Comic Con: Nostalgia Ain’t What it Used to Be

The following excerpt from Rob Salkowitz’s outstanding book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture offers a critical look at the collectors’ market through the lens of the (ever-shrinking) back issue dealers section of the Comic-Con exhibit hall. Salkowitz is a professor in the MCDM program. 

As we start to contemplate a future of comics without comic books—and a future of media without media (records, CDs, DVDs, books, and other material repositories of information)—it’s important to recognize the role that the objects themselves play in the appeal of the content. Comic books are more than containers of story and art that can be transmuted seamlessly to any new method of delivery. The demise of physical methods of distribution represents a profound change in the atmospherics of media consumption. Despite everything we think we know about the superior convenience of digital, the consequences of this change from a commercial perspective are highly uncertain.

Consider the comic book collectors’ market. This is a big part of the culture of the hobby, and the existence of back-issue dealers adds intangible (and sometimes tangible) appeal to the desire to acquire and consume comics. At Comic-Con, old comics sellers used to define the exhibit hall, which was once known as the “dealers’ room.” These days, most of the dealers are clustered in the “Golden and Silver Age Pavilion” between aisles 200 and 1,000 toward the front of the hall, just adjacent to the alt.comics and book publishers.

The first thing you notice about the dealers at Comic-Con is the familiar faces. These same businesses, and often the same individuals, have been coming back year after year since the 1970s, and have been buying and selling the same books from and to the same aging, dwindling cluster of customers. If you are looking for titles published after 1980, you will not find much to choose from in this part of the room. Every so often, you will see a dealer advertising “new collection just in!” Everything else, you could safely assume, is inventory that may have been sitting in those long white boxes for years or decades.

Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture is a book by Rob Salkowitz.

Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture is a book by Rob Salkowitz.

Dealers’ row is still an interesting neighborhood. It’s a great place to get into random nerdy conversations about the most obscure and fun bits of comics trivia. In the midst of the chaos of Comic-Con, there is a certain Zen to flipping through long boxes in search of a particularly shiny needle in a particularly gigantic haystack. The physicality of these artifacts is attractive; it creates scarcity that is impossible in the digital economy of abundance.

Unfortunately, this is one part of comics culture that is incompatible with the changes that are sweeping over the industry and, especially, the new audience.

With few exceptions, the value assigned to old comics is a by-product of the tastes and habits of an older generation of fans. The intrinsic aspects of the art and content that make certain issues more desirable than others depend on a body of knowledge and a condition of scarcity to drive demand. Most of all, they depend on the pull of nostalgia: “I loved that comic when I was a kid, and now I need to own a mint condition copy, even if it costs me $500!”

As comics retreated from the mass market after the 1970s, the number of young readers began to shrink. Now, decades later, that shrinkage is rippling through the pool of adults who have a nostalgic affection for the comics of their youth. Baby Boomers, who fueled the expansion of the hobby over the past 40 years, are moving into a life stage (and an economy) where they are more likely to be selling collectibles than buying them, and it’s hard to see who is taking their place.

My generation, currently in our forties, is the last gasp of the old order. We grew up as the whole “collectibles” mentality was becoming institutionalized. As kids, we took it for granted that all old comics were worth money—a notion reinforced by media stories about “comic gold in your attic” and “Did you throw away your kid’s college fund when you trashed those old comic books?” that ran every time a copy of Marvel Comics #1 changed hands for a new astronomical sum. We saved the comics we bought on the stands and kept them in great condition; we went to conventions and old comics stores armed with lists of “key books” that featured favorite artists, story lines, or characters. We shelled out $20 every spring for the new edition of Robert Overstreet’s Comic Book Price Guide, which relied for its market research on a survey of dealers who stood to benefit from increasing prices, to help us appraise the value of our holdings. Our misplaced enthusiasm led to the speculative bubble of the mid-1990s, where the Generation X appetite for “hot” artists caused publishers and retailers to flood the market with worthless titles and gimmicks (3D issues, multiple covers, variant editions). The resulting collapse nearly killed the industry.

