Musings on comics, mathematics, elections and anything else I can think of.
Author: Dr. K
I'm a Mathematics Professor interested in Mathematics Education and Voting Theory. I've been a science fiction buff and comic collector nearly as long as I can remember. Occasionally I'm lucky enough to teach courses about such things.
This began life as an answer to “What is your favorite math comic strip?” on Quora. Within hours it became my most viewed, most commented and most liked answer on that site. I share it here for your enjoyment.
What is your favorite math comic strip?
There’s a lot to choose from. You really can’t go wrong with Calvin and Hobbes, Foxtrot, XKCD and Math With Bad Drawings. I’m hoping to find some new favorites when I read through all the other answers here.
But, three comics immediately come to mind. Here’s two runners-up and my favorite.
The second runner up:
As a mathematician, I can’t help but appreciate this one.
The first runner-up:
Based on the artwork, his one has to be pretty early in the strip’s history. The look on Calvin’s face as he exclaims, “Imaginary Numbers?!” makes me chuckle to this day. Hobbes’ definition, “Eleventeen, thirty-twelve and all those” is priceless. What is your favorite math comic strip Lovely.
And the winner is…
I knew immediately this one was the answer because I remember reading it in the Palm Beach Post and laughing really hard. It’s interesting to me that the real punchline is in the third panel. In retrospect, the first panel may be even funnier once you’ve read the rest of the comic.
Somewhere there’s more. If I can find it, there’s a file of the comics I used to have taped to my office door at the University of Miami. It’s not directly Mathematics-related, but it contains a nice comic about the “Academic Beer Head Theory.” The basic idea is that you shouldn’t cram for exams because if you pour the knowledge into your brain too quickly it gets all foamy and spills out your ears. I’ve been quoting that to students for years. When it surfaces, if it ever surfaces, I’ll add a couple more here.
Two things that you should know about me: I like cats and I like comics. One of my favorite novels is The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein because it features, in Petronius the Arbiter, possibly the greatest cat character in all of literature. I recently did a pretty extensive overview of Chewie the Cat from Captain Marvel for this very blog here: The Book of Goose.
So, when I saw the cover of Marvel Action: Captain Marvel #1, I knew I had to pick up a copy. Sadly, it’s insipid; the very thing I feared back when Disney first bought Marvel.
I’m not really a fan of Disney the corporation. Walt, as far as I know, was great. From his drive to make his parks amazing to the “this-is-how-we’ll-go-to-Mars” programs with Werner Von Braun to the whole cryogenics thing. Fascinating stuff from end to end. But in high school, I would occasionally read the Mickey Mouse strip in the Sunday paper and it was terrible. It was unfunny, preachy and an insult to the intelligence of anyone who happened to read it. When The Tao of Pooh was on the best seller list and I decided to write a parody called The Hedonism of Tigger with the premise that, to borrow a different metaphor, eastern philosophy is Mr. Miyagi while America philosophy is Cobra Kai. It never got written but while I was thinking about the project, I did buy and read Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. When I did, I realized how diminished these works were in the Disney adaptations I had liked as a kid. When you watch the original Disney Pooh shorts, Tigger, for example, is the wacky, gregarious comic relief who likes to bounce.
In the original books, Tigger has a child-like quality that to me comes across as a charming innocence. He’s a much richer character and he still loves to bounce. Occasional, accidental encounters with bits of the Disney Afternoon in the days before TiVo convinced me that, at least in the 90s, modern Disney entertainment was predominantly an empty vessel.
Let me back up a bit. What the hell am I reading? It’s not your everyday Marvel Comic. Disney has thankfully left those pretty much alone. The “Marvel Action” line is a collection of comics featuring Marvel characters that are not published by Marvel. Disney has licensed the characters to IDW and according to the descriptions on line, these carry an “all ages” rating. I think I understand that; early Warner Brothers’ cartoons were delightful and entertaining for kids but they also contained plenty of entertainment value for adults as well. Older viewers might recognize Edward G. Robinson or characters taken directly from Of Mice and Men. And who could forget this masterpiece, which makes a pretty salient point about the Arms Race?
But that doesn’t seem right. Other descriptions suggest that this comic is for “Middle grades” and I discover that that means ages 8 to 12. Middle grades, I guess, for back in the long-long-ago when elementary school lasted until grade 8. That doesn’t seem right either. I started reading comics when I was 8 and even then I can’t imagine having the patience for this comic. I still remember reading the three comics pictured below when I was 8 and I enjoyed them.
