Did you hear about the lost e-reader that was found in the basement closet of a guy’s great-aunt? It seems that after she died, the family found the well-preserved piece of technology with its memory still holding electronic versions of hundreds of decades-old comic books and hardcover editions of classic novels. The amazing collection is being appraised with the family expecting to take the e-reader to auction soon. Early speculations anticipate that it should easily command a price well-above its original retail price point.
Wait, no…That’s probably never going to happen.
What was found was a comic book treasure trove that geek dreams are made of. The collection was amassed by a boy decades ago who, in stereotypic geek fashion, remained a lifetime bachelor. The books passed on to (insert moans of geeky anguish) family members who didn’t even know what they had! Fortunately, the overlooked gems remained well-preserved until the uninitiated educated themselves and actually looked through the aged collection with discerning eyes. That finally allowed more than two hundred Golden Age books to see the carefully filtered light of day once again, including such rare pieces as the first appearances of the Human Torch, Batman and Superman. That alone is sufficient to set comic hounds salivating.
For those of you not capable of naming all of Earth’s Green Lanterns, telling one Flash from another or detailing the differences between Earth 1 and Earth 2 Superman, let me put it this way: the comics weren’t in perfect condition (some dating back to 1938) were still able to bring in more than expected at auction. Specifically, Marvel Comics #1 sold for $113,525; Detective #27 sold for $522,000; and Action #1 sold for $298,750 (still far from breaking the record on this particular book). Altogether, 222 Golden Age comics were auctioned at the kingly sum of $3,433,342 with the less significant remains of the collection to be auctioned online.
Why won’t this sort of thing ever happen with e-books? Isn’t it obvious? There’s no paper destroy or age and infinite copies means no scarcity. A novice economics student should be able to solve that puzzle. Likewise, those of you lighting up over the big numbers behind the dollar signs, don’t run out and start buying newer comics with the expectation that you’ll be able to duplicate the situation. The conditions that turned those simple ten-cent coal comics into precious diamonds are super-unlikely to ever ever ever conspire to make it all happen again. You’ve got better odds playing Powerball (195,000,000 to 1 for those keeping score).
You see, way back in the 1930s, there was a big, fat economic depression going on. Comic books were a new invention, created by stapling together pages of actual newspaper comic strips. That’s why they came to be called comic books or funny books. They were cheap to make and cheap to buy and not meant to last. Little boys could roll them up, shove them in their pockets and carry them till they found a friend to share them or toss them when they were done with them. Once they started to catch on, the publishers started producing original material for the cheap periodicals, but still nothing that was intended to last for decades. When World War II came along, there was a huge push for paper recycling (it was important, trust me), comics were sent off in GI care packages and moms became notorious for disposing of the worthless junk. After the big war, the popularity of the superheroes turned on them when psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a book purporting that comics were a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. The minor bestseller managed to create a parental panic and pressure the publishers who wanted to survive into self-censorship. Some changed to magazines. Some superheroes disappeared.
Later, in the 1980s, as comics returned from the shadows and began to loosen the reins on their own restraints, there was another surge in popularity. The boom in the market came with a move away from traditional newsprint to brighter, heavier bond papers and new inks. More customers came to the stores (the comic shops that hadn’t even existed a few years earlier), driving higher print runs. So the modern era actually brought us conditions opposite to those seen in the earliest years of comics. We have higher print runs, customers buying multiple issues of special issues, reprints of popular stories, comics designed to last for years without fading being stored better and not being disposed of…ever. Ask that econ student about the value of a commodity that’s abundantly available rather than scarce.
Better still, ask a comic shop owner. After you’ve picked up a few comics you like at a bargain price, you can go blow a couple of bucks on the lottery. Or maybe just stay home and download some 21st century comics and have a good read.