Monday, February 20, 2012

Market Spotlight: Hunting Trip!

Big score or an interesting flop?

I thought I'd just share a "day in the life" of a comic book hunter/gatherer, just for the anthropological value, I suppose.  This is what I did today as a book scout and a collector and an investor, and a bit about why I did these things.

Lately I've been branching my research and buying outside of my usual TPB avenues, for a couple of reasons.  One, it's more entertaining.  It's not that I get bored with making money, that's pretty fantastic.  But ultimately this little game of mine begins and ends as a mental diversion, a game of "me against market" to determine who is more clever.  If you constantly run the same searches, look for the same material, hit the same places, it becomes rote and dull.

I'm also branching outside my niche because I still hold out hope that if I can get good enough and cast my net a little wider, I might be able to make a living selling books only.  That is absolutely a goal worth pursuing.  So I've been investigating other little corners that also pique my interest like role playing materials, genre paperbacks outside of comics like Warhammer and Magic: The Gathering, and I've really spiked a renewed interest in the floppies, particularly bronze age floppies.

Not sure why I haven't spent more time trying to game that, I guess because it felt as though too many were in that game, and I didn't feel I was blazing enough of my own trail?  Perhaps it's because the floppies tend to demand speculation, whereas the TPG game I was playing felt like a "sure thing".

Having done the TPB thing for about five years now and recollecting the number of times I made purchases "guaranteed" to make money that I took a bath on, it occurs to me that all investing is speculation unless your buyer is lined up.  All of it.  What I do with the trades is less inherently risky, because it's reacting to data in front of me instead of predicting tomorrow's data, but the risk is there.  The floppy speculation game is betting that what you believe today will happen tomorrow.  The trade game (as I've been playing it) is largely betting that what you see today will still work tomorrow.  Seeing is better than believing, but both bets are susceptible to error.  And as a side note, if you're making your TPB bet solely on what the current Amazon min is and not analyzing closed sales, (and I've done this about a billion times) that is also more about belief than data, and therefore pure speculation.

The TPB game has felt intrinsically safer, and I surely wouldn't complain about it.  I've made some bad purchases, but I've never had a bad month.  But I'm starting to rethink the notion that floppy speculation is by nature toxic, ultimately a losing game.  My current notion is that if one spends the same kind of time doing the work, one can build a winning formula that will inevitably include some hits, hits that will be outweighed by sheer volume of successes.

This does not mean that I go out and purchase 30 copies of Prophet # 21 because it's the flavor of the week.  What it means is that if you look at both the guide prices and actual money trading hands, it's difficult to lose purchasing vintage key books in grade.  Here's how simple this gets - find something people are interested in now with a cover price of 25 cents or less, buy it in NM or better for whatever the going rate is, and next year it will trade for more.  And five years from now it will trade for double or triple, or more.  Not just guide triple, trade triple. There are precious few exceptions to this phenomenon, with more positive exceptions than negative ones, (ask Green Lantern # 76 how it's done in the past five years)  and this while the entire American economy circles the toilet ever downward.  The easiest thing in the world to do is flip an old comic book in high grade.  (High grade does make a significant difference - lower grade material is discounted heavily and much more difficult to move)  You don't have to search out a buyer, they are scrambling about and frothing trying to get to you.

Long story longer, I've started to dabble in buying bronze age stuff in higher grade, often with CGC slabs.  My favorite game now is to put together runs of stuff I enjoyed when I was young, I call them "premium blends" in my head.  I started with Doctor Strange, the 1972 iteration that opened with the gorgeous Frank Brunner art, and I completed it last month.  I have all 80 issues in NM (9.2) or better condition, and I decided I wanted the first issue slabbed, since it's key and I don't want any arguments over key issues if and when I decide to sell the run.

