Thursday, October 14, 2010

Market Spotlight: Modern Scarcity

So I'm standing in line at The Source in Falcon Heights. I'm behind a kid, we'll call him Joey, and he's a tween. Joey brings up a little pile of a half dozen books, and his body is constituted primarily of grin as he does so. It's good to see any new blood in a comic store - heartwarming, frankly.

The comics get typed into the cash register and Joey asks with reckless enthusiasm; "Do you think these will be worth something some day?"

I'm watching the cashier very closely, waiting for him to crush young Joey with a completely inappropriate level of glee. This how a lot of comic shop guys like to deal with any mention that comics might have any monetary value. It's a very strange attitude for an entity devoted to the selling of comics to take, but this is the world we live in these days.

He doesn't try to curb-stomp Joey, though. He takes a measured breath, smiles and says:

"Well, probably not. When you see big prices on comics, most of those are old Silver or Golden age books. Kids back in those days weren't putting comics in bags and boards, and they're very rare. So when they do come up for sale, people will fight for them. These books are overprinted, and everybody has them in nice condition."

Joey's grin disappears. Comic Shop Guy notices this and tries to backtrack a little to salvage a tiny smile:

"Maybe in about 25 years...maybe 3o or 40 years, if you hold onto them they might be worth something. But in the meantime you can enjoy reading them, which is what they're best at any way."

This is enough to bring back Joey's bliss. It isn't burning quite as brightly as when he was convinced he was sitting on a million dollars, but he's very happy.

I did not interject anything but my own wry grin to this process, because it wasn't my place. Part of me wanted to grab a copy of Morning Glories # 1 off the rack about two feet from where Joey was standing and hand it to him with a wink. I myself had five copies in my mitts at $3.50 per that I was about to sell for $20 each in less than two hours. Part of me wanted to do that.

Because the thing of it is, while Comic Shop Guy has very rational and traditional reasons for believing as he does...he's just plain wrong on most of it. Old comics are not rare, new comics are anything but overprinted, and there is most definitely a market for modern comics. Potentially a huge one.

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that old comics are rare. In fact, quite the opposite is true. There is an absolute assload of old comics, and the further you go back, the bigger the print runs tend to get.

Does this mean that you should trade in your Action Comics # 1 for a copy of Morning Glories? Probably not. It's a bit more complicated than that.

The real true maxim about old comics is that they are rare in exceptional condition. That's where Comic Shop Guy got it right, and that's where the market has been and continues to refine itself toward. In the Golden and Silver Age, there was no understanding of comics as collectibles. There was no Overstreet Guide until 1970, no direct market for real wide scale back-issue peddling until the 1980s.

Comics were rolled up, beat up, written upon, and thrown away as the disposable entertainment they were. And for a case like Action Comics # 1, where there are only about 100 known copies existent, that comic is legitimately hyper-scarce.

But consider the concept of a "rare" Spider-Man comic for a moment. He was created in 1963 and made quite a splash. I don't have any good data about sales numbers for those earliest Amazing books. Matter of fact, I don't have any good data period, but lucky for all of us folks like John Jackson Miller compiled the existing data for us.

You don't see it any more, but back in the day the US Postal service used to make comics and magazines publish circulation numbers to justify their reduced 2nd class postal rate. So once a year we got to see how many of these things were actually floating around. Those numbers start showing up in the 1960s. And these days, Diamond reports the top 300 books and trades monthly, and then John Mayo will tell you what it all means.

What you'll notice when you study the trends on Amazing Spider-Man is that past circulation numbers are far larger than present ones. A good month in 2010 for Amazing Spider-Man is 70,000 copies sold. Amazing Spider-Man has spent most of its publishing life in the 300,000 copy range. And just before the bubble burst in the mid-90s ASM was close to 600,000 a month.

Now, we have to think a little more deeply about this before we make any drastic conclusions about actual relative scarcity. Marvel could have made mistakes and misreported data, perhaps exaggerating sales for pride. I find that unlikely. My guess is that when they came up with the data to send to the federal government, they gave it their best shot.

