7 Sep 2018

Working The Boxes: The Unbearable Lightness Of Comic Marts, Part II

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

Rob N: Comic marts in the past may have been wet and windy affairs, but last Sunday saw the return of the heatwave that turned us all into sunbaked desert lizards for most of the summer. It was a fitting start then to our hunting expedition to London in search of old comic books and ephemera. No need to burden myself down with heavy coats and umbrellas this time around; just a small day bag and, tucked inside, a good sturdy hemp-based 'bag for life' to hold the inevitable books I’d be buying.

Other than that I armed myself with a single sheet of A4 paper on which I’d scribbled the numbers of comics I was particularly looking out for. I always have a full Excel spreadsheet of my comic collection loaded onto my phone, but in the heat of the crate digging that goes on at comic marts a single sheet of paper is easier to consult as you shuffle along the rows of boxes.

Jo drove Matt C, James R, Andrew B and Mr Paradox himself Andy Hine up the motorway while I took the train and arranged to meet them at the hotel venue at midday. There’s always a sense of anticipation when you enter a comic mart and see the wide space of dealer tables lying there loaded with boxes. Wherever you begin you’re going to find books of interest and it’s easy to get carried away in the first few minutes buying books on impulse before you’ve really done the rounds and worked out the best combinations of price and grade. Prices can vary considerably between dealers, and the same book in the same condition (more or less) can be available on multiple tables at many different price points. I know from past experience the sinking feeling when you’ve snapped up some books at what you think is a reasonable price only to then spot the same books in the same condition much cheaper from someone else.
Broadly speaking, the tables fall into three overlapping categories. At the cheap end there are the £1boxes (or possibly 75p boxes) where hidden gems can be found if you keep digging. A lot of it can be well thumbed c-list stock from the early '90s of no particular interest to anyone (and many of the books lack plastic bags, let alone backing boards), but the discount boxes can also hold lengthy runs of great comics from the 1980s and even as far back as the late '70s. Matt snagged some great finds – early issues of Marvel Team-Up (the time0travelling Salem Witch trial multiparter with the Vision and the Scarlet Witch) and some early '80s Uncanny X-Men books for pocket money prices – the sort of comics that might be advertised for £4.95 each on eBay or one of the big name mail order dealers but in the bargain bins they can be as low as 75p each.

The discount boxes are the sort of places where you can really bulk up with comics and get a nice stack of reading material for ten quid, but they do require a good deal of effort. There’s often very little order to the boxes and you have to keep digging to find what you’re looking for in particular, but perseverance usually pays dividends. Over ten years ago Matt and I did very well with a row of 50p boxes finding many mid-'70s Marvel and DC books in Fine Plus grades – everything from early copies of the Invaders to Jack Kirby's Captain America in the #193 to #212 range, plus the inevitable copies of Marvel Team-Up (for some reason they always turn up). I had intended to work these boxes in search of issues of the Fantastic Four from #300 onwards, and various issues of Wonder Woman volume two in particular, but the heavy throng of people around those tables when I first arrived meant I gravitated to the second class of tables instead and sadly forgot to return later on.

My loss.

Attendance seemed busy without being overly crowded, and bargain boxes aside, I could make my way round the dealer tables without too much recourse to subtle elbowing. And this being London there was even rock star aristocracy in attendance in the shape of Mick Jones from legendary punk band, The Clash, seen chatting to one of the Silver/Bronze Age dealers. If only I'd brought my vinyl copy of 'Sandinista' with me...

The second class of dealers form the majority of stalls and they stock a lot of (mostly) mid-grade Bronze and late Silver Age comics, all neatly arrayed in order in bags with boards, and these constitute my familiar hunting ground. Finally, there’s the high end tables with their wall displays of high grade early '60s Silver Age books and speculator-friendly key issues, some of which are CGC slabbed; all of which are reassuringly expensive and frankly well out of my price range.

I can look, I can dream, but I can rarely buy…
So, when it comes to buying back issues, I’m opportunistic. Yes I have lengthy want lists, but the order in which I buy is determined by the availability of reasonable looking grades priced cheaply. I’ll generally buy from my lists whatever I see that’s generously discounted. After all, if I still need 80 issues of Daredevil and five of those random issues are available cheaply at the mart, I may as well buy those five rather than five full price ones.