It's a good game that takes time, or at least it takes time if you want to keep your costs down.  Now that Dr. Strange is done, I've moved on to The Defenders, and I've got about 60% of it complete.  It's tough to find this stuff in grade, and really tough to get it without going broke.  It takes an artist with patience, and I am that artist.  Other "premium blends" I mean to create at some point include; Master of Kung Fu, the Frank Miller Daredevil collection, and West Coast Avengers.  That last one's a little weird, and not exactly vintage, but I have fond memories of that series, and it sounds like fun.  Also, it's not exactly not vintage, either.  WCA is about 25 years old now, believe it or not.  And yes, it was born in the modern age of bags and boards, but if you think there's a ton of these book out there in strict NM....try and find some.  This is assuming that any of your local shops are bothering with back issues at all.  You would be shocked at how difficult it really is to find copper and even modern material at investment grade.  These things are not made of titanium, many of them are in 9.0 or less by the time the Diamond box arrives at the shop, much less after a pack of mouth breathers have roughed them up their first day on the rack.

Anywho.  I went to a couple of shops today scouting out material, and specifically I was looking for two items:

A)  Fatale # 1

Most everyone under-ordered this, it immediately went to a second print, and then those sold out in about five seconds as well.  This is the same duo that have been serving up Criminal, and what's a little strange to me is that Criminal seems to do little or nothing in the secondary market.

Fatale is essentially Criminal with a little Lovecraft thrown in for supernatural seasoning, maybe that's exactly the ingredient needed to secure a hit.  Prices on this have been highly erratic, and there's a wrinkle with the "B" cover, too.  Fatale # 1 shipped with a slightly more scarce "Beast" cover.  The second print featured the femme fatale, so that Cthulhian bastard becomes even more scarce relatively.  I've observed the pair of first prints trade as high as $50, which seems a bit absurd, and it's come down some from those lofty heights.

This one might have some legs, though.  The quality is going to be there, and Criminal's history seems to indicate that Fatale should avoid those dreaded shipping delays that crush so many other would-be dynasties.  I couldn't find any first prints, though.  The Source had a handful of second prints.  Not interested.

B)  Adventure Time # 1

Adventure Time is a more risky proposition, but I like it better.  Apparently, this has its origins in animation, and anybody that gets within ten feet of these comics instantly falls in love.  I've seen other "all ages" stuff get buzzy only to disappoint, though.  A few years ago Gargoyles hit with a significant splash, and even more recently Dark Wing Duck had the punditsphere clucking.  Where are those books now?  Are they even in production at this point?  The point is, I have reason to doubt the secondary market legitimacy of a licensed cartoon property.

I'm still interested for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the talk I'm hearing just feels different.  Not very scientific, but when people talk about Adventure Time, it isn't with the kind of backhanded complisult that says "suprisingly good for a kids book".  People talk about Adventure Time with the kind of unreserved enthusiasm that hits are made of.

It's also the # 2 re-ordered item for the month, regardless of publisher.  That's pretty crazy, and pretty significant.  It's a Boom! book driving more extra interest than AvX, which tells me all I need to know.  Re-order activity on a book like that means that shops are not only selling out, but more importantly, people are asking for it.

I couldn't find any copies on my afternoon trip, so when I got home I called every shop within driving distance - nobody had one in stock.  This is a seriously under-ordered little comic.  First prints are selling for more than cover, but they haven't gone truly crazy just yet.  It feels like it's coming, though.

I found a seller on eBay dealing copies for $7.99 plus shipping and bought three copies.  Post shipping, I paid $10/book.  This is without question the most risk I took today, but I didn't go broke, I had fun, and I think the ceiling on this is an "Angry Birds" type level of hipness.  I'm sending the best copy I get to CGC for grading, that's how sick I am about the possibilities.  It smells like a freight train to me, but on the flip side, if it was buzz dead inside of four months, I wouldn't be shocked. Sometimes there's just a little juice in trying to get in front of something, you know?

I couldn't find what I was looking for, but this is what I did find:

Chew # 11-15  ($2.75/per)

Chew is quietly behaving like Walking Dead's little brother, all the way down to the television option.  Image Book, previously unknown creators, tiny little print runs creating tidal waves of buzz, a first issue that skyrockets and a first trade paperback that tops the charts.