You also have to factor in the concept of returnability. You don't see this any more, but in the past newstands and retailers had the ability to return unsold product. Just because outlets ordered that much product doesn't mean that many copies actually found homes. Once those books did find homes, older comics were routinely treated like a Chris Brown girlfriend. Many of them were thrown away when little Joey ran off to college - doh!

So when we look at those old circulation numbers on Amazing Spider-Man, we can't just read them at face value. The 1967 circulation numbers suggest that there are 361,663 copies of Amazing Spider-Man # 50 available, and there are not. And of those still around, most are in VG shape. As of this blog entry, CGC has only graded 2 NM/MT 9.8 copies of that issue.

But I want you to look at the modern numbers again. The latest numbers on Amazing Spider-Man are sitting at about 70,000. That's 20% of the print run on Amazing #50! So some copies got returned, some thrown out, sure. But 80%? Maybe, but I doubt it. Granted, there are surely more NM copies of today's Amazing Spider-Man. But there are probably far more copies of issue # 50 existing.

It gets even more interesting when you consider a book like Marvel Adventures Spider-Man. That comic opened in 2005 with 14,333 copies reported by Diamond. That was by far the highest total ever for the series, which ended with issue # 61 (pictured at the top of this post) selling 4,201 units.

Think about that for about 12 seconds. Marvel Adventures Spider-Man # 61 has only 4,201 copies printed, or about 1% of the total reported numbers for Amazing # 50. Now, of all of those copies of # 50, how many are surviving in NM (9.2) or better? If it's more than 1%, there are more NM copies of Amazing Spider-Man # 50 than total copies of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man # 61.

Again, we have to stop and ponder other factors for a moment. I'm not suggesting that MA Spider-Man has more value than Silver Age Spidey books. The differences are legion. Silver Age Spider-Man books represent a key link to an important characters origins. They were created by legends like Stan Lee Steve Ditko, and John Romita. Both fans and professionals look to those stories as fundamental and important. There is a history in the secondary market of perceiving those books as precious. They are old, continue to get more brittle, and continue to leave the market and enter permanent collections.

Marvel Adventures Spider-Man has none of those attributes. We will not be looking at that series in 40 years saying "this is where the legends started being legendary." I'm not suggesting that the modern age trumps the Silver Age in value. It doesn't. What I'm suggesting is that today's books, in terms of pure production numbers, are the rarest comics ever published - and it ain't close. That's got to mean something.

Still think everybody has those modern books in nice condition? Lone Star Comics has the largest, most comprehensive back issue library I know of. As I type this, they have 424/441 issues of Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 in stock. (96%) Marvel Adventures Spider-Man? 34/61 issues in stock. (56%) They aren't available. Anywhere. These are your overprinted modern comics?

I'm not even talking about modern classics like Walking Dead # 1, (7,266 copies printed) although I probably should be. Even the legends are at all-time lows in circulation. Straczynski's Superman is doing something in the order of 50,000 copies - before that shakeup, the title was selling under 30,000 units. The rarest Superman comics ever made are hitting stands now. The scarcest Batman comics every printed are hitting stands now. I believe the rarest regular Spider-Man comic ever printed is Marvel Adventures Spider-Man # 61.

And if I were you, I'd go out and get one. Listen, it's true the market could go away entirely. How much are your Beanie Babies going to fetch you today? But there's a longer, more stable track record for comics. The iconic comic properties are living on as cinematic superstars, they remain ingrained in the culture, and the scarcest comics in the history of these icons are being published right now.

- Ryan


Killyrcomics said...

As you've stated in the past, the secondary tpb market is a reader's market, and, in my opinion, that is mostly all that is left in the single issues world, as well. With the advent of almost everything available in collected editions and now digital, do the current issues of comic books have any value 6 months from now?

Chronic Insomnia said...

I think this is Drew? Whoever it is, thank you for taking the time to write! I've posted a meandering response to your question on the next blog entry....