Today, a piece in The Hollywood Reporter basically told its readers that their comic book collections were worthless. While all of the information presented in that report was technically correct, things aren’t quite as dire as the piece claims for the market of what are known as “back-issues.” The headline specifically mentions 1991’s X-Force #1 by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld as a sign that comic book values have gone into the dumps, but right there the conceit presents a bit of a distortion.
You see, the 1990s were a very different time for comics, and was probably the most profitable point in the entire industry’s history. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for certain issues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but beyond that, the highest selling individual issues of all time were also sold during that period. Print runs were enormous to meet the demand of speculators that came through the doors of specialty stores, but this was also a time when comics were sold frequently in places like grocery stores, gas stations, and 7-Elevens. Today, the availability of individual print issues is largely limited to comic book specialty stores and book stores.
The highest-selling comic book ever also came in 1991, in the form of Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men (vol. 2) #1. Pre-order sales on that issue came in at a staggering 8.1 million copies, a record still firmly in place today. Anything the X-Men touched turned to gold, causing a number of once-minor characters to receive their own ongoing titles. The result was a market that was absolutely flooded with comics, and they were available basically everywhere. To make matters more complicated, publishers like Marvel and DC boldly proclaimed on the covers of several of their issues that you were holding a “collector’s item,” and produced sometimes dozens of variant covers for single issues.
The resulting perception of the 1990s by the modern comic book fan is largely not exactly positive. While certain stories and events from that era are still well-regarded (For example The Death of Superman, Knightfall, and the launch of Spawn and Image Comics), many staples of 1990s comics are now largely derided by both the fans that bought into those concepts during that era, and the new fans that have since been brought in. Stories like “The Clone Saga” in the series of Spider-Man comics and outlandish and dated character designs all highlight how that era got so…messy, and as a result, by the mid-to-late 1990s, the comic book industry seriously atrophied.
As a comic book fan and my work as a retailer starting in the 2000s, I entered a very different comic book market. Gone are the days of the million-selling single issue. In fact, the highest selling comic book of the century thus far is January 2009’s Amazing Spider-Man #583, which featured a variant cover and back-up story showing Spider-Man saving then-President-elect of the United States Barack Obama from harm at his inauguration. The final sales numbers on that issue were 530,000, a fraction of the high-selling comics of the 1990s.
Even 2011 and 2012’s comic book relaunches like the New 52 and Marvel NOW! have been extremely well-regarded by industry insiders, yet the sales figures are nowhere near the 1990s figures. 2011’s Justice League #1, the very first issue of the New 52, sold a total of 255,400 copies across seven different print runs. Marvel’s Uncanny Avengers #1, the first issue of Marvel NOW! and likely benefiting from the massive box office success of The Avengers film, still only sold 305,900 copies.
Basically, comic books considered “old” are now the comics of the 1990s: the era of mass speculation and chromium variant covers. Do smaller print runs and more specialized areas of availability make modern ones potentially more valuable? Not necessarily, but it likely doesn’t hurt too much. Older, more premium comics may have dwindled in value as well, but still demand high prices at conventions. The values of books like that are largely dependent on condition.
The THR piece makes mention of one such issue: while one copy of Incredible Hulk #181 (Wolverine’s first appearance) might indeed go for $8,000, another could easily go for $20-25,000 depending on a number of factors: what is the condition of the book? Are all the pages intact? Are they brown, or crisp white? Is the book graded by the CGC? Beyond that, though, I seriously doubt that a “measly” $8,000 would be disappointing to someone that paid .25 cents for the issue back in 1962.
One area that the THR piece got exceedingly correct, though, was how you define the word “valuable” and what your reasons for owning comics are. If you’re a speculator simply trying to make a quick buck off of a hot comic, and you don’t know the ins-and-outs of what constitutes that, you’re likely to make a bad investment. If, though, you buy comics because you enjoy them, or revere a character and simply want to own a legitimate piece of his or her history, chances are you might end up with something of high value to a speculator, but may end up being priceless to you.
I sought out and bought important issues of Batman not because I wanted to turn around and sell them, but because I wanted to own original editions of some of my absolute favorite stories (like Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, or Frank Miller’s Year One) featuring my all-time favorite fictional character.
It also comes down to one highly unpredictable factor: what people will actually pay for a certain issue. Price guides and valuations are helpful, but in the end are meaningless in the face of how a buyer personally values a story or issue they desire. Pop culture and other factors can certainly affect prices (just search eBay for first print copies of The Walking Dead #1), but if you want the most from your comics, get them because you love the characters and enjoy them. If you buy comics to strictly try and put your kids through college someday, then chances are you’ll end up being seriously disappointed.
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