Another similarity is that these issues are just not easy to lay hands on.  I don't know if you've looked at the prices on Walking Dead back issues, but they have officially hit the ridiculous stage.  Like its big brother, Chew issues are also largely not available for any price.  They're just....gone.  It's seriously about impossible to buy issues of Chew from issues 5-15, in any condition.  So when I do happen to find copies at near cover price, I bring them home with me.

I found these for cover price, paid closer to $2.75/ per after my discount.  Issues 13 and 15 are not in strict NM, but that's fine.  What could you get for Walking Dead 13 and 15 in VF?  Probably about $50, and maybe a lot more.  I'm not suggesting that's the near future for these Chew books...but he is the little brother.  I'm in for cover price all day long.

Worlds Unknown # 6  ($7.50)

Oh man, this is the greatest thing ever!  I actually don't remember when Killdozer made it to television, but I wish I did.  This is the most absurd piece of nonsense ever created!  The goddamn Killdozer is talking to people!

I bought this priceless bronze age beauty for $7.50 (after discount) in NM (9.2) condition.  Book value in 9.2 is $20, and it's not unusual to find some really nice bargains on these non-key 70s items.  Unless the shop owner goes through their entire stock regularly, eventually these books end up looking like bargains.  I could not be happier with my Killdozer.  Absolutely ridiculous.

Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game  ($15)

I took a stroll through the role playing games at The Source, looking for little gems and opportunities to expand my game.  One of the things that instantly attracts my eye at this stage of my development is anything I haven't seen before, like this book.

It was published by Steve Jackson Games in 2002, and there was no price listed on the book, which I thought was damn odd.  I hit it with my phone, and Amazon min was $38.  I took the book up to the counter and asked how much it was, and after some deliberation, it was decided they would charge me $15.99, which suited me just fine.

It's a nice little piece that probably makes for some interesting reading.  It also reminds me a little of the old Watchmen sourcebooks and modules that Mayfair produced a while back.  I like it so much that I don't have it up for sale right now, this one might just be mine.

Blacksad Vol 3 HC  ($9.64)

After hitting The Source, I stopped at the Barnes & Noble store in the Har Mar mall, because it has that annex in the middle of it that operates like a Half Price books.  They have half a bookshelf filled with trades, and this one instantly caught my eye.

It's a beautiful looking hardcover, and in the original French.  It's oversized and a bit of a pain in the ass to fit on your average bookshelf or ship.  But I've certainly never seen one of these before, and it just had the stink of rarity about it.

I hit it with the phone, and the Amazon min was something around $80, but that was for an ex-library copy.  The other two listings were somewhere in the $6,000 range, which is of course, pointless and stupid.  Why do people do that?  You're never going to sell it for that, are you trying to pull chicks with your astronomical Amazon listing?  Whatever.

Truth is, I don't know what to think about this book.  I ran an eBay search, and there is no history there for what I've got.  Which is a potentially good sign in and of itself.  I put it up for sale for $200, and that might be a huge mistake in either direction.

On the one hand, I paid $9.64 for the book, so a $200 flip doesn't seem like a bad idea.  On the other hand, if you somehow found a nice copy of Action Comics # 1 at an estate sale for $1, and you didn't know what the hell you had, you might feel good about selling it for $100.  But really, you didn't make $99, you lost millions of dollars.

This is the problem with french language books you've never seen before.  I might be under-selling this by a gajillion dollars, or it might be a junk book that I've completely over-charged on.  All I know is, it's got a noir detective that looks like a cat in it, and he totally bangs this other naked cat chick.  So basically, I win.

-  Ryan

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Few Thoughts Regarding The Curious Case Of Gary Friedrich!

The big news this week is Marvel winning the suit Gary Friedrich brought against it, and especially the $17,000 Marvel is demanding in lieu of a counter suit.  Mr. Friedrich is now prohibited from selling his customary unauthorized prints, and in a particularly odd result, Friedrich is no longer allowed to claim himself creator of Ghost Rider.  He is still allowed to charge for his autograph on items, provided they are properly licensed.  Thank God for class and good taste on that result.

Anybody familiar with myself or the Chronic Insomnia podcast knows that I have long been an ardent and enthusiast Marvel basher.  In fact, I dare anybody to find an entity more critical of Marvel.  It's going to take you awhile, I'd advise against the effort.  When they earn it, I load up and give them both barrels.  With glee.

