Acquisition, Possession, Collecting, and Selling Comic Books; or “The Art of Letting Go.”

I want to apologize in advance if this article gets a little too philosophical or heavy. However, the concepts I’m writing about in this article are extremely fascinating to me on both a personal and an intellectual level. What fascinates me most is the quantum state that a comic’s value occupies when it is physically in our possession.

This is not a normal article about a specific hot book, the state of the market, or speculation on new media developments. This is about the general psychological space we all may occupy while buying, possessing, and selling comic books.

Before we jump in, I guess I should fill you in on some of my experiences recently. For starters, I ran an online action figure retail business during 2019. I started it up in January 2019, ordered, received, listed, marketed, sold, packaged, and shipped, hundreds of items all on my own during my lunch breaks and after hours while holding down my full time job. It sucked and it was a dismal failure. I ended up with a ton of useless plastic piled up in my garage that I didn’t want and nobody else wanted either. The sheer volume of physical possessions that I was for a time the custodian for, really shook my sense of consumerism to the core. Second, I’ve been reading up on minimalism. I’m not going to get too heavy into that because it’s a whole section of the internet in its self and a whole philosophical thing that I don’t really have the scope to talk about here. Suffice to say, it lead to questions about what possession of items meant to me and what actually makes me happy in life. I don’t think you need to live with a rag wrapped around your naked body and a bowl for begging, but I think there is wisdom in minimizing. Having a “minimalist comic book collection” seems like an absurd contradiction, but it’s an interesting concept to me. What happens when you boil down the physical manifestation of your fandom to only the most essential possessions? Third, I’ve also been doing a lot of self-education on personal finance. Again, beyond the scope here, but many concepts apply to a comic book collecting hobby and a side hustle selling comics online. If a book is “worth” $100 sitting in my possession, can it be sold and can that $100 be used for a more advantageous use to get me towards my personal goal of financial security? Intersecting with the question is the question of whether physically possessing the book holds more value to me than the money. It’s a case-by-case analysis, but it always leads to some interesting introspection.

This all culminated in me selling the vast majority of my comic book collection. Enough in fact to buy my wife and I a Peloton indoor spin bike, a copy of Amazing Fantasy 15, and a .25 acre lot of land by the lake that we intend to build a cabin on. I know, I know, the Amazing Fantasy 15 copy is only 1.0, but it’s my 1.0. Also, I know I’ve talked a lot about my AF15 on CHU recently, I promise I’ll shut up about it at some point.

I sold a lot of great books. Some heavy hitters. I sold Hulk 181, Iron Man 55, Fantastic Four 48, 49, and 50, a full run of Alan Moore’s Miracleman including Warrior #1, a full run of Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen, a full New 52 Batman run, lots of flavors of the week like Oni Press convention exclusive Rick and Morty #1s, Teen Titans 12s, the list goes on. I also started amassing a digital library of these issues that I can read on a tablet whenever and wherever I like, though. You see, I traded actual physical possession of the material in exchange for collectors’ dollars and access to the same material. We can argue about the re-coloring of classic issues in digital editions or the absence that glorious smell of old news print, but for the most part and for arguments sake, digital constitutes access to the same content. That distinction (possession versus access) is what I find so interesting about the collecting mindset. The mindset that I and so many of you are afflicted with. Because, yes, there are always moments when I want to drop a pile of cash to own another Hulk 181. The pragmatic side of me usually steps in, though.

22 Pages of Paper with 2 Staples

Anthony and I were talking about the current white hot seller’s market and that was the impetus for me writing this article. Blame it on the COVID-19 lockdown. Blame it on good stories and good characters coming out. Blame it on the rebirth of speculation during this second golden age of television brought on by the advent of streaming. Whatever you blame it on, 2020 has been good for one thing and one thing only: selling comic books online.

So, what’s the problem? CHU is a site designed to inform about hot books and to lend you, the seller, a few tips to identify those books to sell while hot. The problem arises when you get to that one certain book that all of a sudden becomes hot. This isn’t that character you know nothing about being published by the Distinguished Competition, Marvelite! Your favorite character’s book has a hot commodity stuffed into it’s 22 slender pages! Your local comic shops are all out of copies and you only have one copy left. Are you willing to give up that pull book because that new character appearance is selling for $100, $200, $300? Or that bad ass variant you bought for a pittance back when they were printing hundreds of thousands of Star Wars #1 copies and nobody cared. I’m looking at you Granov Boba cover!

What does that book mean to you? Not what does the market say. What does it mean to YOU? What did you do to acquire it? How do you benefit from possessing it? Are you willing to cease physically possessing it because somebody else is willing to acquire it for more just to have the right to say they now possess it?

Let’s not kid ourselves. On an abstract level, we are talking about a (generally) $3.99 book of 10-12 pieces of colored paper, bound together with two staples. Some of those pieces of paper are printed with things people like. In fact, they like those things A LOT. Enough to argue for hours over them on the internet and to pay thousands of dollars to possess those pieces of paper. Other pages, or entire books, are filled with things people could not possible care less about. They are, in fact, all the same on an abstract level, though. Some pieces of paper like Action Comics 1, Detective Comics 27, Fantastic Four #1, X-Men #1, etc., etc., become more. Long runs of comic books result from that first issue. Maybe movies and TV shows come along with toys, games, clothing and other accouterments. Then, the world looks around and starts asking “where did this all start?!” People seek out the genesis of this cultural phenomenon and these 22 pages of paper bound together with 2 staples gets entire lifetimes of entire generations of people projecting importance upon them that they did not always have. Granted, some books were important out the gate or very soon thereafter, but we are always retroactively projecting our own experiences and cultural importance back on to these historic pieces of paper.

This is what we used to call a library

For the longest time, before the advent of digital media and the internet, physical possession of one of these historic objects was intrinsically linked to access of the material. Absent a few exceptions, such as collected editions of comics being available at the library, your friend lending you a book, or maybe a museum displaying the pages, you needed to possess X-Men #1 in order to read X-Men #1. It may have been reprinted, but if you missed that at your local newstand, you were again out of luck as far as access was concerned because you did not have possession. So, we definitely live in an anachronistic time for physical comic book collecting. People hunt down possession the physical first print of books, yet have unprecedented access options.

Wednesday Warriors

Don’t get me wrong, reader, I show up to my local comic shop every Wednesday just like you. Sometime I buy a small stack of new books I want to read, other times, I grab large piles of hot books to flip. I’ve owned thousands of comics at one time or another and now own a very meager couple hundred comics. The fact remains that every Wednesday when I buy those books, I am well aware that I will at some point sell them. It may be that day, next month, a year from then, or late in my life before I die and realize my daughters don’t care about my comics at all.

Now, we are all fans of different things. Maybe you started collecting comic books because you loved Spider-Man cartoons on Sunday mornings. You wanted to read more about your favorite super hero. Also, maybe, like me, you weren’t super into team sports and you were a bit of an outsider. Maybe it gave you an identity to align with. “Check out DrunkWooky, the guy around the water cooler who’s super into Star Wars.” All things being equal, what’s the difference between my Chewbacca T-Shirt and my co-worker’s Laker’s T-Shirt on casual Friday? It’s all just identity signaling.

At some point, that identity morphed into a habit or hobby of collecting that intellectual property. Yes, you are a Spider-Man fan, but did you grab issue 300? If not, you missed out! Other Spider-Man fans own issue 300! Are you not a real Spider-Man fan? Years later you bought a facsimile reprint. It’s the same story, but are you as big a Spider-Man fan as the guy with the original first print?

The answer to level heads is that of course you can be as big a Spider-Man fan as somebody else without owning a first print of issue 300. In fact, I would argue you may be a bigger fan of Spider-Man if the guy you’re comparing yourself to owns nothing but Batman comics, except that he owns a copy of ASM 300 because he knows it’s a desirable collectible comic. You see, fandom is quite independent to completionism, or the sheer quantity of things branded with that fandom which you own and possess. This seems simple, but it took me forever to figure out. There’s a simple thought experiment I always like to perform: When I’m having a hard time letting go of a book, I think back to a time before I possessed it. It may have been a time before the book existed or it may just have been a time when I was focused on other things in life and the obsession with obtaining that singular thing had not yet set in. You see, at a certain point, I got it in my head that I loved Wolverine so much that I absolutely needed Hulk 181. So I bought it. There were decades of my life before that point that I lived without it. Days of great joy and days of great despair, but none linked to the absence of that book from my life. The frequency of days of joy and days of despair did not seem to change once I physically possessed Hulk 181. Neither did the number of days of joy decrease once I sold it. The anxiety of letting that book go once I owned it, though, that was HEAVY. I gave up approximately $2,000 I could have put towards my mortgage or into my retirement savings to physically possess Hulk 181, but that didn’t bug me so much. That’s just a pragmatic fact. No, possession of the Hulk 181 copy wasn’t necessarily detracting much from my life, but it wasn’t adding a lot. It’s interesting, we all have access to a place like Yellowstone National Park, yet none of us really agonize over the prospect of trying to own Yellowstone or possess something physical in the park. Access is enough. Why are collectibles different?

I still love Wolverine. Hell, I have a titanium femur I earned by snapping my leg in half snowboarding. If anything, I feel a very real connection to man with a metal skeleton. Especially when the temperature starts to drop.

So, when you enter your local comic shop on Wednesday and pick up the latest issue of your favorite series, whether it be Spider-Man, Batman, Star Wars, Oblivion Song, or whatever else you pick up, what are your expectations? You’re spending $3.99 per book (let’s assume your local comic shop doesn’t mark up hot or variant books), but what are you spending that on? You get access to the brand new story contained inside and you get physical possession of the book. Your expectation is probably to get some varying degree of a decent story together with adding one more entry into your ever-growing physical collection of that story. If you’re going in expecting all books to appreciate at 7%, you’re playing the wrong game and I think I might like to show you some diversified index funds to put a little money into. If you buy one copy, and that particular issue heats up, you have a conundrum on your hands. You spent $3.99 for access to the story and possession, but now somebody else online wants to exchange possession with you for $100. Assuming all of your retailers local and online are sold out, unless you bought two copies, you can only either have possession or $100, not both. You could purchase access to a digital copy or a second print next month for $3.99. Out of that $100, you then still come out more than $90 ahead. So, what is the hang up?

Psychologically speaking, is it a concern that your collection will now be lacking? Is it some form of standard of fandom you’re holding yourself to? A fear that you may regret the sale later?

Let’s take each of those in turn.

First, it took me a long time to realize that the only person putting a standard on my comic book collection or my Star Wars collection was me. If I showed a friend my comic book collection and said “I have a complete run of Amazing Spider-man 200 through 700! Unfortunately, my copy of 300 is a reprint,” that friend probably would not care at all and likely would not change his opinion of me based on not owning a first print of issue 300. In fact, I’ve had a conversation along those lines and my coworker shrugged and said “that’s cool, I’ve read all those on Comixology! Man the Clone Saga is hard to get through.” We immediately moved on to content and story. No, he didn’t inspect the condition of my issue 252.

Second, it took me a long time to understand that my fandom for Star Wars was not tied to the amount of Star Wars branded physical media that I owned. In fact, I was actually becoming a worse fan by following it too closely. Let’s be real, in a capitalist system where the majority of entertainment IPs are owned by giant corporations beholden to shareholders, there will likely never be a day when a new Darth Vader action figure isn’t on the horizon. They will likely continue to tell us stories about Luke Skywalker until the sun swallows us whole as well. So, is the fact that I enjoyed Darth Vader issue #3 by Kieron Gillen linked to me actually physically possessing that book? No. I can read it digitally and once again appreciate the Indiana Jones homage and Aphra flipping the famous quote on its head: “It belongs in an armory!” In a lot of ways, possession of that particular 22 pages of paper and 2 staples is not adding anything to my enjoyment of it. It’s entirely likely that my one remaining copy has never been read to maintain its condition. So, my enjoyment of that issue, if I read it in a trade paperback or digitally, is actually entirely separate from possessing the issue and the fact of possession is not actually adding to my fandom. It’s some sort of badge of fandom honor, I suppose, but there again nobody is asking, so…

Then there’s that old squeaky cog in your brain: regret. At the moment where you possess a hot book that you purchased for $3.99, that is now selling for $100 on ebay, that book occupies a somewhat quantum state. It both is an is not “worth” both $3.99 and $100 or more. This is because it’s “value” is only set once the sale is made and money changes hands. Sure, other people are exchanging $100 for possession of a copy of that book you own, but they are not exchanging it with you. Also, there’s no guarantee that price will stay high. It might plummet. It might become a classic book that ages like a fine wine, ever-appreciating. However, for all those years you hold on to it, it is worth $3.99. Because you exchanged $3.99 for possession of that book in lieu of spending that $3.99 on another good or service. Your net worth is $3.99 less for privilege of owning that book and until a sale is consummated at a higher price, that’s the only real measure we can rely on. You can say it’s worth $100, but you don’t have that additional $100 until you actually relinquish possession of the book you paid $3.99 for and receive the $100. Now the question is whether $96+ in profit is enough of an incentive to severe your possession from that physical book. Is the completeness of your collection, your bragging rights, the measure of fandom you place on yourself, worth foregoing $96? Keep in mind that the buyer isn’t taking away your experience you had while reading that book. If you buy it again in trade paperback or digital, the buyer has no control over your access to that story for the $100 they paid. I know this is all very simple logic and I’m not trying to sound condescending. This all just comes from my own experience when confronted with selling off an issue that I personally value.

Do I love Doctor Aphra’s first appearance in Darth Vader #3? Yes! Arguably more than every Doctor Aphra issue after it. Did I lose any of that enjoyment when I sold my 1:25 Larocca variant? Not at all. But did my feeble brain get dragged kicking and screaming the whole way to a sale after multiple listings, unlistings, and relistings? Youbetcha! Arguably, the issue that should mean the most to me is issue #7 because it’s the only Star Wars comic where my god-given name is printed in the letters section. Lo and behold, the market managed to convince me that issue #3 is the issue I value most, though.

Acquisition is exciting! There’s something new in those pages before you crack them! There’s also the off-chance that book becomes valuable and your small investment becomes a pay day! Selling also has a ton of upsides. You’re relieved of one more possession you can’t take with you when you die, but never deprived of your memories of the book or in any real sense your access to read it once again. Possession, however, I would argue is an anxiety-riddled purgatory. I still possess hundreds of comic books, don’t get me wrong. However, my most anxiety-filled moments while conducting my comic collecting hobby are not the moments of acquisition or sale. Those are filled with possibility, fun, and upon sale, relief. My most anxiety-filled moments are those dismal days when a book I own and love is all of a sudden a book somebody else desperately wants to own and love. To sell or not? When that question is asked, the state of possession is no longer fun for me. I usually end up selling and I rarely look back.

You might come to the conclusion that, “DrunkWooky, you’re not a real comic book fan if you sell off all your books consistently.” That’s a fair assessment if you like. I know in my heart of hearts that I love this shit, though. I don’t know what it is, but no matter how many super heroes I ship across the country, I can’t wait to read their next adventure. What in God’s name does that to me? A topic for another day I guess.

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