The transactional approach of Generation X fans toward collecting resulted in some innovations that drained most of the fun out of the hobby. In the past 15 years, eBay has turned every computer into an endless collectibles mall that never closes, and the brutal transparency of auctions has laid bare the myth that the values of most ordinary comics automatically appreciate year after year. A firm called Certified Guarantee Company (CGC) entered the hobby in 2000 with a service that promises to take the guesswork out of the esoteric art of grading the condition of comics (a prime determinant of their value). Certified comics sell for more—sometimes multiples of previously established values, depending on how high the issue rates on CGC’s 10-point grade. The trade-off is that the certified comic is entombed in a sealed plastic case and transformed from an interactive work of art and story to a fetish object.

If you get rid of the social and “thrill of the chase” aspects of collecting, and you make it impossible to inspect and appreciate the item you’ve just bought, all that’s left is commerce. And commerce has boomed. As a result of the auction culture and the “validation” of CGC grading criteria, the elite handful of highly prized books in prime condition has set record after record. The winners of these auctions claim their amber-sealed paperweights, store them in climate-controlled vaults, and put them up for auction a year or two later.

In the case of genuinely rare, well-preserved books with broad cultural significance, such as Action #1 (the 1938 debut of Superman), staggering prices may be justified. But for most of the hundreds of thousands of vintage comics published in the last 75 years, desirability is based on factors known only to a small and shrinking field of collectors, and value is codified in a price guide that reflects these collectors’ interests and biases. Within this closed community, books sell and resell for higher and higher prices, creating the appearance of market momentum and occasionally attracting “stupid money” from outside the hobby looking for a fast return. History shows that market conditions of this kind rarely end well.

A recent example shows that even the deepest of insiders can get tripped up in the Ponzi scheme that is today’s collectibles market. Steve Geppi is president and founder of Diamond, the only surviving major comics distributor, a highly sophisticated, longtime comics collector, and reputedly a very wealthy guy. In 2006, he agreed to pay $1 million for a trove of original Archie Comics artwork from the 1940s and 1950s from the estate of artist Bob Montana. Montana originals were scarce in the market and much prized by collectors like Geppi and his friends, although Archie art tends to look the same to anyone who is not a specialist in this rather specialized field. Geppi’s plan was to sell off a portion of the collection to pay for the pieces he himself wanted to keep. He hired Jerry Weist, another esteemed longtime collectibles guy who literally wrote the book on collecting original comic book art, to assess the value of a number of pieces. To Weist’s trained eye, the art was worth a fortune—well in excess of Geppi’s offer.

But these two smart guys outsmarted themselves. Geppi quickly glutted the market trying to unload the extra pieces, and even the best works realized only a fraction of the assessed value. He and Weist assumed that there were enough people with enough money who knew enough about old Archie comics to value the original artwork as much as they did. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. And remember, this is for original art, where each piece is unique and handmade—not for a copy of an old magazine that might have been part of a half-million print run. If I were any kind of collectibles dealer, I would find that story chilling.

While the rise of CGC and auctions turned one type of comics collecting into a branch of the financial derivatives trade, the present era has proved a boon for anyone who’s just interested in comics for what’s inside them. Reprints are everywhere, in every format from the cheapest to the most deluxe. Moreover, the advent of digital media, social computing, and peer-to-peer file sharing has created a boisterous trade in scans of old issues, downloadable free on public networks. Who except speculators or folks old enough to have a genuine sentimental attachment would want to pay a fortune for the moldy old originals when you can read the story in everything from a cheap trade paperback collection to a deluxe hardcover Omnibus Archive Masterworks edition, or just download scans of the entire series free on BitTorrent?

Dealers and old-time collectors may understand this on an intellectual level, but it’s hard to teach an old nostalgist new tricks. The circle of dealers and collectors is small and self-contained. It’s been operating on the same patterns and shared assumptions for decades. For traditionalists, the convenience of digital comics is about as persuasive as the argument that screw-top caps are better for keeping wine fresh than natural corks: maybe so, but so what? For some people, the experience of tracking down and owning the object is as much a part of the appeal as the content—and the evidence indicates that this is true for a lot of the remaining market for comics and related media.