In truth, I'm not in support of that $17,000 pimp smack against Friedrich, who clearly can't pay it.  They know this, of course.  The court documents claim that figure represents the unwarranted profits Friedrich secured violating Marvel's copyright.  The reality is that the figure represents a message to any creator past or present looking to challenge Marvel's ownership of their intellectual property catalog:

Mess with a nickel of the Big Dog's money....expect to get bit.

That's the message, and it's a bully's message, and I despise bullies and tyrants.  I want to be clear about that.

When I read the blogosphere's reaction to the Friedrich debacle, though, I hear a lot of talk about boycotting, and a lot of reductive logic about how the Big Bad Corporation is once again beating up on the Little Guy.  Marvel's culpable on several fronts, but before we throw throw them into the Lake of Fire, I think it's valuable to keep a few thoughts in mind.

Thought # 1:  Gary Friedrich says he created the Ghost Rider, but nobody else remembers it quite that way.

Roy Thomas, (editor of Ghost Rider for both the western revamp and the flaming motorcycle version) says that Friedrich pitched the idea originally as a Daredevil villain, and that penciller Mike Ploog and he designed the visuals.

Ploog says he doesn't remember who exactly came up with the flaming skull part, but he does describe a very collaborative effort, pulling design cues from the old original western character, and adding the stripes down the black costume to keep track of the body.  He certainly never gives the impression that Gary Friedrich handed them a completely formed template.

That's important, because even inside of comics, a strongly visual medium, Ghost Rider's appeal is very much a visual appeal.  No way to verify this without a time machine, but if Johnny Blaze is just a guy who makes a Faustian bargain and looks like an unshaven Kurt Russel knock-off, that character doesn't really fly.  That character pops because there's a demon-looking guy with no flesh on his face, and fire shooting out of his skull.  Mike Ploog's contributions, even if they did come from Friedrich's description, are (in my opinion) more important to the success of the character.  Again, assuming that those design cues did come from Friedrich at all.

That's Friedrich's story, and he's the only one that recalls it as such.  While it's clear that Friedrich has a significant role in Ghost Rider's birth, it feels a bit false and presumptuous to claim full ownership.  

"It was my idea.  It was always my idea from the first time we talked about it, it turned out to be a guy with a flaming skull and rode a motorcycle.  Ploog seems to think the flaming skull was his idea.  But, to tell you the truth, it was my idea."
                               - 5/2001 issue of Comic Book Artist

That claim seems spurious to me partially because.....

Thought # 2:  Ghost Rider is a revamp of a revamped western character, not a Friedrich original

Ghost Rider was not a new concept in 1971 when Marvel Spotlight # 5 hit the stands.  It wasn't even a new concept when Friedrich and Roy Thomas first put out a Ghost Rider western character in 1968.  That character was directly ripped from a property that Ray Krank and Dick Ayers came up with ages ago.

When I say "ripped", I don't mean to imply that Thomas and Friedrich did anything unseemly.  The original Ghost Rider's copyright had lapsed, it was open for exploitation.  But it wasn't Friedrich's idea.  It was a microscopic tweaking of and then a modernization of a weird, justice-seeking, horse riding character that came before him.  The horses were now in the engine of the motorcycle, is all.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Friedrich did nothing - making the horse mechanical is a significant twist.  Marvel and Friedrich had the legal rights to do the western Ghost Rider and to develop the concept further.  Nothing criminal about that.

But all I keep hearing about in Pundit Town regarding the Friedrich ruling is "It's not just a matter of what's legal, but what's right and fair"!  OK, but that being the case, where is the outrage for Krank and Ayers and the true origins of the property?  Why isn't Friedrich advocating for their rights and acknowledging their contributions?  Why isn't anybody worried about their remunerations?

Thought # 3:  Like it or not, work-made-for-hire was (and still is) the standard

When Freidrich and Ploog created the Ghost Rider, work-made-for-hire was the standard.  We may not like that idea in 2012, and frankly, nobody (other than the publishers) liked it in 1971.  Guys like Neal Adams and Steve Gerber took a fair amount of heat and trouble for vocally not liking it back in the day.  But it wasn't like it was a big secret.

