The Comic Book Speculation Boom: The dark age of comic collecting

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a friend about helping out with a project related to this blog. During the conversation he asked me if I knew much about the worth of older comics. Specifically he has some Roy Thomas Conan comics from the 70s and he was wondering what they are worth. I told him I had no idea as I am not interested in the aftermarket, but that there are several price guide sites he could check out.
On top of that I got an email from a friend pointing me to an online auction for Action comics #1 (the original not the one from three months ago). The buzz is that this is the copy owned by Nic Cage. As of my writing this the bid is up to $1,306,000.00.
All this brings up memories of the speculator boom of the late 80s/early 90s. It’s the ghost of this boom that makes those unfamiliar think that any older comic book is worth something.
The consensus is that the boom started in 1985 with the release of four titles. Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars. All four titles were huge hits and together redefined comic books. They also gained a lot of mainstream attention. A lot of news stories at the time would always mention the worth of older comics like Action #1 or Detective comics #27. This prompted people to start collecting the successful books in hopes that they would gain worth over time. This led to other books at the time being collected in hopes that they too would gain worth.
This was an interesting theory but had a huge flaw. The books from the 30s and 40s were valuable due to their rarity. A lot of comics were donated to paper drives during World War II. And let’s face it everyone has heard stories of parents tossing out the comics as trash.
So a speculator market for books in the 80s was interesting but little should have come of it, except that the publishers started pandering to it.
If you were into comics between 1985 and 1993 it was inescapable. Books were released with variant covers.  There were covers with gimmicks like holograms, die-cut, embossing, and foil-stamps. Publishers would look for any excuse to launch a first issue. Back issues were selling like crazy. People were buying multiple copies of the same issue.
Back then people in the comic book shop looked at me like I was crazy. I would buy one copy of an issue and then read it. Seriously I swear one guy nearly had a stroke once because I was ruining the resale value of the book by not immediately sealing it in a polybag.
And yes there were speculators who were making money. And how were they doing that? They were selling to other speculators. Here you should see the first flaw in the paradigm.
Who were those speculators going to sell to?
And the other flaw?
Publishers were printing titles that were selling over a million copies an issue.  Remember what I said about the rarity of the golden age books. That was not happening here.
And if four titles launched the boom, it was two storylines that took it down.
The Death of Superman and Knightfall.
These stories saw Superman die and Batman crippled. Both were replaced by edgier successors. I and my fellow longtime comic fans were starting betting pools about how long it would take Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne to be restored and reclaim their mantles. However a lot of speculators were not longtime fans.
They saw these books as real changing of the guards and bought them in unprecedented numbers. And this was the killing blow, not the inevitable return of the heroes, but the oversaturation from people ordering so much and the publisher meeting demand. Speculators would try to sell them off and couldn’t because their target audience already had plenty of copies of their own. And with that the speculator bubble went pop.
It’s interesting to note that even though it was two DC stories that started the end of the boom DC does not get much of the blame. Most people heap much more blame on Marvel and Image as they were seen as the publishers that pandered the most to the speculators.
As the comic speculation market was collapsing a new speculation market was being created. It was the trading card game market. Magic: The Gathering was designed to be collectible. But there was a major difference. Not once did Wizards of the Coast pander to the speculator market. When I was working at WotC customer service and a customer called in asking about card value we had a standard response. “Wizards of the Coast does not concern itself with the aftermarket and makes no decisions based on it”.
And almost twenty years later there is still a healthy after market for Magic cards, with prices based on a cards value in tournament play more than anything.
What about the comic book aftermarket today? It is still there, driven primarily by sites like EBay and Craigslist.
Sadly you see some companies still trying to pander to it too. Go back and read my blog about the Flashpoint/Fear Itself controversy. What was Marvel offering for the destruction of DC books that were actually selling? A variant cover of Fear Itself.

