Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of interesting stories about comic book collections in the mainstream press, and you probably have too. Whether it’s highlighting the high price of rare comics in auctions or profiling those selling their prized possessions off, everyone seems fascinated with the big bucks collectibles can fetch, but I’m much more interested in how those comics ended up where they are in the first place.
Stories like Steve Landman’s pull at my heartstrings. The Chicago native sold his dental practice after being diagnosed with anti-MAG peripheral neuropathy, an auto-immune disease that has made his muscles weak and walking difficult, and now he’s selling off his comics to pay for treatments. He seems to be keeping a positive attitude about it, but that has to be tough to watch a pristine collection like that get sold off to strangers. In a recent article on Comic Book Resources, I read about a 61-year-old man who died of a heart attack and left behind a collection of over 46,000 comics, containing complete series runs, from the first issue to the last. They were all donated to a Masonic Lodge, though the buyers are having trouble finding someone to purchase the entire thing intact, forcing them to break it up into parts after a lifetime of gathering them all together. The very idea kills me.
I guess that’s why it’s important to look at things like Maggie Thompson. Her and her husband worked for the Comics Buyer’s Guide for years and amassed an amazing collection in Wisconsin. Just the major moneymakers she owns are being sold off, but the 70-year-old plans to buy back more ragged copies of these same 500 issues so her collection remains complete, which is more for her own piece of mind than for anyone else’s I’d imagine. The fact that she wants to keep “reading” copies of these issues for pleasure and research shows just how much she cares about their content, not their monetary value, and the money will go towards her home, retirement, and her grandchildren. One thing in particular she told the AP reporter stuck with me.
“We are all temporary custodians,” she said of her collection. “Until they work out that eternal life, fountain-of-youth thing, we only get to hold it for a little while. We get to hang it on the wall and say, ‘Oh, that’s fun.’”
“She’s now in a place where she’s comfortable passing them on to the next generation,” her granddaughter Valerie Thompson added. “She’s 70 at this point. Dad died 20 years ago. It’s for the next generation of collectors to treasure these things.”
This not only made me ponder my mortality a little bit, but it also made me want to revisit my own collection. Last week, I took a week off from work to rest and relax, and I spent about three of those days reorganizing my comics, something I hadn’t done in years. It was seriously better than yoga, though certainly not in the physical sense. I think my butt still hurts from sitting on a Spider-Man pillow in the middle of floor, surrounded by 10 messy longboxes.
Some comics were bagged and boarded, while others were not. Some were arranged neatly by title – others were lumped together out of quick convenience. I had a lot of work to do, but what started as a necessity to keep my room of collectibles in order turned into a trip down memory lane, allowing me to recall how each book ended up in my hands. Yes, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner yesterday, but I can vividly recall where every single comic in my possession came from. I guess that’s my lame superpower.
While I have some great key issues strewn throughout, most of them aren’t worth anything to auction houses and rich collectors with money to burn, but that’s not why I started buying them in the first place. I identified with the characters, I wanted to own a flashy piece of art, or a particular story grabbed my interest – selling them off later in life never came into play. Granted, I took good care of what I had, but my intention wasn’t a financial investment – it was an emotional one. Sure, I can’t retire on these things, but I can read them again and again until my last breath, and the joy they bring will likely keep me alive much longer than any retirement home.
Mrs. Thompson is right – you can’t take it with you, so you just have to accept that you can only own these things for a short amount of time. I thought about who owned my comics before me. I thought about the names and numbers people scribbled on the covers of some of the comics before they ended up in a comic shop. Who were these kids, and where are they now? What did those numbers mean? Why did they get rid of them? Do they still read comics? Do they wish they had these back? Were they passed down from generation to generation? Were they as excited by these stories as I was, or were they eager to give them away?
After spending hours upon hours with them, I know I’m not ready to part with mine just yet. I took mental notes on which back issues I’d pursue next and pulled some stories I wanted to read again. The collection ended up neatly filed on brand new shelves that could handle the weight of all 10 boxes, with room for more. (I always have room for more, though I’m sure my girlfriend would disagree.)
Those who collect just to make money usually don’t know much about the comics themselves or the rocky market they’re bought and sold in, and as a result, they often get burned. I watched a YouTube video the other day of an old news report on the 1992 death of Superman. At the time, it was a big deal to both fans and the general public, though longtime readers knew he’d be back. People rushed out to buy the issue thinking it would be worth millions someday – one woman commented that she planned to send her kids through college with her measly $1.25 “investment.” She’s lucky now to get even the quarter back for that overproduced issue. It pays to know your stuff, but it pays even more to own things you wouldn’t mind being stuck with.
During the holidays, there are many Christmas specials preaching about the unimportance of material possessions and the virtues of giving over receiving, all while trying to sell you home video versions of said programs, along with slews of related merchandise, between incessant commercial breaks. We live in a capitalist country with consumerist attitudes, so I offer much more realistic and practical advice. Keep it simple – live within your means, take care of your responsibilities first, be generous and share what you have with others, and when you have the spare cash for yourself, spend it on something you actually want to have around, something you can use or revisit again and again.
In my case, it’s my cheap pile of comics, mostly mined from 50 cent bins at comic conventions or given to me by former collectors. I treasure every one because they make me feel like a kid again, giving me an escape from everyday life into a world that makes much more sense than the one we currently reside in. You can’t put a price on that, and frankly, I wouldn’t want to.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at email@example.com.