Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Madness....It Must Stop!

Before we get going, I just want to say that I can't demonstrate my points without getting spoilery in this column.  So if you don't want to know who the impostor Superman is in the new Future's End comic, don't read this.  For the rest of you, pray continue by clicking "read more", down and to the left.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chronic Review: Astro City - Through Open Doors

Scripts:    Kurt Busiek
Art:         Brent Anderson
Collects issues # 1-6 of the Vertigo series

I had never read an issue of Astro City before diving into Through Open Doors, which represents the 9th volume of the series.  This comic has always worn a badge of critical acclaim, but I've dodged it to this point because I'm generally not into analogues.  Why bother with a half-assed imitation of something when I can wait for a quality creative team to tackle the real thing? 

I do find exceptions to this line of thinking.  The Authority is worthwhile, and that makes no effort to disguise the fact that it's a Justice League commentary.  I really loved Danger Unlimited, and that's not even a commentary.  That was just John Byrne doing more Fantastic Four without the rights to the original property.

So when I started hearing podcasters and pundits talking about Astro City in special reverent tones, I decided that I would test drive the first volume when it got collected.  So here we are.

My quick capsule review is that Astro City is worthy of all the special reverent tones whispered about it.  Here's how it works and why it's a cut above your standard comics fare:

Astro City is Aptly Named

Every other comic on the rack is focused on a character or a group of characters.  Nothing wrong with that, by the way, I'm just stating the facts as they lay.  Astro City is about Astro City.  There are characters that tend to recur more than others, and characters more prominent than others.  That prominence is entirely determined by their importance to Astro City the community, however.

That approaches pushes the focus out into a web of interconnections instead of funneling it all into a specific person or a group.  It's a very different different style of writing and reading, it stands out, and pleasantly so.  Astro City is populated with a host of super-powered folks, and naturally those concerns tend to drive the plots.  It's hard to talk about Metropolis without mentioning Superman, right?  At that same time, Metropolis is much more than Superman.  Superman has no real purpose or meaning without the Jimmie Olson's to save.  Astro City is constructed in such a way that it can't forget that.  Ever.

So while Superman gets a requisite amount of panel time, (he's The Samaritan in Astro City, and Busiek plays him perfectly) three of the six issues in this paperback feature characters with no super powers at all.  The longest running plot in the arc consist of two issues spotlighting a call-center employee who feels she needs to atone for a call-routing mistake.

Your typical comic would flip Busiek's script and deal mostly with the Honor Guard mixing it up with the Skullcrushers.  The tip that brought them to the enemy base may not even get a mention.  Perhaps the call-center employee would receive a pat on the head for a panel.  In Astro City, the meat of the issue are a couple of victims of the Skullcrusher's violence and the call-center employee who feels responsible for their suffering.

Astro City exposes the "weakness" of most superhero comics by offering the reader more layers of the action.  The Big Two superhero books carve out the frosting off the cake, and it is sweet, to be sure.  Astro City lays out the full spread, and then holds the camera on the table until everyone is done eating and reminds you that somebody has to clean the table when the patrons are done.  Then it takes the camera back into the kitchen and shows you the cooks.

That's a different kind of storytelling.  You might be wondering if Astro City turns this back in on itself and becomes banal and dull.  Not at all

Astro City is Also a Mystery Cult

The A plot of the book is centered upon a set of doors in the sky hovering above the city.  Eventually a Celestial-type pops out of the doors and requests a liaison from the regular populace to teach him about the culture. Once the liaison gets the Celestial up to speed, more contact, sharing, and negotiating should follow.

Nobody is quite sure what to make of the situation, including the reader.  Not even the Samaritan seems to be a threat to the new Visitor, and that's a bit scary.  On the other hand, when he first appears the Celestial gets his volume wrong and has to fiddle with his Mother Box before continuing his speech.  So clearly this guy is not omnipotent!

These are the fun little touches that define a good or great series - the devil is always in the details.  This guy's power is not in question, so adding the foibles adds depth.  That character is very hard to pin down.  He seems mostly benevolent, but we never really have access to any conversations with his liason, (more on that situation in a bit) so its impossible right now to say what his intentions really are.  We have no clue what info he's actually getting from his assistant, or what the objectives are.