Wondering about Wonder Woman

It’s month three of the DC relaunch and sadly one of the books I have been getting is on the chopping block. That book is Wonder Woman.
The buzz right now is about the fact that in the new timeline it has been revealed that Zeus is her father. That has nothing to do with my problem with the title.
My issue is that they have made her uncaring.
Her attitude to the woman she is trying to save in the storyline is borderline abusive. She seems to be more bloodthirsty and does not appear to get along with the other Amazons. It’s like they gave her the personality of the Huntress
Batman is being portrayed as being more compassionate right now.
I think this is the latest expression of a problem Wonder Woman has had since the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot in the mid-eighties. Every writer who comes on to the character sits down to figure out who she is and what her place in the DCU is. That would be fine, except they then make that exploration the whole point of the series.
And is that really necessary?
In 1941 William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman. He saw a comic book market saturated with male characters and wanted to create the ideal female hero, one that would overcome her foes not only with her fighting prowess and powers, but also her heart. She was a heroine who could be a role model for young women.
Yes he did include Greek mythology in the origin, and yes do to his unconventional life style there was some unique philosophy and a lot of bondage. But in the end it was about a strong, caring female hero.
Is that so hard now?
Let’s stop trying to figure out her symbolic place in the DCU. Let’s stop exploring her mythological roots. Let’s tone down the examination of the Amazon culture.
Just get back to the strong, caring heroine who goes out and fights the bad guys. Get back to the role model.
I’ll give the book another issue or two, but I’m not hopeful. But maybe someday a writer will be inspired to go back to Wonder Woman’s true roots.

Dispelling the myths of geek culture.

When I tell people I write a blog the first question is always “What’s it about?”
Of course I answer “Geek culture.”
And I occasionally will get the follow up “Why are you writing about geek culture?”
“I’m writing what I know.”
And here is the kicker “But you don’t seem like a geek.”
Now in my mind of course I am a geek. Not just a geek, but a geek living in the geek capital of the world. How can that not be obvious?
 I collect comics and have since I was able to read. All I read are Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.  I am a role-player with a regular group. I use to work for a game company and I help found a major fan organization that still exists. When my best friend and I get together neither of wives can understand what we are saying to each other because we start talking about the above and use a lot of slang based on geek culture.
But none of that is something you can tell from just looking at me, or hearing me talk in casual conversation. I work a regular 40 hour a week job in the tech industry. My normal mode of dress is business causal favoring button down shirts and blue jeans. I keep my hair and beard well-trimmed and I keep good hygiene. I can handle myself well in a business meeting at work and meeting people in most social situations. Oh yeah, and I am happily married.
In other words I am not the stereotype of a geek.
And the truth is neither are most of my friends that are geeks either.
The stereotype of a geek is someone who is socially awkward, given to poor hygiene, can’t speak on any subject outside of geek culture and won’t shut up about things that are. At best they are uncomfortable around women and at worst they are outright misogynistic.
I’m not going to say that these types don’t exist, because they do. Stereotypes come from somewhere. But they are not the norm. Put bluntly even other geeks find them annoying.
Honestly being a geek is a lot like being a sports fan. You have the guys that paint themselves blue and go shirtless, or riot when their team loses, but most just watch the games a root for the team. The rest of the week those fans have other concerns and interests.
It is the same with geeks. I love the culture and consume it. I go to conventions, I hang out at the comic shop and I go to the movies. I also like to go to museums, pay attention to politics and world events and volunteer with my church.
But why worry about it, after all if I am comfortable with myself why should I care what the world at large thinks.
Well growth for one thing. There are a lot of businesses that cater to geeks. Comic book shops, game companies, Publishers, and conventions. With the economy the way it is a lot of them are looking to expand their audiences. That expansion is hampered by the myth that the audience already there are a group of stinky hostile misogynists.
So as long as I am trying to promote the culture I love I will do the best I can to dispel those myths.
And the worst part is that most of these myths are perpetuated by geeks themselves. I think it’s the idea of embracing the stereotype helps rob it of its power.  The problem is that is a crap solution. All embracing the stereotype does is keeps it alive.
So next time you are in a fan convention talking about how all you need to do to clear the room is throw in a bar of soap, ask yourself “Is this how I really want to present myself?”

