14 May 2008

Thought Balloon: Hunting For Old Comics In The Savage Lands Of Bristol

By Rob N

A common sight at the Bristol Comic Expo each year is the Paradox posse descending like a swarm of amphetamine-fuelled worker bees on the back issue dealers, keen to fill their metro-sexual man-bags with comic book pollen, and doubly keen to outdo one another in bagging the most desirable bargains available that year, to boast about when they next meet up.

Once upon a time there were few comic book stores in this green and pleasant land, but those that did exist routinely stocked boxes stuffed to the gills with old comics. And by old comics I don’t mean simply back issues from the last few years that didn’t sell first time around, but rather relics from a forgotten sepia-tinted past, when it was safe to leave your front door unlocked, and friendly teenagers respected policemen. Sadly the harsh economics of retail shopping these days means that floor space is at a premium in the 21st century. Business rates have gone through the roof, and shops simply can’t justify large acres of space devoted to slow-selling back issue displays. Conventions such as the Bristol Expo plug the gap, offering an opportunity to indulge in a spot of good old-fashioned box delving as an alternative to the global market that is eBay.

Don’t get me wrong – eBay is great – it’s like an online car boot sale the size of the Glastonbury festival, but nothing beats actually sifting through back issues that you can see and feel. That’s real shopping, and every year Bristol offers us the chance to drop a couple of hundred quid in a feeding frenzy and feel guilty about it afterwards.

Generally speaking the back issue dealers line the main sidewalls, leaving the centre alleyways for the small press creators to hawk their wares. It’s like the crowded Souqs of Rabat in Morocco, where you push through crowds of bustling tourists to find the real bargains, ever conscious that there will be someone close behind looking for the same titles as you.

Stock and presentation of the dealer tables differs dramatically. On the one hand you have the bargain basement regulars who effectively sell comics by weight alone (40 comics for a tenner, or in one case, ten comics for a quid!). Buy enough and the dealer doesn’t even bother counting them. These comics are invariably from the late 80s and early 90s – a period of rampant speculation and over-printing. Many of them have lain forlorn in the bargain boxes since they came off the new releases shelf. Originally in Mint condition, but subject to a decade and a half of customers thumbing through the boxes, leaving them slightly dog eared, with stressed spines, there’s nevertheless some quality stuff to be snapped up, provided you’re not expecting to find complete runs in one go. Often a home to John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Walt Simonson’s Thor, Buscema’s Avengers in the #260 to #300 range, and lots and lots and lots of Batman books, it’s the first port of call for bulking up your collection. The stalls resemble musty secondhand bookshops – with little or no effort at presentation, but dirt-cheap stock. Don’t bother complaining if you find some damaged copies in your purchases when you get home – at 25p a time, the dealer simply hasn’t the will or the incentive to carefully grade what he sells.

At the other extreme is the Incognito stand. This is the bright, shiny temple to the Silver and early Bronze ages, where everything on sale is bagged and boarded and, in many cases, prohibitively expensive - so expensive in fact that you expect a choir of Angels to greet you in celestial song as you arrive to peruse the stock. Polished wooden shelves line the rear wall – well out of reach of your grubby fingers, mate - where key books in Very Fine condition and better glisten and gleam, tempting you to go mad with the family Visa and your children’s inheritance. Pristine copies of early 60s Marvels snigger at you as you pass, taunting you with their stiff Mylar bags and 9.4 slabbed grades. Hanging around at the Incognito stand is like pressing your face against the window of one of those up market jewellery stores in the West End of London that employs smartly dressed concierges precisely to keep scum and shifty low life like you away from their stock. Whatever you want, they’ve got it, or can get it. First appearance of the Green Goblin? Why, of course! Issue #1 of Hulk? By all means. The first appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy? Perhaps you’d like to choose from Very Fine, Very fine Plus and Near Mint minus conditions, Sir.

