Comic collectors and dealers on a constant quest to find hidden gems.
A 30-YEAR veteran of comic collecting and selling, Leroy Harper, 52, stores an inventory of 16,000 to 20,000 at his home in Paducah, Kentucky. The showpiece items, such as first issues of Batman and Captain America, are kept in his office. Run-of-the-mill, low-value books end up in the garage.
The most tired and tattered material, however, goes out with the trash. During a late January trip to Chattanooga to find new inventory, Harper estimates he and his partner, Pete Przysiezny, spent about US$20,000 (RM66,000) buying 12,000 to 14,000 issues from local collectors, a load so big it filled a Dodge Caravan minivan and a mid-size SUV to the brim.
But not everything made it back.
“It was so much stuff, we had to leave boxes behind. That was a first,” Harper says. “I didn’t think we’d go down there and not be able to haul everything back.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if I throw from 500 to 1,000 away because they’re so beat up that they have no value.”
A bitter pill
To many lifelong collectors, the thought of comic books they squirreled away as investments winding up in a bag on the kerb is almost painful. Even after accounting for inflation, a selling price of US$3 or US$4 (RM10-RM13) for a 1980s-era Fantastic Four would be a pretty high return on the initial 65-cent cover price, but comic hounds tend to have high expectations of their collections’ value.
But some collectors say their most cherished issues would never end up on Harper’s evaluation table. Occasionally, sentimental value, not market demand, can render issues essentially priceless to their owners.
“As far as my personal collection, it would be Power Man And Iron Fist #83,” writes Keith Finch of Rossville, Georgia, a member of the Facebook group Chattanooga-Area Comic Collectors. “Someone left it in my desk in math class in seventh or eighth grade and never claimed it, and that series has ended up being one of my favourites.”
Atlanta’s Brandon Woodson, 40, began reading comics more than 35 years ago, He was forced to start over after losing everything in a 1987 house fire and since has acquired more than 4,000. Of his current collection, Woodson says his Spider-Man issues are all-but-sacrosanct, but there’s one he could never see parting with: Amazing Spider-Man #300.
“(That issue) was a huge milestone and helped introduce Todd McFarlane as an artist as well as the character Venom, but that’s not why it’s my absolute favourite,” he writes. “My favourite aunt, Barbara, bought that comic for me for Christmas. Comics mean more to me when they are gifts.”
Collectors’ sky-high expectations are fuelled, in part, by stories – almost myths – of hidden treasures being uncovered in unlikely places and selling for astronomical prices.
In 2012, a man in Virginia found a treasure trove in his great aunt’s basement, a collection of 345 well-preserved comics that included some of the most sought-after by collectors, including the 1939 issue of Detective Comics #27 that introduced Batman. At an auction in Dallas, the bulk of the collection sold for US$3.5mil (RM11.6mil).
Last year, a house renovator in Elbow Lake, Minnesota, found the Holy Grail of comic books, an issue of Action Comics #1, which features the first appearance of Superman. The issue had been used as insulation in the home, and its torn cover severely downgraded its estimated value, but it still managed to fetch US$175,000 (RM580,000) at auction, a staggering increase over the original 10-cent cover price in 1938.
Despite looking at 75 to 100 collections every year, Harper says he’s never seen an Action Comics #1. Few copies of it – or any comics from the late 1930s and early 1940s – survived the paper recycling campaigns of World War II.
Only an estimated 200 copies of Superman’s debut still exist from the initial print run of 200,000, and Harper’s show advertisements guarantee a minimum purchase offer of US$20,000 if someone brings one in.
But those issues are the exceptions to the rule, the comic, equivalent of blue-chip stalwarts that are all but guaranteed to increase in value.
Successful sales of these comics helped fuel buying bonanzas in the 1980s, when collectors began shelling out for multiple copies of new releases in the hopes of selling them off in the future.
The huge supply of comics from that era, even well-preserved copies, can drastically reduce their value. Not that that stops collectors from dreaming, Harper says.
“Someone will bring me a Spider-Man #62, and on eBay, they’ll say it’s going for US$160 (RM530). I’ll look it up and say, ‘Which one of these 120 Spider-Man #62s do you want to look at?’” he says. “You know if there are 100 of an item on eBay, that drives the price way down.
“You need to look at what people are selling at, not what they’re asking at.”
Ink in the desert
Harper became interested in comics in the 1970s while growing up in a Western Kentucky town, so small the only source of new books was the spinning rack in the neighbourhood drugstore.
Like many collectors, he saw resell prices of older comic issues on the rise, so he began buying up multiple copies of new issues hoping for their value to appreciate. In 1975, he bought his first collectible, a 1966 issue of Silver Surfer #1, for US$7.50 (RM25) through a mail-order catalogue.
By the time he graduated high school, Harper had acquired about 800 comics. At the time, it seemed a substantial collection, but now, it would barely account for a fraction of what he purchases on the half-dozen trips he makes every year. In his line of work, the sheer amount of content can deaden the thrill he used to feel for comics.
“I’ve had so many Spider-Man #1s go through my hands that they just don’t interest me anymore,” he laughs. “It’s crazy; it should. I like it, but as soon as I get one, I’m going to sell it.”
Although he barely has a chance to read new comics anymore and only has 100 comics in his personal library, Harper says he’s not immune to the collector’s itch.
He says he’d do just about anything to own a high-grade copy of Batman’s third appearance in Detective Comics #31, which features one of the comic world’s most iconic covers.
Harper says he depends on collectors to bring him new items, a practice that sometimes feels like waiting for sunken treasure to wash up with the tide but, in the coming months, finding new inventory will become even more important.
For years, Harper’s day job was working as an instrument planner at a uranium enrichment plant in Paducah run by United States Enrichment Corp, a contractor for the US Department of Energy.
The company announced last year that the plant would be shut down and, with his current job in jeopardy, Harper says he plans to turn comic dealing into a career.
That means making more purchasing trips and, despite the overwhelming supply he brought back from Chattanooga, Harper says he probably will return in the coming weeks to meet with sellers who weren’t aware he was there the first time.
Even though he’s facing employment upheaval, Harper says he’s not concerned about his financial prospects.
There are thousands of comics he says are barely worth the time it takes to haul them to the curb, but there also are many that will only gain in value and continue to fascinate collectors. And that, he says, is like hand-inked job security.
“Even after the market crash in 2008, comics never skipped a beat,” Harper says.
“I never had a moment of ‘What are we going to do with all these comics no one is buying?’
“Quality books will always be in demand. They have been recession-proof.” – Chattanooga Times Free Press/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services