In the sixth issue, an Astro City mobster also negotiates his way behind those doors, and steals a Macguffin with potentially disastrous consequences.  It's hard to know how to interpret the Celestial's response to that development.  He may have set the whole thing up as a test, and it's a little creepy.  Who is this guy? What's the game plan?  What's he doing behind those doors with the liaison?  We don't know.  Yet.

But somebody might!  I haven't talked about the Broken Man yet, and he's integral.  Every now and again a purple-skinned man appears and talks directly to you.  He tells you what you're are and are not supposed to read and investigate in Astro City.  He tells you that there is something out there called an Oubor, and that he wants NO PART of it.  He chastises you for getting too nosey and potentially drawing the Oubor's gaze.  It's kinda trippy.

This purple person calls himself the Broken Man.  We learn some things about him (against his protestations) that make him a bit of an unreliable source.  And yet...maybe he knows more than anybody about what's going on.  The Broken Man appears to have psychically nudged Ben Pullam to volunteer to act as the Celestials liaison.  Possible so that the Oubur couldn't see him behind those doors.

The Broken Man seems to be the one choosing for us what elements of Astro City we are exposed to, all in a labyrinthine plot to....I don't Astro City from the Oubur?  The vignettes seem random, but Busiek and the Broken Man are promising that these things are all folding in on each other.

The good news is that the "slice of life" stuff is so good, it almost doesn't matter if the Mystery Cult stuff pays off or not.  If it does pay off....this comic could enter legendary status.

Astro City Has a Ton of Great Characters

Astro City # 4 is one of the finest issues of a comic I've read this year.  Martha Sullivan was born a telekinetic, but she just doesn't have the will or temperament to be a crime-fighter.  In the space of a single issue, Busiek walks us through Sully's development as a person, and what life for a regular folk with super-powers might look like, including all the perks and dangers.

It really is remarkable how much character track gets laid in this one issue, and this is also probably a good entry-point to talk about Brent Anderson's art.  Astro City is built on wondering how the superhero phenomenon would operate in real life.  How would a JLA call center actually work?  What would a world of intermingling gods look like?  And the answer is that it would probably look exactly like Brent Anderson draws it.

Not every person with super powers would look like a model.  I think that the design and rendering Anderson creates is critical to buying into the world.  The Brent Anderson Martha Sullivan allows me to just fall in, because I feel like I know who that woman is, and it's pitch perfect.  That's a no-nonsense woman who has lived some life and has some Kathy Bates in her.  If you have to fight your way into believing in her, Busiek can't get where he wants to go.  So I think a good portion of the verisimilitude I attribute to Busiek is actually Anderson, and I just don't have the tools to consciously recognize that.

Anywho.  In the Astro City tradition, Martha gets a full back story, a chance to grow, and a resolution to her plot in the same issue.  You've got your steampunky Dame Progress, and the Cake Walker, who by all rights should be stupid and instantly rejected, but you can't.  Because somehow this creative team makes you believe it fits in this world, and it all just works.

Astro City is unapologetically a super hero comic, but it's an exceptionally layered and sophisticated one.  For those of you pining for something like James Robinson's Starman book, this is an excellent tonic.  I'm giving Astro City a strong recommendation.

Monday, September 15, 2014

NYCC:  Ones to Watch

Superfan David D asked me to make a list of books to hunt for in the bargain bins at New York Comic Con, so that's what I'm going to do.  It won't be a comprehensive list because that would constitute 1,000 pages, and it's difficult to know what any particular convention is going to sport for inventory.  Even vendors you've seen before can spin on a dime if the same old same old hasn't been working for them.

That's not to say that you can't make predictions and plan ahead, though.  I know that when I go to a convention of any size, I'm going to run into a swath of Hellblazer overstock and piles of Chronicles of Conan.  I can make money on several books from both series, so it pays to have your game sharp before you ever step onto the floor.