Those were far more complex than Marvel Action: Captain Marvel. Maybe I’m wrong about what “all ages” means. Maybe it means “really little kids.” I look up some lists of “all ages books.” Nope. My first thought was right. Harry Potter and The Hobbit aren’t my cup of tea, but they’re interesting. Shel Silverstein makes my skin crawl but ditto. I know I could sit down right now with a Dr. Seuss, or Where The Wild Things Are or Harold and the Purple Crayon and enjoy it. The Winnie-the-Pooh books are excellent! And evidently there’s something called Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. I want to read that right now! Why does the pigeon want to drive the bus? Does it even have a license? Is the regular driver ill? I want to know! All of this is great stuff. Sadly, what’s not great is Marvel Action: Captain Marvel #1.
IDW’s Captain Marvel is exactly like the Disney Afternoon shows from the 1990’s. Simplistic and uninteresting. There are no layers, no nuance, nothing to interest anyone other than small children. I also find the art off putting. It looks rushed to me. More distracting is the fact that the two main characters are women, presumably in their early 30s, and they’re drawn like children. I’ve seen some of Sweeney Boo’s other work and it’s far better.
Clearly this comic wasn’t written for me, not even 8-year old me, but it might be fine for little kids. The cats are cute and there’s a thread of story. And if there’s anything that would intrigue small children about the Captain Marvel story, it would be Goose. Or Chewie. Whomever. So, that’s a good place to start and the book works somewhat well on that level. But it’s a weak effort that diminishes the Marvel brand and I worry what the long term effects of that might be.
Marvel Action Captain Marvel, IDW Publishing, August 2019
It was 99 years ago today, 18 August 1920, that Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the United States officially recognized women’s right to vote. Today, we’re flying a “19th Amendment Victory Flag” to mark the occasion.
The road to passage was a long one. Universal suffrage for white men was, mostly, completed by the 1830s. The Women’s Rights Movement began in the decades before the Civil War and was organized nationally in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. In 1869, the Wyoming Territory extended voting rights to women and retained the provision when it became a state in 1890. Colorado (1893), Utah (1896) and Idaho (1896) followed suit. Still, by 1900, only these four states recognized voting rights for Women; a fact immortalized in the “Women’s Suffrage Flag” shown below.
This remained the status quo until 1910 when Washington State expanded voting rights, paving the way for other stares to follow. In January 1917 the Women’s Rights Party, led by Alice Paul, began posting “Sentinels of Liberty” in front of the White House. These women stood in silence, holding flags and banners quoting President Wilson’s own words about liberty.
In return, these women were spat upon and subjected to ridicule, violence and arrest. But the movement was taking hold. In 1918 the arrests were ruled unconstitutional and Wilson declared his support for suffrage. The following year the Suffrage Amendment passed both houses of Congress with the required two-thirds vote and was sent to the states for ratification.
Thirty-five states had approved the amendment by March 22nd, 1920 but there the process stalled, just one state short of ratification. Worse, of the thirteen states remaining, eight states had already rejected the amendment, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and Delaware. Things didn’t look promising when Tennessee took up the amendment on August 18th; most of the other southern states had voted to reject. With less than three months to go before the 1920 election, three states were called upon to hold special sessions to approve the amendment and refused. Only Tennessee’s legislature was still in session; this could be the last chance to ratify before the election. The Tennessee Senate passed the amendment.
Enter Phoebe King “Febb” Ensminger Burn, mother of Harry T. Burn who at 25 was the youngest member of the state legislature. Mrs. Burn, inspired by a political cartoon, wrote her son a long letter, “Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt,” she wrote. “I’ve been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet.” Referencing the cartoon, she continued, ”Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the RAT in ratification.” Harry had originally intended to vote for ratification, but after pressure from party leaders and receiving “misleading telegrams from his constituents” he joined the anti-suffrage side. This left the state legislators tied with 48 votes for ratification and 48 votes for rejection. When the Legislature met, Harry had his mother’s letter in his coat pocket. The first vote went as expected, 48 to 48. At least two votes to table the matter failed and the another vote was called on the merits, Harry addressed the assemblage. ”I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he told his colleagues. He then changed his vote and the Women’s Suffrage Amendment became part of the constitution.
The 19th Amendment Victory flag is based on the flag of the National Women’s Party, which is a horizontal tricolor using the Party’s three official colors. The meanings of the color’s were explained in the Suffragist in December 1913.
“Purple is the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause. White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose; and gold, the color of light and life, is as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.”
To create the victory flag, two rows containing 18 five-pointed stars each were added to represent the thirty-six states who had ratified the Amendment prior to passage. Every state has now ratified the 19th Amendment, the last being Mississippi on 22 March 1984.
