops shuttered their businesses when these speculators finally realized there was no money to be gained from what they were doing.
Not even the foil and the holograms could stop the bubble from bursting.