Obviously you can't know everything, but I would say it behooves one to get familiar with old reliables like Batman and Nightwing before you go.  What's selling right now?  These situations are fluid.  I really like Batman: Scarecrow Tales, but I was shocked to find out how little it's trading for at the moment.  I've sold copies of that book for $60-$80, but as I type this I think it's tough to drag $30 out of it in the best condition.

It pays to have this at the top of your head before you ever start flipping through the long boxes.  Study the big earners and pay close attention to condition breaks.  Some books only make sense to buy in nice shape. Yes, your smartphone has all the answers, and most conventions offer some form of complimentary wi-fi access.  There are a couple problems with relying on that, though.

Problem number one is that there are going to be 90 million other people with smartphones in the venue, and it's difficult to squeeze out a good signal most of the time.  Problem number two is that most vendors don't want to see you staring at your Amazon app counting up how much profit you're going to make on their measly little $5 trade, likely a loss for them.

So you'll have to decide what kind of relationship you want to have the vendors.  I generally don't check the phone while I'm digging, because it's bad form.  I'm careful now about purchasing multiples as well.  When you bring four copies of a book to the dealer, you are announcing to the dealer that you know their stock better than they do, and that you're going to profit at their expense.

I'm not saying I never buy multiple copies any more.  I do.  What I generally do is pick the nicest copy of the clump, and if I decide I need more, I'll come back later.  Sometimes there are multiple folks taking cash at a booth, so I can buy the same books twice and nobody is the wiser.  Most people do not remember what an individual customer purchased the day before, so I can buy my multiples the day after without rancor.  You run the risk of another book scout snapping them up on you, of course.  Some people reading this may think it silly to even sweat this stuff, but there's an old saying in poker:

"Pigs make money, but hogs get slaughtered."

If you get too aggressive and open with your profiteering, a vendor can simply shut off the spigot on you.  They can reassess their entire stock, cherry-pick it, and leave nothing but chaff behind.  I did this 2 years ago at C2E2.  A guy had long boxes full of gold, and I started grabbing 4 copies of certain titles.  Now he's suddenly interested in his stock.

The guy looks at my pile and says "These are out of print, aren't they?"

Then he starts rummaging through his stock and cherry-picking the good books out of the chaff.  That sucked. If that's how he felt about it, why didn't his lazy ass figure out what he was carrying to begin with?  I don't know, but that's life.

Anywho, this is a tiny list of items that I find likely to be available for cover or much, much less at the New York Comic Con.

Farscape Vol 1: The Beginning of the End of the Beginning
ISBN:  9781608866212
SRP:    $9.99
Amazon min in used/new:  $40/$50

This is my favorite book in the world right now because it is dirt cheap and easy to sell.  Full retail is only $10, and I've been getting 4-5X that with ease.  At the Baltimore Con I found multiple copies at $5 or less.

It's possible that I'm actually selling these a little short.  I'm sort of artificially down at the $40-$50 level, and after that it jumps toward $100.  My thing is, when I get a book for $5 and I can sell it for $40, I'm not going to let it lay around for six months hoping to gouge out $80.  I'm going to sell it for $40 quickly and plow that into other earners.

This is the perfect storm of culty goodness.  It's a well-loved series, and the comics are co-written by series creator Rockne O'Bannon.   Certain brick-and-mortar shops may not have a Farscape audience, so they try and blow these out. Merry Christmas!  I don't know how Boom! is going to handle the license, but unless they go back to press soon, I think many of these Farscape books are going to be worth watching.

Green Lantern Corps: The Dark Side of Green
ISBN:  9781401215071
SRP:  $12.99
Amazon min for used/new:  $36/$46

Geoff Johns lifted the whole Green Lantern franchise out of obscurity on sheer force of will. Alannis Morrissette would call that irony, but it's not.  It's poetic, not ironic.  None of the Johns Green Lantern books have ever earned me a nickel, because DC prints enough to sate the demand.

Not so with some of the satellite titles.  There is money to be made with some of the Green Lantern Corps books, essential to the hard corps fans but not printed in great numbers since it's perceived as an ancillary title.