This was initially published in a slightly altered form on Quora.
I hope everyone who’s planning to see Spider-Man: Far From Home has seen it by now. (If not, Spoiler Alert! Stop reading!) If you have, you know that the mid-credits scene involves J. Jonah Jameson broadcasting Peter’s identity to the world. We won’t know how that will play out until Spider-Man: The Cows Come Home or… Spider-Man: Phone Home or… Spider-Man: Something Else Home (I don’t know the title. I’m just guessing.) but maybe the comics can give us a hint. Maybe not. The MCU is a very different place from Marvel’s mainstream continuity; in particular, it seems far more hostile to secret identities. Let’s check it out anyway, just for fun.
As far as I know, Jonah learned Peter’s secret twice. The first time was in Civil War (2006) #2 and simultaneously in Amazing Spider-Man (1963) #533. To set the stage, Peter had been working with Tony at Stark Enterprises. The universal brouhaha over the Super-Hero Registration Act began with Tony leading the Pro registration forces. He convinces Peter to reveal his identity in a televised press conference as part of the Act’s media strategy.
Jonah watched this on television, it goes more or less the way you’d expect.
So, Jonah’s more hurt than angry, but he’s still angry. He sues Peter for fraud asking for the money he’d paid for photographs of Spider-Man over the years. When Robbie Robertson stands up to Jonah, arguing that the vendetta has gone too far, Jonah fires him.
Of course, Jonah forgets about Peter’s secret identity after it’s magically made secret again in the One More Day storyline.
I don’t believe that Peter would actually reveal his identity on television; he was famously careful about his secret identity and always refused to put his loved ones at risk. Still, the writers laid some groundwork for the decision and the reveal was one of the few compelling things about Civil War.
Back to the topic at hand. Time passes. Jonah has a heart attack, and the Bugle is sold out from under him. He becomes Mayor of New York City; his wife, Marla dies; he is forced out of office and becomes a commentator on The Fact Channel. Meanwhile, Aunt May meets, falls in love with and marries John Jonah Jameson Sr. This makes Jonah and Peter family in a very real sense. Functionally, they’re step-brothers. Not long before Jonah learns Peter’s secret a second time, his father dies, Marla is resurrected and dies again and Jonah is fired from the Fact Channel, after which he begins writing a blog. Also, at some point, his adopted-daughter died. Whew. Comics… am I right?
Spoiler Alert here, by the way. If you haven’t read Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (2017) by Chip Zdarsky, go get the trade paperbacks or track down the back issues or something. It’s great. Especially issue #310 which just won the Eisner Award for Best Single Issue. I’ll wait.
So then, how does the second time that JJJ discovers Peter’s secret come about?
It starts in issue #5 of the aforementioned series; Jonah is on the verge of breaking a big story and needs to talk to Spider-Man. It’s about someone Peter is trying to help and Jonah agrees to share what he knows.
The interview takes up most of issue #6, (which is the other highlight of the series btw). It’s interesting and turns into quite a heart to heart. There are some expected dimensions and some that are less expected, like Peter admitting to Jonah why he became a crimefighter.
And of course, it gets heated.
Eventually, Peter realizes just how miserable Jonah is, “M-my father is dead! My daughter is dead! The Bugle, the only thing worth a damn in the world, has rejected me! My wife is dead! My wife is dead… Interview’s over! I’ve got — got nothing in my life now! You win —”
“You’re not!” I find this far more believable than the incident in Civil War. This action is born out of compassion and maybe a little responsibility. That’s exactly who Peter is.
And it pays off in an unexpected way. Without going into much detail (seriously get it, read it! This is not a paid endorsement!), Peter’s immediately put in danger because of the interview. In the next issue, (number 279 #MarvelMath) he temporarily gets clear and then this happens.
Jonah helps. He knows Peter and very clearly trusts him and on some level, he probably wants to make amends for what he’s done to Peter over the years.
This starts a new dynamic and Jonah becomes a sort of a side-kick, around frequently and determined to help Peter be a better hero. It’s delightful. This is from # 309.
It’s still noticeably Jonah. He’s still headstrong. He’s still sure he’s smarter than Peter. He still fails to think things through carefully. But after almost 60 years, it’s really nice to see a new dynamic between these two characters. I’m a bit disappointed that we haven’t seen more of this in Amazing Spider-Man and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, but I hope this is the new status quo for years to come.
Civil War (2006) #2 and #3.
Amazing Spider-Man (1962) #533
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man (2017) #5–309
I’m getting ready early tonight, last night I thought the debate started at 9 EDT, but it had started when I went to get set up. Luckily introducing the candidates, and all the other preliminaries took an exceedingly long time.