Review: In Time

I imagine that when the Occupy Wall Street movement started gaining steam the producers of In Time must have high fived each other, and did so again when the 7th Billion human on the planet was born.  
In Time continues the time honored tradition of science fiction using an alternative setting to examine the world we live in. It’s also a fairly standard action movie.
The central premise is quickly established. At some point in the future genetic engineering reaches a point where it is possible to stop the again process. Once a person reaches 25 (the point where people reach physical peek maturity) the aging process stops. To combat overcrowding each person is equipped with a timer that starts counting down one year. When it reaches zero they die.  They can get more time added to keep going. Somehow time has replaced money as standard currency. So when you work you are paid in time, so yes time is in fact money.
Our hero Will, Played by Justin Timberlake, is a poor man who rarely has more than a day’s worth of time at any point in his life, comes into possession of over a hundred years thanks to a suicidal rich man. When his mother dies he tries to infiltrate high society to take them for all they are worth. He meets an heiress Sylvia, Played by Amanda Seyfried, who is intrigued by him as he is not as lifeless as most people she meets. When the Timekeepers (think police), lead by Keeper Raymond Leon, played by Cillian Murphy try to arrest Will on suspicion of murder and time theft, Sylvia is at first his  hostage to escape and later his partner in crime when her father refuses to pay a ransom.
Much of the movie is taken up with Will and Sylvia as they rob her father’s time banks and distribute them amongst the time poor while Raymond hunts them down.
As an action movie In Time is fairly standard. The concept of the life timers helps add tension to as the characters have to find ways of getting more time to just stay alive.
Justin Timberlake does a fair job as an action lead, giving off the feel much like Matt Damon when he first did action. Cillian Murphy is always reliable in these kinds of movies and his presence as a somewhat noble adversary really brightens up the film. Amanda Seyfried seems a bit out of her depth, but this does work for her character that is also a fish out of water. One note is that no matter what happens in the movie her makeup is always perfect.  There are also good supporting performances from Olivia Wilde, Matt Boemer, Johnny Galecki, Vincent Kartheiser and Alex Pettyfer.
Speaking of makeup, one thing I noted was that all the rich people in this movie have an appearance of being somewhat artificial. This helps add to the feel of the class separation in the movie. The rich, who are affectively immortal, are truly ideal since they fear having an accident as that is the only way they can die. The poor are generally active as they have to be on the go at all times to make more time to stay alive.
A phrase used throughout the movie is “for few to be immortal, many must die.” This is meant to convey that it is in the interest of the rich to keep poor people on short time and dyeing regularly in order to support their own extended lives.  Working as an allegory of current economic times is where the movie plays the strongest. It is also something of a weakness as the need to keep the action going once it starts means we do not get to explore as much of the world as we would like.
Use of language in this movie is a lot of fun. Phrases like “got a minute” “I’ll clean your clock” “I haven’t got the time to play poker” and “Don’t waste my time” take on a whole new meaning.
There is a subplot involving a criminal gang of regularly steal people’s time. They want to find Will and Sylvia because they want the time they have taken for themselves.  There is also a point about prices being artificially inflated to counteract the extra time Will and Sylvia are giving the poor.
And here is where I have questions. The central premise works great in the confines of the movie when you can willingly suspend disbelief, but it does not hold up under any kind of scrutiny.
Is the entire world using the time based economy? What is backing this economy? How did we go from our current currency standard to using time?  How did they get people to agree to limit their life spans?
And how long has this been going on? You have one character state that he is over one hundred years old. Technology is not that much more advanced then now, except for the time transfer tech and that fact that all cars are electric. It is never stated how far in the future we are.
So in summery I would say that In Time is an ok action movie with an intriguing and timely premise.