I love Dark Side of Green because it's only $13 even at full retail.  Many vendors fire their remaining GLC stock into the 1/2 price bins.  I really like Dark Side at the $6.50 price point, because I know I'm going to sell it for 6-8X that, and it won't take 48 hours to flip it.  If you see this book for cover or less, it's an insta-buy.  GLC: Recharge is nice, too, but not as nice.

Hellblazer: The Laughing Magician
ISBN:  1401218539
SRP:    $14.99
Amazon min in used/new:   $30/$95

Hellblazer has been quite the money machine for me in my career as a book scout.  Batman is # 1 with a bullet, but other than the Dark Knight I think I've sold more Constantine tomes than anything else.  With the NBC series launching you might think that now might be the best time ever for Hellblazer trades in the secondary market, but you'd be wrong.

What's happened is that the NBC series has prompted DC to go back to press on new editions of the Hellblazer series, and that has helped to keep prices stable and sane.  The people that are interested in the character are getting their hands on the books.. Honestly, that's a good thing for the long-term health of the industry, so I applaud that.  I can't be a disgusting pig of profit if nobody reads these things, so bravo to DC for recognizing that Constantine needs to be largely available.

Not every book has received a new edition yet, though.  Top of the heap right now is the Laughing Magician.  In my experience, it's very easy to find dealers who don't know what they're sitting on blowing these out for $5 a book or half price.  If the book is nice shape, Laughing Magician is very easy to flip for $60.  So if you find one for $5, (I snagged one for $4 at Baltimore) you'll be the one laughing - all the way to the damn bank.

UPDATE:  Sold that $4 copy for $59.99 on 9/14

Nightwing: The Great Leap
ISBN:  1401221718
SRP:    $19.99
Amazon min in used/new:  $90/$130

Nightwing is a beast in the secondary market.  His fan base is dedicated and willing to spend.  I don't have enough data to prove the case, but in my anecdotal experience this is another property driven by interest from women.  I see a LOT of female names on the invoice when I sell Nightwing material.  I don't think they're all buying them as birthday gifts for their boyfriend.  Chicks dig the 'Wing.

There are a ton of earners starring Mr. Grayson, and many vendors know about the older ones.  You are unlikely to find a copy of Rough Justice, Hunt for Oracle, or Year One laying around the bargain bins.  (If you do, buy all means employ an insta-buy strategy)

I'm amazed at how many profitable Nightwing trades are left in the 50% boxes, though.  The strongest play of the newer generation is Great Leap, from 2009.  Prices are in serious nose-bleed territory.  Sometimes things sit in the nose-bleeds and don't actually sell.  You can sell a copy of this book for $80.  Easy.

It's a good thing, too, because full retail is $20.  That's pretty steep. If you can rescue one from that $5 box, that's quite a bonanza.  You should also keep an eye out Lost Year and Renegade.  I promise you, somebody is going to have all of these available for way under retail at NYCC.  

Deadpool Corps Vol 1:  Pool-Pocalypse Now
ISBN:  0785148256
SRP:  $16.99
Amazon min in used/new:  $95/$100

The big money in the secondary market is always on the niche satellite, never on the big shiny object.  Deadpool is an institution now, the Wolverine of the new millenium.  Most of the Deadpool proper trades don't do a bloody thing on the secondary market, because Marvel prints enough to books to soak up the extraordinary demand.

The Deadpool saturation has all these little spin-offs lurking about now, and many of them do not have print runs able to support the demand.  So you have this Deadpool Corps volume trading for close to triple-digit prices.  It's hard to make par ($100) in the trade market, but this might be a place to do it.

You should also have your eyes open for Deadpool Corps Prelude, Deadpool: Merc With a Mouth Vol 1 Head Trip, and Deadpool Team-up Vol 3: BFFs. I didn't find any of these at Baltimore, and was a little surprised.  I bet that somebody hits big on these at NYCC.