If you weren't aware of this unsightly little detail, your paycheck spelled it out for you in great detail, right by the endorsement line.

"By acceptance and endorsement of this check, payee acknowledges, a) full payment for payee's employment by Magazine Management Co., Inc. and/or Marvel Comics Group, b) that all payee's work has been within the scope of that employment, and c) that all payee's works are and shall be considered as works-made-for-hire, the property of Magazine Management Co., Inc. and/or Marvel Comics Group."

Just in case you didn't get the memo, they put the memo on your paycheck, where you'd be sure to find it.  "Hey, you don't own these characters, we do."  Again, this may not be pleasing to our 2012 taste buds.  It probably shouldn't be.

But the idea that Gary Friedrich didn't know that he was signing away his Ghost Rider rights?  Not possible.  And that's not what he was arguing, actually.  He was arguing that Marvel never filed a proper copyright back in 1971.  Back then, you had to file paperwork to secure a copyright.  A court found that Marvel did. 

Gary Friedrich was not bamboozled by Marvel.  They offered a shitty deal, and Friedrich decided a shitty deal was better than starving and took the page rate.  That doesn't make Marvel a hero.  But the idea that this was slipped under creator's noses in the fine print?  Preposterous.  For better or worse, work for hire was the established standard.

Yes, Ryan, but back then there weren't multi-million dollar toy deals, and blockbuster movies, and grand licensing opportunities - shouldn't we return to the idea of just compensation now that the scope of the game has changed?

The answer is - probably.  Gary Friedrich did not know in 1971 that he was signing away movie money, or he may have made a different decision.  Maybe.  I think Marvel could find a better way to deal with this Brave New World apart from trying to take Friedrich's last few dollars, and I'll get to that before I'm done, promise.

Yup, the game has changed.  But I object to the constant refrain I keep hearing that goes:

"Marvel made millions of Ghost Rider dollars off the back of this poor man and gives nothing in return!"

Not true.

Thought # 4:   What does Ghost Rider look like today without Marvel?

It's easy and intuitive to look at the Ghost Rider movie, smell the millions of dollars in play and then say - "Without Gary Friedrich, none of that is possible."

In truth, it takes a lot to make that possible, and Friedrich was simply a tiny but important cog at the beginning.  Ask yourself what happens to Gary Friedrich's Ghost Rider without Marvel Comics:

  • Does it even get published or distributed?
  • Without the context of the shared Marvel Universe, does anybody read it?
  • Is it popular without the mighty marketing muscle of merry ol' Marvel?  (after Stan Lee)
  • Do we have a publishing history worth making a film without Marvel?

Without Marvel, Ghost Rider is a non-entity.  This was not some floundering fly-by-night operation waiting for Gary Friedrich to save with his incredible motorcycle guy.  Ghost Rider is what it is today largely because Marvel was big enough to combine a collection of inspired creations and market them into a cohesive machine.

Gary Friedrich was undoubtedly a part of that.  I think there's plenty of wiggle room for Marvel to give more to Friedrich than just his old page rate.  But the millions of dollars?  Friedrich didn't hand that to Marvel.  Marvel spun that out of a few threads of Friedrich and Ploog gold.

And frankly, a lot more people than that.  My attraction to the Ghost Rider, however much there is, is mostly due to a double splash page panel that Todd McFarlane drew in Spider-Man # 7.  I bet for a lot of people, the seed of attraction was planted in that ghastly but oh so sexy glow in the dark cover for Ghost Rider # 15.  And that was Danny Ketch, not Johnny Blaze.

This idea that Marvel made a gajillion dollars off Ghost Rider and so Gary Friedrich and Friedrich only should get paid?  I just don't buy it.  I can't prove it scientifically, but I think Mark Texeira has as much to do with the character's strength  as Friedrich.

