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.
- https://www.cnet.com/news/supermans-action-comics-no-1-sells-for-record-3-2-million-on-ebay/ accessed 15 June 2019
- https://www.cbr.com/action-comics-1-found-in-wall-of-house-sells-for-175000/ accessed 15 June 2019
- https://comicspriceguide.com/titles/silver-surfer/ripv accessed 16 June 2019
- https://comicspriceguide.com/titles/fantasy-masterpieces/smrs accessed 16 June 2019
- https://comicspriceguide.com/titles/nick-fury-agent-of-shield/rkrt accessed 16 June 2019
- https://comicspriceguide.com/titles/nick-fury-agent-of-shield/rkrr accessed 16 June 2019
- http://www.comicbookdb.com/ accessed 16 June 2019 and 26 July 2019
- Overstreet, Robert M., The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 39th Edition, Gemstone Publishing, April 2009