Chuck Rozanski, a longtime dealer and owner of one of the country’s largest collectors’ comics inventory (Denver’s Mile High Comics), agrees. He says not to be fooled by the lack of action at big conventions: demand for back issues is strong, even given the overall state of the economy, but most of the commerce takes place online and through back channels. Large collections are now passing to new generations through inheritance, bringing new blood into the hobby as heirs get bitten by the bug to upgrade or fill in gaps. Rozanski is backing up his view of the market with a significant personal investment. In 2011, Mile High purchased a giant warehouse in Denver, open to the public one day per month, to store an inventory of more than 2 million back issues. He is betting on scale, and it’s probably a good bet. Whatever happens across the collectors’ market in general, there will always be room for a couple of superdealers with comprehensive inventories and trusted reputations.

If the decline of the back-issue market affected only the dwindling number of collectors of vintage comics, it would be a loss for those of us who still enjoy the smell of old paper, but it would not mean much to the wider world. However the overlap among collectors, fans, and professionals within the comics culture is profound. The tastes of current-day comics fans are shaped by the reputation enjoyed by past works—partly reflected through their value in the collectors market. Some retailers who sell new comics also rely partly on back-issue sales to collectors for added revenue or as an outlet for unsold, nonreturnable comics from past years, and they can ill afford to lose another source of income.

The back-issue market creates confusion for publishers: are they selling original content, which can be moved easily to a digital format, or are they selling future collectibles, which must take physical form? Publishers of newspapers and periodicals are having all kinds of trouble making the transition to the online world, but as far as I know, there is not a small army of collectors of The Economist or GQ back issues demanding that the magazines continue to publish paper copies for them to save in plastic bags and acid-free boxes.

It’s also a financial issue. The idea that “[fans think] old comics are worth money” pervades the publishing industry and influences decisions on everything from pricing to print runs to editorial/creative matters. Why do you think DC relaunched 52 new series with first issues, rather than just rebranding the running titles? At least in part because #1 issues sell better to collectors, and publishers know that a lot of people will buy copies just to have them.

Even after the 1990s speculative bust, publishers and retailers still make money from collectors who buy multiple copies of the same issue, or who buy up all the different limited editions and gimmicky variants (some new comics are available with six to ten different covers, some of which are kept deliberately scarce) because of the perceived desirability of these rare items. If you are selling only 5,000 copies per month, even a few dozen obsessive collectors buying multiple copies can make a difference. That strategy won’t work with digital, where scarcity does not exist. A future in which no one expects old comics to be worth anything looks very different from the past and present.

Most collectors don’t prefer the old ways merely for aesthetic reasons or because they are sitting on hordes of back issues whose value may decline precipitously. They are very aware of what is being lost in the transition: a community that has been intrinsic to comics fandom since the earliest days. To folks my age and older, tracking down issues one at a time is more fun than clicking on a link. Holding the copy in your hands, with all the old ads and letters pages, is more satisfying than flicking the screen of an iPad. Haggling with a dealer who knows exactly why you want that particular issue (“ah, the secret origin of the Unknown Soldier . . . you don’t see that one in VF+ very often!”) has no analog in the digital world.

For these reasons, the dealers’ room will linger on at Comic-Con and elsewhere long after the economic basis for its existence is exhausted. It is a reminder of a golden age: not the golden age of comics, but the golden age of collecting comics. Future generations—perhaps the one being born right now—will eventually grow bored and burned out with the hectic, hell-bent-for-convenience lifestyle of today’s Millennials, and may rediscover the simple pleasure of opening an old comic book that their grandfather once enjoyed. When that happens, you can be sure that comics fans of the future will find a way to be nostalgic for an earlier form of nostalgia.

You can read more from Salkowitz here on his site or get his book Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture. Follow him on Twitter @robsalk

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