Thought # 5: Boycotting is Bullshit

The common solution I hear to resolve all this is boycotting.  They're going to boycott the Ghost Rider film, or they're going to boycott Marvel...or at the very least, they're going to say that's what they'll do in the harshest post possible on their local chat board.  I think all that is irrational rubbish.

It’s fine to assert your principles and it's your money, you can do what you want with it.  I get wanting to make a statement that Marvel will hear. The problem with boycotting is that if you hold consistent with it, I think you’re forced to not only give up the Ghost Rider movie and all of  comics...but anything else you purchase.  It’s the 1 Corinthians 5:10 effect – if you stay so pure that you never come in contact with an asshole, you will have to leave the world to do so.

Every company has done various and sundry shitty things to their employees and their customers.  It’s how the world works.  If you want to boycott those entities that trod upon the innocent, you better start growing your own food and killing animals for their pelts, because no corporation has skated a clean program yet.  I wish you the best of luck with your purity project, and I sincerely hope you don't go digging too deeply.  You'll be burning your house down by the end of the day, because everything in it was the unfortunate fruit of some diabolical prick torturing some other innocent bastard.  

And if you think about, you're not just a victim, either.

Thought # 5:  You're a lot more like Marvel than you think

Did Marvel pay Gary Friedrich less than it could have for the Ghost Rider property?  Surely.  This is how the world operates.  It's how you operate.

All day, every day you make value decisions.   Not every decision is a value decision, but mostly you’re looking to get maximum payoff for your dollar.  So if that milk shake is $4, and it’s only worth about $2 to you, the odds are good you order something else.  But if that feels like a $30 shirt, and it’s on clearance for $13.60, do you voluntarily hand the store that extra $16.40, or do you take the value and run, content inside at what a wonderful frugal person you are?  I’m betting you paid $13.60, because that was the contract. It's called "Consumer Surplus" in the economy game.

Marvel paid Gary Friedrich his page rate and nothing more because that was the contract.  If you have a problem with that, you should probably start paying your actual valuation for the goods and services you buy.  If you wish to remain pure, that is.  Otherwise, you’re just going to have to live with the fact that you have more in common with Marvel than you might find comfortable.

Listen, Marvel still sucks.  Gary Friedrich was not a threat to Marvel selling prints and t-shirts.  The guy is unemployed, reportedly not in the best of health, and a complete sweetheart according to anybody who comes in contact with him.  Going after Gary Friedrich for $17,000 is the wrong thing to do, period.
Rather than punishing the people that helped make them great, I think it would be advisable for Marvel to negotiate with these creators and offer them reasonable compensation.  Not because it's legal, but because it right, and ultimately I believe, better for their future long term.

There are precedents for giving back to creators.  Deals have been struck for Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, the Siegels, etc.  It shouldn't be unthinkable for Marvel to go to Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog and say:

"Hey, what do you say to either a one-time lump settlement of six figures or a point on all future profits on collections and multi-media considerations?"

This would not break Marvel.  What it would do is send the message to creators that they now have an incentive to create again.  Is it any wonder why comics suffer from stagnation?  Why would anybody create anything new for Marvel or DC, when they know full well that they will never share in the gains of a new hit?  Offer a piece of the action, and offer it on the profits, so that there is nothing to be lost.  If the creators are only getting a chunk of the black, it will be in their best interest to produce work that makes money.  Everybody wins. 
Marvel will never do this, of course.  Too short-sighted to begin with, and now that they're under the Mouse umbrella?  Forget it.  There has never been a more hypocritical attack demon regarding copyright than the Disney corporation.  

Here's the thing, after all of that philosophical back-and-forth.  Marvel is wrong to play the bully, and I donated to the Gary Friedrich fund that Steve Niles set up.  Steve Niles is a stand-up cat (when he isn't stealing your girlfriend) and I trust him to handle the money accordingly.  I encourage anybody with a heart to do the same.  Don't let Neal Adams hog all the charity, let's all get involved!
Yes, let's help Gary Friedrich.  But it's more complicated than "Gary Friedrich good, Marvel bad", and I don't think anything gets solved with a boycott.  But can we give Marvel another black eye on the blogs?  Yeah, I think we can and should do that.  And I think I just did.

- Ryan