The history of Comic book collecting is one that begs to be discussed. If you read comics on a weekly basis, you are a collector. You buy single issues, you read them, you find a place to put them on your book shelf. Comic book collecting isn’t just about digging through long boxes at your local shop, or bidding for that ultra-rare issue of X-Men in an auction. While those are definitely a part of collecting, they aren’t the only form of collecting there is. The truth is that people collect comics for all types of reasons. Nostalgia, financial gain/investing, and completion of story arcs all lend themselves to collecting.
We are all collectors here at Arcadia Antiquities, because we love the medium. From the art, the characters, the creators and their stories, there isn’t anything about the them that we aren’t into. We love to collect comics, so we thought it would be a good idea to go through the history of comic books and collecting, to learn more about our favorite past time.
Comic books first started to take center stage in the 1930’s when Action Comics #1 introduced us to Superman, followed quickly by Detective Comics #27 and Batman. The industry exploded in popularity and the golden age of comic books began. While comics continued to grow in popularity, the idea of collecting them was still a-ways off. Specialized brick and mortar comic book shops didn’t exist yet, and comic books were sold at news-stands, read by their eager audience, and thrown away, or used for their paper. It hurts to think of how many issues, now sought after, lie in piles of trash, long forgotten.
Harvey “Pop” Hollinger
While collecting wasn’t quite yet popular, the earliest collectors were operating during the golden age. Pop Hollinger was one of these earlier collectors, widely considered to be one of the earliest comic book collectors. Originally a teacher, Pop moved opened his own second hand store in the basement of a grocery store, but quickly pivoted his business to buying and reselling comic books. He would buy issues of popular comic books from across the country through his mail order service, and “rebuild” the comics to increase their longevity. By re-stapling the pages, and taping over any tears, he did what he could to preserve the readability of every issue that came through his shop. His goal wasn’t to improve the value, at least at first, more so his goal was to allow for more people to read the issues, and develop a love for the medium. Pop ran his shop in Kansas from 1939-1971, and his is considered one of the first comic book stores in the world.
DC comics started the golden age of comics, so it’s fitting that they begin the silver age as well. When the publisher noticed that their sales were dwindling, they decided to revamp some of their older characters, started with The Flash, and the introduction of Barry Allen. The renewed interest in superhero comics, and the nostalgia for the comics of the past led to an increased demand for the older issues. If you remember anything from high school economics classes you certainly remember that if supply cannot rise to meet demand, price will increase. Comic book shops started to appear all over the United States throughout the 1960’s. They mainly focused on the resale of rare comics, but also sold new issues.
When Marvel Comics and DC Comics realized that most of their sales were coming from these specialized dealers, they began tailoring their publishing schedules to drive the demand for new comics. This new focus on comic book shops also began shedding light on the back issues market, and the potential investment opportunities that comic books presented.
Charles “Chuck” Rozanski
If you can point to one man that drove the collectors market into the mainstream, it is Chuck Rozanski. A collector from an early age, Chuck began travelling to conventions around the country to buy, sell and trade his comic book collection. He realized that there was an untapped market for comic books, one that had been hidden from the world because of its niche fandom. He opened his first shop at the age of 17, and began a profitable mail order service. It was in 1977 that he changed the collectors market when he bought one of the most valuable collections of golden age comics. The purchase made news worldwide and introduced the world to the potential value of comic book collecting.
Speculation Becomes King
With popular attention now shed on collecting comics, the industry began to change. The 1980’s saw Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen gain media coverage for being story driven pieces of art, and major crossover events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths took the world by storm. The new found attention drove more and more people into comic book shops. Marvel’s X-Men #1 set a world record by selling 8 million issues. Newspapers had begun featuring the high prices that back issues were fetching in the resale market, and this led to more people buying new single issues, hoping that they would eventually bring in millions of dollars.
The publisher’s reaction to this new found popularity was to increase the supply (not a great idea if you remember anything else from economics class). They began to produce variant covers, holographic covers, poly-bagged issue, all of which led to collectors buying multiple issues, hoping to strike it rich in the coming years.
The bust came when people began to realize that what makes a comic book valuable is the rarity. If Marvel is producing millions of copies of X-Men, the demand for that issue is non-existent. Suddenly the market was in trouble. Where there was nothing but profit, now there was no one in the shops, and people weren’t buying new issues. Comic Book shops around the country began to close their doors, and the publishers started downsizing. The bubble had burst, and the industry was on the verge of collapse. Marvel even started selling the movie rights of their characters, just to make ends meet.
DC is as much to blame for the bust as Marvel. Their decision to “kill” their two major characters, Batman and Superman, led directly to the speculation craze. Casual collectors assumed that this would be a momentous event, one that would change the characters forever, and rushed out to scoop up as many copies as possible. But, as any really comic book fan knows, only Uncle Ben and The Wayne’s stay dead in comics. The unimportance of these story arcs led directly into the decline in comic books sales.
After The Bubble
Since the end of the speculation bubble in 1997, comic book collecting has settled back to its roots. There are those looking to profit financially from back issues, and there are those that are excited about the new creators bringing their takes to fan favorite characters. Companies like the Comics Guarantee Company (CGC) have brought accountability to the resale market. They take great care to give rare comics a grade, which solidifies its value in the market.
In the past two decades, publishers have started releasing trade paperbacks of popular story arcs, which collect multiple issues into one book. This has led to a new type of collecting, one that is more about completing a creators run on a character, or for showing off the bookshelf to friends. The back issue market has seen a renewed interest as well, with the recent popularity of characters on the movie screen. Collecting comics is a rewarding hobby, whether you collect because you love to display them, or are looking to turn a profit, it’s all based on a love of the medium. We love our collections, and the feeling you get when you find that issue you’ve been hunting. Nothing really compares to it. So get out there, find your favorite creator, complete that story arc, bag and board your books. Above all, keep collecting.