And in fact Daredevil turned out to be one of my major purchase points this time around with a selection of issues ranging from the classic late '60s Gene Colan run to the rather more patchy Steve Gerber one (Gerber’s off the wall writing style worked well on titles such as Man-Thing and Defenders but didn’t really suit Daredevil’s world of dark alleyways and street class thugs). Despite the success of the Netflix TV show, Daredevil remains a comparatively cheap title to collect, not that I'm complaining. The same applies to Captain America and Iron Man – in the case of Iron Man I was paying as little as £5 for a Fine Plus copy of issue #22.

Hulk comics from the late '60s through to the late '70s also seem to be abundant at relatively cheap prices and there are some great issues in the #118 to #178 range that can be picked up for five to eight pounds each in Fine to Very Fine grades, a few of which I purchased on Sunday. I have fond memories from my childhood of issue #150 which featured Havok and Polaris of the X-Men. I don’t think I ever actually owned a copy of it so possibly I read a copy belonging to a friend. But I own a copy now.

In fact, it’s now quite possible to build up a decent early to mid '70s Marvel collection in pretty good condition, paying prices that are no more than the cost of two modern new comics, by working the boxes in a comic mart and not being too hung up on which issues you’ll locate on any given day. This is in stark contrast to the prices often being asked on eBay where speculator frenzy is rife and they like you to think that everything published back then is rare, scarce, rare and scarce or perhaps a ‘key Civil War tie-in’.

That’s not to say that every stall has wall-to-wall bargains. I saw my fair share of overpriced books, not to mention optimistically over-graded stock, but after a while you begin to get a feel for what the sensible prices are. Bearing in mind I was exclusively buying a range of books from the late '60s to the early '80s, I calculated that my average spend per book turned out to be £5.32. which is pretty good going really.

After seeing the ridiculous hype surrounding Avengers #223 as a ‘key book’ on eBay, I kept an eye out for it at the mart to prove a point and sure enough I found copies priced £4 to £8 – a far cry from the range of £30 to £105 being asked for online. Had I been a speculator I would have bought both copies of course.

And at the DC end of things I was able to find a dealer offering 25% discounts on a good selection of his early '70s Batman/Detective Comics/Brave And The Bold from the period when DC reinvented Batman as the now familiar Dark Knight, when only months before he’d been drawn and scripted as something not far off the 1960s TV series. And it wouldn’t be a comic mart if I didn’t take the opportunity to source a few Jack Kirby comics while I was there – in this case several Kamandi issues to almost but not quite complete the set (still need issue #4). I will pretty much buy anything that Jack drew that I come across because he is the King of Comics as far as I'm concerned.

Andrew and Jo found DC books from the same era; Andrew bagging a number of classic Aquaman comics with some spectacular covers, priced at £7 each, while Jo started an early ‘70s Lois Lane collection with some cheap low grade copies at pocket money prices that included the ‘new look’ Wonder Woman appearance in issue# 93 that I’ve been meaning to buy for some time. Jo’s stack of Lois Lane demonstrates that if you’re happy with low grade reading copies of what are after all 50 year old comics, you can pick them up for a small fraction of the price that higher grades would command (she paid in the region of £1.75 as opposed to say £22.50 for a copy in Very Fine Minus). In my younger years this is pretty much what I did all the time, sourcing old comics in well read conditions to fit within my very small budget.
All other things being equal, the most expensive comics tend to be Spider-Man ones (closely followed by Uncanny X-Men up to the point John Byrne left the title), with prices often 50% more than other Marvel titles from the same period. This is particularly true here in the UK because the Amazing Spider-Man title went non-distributed from May 1974 onwards so as not to confuse clueless UK newsagents who were expected to sell the weekly black and white reprint titles instead (in light of the multitude of Spider-Man titles published these days, it’s amusing to think there was a time that the Marvel sales division was concerned that two very different size comics with 'Spider-Man' in the title might be too much for news vendors to cope with). It comes as no surprise then that Spider-Man titles are the most under represented in my Silver/Bronze Age collection, but from time to time I do find reasonably priced back issues and when I do I snap them up for my collection. This time around I was pleased to find a selection of mid-'70s issues of Amazing Spider-Man for £6 each, and a couple of early '70s issues for £9/£10 each in Fine Plus conditions or higher. The pricing on these seemed very random as other issues in the same range were twice that from the same dealer. Maybe he had some overstocks.

I think we were all happy with our finds by the time the mart began to wind down, and after a quick tour of some comic book stores in the vicinity we retired for a few beers followed by a meal at the sort of China Town buffet bar where you have to pay in advance and they only take cash but the food itself is plentiful and good.

Comics, beer and food in the company of friends. Yes, I think that's a pretty good way to spend a Sunday.

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