Thursday, August 4, 2011

Another Stroll Down Overstreet!

Thoughts on Overstreet's 41st Comic Book Price Guide

The 41st Overstreet guide came out a couple weeks ago, I just got mine last Friday in the old DCB Service shipment.   I chose the hardcover version with the Amanda Connor art, pictured above.

The Overstreet Guide comes out with very little fanfare these days, which is a shame.  I think a large part of that is due to the Inner Circle's complete disdain for viewing comics as a commodity.  It's a little surprising to me just how keenly the old guard still feels the pain we suffered in the mid 90s.  Speculation and poor piloting contributed to a massive decline in comics sales, we lost about 2/3 of the direct market's guts in a very short period of time.

There's plenty of blame to go around for that bubble bursting, but price guides like Wizard take a good chunk of that blame, and I think the perception among most around comics is that the Overstreet Guide is a just a stuffier version of Wizard.  In the words of Emporer Palpatine, they are mistaken about a great many things.

The snobs and the Anti-Commodity crowd fall into a logic trap that puts up a meaningless barrier between "People Who Love Comics" and "People Who Sell Comics", not recognizing that belonging to the second group requires that you be in the first

So, if you don't bag and board your books on principle, and if you think that selling stories based upon holographic covers is a bad idea, then fine, and you're right.  You can take a thing too far.  But before you turn your nose up too far, I think it's worthwhile to investigate where the Overstreet Guide and the folks that built it came from.

Back in the day, there wasn't a direct market, and there were no comic book stores.  The good news is that they were everywhere - on the newstand, at the grocery store, at the five and dime, everywhere.  The bad news is that as a consumer, your access to the supply was dictated by forces beyond your control, and that supply was never going to be much more than a month old.

If you bought an issue of Whiz Comics and really liked it, maybe you'd see the next issue or maybe not.  Maybe the drug store decided to switch out to Millie The Model.  Maybe Eddie down the block has the next issue, but you can't count on it.  Maybe you're so interested in Captain Marvel after reading that issue that you want everything that came before it - good luck with that!  The drug store couldn't order back issues if it wanted too, which it didn't.

The point is this - if you loved comics in the Golden and Silver Age, there was a lot of great stuff to enjoy...but it was hard damn work to preserve it.  Mom threw them out, Uncle Sam demanded the paper for the war effort, and nobody was selling anything but the latest issue.

There were small groups of rebel collectors committed to these four color treasures.  These were the hardest of the hard core, and they sought out comics in direct defiance to all that was socially and commercially conventional.  It was a weird thing to do, and these pioneers often went miles out of their comfort zones to visit that odd used book store that had comics available, or create that club of like-minded zealots.

Nobody ever loved comics more than these people, and that's where "comics as commodities" came from, and that's where the Overstreet Guide came from.  It came from people who couldn't live without comics, so they dedicated their lives to preserving and sharing them - and yes, there was money involved, but the money came from the passion.  And it still does.  If you read the Overstreet Guide today, you're exploring the vestiges of that first group of saints and prophets, and also the folks who have had the torch passed to them by the tribal elders.  Each one of them loves comic books more than you, "Mr. I don't bag and board my book because I actually read them."  Deal with it.

Yellow Kid - not the first
It's not just a string of numbers and line listings, either.  There's a lot of information about the medium as a whole that isn't readily available anywhere else.  The story, as it still goes, it that comics were born with something like Famous Funnies or the Yellow Kid, and it's just not true.  You want to learn about the Platinum age?  You go to Overstreet.

There are articles about war comics, romance comics, dissections of the different epochs, and a lot of pictures.  Whatever you think you know about comic books, I guarantee that if you just flip through the Overstreet Guide, you are going to find a book or a niche that you weren't aware of now simply can't live without.

The gold for me actually isn't the prices at all, (I'll get to them in a bit) but the market overview from a bevy of industry legends in the front.  (pages 65-152)  They come from a wide array of specialties and experience levels, and come from a geographically diverse base.  There appears to be no mandate about format or subject matter - some speak more personally about specific finds they made in the prior year, some are more interested in the macro trends and pure data.  When you piece all of the stories together, they form a loose consensus on these points:

  • The Golden Age is still important and produces the highest values, but the action is in the Silver Age
  • There is a growing chasm in the marketplace between high grade key books and everything else.  Uber-rare high end keys set records and sell easily, the rest is difficult to move without deep discounting
  • Sales are holding steady or slightly up for vintage comics
  • eBay is losing traction as an e-commerce vehicle

It's a different and fascinating world, an annual graph charting the migration of a niche market.  Right now we're witnessing America getting older, and the Golden Age is starting to fade it's way out, and the Silver Age is rising to the throne.  There's simply fewer people alive that appreciate Tom Mix, or even know who the hell he is.  So that Western piece of the market is softening a little.  It's not dead by any means, but in the high end world of deep pockets and investment portfolio collecting, Spider-Man speaks to more people now than Little Lulu.

Michael Browning actually wrote his contribution about the emerging trade paperback market!  It was nice to see The Game get its due in such an esteemed market publication, and he got it mostly right.  Not sure what made him spotlight that Max Master of Kung Fu as a benchmark for scarcity.  It's definitely not prevalent, but I can find three of them for every Avengers: Kang Dynasty I come across.  But yeah, mostly he got it right.

How great is this?
Even if you aren't interested in investing in the books, it's fun to read passionate people talk about things that are out there.  Somehow, Planet Comics had escaped my attention, and it's great!  Lots of fantastic Good Girl Art and sci-fi stories from the 40s and 50s.  I'll have a few of these before the year is out, and because I don't need them in NM condition, I'll find some real bargains, for sure.  That was worth the price of admission right there.  What overlooked gems will you discover?  Grab the guide and find out!

As far as the price guide portion itself goes, the results are imperfect but still useful.  The contributors are all clearly focused on the Golden/Silver Age, and the results they are reporting were outdated before they hit the press.  We're talking about an annual publication that presumably takes months to compile - obviously you're not getting up to the minute pricing results!

It gets particularly laughable when Overstreet tries to grapple with modern books like Walking Dead or Morning Glories.  It lists Walking Dead # 1 in NM at $100, and Morning Glories # 1 at $8, and both figures are clearly absurd.  Nobody on this planet is selling those books at those figures.  Nobody.  Walking Dead # 1 is a $400 book in that condition, and Morning Glories is much closer to $40 than to $8.  You have a better shot at spotting the Loch Ness Monster than a NM copy of Walking Dead # 1 for $100, and that's a scientific fact.  So why do they bother reporting it as such?

three dollars???   I'll take it!
The Overstreet Guide has a difficult time giving modern books their due, which is partially understandable.  Most of the contributors simply don't deal or believe in the material.  One would think the solution to that problem would be to assert that they have no after-market value at all, and for much of the modern age, that's exactly what they do.  Overstreet lists Deadpool # 54-55 (1997 run) at $3.00 a piece!  Well, Mr. Overstreet, those trade for $50 a pop, so I'll take all you've got at $3, please!

I half get it.  In a world where something like Skullkickers can go from secondary market darling to absolute afterthought inside of three months, it's hard to put too much stock in some modern prices, particularly since the next update will be 12 months down the road.

The bottom line is that if you're using the Overstreet Guide as a tool to help you decide what comics to buy, understand that it's basically useless to you for any material 1980 or newer, and comically out of touch with anything from this century.  I think it's an indispensable resource for pricing Golden or Silver Age books, though, and a worthwhile reference for anybody interested in comics.

- Ryan

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