My plan tonight is the same as last night. In the first debate I tried to report everything that was said, but I think that’s redundant. It also reminded me of a few times in college when I got so involved in taking notes that I wasn’t actually processing what was going on. So, tonight impressions only for the most part, although if someone says something particularly interesting or particularly nutty I’ll let you know.
We’ll see the following candidates on stage: Former Vice-President Joe Biden, California Senator Kamala Harris, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, New York Mayor Bill deBlasio, Former Cabinet Secretary Julián Castro, Congress Member Tulsi Gabbard, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Need a cheat sheet? Me too. Well, a bit, a bit.
The moderators, like last night, will be Dana Bash, Jake Tapper and Don Lemon.
T minus six minutes.
I missed this bit last night, but this intro feels enough like professional wrestling that I can actually hear my skin crawl.
Lots of preliminaries again. The end time for the debate has been amended to 10:40 btw. I hope our attention span holds out.
We had two progressives at the center of the debate last night in Warren and Sanders. Do we get the same split tonight? If so, who caries the progressive banner?
Newsflash Senator Bennet loves America. “Kids belong in classrooms not cages” is better.
Jay Insley is so stiff he makes Al Gore look like Mick Jagger.
Everybody is hitting their talking points. Gabbard’s service, Yang’s UBI etc.
What’s going on with all the shouting? Booker actually had to stop talking. Evidently they were chanting “Fire Pantaleo.” According to MSNBC this is “referring to the officer at center of the Eric Garner case in New York City, where de Blasio is mayor.”
Harris wants to phase in Medicare for all over 10 years. The long implementation was a huge problem for the ACA.
Harris v. Biden on health care. Advantage Harris.
Gillibrand is sounding pretty progressive on health care. Also she had a story. She clearly watched last night’s debate.
Gabbard uses the “we don’t have a health care system we have a sick care system.” But I like her point about who should be writing the bill.
They called time on Biden and he actually stopped talking. Weird.
I think Bennet’s formulation on “taking away health care and taxing the middle class is disingenuous. Inslee’s better on the mental health angle.
We just got to see a hint of the Joe Biden who kicked Paul Ryan’s ass in 2012. “Malarkey!”
More yelling from the crowd. Interrupting Biden this time. Now Castro’s trying for a “confront Biden” moment.Biden’s response is pretty good; aiming at Trump.
Now Booker is piling on Biden too, but Biden’s getting combative. That could be good for him.
Literally everyone is piling on Biden now. Rapid fire.
If last night’s debate was moderates vs. progressives, this one is definitely everybody vs. Biden. That’s risky: it’ll guarantee him the most exposure and he’s sounding better and more combative to me. And just as I write that we get word salad.
Booker’s on fire. Ezra Klein: “Booker does not have a poker face.”
Castro’s taking a shot at de Blasio on the Pantaleo thing. And Gillibrand: “He should be fired, he should be fired now.”
Biden looked weak invoking Obama to hide behind. And not we’re getting a rerun of the busing thing.
Harsh words from Gabbard on Harris. Biden gets a breather.
Interesting that Inslee tied progress on race to the filibuster. He’s not wrong.
Enough with the inspirational stories, but Gillibrand was pretty good on the Green New Deal.
Booker’s doing a bit better tonight.
Seems to me there’s a lot of agreement on trade and American competitiveness. Pretty good moment for Biden with deBlasio.
Now Gillibrand is going after Biden on some old quote. Harris is going after Biden on the Hyde Amendment. I want more details on both of those discussions.
Chris Hayes: “Biden is correct that everyone on stage in congress has voted for a bill with the Hyde Amendment.”
Castro made an interesting point on impeachment. If the Democrats don’t impeach Trump, he’ll claim exoneration in the campaign. If the Senate acquits, it’s in McConnell’s lap.
Gabbard’s really going after the warmongers and Yang makes a good argument starting with automation and (of course) ending with UBI. Good closing statements for both of them.
Harris is strong and aimed straight at Trump, but she doesn’t understand the 3am metaphor. I thought Biden’s closing statement was strong also.
If last night’s debate was moderates vs progressives, this one was everybody against Biden. He did better than the first debate and possibly as well as he could have done given that he was almost a universal target. He was more combative, but he wasn’t always at the top of his game. He did better toward the end of the debate after most of the fireworks were over.
Booker did better. Harris was shakier. Gabbard and Yang were good. deBlasio was the strongest progressive voice on the stage.
Did anybody win? Maybe Biden, mainly by beating expectations. The pundits are questioning whether Biden could go up against Trump. I think he’s better one-on-one. Maybe Booker by breaking out of the pack. Maybe Sanders or Warren because no one tonight made it up to their level.
I don’t think this group was as strong as the group last night. The bottom line is the same. I haven’t changed my mind really on anyone although once again there’s one or two who are for sure off my list for the primaries and I may be unable to support in the general.
This is night one of the second Democratic debate; I’m trying this differently. I’m not going to try to record what everyone says, but to focus on impressions. Updates as possible.
The candidates on stage tonight are Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Author Marianne Williamson, Former Congressman John Delaney, Congressman Tim Ryan, Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Former Representative Beto O’Rourke, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeig, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.
I was too busy laughing at Williamson riffing on the Declaration of Independence to hear what she said. Tim Ryan’s “America is Great (Pause)” was almost as distracting. I’ll have to look these answers up later.
Warren comes out swinging, as does Sanders. Not surprising. They’re the street fighters.
Everyone sounded okay in their opening statements.
Right off, Sanders and Delaney are in deep on on Health Care. I think Delaney is making a straw man argument. Later Bullock piled on.
Sanders and Warren may be cooperating.
Buttigeig makes the essential point. The middle class will pay the same or less either in taxes or premiums. Warren went there too, but not as effectively.
Sanders: “Jake your question is a Republican talking point.”
I like Buttigeig’s formulation; the Republicans will call democrats socialists no matter what. They should focus on getting the policy right.
I need to look into Delaney’s two tier claim.
The issue of whether or not to decriminalize crossing the border misses the bigger issue and is too easy to misrepresent. This also sounds like a Republican talking point to me.
Meanwhile, if you’re position is that health care is a human right (and Bernie got this as I was typing this), of course it must apply to everyone.
The one minute limit really does not work. Everyone who tries to build an argument gets cut off.
Williamson takes the gun control issue and pushes it to the much larger issue of public financing of elections, which is interesting.
I think Tim Ryan is either dim or disingenuous.
O’Rourke is nuts if he thinks Texas will be a swing state.
I don’t think Scott Brown was all that popular when Warren beat him.
Delaney mentioned using technology to get carbon out of the atmosphere. I think we have the technology and we may also be able to remove carbon from seawater. I’ve often wondered why we haven’t implemented this idea.
On climate change the candidates seem to be agreeing very combatively.
Williamson goes to a bigger issue again from Flint, Michigan and the crowd really seems to like it.
This reminds me of the last first debate. It’s pretty civil.
Williamson’s coming out hard for reparations, referencing “40 acres and a mule.” The crowd likes that too.
Commercial Break. It must be time for closing arguments.
Nope on to the economy. I guess we’re running over.
Warren and Sanders still seem to have a non-aggression pact, but everyone seems to agree on tariffs.
Warren and Delaney just got pretty technical on tax policy.
There’s too much arguing around the margins. For example, whether to meet with Kim Jung Un or not is so far from a fundamental issue it’s ridiculous.
Buttigeig got a lot of applause for his answer on vision and everybody seems to want to weigh in. CNN scheduled three hours for the debate, but the debate was going to only be two hours. What will we do if the pundits don’t tell us what to think (sarcasm)?
Commercial break. Holy crap! Did I just hear the Sid Vicious version of My Way?!?
Closing statements, finally. My attention span is getting tested.
O’Rourke really seems to think he made Texas a swing state. That’s dangerously naive.
This reminds me of the first night from round one. It was largely civil and there was a lot of agreement between the candidates. A lot of the discussion was around the margins but there were some clear lines of difference. Props to Williamson for making arguments that hit much bigger issues than most of the rest of the field. I liked her better this time, but I still think she’s out of her league.
It was good to see Sanders and Warren almost collaborating. I think that was good strategy.
I didn’t see a lot of reasons to change my mind about any of the candidates. I still like the same candidates and I’m still lukewarm about most of them. There are a couple I’m now sure I won’t support for the nomination under any circumstance and I’m unsure I could support those candidates in the general.
This was originally written to answer the following question on Quora.
What are some things someone just getting into comic books should know?
If you’re just getting into comics, welcome to the club! You have years of entertainment to look forward to!
If you’re thinking about getting into comics, the first thing you should probably know is whether you actually enjoy comics; reading them, looking at the artwork, learning the contours of each new universe and so forth. If so, you’re a reader. You might also ask yourself if you enjoy experiencing comics: the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink, the satisfaction of completing a run and the look of a stack of books, all nicely bagged. In that case, you may just be a collector. Some people want to try and make some money on their collection; that’s fine. If you enjoy the other aspects of the hobby, you could become an investor. If you don’t enjoy the comics themselves, however, I would recommend against that. A portfolio of mutual funds is probably far easier to manage and more profitable than speculating on comics.
This is a good time to start.
You’ve decided to join the hobby at a good time; it’s easier than ever to find things to read whether you’re interested in new comics or back issues. Absolutely, your first step should be to find a Local Comic Shop (LCS) if there’s one nearby and get to know the folks there. Most of them love the hobby and enjoy talking about it. They can tell you which current titles have the best buzz and once they get to know you, they can point you towards things you might like, new and old. Many LCSs will also let you start a pull list and will put books aside for you. This helps you to avoid missing an issue and it helps them to know what to order. In any event, your LCS can be an essential resource.
If you’re interested in older stories, many comic stores have a selection of back issues that you can purchase.
I took this picture in Graham Cracker Comics last time I was in Chicago and the set up is pretty typical. High demand and interesting books are displayed on the wall while the more common back issues are alphabetized and in boxes. There are also significant on-line opportunities. I’ve bought many comics on e-Bay and most of my experiences have been positive ones. A lot of bigger stores also have their own websites where they sell comics. New Kadia and Mile High Comics are good examples.
If you’re interested in older stories but you don’t want to collect back issues, your LCS probably also stocks “collected editions” which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here’s a random selection from my shelves.
The Marvel Masterworks in the center is a prestige format hardcover collecting Fantastic Four (1961) #1-10. The other two are “trade paperbacks,” which is the most common format of collected edition. Some of those, like the book on the left, try to reprint a lot of books inexpensively. That one is printed in black and white on pulp paper. Others collect a smaller number of issues of an ongoing series or a complete mini-series. There are also “graphic novels.” I personally use that term to refer to any complete comic story that’s more than a couple of issues in length. Occasionally complete stories will appear in trade paperback for the first time; those are called “original graphic novels.”
There are also digital options. Individual issues can be purchased at DCComics.com and ComiXology,com. You can buy individual comics at Marvel.com and, when you buy one of their physical comics, you get a code to download a digital copy of the same issue. ComiXology Unlimited and Marvel Unlimited are Netflix style unlimited services where a monthly or annual fee gives you full access to a large digital library of comics.
One cost-effective approach to reading a large number of titles is to buy the titles you really want to collect from your LCS and then wait for the remaining titles to hit an unlimited service.
Buying Back Issues
There are two basic strategies when it comes to buying back issues. You can focus on buying issues to collect or buying issues mainly to read. Either way, you don’t want to overpay or pay a premium for the wrong book.
Condition Can Really Matter
Possibly the best illustration that condition matters is a story from about 6 years ago. Deanna and David Gonzales purchased a home in Elbow Lake, Minnesota. In the process of renovating, they ripped open the walls and amidst the old newspapers that were used for insulation, they found a copy of Action Comics #1.
Action Comics #1, for those of you who don’t know, is the first appearance of Superman and probably the quintessential collectors’ item. The advent of superheros, beginning with this particular issue remade the entire medium and there are only about 100 copies known to exist. Needless to say, every copy is highly sought after. The nicest existing copy sold on e-Bay for $3.2 million in 2014.
The Gonzales’ copy could have sold for $250,000 but they tore the back cover when they were removing it from the wall. That tear cost them about $75,000.
The moral? You should have at least a rough idea of how to grade comics, that is, to determine their condition. If you’re looking for something particular, you should have an idea of its value. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide is a good resource for both of these things. There are also online resources; I tend to use ComicsPriceGuide.com and they have their own explanation of the grading system. A quick internet search will reveal more options. If you’re looking for fair market value another place you can check is the sold listings on e-Bay. Lots of recent comics are actually available for less than cover price in Near Mint, but it seems to me that the price guides are hesitant to list books for less than that. Using the sold listing also gives you immediate information; prices can fluctuate after a guide is printed.
Whether you’re buying a comic to read or to collect, you should decide the minimum condition you’re comfortable with and get a sense of what a fair price for that book would be in that condition. Why worry about that? The good comic stores will generally know how to grade books and price them accordingly. But there are less professional vendors or even vendors, like pawn shops and used book stores who think any comic that’s old is valuable who may price books without investigating the value. There are others who will price every book at near mint regardless of the condition either because they don’t know how to grade or because they don’t understand how it effects the price. If you know what to expect from the price, you’ll be able to avoid over paying.
Sometimes, You Can Compromise on Condition
The point where condition isn’t very important is when you’re buying back issues to read rather than collect. You, of course, need to decide for yourself the condition with which you’re most comfortable. But comics that are in very good (VG) condition or better should be complete and readable. VG books should sell for about 10% of the mint price. Below that there are still plenty of books that are nicely readable but you may run into issues like fragile paper or cutouts that can diminish the reading experience.
When I was collecting in the 1970s and 80s I collected a lot of reprint titles like Marvel Tales, Marvel’s Greatest Comics and Marvel Super Action. These reprinted Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Avengers respectively and gave me an inexpensive way to read a lot of classic stories from the Silver Age. But there were drawbacks. A Comic reprint can be significantly different from the original. The print quality can be noticeably worse as the company generally no longer had access to the original artwork. Further, the comic could be recolored and sections of the story might be deleted to fit the comic into a smaller page count. Whereas an original comic might be highly sought out and valuable, mostly these reprints are barely even considered collectable. Unless you’re collecting them for sentimental reasons, there are much better options for reading old stories such as trade paperbacks and Marvel’s and ComiXology’s unlimited services.
You Can Be Really Intense About Condition If You Want.
If you have a special comic that you want to carefully preserve you can send it out to a third party grading service. The most famous of these is the Certified Guarantee Company or CGC. For a fee, these companies will grade your comic and then seal it in a hard plastic shell that documents the condition and presumably protects it from further harm. This process is called “slabbing” and it’s controversial within the collecting community. The upside is that, if you want to sell your comic, its condition is well established so buyers can have confidence in its accuracy. Because of this, slabbed books tend to sell for more than their free range counterparts. The downside is that the slab prevents you from even touching the comic itself. In a medium that’s supposed to be read, experienced and enjoyed, some collectors find slabbing offensive.
Another thing to keep in mind as you shop for back issues is that you want to be sure you’re buying the correct book. Consider the following listing that I encountered on a well known auction site a few weeks ago.
If you’re not knowledgeable about comics, and you don’t look too closely, it might seem to you that this is a copy of Silver Surfer #4 from 1969. After all, that’s what the listing claims to be. The problem is, it isn’t. Here’s a picture of the genuine article. The comic in the listing is actually Fantasy Masterpieces #4 from 1979. It’s a reprint of the Silver Surfer comic. And the big issue here is the price.
ComicsPriceGuide.com tells us that Silver Surfer (1968) #4 in near mint (NM) condition is worth $1000, while Fantasy Masterpieces (1979) #4 lists at $4. That’s a huge difference and I hope no one actually paid $290 for a $4 book.
This issue isn’t just restricted to auction sites. At a store in St. Louis I saw the comic on the right, priced as though it were the comic on the left. This is an easier mistake to make than the Silver Surfer/Fantasy Masterpieces confusion, and this example, it turns out, is trickier than most. But there’s still a big difference in terms of price. ComicsPriceGuide.com tells us that the original book goes for $160 in NM while the reprint is worth $4 in the same condition. This was in a large store that had many boxes of back issues but also sold used books, used DVDs and used video games. The staff may have been somewhat knowledgeable about comics, but comics certainly weren’t the focus of their business.
So, how do you avoid this? Well the first thing you need to do is identify the actual title of the series you’re dealing with. That’s not necessarily the title on the cover. To get the official title of the series, you need to look at the indicium , which is the comic’s publishing information. It’s usually found at the bottom of the first page or on the inside front cover of the comic. Here’s the indicium for the older comic.
The title of this series is clearly indicated: “Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.” Not “S.H.I.E.L.D.” like you might think from looking at the cover and with a comma that we don’t see on the cover. On the other hand, this is the indicium from the 1983 series.
So the title of this series is “Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD.” No comma. Ironically, the series with the comma on the cover has no comma in the official title and the series without the comma on the cover does has a comma in its title. This series is also a “volume 1” since, because of that comma, the titles are not exactly the same. It’s important to know the proper title because that’s how the book will be listed in the Overstreet Price guide.
Here’s the listing for these comics in the 2009 edition of Overstreet. It’s easy to see which listing goes to which book since we’ve figured out the real titles. If there’s ever a question, you can go by the dates of the issues, which are also in the indicia. Modern conventions delineate the different series by the start year so in comicbookdb.com, you see these titles as Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (1968) and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (1983). You can see the values for each issue on the right for the conditions good, very good, fine, very fine, very fine/near mint and near mint.
Finding the Right Comic
When I’m collecting, I like to find a complete run of a title before reading so that I can read a bunch of issues back to back. If you’re merely reading comics in trade paperback form or online this isn’t an issue, but if you’re collecting the individual issues, it can get tricky. Nothing here is a major problem as long as you know what to expect, but if you’re not careful, you can end up with a comic you don’t need.
This was not an issue when I started hunting for back issues around 1980. At that point, most titles had a single volume with a single consecutive numbering. There was one run of Amazing Spider-Man of about 200 issues. Flash was closer issue 300, but that included the entire run of Flash Comics, dating back to January 1940. This is no longer the case. Comics now restart their numbering frequently and it can be a nuisance to keep track. Sometimes the companies renumber a title because the creative team is changing, sometimes it’s because of some company wide event. Sometime there’s no apparent rhyme or reason except that maybe the numbers have gotten a bit too large. Depending on how you count, there have been 11 or 12 comics that are technically “Captain Marvel #1″ published by Marvel since 1968. There have been at least 8 volumes of The Avengers and that doesn’t count New Avengers or Mighty Avengers or All-New All-Different Avengers or West Coast Avengers or Avengers Forever or Avengers AI or Solo Avengers… you get the idea.
So, do you need a copy of Avengers #2? Which one? There are at least 8, not counting reprints that might look like Avengers #2 (see “Caveat Emptor” above). A simple answer might be to make sure you know the cover, but that too is not as simple as it once was. When I started collecting, every comic had but one cover, but that also is no longer the case.
This is because of another trend in comics. There is now a proliferation of variants. Variants are copies of the same issue of a series that are absolutely identical except for the cover. To me, this is getting excessive. There are variants to encourage dealers to order more; there are variants with some special gimmick on the cover; there are variants to celebrate a special event and variants to popularize a particular character. Many, like the “Special Inauguration Day Edition” of Amazing Spider-Man #583 are rare enough to be worth considerably more than the standard version but most probably have no additional value at all.
When the latest volume of Fantastic Four hit the stands last August, there were at least 42 different variants of the first issue, some of which are shown above (you can see three more here). This title has averaged roughly nine variants per issue since its inception less than a year ago.
So, if you can’t just go by number and you can’t just go by cover, what do you do? One answer is to make sure you know the publication date. If you’re looking at back issues in a comic store, you can always check the indicia. As long as your book has the correct publication date, it should be the correct book.
You can’t always see the indicia, such as when you’re shopping on line. Going by the cover can still be a good plan in a lot of cases. If there’s only one cover to the book you need, make sure you’re familiar with it. That’s the case with the vast majority of older books. Even if a comic has multiple variants, most copies will have the main cover so it pays to know it. But maybe you’d prefer a different cover or perhaps the main cover is sold out and isn’t an option. Maybe you just want to own the issue and you don’t care which variant you end up with. Many comic websites have a cover browser function. Here’s the cover browser for Hawkeye (2017) from comicbookdb.com.
This would be easy to print out or access on a tablet if your LCS has WiFi. Armed with this information, you have all the potential covers at your finger tips and it’s easy to tell if the comic you’re looking at is the correct one or not.
Preserving Your Comics
The final thing we’ll cover here is storage. Given the importance of condition, you’ll want to protect your books.
You might think that lying your comics flat and storing them in a stack would help them stay flat. In fact, since the spine is thicker than the rest of the book, the exact opposite is true; stacking comics can lead to “spine roll.” You’ll want to store your books vertically, as shown here. Luckily, there are supplies designed for just this kind of storage.
There are 2 sizes of comic boxes from which to choose called, creatively enough, long boxes and short boxes. A long box is about 28 inches wide and holds about 300-350 comics. A short box is half as wide and holds half as many. Long boxes cost about half again as much, so it’s more cost effective to use long boxes, but a full long box weighs about 50 pounds, making them more unwieldy and therefore more difficult to move and organize.
You should store your comics in acid-free bags. It can be bad for your comics to store them in a bag that’s too big or too small, but most comics published after 1974 fit nicely in a “current” comic bag. Comics have gotten narrower over time. Generally, comics made before the early 1950’s need “golden age” bags while comics published from the mid 50’s to 1974 require “silver age” bags. There are also different materials available.
Most comic bags are either polyethylene, which has more of a matte finish or polypropylene which is clearer and shinier. Opinions vary, but I prefer the polypropylene. I think bagged comics look better with the shiny bag and I find that polyethylene bags stick together after being stored for a long period of time. Many collectors also place a backing board in each bag with a comic. These are thin pieces of cardboard which prevent bending and protect the corners of the book from blunting. Boarding every comic in your collection is probably excessive, but it’s a good investment for your favorite or most valuable books.
That’s probably enough information to throw at you all at once; I hope it helped. If you think of additional questions, you can add them to the comments and I’ll try to answer. There will be more for beginning collector coming soon.