30 Aug 2018

Working The Boxes: The Unbearable Lightness Of Comic Marts

Working The Boxes is all about back issue discoveries, whether they're buried in dusty old comic boxes or digitally sourced online.

Rob N: Summer frankly wouldn’t be summer without a few weekend outings to look forward to, and so it is that this coming Sunday I’ll be joining a handful of the PCG regulars in the capital to run rampant through the double conference rooms that make up the decades-old London Comic Mart. Like hyperactive kids who’ve binged on too many sugary snacks I suspect we’ll be gleefully ransacking the boxes, inevitably making those agonising life or death choices as to what we can afford to pick up and what we’ll have to leave behind for another day, after which we’ll probably retire to a nearby watering hole to proudly compare and contrast our bags of savage plunder.

The humble comic mart is something of a throwback to a pre-Internet age; a world apart from the growing sophistication of the major comic book conventions that offer a very professional weekend experience with top end creators as guests and slick panel discussions with their carefully curated insights into the creative process. Often situated in town or church halls or the sort of hotel conference rooms that Alan Partridge might frequent, the comic mart is concerned only with retail, packing in rows of trestle tables piled high with back issues, licensed toys and vintage ephemera. Sometimes resembling a land where ageing comic dealers come to die, this elephant’s graveyard of comic book dealing is the Mecca for back issue collectors like me.

Back in the pre-Internet age comic collecting was very analogue, and if you were dead set on finding certain issues to complete runs of your favourite titles, comic marts were your best bet. The alternatives were patchy. You could try comic book stores, but unless you lived in London your local stores were very limited in what they held in stock. You could try mail order, but invariably you were ordering from postal catalogues published several times a year at best and any orders you made could already have been sold weeks before you posted a cheque. Realistically you needed to save up your money and make a pilgrimage to one of the big city comic marts that always seemed to take place on wet and windy weekends.
Comic marts were always a bit run down and seedy, just a few steps up from a car boot sale held in an out of town car park. They attracted the more ‘intense’ comic collectors with familiar looking thousand yard stares as they rifled through the boxes on display, desperate to find one of many holy grails they needed for their collection.

Fast forward to 2018 and not a lot has changed in the land of comic marts. Dealers range from the top end Silver Age brigade like Incognito with their attractive wall displays of high grade key issues in pristine Mylar sleeves or CGC slabs (often without price tags - as the old saying goes, if you have to ask the price you probably can’t afford it) to the more run down tables with their array of ‘everything priced one pound’ boxes, and every combination in between. It’s a good place to hunt down cheaply priced mid-grades which is often my go-to range for early Marvel and DCs.

Speaking as someone who has fully embraced the exciting and extremely efficient digital age when it comes to sourcing vintage comics online, I still look forward to hunting down back issues the old fashioned way, walking into a musty hall full of dealers who appear to be at least ten years older than me (no mean feat) and quite literally working the boxes from one end to the other. There’s the excitement of not knowing what you’re going to find as you delve deep and elbow the competition out of the way, because for a lot of collectors the thrill of the hunt is one of the major factors in collecting. If I could suddenly have all the comics I’ve ever wanted in one go, it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as tracking them down over the years. In much the same way that a cat probably wouldn’t want you to give him a pile of dead mice – he’d rather hunt them down and murder them ruthlessly one at a time, savouring each fragrant kill – the thrill of collecting is stumbling across a box of shiny comics that are priced well below market rates and knowing you’ve got there before anyone else has. And while everyone turns up to a mart with a good idea of what they intend to buy, what you actually end up buying might be something else entirely. Self-imposed buying discipline often goes out the window once you see what’s on offer.

One of the advantages of the mart over buying by mail is that you can get a good look at what you might buy, and if you’re sourcing mid-grades (or indeed low grades) this pays dividends because not all comic book defects are equal. One person’s Very Good Plus condition isn’t necessarily the same as the table next door and identical grades can often be down to combinations of widely different defects. I tend not to buy anything lower grade than Fine Minus online (and even then only from trusted dealers), but in a mart I can and will sometimes go lower if the book still looks presentable, particularly when the book is quite old and/or rare and the high grade copies carry prohibitively high price tags.

While I might like to buy those Very Fine/Near Mint silver age books you see from dealers like Quicksilver, I’m nowhere near having that kind of disposable income and so I have to average out at the Fine Plus end of things for Silver/Bronze age titles.

Case in point: Bronze Age Marvels from the early '70s sometimes came over to the UK with traces of blue ink on the edges where stacks of them had been brushed with ink to signify they were returns. I tend to snap these up when I see them on sale because the defect itself is minor to my eyes but the discounted price can be quite generous. I have several very sharp looking books from 1972 that would be classed as Very Fine if they didn’t have a little ink on the page edges. If a dealer wants to grade them Fine Minus as a result, then I’m happy to pay Fine Minus prices for what are otherwise beautiful copies.

On the flip side I don’t like and generally won’t buy books with heavy creasing and if the covers have white patches where tape has lifted off some of the design (clumsy removal from a comic bag for example) that’s a total deal breaker for me.
By and large the dealers at a mart avoid some of the pricing excesses currently seen on eBay with the recent rise in speculators driving up the price of what they view as ‘key issues’. This is no doubt a knock on effect from the popularity of all the comic book films and TV shows and everyone wanting to be on board for the next Walking Dead issue #1 price phenomenon, but as was the case in the 1990s when a speculator driven market ran rampant for a few years before crashing horribly, the current surge in speculators is having a detrimental effect on collectors who actually view comics as more than simply an investment. The Internet is awash these days with braying speculator blogs pumping up the next big thing in investment terms, and it seems that every other person buying back issues thinks he’s in The Wolf Of Wall Street because he has $5,000 to invest on what is now being referred to as ‘blue chip key books’ (a pretentious statement if ever I’ve heard one). In their desire to make a fortune flipping books that they can buy cheaply, sit on for six months and then hopefully sell at a high price, these speculators are often promoting books that are anything but key issues. I came across listings for Avengers #223 which, until recently, would have lurked unwanted in the back issue bins where everything was a pound. There is nothing remarkable about this extremely pedestrian book, but now eBay has CGC slabbed copies being promoted as a key Captain America: Civil War film tie-in with some prices tipping over the £100 mark. Why? How is it a Civil War tie-in when it preceded Civil War by decades? Because, so the logic goes, in the Civil War film there is a scene where Hawkeye fires an arrow with Ant-Man holding on to it, and Avengers #223 has a cover where Hawkeye is doing just that. When something as tenuous and mediocre as that is promoted as a key investment choice you know the bubble is getting close to bursting as it did in the investment-crazed '90s and the sooner it comes, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve never bought comics as a speculative investment because to my mind if you do go down that road, that way madness lies. Buy what you like. Buy what you want to read or what you have an emotional attachment to. I’m currently buying a lot of Bronze Age books from the 1970s because that was my comic collecting childhood when I had limited pocket money and I’d agonise over the small handful of comics I could afford. In many ways my back issue buying of Bronze books is fuelled by me wanting to fulfil a promise to my younger self that one day as an adult I’d get all those comics I couldn’t afford as a twelve year-old. Someone ten years younger than me would probably have a similar nostalgia for mid-'80s comics, and so it goes.

Next week I’ll take a look at some of the tasty books I end up buying at the mart and make some further observations on the state of the back issue market these days.

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