But in between these two extremes is where the hunting gets interesting. This is where the sharp customer makes his mark and earns the most admiration from his peers. This is the area that sorts out the men from the boys; where a keen knowledge of the catalogue prices for an early 70s Spider-Man title in Fine Plus condition serves you well in the vicious scrum conditions around the stalls. We’re talking about the dealers who sell an assortment of stock, competitively priced, ranging from desirable modern titles to budget-friendly 60s and 70s stuff. Examples this year included on the one hand, copies of Strange Tales from the mid-60s in Fine Plus condition for a fiver; Very Fine condition copies of the absolutely essential Green Lantern/Green Arrow run by Neal Adams for £6.95 each (though the even more desirable drugs issues would have set you back twelve pounds apiece – but still very competitively priced for a sharp Very Fine condition); Savage Tales issue 2 (Barry Smith/Red Nails story) in Very Fine for £7.95 (real bargain that one) and a wide range of Marvels from the early to mid 70s averaging out at £1.25 a copy.

I mentioned scrum conditions, and mark my word, that’s what you’ll encounter. Etiquette and refined breeding often goes out of the window when your slovenly competitors spot that you’ve taken up position in front of a particularly good box. You may think you have the box to yourself as you pull out issue after issue of stunningly under-priced ‘hot’ books, but once the vultures catch on to what you’re doing they’re going to be in on you without any warning. It’s not unknown for pairs of fat podgy hands belonging to slope-browed and sweaty collectors to intrude from your left and right. If you’re really unlucky they’ll appear from behind you as well. If you’re flicking through the middle of the box, they’ll be nudging close - close enough for you to smell their determination - and making short work of the front and back of the box, literally pulling out titles in front of your very nose. In such situations it’s every man for himself, and no one will blame you if you make tactical use of your shoulder bag to swat them out of the way. Remember – they’re inbred scum and they’re in-between you and a copy of Savage Sword of Conan #17 for £1.25. Fight dirty or lose.

My own swag bag was quickly filled with a selection of Kirby Fourth World comics (average of £3 a copy); a Silver Sge and an early Bronze Age Spider-Man (£4 and £5) and a selection of Silver Age Hulk for £3 each, plus quite a few of the aforementioned Strange Tales comics. All the conditions were a decent Fine to Fine Plus. Some people baulk at paying four to five pounds for an old comic, but to these people I say, it’s only two to two-and-a half-times what you pay for a new title, and often that new title you simply buy out of habit. Consider the sheer hedonistic pleasure that comes from owning a relatively crisp comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in all its original glory! Think how a Barry Smith Conan title would enrich your life. If money is tight, just consider – do you really need to buy so many regular X-Men titles?

Above all else it’s the glory of the hunt that appeals in the dealer room at Bristol. These days, if you really, truly want a particular comic, you can buy it any time you want via mail order. There’s invariably someone who has it at a price. Bearing that in mind, it’s probably a mistake to attend Bristol thinking you’re going to locate certain back issues for your collection. If you really want Thor #176, then buy it from eBay. Bristol (and similar conventions) is for prowling the stalls, delving deep inside the boxes and picking up titles that are competitively priced and in your general area of interest. Because the advantage of a convention is you can see the condition of the comic first hand. No need to rely on dubious descriptions in a catalogue (‘Very Good’ condition can frankly be used to hide a multitude of defects, many of which could spread disease and/or pose a serious threat to livestock) when you’ve got the comic in front of you. A cheap grade that you might not have risked buying by mail, for fear that it meant someone had used the comic for toilet paper, may turn out to be perfectly collectable, and a bargain at 95p when you find it at a stall.

Needless to say there’s more to a convention than simply stuffing comics into your day bag, but it is something we particularly look forward to each year. And if you have to subsequently live off baked beans and pot noodles for a few weeks afterwards because you’ve spent your supermarket budget by mistake, well, at least you’ve always got the option of selling your excellent choice of purchases on eBay if times get hard. With that in mind, how can you possibly go wrong!

No comments: