Comic Book Philosophy: First Appearance or Issue of Primary Significance?

I’ve been wanting to write this article for a long time. Today, I’d like to try and introduce a new term into the comic book collecting vernacular: “Issue of Primary Significance”. The reason this has come to mind is because of all the argumentation I see online about first appearances, versus cameos, versus “true firsts”, versus first full appearance, versus first full in costume, versus first full identity revealed, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.

I am arguing today that the answer to which appearance of a character was published first in time is often the right answer to the wrong question. The comic collecting community has become so singularly focused on identifying and hunting the “first appearance” of a character, however you wish to define that for your purposes, that it has lost track of the purpose behind this significance of that title as “first”. And, alternatively, the community has now started valuing issues of little importance to a character’s significance in the cultural milieu, merely due to a cold, clerical determination that such issue was first in time and ergo first in right. First appearances are not an ends to themselves. I argue today that the proper question that should be asked to evaluate a comic book issue’s desirability is whether that issue is an “Issue of Primary Significance”.

I have seen the recent proliferation of comic book speculator Twitter accounts, apps, Instagrams, websites, TikToks, NickNacks, and Wandoozlers! I even saw a Big bozzler blow his blewsaphone on a bamboozler! Sorry, my daughter and I have been pretty Seussical recently.

At any rate, there seems to be a lot of discussion and focus on “first appearances.” It seems that people are getting hot and bothered arguing about whether a Free Previews order catalog is a “first appearance.” Regardless of it was published first, again, I argue the wrong question is being asked and the wrong issue is being identified. First appearances have always been some of the most valuable comic books on the market for the most popular characters. Books like Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #1, and other notable books I’m sure are coming to the mind of readers, are all monsters when it comes to sheer monetary value on the secondary collector’s market. However, their value is not simply connected to their place as the first publication to carry certain characters. These books, in addition to being firsts, also launched an intellectual property that became beloved by millions across the globe. The issues were novel depictions of brand new characters, exciting the imaginations of children and adults. People saw themselves in their flaws or aspired to become their most lofty ideal.

Why We Love First Appearances

Whether a Superman fan is born in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s or beyond, they eventually begin to look at where it all began and end up reading Action Comics #1. The same can be said of Spider-Man, Hulk, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, and the list goes on. When that fan picks up that issue, whether it be a coveted first print, a reprint, digital, or whatever, they read it and see where the characters traits came from. What attributes were carried forward and which were dropped. For instance, Superman originally jumped and didn’t fly (or so it could be argued). Whether that was the first issue that fan read which started their fandom or not, it’s significance can’t be denied upon reading it. What I’m listing here are easy examples. Self-contained first appearances with relatively few contenders to the title. 10-22 pages of character development and art of the character, costumed, un-costumed, dialoguing with other characters, exhibiting powers, thwarting foes, or whatever makes that character unique or relatable. There is a level of nostalgia attached to those issues for some, a level of vicarious nostalgia perhaps for those born after their release. At any rate the reader takes something communicated by that character, or the art, or the story and carries it with them as a fan.

As interest in comic characters rises, demand for these books also rise, without additional supply being printed. So, naturally, prices skyrocket. However, I would argue that not all first appearances are built the same.

First Appearances of a Lower Order

Much ado is made of “first appearances.” However, in a lot of instances, the first is not the most significant, nor the most desirable. Nor should it be.

Let’s take a classic example an run with it. Hulk 180 versus 181. To me, being and old school comic book collector, I never spent a lot of time arguing for instance the fact that Hulk 180 is Wolverine’s first appearance or “cameo” versus Hulk 181. Yes, a man with claws leapt out in Hulk 180 and screamed his name, but the market favored Hulk 181. Hulk 181 had more Wolverine content, an instantly classic cover, and most people connected with 181 when reading Wolvie’s appearances. Given only enough money for either a copy of Hulk 181 or Hulk 180, I’d argue get 181 first as it’s more desirable and then get 180 later if you still feel you need to complete the checklist.

The point is, I will not argue that 181 was first. That’s ridiculous. One was obviously printed a month before the other and in 180 we got a full look at Wolverine in costume, with dialogue, announcing his name and even giving him an alias, Weapon X:

Yet, Hulk 181 has always been more valuable and I would argue this is appropriate. In Hulk 181, Wolverine goes toe-to-toe with both Hulk and Wendigo and can pretty much match them every step of the way. We learn that ‘s he’s part of a secret government program, that his claws are made of a new metal called Adamantium. Plus, we just get a lot of Wolverine action. It’s the first issue where Wolverine did anything significant. Before 181, Wolverine could have been a mirage, a hologram, an imaginary friend, a silly Canadian fan boy delusional that he had super strength who gets stomped to death by Wendigo.

Hulk 181

After Hulk 181, though, the reader is intrigued about this clawed man with a shadowy past. He would continue on to become one of the most popular Marvel mutants of all time and the market has shown that Hulk 181 is in large part responsible for that. There was enough interest for him to re-appear in Giant Size X-Men #1 and join the team, to get his own limited series followed by an ongoing not to late afterwards. No doubt questions and intrigue were raised by 180, but 181 created fans.

Hulk 181

Anybody wondering why Hulk 181 is more valuable than 180 in spite of 180 being Wolverine’s first appearance is asking the wrong question. If they asked which one was more significant, which one resonated more with readers, the answer would be clear. Hulk 181 is the earliest “Issue of Primary Significance” for Wolverine.

All Flash, No Substance

Now for an example where I think the market has it wrong: Marvel Previews #95. As of the end of 2020, there were two astounding sales of Marvel Previews 95 for $7,418 and $9,800 respectively. Published in July 2011, you can’t honestly argue that Ultimate Fallout 4, published in October 2011, was first. I think you can validly argue that Ultimate Fallout 4 is more significant, however.

If your goal is simply to own the “first appearance” of Miles Morales, Spider-Man, knock yourself out, buy Marvel Previews 95. These Previews are designed to drum up interest and customer orders for upcoming series. They feature title names, shipping dates, solicit text, covers with variant covers. Sometimes those covers are final, sometimes un-colored. Sometimes they have 3-4 preview pages (usually shrunk down and not full page size). Sometimes these interior preview pages have text, sometimes not. Sometimes they are colored, other times not. What these magazines, advertisements, “comics” are not, however, are stories. If you buy Marvel Previews 95, no doubt you are getting a “first appearance”. Miles is right there on the cover. He’s also in an interior page (same image). We don’t know he’s Miles and we know nothing about him. You are, however, getting a first appearance. Call it a cameo rather than “first full” if you want, but it’s first. Published first. You have to ask yourself if that’s really the criteria you’re looking for though. I won’t tell you how to spend your $9,800. I will only say that if I were spending $9,800, I’d rather get a raggity Amazing Fantasy 15 with complete story, first appearance, origin, Ditko art, and all the prestige it deserves. I’ll also say that if I spent $9,800 on Marvel Previews 95 without knowing how little of Miles is actually inside the book, I would be a disappointed buyer. That’s because it’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for issues of significance and the “Issue of Primary Significance” for Miles Morales, Spider-Man, is Ultimate Fallout #4. Always will be.

Not much is revealed about this new Black and Red Spidey in Marvel Previews 95

Ultimate Fallout 4 features Miles Morales in his first full story following the fallout of Peter Parker’s death. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 features his origin. Hell, Ultimate Comics Spider-man #5 features his suit for the first time.

A Glimmer of Things to Come

As I write this on January 4, 2021, Star Wars High Republic #1 is scheduled to be available at comic stores this Wednesday January 6, 2021. In it, a whole class and era of new padawans, jedi knights, jedi masters, aliens, villains, and rogues of questionable moral disposition in between are set to first appear. One, however, has already “appeared”. Jedi Master, Avar Kriss, appeared in The Rise of Kylo Ren #3. Don’t strain yourself too hard looking inside. She’s in two panels, obscured as a hologram, and unnamed. She says two rather vanilla introductory phrases you’d imagine most Jedi Masters with a holocron to their name would say.

The Rise of Kylo Ren was not ordered in numbers you would expect from other Star Wars titles. It was published in late 2019. At that time, the final film in the sequel trilogy, Rise of Skywalker, had been released and interest in sequel characters was arguably at an all time low. Many viewers were lost during The Last Jedi and many more had little interest in pursuing the backstory of Kylo Ren. For many, they had seen enough. Agree or disagree with viewers’ assessments of the films, the fact remains, the property was not as popular as say The Mandalorian is now in 2021. So, Issue #3 of the Rise of Kylo Ren is scarce. It is the “first appearance” of Avar Kriss, whether you wish to call it a cameo or not. She is unnamed, but this was published first. However, I would argue that her “Issue of Primary Significance” is yet to come. It might be issue #1 of The High Republic, #2, or later. Maybe the character is a total flop and nobody will care one way or the other (can’t wait to re-visit this sentence in a few years).

Either way, her significance is yet to be revealed.

What I would say to collectors new and old is not to get too caught up in the determination of a “first appearance” as an ends unto itself. Ask yourself what you are looking for in a book. If you want to buy low and sell high while prices for nominally first, but less significant issues are high, I’m not advising against it. I’m saying that, perhaps as a buyer, purchasing at a premium, ask yourself what you really want to purchase- first or significant?

Until later, Wooky out!

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