Amalgam Age of Comics: Marvel Collection
ISBN:  078510240X
SRP:  $12.95
Amazon min in used/new:  $65/$90

The Amalgam books are hard to find now, partly because they're relatively old. (for the TPB game, 20 years is actually quite old) Another reason is that Amalgam was a hybrid experiment crossing DC and Marvel characters, and those two companies simply do not get along like that any more. I can't imagine a world in which the Amalgam material ever gets reprinted, and for that reason I get very excited when I see these trades.

Sure, the actual comics are mostly terrible.  Mostly.  But they were also fun, a unique stamp on a bygone era, and there is a niche crowd committed enough to the material to pay good money for these.

The good news is that when you do tend to stumble on an Amalgam trade, the vendor likely has no clue about its real value and has dumped it in the $5 box.  They've been staring at it for 20 years and just can't take it another day.  Scoop them up and say thank you!

When I find these in nice shape, I get them graded and stow them away.  Stuff that will never see print again smells like retirement money to me.  But I'm kind of crazy.  Your move is probably to buy them for $5 and flip them for $60.  Also be on the lookout for the Return to the Amalgam Age Marvel, and the Amalgam Age DC Comics collection. I tripped over a couple of these at Baltimore, and I'm betting there will be a couple laying about in New York as well.

Wolverine Legends Vol 5: Snikt!
ISBN:  0785112391
SRP:  13.99
Amazon min in used/new:  $20/$55

Irish Mike McLarty would probably hunt me down if I didn't include this little gem. The catalyst here is the Tsutomo Nihei work.  The style feels a little too manga for the mainstream American audience to really grab hold of it, but a rapid subset really, really wants that.  This is the cauldron from which booms are made of.

I've actually seen this book trading for much higher than it is now.  I've sold this for as much as $80, usually I get about $60 for it.  I never have to pay much to get it, either.  Full retail is $14, but when you do see it, it's generally being sold by somebody who can't find a buyer in their local market and thinks it's garbage.  I got one at Baltimore out of a $5 box.  I'm going to get $50 for it, I promise you.

UPDATE:  I did.  Sold my Snikt! for $49.99 on 9/28

Gargoyles:  Bad Guys
ISBN:  1593621930
SRP:  17.95
Amazon min in used/new:  $145/$221

Something is going on with the Gargoyles property, and I don't know what.  The old Marvel material is spiking a bit, and crazy/bizarre things are happening with the Slave Labor Graphics trades.  I'm sure part of the equation is just the microscopic print runs.  Gargoyles have not been a huge property in years, and Slave Labor just can't be printing even 1,000 of these, can they?

A piece of me hesitates to put this on here, because I've never actually sold one.  Hell, I've never seen one! UPDATE:  I've since found 2 copies.  Sold the first for $99.99 on Oct 1. But I did see a copy of Gargoyles Vol 1: Clan Building close for $250 a few weeks ago on eBay.  I can't seem to sell one of those for even $100, but still - something must have happened that kickstarted this price movement.  Usually these things happen on the heels of a movie announcement, but I haven't heard anything - have you?

The bottom line is that if I saw a copy of this book, I would pop on it instantly even at full retail.  There might be $200 hiding in there!  Kids books tend to get dumped into bargain blowout bins, as well.  If you find one of these at 50% off, there's really no risk at all.  Same holds true for Gargoyles: Clan Building.  I don't know what the market really thinks of that book, but I'll certainly pay $5-$10 to find out.  UPDATE:  I've now sold two copies of Clan Building Vol 1 for $79.99, on 9/20 and 9/23.

There's quite a bit of profit in the kids bins, if you know where to look.  You know those Teen Titans Go! digests you always see lying around the comic shop collecting dust for $6.99 retail?  Well, Volume 1: Truth, Justice, Pizza! is a $40-$60 book in nice condition, and Volume 4: Ready for Action is a $30-$40 book as well.  I can make money on all kinds of Darkwing Duck trades, and the Darkwing Duck/Duck Tales book Dangerous Currency wins me $60-$80 all day long.  If you see these at NYCC, they are likely sitting lonely in a $5 box.

So.  Not a comprehensive list by any means, but these are few of the juicier opportunities from a variety of publishers.  Happy Hunting!